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Gray Hell

Gray Hell

Estimated reading time — 10 minutes

Sulfuric clouds rained ash upon the barren landscape, coating it like freshly-fallen snow. There were no stars—merely glimpses of an orange sky, like open wounds against the canopy of volcanic smog spanning overhead.

“Habitable my ass…” Charlotte remarked, her microphone struggling to capture the full range of her discontented mumblings.

“Were you expecting palm trees and sunny beaches? Maybe a cocktail bar?” Norman’s distracted voice cut through the radio static.

Charlotte gazed down at her fellow astronaut from her elevated position. He was kneeling, engrossed in the task of scraping the accumulated sediment from the display of their P.U.M.I (Portable Universal Measuring Instrument). If not for his red and blue helmet, his spacesuit would’ve blended seamlessly with the scenery.

“Well? What’s it say?” Charlotte inquired, as she cautiously descended the curved slope and approached her colleague’s side.

“CO2 measurements are favorable for oxygen conversion. But there’s a high concentration of perchlorate compounds in the soil.”

“So not the ideal place to start my dream tomato garden, I take it?”

“Not if you like having a working thyroid. Still, there’s potential.”

With a firm pull and assisted by the exoplanet’s relatively forgiving gravity, Norman heaved the briefcase-shaped device off the ground and onto his back, where it magnetically secured itself to his life support system.

Charlotte offered her colleague a hand, which he courtesy declined. Her suit was identical to his own: white with a red and blue helmet, and a depiction of America’s first president near the heart, surrounded by a golden circle. It was a symbol that had apparently held significance in some bygone era, back when Washington used to be a terrestrial metropolis on the planet of Old Earth, rather than the designation of their home vessel—one of many aimlessly drifting through the void of space, housing the last of humanity’s remnants. Though some dared to dream of a resurgence, neither Norman nor Charlotte harbored any illusions of ever witnessing such a thing in their lifetimes. Terraforming a planet like the one they were currently on into a viable habitat for carbon-based life would have required a good three or four centuries at minimum.

After fully regaining his footing, Norman turned his visor towards the general direction of their landing site. In truth, they didn’t have to venture this far off just to collect some preliminary samples, but the surface of Armstrong VII proved surprisingly intuitive to traverse. Both relished the opportunity to stretch their legs before getting stuck in that floating metal casket again.

Just as the duo were preparing to commence the long trek back towards their extraction point, something caused Charlotte to abruptly halt her pace. The crunching of her weighted boots fell silent. Perceiving her hesitance, Norman followed suit, pivoting back around to face her.

“Hey, uh, am I seeing that right?” asked Charlotte. Her question wasn’t rhetorical; she sounded like she was genuinely seeking his confirmation.

Norman redirected his attention to where her gloved finger was pointing. About fifty or so paces away from them, protruding from the powdery residue that seemed to cover every inch of this place, was…

“Is that a… hand?”

“Looks like it. Either that, or we’ve both lost it. ” The woman concurred while straining her vision in order to better make out the object.

There indeed appeared to be what looked like a hand sticking upwards from the ground, as though grasping for something beyond its reach. Closer observation verified that it wasn’t some strange rock formation or anything of the sort. It was an actual human hand, presumably made out of flesh and bone, although its exact composition remained to be determined.

It was located approximately at the center of the shallow crater they were presently situated within as well, as if it were just an expected part of their surroundings.

“So, opinions?” Norman urged his companion as they neared their finding.

A full minute elapsed before Charlotte replied, now standing alongside him—both looking down at the motionless, pale limb jutting from the surface of the planet they had previously assumed uncharted:

“Looks fresh. Whoever it’s connected to couldn’t have been buried here for long. “

Norman stomped his boot against the stratum of ash that separated him from the exoplanet’s barren soil. The implication of there being a dead body directly underneath them was left to linger in the oxygen-deficient air. The limb appeared frozen, with its fingers rigidly locked in a perpetual gesture of either grasping or clawing, depending on one’s perspective.

“I suppose…” Norman attempted to contribute. He reflexively reached to scratch the back of his head, only to be reminded of his helmet.

“I suppose it’s not entirely impossible for another colony to have landed on Armstrong VII before us. They could still be around, for all we know.”

“And what? They sent their explorers out here without suits on?” retorted Charlotte, noting the absence of any protective coverings on the hand.

“Maybe something went wrong—an accident. And the rest didn’t feel like hauling a whole body back to the recycler.”

“But they did have enough time to bury it?”

Norman shrugged:

“It’s not like they put that much effort into it.” He said, casually nudging the rigid limb with his foot.

The stumped pair remained silently gawking at their morbid discovery for a while longer. The veil of pollution looming overhead showed no signs of dispersing, smothering the sky and allowing only slivers of sunlight to filter through unimpeded. Then again, on a planet whose magnetosphere had been thoroughly eroded, the added layer of protection against the solar radiation beating down on them might have been a blessing in disguise.

“Right…” Said Charlotte, brandishing her excavation shovel and handing it over to her colleague, who regarded her with a perplexed expression. “You dig, I’ll pull.”

“You serious?”

“What, would you rather I dig? I thought with you being the gentleman and all—”

“No, I mean, why the hell would we do that? We should set up relays and report to orbit.”

“And what do you think they’d have us do? Drop everything and go home? Come on, we need to check if there’s any insignia on the body. It might tell us which colony they’re from.

Norman sighed and begrudgingly accepted the tool. Clearing away the top layer of loose, superficial deposits was easy enough, but it wasn’t long until the blade struck compacted ground. The amount of effort required for each shovelful multiplied tenfold. She may as well had asked him to burrow through solid concrete.

Their entire predicament—all of it—felt increasingly off, and not just because they were digging up corpses on a supposedly uninhabited planet. There was this nagging, intrusive thought in the recesses of Norman’s mind that they were getting involved in something far beyond their comprehension. Yet the nature of revelation by itself is neither malignant nor benevolent; it simply is or is not. The crucial query that Norman ought to have posed to himself was whether he possessed the capacity to withstand it.

“I think it’s starting to come loose!” Exclaimed Charlotte.

Her grip transitioned from the arm’s wrist to its exposed elbow. Following a sequence of disjointed pulls, the woman abruptly lost her balance and fell backwards with a shout. Norman looked over through the corner of his visor, which had become fogged from his exerted breathing.

He opened his mouth, intending to ask if she was alright, only for the words to get lodged in his throat.


Charlotte was sitting on the ground. The expression she bore mirrored Norman’s: one characterized by a mixture of horror and surprise. She was still clinging onto the now-partially uprooted limb, too overwhelmed by shock to release her hold on it straight away, or at least until she had a proper look at it. Instead of transitioning into a shoulder or a severed stump, the lower portion of the arm appeared to branch out into a complex arrangement of strange, organic tubes.

Charlotte proceeded to gently put the extremity down, before scrabbling back to an upright position:

“Holy shit… Is it me, or do they look like—”

“Yeah.” Norman interrupted, confirming her observation while stepping in front of her

Roots. They were looking at a throbbing network of roots that connected what they believed was an arm to the alien soil, the exact properties of which clearly merited additional study.

Neither astronaut knew what the appropriate response was. In their wildest dreams of encountering their first instance of extraterrestrial flora or fauna, they could never have conceived something as unorthodox as this. Space had proven to be far deader than anyone on Old Earth could have predicted. The likelihood of coming across life, as humankind understood it, was deemed not only an improbability, but an absurdly slim one at that.

And yet, there they were.

Norman took the liberty of examining their discovery more closely. The anthropoid appendage lay horizontally, affording him a better view of the intricate system that fed into it. Unlike conventional roots, these seemed to possess a delicate and spongy texture, though he resisted the urge to prod at them for confirmation. Moreover, they appeared to be pulsating, as if they were hard at work, pumping some substance to and from their external half.

“W-we need to set up relays and report this.” He repeated with considerably less confidence than moments prior.

Hearing that, Charlotte stopped examining her gloves for any signs of contamination and immediately protested:

“What? No! What we need to do is get off this rock. We have no clue how to deal with whatever the hell is going on here. We’ll make a detailed report and let Washington send in someone who actually knows what they’re doing.”

Norman made a clicking noise with his tongue. He disapproved of his comrade’s insistence on disregarding standard protocol, but he also recognized that nothing about their predicament was “standard.”. Besides, they were no biologists, and the significance of their find demanded input from someone considerably more qualified than they were. Command would have likely given them the same directive, he reasoned, so there was no point in wasting valuable time arguing.

They took a few snapshots and resumed their footslog back towards their lander, soon emerging from the crater and leaving it behind. The surface of Armstrong VII was fairly uniform throughout. Its sole noteworthy landmarks were the jagged rock outcrops dispersed throughout the vast, sweeping gray expanse. The planet’s redeeming asset lay in its central location within the so-called “habitable zone”. This rendered it theoretically conducive to the support of liquid water, which was what initially drew the colony’s attention.

The pair were nearing the site where they first made landfall. Even from a distance, the blinking lights of their spacecraft were difficult to miss. Its design was a clear homage to the Apollo Lunar Module formerly employed by their Old Earth precursors, albeit vastly improved in almost every conceivable way.

As they hiked their way to the top of a dune that oversaw the final stretch that lay ahead of them, the view that unveiled itself before their eyes all but confirmed how out of their depth they truly were.

There was a whole field of them—an entire plantation of human hands, each unique in shape and size, reaching up from the ashes. Some stood alone, whereas others grew in hideous clusters of pale fingers and fused flesh, looking ready to grab at anything that passed by, like some twisted rendition of a Venus flytrap.

“Those…those weren’t there before…when the hell did…?” Norman mouthed, more to himself than to his companion.

He was still trying to apply logic to a phenomenon that was set on defying it at every opportunity. The manner in which this garden of flesh appeared to have spontaneously sprouted was too convenient to be accidental, necessitating their passage through it if they intended on reaching their lander. It was an unsettling prospect, and Norman wasn’t keen on rushing into it without considering their other options. Unfortunately, Charlotte never gave him that opportunity.

Before he could even consult her, she had already begun her descent.

“Wait! Stop!” His voice resonated through their shared radio frequency.


Upon reaching the base of the dune, his unresponsive colleague proceeded to push her way through the growths without hesitation. To Norman’s surprise and relief, they made no effort to impede her. In fact, they behaved almost like regular plants, obediently yielding and bending aside as she rushed past them.

Norman’s stride became a half-jog. Given that he was still playing the role of pack mule and lugging the majority of their field equipment, it was all that he could muster. The arms folded as he forged his own path through them, only to spring back into position immediately after, with their fingers extended towards the shrouded sky. Once he was close enough, he finally managed to seize hold of Charlotte’s shoulder, forcefully redirecting her entire body towards him.

“What do you think you’re doing!?” He exclaimed.

His anger evaporated the moment he saw the terrified face staring back at him. It was a type of terror that he had never witnessed before, born of a resistance to accept one’s reality; less so because of some immediate threat, but rather for fear of having to grapple with its underlying implications.

“Please…please, let’s just leave. I-I don’t want to be here anymore…” Charlotte pleaded. Her inner turmoil was reflected in the strain of her voice.

A sensible sentiment, yet one that had arrived too late. As if on cue, the ground suddenly began to vibrate, and the two watched as the limb-like growths simultaneously withdrew beneath the ash-laden strata, akin to tube worms sensing some impending danger. The first couple of tremors only succeeded in rattling the pair, but the subsequent ones nearly knocked them off balance. Something was coming for them. Something big.

There was less than a hundred meters separating them from their lander. Unfortunately, the quakes were only getting stronger and more frequent, making it difficult to remain upright, let alone move forward. Norman’s throat burned as he kept having to swallow his own vomit. His head throbbed. With every difficult step, he shed more and more of their gear just so he could keep pace with Charlotte, who was making a determined dash for their spacecraft.

He lunged forth, only for the ground beneath his boot to abruptly give way. Before he had the chance to redistribute his weight, his left leg had already become trapped, swallowed by an unseen crevice in the violently rebelling earth.

“Help! Help me!”

Charlotte registered her companion’s desperate plea for aid and turned around. He had finally succumbed to panic. His haphazard attempts to free himself served only to ensnare him further. Meanwhile, more and more cracks were opening up all around them, as if the planet was tearing itself apart.

A brisk “Sorry” was all that she could offer the unfortunate man before terminating their radio connection and abandoning him to his fate. Norman’s cries for help transformed into a string of expletives. And yet, no matter how desperately he barked for her to come back, all he received in response was dead static. His efforts to liberate his trapped leg became even more frantic, all the while being forced to helplessly watch as Charlotte stumbled her way towards their only avenue of escape. Just as it seemed like she was about to lose her footing, she managed to grab hold of the ladder that led up to the forward hatch. Climbing into the crew compartment, she spared Norman one final, pitiable glance before sealing it shut behind her.

The propulsion system roared to life, igniting the tenuous atmosphere around it. Any glimmer of hope Norman might have held onto was extinguished by the sight of their spacecraft leaving the planet’s surface without him. A wave of resignation washed over the condemned man. He squinted and shielded his eyes from the searing light of the engines, then simply stood there and watched as the silvery, monochromatic machine soared upwards towards salvation. With each passing second, it ascended higher and higher, soon to penetrate through the blanket of smog and disappear without a trace.

In his last moments of sanity, Norman wasn’t sure whether to classify what transpired next as some manner of divine retribution on his behalf, or as a profoundly humbling exhibition of how truly irrelevant any of their actions were.

The tremors became more acute, concentrating on a single point directly beneath the lander’s anticipated trajectory. The planet’s crust began to swell, as if something was attempting to push through it, until it eventually broke out—a monstrous appendage that vastly surpassed any of the others the explorers had encountered. It reached towards the heavens, its skeletal fingers effortlessly encircling the entire spacecraft before it could escape, like the anemic hand of some undead god emerging from its grave. And then, in a horrifyingly surreal spectacle, it proceeded to crush and drag the lander down below the surface with it, never to be seen again.

The stillness that followed was even more oppressive than the chaos that preceded it. With his brain no longer bouncing about his skull and its resulting vertigo subsiding, Norman finally mustered the coordinated effort to free his leg, for all the good that did him. Through its transparent enclosure, one could perceive the countenance of a man who had been broken on every possible level but the physical. At least, not yet.

Slowly, as though in a trance, the astronaut made his way over to the gaping cavity from which the giant arm had emerged. Upon reaching its precipice, he gazed down into the abyssal depths, and, as the proverb goes, the darkness gazed right back at him. A deranged smile formed on his face.

“Houston, we’ve found Hell.”

Credit: Luke Yavorov


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