Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Don't Go Out At Sunset

by Rod Hamon


The semi-dark night sky slowly faded as the first signs of the dawn approached. A large disk emerged from the horizon and cast its eerie light on a silent and cold world. Within minutes, the sky had turned from purple to blood red.

As the light increased, it laid bare the true starkness of this ghostly landscape and motionless sea where no fish swam or birds flew in the skies. However, not far away and close to the seashore were signs of life, where, among silhouettes of primitive dwellings, figures could be seen huddled around open fires. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air.

In the far distance and in contrast, colossal spires of glistening buildings towered into the sky. Even though they were hermetically sealed off from the harsh environment, those living there still struggled to survive and keep warm.

The star that had sustained them for so long was now at the end of its life cycle and would soon die. Their advanced technology, developed so successfully over millions of years, was now failing them. Their leaders, desperate for a way out, promised the people a solution. But no solution could be found.

####

A small car slowly made its way up the steep and dusty mountain road, the driver weary from the day's journey. Nearing the top, he stopped and got out. The air was clear but cold; the scene below a reminder of Earth's beauty.

The well-dressed man, his hair blowing in the wind, turned to look up at the dish of the radio telescope shining white against the deep blue of the sky. "Here, at last," he sighed, pleased to be meeting his old friend Hugo again after a long absence.

Alex Varston, a tallish man with pale skin, had a rather prominent nose but a kindly smile that flickered around his thin lips whenever he spoke. His parents had emphasized the importance of being impeccably dressed and he always wore a well-cut suit and bow tie.

Alex, a physicist, and Hugo Zimmerman, an astronomer, first met when attending university and, although they had remained friends, their careers had taken them in different directions. As a result, they rarely agreed on scientific topics.

After returning to his car, Alex drove the short distance to the top of the mountain. He entered the circular building below the dish where he was greeted by his old sparring partner Hugo, a gentle giant of a man with enormous hands and a ready smile.

"Ah, Alex, good to see you," he said, with a noticeable accent. "You haven't changed a bit; always so elegantly dressed!"

"You haven't changed either, Hugo. Still peering through your telescope, hoping to find little green men? Any success?" he chuckled, with a hint of sarcasm.

"Maybe, maybe not," Hugo replied. "But most of our work these days is done with radio telescopes. Anyway, come: follow me. You must be tired."

They walked down a narrow corridor where, in one of the adjoining offices, two men sat at a computer console. Alex followed his friend as they ascended a steep metal staircase that led to a compact but comfortable office. After pouring drinks, Hugo leaned back in his chair and smiled.

"So, I hear you've made quite a name for yourself in the world of physics since I last saw you."

Alex sipped his drink, brushed a minute speck of dust from his trousers and nodded. Then, gazing through the office window, he said, "And you -- you're still searching for extraterrestrials?"

"We keep looking, yes. I'm sure one day we'll succeed. But, of course, if we don't search, the probability of success is zero," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

Alex shook his head. "But, thousands of people have been searching for so many years, Hugo; all that money spent, and for what? Face reality: there's not a shred of evidence of intelligent life out there." He stood up and walked across to the window, then turned. "Tell me, Hugo, if you did detect a message from a distant star, what would you do? It could be a thousand light years away! You could hardly send back a reply and then wait two thousand years for a response!"

"Alex, my friend, you amuse me. Our search for extraterrestrial intelligence is no different from your search for understanding in physics -- it's all part of humankind's thirst for understanding. It's all about challenge, curiosity, and the desire to see over the next hill. Our research, like yours, is conducted with state-of-the-art technology by highly qualified scientists and their results are subject to the same scrutiny."

Alex's face showed frustration. "But, Hugo, what's the point in it all? What benefit can there be to the human race?"

"But there is a point. Nothing is more important than life. Imagine discovering a civilization that was a million years more advanced than our own. How exciting that would be!"

Alex just shook his head.

Hugo smiled. "You have strong views, my friend. But, who knows, maybe one day the people of Earth will need the help of intelligent life from out there among the stars. Hey, let's talk of other things. Come with me; Helen's got a pot roast lunch ready for us at home."

Hugo spent every day at his telescope scanning the skies scrutinizing every radio signal for anything unusual. Although he had not seen Alex for many months he often reflected on his friends' skepticism and frowned.

Hugo sat alone at the console of his radio telescope. It was late and he felt weary. He yawned and half-heartedly glanced at the computer screen. Nothing had changed. Reaching across, he grabbed a magazine from the many that littered his desk. After flicking through the pages, he began reading. It was an article by Alex. Hugo smiled. He's always been so opposed to my work. Maybe he's right. Maybe this is a waste of time! Hugo sipped his cold coffee and, after reading only a few pages, tossed the magazine back with the others and glanced at his watch.

He leaned back in his chair with his arms folded behind his head. Within minutes, he had drifted into semi sleep.

Just a quarter of an hour later, he was woken by the shriek of an alarm. He sat upright in his chair, his eyes staring wildly. Gazing around, he tried to make sense of what had happened, and then he noticed the computer screen. The normally straight line trace was now fluctuating wildly. A message on the screen read, "ALERT! Strong narrow band signal detected."

The irritating sound of the alarm continued. Hugo put his hands to his ears. "Must pull myself together. I've been through this procedure a hundred times before, but that noise! Got to turn it off!" He fumbled for the switch and then sighed. In the early days, the alarm excited him, as he hoped the signal meant success. But the signal had always amounted to nothing so now the alarm became less exciting and more just a reminder of failures.

Then, used to talking to himself in this otherwise silent observatory, he said, "Now, I must move the dish slightly off target and then return it back again. The signal should go and then return." He reached for the alignment control but just then the phone rang. "Not now! For heaven's sake!" Hugo ignored its incessant ringing as he turned back to the controls.

Hugo reached for the controls, carefully adjusted the alignment and shifted it a small amount. The whirl of gear wheels moving overhead confirmed that the telescope dish had changed its coordinates. The wild traces on the computer screen immediately settled back to a straight line again: the signal had gone.

He breathed heavily as he attempted to return the dish to its original target but then realized he had made a mistake. "Damn! What have I done?" He scratched his head and peered at the controls. "What happened?" He gasped, "Oh no! I moved the telescope manually instead of using automatic deflection. Now I have no idea how much I moved it. How can I have been so stupid?" he shouted, banging his fist on the desktop.

He moved the dish back a small amount and gazed at the computer screen again, but the trace remained flat. Sweat ran down his face as, in panic, he resorted to trial and error. The phone rang again. "Go away, for heaven's sake! Go away!"

His hands shook. "Let me think. I held the alignment control for no more than a second so I cannot be that far off target." But, after ten minutes searching, he was no closer to locating the signal again.

He sat back in his chair with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and his face buried in his hands. Almost in tears, he cried, "I had success at my fingertips! I must be the most stupid person ever born!"

He continued to move the alignment backwards then forwards. "I could be out by degrees by now!" He tried to calm himself and to think back to the steps he had taken.

An idea came to him. He recalled noting the coordinates midafternoon before stopping for coffee. He fumbled among the papers on his desk, then resorting to upending the waste bin. "Where did I put it? Ah, here it is! If I realign the dish, I must be roughly in the right area."

For another half hour, he experimented by scanning slowly in spiral movements then paused.

"Wait, what is that?" he gasped, as the trace on the computer screen fluctuated minutely. He cautiously scanned the area for another half hour.

The trace was now noticeably more active. "That has got to be it!" he cried.

Little by little he adjusted the telescope alignment; the signal progressively became stronger then finally back to full strength. He sighed with relief.

Hugo reached across and flipped the switch on the signal analyzer and gazed in disbelief as the computer attempted to translate the signal. After some minutes a series of repeating numbers appeared. He studied the numbers for a while then said, "Not sure what this means ?? will figure it out later." He noted the exact position of the source then dispatched an email to two other observatories, requesting that they confirm his findings.

Without taking his eyes off the screen, he waited for their verification. "Whatever happens, I will never mention my stupidity. Not to anyone!"

####

The wide-bodied jet swept down from the sky and gracefully sped along the runway and, with a roar, applied its reverse thrusters.

The premature click of seat belt buckles indicated the passengers' eagerness to get off. One person had already got to his feet and was about to open his overhead locker.

"Please sit down, sir, and wait until the plane comes to a complete standstill," instructed a flight attendant.

Alex obeyed. He was returning from overseas where, for six months, he had been addressing groups of academics on the latest concepts in quantum physics.

Earlier in the flight, he had fallen asleep listening to music on his headphones but was woken up when the pilot announced that the plane was making its approach to land. Alex opened his eyes and looked up at the monitor showing the in-flight news. On the screen, the words "News Flash" appeared above an image of Hugo -- his large frame looking down on the young woman interviewing him. He appeared to be trying to evade her questions. Alex had heard nothing from his old friend for months. He fumbled for the channel control on the arm of his seat but the segment had finished before he found it. He turned to the man sitting next to him, "What was that about?"

####

On the way home from the airport, he received a call on his cell phone. "Professor Alex Varston?" a woman asked.

"Speaking."

"Professor Zimmerman wishes to invite you to the State Conference Center tonight where he will be delivering his news release at seven."

"Tonight? Sure, I'll be there. What's this is all about?"

"Sorry, sir, no information is available until seven tonight," she replied and hung up.

"Oh well, suppose I'll just have to wait."

####

The State Convention Center was an impressive marble building close to the middle of the city.

Alex arrived by taxi impeccably dressed as always and made his way to his seat, sat down and looked around. The rear of the high ceilinged auditorium was entirely of glass and aluminum and looked out onto flood-lit trees. At the front on the stage, sound and lighting technicians gathered around TV cameras preparing for the start of the program. The audience chatted noisily with excited expectation.

A hush descended as three men and a woman walked onto the stage and sat down. Alex immediately recognized the figure of his old friend Hugo.

One of the men rose to his feet and stood before the microphone. Enlarged images of the man appeared on huge TV screens on each side of the stage.

"On behalf of the International Academy of Astronautics, may I welcome you," he said, then waited as the echo of his voice reverberated through the auditorium. "Tonight, is an historical event that will be remembered for years to come." Then, excitedly, he announced, "May I introduce you to the man at the forefront of this discovery. Please welcome, Professor Hugo Zimmerman."

There was loud applause as Hugo rose to his feet. He appeared just as Alex remembered him: the same gentle giant of a man. Hugo smiled but said nothing for some seconds then raised both arms in the air and shouted, "We have done it! We, the inhabitants of planet Earth, have finally made contact with the inhabitants of another star system." For a moment there was stunned silence and gasps of surprise then loud applause. After allowing the applause to die down, he went on, "Over the last few days, the media has been rife with speculation. Tonight I intend to clarify matters for you."

Glancing down at his notes, he continued, "Our first hint of extraterrestrial intelligence came on August third this year when a number of radio telescopes around the world confirmed my discovery of unusual signals coming from the constellation of Cancer. The series of short radio bursts formed a pattern of numbers and for two days this transmission repeated itself every few minutes. Later, we discovered that these numbers had mathematical significance, but I will not bore you with this now. Then, without warning, the transmissions stopped. We were confused but, two days later, a new message appeared. It was as if the earlier signals were intended to get our attention, like the ring of a telephone. The new message was not easy to interpret. We analyzed recordings of the message for a few months before its meaning became clear. The message was brief: that the extraterrestrials had been searching for other intelligent life in the universe for a long time and had just received a signal from Earth. They said they were replying immediately. They also asked for information about our planet and its people. The message then ceased and has not recurred. Their description of our message helped us identify when it was sent."

He bowed respectfully. "Well, that in summary is our present position. I am open to questions."

A man left of stage asked, "What do we know about the message they received from us?"

"We identified it as one sent by the Yevpatoria Radio Telescope in Russia," Hugo replied. "It was directed towards the constellation of Gemini."

The microphone was passed to another reporter. "But you say the source of the radio transmission was from the constellation of Cancer. Can you explain this?"

"Yes. Gemini and Cancer are adjacent constellations therefore it is not surprising that our message was detected by the extraterrestrials. Based on the date of Earth's transmission 23 years and 7 months ago, we calculate that the source of these recent radio transmissions is 11.8 light years away. There is only one star we know of at that particular distance. It is a faint 17th magnitude red giant star named DZ Cancri."

Other hands went up. A woman asked, "The message obviously didn't come from the star itself, but from a planet. Have optical telescopes been able to spot this planet?"

Hugo shifted his large form and fumbled with his notes. Without looking up he replied, "No, we are still searching."

A reporter close to the stage raised his hand and was given a microphone. "Has anyone replied to the request made by the extraterrestrials to send them more information about Earth and its people?"

"Not to my knowledge."

The man was not happy with the answer and took advantage of the microphone still in his hand. "But Professor Zimmerman, I'm curious. Surely if this civilization had been searching for life in the universe for so long and has now detected it on Earth -- this must have been extremely significant for them. Is it not surprising, therefore, that their message should be so brief. Are you sure they didn't say anything more than what you've told us?"

Hugo hesitated. "No, that is all they said."

Alex was puzzled. He's lying. I know he's lying. But why?

After a few more questions, the press conference came to an end.

Without hesitation, Alex rushed backstage and located Hugo surrounded by reporters. Looking up, Hugo noticed Alex, broke through the crowd and headed towards him.

Alex shook his hand vigorously. "Well done, Hugo. I never thought it possible but you've actually done it! This is very exciting news!"

Hugo smiled. "I have to admit, though, I was very close to giving up!"

"You must tell me how it all happened."

Hugo looked around, pulled a face. "With all this noise, it is not possible to talk. Let us find somewhere quieter."

They left the Convention Center, walked about a block and entered a bar where they ordered drinks. Alex listened intently as Hugo recounted the events of his discovery.

Alex listened for a while then said, "Hugo, are you sure there wasn't more to the message. Is there something you're not... telling us?"

Hugo diverted his eyes and muttered, "I have told you everything."

"I'm sorry, Hugo but I believe that there's more."

"What is it with you?" Hugo demanded. "I have answered your question."

The two men looked each other in the eye but said nothing for a few seconds. Alex broke the silence. "Hugo, I've know you for how many years?"

"Twenty or more."

"Right and I know when you're lying. Why are you lying?"

Hugo sat in silence sipping his drink and avoiding eye contact, then looked up. "There were just a few extra words. I didn't discover them until days later." He shrugged his shoulders. "That is all there is to it."

"So, what were the words?"

"Alex my friend, until I can be sure of my facts I will keep this to myself. I think it is better that way."

Alex rubbed his chin thoughtfully then asked, "Okay, so how did you discover these additional words?"

"It was when I was examining the recording of the repeating message that I noticed at one spot that there was a small blip. At first I thought it was just random interference so I ignored it -- it was a very weak signal. Then I examined it closer, amplified and decoded it."

Alex nodded. "But you still have a moral obligation to inform the public."

"Maybe, but, until I can understand it better, I will keep it to myself. At least, they are still excited about my discovery."

"Hugo, you've just announced to the world what must be the greatest discovery in man's history; why do you look so disheartened?"

Hugo said nothing for a while then with a thoughtful expression replied,

"I have spent most of my life dedicated to finding intelligent life somewhere else in the universe -- and now that I've found it..." He stared at the floor.

"Do you wish you hadn't?" Alex asked.

Hugo said nothing.

####

When Hugo watched TV that evening, he found that not everyone shared the jubilation. This was evident when a volatile and outspoken man appeared on The Roland Tyler Show.

With excitement in his voice, Roland Tyler introduced the show, "In the past 24 hours, we've heard the astounding news that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. To most people, this is the greatest discovery since the invention of the wheel. Surprisingly, not everyone feels that way. I have in the studio with me tonight a man who has shown, through his numerous newspaper articles, his fervent opposition to the whole idea of contacting intelligent life in space. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Ivan Winters."

"Mr. Winters, thank you for coming on the show tonight."

The red-faced man just nodded.

"Mr. Winters, surely you must see some benefits in knowing that there are other intelligent creatures out there?"

Ivan Winters, an overweight man in his forties was bursting to be heard and yelled, "There are no benefits! How could there be?"

Roland attempted to speak but was cut off.

"Let me put it simply: this star DZ Cancri is 11.8 light years away, right?"

The host nodded.

"Just imagine travelling in a space vehicle that could circle the Earth in just one hour. That's pretty damn fast, right?" He paused for maximum effect. "That vehicle would take three million years to reach that star. Three million years, damn it!" He thumped his fist on the desk in front of him. "To know there are other life forms out there is one thing -- but what damn use is it to us? None!"

"But surely you must see something positive in this discovery?" the show host asked.

"Positive?" Winters laughed. "Just the opposite: to attempt to contact civilizations beyond Earth is the biggest mistake in the history of the human race. It's suicide. "

"What do you mean by that?"

Winters was even redder in the face now and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow.

"The star DZ Cancri, a red giant, is only one tenth the size of the sun and much cooler. These creatures, whatever they are, must live on one of its planets. Can you imagine how hostile life must be there -- a frozen dark world where conditions are steadily getting worse as the star cools? It's damn obvious why they're looking for somewhere else in the universe to live."

"But, Mr. Winters, you have said yourself that this star is a very great distance from us. So surely there's no chance that they'll be visiting us any time soon."

"You're wrong again. Too far away to be any good to us, sure. But remember, their message clearly stated that they'd been searching for other life in the universe for a long time. They sound to me like an advanced civilization. They may have technology, like space wormholes, all sorts of things that could get them here in short time. Maybe they're heading here right now!"

Roland Tyler turned and looked straight into the camera lens, "Well, there you have it, folks. Make up your own mind. I guarantee we're going to hear a lot more about this. Keep watching!"

####

While making coffee the next morning, Alex turned on the TV news where an animated commentary accompanied vision of men and women marching the street with placards.

The commentary continued, "In countries throughout the world, people are voicing their disapproval of the recent extraterrestrial contact. They condemn scientists for sending messages out into space with the purpose of attracting aliens."

One of the demonstrators, when asked for his opinion, responded, "Why in hell would we want to invite aliens here? We've got enough trouble already without that!"

####

The evening was warm, the waves of the sea lapped silently against the sandy shore. The young couple sitting on the beach looked up at the moonless night sky where the stars seemed closer and more numerous than ever before.

"What do you think of all of this, Gerry?"

"You mean the aliens?" He sat silently for a while and then pointed upwards. "Those two stars over there are the twins of Gemini and just to the left is the constellation of Cancer. Somewhere around there is a small star with living beings on it -- maybe just like us." He thought for a moment then added, "Seems hard to believe, doesn't it?"

She followed his gaze and in a whisper replied, "I wonder what sort of beings they are."

He put his arm around her shoulders.

She shivered. "I'm scared, Gerry."

####

Anxious to scrutinize the message from DZ Cancri further, Hugo got up early and made his way to the radio telescope. He ascended the steep metal stairs leading to the upper office and got to work. But half an hour later he heard noises and looked up.

He went across to the window and looked down. Four SUVs had driven in. A group of men was talking noisily. Although Hugo was unable to hear their conversation, the spirited pointing and the waving of arms suggested trouble. Hugo hurried back to his desk and activated the security system.

As he returned to the window, another car drove in. Men were unloading cameras and sound equipment. Hugo scowled. "Umm, so the press is expecting trouble too -- better call the police."

"It'll take at least an hour for us to get out there," the policeman replied.

"But there's at least a dozen of them. They could totally destroy the place in an hour. Can't you get here quicker than that?"

The phone went dead. Hugo frowned. "Damn it! Looks like they've cut the line!" A few minutes later, the entire electrical supply to the building was also shut off.

As Hugo looked down from his window, he recognised the face of the ringleader. It was the man named Winters who had been interviewed on The Roland Tyler Show.

Some of the men disappeared from Hugo's view to the rear, while two others wielding iron bars, set to work attacking the main door.

Quarter of an hour later, Hugo heard shouting from below and knew the mob had broken in. He quickly locked his office door, although he knew this wouldn't present an obstacle to the intruders. The sound of equipment being smashed continued for a while then he heard heavy footsteps on the metal staircase leading to his office. Seconds later, fists pounded on the door. "Open up or we'll knock the damn door down!"

The banging on the door continued for a while then it burst open. Two large men stood in the opening. One of them had an iron bar in his hand, the other stood resolutely with his heavily tattooed arms folded. Although Hugo was a big man, he knew he was no match for them. He remained at his desk and demanded, "Why have you come here? What is it you want?"

Winters, the ringleader, smirked, his lip curling with revulsion. He walked over to where Hugo sat and glared down his nose at him. "Why? Why the hell do you think we're here?" he screamed. Hugo wiped from his face the beads of spit that had come from the man's mouth. He looked up but said nothing.

Winters leaned forward, his fat and unshaven face now close to Hugo's. There was deep-seated loathing in his voice. "Because of your damn meddling, you have left the planet open to every hostile life form in the universe. It's probably too late to prevent this catastrophe now. But we're going to do whatever's necessary to stop you and your cronies from ever doing this again!"

The second man moved closer; he held the iron bar firmly, occasionally slapping it into the palm of his other hand. "Want me to do it now, boss?" he growled.

A sound from outside distracted them. Winters turned and looked out the window and said, "Come on! Let's get outta here."

As they left, Hugo rushed to the window to investigate. Two helicopters hovered a few meters above ground; police in riot gear stood ready in the open doors. The moment they touched down, the men sprang out with their weapons raised.

To Hugo's relief, the saboteurs were quickly brought under control and led away.

####

Hugo arrived home and was immediately confronted by his wife Helen. "I've been trying to phone you. Two men have been here twice in the last hour looking for you."

"Did they say what they wanted?"

"Said they needed to contact you urgently."

"What did they look like? Were they rough looking -- wanting to start trouble?"

"Don't think so. I'd say they were probably CIA or FBI."

Minutes later, there was a loud knock on the door. Hugo answered it.

"Professor Zimmerman?" asked one of two stern-faced men.

"That is right."

"You're to come with us immediately!"

Hugo noticed the flashing lights of police cars out in the street. "Have I broken some law or what?"

"It's a matter of urgent national security, sir. You must come with us, now."

Hugo turned to his wife but as he did so he was grabbed by the two men and marched to a waiting police car.

"Sorry about this, sir," one of the men said, "but time's short."

"But, what's this all about?"

"You'll find out soon enough."

Accompanied by two other police cars with lights flashing, they raced off at high speed and soon joined the interstate heading to DC. As they entered Washington they were joined by more police on motorcycles.

They drove down Pennsylvania Avenue and were admitted to the White House through a rear gate. Hugo was then ushered into a small office where he was joined by a federal agent.

"Professor, you're no doubt alarmed by the way you've been brought here."

Hugo nodded.

"The science adviser to the President wishes to speak with you and Professor Vanstone regarding your recent discovery and its possible impact on national security."

"Alex! Is he here?"

"Yes, he's also been asked to assist us." The man looked at his watch, stood up and said, "Please follow me."

They entered a short corridor into a spacious and tastefully furnished office.

The federal agent announced "May I introduce Professor John P. Holdren, science adviser to the President." A bearded man in his sixties entered, accompanied by his secretary.

Holdren sat down and smiled. "I wish to apologize for the manner in which you were both brought here. Professor Zimmerman, we have studied the report of your discovery and there appears to be a number of unanswered questions.

He looked over his glasses and studied the two men. "Our aim today is to consider the facts."

He sat back in his chair and looked down at his notes then said, "Firstly, tell me what is known about this star DZ Cancri?"

"This relatively close star is a red giant -- about ten times the size of our sun. It's at the end of its life cycle and now providing little heat to its planets."

"Is there any visual evidence that it has planets?"

Hugo nodded. "The NASA Kepler Space Mission has in the last few days detected what may be a planet in a close orbit around this star. The latest data suggests a planet that's about ten times the mass of Earth and is probably phased-locked. That is, it has one side stuck permanently facing the star."

"I know what phased-locked means," the adviser replied curtly. >From what you know, is it likely that this planet could support life?"

Hugo leaned forward in his chair and said, "Depends what you mean by the word 'life'. On Earth, life exists deep beneath the Antarctic ice at below minus 20°C and in volcanic vents on the ocean floor at temperatures exceeding 120°C." He paused before continuing, "I would say if there's life on this alien planet, it is unlikely to be human, if that is your question."

Alex added, "While this planet may be in the habitable zone, it would certainly be an unpleasant place to live for beings such as ourselves."

The adviser stroked his chin and then, as if speaking to himself, said, "So they may be looking for somewhere else to live -- like Earth, for example."

"Maybe," Hugo replied.

The adviser took more notes then looked up. "Your account of the message you received from the extraterrestrials concerns me. What I fail to understand is this: if the inhabitants of this planet planned to come to Earth after receiving our message, why did they bother to contact us? Why didn't they just come and say nothing? What was the point?"

Alex thought about the question then replied, "This is only a guess, but if their knowledge of our planet is limited, it would be important that they obtain more information about us before embarking on the long journey. For instance, would our planet be habitable for them? Plus they would need to know that the journey was feasible, including the cost in terms of energy. Their resources may be in short supply."

The adviser nodded, then handed Hugo a sheet of paper. "This is a copy of your press release. Is there anything you wish to add to this?

Hugo read the paper, hesitated for what seemed like a full minute and then replied, "Yes, there is something more. Something I have held back from the public because I was not sure how to interpret it."

"Go on."

Wavering as though selecting his words, Hugo continued, "The initial signals were short and repeated regularly for two days. After a delay of a further two days, we received the main message. This also repeated without change for a while, then ceased."

"A week later I was re-examining recordings of these transmissions when I noticed what appeared to be random interference. It occurred only once and seemed unimportant, it had the appearance of static. However, when I analyzed it more closely, I found that it also contained a message -- a short phrase."

"And?"

After a moment's hesitation he replied, "It decoded into the phrase 'To conquer, not to coexist.'" There was silence. Alex and Hugo looked at each other. The science adviser turned pale.

Hugo continued, "When I read this, I knew it was ominous and wished I had never begun searching for extraterrestrial intelligence."

"Are you sure this signal was part of the transmission and not from some local source?"

"Absolutely sure, I thoroughly investigated that possibility."

The adviser sat back in his chair, ran his hands through his hair then said, "This puts things in a different light, doesn't it? The tenor of this statement stands in contrast to the main message. Are you able to explain this?"

"I can offer a possible explanation," Hugo replied.

"I believe it is likely that, unknown to the senders of the main message, their high energy transmission acted as a carrier wave, picking up a much weaker signal coming from within their community -- like a slogan or subject line we might use in a broadcast intended only for our own networks -- a signal that revealed the true nature of their civilization: violent and predatory."

Alex shook his head. "But Hugo, that's just speculation."

Hugo shrugged his shoulders.

The adviser sat in silence for some time then took off his glasses and thoughtfully wiped them clean. "But this star is so far away. What would it matter? It would take them tens or hundreds of thousands of years. It's difficult to contemplate that they'd even consider such a long journey -- besides they probably wouldn't survive."

Hugo replied, "It's true that the speed of light is the limiting factor in space travel but..."

Raising his eyebrows, the adviser said, "Are you suggesting that this may not be true?"

"No, no! There is nothing in physics to suggest that this is not true. Nevertheless, for centuries, we believed the Newtonian laws of motion until we became aware of relativity. These extraterrestrials have said that they've been searching for life elsewhere for a long time so it is possible that they are millions of years more advanced than us. Consider the advances we have made in just the last two hundred years."

Alex smiled. "Come on, Hugo!"

"But it still remains a possibility, Alex. In our own time we are witnessing exponential growth in computer science, in nanotechnology, biotechnology and material science. It is predicted that within a few years we will have the technological means to transcend our biological limitations through brain-computer interfaces and create superhuman intelligence. Artificial intelligence is likely to be developed to a degree that computers will have human-like consciousness and be indistinguishable from us. It is even possible that advances in science may include the re-shaping of human DNA to produce a master race. Alex, these are realistic expectations."

He waited for a comment but none came so he continued, "Imagine a civilization a million years more advanced than this. We may be dealing here with something of truly apocalyptic proportions. What makes matters worse is that these extraterrestrials appear to be eyeing our planet with malice."

The adviser's face had become grey and drained of blood. He bellowed, "This is not making things any clearer! You've presented me with wildly differing viewpoints. On the one hand, we have a short message from a planet inhabited by beings on the verge of extinction and who may just be reaching out for help. In contrast, we have the view that they are an advanced race of predatory beings on a mission to snatch our planet from us and probably already on their way here -- at light speed. I need facts based on objective reality, not just possibilities!"

Alex replied, "The things that Hugo has said are possibilities and we shudder to imagine what we can do if these things do eventuate. But we must consider what we know for a certainty. For example, we know that these beings have received communications from Earth and have been searching for life elsewhere in the universe. The reason for this appears to be the imminent demise of their star.

"We know also how far away this star is but we don't know if they are aware how far we are from them. Also, although they have asked for more information about us, we don't know if they will wait for an answer before they start out. I suppose that depends on how desperate they are? But if we assume they have the technology to travel at a hundred thousand kilometers per hour, they would still take over a hundred thousand years to reach us."

He smiled. "The reality is that we are unlikely to see them any time soon."

"I hope you're right," Hugo muttered under his breath.

The adviser made a few notes. "Thank you, gentlemen, I believe I have enough to make a recommendation to the President."

####

Hugo and Alex were dismissed and arrangements made to return them to their homes. As they left, Hugo took Alex to one side. "I have been thinking. If these aliens really are technologically advanced, they are hardly likely to arrive here in the traditional way: by spaceships, are they?"

Alex grinned. "You could be right. We may not even know when they arrive."

"So how can we prepare ourselves?"

Alex shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe we can't."

Hugo looked him in the eye an expression that was somber and intense. "If that is the case, then from now on we must be watchful for anything out of the ordinary, unusual or difficult to explain."

Alex smiled. "You mean for the next hundred thousand years?"

"Maybe, maybe not, but I believe something awful awaits the human race, and I'm not sure that we can do anything about it." He was silent for a few seconds and then added, "All of this because of my damn stupidity."

Alex patted his friend's shoulder, "If it hadn't been you, Hugo, it would have been someone else -- sooner or later."

####

Hugo slept badly that night, his mind dominated by the day's discussions. He dreamt of the aliens, they were smaller than humans, weak and pale, grub-like in appearance but with large all-knowing intelligent eyes, alert and watchful.

Their world, illuminated by the large red disk of its star, was depressing and reminded him of a visit he'd once made to Norway: the land of the midnight sun. This alien world was similar, their star only occasionally dipping briefly below the horizon before rising again. And because the sky was constantly illuminated, the stars were never visible. They had no concept of the visible universe that lay beyond their world. These aliens had never gazed up at the firmament of stars on a clear winter night awed by the vastness of the universe. In this world, their only knowledge of what lay beyond them was the radio signals coming from space that they detected with their highly developed equipment. They had for years scrutinized these radio signals hoping for some evidence of life elsewhere -- somewhere of escape from their cold and dying world.

As their world constantly faced their star, they had a limited view of the sky and it was with hope and excitement that one day they detected, in that small window of the sky, an intelligent radio message coming from planet Earth.

Hugo woke in the early hours of the morning in panic, his body bathed in cold sweat with the images of his nightmare vivid in his mind.

####

The telephone rang. Hugo answered it. It was his wife Helen. "Hugo, something dreadful has happened," she sobbed.

"Calm down, Helen. What is it? Where are you?"

"In the city -- a man just jumped from a high office block window," she replied with a shaky voice.

"Where are you exactly? I will come down there straight away."

"The man struck the ground right in front of me. It was horrible, horrible!"

"Helen, please tell me where you are."

He rushed into the city and found Helen surrounded by police, paramedics and onlookers. With his arm around her, he ushered her towards where his car was parked but the streets were crowded and progress slow.

As they walked through the crowds, Hugo couldn't help noticing that the faces of many of the people were expressionless: very few smiled or even acknowledged their existence. Many just stared directly ahead as if subject to some form of mass hypnosis.

Hugo tightened his grip on his wife. "What's wrong with them?" she whispered.

"No idea."

A gap opened just ahead and in the center; a man was coming towards them, his path erratic. Unlike the others in the crowd, this man stared around crazily as if searching for something in the sky. Hugo followed his gaze but could see nothing.

As he drew closer, Hugo noticed the man's eyes: blood red and staring uncontrollably as if possessed. Now only meters away, the man let out a scream as though being attacked from within. He struck out at the air, defending himself against some invisible enemy. Then, as if everything had become too much for him, he reached into his pocket, took out a pistol and shot himself in the temple.

Helen screamed.

####

That evening, after calming his wife, Hugo phoned Alex and told him what had happened.

"That's frightening," he replied. "But I'm not sure it's the sign we've been watching out for or if it's some other phenomenon, like germ warfare or a poisonous gas or--."

"No, Alex, it is more than that. To witness two suicides within the space of a few minutes is unheard of, and the people -- many were like zombies!" Hugo continued, "And there is something else."

"Yes?"

"Well, a few weeks ago we tracked a comet entering the inner solar system. Nothing strange in that. It was a comet we know well: it returns every five years."

"And what happened?"

"The comet failed to follow its regular trajectory -- it changed course -- it was as if it had been deflected by some large object."

"By what?"

"We don't know -- we could find nothing."

"That's odd."

####

A week later, Hugo was asked to attend an urgent meeting of the International Academy of Astronautics that day. On his way there, he again witnessed the unrest in the streets.

The meeting had just begun as Hugo entered the lecture theater. On the stage, a gray-haired man stood up. "Thank you for coming here...." He paused as other latecomers trickled in.

"In the last few days we've received reports that a small asteroid, like the comet reported earlier, has inexplicably changed course. From these two incidents, we've calculated the exact location of the apparent source of this gravitational force. This region of the solar system was thoroughly scanned but there was nothing there."

The speaker continued. "Following discussions with NASA, they sent a probe to investigate. The probe approached the region with its sensors alert for signs of this unexplained gravitational attraction. Instead, they detected an opposite force: a repelling force. NASA attempted to steer the probe closer to the source but was eventually turned back."

Someone in the audience asked, "Was the probe able to determine any information about the object?"

The speaker shook his head. "No it was unable to obtain any visual contact. However, examination with gamma radiation did provide an indication of something that was inexplicably changing the laws of the physics -- some kind of singularity."

Someone else raised his hand. "What is the location of this object in relation to the Earth?"

"From our calculations, it appears to be following the same orbit as the Earth and at the same velocity but trailing us by about five million kilometers. NASA has also detected a narrow beam of energy from the source that is focused on the region of the earth that is passing from day to night: sunset."

The man on the stage spoke again, "It's clearly no coincidence that we are witnessing anarchy and violence in the streets. Although we cannot explain how the aliens were able to travel the twelve light years to Earth in such a short time -- but it seems clear to me that this is what has happened. This is a covert attack on the human race: psychological intervention."

Another man spoke. "What we are seeing is the alien-induced process of turning human against human, until we are all destroyed. Then they will move in and take over our planet."

Another raised his hand. "Although we don't know how the aliens got here so quickly, one thing we do know is that it must have taken an enormous amount of energy. If their energy source is in any way related to their red giant star, which is cooling rapidly, their energy source may be limited. So, if we can hold them off long enough, maybe they will simply cease to exist."

The gray-haired man responded, "But in the meantime we need to find out if there is some way to protect ourselves from them."

Hugo drove home and again experienced the anger in the streets. At one point, conditions became so bad that the traffic was brought to a standstill as groups of brawling men spilled onto the street. He locked his car doors just as a man jumped onto the hood. After ripping off the wipers, he began pounding on the windscreen, his eyes staring and vacant.

Another man was tugging at the handle of the passenger door with such determination Hugo knew he must escape, now. He opened his own door and tried to flee but was pursued by the angry mob.

####

Early the next morning, the phone rang. Alex answered it. "Alex, it's Helen, I thought you should know; Hugo's in hospital."

"Is he alright? What happened?"

"He was attacked while driving home last night. He's lucky to be alive. The police rescued him."

"How's he now?"

"Very bruised, broken arm -- but he's cheerful. They say he should be allowed home in a few days."

"Helen, I'm away on the West Coast for a while. Tell Hugo that I've made progress in understanding this alien business and think I know what we must do. I'll give you a call soon as I get back, okay? Is there anything I can do?"

"I don't think so, Alex."

"Okay. See you in a few days."

####

When Alex returned, he rang Helen. "How's Hugo? Is he home?"

"Yes, he came home yesterday."

"I'll be round in a few hours."

Although Alex knew Hugo would be showing signs of his encounter with the mob, he was unprepared by the extent of his injuries.

"Alex, you have come to see me! I am a little battered as you can see!" Hugo smiled through broken teeth, his right cheek swollen and bruised, and his arm in a sling. "Look at you, always so well dressed." He smiled, and then continued. "Helen was telling me you have more information on the aliens. Is that right?"

Accepting an invitation for coffee from Helen, Alex sat down. "Yes, a lot has happened since I saw you last."

"Tell me about it."

"We've been trying to find out why people are suddenly becoming unbalanced and turning on one another. One minute they are normal rational people and then they change and become crazed and violent."

"I know all about that! But why is it happening?"

Alex leaned forward and spoke with purposeful emphasis. "Post mortems carried out on some of those who died reveal that they all have the same brain defect -- what appears to be lesions in the inferior parietal cortex."

"But how are they doing it?"

"Some sort of radiation, I'd say."

"But why to that part of the brain?"

"Strangely, the function of the inferior parietal cortex still remains somewhat of a mystery. I'd guess the aliens know it will have the desired effect."

Hugo sat with his eyes directed to the floor, silently taking in this new information.

Alex paused to sip his coffee. He was concerned about Hugo. He must be in considerable pain.

"Are you alright, dear?" Helen asked. "Do you want something for the pain, dear?"

"I am okay -- just exhausted."

Alex added, "Maybe I'm tiring you, Hugo. Shall I come back another day and tell you what else I've found?"

"No, carry on," he grunted.

"Well, only if you're up to it." He paused for a moment then continued. "A study of populations affected by this epidemic throughout the world has produced some interesting demographics."

"Go on," Hugo mumbled, still staring at the floor.

"You sure you're up to this, Hugo? I can come back tomorrow."

Without looking up, he gestured for Alex to continue.

"Yes well: what we found was that these occurrences were far more likely to occur at sunset than at any other time: to be precise, within an hour before and after sunset."

Hugo cried, "Of course! Sunset! That's because the force that's been deflecting comets and asteroids is located on earth's orbit trailing behind it."

"I see -- that explains it!" Alex replied.

Hugo was again staring at the floor.

With a worried expression, Alex continued, "I, along with a few others, we have been developing a simple way of protecting ourselves against the aliens. We...."

Without warning, Hugo got to his feet, his eyes fixed and staring. Saliva dribbled from the corner of his mouth. "What are you both looking at?" he screamed.

"Hugo! What's the matter?" Helen cried.

Alex attempted to calm him but was violently pushed away. Like a caged animal trying to escape, Hugo rush out the door and onto the street.

His dead and battered body was located by police the next day.

####

The crew and the 525 passengers on the Airbus A380, Flight 3975 bound for Los Angeles settled back in their seats and prepared for landing.

Gina and her daughter Annie turned to each other and grinned. "Not long now!" Gina whispered squeezing her daughter's hand. They gazed out the window where the sun was just setting below the horizon.

Arnold who was sitting two rows back looked at his watch. He was visiting LA for a trade show and the flight was behind schedule.

The captain had announced their descent, activated the seatbelt signs and, with his co-pilot, was commencing the in-flight checks.

Suddenly, the captain sat upright in his seat and pointed. "What's that?"

The co-pilot craned his neck forward and stared. "I don't see anything."

"There, straight ahead of us. Are you blind?"

The co-pilot looked again then checked the radar. "There's nothing -- you must be imagining it."

With anger blazing in his eyes, the captain turned and spat out a command, "Radio LAX. We're reducing altitude immediately to avoid a mid-air collision."

"But, there's nothing there I tell you!" screamed the co-pilot.

"Just do it!" he demanded, as he wrenched the controls violently putting the plane into a steep dive, his mind taken over by the aliens.

Sweat streamed down from the co-pilot's face as he attempted to wrestle the controls from the captain but instead was punched in the face. With blood streaming from the open wound, the co-pilot fought off the captain but then swayed and lapsed into unconsciousness.

The passengers screamed as the aircraft continued to plunge downward.

"Mum, what's happening?" Annie cried.

"It'll be all right, dear, I'm sure it will," she replied, grasping her daughter's hand tightly.

Arnold was no longer worried about being late for the trade show -- he just wanted to live.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing the aircraft plunging to the ground narrowly missing an apartment block.

"I've no idea what went wrong," said an air traffic controller at the LAX tower. "We lost communications with the plane just before it began its horrific plunge. There seemed to have been no attempt by the pilot to pull out of the dive."

####

For weeks, Alex had been working with the local university hoping to discover how the aliens were achieving their psychological warfare on the human race.

Alex explained, "It is essential that we find how they're causing this madness and stop them before it's too late."

One of the scientists asked, "Are there any signs of physical injury on those that have died from this mental condition?

"The only sign that we've found are small lesions on certain areas of their brains."

"But the mechanism for causing this injury is not known, I take it?"

"Correct. This is what I want to talk to you about. We need to determine if it is caused by some form of radiation. Incidences of this sudden madness syndrome seem to occur more frequently around sundown. So, to maximize the effectiveness of your tests, they must be done around this time."

The scientist talked among themselves for a few minutes then one of them said, "We'll set up electromagnetic detectors in the RF, gamma and ultraviolet ranges and then monitor the results looking for peaks in intensity."

"Good. I suggest you also look for alpha and beta radiation," Alex added.

####

Alex met with the staff at the university physics department a week later but from the expressions on their faces he gauged that they'd been unsuccessful.

"We've been unable to detect any form of electromagnetic radiation that peaks around sunset."

Frustration showed in Alex's eyes. "We've got to find what it is soon -- this anarchy will bring down the whole human race if we don't find a way to stop it soon."

Alex returned to the university two days later. "Got anything yet?" he asked.

"Still can't nail down what form of radiation is being used."

Alex furrowed his eyebrows. "We can't combat a problem if we can't identify it." Then his eyes lit up. "But maybe we can avoid it." The others looked at him, puzzled. "I've been experimenting with insects and have made a couple of interesting discoveries. Firstly, the harmful rays, whatever they are, also affect insect life. Using small beetles as test subjects, I've confirmed that the danger period lasts for about one hour each side of sunset.

"Secondly, I've discovered that if the insects are shielded from the sun's rays during this period, including shielding any west facing openings to their enclosure with metal, the risk is totally eliminated." Alex leaned forward, "So, here's what we must do ..."

####

For over a week the weather had been unseasonably hot. Too uncomfortable to work, Alex had enjoyed a few days of reading and relaxation, away from the news and outside world. The mandate three months ago for no one to go outside at sunset and to shield their west facing windows with metal blinds had saved tens of thousands from the alien attempt to instill insanity. Alex wiped the sweat from his brow and for once in his life removed his bow tie and undid the top button of his shirt. "Phew, that's better!" He sat in a comfortable chair near the window and went to sleep. The hot rays of the sun beat down on him.

He woke up sweat dripping from his brow, his shirt sticking to his clammy body. The dazzling red of the setting sun shone directly in his line of sight. Realizing the danger, he jumped up from his chair and pulled down the metal blind.

Alex felt sick in the stomach as he contemplated the danger he had just put himself in, from raging madness to blind violence ... how soon would he be crippled by the alien insanity himself now?

He picked up the phone and rang the university but no one answered so he tried the International Academy of Astronautics.

"IAA, how can I help you?"

"Alex Vanstone here, this is urgent. Can you tell me, have there been any changes recently in the effect of the alien's location on interplanetary bodies: asteroids or comets?"

"Professor Vanstone, haven't you heard? A few days ago the effect of the alien's presence suddenly disappeared -- the aliens seem to have vanished!"

Sighing deeply Alex put the phone down.

####

Alex gazed out of his window, deep in thought. "I wish I'd discovered this sooner; my old friend Hugo would still be alive." He sighed. "Everyone seems relieved now that the aliens have gone. I am too, but I wonder how long it will be before other extraterrestrials pick up that radio message sent from Earth all those years ago? Next time it could be much worse."

Late one afternoon ten years later, Alex now retired, was working in his garden when his eyes were drawn to the setting sun. He stared in disbelief as the solar disk began very slowly taking on an odd shape. "Is it an eclipse?" he said shielding his eyes. He looked again. "No, it can't be, I'd have known about it. Can it perhaps be...?"

People throughout the world also gazed in horror as the light of day gradually faded. As one, humanity was gripped by fear, convinced that they were witnessing the end of the earth and that some gigantic evil was squeezing out their lifeblood...

THE END


© 2012 Rod Hamon

Bio: Rod Hamon is is a science fiction and fantasy writer. His stories have appeared in numerous books and magazines in various countries including USA, England, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Germany. He studied Applied Physics at the Solent University in England and also studied research into extraterrestrial planets at Australia’s Swinburne University. Rod lives in Adelaide, Australia with his wife and son. His passion is astronomy and has written non-fiction articles on the subject in a number of international science magazines.
Rod is also the author of a book on the early European settlement of Australia.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.