The expedition landed on Mars without much in the way of fanfare. The year was 2024, and back on Earth, World War III had begun (or IV, if you counted the Cold War—much debate raged on about that) and all eyes were on the news stations and social media as the war unfolded in real-time. There had been increasing news stories about UFO sightings and Congress had even held a special hearing regarding this issue because (as one senator put it), “Well, someone’s got to do it, damn it.”

Captain Douglas Martin felt relieved to step out of the space capsule, after having figured out the overly-complicated, 27-step process that astronauts used when having to take a piss. “One small step for mankind,” he said to himself, wondering if anyone was watching the livestream of this historical event back on Earth. He hoped that there would be an Earth to go back to. The door that had been spotted on the Martian surface loomed before him, dug into the side of a red mountain, alone here topside.

All at once, the great metal door began to open, revealing a tall group of aliens. Captain Martin was shocked to see them fully clothed. The tallest of all of these gray-skinned folks walked forward. He wore a glorious headdress of metallic golden feathers that made him look like a fearsome god. He held a metal staff that looked like a giant muffler taken off of a spacecraft.

“Hello to you, new visitors to planet Xaxu.”

“You mean Mars?” asked Captain Martin.

“Silence!” shouted the alien leader. “You are on planet Xaxu. Why have you come?”

Captain Martin felt a hard knot in his stomach, of the sort that he usually got before throwing up. He knew what next words were expected of him; he’d watched too many sci-fi flicks not to. He took a deep breath. Then he said, “We wish to see your leader.”

The head alien looked as if he were about to laugh. “Of course,” he replied. “But our inner sanctum is confidential. There will be no recording devices; you’ll find that we have disabled them anyway. And only three of you will be allowed in at a time.” These terms sounded fair enough, so Captain Martin hastily agreed on behalf of the U.S. Space Force.

“Which of your men will be in attendance?”

The words echoed in Captain Martin’s ears. He looked over at his second-in-command, Bruno, and then he glanced over his right shoulder, where Logistics Officer Tracy Kane stood at attention. He nodded to her, and she answered with a swift salute.

“It is decided,” said the alien chieftain, leading the three Space Force officers toward the door to the alien underworld. Captain Martin stepped past the threshold, further than any human had ever been on the Red Planet, and what he saw was utterly astounding. The interior was enormous: a cavern the size of a city with towering red pyramids inside. Stone walkways led through the interior, past gigantic statues that could only be described as Mesoamerican. Red rivers flowed through the city, and the stones reverberated with a thrumming drumbeat as the humans were led toward the heart of the metropolis.

“Is that…is that blood?” Officer Kane whispered.

“No,” said Captain Martin, in an attempt to keep his crew members calm, though in truth, he did not know. “It’s just the water reflecting off of the red stones.”

“Oh. Okay,” she replied. As they approached the stone pyramid at the center of the city, they began to see other aliens dressed in feather headdresses, standing at various levels of the pyramid.

“I’m starting to get a real bad feeling about this,” said Bruno.

“Shut up, human. Keep walking,” said one of the aliens, pushing him from behind. “The ceremony is about to begin.”

It was now that Captain Martin would have given anything to have the team’s recording equipment up and running. The phrase “seeing is believing” was all too true. As it was, he made a mental note to try and remember as much of this ceremony as possible, because he’d surely be questioned about it afterward. He could picture himself as an 80-year-old man with white hair, wearing his Sunday best and getting ready for (yet another) interview with one of the major news organizations.

“Halt,” said one of the aliens, and the humans did as they were told. The alien with the headdress stepped forward, arms spread wide, as the drumbeat grew louder and faster. All the aliens began to cheer all at once, a sound that, Captain Martin supposed, could have been the whooping of a war band of Comanche Indians. Now, he began to get the gist of things, and though he didn’t show it outwardly, he began to panic.

Captain Martin, Bruno, and Officer Kane looked behind them, toward the exit, where the giant metal door had swung shut with a giant clang that reverberated through the underground city. Bruno checked his communicator device to find that the screen was black as pitch. Captain Martin took his own communicator device and checked it—screen dead also. He threw it in the running red water below in an attempt at a diversion and then turned and punched the alien behind him. He made a run for it, heart pounding, and got all of ten feet before being tased by a long-range stun gun. The electricity jolted through his body and he clutched his heart, feeling it wanting to give out as he experienced spasms of pain.

“That one shall be first!” the alien declared this as he looked up, as if to the gods or the open sky. He stomped his feet and began to sway his hips. Then he set down his staff and picked up a long knife at his feet. The aliens carried Captain Martin toward the pyramid and then up the steps. He saw the flash of malice in the black eyes of his captor and as he was brought to his knees, tears came to his eyes. He thought about everything he had to live for back home: his wife and son, his illustrious career, the classic Chevy that sat in his garage and his terrier, Tarzan. He’d never suspected that he would someday lose all that.

“Please have mercy,” he begged his alien host. “I’ll give you anything you want.”

The knife blade flashed, slicing Captain Martin’s throat. “I want the pleasure of my gods,” said the alien host, bloody knife raised high. “Welcome to the Red Planet!”