It is fifteen years with China as world power, six years after the first building was erected on planet Mars, five years after Pope Santus gave approval for the E-Priest App on Google Playstore and one year after I moved into House 304, Crescent F of 1004 Housing Estate in Victoria Island, Lagos.
Midnight, and I’m in bed with my wife, Rachel. My tired eyes trace the designs on the ceiling while my mind darts wildly like a fly caught in the closed palm of a mischievous child. Rachel slides out from beneath my arm and heads for her midnight pee. I watch as she drags herself forward groggily, half-expecting her to turn around in a mad frenzy. She kicks the toilet door open, goes straight for the bowl and heaves in pleasure as the sound of liquid slushing down ceramic disrupts the dreary midnight silence. I dare not take my eyes off her.
Three long years after Camp Mars began operations in the U.S, it came this way. It launched a station in Apapa, Lagos and everyone went mad. Everyone talked about it. It trended on social media. News vendors published stories with ridiculous headlines. Conspiracy theorists spun absurd tales, and the middle class who couldn’t afford to patronize it, put it on their wish lists.
Yesterday, the day of the first travel from the new Camp Mars station in Lagos, there were three hundred and fifty people in the station’s waiting room—people crazy and spendthrift enough to waste what could as well be my salary for two months on frolicking. On the far right of the station’s waiting room, a beautiful lady was reading Jerry Chiemeke’s debut novel, In My Bed. She didn’t wear that anxious look that masked the faces of most people present, probably because she had already visited Camp Mars from the London Station three months before. There was a soft smile spreading across her face as she turned to show the man beside her a phrase from the novel.
“Wetin concern agbero with overload, or ashawo with belle?
The man laughed, made a face at her and returned to gazing around. Yeah, that man beside the beautiful lady—the gazing man—that was me, Philip Anighorom, and the lady my wife, Rachel.
Eight thirty A.M chimed, and we filed into the spaceship, heading to another planet. It was my first time. Even though my heart pounded non-stop, Rachel’s soft snores soothed me. If Rachel could sleep through the journey, I decided I could calm my pounding heart. I wasn’t alone in this. The other passengers also looked skittish. The young woman to my left has had her fists in a clench since the ship left the ground. I looked through the windows and followed the streaks of light as we zoomed past space. Blue streaks, darkness, yellow, blue-green like strands of algae on Abeokuta’s rocks, darkness, perfectly round shaped rocks making faces at me, planet earth exploding into tiny smithereens, a still lake and then, Rachel’s smile as she spoke with a voice that wasn’t hers, a mechanical voice.
“… Dear friends, we have arrived Camp Mars. You can now unfasten your seat belts, follow directions from the hostess and proceed to exit the ship.”
I opened my eyes as my ears caught on the mechanical voice of the Captain breezing in from the speakers and announcing our arrival at Camp Mars. I wiped sleep off my eyes, and reassured myself that the exploding earth and smiling rocks were really from my dream. I was yet to know that the dream was a precursor of the things to come, a quick introduction to altered states of consciousness I was to experience soon. I nudged Rachel awake, and let her lean her groggy self on me as we all went down an elevator, out of the ship and into Camp Mars. My eyes lingered on the super-large and transparent protective dome that encircled the camp, keeping oxygen in and a full Mars of undiscovered dangers out.
Three hours in Camp Mars, and I wasn’t impressed. The only difference between Camp Mars and the Agodi Amusement Park in Ibadan was the location. We had taken some thrill rides on the roller coaster and gone on to watch the teenagers playing virtual games. These things didn’t amuse me, and I regretted letting Rachel convince me to come with her to this place. With half the fee I paid for both of us, I could have bought FIFA Exec—the game— had a nice time in Obudu Resort and Otta Farms and still had spare change. I didn’t want Rachel calling me a ‘nagging husband’ so instead of saying all this to her, I just mumbled grudgingly to myself. Images of Fela Kilani black suits flashed in my mind. I could have bought a few of those too.
I tagged along, uninterested, until we got to a large black door over which was written in plain white, ’50 D RIDE’ . On Earth, I had watched 3D movies and gone on 10 D rides, but here was a ride in 50 freaking D-imensions. A smile lit up my face.
The attendant gave us a pep talk on the 50 D ride after we paid the required token. She talked about virtual zombies, vampires, transformers and hideous beasts to fight in the virtual ride. She talked of sharp piercing talons, well-developed canines, forked tongues and poisonous fangs. She also showed us the various weapons and explained how they kill. She went on to give us a three-page disclaimer document to sign. I paused. Who had time to read a three-page disclaimer?
“Ehhh? Wetin concern agbero with overload?” I thought and smiled.
“I should send this to my lawyer to go through,” I said, still smiling silly at the attendant who seemed amused at my response and was searching for words.
“Don’t worry. She’s right here,” I added and handed Rachel my copy of the disclaimer. After signing hers, she gave me her notorious sign-that-shit-quickly look, and I obliged, scrawling ink over the given space like the imprints of a chicken’s foot on a beach.
The attendant fixed up our virtual-reality head gears, strapped some colorful sensors on our arms and legs and then she let us choose our weapons from the arsenal. As we stepped through the black door leading into the 50-D ride, she pushed a pamphlet each into our hands. The front page read, “Jesus ends it,’ with an accompanying picture of a blue-eyed Caucasian. I tucked it into my back-pocket, glad that the gospel was being preached even past the ‘ends’ of the earth. Don’t humans just know how to take things too far? The limit Jesus gave was ‘ends of the earth’ and here, the gospel was being preached in freaking Mars.
The 50-D ride started and again, I wasn’t impressed. A few bullets easily killed the attacking Transformers. The Zombies weren’t scary enough and after ten miserable minutes which Rachel seemed to enjoy, the ride was over and we stepped out the door. I dragged Rachel over to the Camp’s restaurant, got a table and settled for a simple meal. And then it began.
The ground tilted slightly to the left. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my palm and looked again and this time it tilted to the right and then, some more. I quickly grabbed the table for support and looked up at Rachel. She was still eating, looking totally undisturbed. Before I could say ‘Kunle’, the ground started to quake. It didn’t take a minute before plates slid of tilted tables, glasses shattered on the floor, screams rent the air and people scurried in all directions. I grabbed Rachel, flung her over my shoulders in complete knight-in-shining-armour fashion and headed for the cafeteria’s exit. I got to the exit and stopped, open-mouthed in shock. It was worse outside. I stood, feet rooted on a spot, as I watched a full blown Mars-Quake. The ground where the roller-coaster was had caved in, and I watched as the rift in the ground widened, zig-zagging its way forward and swallowing everything in its path. The rift was heading straight to the cafeteria, straight for us.
“God help me… help me… do something… God please.” I muttered, voice shaking with fear. I watched as the ground caved in and saw people screaming for Jesus as they fell to their death while I remained on the same spot, feet rooted, petrified. As the rift came about a foot close, a question popped in my head:
When the dead in Christ on earth shall rise again, will the dead in Mars rise also?
The ground beneath us gave way and we fell. Rachel’s shrill scream rang in the air, and like the others before us, I closed my eyes and screamed the Lord’s name as I fell to my demise.
And there was silence. And a giggle. Rachel’s.
The next voice I heard was an automated one: YOU HAVE SUCCESSFULLY ENDED YOUR FIRST RIDE. It was at this point I remembered the pamphlet that read, ’JESUS ENDS IT’ and then I realized that the cafeteria creepiness and the Mars-Quake were simply part of the ride and all played out inside my head, a crazy virtual reality, an insane mind-fuckery. I opened my eyes and was on my knees at the open door of the 50-D ride, looking straight at Rachel and wondering when exactly she had said her own ‘Jesus’ and ended her ride.
“Welcome to Camp Mars, Honey” Rachel said and burst out in hysterical mocking laughter.
Rachel is done with her midnight pee, but she’s still on the toilet seat. Her eyes are closed, and her heavy head nods repeatedly. I think of making a quick video of her, but I’m distracted by a red dot on my arm. I look again, and it’s gone. I am seeing things already. Maybe. I resume my watch on Rachel and notice what seems to be the beginning of an obnoxious smile play around the edge of her lips and her closed eyes. The same smile she had on right before she attacked me on our supposed return trip to Earth from mars. The nauseating feeling from the aftermath of the attack flooded my mind for the umpteenth time, and I shuddered slightly, remembering the freezing cold, the darkness and the floating away from everything that is.
Rachel and the attendant helped detach the sensors and virtual-reality gear from me, giggling as they did so. I just smiled sheepishly, nodding and clapping for the genius of the 50-D ride. I had fallen terribly for it. A familiar mechanical voice filled the air again, announcing the end of the day and calling for everyone to return to the ship for the journey back home. Rachel in arm, I was about to leave the 50-D Ride attendant and head for the pilot’s call when I had a memory flash of an open rift in the ground zig-zagging towards me. I trembled visibly. Obviously, I wasn’t over the shock of the ride yet. But what if I hadn’t screamed ‘Jesus’? What if I were Muslim and screamed ‘Allah Akbar’ instead? What if I were irreligious and had screamed an obscenity as I fell through? Would I have gone down into the depths and died in the ride? Would my mind have been stuck somewhere in the virtual world forever? I knew I was getting a little paranoid, but I voiced this question with trembling lips, my voice rising a pitch higher with every word. The attendant gave a this-is-not-the-first-time-I’m-seeing-this smile and pulled out the disclaimer.
“It is all right here” she said. “The exit code, the possible ride scenes, and the option for you to change your EXIT code. It is all here Sir.” She added, handing the disclaimer to me.
Wetin concern agbero with overload, I thought to myself again as I flipped the pages. There was no way I would have read all of these. I wondered if anyone actually did read such.
“So, I could have changed my exit code to ‘hell no’?
“Yes, any word or phrase you want. ‘Jesus’ is the default…” she was saying when I cut her off abruptly.
“And you didn’t use your brain to think that when you were talking nonsense about zombies and vampires, you could have told me about that.” I said angrily.
“Philip Anighoro!” Rachel cut in. I spun around and caught the exasperated look on her face. I was sure of the words playing in her head. That same phrase. Wetin concern agbero with overload.
Indeed, this lady was only an attendant and was simply doing her job. So, when the Pilot’s voice came through again from one of the hidden speakers, I mumbled an apology to the attendant and headed for the entrance of the ship.
Midway into our journey back, I had to talk to myself. My paranoia was reaching new heights.
Philip relax. Inhale deep. Exhale slow. Count one to ten. Fuck it!
“Rachel! … Rachel!” I called out stretching my leg to nudge her. She gave me a look.
“Did you know that there was going to be a quake in the virtual ride?”
“You really should read guides and disclaimers. The only part of the ride that’s fixed is the one with the zombies and machines. What happens next is dependent on the player, a product of one’s memory and imagination.”
“Why didn’t you inform me beforehand, you witch? You have been on that ride before!”
“Dear nagging-husband, I didn’t want to be a spoiler. A fine surprise, just like the birthday party you and the squad organized for me. Remember? Remember when you set me up with Rhythm Socials, and I made a fool of myself? Remember how you laughed and mocked me without pity? That was the same way I laughed when you grabbed that table in the eatery when the ground started to… ”
“How did you know that I was in an eatery?” I cut in.
Rachel didn’t answer. She gave me a cynical grin and turned her face away wryly.
“The ride is dependent on the player, a product of one’s memory and imagination. How did you fucking know I grabbed a table in an eatery, if it all happened in my head?” My voice peaked and people were starting to stare.
Rachel remained mute, staring at me, pokerfaced.
“Rachel, this isn’t funny. I do not like my mind being fucked with, and I demand an explanation now.”
She just stared blank.
Rachel wasn’t the type to keep quiet when shouted at or abused in any form. She was a fighter—with words and actions and every object whether real or virtual she could use to defend herself, but now she was silent. I threw question after inciting question, letting my paranoia have my mouth, but Rachel kept mute and pokerfaced still.
Then I saw it.
The edges of her lips curved slightly upward, and her left eyebrow started to rise—her mark of mischief. I wasn’t deterred. I was asking another annoying question when I noticed a red stain on the left edge of her mouth. I paused mid-sentence noticing the same hue of red on her right index finger, conveniently staining the purple nail-polish. The red seemed to spread, staining her thumb, middle finger, the ring, until thick red dripped from her pinkie. My heart rose to my throat and stayed. When I looked up at Rachel’s face it really wasn’t a face anymore.
Dark, hollow spaces stood where her eyes once were. Her lips had shrunk into a thin dash of dripping red. Where her nose had been was as flat as the inside of a palm, and her ears were gone. I screamed. The sound of my voice reverberated in the ship, but no one seemed to hear it. The lady who had her hands in a fist in the previous journey was chatting heartily with a funny looking old man. Everyone seemed to be watching the movie on the screen or talking happily. No one heard me scream, and no one seemed to have noticed the transformation Rachel had undergone.
You’re seeing things, Philip. You’re both paranoid and schizophrenic. Calm your fucking petty mind, idiot.
But when Rachel lurched for me from where she sat directly opposite, I knew shit had gotten real. She landed right on my thigh. Her hands around my neck, pressing, while her fingers sank beneath my skin. I started to choke as her hands tightened. Her fingernails felt like heated needles under my skin, and I knew that this wasn’t schizo. The pain was real.
With one mighty heave, I pushed her off me and watched her crash into three young men who had their eyes on the screen above. They didn’t seem to mind. Hell, they didn’t seem to notice that anything had crashed into them and was prepping to attack me again right from beside them. Rachel, or rather, the ghoul she had turned into, was in the air lurching towards me again. Just before her hand touched my neck, I unhooked my seatbelt and fell.
Her hands didn’t reach me because I fell backwards and in a way I couldn’t explain, out of the spaceship. In my confusion, I saw Rachel stare at me from a window on the ship as I kept falling and screaming into the darkness that began to envelop me. In a moment, the ship looked like a speck in the horizon and then I realized that I wasn’t falling. The ship was accelerating away from me while I floated, on one spot, in space. The darkness seemed to be seeping into every pore of my skin and even though my mouth was open and I was still screaming, there was no sound.
Everything seemed to be moving away from me. The ship sped farther, now a speck in the distance. Floating in space between Mars and Earth, I felt cold and very much alone—a dot in the universe, a small inconsequential object in a vast unending space. I didn’t know how long I floated around before common-sense returned to me.
Philip Anighoro, you can’t breathe in space. The fact that you’re still alive should tell you that you’re either hallucinating or … or… or… that fucking 50 D ride is still on. Jesus! Jesus? Jesus ends it? Jesus didn’t end it the other time? Or did Jesus end only a part, a scene?
‘Jesus’ I said out softly, ready to chide myself for entertaining the thought that this was just a game and there was still hope for survival.
“YOU HAVE SUCCESSFULLY ENDED YOUR SECOND RIDE” I heard the same mechanical voice say again. I sighed, relieved. This time I didn’t open my eyes immediately. I spent a few seconds savoring the warmth that now permeated every pore on my skin, basking in the soothing thought that my Rachel was no ghoul after all and all was well with the universe.
“Honey, how was your ride?” Rachel asked as I opened my eyes and got on my feet.
I was going to tell her that it was the craziest thing that had ever happened to me, but I paused. Common-sense kept me mute. This Rachel I was seeing was obviously also an apparition, a figment of my imagination. I was still in the ride. I had finished the first and second ride and I had just begun the third… or so I thought.
I snubbed past Rachel and headed straight to the attendant.
“How do I end this ride? I mean, all the stages of it? Jesus doesn’t do it fully.
The attendant laughed and told me that this time around, the ride was truly over. She gave me an experience feedback form to fill which I delightfully rejected. Rachel was beside me now, chuckling as the voice of the pilot came through the speakers asking all the Camp Mars Lagos passengers to return to the ship. Just as it had before.
We boarded the ship, and I took time to look around. Everything felt and looked real, but it had also felt real in the virtual world of the ride. After settling in, I told Rachel all about my ride experience, and she told me of hers and how she knew I would love the ride and didn’t want to spoil the fun by telling me anything about it before I experienced mine. The lady with clenched fists had her eyes fixed on the screen above—she wasn’t chatting with any funny looking man. There were no three young guys seated together for any ghoul to crash into.
Philip, this is a third ride. Only a fool is played three times in a row. You’re still in the 50 D ride! The pamphlet is still in your back-pocket, Philip. The pamphlet that says Jesus ends it all.
I retrieved the pamphlet and flipped the pages open. It was connected to a server somewhere and showed accurate time on the top left corner of each page. There was only a single sentence on each page of the pamphlet: Philip Anighoro, your 50 D ride is over. I wasn’t totally convinced, so I kept my eye on Rachel, on her lips and on her fingers, searching for blood on them or anything that was red enough.
Long uneventful journey and we got to Lagos safely and found our way back home but my paranoia didn’t stop. I watched every step Rachel took until night fell. And midnight came, and she went to the toilet for her pee.
I watch as she pulls her pants up, and then it happens. The light goes out, and the room is plunged in darkness. Reflexively, I raise my hands up around my head to protect myself just in case… just in case Rachel transforms into a ghoul again. A few seconds go by, and the light comes up again but even though the toilet door is open, I can’t see Rachel. I turn to my right and beside me is the most horrific creature I’ve ever seen.
A chuckle escapes the creature. Rachel’s. Right from somewhere inside the hideous face staring down at me, Rachel’s soft chuckle came through louder. A hand grabs this horrific face and pulls, and beneath the face is Rachel’s. Her chuckle builds up, and she falls to the floor laughing hysterically and tossing the hideous mask about. I’m on the bed, unable to talk, unable to scream and still frightened. My paranoia peaks again, and even as I watch my Rachel laugh and mock me, I’m not sure she’s real. She most likely is just a figment of my imagination, a virtual Rachel, a part of the 50 D ride, the 3rd ride.
Say ‘Jesus’ and end it already, Philip.
“Jesus” I say out confidently and loud.
Rachel pauses for a moment, and I wait to hear the familiar mechanical voice telling me my ride is over. But the next sound I hear is Rachel’s renewed laughter and from the tears that fall from her eyes. I see I just gave her another reason to mock me for the next decade.
Philip, it is all part of the ride. A desperate attempt to trick you and make you believe the experience as real. No… no… Fuck it, no way. You’re home in Lagos. The ride had been over hours ago, and you just fell prey to Rachel’s prank. Accept it, Philip.
I sighed and closed my eyes. The last I heard before I drifted to sleep was the interspersed sound of Rachel’s voice still laughing uncontrollably and my paranoid mind buzzing on like the rattle of a fly in the closed palm of a mischievous child.
Post image adapted from an image by Hubble ESA via Flickr.
About the Author:
Aito Osemegbe Joseph works as a Sales Professional during the day and at dusk, writes horror stories and psychological thrillers. His stories have appeared in ‘Brittle paper’ and ‘Kalahari review’. He is set to publish a collection of short stories and is currently working on his debut novel.