The Noctis Labyrinthus Bazaar

Here it is, the 30th publication of my “April Challenge”. I did it. I really can’t believe I did it, but *bam* it’s done.

I enjoyed every minute of it, too. After the dust settles and I decide what to do next, I’m going to add a post of what I learned from the experience and whether or not I’d recommend it to anyone else (spoiler, if you’re not SUPER dedicated, no. I wouldn’t recommend it).

This last story is a science fiction story about a young woman named Ashtyn Anaya Cole. She travels to Mars to take part in an intergalactic competition that pushes her to the brink. When she finishes–IF she finishes–she will be a woman reborn.

 

 

The Noctis Labyrinthus Bazaar

by Curtis A. Deeter

“Be a part of something…”

Between the invitation flashing on the holotab between my legs, the dim, pale-pink glow of Mars’ atmosphere, and the strange, rushed circumstances that brought me to this point—sitting in the interior of a silver bullet-shaped interplanetary spacecraft with an androgynous pilot of an unknown species who refuses to acknowledge my existence—I can’t help but think I should feel something else, from somewhere on the emotional spectrum.

“Be brave. Be bigger than yourself…”

Instead, I’m sure how I feel. Underwhelmed? Isolated? A bit annoyed, even?

I know what I don’t feel. I don’t feel like the sole Earthling chosen to compete in an “Intergalactic test of strength, cunning, and perseverance,” or as if I’d been given “The opportunity to bring endless honor to your planet and your people.” In fact, part of me feels duped.

After the announcement over the Atmo-Net, that we’d finally been graced by a visit from space—a visitor who arrived in the exact same sort of bullet-ship I currently myself in, with a single-paged message, only to turn around and leave without as much as a “howdy-do”—there was much speculation as to how we should choose our Contestant. The overwhelming majority thought some sort of physical contest should be arranged, like the Olympics or a decathlon on steroids, but our benevolent overlords in the Global Consortium of Peace and Prosperity superseded that idea “due to logistics and timing constraints.” Everyone knows it was because they didn’t have enough time to put together a marketing campaign and profits from such an affair would be negligible at best.

Instead, they flipped a coin. A coin with 13 billion sides; a multi-million-character code and an algorithm that makes Astrostatisticians cry home to mommy. The end result, though, created an unbiased Selection. The Chancellor hit a button, a computer whirred and made pretty, flashing patterns, and then programming spit out a name at complete random.

My name:

Ashtyn Anaya Cole, 23, born in the heartland of the former United States of Northern America, five-foot six-inches, blah, blah, blah.

I left in a hurry, only having six months to prepare for my first venture out into the Great Beyond, but I’m convinced my selection caused the ripples of civil war. Chancellor only knows what sort of home I’ll end up returning to, if I return.

The ship barely even bucks as we break the atmosphere. As part of my training, they prepared me for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. They’d known for a long time that Mars’ was thinner, but after thousands of inconclusive simulations—they love their simulations—my ISF sponsors decided to run me through the whole gambit. “Prepare me for the worst, so I can handle anything”, they said.

As a side note, ISF, for those who don’t know, stands for the International Space Force, but only represents about a tenth of the globe’s Nation-States.

In the end, the training almost killed me, but did its job. Here I am, approaching the dusty, rocky, burnt-orange surface of Mars at incomprehensible speeds, only slightly nauseous and fully fearing for my life.

Out the roughly hexagonal viewport of the bullet-ship, I watch the wrinkled, deserted surface of the Red Planet streak by. I always imagined an alien planet would inspire more awe, completely unrecognizable as a world, but the geologically underwhelming peaks and valleys below seem no different from, say, the more starved stretches of the Sonoran Desert.

“How much further?” I ask the pilot, my chin resting on my hands.

This time, I don’t get as much as a grunt in response.

Suddenly, the evenly fluctuating gradient of Mars drops away, the near-constant dust storms subside, and, far below us, I see a crack in the planet that makes the Grand Canyon look like a papercut. They’d briefed me on this too, but seeing it is a whole different story. It is the Noctis Labyrinthus—the labyrinth of the night—the westernmost stretch of a 4,000-kilometer-long system of canyons known as the Valles Marineris. No, the name has nothing to do with a delicious dipping sauce popularized as a complimentary side dish to pizza. It means the Mariner Valleys, after the ancient orbiter that discovered it. There are a lot of theories as to how these geological anomalies came to be, but yawn. The important part is I’m in the maw of oblivion, accelerating down, down, and down some more into the blackness of the unknown.

The further we descend, the more I begin to feel normal. I can only assume it’s due to the heightening pressure as we drop further and further below surface level. The thin Martian atmosphere means a few nasty things for the human body, starting with simple dizziness, causing some serious headaches, and goes as far as boiling the blood in your veins, popping each individual cell like popcorn. Free-falling into the labyrinth, my body actually starts to normalize, though. I almost feel as if I can remove my spaceskin. Luckily, I’m terror-stuck to my seat.

After an eternity of falling through darkness, dim light washes into the cabin. Bioluminescent at first, it rapidly transforms into artificial light. I just wish my pilot would lighten up a bit so I can ask him about the origin of the sudden illumination, but that is as likely as finding a cantina at our final destination that serves a passable, hoppy beverage.

My eyes adjust as we land on the plateau of a towering mesa. A natural, weather-worn staircase leads down to the nadir of the canyon. Dozens, if not hundreds, of identical bullet-ships take off and land from similar platforms, leaving a motley cast of beings from a hundred different worlds behind. They are too far away for me to get a read on any of them, but they look, well, alien, almost grotesque, as they slither and lurch down to the bottommost floor of the canyon.

I hesitate. What am I doing here? Why did they choose me? I’m suffocating, pulling at the collar of my spaceskin, trying to catch my breath in the stifling, breezeless interior of the ship, and my face flushes redder than the oxidized rocks all around me as the cozy walls of my silver prison close in on me.

Just as my head is about to explode in chunks all over the inside of my helmet, the sliver of a door at the rear of the bullet-ship slides open with a silent cloud of steam and the hiss of invisible hydraulics. My host stands, urges me out of my seat, and all but kicks me out with a swift boot. Then, he too is gone, leaving me behind and stranded on Mars.

Stunned, I watch the throng of ant-shaped aliens below. From this height, there is no rhyme or reason to the patterns of their movement. Just chaos. Rushed, purposeful chaos.

With nothing else to do, and because I’m starting to feel stupid, I make my way down the stairs, careful around the crumbling edges of rock. With each bobbing step, I develop clarity of the scene below, a dizzying picture of stomach-wrenching unfamiliarity.

The first thing to hit me is a noxious wall of smell. Cooking, burning, pungent smells; almost familiar, like a roast chicken and scalloped potatoes, but somehow acrider. Bodily smells; B.O. like I’d never experienced before, and pheromones neither attractive nor entirely displeasing, some even sweet and airy; and, of course, the smell of dust and rust, making my nose twitch and my nostrils flare.

In celebration of the contest, the peoples scurrying around the depths of the canyon had set up a bazaar of sorts. Tents are pitched, performers wander up and down the makeshift path of shops, and people shout over one another, hawking wares and swindling unsuspecting passersby.

Over here, a tall, minotaur-like creature with three horns and a cluster of eyes like a fly turns what might have been a rat, but was more likely a type of insect, over an open fire. It has strung up dozens of the charred creatures and a smaller, almost identical counterpart is pushing them to anyone who gives him the time of day.

Over there, a swarm of bloated, cherubesque beings fly out from hollows in the cliff walls, descending on the streets of the bazaar and causing a buzz of activity amongst a family of pseudo-avian jugglers.

I snap my head from one direction to another, trying to take it all in. If I had a lifetime down here, I would only be able to process the half of it. There are just so many aliens, so many vaguely recognizable, yet distinctly foreign—humanoid bipeds, others winged, and even more of a variety I’d never fathomed—aliens. You never knew what that word really meant until you experience them firsthand.

Suddenly, a hunched, furry sales… thing, pushing a cart of oddities with rapidity down the lane between stalls, accosts me. He or she or whatever it is, grunts and hobbles all around me, presumably getting the feel for what sort of creature I am. I can’t blame it, I might be the most unique person on Mars, and I’m certainly not the only one overwhelmed by the biodiversity.

It plops a tentacled arm on my space mask, suction cups flexing in and out, and start to twist it off. I panic, pushing back against the foul thing, struggling to break free from its hold, but find myself a victim to its mercy. The mask slid off, fire rushes down into my lungs, and I gasp for air. Stars appear at the corner of my eyes, the red world of Mars darkening. Then, as I’m on the verge of passing out, sweet, sweet oxygen returns in a flood.

Offering me one of its flippers, the alien says, “O-Two. O-Two.”

It’s fastened some sort of device, like a bubble with a series of rubber bands attached to its ends, around my head. The bubble sink to the back of my tongue; I swallow hard and can no longer feel the strange device in my mouth. Instead, I breathe. The straps fasten firmly around my head, tucked neatly behind my hair.

Without another word, it hobbles on, adding my helmet to its collection of baubles. I try to lash out, I try to thank it for nearly killing me and bringing me back to life, but it’s gone, lost in the crowd.

“Schtoog glies shon,” a reptilian biped exclaims as I bump into its stall.

“Pardon me.”

“Ahhh, shakta ien.”

It whips around, its tail knocking over an orb-shaped smoking apparatus. When it turns to face me, I notice it’s holding some sort of black, vile looking worm. The stench of rot wafts towards me, making me want to puke. Before I can stop it, the lizard-man shoves the thing down my throat. It slithers and writhes all the way down, tasting like bile and oysters, and gives me a sudden burst of energy.

“Shubba wanga. Ien paesto,” it says, holding out a webbed hand.

“I… I’m sorry… I don’t—”

“Shubba wanga. Shubba wanga!”

“I don’t have any money, I’m sorry.”

It slams its tail on the ground, shaking the ground around the stall, and shoos me away. I bow and walk on, still gagging and spitting up the remnants of the lingering metallic taste.

The rest of my time on Mars goes fast, a hazy blur of unreality, passing like a drug-induced hallucination. Whether due to the black, oily thing the merchant force-fed me or the terribly, biting limbs of the Tree of Death, I’m still not sure what’s real and what’s dreamed up.

A horn sounds so loud my ears ring. Hush falls over purveyors and the shoppers alike. Everyone stops, drops what they’re doing, and turns towards the far side of the canyon.

A procession of tall, gray-skinned aliens dressed in fine, purple and gold velvet robes, wearing thin crowns of energy around their elongated heads, approach, hands clasped, heads bowed. One by one, groups of three break off from the pack to corral someone, who I assume to be one of the contestants. As they get closer to me, only three remain.

“Please,” they say to me without mouths. “It is time. Come with us.”

“Who are you?” I ask.

“We are the Gamemakers.”

Images of the trials to come project in my mind—at once horrible and enthralling—but they also, somehow, send a wave of calm energy through my body. For the first time, I resign myself to the hardships ahead of me.

“Come with us. It is time.”

So, I do what anyone else who have done: I follow the tall, stretchy men to face my destiny, no matter how horrible it might be.

The bazaar clears out so fast it makes my head spin. They usher me further into the labyrinth, away from the landing mesas, and my adrenaline takes over. Before I know it, we are heading down a steep slope towards a riot of people, a storm pocket engulfing them.

Without my helmet, I shield my eyes from the dust. Everything gets darker, the air thickening the closer we draw to the people. The dust down here is so thick I can barely see my arm in front of my eyes, but I see enough to discern their faces, covered in a thick layer of rusty dust just like the rest of their variant bodies.

As soon as we break the front line of onlookers, the Gamemakers and myself, people lay their hands on me. They leer close, some towering over me, some at face level, all ghastly unreal and shrouded by the storm. They slap my back with their tentacles, rake their fingers across my chest and down my arms, and chant in a hundred alien tongues. They baptize me in dust and breathe down my neck as they close in on me from all sides. All the while, the onlookers goad and shout, the range of their plethora voices dissonant and horrifying. I fight the desire to drop to my knees in the orange dirt and curl up in the fetal position.

Jostled this way and that, I bounce through the throng like a pinball. By the time we emerge at the other side, I too am covered in dust, and, to be honest, I’m sure if I’m alive or dead. There are scratches on my face from claws, a slimy, cold resin dripping from my hair, and my eyes burn to tears.

And what finds me on the other side is somehow tenfold more horrifying.

Three hundred meters away, shrouded by the worst of the storm, a giant, gnarled-limbed tree stands at the top of a low plateau. A mob of beings—my competition—rush towards the tree in a frenzy of violence and desperation. At the base of the trees, screams of agony and anger, understandable in any dialect, echo.

“Go,” the Gamemakers implant in my mind. “Go now or forfeit. The Tree of Death awaits.”

“Am I meant to climb?” I ask, delaying the inevitable.

“You are meant to compete.”

A sharp jolt of pain suddenly shoots up my spine. One of the Gamemakers prods me with a beam of condensed energy. The look on his face says, “If you don’t go now, I will kill you.” So, naturally, I go.

Up close, the tree is an ancient, dying thing. Its branches numerous and bone-white, of which not even the dust of Mars can penetrate. As tall as a red wood, as thick as a willow, I can’t imagine how I’m possibly going to make it to the top, but I have to try.

At its base, two feline creatures—one black, one gray—are tangled in a deadly scuffle. I step around them as the gray cat slices horizontally with a sharp claw, spewing silvery blood into the air and onto my face, and then stumble over a series of gnarled roots. At the base of the tree, I rub dust over my sweaty palms, and leap to the first branch.

Immediately, a smaller limb animates into an eyeless, white snake with a mouth full of serrated fangs, and it strike out at me, leaving a trail of teeth mark across the shoulder of my spaceskin. It lunges again, this time landing a blow on my cheek that almost knocks me off the branch. I grapple with it, tearing it free of its grip and losing a chunk of skin in the process. Balancing myself on the branch, I put my other arm around and twist. It goes limp with a pathetic squeal, but three more slither out from a branch above.

I have two options: give up and go home—if I can even find my way there—or continue up, up, up. I choose the latter, narrowly avoiding snake bites and taking the brunt of an occasional nasty set of fangs.

My fellow contestants are a blur of non-reality around me; they don’t exist. It’s just me and the Tree of Death. Until about halfway up, when the venom starts kicking in.

The trunk of the tree swims, its bough not too much further above me stretching into the blackness above. Voices bounce from ear to ear, their disembodied whispers surrounding me from all sides. Once bone-white, the bark of the tree flashes a rainbow of purples and greens. The world crashes down around me in a waterfall of noise. Now, I really do lay down and curl up, humming to myself and rocking back and forth, but nothing blocks the voices.

A heavy weight lands on my branch. I brace myself, sure it will snap and I will plummet, breaking every bone on the branches of the tree on the way down, while simultaneously sustaining wounds from the horrible, snake-like appendages as they tear my flesh until none was left.

Instead, a warm paw rests on my shoulder. I open my eyes to a gentle creature, not much different from your standard Outback marsupial. She offers me a vial of glowing, aqua liquid. I turn it down, at first, but she refuses to take no for an answer. Shaking, crying, I drink the contents and prepare for the worst.

She smiles; I manage to return the gesture as the world comes back into focus. As I regain my senses, she crouches there, one paw on my cheek. When the effects of the venom are completely gone, she pats my head and launches herself upward, her thin tails—seven in all—brushing across my face as she disappears into the thicker, higher branches.

I’ll just give up, I think. I’ll just sit here, letting these branches bite me, until I die.

A lot of people have said a lot of mean-spirited things about me since Selection, but no one ever denies my stubbornness. At this point, despite the thoughts I’m having, I know I’ll either make it to the top of the tree or die trying.

Not only has the liquid in the vial revived me, it also seems to repel the snakes. Occasionally, the bold still lash out, but they hesitate and their bites come less frequent and softer. Some even recoil as I pass.

There is a crack from above and splintered branches fall on me, a fast approaching shadow following close behind. My savior, the koala, and she is plummeting towards me, hitting every branch like I had feared only moments ago. The snakes make a buffet out of her body as she falls.

Instinctively, I let go of the trunk with one arm and grab her. She almost takes me down with her, but she’s light enough that I’m able to gain control and pull her in towards my breast. She’s still breathing, but unconscious, her exhalations raspy and faint. I lay her down on the branch, using my body to shield her from an onslaught of attacks from the snakes around us. Once she is safe, I clear the branch of attackers, taking more pleasure than I should in wringing their necks.

I flop down onto the branch beside her, my back pressed up against the bone-cold trunk of the Tree of Death—now understanding the name that had been implanted in my brain, suiting considering my overwhelming lack of a will to live. I watch my own chest expand and contract after the exertion.

If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost feel the Medimites hard at work, restoring both the microscopic tears in my spaceskin and the dual pin-pricks that pock my own skin. It feels like the tingling you get from the euphoria of being immersed in your favorite song. It feels better than lovemaking, better than life. When the Medimites finish with the exterior, they burrow into my pores and purify the toxins from my blood.

“Now what?” I ask, expecting no response. She groans and mumbles something incoherent. “It’s okay. I won’t let you die.”

I peer up and then down, but see no other competitors. They all either reached the top of the tree, gave up and gone home, or… or otherwise. The possibilities wrench my stomach.

Maybe I can remain here forever, living among the branches—living among Death. I’ll be the first one from Earth to die a Martian death.

A wrinkle at the edge of my vision brings me out of my nihilistic stupor. I squint, spot something—someone—clearly there, but its form alludes me no matter where I look. It reminds me of heat ripples coming off hot blacktop. If you look at it directly, it skips away to another location just outside your frame of view.

A whisper fills the empty spaces inside my head. It’s a whisper that contains a thousand voices. “You must go on,” it says. “You must finish. Up, up, up. Get up, Ashtyn.”

Then, the wrinkle in reality slips towards the boughs of the Tree of Death.

Despite my exhaustion, despite the possibly dying alien beside me, I decide to keep going. I have to keep going. As the sole representative of Earth, the most resilient planet in the universe, at least from my limited perspective, it’s my duty. I can’t throw in the towel. I can’t quit and head back through the mad throng below with my tail between my legs.

I’m not a coward. I’m worthy of Selection.

“Come on, friend,” I say, lifting her motionless, furry body off the branch and slinging her over one shoulder. “We’re going to finish this damn thing.”

Somehow, we make it to the top, my companion still very much unconscious. I and dread the descent, back all the way I came—back into the jaws of oblivion—but am relieved to see a makeshift platform of sorts at the top of the Tree of Death. A series of zip-lines run from the platform to some dust-shrouded point below.

A Gamemaker, standing soldier-still, blocks any further progress with an arm bar.

“Only one at a time.”

“But, what about my fri—”

“Only one at a time,” he repeats, emotionless.

The Gamemaker isn’t the only one waiting to greet us. A swarm of the cherubim hover noisily off to the side, the ear-piercing buzz of their diaphanous wings almost as thick as the storm itself.

Before I’m able to further protest, they’re on us, wrenching and pulling at the marsupial’s arms and legs. One grabs a handful of her tails. Another swarms my face in an attempt to distract me and force me to let her go. In the end, their roar is louder than my resolve is strong. In the end, I watch her disappear from the tree with dirty tears running down my cheeks.

“Now, you go.”

I want to lash out at the Gamemaker. I want to throw myself at him, plunging us both into the orangeness below, to gouge at his eyes and face the whole way down, to swear and curse and bite until he forever remembers my name. Until they all remember my name.

Instead, I take a deep breath, trying my best to forget and to reset, and take the zip line down to my next challenge. The sudden rush of wind, the stinging of a million particles of dust on my skin, and the speed in which I plummet—the way the ground below becomes a dizzying blur, rapidly coming towards me—is exhilarating. If I had wanted to quit before, now my resolve is bolstered.

I touch down, jostled by the sudden impact, and roll forward to equalize the force of the landing. After the cloud of dust around me dissipate, I vomit loudly. Half a dozen aliens hadn’t thought to do the same and now lie on the ground screaming, legs broken to bone—if they had bone—or silent, cold, and dead.

Ahead of me, lies true labyrinth, the sort of mind-bending maze you take your family through for Halloween. Except, this maze has thirty-foot rock walls and a hundred different species clawing and spitting to find the end first.

I stand there for a moment. It’s me, the raging Mars storm, the bodies of the queer, alien species strewn all around me, and my insistence on telling myself that I can’t finish. I learned nothing in the tree. How can I possibly finish? I’m no better than the pathetic wretches on the ground. Worse yet, I’m only human. Only myself, a burnt-out waitress from a planet the rest of the universe had ostracized for how many centuries? Hundreds? Thousands?

But they came for us, didn’t they? That means something, I suppose.

Still, it might be easier to sit down, allow the storm to strip away my spaceskin and what’s left of my humanity. There are worse alternatives to a slow death.

But sometimes you get an angel of mercy, instead; The mirage appears again, heat sizzling off pavement.

It hovers there, just visible through the haze of the storm. I can see its outline where the trajectory of dust swirls by across the surface of its body. The energy of the thing, whatever it is, sends electricity up and down my body. The hairs on my neck stick straight up. Static discharges between my suit and my skin. There is a confusion of smells: burning pine needles, singed skin, and sweet maple syrup, like my mother used to boil before the harvest.

It speaks, filling out bodily as it does so. “I sense you, child. Fear. Loneliness. Hope. Are you afraid of being so far from home? Of being alone? Or are you afraid to look in the mirror? To see your true colors?”

“Yes,” I say, surprising myself with the truth behind my words.

There is nothing left at home. Everyone has either skedaddled or died. At my lowest, I had been Chosen, given a second chance. There is no conflict between those two things. My destiny goes well beyond the constraints of Earth. Then why am I mired with second guesses and hesitation?

“You cannot win.” Words that strike from all around me, the whispers of a hundred different individuals at a hundred different octaves. They reverberate in my soul. They shake me to my very core. I know I’m changed forever, the impression of its words leaving a burn mark on the retina of my being. “But you must finish. Not for your planet, but for yourself. If you don’t finish, you will die.”

“The Gamemakers?”

“The Gamemakers. And yourself.”

“I can’t do it alone. I’m nobody, and Nobody never made a difference.”

“You traversed the stars to be here. You were born, already winning a competition with worse odds than this, and you survived. There could be a trillion, trillion beings in this universe, but only a select few, the Chosen, are graced with such opportunities. You live. Now, you must finish. That is all; just finish. No matter how hard it might seem to go on, you must go on.”

It’s gone without another word. It must have known it said exactly what I need to hear. It must have known that, without its help, I would perish on the sands of Mars, another nameless Contestant.

The labyrinth awaits.

I throw myself into the storm with renewed vigor, shielding my face from the frenzy of dust and stones that kick up from everywhere in violent vortexes. I leave my doubts behind; I leave my past behind. Twice now, I’d questioned my resolve. Never again. No matter what.

But they say misery comes in threes.

The landscape, shrouded as it is, makes for a stumbling go of it. More than once, I end up on my hands and knees, having tripped over a half-buried stone or overpowered by a particularly strong gust of wind. By the time I descend the steady slope down towards the labyrinth entrance, my hands are bloodied and throbbing. The Medimites can’t keep up with Mars’ unforgiving climate.

Finally, I arrive. Though I have no idea what to expect for the next, and hopefully final, trial, I had expected something more brutal. After the throng of red ghost-people, the unreal grasping of their limbs trying to drag me down, down, down, and then the abrupt and deadly ascent up the Tree of Death, I’m underwhelmed by the steep rock wall. It extends indefinitely in either direction and has a narrow entrance a few steps to my left, but is otherwise completely ordinary.

Maybe this won’t be as difficult as I thought. I can do this.

I follow the endless corridors of rough, featureless rock. To the right and to the left until my legs throb, only to find myself face-to-face with a dead end. I turn around, retrace my steps. This way. That way. Any way that looks promising, until I’m so lost in the depths of the labyrinth that it doesn’t matter which way I choose. As long as I’m moving, I’m making progress.

A pathway opens up to a large, empty theater. Three or four paths jut off from there. My intuition is my only compass. Luckily—or unluckily depending on how you look at it—I seem to be alone. Without interruption, I can at least pretend to be navigating my way to the finish. I have to stumble out the other side at some point, right?

A few hours in, I panic. My heart throbs, my legs turn to jelly. I look all around me, unable to see the tops of the walls and unable to decide which way to go. Everything spins. Dizzy, I drop to my knees and throw sand all around me. I scream, but no one is around to hear me. I’m going to die in the labyrinth, I realize. I have no food and my spaceskin’s reserve of evaporated water is running low. How much longer can I keep going on like this? Have I even made any forward progress? The thought brings hysteric tears to my eyes.

A shadow dances by me at the periphery of my vision. I stand and follow it turn after turn, but I’m always just behind it, unable to catch up. Guttural, alien laughter echoes back at me.

Then, it’s not there. Somehow, it got away, but I plow forward, running through the labyrinth, using my body weight to bound off walls around corners as to not lose any momentum. If I run fast enough, I might catch up. If I catch up…

I skid to a stop as I turn one last corner. Far ahead, I find a gap in the wall. The light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m also staring at the gaping, toothed mouth of a creature so grotesque, so horrifying, I scream again. It cackles at me, green saliva oozing from its gums. Its mane, matted and coarse, is covered in what appeared to be blood. Silver blood. A cat’s blood, perhaps.

It steps towards me, extending aquiline talons. I can’t be sure, but I see hunger in its eyes.

Suddenly, it lunges, bearing down on me with teeth and talons alike. I sidestep, bend my legs, and reach out with both arms, grabbing it by the shoulders. With what little strength I have left, I hold it at bay. Snapping its jaws at me, spraying the acidic green saliva on my spaceskin and face, it snarls like a hyena. The saliva melts away my suit, burning through to my skin. It sizzles and pops as it blisters.

Leaning all my weight to one side, I heave it behind me and dash towards the exit of the labyrinth, but I don’t get far. It reaches out and grabs my ankles, sending me face-first onto the dusty ground. The impact of which knocks the wind out of me. I roll to my back, grapple with the beast, and we tumble through the labyrinth together, exchanging sloppy blows. Flecks of spittle burn holes in the rock wall, melting away patches of the ground, and cut blistery patches across my cheeks.

Desperate, I leverage the weight of my body as we come out of a barrel roll and toss it off of me with all my strength. The beast is surprisingly light in the Martian air, and it flies quite a way from me, landing with an audible thump and a pathetic yelp. Still, it persists.

It stands on shaky knees, red eyes filling with even more bloodlust than before. I realize the beast will not waver until one of us lies dead on the sand. Though I’m not mentally resigned to murder, I can’t let it be me. I have to finish.

Then, as if by divine intervention, the ground between the beast and myself opens up in a sulphuric geyser of death. Just as the beast steps across, a sinkhole spreads across the ground, engulfing it and simultaneously jettying the vaporized remainders of its body into the air. It happens so fast neither of us can react. I can only watch as its body is scorched into nothing.

Behind me, a series of additional sinkholes open up, casting their deadly vapors towards the tops of the maze. I have no choice but to sprint for the exit. Only when the labyrinth is well in my dust, do I stop and turn towards it, taking one last look.

I finished. I made it through all three trials. Even though I’m on the edge of death looking in, I did it.

Somewhere nearby, a band plays. Music, I suppose, is intergalactic. Triumphant drums sound through the ravine I find myself in. The footprints of all the Contestants to finish before me lead up towards the celebration in a confusion of shapes and sizes. Automatically, I follow their path up and out, leaving the hardships of my trials in the past.

I did it. Me. Ashtyn Anaya Cole, 23 years old, chosen by chance out of 13 billion others. I can’t say how many of them might have been more worthy than myself. One of them might have even been able to win. But they didn’t. They are still on Earth, living their mundane lives. I, on the other hand, had come to Mars, walked with wonderment through the Noctis Labyrinthus Bazaar, breathed the distance air, survived the caressing hands of death, and came out on the other side all the better, all the stronger, to stand here, a woman among giants.

There’d never been a more Human human before me. Not in the entire history of histories. I should be swilling with pride, bursting with the elation of success. Instead, I’m just exhausted. Instead, I fall onto my back and weep.

I did it. And, if given the chance, I’d do it again.