A yellow moon rises above the towers of Romanus. Trajan sleeps in an uncomfortable chair in the hall outside Gaius’s room. The lights are low to make it more comfortable for family members to stay and watch over their loved ones while hospital workers go about their work. Praetorian guards in their black, double breasted suits are posted by the door.
Trajan’s resting mind is full of nightmares. The rage in Gaius’s eyes, the mysterious blue eye drops, the sword coming for his throat. He wakes with a start and is relieved it was only a dream. He stretches and gets up as his stomach growls. Sid hovers in the corner in a quiet diagnostic mode, as close to sleep as drones come.
Trajan walks down the hall to a vending machine. Feeling in his pocket, he pulls out some coins. Frowning, he sees he only has enough for a cup of coffee. He steps from the lounge area and hears two hushed voices arguing in an empty room. They sound familiar, so he eases up to find out who it is. He remains close to the wall so as not to alert the Praetorians or cast a shadow on the floor. He positions himself outside the doorway. He pulls his phone from his pocket, angling it so the screen acts as a mirror. Inside the room, Trajan’s father and Pompeii are in a heated argument. He keeps still and listens.
They are standing close in the shadows like thieves conspiring. Both are agitated and anxious, again not the men Trajan is familiar with. These two were always in control. They planned every move so there are no surprises.
Pompeii’s voice shakes.
“The doctor said it was just a minor aberration,” says Clavius.
“I told you we had a report from Mars. It is here and my son is the first victim.”
“What did Trajan say?”
Pompeii collects himself, trying to clear his thoughts from all the emotional baggage he’s been carrying around for hours.
“He said Gaius screamed for it to get out of his head.”
“If it is in him there is only one course. We cannot allow him to continue if it is rewriting his brain. He could be infected. That’s the insidiousness of this, whatever it is. None of us will know something is wrong until it’s too late,” says Clavius.
“He could already be under control by whoever smuggled it onto the planet. If he is the first case, we must destroy him now before what befell Mars happens here. He’s my son...”
“I would not ask that of you.”
“It is the only honorable way.”
Shocked, Trajan realizes they are planning on killing Gaius. Without thinking he bursts into the room. It catches them off guard and they shut up.
“You’re going to kill him?”
“What are you doing? How long have you been standing there? What did you hear?” demands Clavius.
“Enough to know that you’re both scared to the point you’re willing to murder your own son. Gaius is like a part of our family. What could be so important that you would do such a thing? You two are men of honor! I’ve grown up admiring you both, but now I see that my faith may have been misplaced. You’re not who I thought you were at all, just common murderers.”
“There’s so much more to it,” says Clavius.
“The boy needs to know,” says Pompeii.
Clavius and Pompeii look at one another.
“We need someone to carry on if we are eliminated.”
“Sit down, son,” Clavius says, pointing to a chair. Like a pair of ancient priests, they stand over him and tell their tale. Pompeii begins.
“It all began long ago, when Mars was first being colonized. We were about your age and part of the survey team. We were out on a patrol about four kilometers from the base camp when we found it...”
Fifty years before, the two men stand in the ancient chamber, facing what appears to be a doorway. Pompeii sweeps the beeping sensor device. “There is something in there,” he says. The entrance cracks open.
“The mechanism reacted to sound,” Clavius says. “The beeps combined with the tones of your voice activated it.”
The doorway is clunky with age and only opens about a meter and a half. It is designed for a creature smaller than a man. A blast of stale air sweeps out of the darkened room, the rank breath of a dead planet. Clavius and Pompeii look at one another, each wishing the other would go first. They laugh at themselves for acting as children. Clavius bends down and enters, his helmet lamp illuminating only about fifteen feet in front of him. Dust swirls everywhere as though they are at the bottom of a murky lake bed. The darkness around them with a suffocating thickness. It is as if they have lifted an ancient death shroud.
“Something terrible has happened here,” Pompeii says.
They keep to the wall so as not to stumble, every step taking them further down a sloping spiral. “This was carved by an intelligence other than man,” Clavius says. “The place must be a bunker of some sort,” Pompeii says. “Being so far underground it has strong strategic-military value.” They walk for a while and Pompeii glances at his readout. “We’ve gon almost two kilometers.” There is a low humming coming from just ahead, a near silent vibration jostling the stale air. As they descend further it becomes more pronounced. Rounding the next curve of the spiral, it is clearly a pumping noise. A draft blows from below. The light on the sensor turns green and whistles. Pompeii checks a set of parameters. The sensor detects H2O. Astonished, Pompeii adjusts the sensor’s indicator. The on-board pressure gauge reveals 0.2 Earth gravity. “The atmosphere down here is safe for human life,” Pompeii says. They unlatch the faceplates on their helmets. The air is frigid, and both of them wait to take a breath. The air is still stale, but they can breathe normally. As the breath leaves their mouths, it is water vapor for only a second before forming into tiny crystals and falling to the floor. Clavius checks the temperature on a display on his wrist. “100 below zero.” He adjusts the settings on his suit and increases the heat and Pompeii does the same. The collars around their neck glow orange, radiating heat and illuminating their faces. They proceed on into the darkness towards whatever is making the sound. Thump, thump, thump.
“Must be a processor, sucking in the surrounding atmosphere and turning it into oxygen,” says Clavius.
“Mars has always been regarded as devoid of life,” Pompeii argues. All this brought up the tantalizing possibility that they had been wrong all along, that they had kindred right next door in the heavens. “Has whatever made all this been shielding itself for all these centuries? Why?”
“Had they a plan to invade earth? To catch us off guard? Why else would sentient creatures avoid contact?”
“No, this was something else,” Clavius postulates. “Could it be that this was left by an alien survey team like ourselves long ago? Did whoever built this visit Earth in the distant past?”
“Clavius, you must be joking. Not those stories of ancient astronauts...How could that be true?” They wrestle with the endless possibilities as they creep onward.
The mechanical noise becomes even more pronounced. “Whatever it is, we’re almost on top of it. The tunnel is coming to an end,” Pompeii says. As it does, it opens into a vast, dark chamber. A giant machine hangs from the ceiling. Clavius and Pompeii make out some of the shape of the chamber in the faint glow from their suit lights. It is domed shaped with a blower opening above their heads. They feel air being pushed down with every thump. A breeze billows over them, crisp and clean, unlike the processed ventilation from oxygen tanks and hydro ventilators attached to the colonial biodomes.
“Nothing like this could be constructed with current technology. It is reprocessing the poisoned atmosphere from the exterior to create a bubble of livable space,” Clavius says.
“It appears to be self-contained, for this underground structure only,” Pompeii says.
“If that’s the case, judging from the age on the readouts, Mars could have been green and lush long ago.”
“This looks to be a base, or a hideout from some catastrophe, where the inhabitants or survivors could take refuge.”
“Actual evidence of an alien civilization...What happened to them? Where did they go?” says Pompeii.
“The question is who, or what, were they? That door was not for a man,” replies Clavius.
A shaft of light shoots down from the ceiling in front of them. They jump backward as it forms a perfect circle on the floor. The beam is hundreds of feet high.
From the top of the machine, a sparkling flow of matter between the states of gas and liquid swirls downward. Thousands of tiny explosions are contained within its vibrant cerulean hue. They stand transfixed. Pompeii’s sensor device is beeping but he doesn’t hear it, being too engrossed in the phenomenon gliding towards them. Clavius senses no malevolence in it, but he recounts it to Trajan as the most terrifying and wonderful experience of his life. The sensation of security and confidence and empowerment washes over them.
“I feel great,” Pompeii says. “Me too,” replies Clavius
Their eyes are wide with amazement as the cerulean mass settles before them swirling, undulating, tiny blips of light expanding into a bubble, exploding scintillations. Each time it sends a shiver of pleasure and exaltation through their bodies. A voice emanates into the room, coming not from the gas but from a figure on the far side of its glow, a figure smaller than a man, floating. It has wings! The insectoid shares traits with both the hornet and the grasshopper. It pops and whistles a guttural, incoherent language, then attempts greetings in many different human languages. Oriental, French, Spanish, Latin, finally English. “Hello,” it says. “Hello,” Clavius and Pompeii say in staggered unison. The creature hovers through the mist to face them. Two large bulbous black eyes examine them up and down. Circling, it admires the men’s physiques.
“Wonderful. You turned out better than I hoped,” the insectoid says.
Perplexed by its prideful achievement, Clavius questions the creature.
“Who or what are you?”
“I am Garelle, a scientist.” The insectoid pauses. “I made you.”
Clavius keeps a scientific approach and continues with his questions.
“Are your species gendered?”
“I would be considered male, but we were more complex than that. Sexuality was nothing to us as we had evolved beyond it.”
“Had evolved?” Pompeii asks.
Garelle’s head bows and his eyes close. His voice is softer, remorseful. He indicates the cerulean mist still swirling behind him, extending a dark tibia and tarsus.
“What you see here is a mere hologram of the substance we created. It destroyed our species. Even as a computer generated image, it exerts a powerful hold on the living. You felt it didn’t you?”
Both men nod their heads.
“It was our crowning achievement, a substance that would free us of all mechanical restraints. With it we could expand our consciousness and explore other dimensions. We had already surveyed a thousand different worlds and spread our culture throughout the heavens, but still we yearned for more. It was a benevolent, grand experiment, or so we thought. It turned into something horrific. We forgot the simple axiom that advanced intellect breeds superior ambition. A million years of shining sanity came crashing down. Once we partook, we unleashed our secret demons, the dark passions that lie in the most primitive parts of the brain: lust, greed, violence. Some escaped the downfall and ultimate apocalypse of our civilization by fleeing to Earth, our nearest neighbor. We created you from the best of what we were, hoping that someday you would evolve and rebuild what had been lost. It would appear we achieved our goal. Beware of what you have found here, and tell no one. What we once dreamed for ourselves, you can fulfill in our place.”
The image of Garelle fades.
“How was it aware you were there if it was a hologram?” asks Trajan.
“We do not know,” says Pompeii.
“The remnants of their culture, a few scientists, artists and scholars, made it to earth before they unleashed their weapons on one another. The myth of Mars as the god of war came from this ancient tale of destruction as the details were forgotten in time and relegated to children’s stories. The Martians set about to create something better than themselves,” says Clavius.
“Part of their technology allowed them to download their consciousness into machines or other beings. For thousands of years, there have been individuals who seemed to possess greater skills, people who were called geniuses such as Da Vinci, Homer, Plato or Einstein, ones who propelled civilization forward by leaps and bounds. I believe these humans were infused with intelligence from Garelle and others like him. To pass down advancements through the millennia, hiding and guiding in plain sight until the day mankind would reach the stars and discover its origins,” says Pompeii.
“Garelle showed us recordings of the madness that besieged his people. Terrible demons and monsters were given flesh, borne out of the desires of our progenitors. A war erupted like none before or since. Unspeakable atrocities culminated in the unleashing of super weapons more powerful than any atomic or nuclear device that ravaged Mars, ripping away the atmosphere. All life was extinguished in a matter of hours. Only Garelle and his small band of survivors escaped,” says Clavius.
How could this possibly be true? Would my own father lie to me?
“So whatever Garelle’s experiment was, you think someone discovered it and smuggled it back to Earth?” Trajan asks.
“It’s possible,” Says Clavius
“But Mars is cut off. Nobody has been there since you left.”
“Even if the possibility is remote, we must act. If we don’t, the same destruction could be unleashed on Earth. What we saw took over an entire world in a matter of weeks,” Pompeii says.
“So you’ll kill your own son with no shred of proof to back it up? You said yourself that you and father felt a presence in the hologram. I know little about medicine, but it’s possible it’s not a drug. Maybe it’s a virus.”
“Such diseases can spread quickly, but that was fifty years ago. If we were infected it would have been discovered long before now. We were both examined during quarantine,” says Pompeii.
The wheels are turning in Clavius’s head. “Garelle said it was designed for their brains. If we were engineered by Garelle, then it may not affect us at all.”
Pompeii and Clavius exchange nervous whispers.
“Look, Gaius suffered from an embolism and will be fine,” Trajan says, trying to calm them. “But if it is a drug of some type, it might be in our best interests to let him live and found out who gave it to him.”
“You have a keen sense of justice. You’ll make a great Proconsul someday. I only hope I am here to witness it,” Clavius says.
Trajan embraces both Clavius and Pompeii.
“You both will be.”