by George S. Karagiannis
Jaime opened his eyes. Or maybe they were open all along, and he had only blinked. He couldn't know. He had no perception of time or space.
How long does a blink last? Can you have a dream during a blink?
"You can always have a dream."
"You," Jaime said with sorrow. "Why are you still here, stuck on my face?"
"I've claimed too much space in your cerebral cortex, Jaime. I can't simply go away."
"Oh yes. You're slowly turning into an obsession, yes?"
The teddy bear sneered.
Martian Observatory, Solis Lacus - Today
Jordan Harke, the night-shift mechanic of the Solis Lacus Observatory, put his empty mug on the console's pedestal, and stretched his neck. He yawned, stabilized the rotor of his chair and made himself comfortable. He had already consumed three cups of coffee, but the night was too boring to resist a brief nap.
Data from the hard-drives were all duplicated and saved in the proxy servers by the previous shift. Routine server maintenance had become the duty of the newly installed AI since the beginning of the year. As such, the responsibilities and engineering duties of all employees underwent major adjustments, and Jordan Harke suffered the consequences of the transition period.
Beep, beep, beep...
His sleep dissolved at the sound of a beeping signal that flashed in one of the monitors. Jordan swiveled on his buttocks, his body jerked, his eyes twitched.
"What the..." He blinked a couple of times. The digital watch on his TFT-LCD screen informed him it was nearly dawn.
The alarm signal had originated from the Martian Satellite System. Developed nearly forty years ago by PULSE, it was now standing there as a rusty pariah, perhaps the most obsolete satellite dish on Mars.
"Well, well, well," Jordan said, agitated.
Beep, beep, beep...
He kept glancing at the signal in disbelief. It was probably hardware malfunction that generated a false alarm, but the circumstances demanded that proper actions should be taken. Before anything, he had to run two independent verification algorithms, first the transmission algorithm to authenticate if the signal had indeed originated from the PULSE, and second, the receiver algorithm to verify the correct processing via their servers.
He swapped his magnetic key-card on the console to confirm the two commands.
"Five minutes left," he muttered with a puzzled face.
He dashed to the coffee machine, and poured some hot black coffee in his mug. I'll probably need this, he thought.
A minute passed, and he had already drunk half of his coffee. Another minute and he went to the chemical toilet for a piss. In the next minute he sipped the remaining half of his coffee. He spent another one for a refill and the last one into tapping his fingers with nervousness on the pedestal.
When the output flashed on his screen, Jordan felt his throat drier than a Martian desert.
"Somebody's playing tricks on me."
Peter could hear the soft whistling sound of birds; a pleasure for the ears.
Ahh birds... these magnificent earthly creatures!
The singing soon turned into a nightmarish echo of crows attacking and flying onto him like a dark, sickly air-whirl. He tried to run but the crows blurred his vision, now dragging him down to his own death, down to an abysmal gully. He felt his lungs constrict, and almost getting drowned in his own vomit.
Peter Donovan, Chief Director of the Martian Observatory, opened his eyes in panic. Frankly, it was all a bad dream. It took him a while to realize his wife was punching him on the arm. "Pick it up," she said, half-asleep.
He rolled off the bed, as he drifted back into consciousness. His intercom was ringing --who knows for how long? He grabbed the receiver and sat at the edge of the bed breathing heavily.
"Sir, I'm sorry for calling you at this time... It appears there's an issue," a firm voice said from the other side. "This is Jordan Harke from SCC speaking. It appears that the PULSE has captured some unusual thermal motion at the Thaumasia plateau."
"The PULSE? What are you talking about?"
"Sir, the digital photomosaic base from PULSE has captured a rough signal, producing heat at the Thaumasia plateau. All confirmatory algorithms have authenticated the signal."
"I know that PULSE still emits infrared signals from Thaumasia. But all stratigraphic, structural, and erosional histories from this region demonstrate it has been inactive for a huge period of time." There was a brief silence on the other side. "Could it be a primeval thermal vent eruption?"
"Negative. Motion pattern shows that this is not diffusion, but a slow, linear movement. Besides, there aren't any active thermal vents left in that area, as you've already said," Jordan explained and paused for a brief moment. "Sir... everything points to a massive alien life-form of some sort," he swallowed with difficulty. "Sir, if I'm allowed-"
"You're not allowed," Peter said flatly. "You're jumping into premature conclusions, Jordan. Do you have clear images of the thermal source?"
"Unfortunately deconvolution is tricky using the PULSE software. Thaumasia is characterized by a wide array of rocky materials, depositional and erosional landforms, and tectonic structures. The region is dominated by one plateau, which includes central high lava plains ringed by highly deformed highlands. Therefore, lens focusing is impossible with our current numerical apertures."
"All right," Peter said and stood up with determination. "We'll have to deal with this by ourselves. Assemble the team, no further delays. I'll be there in a few minutes to co-ordinate the spider drones."
"Sir," Jordan asked hesitantly. "Should we inform the President?"
"Out of question. The issue will be handled internally and above all with discreetness."
Martian Center for Psychiatric Disorders, Solis Lacus
"My son Billy plays a lot with plasticine. He likes shaping animals with it; dogs, cats, snails, snakes, goats. He's a magnificent kid," Jaime Bruester said and opened his hand. The plasticine ball was nested at the middle of his palm. "And whenever I hold these in my hand, whenever I squeeze them tight, I feel safe..."
"I see," the psychiatrist said flatly.
"Would it be okay if I held on to this plasticine ball during our session, doctor?"
"Of course, Dr. Bruester."
"Oh thank you, doctor. When I press them, I create a perfect engraftment of my lifelines on the material. And this helps me relax and relieve the stress..."
"Tell me about the origins of this stress," the psychiatrist urged Jaime to start talking.
"It's the teddy bears, doctor," Jaime whispered and fixed a stare on the locked door opposite of the couch he was lying, as if he felt that the teddy bears eavesdropped. "I think that my obsession with them is not over with the drugs you gave me," he continued.
The psychiatrist didn't reply immediately. Jaime could only hear the diminutive sound of his pen scratching letters into a notebook, in an otherwise quiet and dark room. A vulva lamp emitted dim violet beams, hung above them midway to the ceiling, and was the only source of light in the room.
"The antidepressants I gave you weren't that effective for your obsession Dr. Bruester," the psychiatrist finally broke the silence. "However, you've already accepted the fact that the existence of teddy bears in your life is a by-product of your sick mind. This is half the therapy we want."
"You think so?" Jaime's face flashed with hope.
"Certainly," the psychiatrist rushed to explain. "I'm afraid I've misjudged the seriousness of your illness, Dr. Bruester. It appears that you suffer from the holy triad as we call it -that is a mixture of schizophrenia, depression and bipolar syndrome at the same time. I should have predicted that a pills-only approach wouldn't work in your condition," he sighed. "We will complement your pharmacological therapy with psychotherapy. Agreed?"
Jaime hesitated. "If you think it will help me doctor."
"Let's begin... Tell me about your first encounter with the teddy bears."
"My first encounter with the teddy bears," Jaime wetted his lips and got comfortable on the couch. He pressed the plasticine ball and closed his eyes. "When my parents were downgraded to second-class citizens on an overpopulated and suffocating Earth, my father immediately applied for the program New Horizons - Mars. He got accepted, but you know... he never expected to get a job similar to his old one. He was not even close to business consulting. Instead, he became a miner on Mars..."
Jaime heard a slight tapping coming from the window.
"The human colony of Solis Lacus had initiated," Jaime continued. "A program with an aim to transform the alien artifact found in the region of Thaumasia into a museum, in which scientists would have been able to perform their research. The miners and their families lived under poor conditions on a badly oxygenated camp for many years, with the presence of extensive military force..."
The tapping from the window turned heavier.
"Please continue," the psychiatrist's soothing voice intervened. "It's just a few raindrops."
Jaime wetted his lips again. "When my family and I lived there, I used to hear the teddy bears on the roof, at night. I hardly knew if it were dream or reality..."
Tinny rasps from the roof tiles, scuttling sounds, claws against concrete. The boy could not but hear it all night.
But there was another sound in that darkness, a soft, mewling sound, far out from the black. Vapors of night and distance obscured it. But that sound was familiar, children in the dark calling out for him.
Jaime, wake up! Jaime, wake up!
Up there on the double bed, the boy woke up from his nightmares and crouched against the wooden panels, scratching feebly at his blanket, looking back over his shoulder at a pillow soaked in his own sweat and saliva, eventually reaching for the wooden ladder. His nostrils stuffed with dripping mucus, his air passages whistling, forcing him to breathe with his mouth open, aloud like an animal. The families of the miners used to call it Martian Flu.
Jaime, wake up! Jaime, wake up
Small Jaime, barefoot, eyes heavy and covered in gooey gunk walked in his nylon pajamas toward the window. The floor creaked badly in every step despite his slim fit. He touched and slowly caressed the window glass, tiny frost rings immediately vaporized from the warmth of his crackled skin. The coldness drove into him.
Outside the twilight of Phobos was only enthralling.
Jaime forced the window slid open with all the muscle he could pull, and looked outside at the dead of night. All the light he could see were flashlights from soldiers patrolling at a distance, a handful of stars trembling and ultimately dying off, a Martian moon half-suppressed by the ghastly glass-sphere surrounding the colony, and the halogen lamps hanging from the neighboring door porches.
Beyond those, darkness as black as blindness from birth, prevailed.
"Jaime! Down here."
Jaime intuitively followed the origin of the sound with eyes still striving to adapt in the pitch-black backdrop, eventually tracking it down to three childlike silhouettes, shadowy and amorphous, all three hiding cautiously behind the front-yard barrels with the provisions.
One kid was carrying a dim flashlight, it was Aliaksei Strudgeoff. The kids called him Wrench, because he always brought some kind of tool to support their many adventures, small hammers screwdrivers and wrenches to mess up with obsolete equipment, old radios and malfunctioning computer terminals, often abandoned on the roadsides by the soldiers.
The kid standing next to Wrench, Donald the Fat-Pie, was almost double in size. Jaime could clearly discern the chewing sound of Fat-Pie's teeth, while devouring a sandwich.
And next to him was the silhouette of a slender girl, Fiona, or Fee-Fee. A mop of hair, tightly knotted, ending up to a pony-tail, a tiny ring waist, and two long bony legs like tender flower stems. A juvenile colorful dress was wrapped around her skeletal body.
"What are you guys doing there?"
"We have to move along with the mission," Fee-Fee said.
"It's very dangerous that late," Jaime moved his head left and right a couple of times impulsively, as if checking for hostile presence. "The soldiers could be here any minute now. If they find us-"
"We made sure they won't," Wrench interrupted with pride in his voice.
The child revealed another tool from his side pocket and kept it straight ahead onto the ghostly light of his dying flashlight. Jaime could clearly see the upper part of it, but had to imagine the rest. It didn't take long for Jaime to connect the dots. It was a pair of pliers; rusty yes, but most probably hard enough to cut a wire fence, the one surrounding the Alien Museum.
Far away a military dog dully howled. Jaime retracted his crossed elbows back inside "You're crazy! Are we going to the Alien Museum at this hour?"
A chill breeze scratched his cheeks and exposed earlobes.
"We are going there, either you join us or not," Wrench screeched.
Fat-pie gulped down his last bite, and breathed out a filling sigh. Fiona held the edge of her dress tightly, shyly, compulsively. Wrench folded his hands.
"My parents will kill me if they find out," Jaime said and threw a pair of slippers down from the window. "Fee-Fee catch my slippers, I'm coming over."
"Ok," the girl made a loud whisper. "Got them!"
Jaime grasped the steady wooden frame and climbed out of the window, his back facing outside, as he balanced on the rusty pipe right next to it. He did the necessary acrobatics and slowly started sliding downwards, the pipe always serving as his cue to avoid a clumsy descent.
After stepping his bare feet on the mucky soil, he turned around excited. "Give me my slip..." He never finished the sentence. Fee-fee, Wrench and Fat-Pie had disappeared. Jaime swallowed with difficulty. "Come on guys, this is not funny," he winced. "Where are you hiding?"
The twilight of Phobos never gave him a hint. His two slippers lay on the ground a few feet away, untouched and half-dipped into the mud. Jaime slowly walked towards them and knelt down to take them back.
"Who's there?" A sharp and authoritative voice suddenly echoed. The passionate barking of a military dog followed. The clasping sound of chains informed Jaime that the soldier was restraining the dog with difficulty from assaulting and sinking its teeth into the intruder. "Identify yourself." The soldier's command was like a diamond knife, cold and sharp.
Jaime didn't speak. He tried to glance over, but was blinded by the man's flashlight. The heavy light exposed Jaime's face, and partially covered the soldier's silhouette behind a blazing circle. Jaime used his arm as protective screen for his eyes, and tried to catch a glimpse of the approaching man, with the periphery of his eyes.
The soldier's image was blurry; the dog's like a grotesque cartoon.
The man held the brutal animal on one hand, and kept aiming at little Jaime with his flashlight on the other. He walked to the boy's direction, slowly, painstakingly.
Only when the soldier came really close did Jaime realize that the outline of his head was disproportional to the rest of the body -at least twice the expected size of a human one, and two huge, yet round and fluffy ears like solid rainbows yielded from each side of it.
Little Jaime was paralyzed, unable to even move an inch. He grabbed his neck and felt like it was broken. He felt like he couldn't tell what was real any more.
This was not a real soldier. It was a teddy bear, wearing a military uniform...
"Well, well, well," it said with a purely demonic voice.
Martian Observatory, Solis Lacus -- Today
Peter Donovan looked at his digital watch, and realized it took a little more than an hour to have the team assembled.
"Everyone's fully briefed on the incident?" he asked in a strict tone. "Jordan?"
Jordan Harke shook his head showing the updated minutiae of the happening on his interface.
Desmond Colley, Chief of Military Operations and Brent Hollenberg, Director of Mars Terraforming Program nodded simultaneously. A couple more technicians, their faces absorbed in their monitors, had joined the group and were running more diagnostics.
"Gentlemen," Peter Donovan started. "The manual identifies situations like this as clear state of emergency. We need to come up with a plan."
"Are there images available?" Brent asked.
"I'm afraid not, and we won't have any soon," Jordan Harke said adamantly. "Satellites are useless for imaging Thaumasia." The main screen flashed, as Jordan uploaded a digital chart of the Thaumasia heat-map plateau, overlaid on top of a physical map on Mercator projection. "I've elaborated on that in the briefing report."
"Yes, yes," Brent said, mesmerized from the incredible map technology.
"Cerebellum analysis has just calculated that the signal is moving at a speed of seven point six kilometers per hour. It's relatively slow but steady," another technician reported, showing off the position of the signal with a red 'X' on the digital map.
"Where is the signal headed to?" Brent asked.
"Trajectory algorithm initiating," Jordan replied. "It's approaching us, Sir. I've calculated 99,9% probability it will pass through the colony in approximately forty-seven hours."
"I'll be damned!"
"Should we consider spider drones?" Peter Donovan asked.
"It's very energy-consuming," Desmond Colley stated matter-of-factly. "But," he continued hesitantly. "I don't know... Given the circumstances, and the fact that the signal is reminiscent of an alien form, I believe we could justify the cost."
Peters eyes rolled, his mouth widened. "Desmond, for God's sake! You're the supreme authority on Military Operations. Make up your mind."
"I know Peter," Desmond raised a voice and slammed the pedestal. "You know it's not easy making decisions under such circumstances, so watch your mouth."
Peter Donovan's eyes narrowed.
Almost immediately, Desmond hissed out a regretful sigh. "Umm sorry Peter," he said and pressed his eyeballs with his fingers. "Yes, send the spider drones. Chad," he touched one of the technicians in the back. "Give us an estimate countdown."
"What the hell is happening here, are we being attacked?" Brent wondered aloud.
Peter swallowed and leaned back in his chair. "Honestly, I have no idea..."
"Sir," Chad said after some minutes. "The spider drones are ready to go. You have to give the green light."
Desmond approached the pedestal and pulled the magnetic key-card out of his pocket. He breathed out heavily and swapped it once on the activation slot.
"An hour and fifty-five minutes," Chad Malory announced.
Half an hour later, everyone was greedily consuming coffee, nicotine gums and fingernails. The coffee machine had been whistling every five minutes, since the countdown began, and everyone had black circles under their eyes.
Further from the big window screen, the crimson-red, freezing and deserted landscape of Mars spanned to where the eye couldn't glimpse. At a distance, both spiky and flattened mountaintops eventually merged to create a horizon, fixed in inconceivable geometries. The sun was patiently rising, piercing everyone in the room with dazzling, crepuscular rays.
A feeling of calmness nestled inside them, until Jordan Harke disrupted it.
"Sir," he cried. "I might have found something particularly interesting."
"What is it Jordan?" Peter Donovan asked.
"I've incorporated all PULSE heatmaps in our main server and also implemented a trajectory algorithm back-time run. I've discovered where the signal has originated from..."
"And?" Desmond and Peter asked simultaneously.
Jordan leaned back with his chair and grimaced in disbelief. "Sir, the signal started from the Alien Museum."
"The Alien Museum?" Brent said doubtingly.
"I thought the Alien Museum and the entire Colony there, were abandoned and only visited during day-time by the astroarchaeology group," Peter said and turned around to receive verification from the rest. A few technicians, including Jordan, nodded. "Yes, I remember well." He said and picked up the phone from the intercom device. "Who's leading the group? Is it Professor Martin Shaw? Connect me immediately to his residence."
"Sir," Jordan said. "Professor Shaw passed away last year. A new scientist has been leading the research investigations in the Alien Museum ever since. Dr. Jaime Bruester, Professor Shaw's most brilliant student."
"Whatever," Peter Donovan said crossly. "Connect me to this... Jaime Bruester."
Little Billy stood behind the door, his half-eye watching the living room.
"My husband left yesterday for a three-day trip to the Alien Museum..." Fiona Fee-Fee bit her lips, as she brought the intercom device right over them. She had a bad feeling about this. "Yes, his team is doing that very often... Yes, they stay overnight, sometimes two days in a row.... You know, it's not easy to go here and forth in Thaumasia using the Harley Jeep. Too much jumping around, it makes your stomach knotty...." Fiona Fee-Fee bit her lips again.
She got glimpse of Billy, but didn't care much the boy was not sleeping.
"Excuse me, Mr. Peter Donovan, could you please tell me why you want to speak to my husband, and why it is so urgent..." A small pause until her eyes rolled again with anxiety. "What do you mean this is classified?" His response was even more shocking to her. "Mr. Donovan, you're calling at this peculiar hour to our residence, asking to speak to my husband urgently and confidentially. I really need to know..." Her voice cracked. "Mr. Donovan, please..."
She stood frozen for some seconds, like a simulacrum. Then, she turned off the intercom device, and sat at the sofa trembling, her slim body casting a shadow puppet on the floor. The first sunlight from dawn lit the room.
Why calling at this hour asking for Jaime? Jaime! Something happened to Jaime! A small, yet treacherous chain of thoughts that could turn into a one-way downward spiral, led to her emotional devastation. She could lose her mind. She could turn into a catatonic creature, unable to cope with life on Mars by herself. Desperate, she started crying.
"Mommieeee," the voice came from the other side of the room.
She glanced up ahead. Billy's silhouette stood within the door frame and immediately filled her with hope. "Oh, Billy!"
"Why are you crying mommie?" Billy prepared his arms for a hug.
"It's nothing, baby," she said sniffing her tears through her nose.
"Don't worry about daddy, mommy," Billy said. "Peanut will keep him safe."
"Peanut mommy," the boy replied calmly. "I always give Peanut to dad when he goes to museum."
"Oh, yes, I forgot about Peanut," Fiona smiled to Billy, and kissed him on the forehead. "That's right, there's no reason to worry. Dad is in good hands. Peanut will protect him, right? Let's go to your bed, now. It's still very early," Fiona said, biting her lips.
Martian Center for Psychiatric Disorders, Solis Lacus
"The teddy bears have been haunting my skull ever since," Jaime cringed, swapping the plasticine ball here and forth between his two hands. "I now realize they are a product of my imagination. I'm a schizophrenic that cannot control it anymore. I, I am-"
"Calm down, Dr. Bruester," the psychiatrist interrupted. "Do not put yourself into risk of having a seizure. I want you to remain calm and answer to my questions."
"Yes doctor," Jaime said. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine. I think we're doing real progress here," the psychiatrist reassured him.
It was this stable and comforting tempo all psychiatrists strangely possessed, which somehow magically turned them into healers. Jaime confided every detail in him. He felt that was the way to get rid of these ugly monsters for once and for all.
"But the teddy bears never attacked you, right?" the psychiatrist continued. "You've never felt they meant you harm."
Jaime thought for a second. "No they didn't, you're right. What are you getting at?"
"Did it ever occur to you, they might simply want to give you a message or thank you for something?"
"Thank me?" Jaime asked, baffled. "Thank me about what?"
"Never mind," the psychiatrist said and quickly changed the subject. "Tell me Dr. Bruester. Besides your childhood experiences in the military camp, was there any other critical point in your life, when you encountered the teddy bears?"
The supple tapping sounds of the persisting rainfall had turned into thick wallops, crashing on the window glass. Jaime tried to pay no attention to them.
"A critical point in my life, when I encountered the teddy bears," he took a deep breath, wetted his lips and recreated the moment. "I came across the teddy bears shortly after I finished with my PhD defense, approximately ten years ago. It was a beautiful Martian summer..."
Martian University, Department of Astroarchaeology, Solis Lacus -- 10 Years Ago
Clapping sounds from the audience, a rewarding moment. After a minute the applause faded away and a brief, frustrating silence prevailed in the auditorium.
"Mr. Jaime Bruester," Professor Martin Shaw said and snatched the microphone from the partition. He turned to the rest of the panelists and said, "Hopefully he'll be shortly addressed as Doctor and not as Mister," he continued raising his hand poetically.
The rest of the professors nodded and smirked at the comment. Dr. Shaw then turned to Jaime again.
"Mr. Bruester, we can't thank you enough for this inspiring, constructive and thought-provoking presentation regarding your PhD thesis on the Alien Museum. As the chair of the Department of Astroarchaeology, I am proud to see our Institution is funding such remarkable projects. I'm truly enthralled."
"Thank you," Jaime replied with a humble face.
"Should we jump into questions regarding your research now?" Dr. Shaw asked.
"Certainly, Dr. Shaw."
One hand was raised from the audience, but Jaime couldn't glimpse through the dense knot of people and clearly see the face of the person asking.
"Mr. Jaime Bruester, we've been literally mesmerized from your lecture. Your analysis on the decryption of the pictographic and logographic scripture, found on the Alien Museum demonstrates what a charismatic astroarchaeologist you are. My question is simple Mr. Bruester: What do you think has happened to those aliens? They've completed this miraculous artifact, and one day they simply decided to vanish?" The man clapped his fingers, and continued. "Why didn't you touch this sensitive issue in your thesis, Mr. Bruester?"
Jaime nodded and smiled with embarrassment. "This is more than one question Mr..."
"Doesn't matter," the man said, impolitely.
"As you wish! I'll answer to all of your questions Mr. Doesn't-Matter. My PhD thesis focuses on astroarchaeology, which is hard science. However, your questions rise up a philosophical notion. But, I believe that at this point it's fine if we engage ourselves in some intergalactic philosophy," Jaime wetted his lips. "You see, the aliens never left behind an artifact; this is our viewpoint, the human viewpoint. To them... this structure is something like a diary... or better put, a logbook."
"A logbook?" a female voice echoed from the audience.
"Precisely!" Jaime replied in reflex. "By closely examining the symbols drawn on the artifact's interior walls, we found impressions of a wide variety of life-forms, which we speculate are encounters that these particular aliens had during their intergalactic travels. We've unravelled more than two hundred different impressions, some of which are hominid, others reflect to different animal-like insects, serpents, mammals of any sort, others even reflect to plants. Most of them though are showing potential life-forms that we are not familiar with."
That last comment provoked some random talking and distress in the audience
Jaime raised his voice and successfully suppressed it. "What does this say about these aliens? Could they be scientists that simply explored life in the universe, and the Alien Museum they left behind is their scientific paper?" A few people, including Dr. Shaw laughed at the joke. "Or could it mean that they were simply travellers; a nomadic race that constantly changed home, and created these artifacts to preserve their history over time, to never forget the places they've visited, the creatures they've seen? We'll never know for certain."
As Jaime concluded with his diplomatic answer, a gratifying applause trimmed off the silence of the room. Jaime had conquered a brave new world; the world of Academia.
As his professor Dr. Shaw stood up with a nonstop clapping, he grabbed again the microphone and offered his hand to Jaime for a handshake. "It's been a pleasure hearing your thoughts on this delicate matter, Mr. Bruester," he said. "Why don't we have a ten minute break now, so that the committee may discuss, and then, you may come back to the auditorium to hear our final decision, yes?" Dr. Shaw said, and escorted Jaime up to the exit.
Jaime had decided to spend the ten most stressful minutes of his life in the washroom, where he could let the cold water flow, the crystal streaming sound clearing all nasty bubbles from his head. He made some opaque, creamy froth out of soap, and spread it throughout his face to remove the toxins of anxiety. Crow feet lines and black circles of insomnia were now concealed and his eyes looked better. But then a memory spark flickered in them, reducing his excitement like a throbbing bridle.
Tired Jaime, his eyelids heavy like covered in plaster, toyed with his reflection in the mirror, and felt the glass shattering, its thousand pieces driving into his flesh, the numerous cuts creating scars over time. His lower lip was paralyzed, saliva dripped from the edges.
"Why do I feel lethargic," he asked himself in the mirror. "Why do I feel like I'm paralyzed with a broken neck, hallucinating?"
A rainbow butterfly landed on his shoulder whispering to him, reminding him of how much he needed to remember that he wasn't there. He blinked, merely to realize that the butterfly had turned into ashes, scattered in the air. He closed his eyes.
Is this my way of telling me I'm hallucinating? Do I stress myself with all this deal with the Alien Museum? Why is it affecting me so much?
Coldness drove into him. His breath left out an aura of death. The mirror glass quivered and the floor started leaning left and right. Jaime could hardly keep his balance right. His head jerked, as if escalating from a dream sequence.
He opened his eyes . . . and saw them.
A dozen teddy bears, all formally dressed in garnished clothes and steep suits, extended snouts and beady eyes, stood behind him, motionless like freshly waxed simulacra, gazing at the mirror, perfectly imitating Jaime's posture.
Jaime got paralyzed. Sharing his reflection with theirs turned out to be a torture. Tears flew from his eyes, but he didn't remember why. He felt the hoarse breath scraping the back of his neck, a chilling breeze, a shivering touch behind his earlobe.
The teddy bear fastened the suit tie, and then touched Jaime with compassion on the shoulder. "Jaime, we would like to thank you so much for what you're doing for us," it said with a screeching voice.
Thank you Jaime! The rest of the teddy bears ululated simultaneously.
"We really appreciate your sacrifice, Jaime! Are you ready for the ceremony now?" the teddy bear almost whispered, and Jaime shook his head with denial. "You're turning into an academic, after all!"
Martian Observatory, Solis Lacus -- Today
A Martian version of Jacob's ladder made a dawdling escalation above the distal horizon, freezing everyone to a hypnotic delirium. Peter, sitting with his hands clenched between his knees, stood up and sipped from his coffee.
"Sir, the spiders will establish contact in five," Jordan announced.
"Sir, I'm already receiving abnormal levels of cosmic radiation from the drone in-built Geiger counters," Jordan said.
"What?" Desmond said and ran to the monitor to see with his own eyes. "Impossible."
"I'm afraid it's not," Jordan said, panicked. "The closer they're getting to the target, the more their positronic brain and higher functions are dying off."
"We've lost contact with Thorax," a technician said in panic, hitting buttons in his keyboard.
"And Siban too."
"Rooster, too. Someone or something is attacking the drones."
"What's happening?" Desmond cried. "Somebody?"
Panic had spread in the room like a sequence of domino pieces. Everyone was pressing buttons, double-checking the conditions of the mishap, trying to re-establish contact with the lost spider drones.
"Sir, the signal seems to be generated from radioactive materials. Before lost, the spider sensors had detected inconceivable levels of unstable isotopes of polonium, which emit life--threatening and android--corruptive radiation," Jordan winced, and sat back. "Sir, we've lost contact with all the spider drones, but," he frowned and continued, "It appears that Rooster managed to perform a twenty second video-lapsing of the signal from a 20-degrees angle, before getting flat-lined."
"Set it up in the screen," Desmond ordered.
"Yes sir," Jordan said, and began establishing the connection.
A few seconds of agony passed, until the visual from Rooster's eyes went through deconvolution and started playing like a memory flashback. A fiery line streaked in the outer space. A shooting star. Beneath a steel sky, the terrain graded into dense jumbles of low rounded hills. Something moved in the rubble-filled hollows at the lower part of the hills, which extended into a lengthy channel that had once been a river.
Tiny brown creatures scurried and crawled on the soil. Nobody could distinguish their nature at that resolution. When finally Rooster moved closer, the appearance of the alien creatures, emitting the radioactive signal, became clearer.
The video image was abruptly turned off. Blackness prevailed in the screen.
Under dream conditions, it wouldn't have been a hard guess. But no one in the room was dreaming at that moment.
Teddy bears! It was a huge parade of radioactive teddy bears!
"I don't understand. Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?" Desmond asked, turning around, looking at each single person in the room. "Brent?"
With eyes wide, Brent raised his shoulders and wailed a high-pitched sound. The technicians gazed at the image confused, wondering if some nasty hacker had been playing a sick game.
Agitated, Desmond turned to Peter, "Peter? What is this?"
Peter Donovan, now sitting back on his stool by the window, had his gaze fixed on the steep slopes of craters, troughs, and valleys expanding beyond the colony's diaphanous orb out in the bareness of Mars. He didn't dare look back at one bewildered mass of highly-intelligent people, entangled in a deathly maze of uncertainty, unable to understand what was attacking them.
With sorrow, he sipped his coffee and said, "Hallelujah."
The handle slipped from his fingers, and the mug fell down, crashing onto the concrete, its thousand pieces spreading apart in every possible direction.
Martian Center for Psychiatric Disorders, Solis Lacus
Jaime realized he was pressing the plasticine ball so hard that the veins around his fist were bloated and his wrist was swollen. He felt the pain. As he slowly released it, he darted hopeless stares at the smothered plasticine.
There was no engraftment of his palm's lifelines there. Instead, a strange figure was shaped on the material, an odd caricature, which Jaime could swear it resembled...
"...the face of a teddy bear," he said with frustration. "They're following me everywhere. Even here, in this very room doctor."
"Relax, Jaime," the doctor said. "This is not a face of a teddy bear. This is called pareidolia. It's the ability of the human brain to perceive faces within unanimated objects. Haven't you ever heard of the famous Face on Mars, which simply was a mesa in Cydonia, photographed from a satellite angle that created an illusion of a face?"
"I guess you're right doctor," Jaime sighed. "You're right about everything. You were also right about the fact that the teddy bears wanted to thank me for my... sacrifice. But I don't understand, what does this mean?"
The psychiatrist didn't reply immediately. When he started talking, his voice was drowned into the deafening and gravelly sounds of thunder strikes and sturdy rainfall.
The rain was so harsh...
"Doctor?" Jaime asked. "I just happened to realize something very strange," he paused for a moment to swallow, and then continued, "It's raining outside."
"But, this is Mars! Is it possible to be raining on Mars?"
There was a brief silence. "Oh, this is simple, Dr. Bruester," the psychiatrist said icily. "The purpose of the rain outside is for the lightning and the thunder strikes. You see, as soon as they occur, and given that I am sitting right next to the window, you'll be able to see my shadow, cast on the floor."
Jaime felt his hands and feet tremble.
"Your mind is creating the fake scenario with the rain Jaime, because deep inside you, you want to experience an astonishing revelation right now."
A huge thunder strike boomed outside, and Jaime caught, indeed, a glimpse of the psychiatrist's shadow on the wooden floor. The flashing was brief, but Jaime managed to capture what he wanted to see with the periphery of his eyesight.
The psychiatrist's elongated shadow, a wicked entity from the underworld, covered half of the floor between the windows and the exit door. A creepy shadow of what looked like a humanoid with two massive circular ears -now elongated like horns on top of its head, was lurking askew.
Jaime turned around, agitated.
The teddy bear was calmly sitting on the chair, legs crossed, a stethoscope around its neck, holding on to a notebook and a pen, smiling fiendishly at Jaime.
"The session has just begun," it said with an evil voice. The same evil voice, again and again.
Jaime toppled from the couch. Eventually he assumed a praying stance with both knees on the floor, as if grieving over his mother's grave.
"Get out of my mind!" he cried desperately, but his voice cracked. "Please," he implored, tears running down his face. He pressed against his skull with intentions of smashing it into pieces.
He wanted to back away. To run from the teddy bear as far as possible. But he couldn't.
"Why can't I-," he said with exasperation.
"Your neck is broken, Jaime. You're paralyzed. Don't try to look elsewhere. I will always be where you're looking at," the teddy bear said.
It will never go awayi>
Alien Museum, Thaumasia -- Yesterday
As he walked through the raveled corridors and quaint, narrow passageways of the lowest, mostly unexplored, concourse of the Alien Museum, Jaime was enmeshed in the beauty arrayed in the carved illustrations and the iridescent frescos. Mural engraftments of the strangest life-forms had captivated his curiosity.
But there was something scarier and more enthralling than the artistic nature of this finding. The notion that the aliens hadn't died out, but they were, in fact, alive, their essence still wandering in a sense, within the ruined artifact.
Jaime pressed the button for tape-recording, as he spoke. "I think we are getting closer in creating history with the alien artifact, discovered approximately thirty years ago at Thaumasia Plateau in Mars. Along with my deceased but beloved mentor, Dr. Martin Shaw we had previously created a hypothesis that the artifact served the purposes of a logbook -with the traditional point of view. We, together, thought that all the inscriptions carved in the interior of the structure, were actual experiences from the passionate travelling of an ancient alien race with type II civilization."
He paused and took a deep breath.
"It appears our hypothesis was incorrect. This is not a logbook. This is a complete composition of their genetic code. This structure serves the purposes of a time capsule, so that the aliens never forget how they look like, what is their true phenotype, and what are they evolving into. But the only thing I keep wondering about is how they look like now... and where they are."
Jaime pressed the button and stopped recording. His attention centered on the odd iridescence he had located in this part of the artifact. As it projected subliminal mesmeric and enticing calls to him, Jaime unwittingly wished to trace its origin.
Could it be some sort of alien intramural larva? He thought, as he delved into so tiny a crevice that his fingernail could hardly fit in.
Thirsty . . . I'm thirsty.
Sleep dissolved. Jaime forced his eyes open, his eyelids heavy like bags filled with stones; his vision still blurry from the shock of blackness. Where was he?
Bizarre phosphorescence stroked his skin and pierced his feeble muscles underneath, disseminating randomly, eventually plunging onto the wall, imprinting hazy miniatures of star constellations. A noxious teddy bear was sitting on a tete-a-tete session right across his face and onto the energy-spluttering partition, its animalistic breath and malignant stare relentlessly harassing Jaime's intelligence.
But wait a minute, Jaime figured as he noticed the commercial tag dangling from the left ear, this is Peanut. Billy's teddy bear . . .
How come Peanut was there, watching him?
Shafts of broken memories slowly aggregated one-by-one, the scattered pieces glued the big picture together.
Jaime had been studying inscriptions inside the Alien Museum during the last expedition, tape-recording his new theory on the nature of this alien species. He had accidentally pressed a -veiled from the sands of time- handle, while examining an unnatural crevice on one of the walls.
Yes, that was it. The floor had moved, revealing a trapdoor. A crackling sound had followed. Before he even became aware, he got lost among brooding shadows, in the void.
Now staring right at the teddy bear's vacant but not so lifeless eyes, Jaime speculated his backpack must have opened after the fall, and Peanut had partially emerged out of it, landing on the unfortunate position that obscured Jaime's line of sight.
"Damn you Billy," he breathed out a croaky sound that sheared all silence out of the room. "Peanut was supposed to protect me."
Jaime tried to make use of his peripheral vision, but focusing under such circumstances only proved painful. He managed to grasp a generic impression of the room, which otherwise had no special detail to differentiate it from all the rooms he had encountered in this gnarled labyrinth.
How long have I been sleeping for?
His eyes were dehydrated, yet far from critically damaged. He then tried to move, yet couldn't jerk a toe. His eyelids tweaked, but no other muscle in his entire body would obey his will.
"Your neck is broken," Peanut's lips moved with consistency to what Jaime had just heard.
Jaime rolled his eyes.
"You didn't say this."
"Oh, yes I did," Peanut replied.
He'd heard correctly.
In panic, Jaime tried to unleash his hiddenmost energy and come off his paralytic nightmare, but only welcomed his incompetence. Acknowledging how fruitless his efforts were, he eventually came to terms with his new condition, and stopped pulling his inept muscles. His neck was broken, and his spinal cord has been irreversibly injured.
How pathetic. Tears flew from his eyes.
"Indeed," Peanut agreed.
Jaime's condition deteriorated rapidly; the hallucinations had already started.
Thirsty. I'm thirsty.
Jaime forced his eyes open. Or he didn't? There was no certain way to know.
"Good morning," the teddy bear said.
How long has it been since I got stuck down here? Where am I?
He tried to wet his lips but could hardly move his tongue, let alone produce saliva.
"Jaime," the teddy bear kept talking.
How long will it take until they find out I'm missing? How long until the colony prepares a rescue mission for me? Will they find me
Dust in his eyes. He blinked to remove it, but he felt more of it sit upon his lenses. His eyes had turned spongy. All he wished for was a good scratch above his eyelids to relieve this damn itchiness. The more he thought about it, the more ticklish it became.
"Jaime," the teddy bear said. "I'm in your mind, Jaime."
Fiona! Billy . . . I love you, Billy. I love you both so much. How long will it take for me to die here? I can't stand it anymore. I can't.
He couldn't even commit suicide being a cripple on his future deathbed.
"You can't keep ignoring me forever," the teddy bear said calmly. "I'll become your obsession."
"Shut up," Jaime said, his eyes were twitching from the dryness within. On second thought he shouldn't even say that. It was as if he had accepted the fact that the teddy bear could talk.
Ignore it, ignore it, ignore it!
Jaime fell asleep again. Or, perhaps he didn't?
Heeeelp, Jaime said. Or, thought. He didn't know. I'm thirsty.
"Hold still, Jaime," Peanut said. "I'll always be here for you."
"But, I don't want you."
"It's not your fault Jaime," Peanut whispered. "It's not your fault; you just fell down to us."
"Then whose fault is it?"
"Tell me everything Jaime. Tell me everything," Peanut said. "Let me be your psychiatrist."
"Screw you," Jaime said and closed his eyes. "I don't need a psychiatrist." But he knew that he would soon lose his sanity and would need one.
Jaime opened his eyes. His lips were dry, his tongue drier. Peanut obscured his vision, again.
Despite the uncomfortable angle, he realized he wasn't, in fact, lying on the floor as he first thought, but onto a giant of a living surface, no concrete. Jaime couldn't feel it as he'd lost all sense of touch from paralysis, but it looked smooth and sticky. His body was embellished into the jelly shroud, imprinting an engraving inside, the template of a dying man.
There was a thick sheet of phosphorescent lichen underneath him, on the alien pedestal. Wormlike tentacles sprawled around his body, engulfing him in an odd cosmic matter, of which unfortunately, he had no sense.
Is this some Martian life-form?
"I'm now connected to you, Jaime," Peanut said.
"Who are you? What are you?"
"I'm not a long-forgotten intergalactic traveler. I'm alive and I'm here. You were right Jaime; I'm not made to matter. I have no form . . ."
"Then what are you?" Jaime asked and blinked.
"I'm a thought-form, a Tulpa."
"A Tulpa? Like a Golem?"
"The materialized potential of a thought, Jaime. This is what I am."
"And why do you look like a teddy bear?" Jaime asked.
"I don't look like a teddy bear. You're making me look like a teddy bear."
"You do. I'm simply imitating the form you're giving me in your thoughts."
"That's because the damn toy has stuck on my face. I cannot think of anything else right now. "
"That's not my problem, Jaime," Peanut said. "But you and your race will soon have a real problem."
With the corner of his eye, Jaime sensed an elongated shadow on the wall. He couldn't distinguish for certain, but it seemed that a teddy bear, the size of a human being, had emerged from the floor.
"What are your intentions?" Jaime asked in terror, as he watched the teddy bear shadow walking and abandoning the room. "Are you friendly? We, humans, want to be friendly to you . . ."
"Come on Jaime. By now you must have realized that I'm nothing more but an intergalactic parasite. My nature is to infect and destroy . . . My lifetime is very limited, and will only span for a period of time, so long as you're still alive. I hope this will be enough time to destroy your colony in Solis Lacus, steal a craft and travel to your planet Earth, construct a new Temple there. Trap another victim. Get a new form, based on his or her experiences . . . Keep up with the loop . . . That's my life-cycle . . ."
Another teddy bear shadow crept up from the floor and slowly walked outside of the room. And another, and another . . . After a while, Jaime had lost count.
"It doesn't have to be that way," he implored. "I'm not thinking of you."
"Too bad your obsession is stronger than your will, Jaime. We already feel how powerful our materialized essence has grown, thanks to you."
"Please," Jaime begged. "Don't hurt my family or my people. Please . . . We might help you; let's not make war!"
"For the time being, Jaime, keep thinking of Peanut. You're doing great. Thank you, Jaime."
No matter how much he tried to empty his thoughts off the teddy bears, his innermost obsessions proved stronger. And he gave up. He totally submitted to his hallucinations. No, he wanted to scream, but no words came out of his mouth.
The inscriptions in the temple were not at all animals the aliens had visited over time. It was not a logbook. It was a gene-book! It was all the forms that the aliens have obtained by infesting other worlds. That was their ability; to seek, to morph, and to destroy.
Jaime realized the human colony in Solis Lacus didn't stand a chance against a creature that in fact was an ideomorph and not a flesh-based life-form. The humans would be entirely unprepared for this.
Oh Billy, why did you give me this damn toy of yours? You killed us! You killed us all, Billy . . . Fiona, I loved you since the first day I saw you. Oh, God.
Jaime realized it would all be over soon. And he knew that when he finally met his fate and die and decay on the alien pedestal, all his essence would eventually vanish from existence and only then would the teddy bears be engrafted as another mystifying inscription on their genetic code, to be potentially found by the next intelligent race somewhere in the Universe.
George S. Karagiannis