Aphelion Issue 247, Volume 24
February 2020
 
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Scarlet Twilight

by Denis Winston Brum




Victor took a long sip of coffee and leaned back at the comfortable embrace of the armchair. Checked the processor. There were two remaining tablets of the concentrate. Luckily the team would arrive in three weeks. The supply would barely stand this time, he ate up nearly one tablet a week. He was drinking too much coffee, he knew that even without checking the medical ward. But in recent days, he had felt cold slowly increasing and coffee helped combating it. Victor smiled. If the Agency knew that, it would send him immediately to psychiatric therapy. There was no way to feel more heat or cold here. The temperature inside the "Spider" was rigidly controlled. Comfort guaranteed. He even named the work platform as Spider, due to its circular shape and its extensions like long legs, buried in the Martian surface. The platform was formed by four overlapping circles progressively smaller. At the first one, they kept the generators and the landing area. In the second one, bedroom, nursery, gym and cafeteria. In the third one, laboratories and in the last one, the control room where Victor was.

From there he commanded the work of the “beetles”, as he named the robot vehicles that move opening the way for the future construction of the base. Beetles came from the Spider as bizarre puppies and, each day, they left it at the center of a larger circle. Victor oversaw its performance, changing the programming tasks as needed. Through the monitors, or just leaning out the window picture that circulated throughout the control room, Victor followed the activities flowing smoothly.

And was not it always like this? That was the most monotonous task he had received since joining as a foreman on Space Colonization Agency. From the moment the team had left him laying there, he had become annoyed in every possible way.

He had gotten tired of entertainment, sports and science holoes. He could not use the communication network of the Earth in real time, not only because of the distance, but because an ionized cloud along its route delayed and distorted the signal. His communications with the base, consisting of a rare weekly report, were zipped and sent through a laser beam of high intensity. The even rarer replies arrived with laconic technical comments.

Victor was practically isolated. Fortunately, soon he would be replaced. Now he had to keep routine and counting the days. He ended the day at work drinking coffee and witnessing the scarlet twilight coloring the barren Martian landscape of melancholy.

He collected the beetles. Took a shower. Took a nap. He prepared a meal unhappily. Soy protein and a mock orange juice. He pushed his plate. He patted his stomach heavy. Should or should not visit a holocabaret? He went to his locker to take the corn whiskey smuggled from Earth. That medicine had kept his sanity during the endless digging of the new lunar base Armstrong II. He leaned back in bed. He watched the amber liquid. Took a sip. He closed his eyes. The strong and slightly sweet flavor erasing his bland dinner. He felt hotter. Alcohol was strictly forbidden in work platforms, but the supervisors always tolerated it when it came to a lonely place like that. After all, they were pressured to decrease at all costs the number of labor lawsuits filed by psychological damage caused by prolonged lack of human contact.

Victor did not intend to move any lawsuit. The removal of other human beings it was not painful at that time. After his divorce, he had learned to appreciate silence and solitude. The casual relationships he had experienced so far had been cold disappointments. Friends he had seen again seemed to be different. It was the price of the periods of isolation. He was distancing himself from people, becoming a modern hermit. Unconsciously, he had begun to fear the return, contact with other people. Flooded the gloomy thoughts with whiskey. The system of setting should be faulty, there really seemed to have cooled with the nightfall. Sheltered in the warmth of the drink. Relaxed and fell asleep.


*****



He woke up invaded by an unexpected euphoria. Lightweight. He moved and the feeling was accentuated. And then there was the shock of seeing her.

She floated in the center of the room. Her long crimson hair moved gracefully driven by an inexplicable breeze. The pale body emits light, hovering three feet off the ground. The eyes were large and expressive crimson spheres. The delicate form suggested a female. A gesture of her long fingers gently called him. The fear shared space with curiosity. Victor drifted. His feet barely touched the ground as he covered the short distance. She was different, but beautiful, her body was pulsing to a bright pale golden. She floated a little in his direction, leaving them nearly the same height. Victor wanted to see her face closely and, barely realizing what he did, floated to come face to face with it.

It was humanoid, no doubt, but the body appeared to have decreased in size, except the eyes, larger and more expressive than any other he had ever seen. The nose and mouth were just aesthetic memories. An alien beauty, quiet and innocent.

“Hi ..”, Victor startled. She did not move her lips. The voice was in his mind. It sounded like a musical instrument. A harp, he thought, her voice resembles a harp.

“Thanks. This tool looks very nice ...”. The answer caused him new wonder. Telepathy, for sure. She communicated telepathically.

“Exactly. I can send and receive thoughts.” This time, Victor accepted the communication naturally.

“Who are you?”, he thought, getting a little closer.

“X'la.”, she answered. He sensed a smile that seemed in his mouth.

“I'm Victor.”

“I know. It’s been a long time I know you. I'm curious. I wanted to communicate with you.” The music of her words echoed in his mind. Curiosity had overcome the fear. Victor wanted to know everything about her.

“I do not understand.”

“I live here ... I follow your work ...” - She made a vague gesture. - I can feel your presence ...I needed to meet you.”

“How can you live here? I've never seen ...”, Victor looked at her puzzled. Now he was sure she was smiling while another golden flash illuminated her body.

“You never tried to see me. I've always been here.”

“This makes no sense. I have noticed, that sensor would show your presence ...”.

She seemed amused by the confusion of it.

“Your race believes too much on what you see and too little what you feel”, X'la said.

“Even though, I would have noticed it before …”, Victor replied.

“Do you see me now, right? Isn’t it enough to prove you I exist?”, X'la was definitely smiling now.

“I'm confused”, Victor floated imperceptibly downward.

“I am what you call conscience ...”. Disturbed, Victor touched the ground.

"I do not understand ...”

He returned to darkness.


*****



He woke in the middle of the room. He should have walked during the strange dream. Couldn’t recall any similar experience in his life. Sleepwalking was something lost in childhood. He was really in need to go back to see people. He returned to bed. It took a long time for Victor to sleep.

He occupied his mind with enough work the next day. He struggled to drink less coffee. An accident complicated his afternoon. A beetle had been blocked when trying to remove a rock from the Martian subsurface.

Victor needed to use the jeep to reach the beetle. He entered the decontamination chamber. He stuck himself in the uncomfortable garb of environmental protection. He checked the costume. Isolated and operational. Activated decontamination. After a combined application of high and low temperatures, the green light finally appeared. Powered the right wrist commands that controlled the same costume and began the process of pressurization. He waited impatiently. He left the cabin and got to the landing area of the platform. Dramatic yellow warning lights signaled the pits of the beetles. Up in the jeep. Activated the transparent dome. He smiled, recalling one day with absolutely nothing to do in that he had used the vehicle to jump on the dunes of Mars, a procedure that would surely bring trouble if discovered by the Agency. The jeep ran smoothly. Led him gently back. Signaled to the door of the landing area. The door slowly rose, revealing the barren Martian landscape. Victor went on.

The beetle was reached in few minutes. Parked beside the vehicle. Signaled to unlock it. Got off. He walked carefully on uneven ground towards the beetle. The vehicle was low and equipped with little room for a human operator, rarely needed.

Victor sat down there the best he could. Changed the system to manual control. A control lever appeared. He pulled it back. The vehicle moved a little, but stopped. Victor moved the lever forward and the right and then back and left. The beetle has moved and found more space. Victor pulled the lever back and gave more power to the motor. The beetle fought. The wheels and caterpillars were releasing clouds of reddish dust. Victor moved the lever back and forth. The vehicle finally freed itself. Victor decreased strength and movement ceased. He used the claws of the beetle to dig and find the rock. Located it. Victor examined the rock on the screen of the sensors. A long and a little rough section, buried vertically in the sand. He held the grip on the rock and fired the aft movement, bringing it to the surface. The rock was emerging slowly, almost like a plate of stone. Victor laid it aside, cut a sample with the laser and brought it to the beetle warehouse. Steered the vehicle and parked next to the jeep. Returned the system to automatic. He came down and watched the landscape around him. It was beautiful and harrowing to look at Mars's surface, without the Spider’s correction filters. The infinite horizon amplified loneliness. The abandoned immensity made breathing more difficult. It was useless to fret over those thoughts. Guided back to Spider as fast as he could. Already housed within the platform, brought the Beetle back by remote control and moved the rock to the decontamination process and analysis.


*****



After a long bath, Victor came down to the Laboratory. He made the multi analyzer project a rock holography. It seemed only one of many which, from time to time, obstructed his path. It turned the image while to watch it carefully. The other side was curiously little rough, almost smooth. Noticed an unusual stain on the edge of the rock. Zoomed into.

“It cannot be..”, he murmured perplexed. The stain was a symbol. Impossible! Mars was inhabited and, as far as anyone knew, it had always been. However the rock almost smooth, rugged perhaps only by the erosion of time, suggested an artificial design. The stain could be an icon, a form of communication. How could it be possible in a planet where life had never existed?

He studied the findings of the analysis. Recognized all the elements common to Martian geology. But the stain was still there. A form of language or a simple trick of nature? Victor did not know, but that intrigued him enough to send an extra report to the base.

“Now I just need to say I've been feeling cold here for them to intern me. Life on Mars, I can already hear the laughter.” His derision echoed in the empty station. Victor rubbed his arms.

After dinner he decided to visit Eros, his preferred holocabaret. He dressed the sensor costume to stimulate his senses and went into the magnetized circle, where the belt would extend the sensation of movement by changing speed, direction and tilt as needed. Within seconds, he was crossing the long Doric columns of the temple.

An hour later he felt more relaxed. He dismissed the whiskey. He laid down. Slept. Dreamed.


*****



He opened his eyes in the middle of the night, as he wished, X'la was there.

“You're back ...”, he grumbled.

“I wanted to see you again.”, she floated towards him.

“I found something today.”

“I can see it in your mind, Victor. A fragment of our city.”

“A city? Here?”

“Yes, long ago. If I'm not mistaken, for you it would be thousands ... ... Or millions of years ... ... We had physical bodies.”

“Human?”

“Similar. We needed material things ... ... Places to rest, to produce machines ... As your people ... But increasingly, our intellect evolved ...”

“And you proceeded to use telepathy as a form of communication?”

“It was the first sign, exactly. Then we began to project our minds, our consciousness, beyond the limits of our bodies ... First for short periods, then space-time growing ...Until it becomes a natural ability.”

“And in time your physical bodies have lost their usefulness.”

“That is it, Victor. We could spend more time out of our bodies, existing as a living conscience, free and independent to do whatever we wanted.”

“And your bodies?”

“Were being abandoned.”

“But you did not have food? Did not you die without it?”

“The bodies did, but "consciousness" does not ..."

“How is it possible?”

“Food is necessary to maintain biological machine, not an independent state of mind ...”

“And the conscience, continued to exist even without their physical bodies?”

“The great majority, yes ... Some really could not stand the sight of their bodies perished and collapsed ...”

“But how could they continue to exist?”

“In your mind ... ... As well as in our ... Thoughts are electrical impulses running through a circuit. As we began to think, to ration all the time, it worked to keep us alive ... This constant operation in the ‘reloading’ ...”

“Like an old car battery?”

“I see the image ... ... And the function ... Well, I think we are more sophisticated, but in a rudimentary form, the concept is similar.”

“Why did you stay on Mars?”

“It was our home. But we undertake travel to other worlds. As our minds were free to move and were not subject to any physical law, we have been to several places.”

“Have you ever been on Earth?”

“Many times. We traveled in groups. I met its pre-history, Rome and the Renaissance.”

“And you never tried to communicate?”

“Yes, but we never managed to establish a consistent line of communication. We were confused with other things. Our telepathy was interpreted as madness by the ones who received the messages. Our ability to occupy their bodies has also been misunderstood. Many people believed that we were their ancestors who were killed because we provided answers based on the images we found in their memoirs. Many referred to us as spirits.”

Victor floated down suddenly became heavy. “Spirits?”, he said.

“Yes. Others gave us strange mythological names, saints, demons, witches...”

Even more confused, Victor touched the ground. “It cannot be...”, he sank into unconsciousness.


*****



Victor woke up disturbed. What kind of dream was that? Despite the fantastic facts that he witnessed, followed a logical sequence, without conflicting dreamlike abstractions. Never dreamed that. And, much less, he had remembered so many details. He seemed to have just left a dramatic spectacle, and may mentally review each scene he had witnessed. He rose disturbed. The embrace of loneliness choked him. He wished the replacement team would come soon.

The communication received from the base did not help to reassure him. There was an excessive cold and unconcerned comment about the rock sent holosample. They suggested that the "spot" could be many things besides an artificially created icon. They advised him to keep the piece until further tests were processed by the new team. And, what really angered him, the ion cloud which stood between Earth and Mars would cause a delay in its replacement. The increased activity of the anomaly could affect navigation instruments. The mission would be postponed until the ionic activity had been reduced to an acceptable level. They could not predict how long would such a delay be.

The first part of the message, which discredited his discovery could be translated into a single sentence: "Control yourself, you freak!" The distanced tone intended to make him lose interest in the "Martians." Victor could not be a scientist graduated in alien research, but he knew enough about manipulating analysis instruments of the Spider to see what was or was not a sign of alien presence. He was not exactly sure, but he knew that his discovery was more than mere hallucination. Maybe they wanted him out of the path. Perhaps scientists were surprised with the sample and reasoned that the discovery of Martian civilization could not be credited to a single buttons-presser-worker. They would arrive later with their sophisticated equipment and say "A fool accidentally stumbled on something too grand for his limited understanding..." and have their names printed in History.

Victor shook himself into a laugh. It was just what was needed to complete the diagnosis of insanity: paranoia. First hallucination, then a conspiracy where evil scientists robbed him the glory of having proved the existence of life on Mars... Wondered what would happen if, added to this, he informed about X'la and growing cold he felt.

Embittered, more than ever, Victor wanted to leave. Get drunk at some disqualified den embraced in a pair of prostitutes whose flesh, even flaccid, it was real. That was what he needed: reality.


*****



Victor kept his routine like a robot. Nothing new happened. The night wore a jacket hotter than usual. Looked for something to watch. The cold persisted. Decided that the next morning, after dispatching the beetles for their duties would thoroughly review the climate control system platform. Opted for the "New Comedies of Charlie Chaplin”. Disabled the option of interactivity. Would rather just watch. Forget his worries.

The next two hours he could not laugh much, but relieved his mind a little. He managed to not take a sip of whiskey. Lay down.

“Tomorrow I will do a basic psychometric testing...”. Fatigue closed his eyes.


*****



“You seem to be unhappy...”, X'la floated very close to it. The darker pulse and swings in her body indicated concern.

Victor felt a sudden disturbance.

“Go away. Leave me alone. You do not exist...”

X'la floated away, opaque and transparent. “You are upset. The messages you received made you bitter...”, she said.

“Yes .. On my planet ... people think I've gone crazy ... ... Maybe they're right.”

“No, Victor. They are wrong. Do not let that prejudice prevents them from realizing the importance of your discovery. Believe”, she tried to cheer him up.

“Just my belief will not be enough”, bittered Victor.

“Maybe it is. Your consciousness is expanding rapidly, it is in touch with your feelings as it has never been before. It perceives things that were previously invisible to you. It disturbs and confuses you... But it is part of your evolution.”, visible and luminous, X'la approached him.

“And what if I am going crazy? Imagining you? And if the stain on the rock is no more than a shock caused by a fragment of a meteorite?”, said Victor unhappily.

“No. That symbol is F'mal, my hometown. It was made with... ...With a light pen... The closest I can relate in your mind would be lasergraphy.”, she explained to him, fun.

“Lived there?”

“Not quite there. The erosion and the time transported it... I was born, grew up and worked in F'mal... ...Was kind of an astronomer, studied and researched the cosmos. I've always been curious about planets and alien races.”

Tortured by doubt, Victor reached over and touched her. The cold dissipated. He felt lighter. X'la immediately became reddish. She wrapped his hand and made him float.

“If I could prove... ...Sure!”, he seemed feverish.

Those hypnotic and beautiful eyes were close to him as never before.

“A little bit beyond where he found the rock... ...Few miles... There is what you are looking for...” Victor blinked heavily his eyelids. She led him softly to his bed.


*****



He jumped out of bed, excited about the new perspective. Needed to find out! Washed his face. He devoured his meal. His quick gestures would cause surprise, if there was someone there to be surprised. Scheduled tasks for the beetles, except for one. The vehicle that had found the rock. Dressed in his suit of environmental protection. It was a journey too important to be done by remote control.

Victor ignored the discomfort of the beetle cabin. In manual control. Beetle in movement. He watched the desert almost in awe. When he had been appointed to be there, he thought of Mars as a useless Sahara in space. Just a quick scale in the voyages of galaxy exploration. But now, he felt that this could be different. If he was right, if X'la existed and the information was correct, he could make a historic discovery, proving the existence of Martian civilization. Reached the point where he had found the rock. With sensors at maximum range, he began a slow advance, looking every inch. In the first mile nothing changed. Proceeded without any abnormal signal above or below the surface.

A couple of miles more. Nothing on sensors. He was getting impatient. The vehicle stopped for a moment. Looked at his back. The Spider seemed deceptively smaller because of the distance. Besides the low hum of Beetle, nothing was heard. The desert right in front, challenged him. A desolate world inhabited by a solemn sadness. A large cemetery. That was Mars.

“There is nothing there. I'm crazy... Completely crazy!”, he punched the panel, unintentionally triggering the jaws of the beetle. “No! It is here and I'll find it...”.

It was there. The proof was waiting just ahead. He was sure. He drank a little water through a straw in the costume while he retracted the claws of the vehicle. He continued.

The Martian day reached the half. Victor progressed by rugged topography, breathing the distress of that dreary landscape. Eyes fixed on the monitors. The route unchanged. That's when the red circle appeared on the central monitor. Mineral unidentified. The beetle started to dig.

It took an hour of gentle activity. An almost perfect semicircle appeared on the surface. Vibrated. Only the most incredulous and unimaginative scientists would deny that there was an artificial construction. There were no marks or symbols on the rock surface, but the plan relief and the near perfection of the curve, where some spots had disintegrated by erosion, indicated that had been artificially carved. It would be like finding a stone ax and deny human evolution. He put the sample in the Beetle warehouse. The heart soared. Unquestionable evidence. Or another trick of the great hallucination, said a bitter inner voice.

“It is not. It is complex, logical and detailed enough for a hallucination”, he justified, anxious and excited.


*****



A few miles later a new sign. The excavation was slow. The object was buried. But when Victor made it emerge, he felt the thrill of an archaeologist uncovering the story itself. An alloy of an unknown metal, perforated by small and perfect circles. The piece was about one feet, but it certainly was not natural. It could have been used in a building or perhaps on a machine.

“They will not be able to deny it!” Victor shouted at the abandoned planet. He continued. The sensor then fired again. Something unbelievable buried in two feet of red soil. A crystal, roughly the size of a cup, emerged. Victor had to touch it. He left the Beetle. He wiped the translucent cylinder as best he could. Despite the untold time he had spent buried, it was still very beautiful. Victor raised his glass to the light to observe it better. A female face that reminded X'la but less ethereal and more organic, haunted him. The image was projected about two feet in front. Victor moved again the crystal and a new face emerged, this time male. He was stunned. The crystal was a sort of photo album. A prism that filtered the light projecting images that, somehow, it brought stored.

Victor laughed, threatening the planet solitude with his happiness.

“I got it!”

The voices of Mick Jagger and Victor were confused. He danced with the bottle in his hand while the Spider rumbled to the tune of "It's Only Rock'n'Roll”. Whiskey enhance their joy and threatened his equilibrium. The holosamples protruded in front of him. He was tired. Brought the Beetle back quickly, but still reached the Spider just at dusk, since the vehicle was designed for heavy duty and not as a mean of transport. He had let the instruments suing their findings. Plunged into a restorative shower. Now, intoxicated by success, the music and whiskey, watched the conclusions of the analysis. Unknown substances. Evidence from intelligence and alien technology. Irrefutable evidences. As X'la said. It was all true. Hit in the chest, “I discovered life on Mars! I did it!”


*****



He collapsed in his bed. Drunk and happy. A weight removed from the soul. The Rolling Stones had ended their concert. The Spider rested quietly. Victor dreamed about a triumphal arrival on Earth. He is not surprised to find X'la, pulsating orange to gold, at his bedside.

“Thanks”, he said.

“You found what you looked for.”

“Yes.”

Victor fluctuated naturally. Almost touched.

“You said the truth”, he gushed.

“You should know, Victor. You needed to believe.”

“I'm fine, X'la. The anxiety is gone.”

“Yes, you have found your light.”

They touched one another, multiplied their warmth and energy.

“You are lightweight, Victor. You are happy”, X'la smiled.

“It's because I believe.”

“Believe me?”

“I believe. I want to be with you.”

“Come on. There is much to be discovered.”

“We can travel anywhere?”

“The entire universe. It's beautiful, Victor.”

“Take me.”

The ambience was flooded with brilliant light.


*****



Captain Torres was driving the jeep slowly. It was his first ride on Mars. Even though the landscape fascinated him, the enigma that he and his team had found haunted him. Lack of communication, empty workstation, a disappeared vehicle. What happened there? The bottle of whiskey on the multi analyzer was a very bad sign. The digger was abandoned with the manual system locked, in a nuisance. And this was his only clue. Even if the sensors would ensure the safety of the ride, he would rather proceed carefully. That mission was already getting bad enough. He recalled the terrified look of the new foreman to find an empty station. He could not blame it. The place looked like a haunted house. Nonsense. It was the unknown bringing back our primitive side. As the first Australopithecus who had seen lightning.

The sensor showed the presence of burrowing just ahead. A few hundred yards. All missions on the Moon had been easy, replicas of training simulations. Torres has never faced anything like that. Slowly went up and down a dune. Found the vehicle. The excavator, slightly inclined, began a curve that it would never complete. Torres stopped. The dome of the vehicle was suspended. Carefully, Torres stepped on Mars. Only then realized the real vastness of that world. The hypnotic desolation of his horizon devoured his gaze. He went to the router. The empty cabin disturbed. He leaned into the interior. Passed the system to automatic. Torres rose. The chill almost toppled him. There he was. Just a little further. He was sitting, his head up to the red sky.

“My God...”, he did not prevent the comment. What happened to the poor devil? Torres walked the longest walk of his life. His heart pounded. Circulated him slowly. “My God”!

The helmet visor was lifted. It was unbearable to contemplate that inexplicable smile of happiness. The right arm outstretched, palm up, left him forever hand in hand with nothing. That image would visit Torres in his nightmares for weeks.

The dusk fell on Mars. The opaque eyes of Victor were bathed in scarlet light.



THE END


© 2020 Denis Winston Brum

Bio: Denis Winston Brum developed his writing skills working in the advertising business. He published the children’s book “As Férias das Fadas”, the Young-Adult book “As Quatro Linhas” and the adult book “Redemoinhos”, all in paperback. Denis Winston Brum also released the adult e-Book “Adiós Pampa Mía”.

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