Dead Vermillion Skies – Johannes Göransson & James Pate
January 24, 2022
I read the report before the Foundation removed it from all access sites.
I know which rumors are true and which ones are false.
At least I think I do. It feels sometimes as if the report infected me, injected me with the vermillion fog it describes earth as breathing out certain days.
Alexandria says she feels it too. This fog. And she, too, imagines the words in the report contaminating the words already in our heads, shifting them slightly, and exposing new shadows and glittering light from each syllable as it does so.
Mission report number 423 was sent to focus on flora, sent to the ruins of what was once labeled the Midwest.
It seemed standard, beginning with lists and lists. With official documents and rudimentary descriptions of earth’s decline – wars, viruses, mass deaths of insects – and hypotheses of what we might find by going back. It read like a corny joke: going back. I had lived a life of crime, going back was what I did every day of my teenage life.
The tone changes when the pilot lands. He describes the landscape: flowers, ruins and miles of grass. From the ruins he can tell he has ended up in what was once a city. Charred and gutted buildings brimming with smoke-colored vegetation, streets covered in layers of sickly yellow pollen, an airport with giant branches growing from its shattered windows – he passed by it all, noting a peculiar nostalgia for this planet he had heard about in lullabies, engineering manuals, and alternative history textbooks.
As an expert on flowers, the reporter recognizes all of the flowers, the grass, the shrubs. The tone changes when he admits that this city both seems beautifully foreign and absolutely not foreign. These are the same exact flora of the world in which he was raised on the ship. He wastes little time setting up his research station and beginning to investigate this flora. The way he describes the process makes him seem violent, makes him seem like he’s cutting into a damp, many-petaled body. Like he’s both criminal and pornographer.
How I came about the report was due to the Foundation itself.
I docked the vessel because no vessel was expected. It was my first job, I didn’t know I should have waited for a senior harbor master to help handle the situation. Or maybe some part of me knew but another part of me was stronger. After a youth of crime – my arms were still tattooed with the micro-dates of every job I’d completed — I had been rehabilitated by the Foundation. This was my chance to prove that all the work invested in me had not been in vain.
I’ve since been told I should never have entered the vessel, that I “polluted the crime scene” with my mere presence, as if my presence was toxic, dirty. The ship was of an outdated model, there was no sign of life according to my equipment, but all my vital signs seemed good. So I entered.
What I first saw was all the skeletons of flowers. They were everywhere – strewn across the floor and shelves and machines. So much beautiful death – I had to enter down its corridors. Perhaps it was the crime reawakened in me. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did. I walked in, I touched the flowers. Or: they touched me.
I recognized them, they did not look strange or unusual. Why had someone traveled to earth just to bring back exactly the same flowers we had here?
In one room, I saw a knife with a yellow handle on the floor. And next to it what appeared to be a ball of crinkled old-fashioned paper. And a colorful band of some sort – red with intricate designs. Some kind of decoration, I supposed. It looked like a riddle: knife, paper, head ornament. Or some kind of preverbal message.
I touched all three with my fingertips.
A sweet, rotting scent filled my mouth and nostrils.
Part of me wanted to call my superiors but that part was growing weaker. The other part of me grew stronger. It may not have been the part that wanted to prove that I had been rehabilitated, no it was probably the opposite: the part of me that had led to my crimes.
It was like I was one of those flowers. Some petals were filling, brimming with color, and others were fading and dropping away.
I downloaded the log book into my handset, a file that was named “Report from Flora Earth Mission #423”. I knew about these missions. They had been conducted over a century ago to determine if the earth could be re-inhabited, to determine if there were resources that we could still take from our planet of origin. This mission must have gone astray. It was delayed and it had only brought desiccated flowers.
The reporter became more hesitant about his research. He noted, “I know these flowers, I was raised with these: coneflowers, anise hyssop, culver’s root, little blue stem. I’m cutting open my own childhood.”
His interest turned from the flowers to the structures. “This was once a city where people lived,” he wrote. “But there are no more people here. So I’m studying the insects. They still live here. Maybe they were always the primary population.”
He developed a routine. Spent the morning doing research, going for walks, taking a nap, watching the sun set in the fields, surrounded by grass and insects.
He also began to investigate the city.
He drew a map, venturing into what was residential streets, what was the business district. It’s a beautiful story. He even began to make a garden of his own, removing what he considered weed, and moving flowers into better position. For two weeks, all he recorded in his log book was “Summer.” I can only imagine what he did during these weeks. Most of all I picture him sitting in the grass and watching the sun. He talked about sitting in the grass “while the bumble bees bumble around in their drunken games.” He described the cone flower as a “delicate cake” and as a “child’s heart.” He described the woods as “strewn with light.”
Desiccated flowers are what I find on the ship.
And a knife, a piece of crinkled paper and a beautiful ornament.
As I read the report, I kept looking at myself in the murky reflection of a window. With my tattooed arms hidden under my latex body sheath, I didn’t look like a criminal. I looked like I was disappearing into water. Like a sick angel. I looked like how songs sound when they are sung at funerals for someone who has died young. I knew too many young people who had died before they became anything else. I was their song. And they were my face.
The reporter must have investigated the city more thoroughly because when he goes back to reporting his daily activities, it appears he has begun to take a more familiar view of the city. He refers to the function of various buildings – “I went to the grocery store today and searched for traces of the original human nutrition” – as if the buildings were still standing.
But the tone has changed. He begins to refer to something as “the vermillion.” This may be some archaic usage of the word but it feels more like code. He writes “I found traces of vermillion.” He finds it in the business district, he follows the traces. At one point, he seems to slip up, referring to tracking this vermillion as “the reason I came here.” Perhaps he went on the expedition secretly hoping to find something more valuable than flowers. Such a motive would transform the entire expedition into a crime.
I had been in the vessel for several hours when I heard footsteps enter the room. I turned and saw Alexandria, my supervisor. Like me, she had been a criminal, but her tattoos could not be covered by latex sleeves. The dates of her crimes were on her neck and the lower half of her face, and they’d been written in tephra ink, which made the tattoos appear to shift across her skin, like fish just under the surface of the water.
She had been with the Foundation for a third of her lifespan, and she had been assigned to teach me about the time and calendar system the Foundation had developed — one that stretched events out further than the system I had been raised in. The Foundation claimed their time system was closer to the one employed by the people on what had been called earth, but no one, they admitted, could really be sure.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said. “This is a crime scene and you’ve barged right in, getting your fingerprints all over it.”
“It’s beautiful in here” I said. I gestured to the dried bulbs on their dried stalks on the shelves around us. “A garden of dead flowers.”
“They’ll be angry with you. I’m angry with you.”
I stared at her. Why had I come in? I’d known there would be repercussions. I knew the high ups would scold me for it, and maybe even place me in one of the Grey Rooms for a few hours, where my thoughts would be amplified with my mind, and where I would have no choice but to think about my supposed wrong-doing in that amplified tone. (I had spent countless hours in a Gray Room during my first weeks with the Foundation. What they didn’t know, and what I would never tell them, was that I had liked my time in the Gray Room. I loved hearing my voice sound alien in my head.)
Why had I come in? It wasn’t simply by choice. I realized I had entered because something had been calling me inside. A frequency. A no-sound attuned to my neural pathways, drawing me in.
I was hearing it, even now.
Yet not hearing it exactly. It went in too deep to be simply a sound.
Alexandria went up to one of the onyx vases holding a bouquet of purple-black flowers. She touched the curled-in bulbs with the tips of her fingers. “Do you know the difference between a dead language and a live one?” she asked, tearing off a petal and sniffing at it.
The reporter starts to use lists again, but not the type of list he used before. These lists are filled with half-questions and fragments that sound like they were taken randomly from a religious belief network. He writes “earth as fantasy and not a place” and “the temptation of certain scorched ruins” and “the intelligence of the lungs and throat versus the intelligence of the brain” and “what these dead flowers have lived through.”
And the vermillion fog is mentioned in the lists too.
Or rather, he tells a story about the fog by employing the form of a list.
One late afternoon, he’s standing on a gray, grass-less hill, watching sunlight fade from the broken windows of the town below. The fog begins to seep out from the windowsills and the holes in many of the rooftops, and winds itself around the foundations of the structures until the buildings appear to float in a vermillion air.
He notes how controlled this fog seems, how it looks like sculptured light, or like a nonliving element shaped by a living one. He wonders if this really is earth, that planet talked about on other planets. He wonders if this might be a vast playground for a yet-unknown type of intelligence, one that creates the ruins of the so-called earth.
He wonders if earth is a story, not a place or time, and these ruins are the make-believe leftovers of that never-existing planet.
Earth: a terrain of ghosts and nothing more.
Of course, they fired Alexandria and myself. They had it all on tape and we were rescue projects. Hirings meant to show the company’s ethical interest in rehabilitating the criminal elements of the ship. What surprised me was that the director told us we would be paid a weekly stipend for two months – until they figured out what had happened with the ship – on the promise that we not leak any information. Although I later realized I should have asked for much, much more – or should have broken the promise immediately – we were both pleased and slightly thrilled to have money in our accounts.
We went back to her place. She had a couch that reminded me of my beautiful childhood, the one I had been expelled from as from a dying planet, because it was made of a kind of red, soft textile like the one my family had always had in the room with the glass doors overlooking our flower garden. I was expelled again but this time I was happy. In part because I had money and because I hated that job and because my friend was with me. At first, she had been furious with me but she had soon realized that this was the best possible outcome. We found ourselves sitting in that childhood-red couch in the early morning drinking some sickly sweet makli and watching a historical film about earth.
In the film a rich man is building a tower and a poor man is trying to figure out why his body has these strange welts on them. “He doesn’t realize that those are insect bites,” said Alexandria. The poor man had been the victim of a kind of insect that was the by-product of the rich man’s tower building. The construction had gone into the ground where it had opened up a path for the insects to surface again. There were a number of reversals, I couldn’t quite keep track of them, and then I fell into a shell-like slumber on the childhood-red couch even as I heard Alexandria say “they have to dig up the tower, dig up the tower, dig up the tower…”
That’s when I had my first dream about the knife with the yellow handle – and the wrinkled up paper, the red ornament. At first, I thought I was back at my parent’s flower garden, the one that had brought us both acclaim and caused our downfall: the yellows, pinks, the pollinators buzzing around my ears, the crisp green leaves against my face as I ran. I don’t know what I was running from. Then it struck me – I saw the sun – that I was on earth, that I had gone back down there. The word “vermillion” kept pounding in my head. I wasn’t saying the word, I wasn’t hearing it. It was just pounding in my head. In my hand I was holding that knife but now it looked different, almost anatomical. Like I was holding a part of myself.
The reporter starts to use the fragments of words instead of full words. This goes on for what seems like thirty percent of the document. (The rumors that circulated later were mostly about this section, speculating that the reporter had discovered an elemental undertow to what we have called planet earth – as if he were taking tree limbs and bricks and converting them into chemistry and physics.) But as I read it – and this is something I never mentioned to the Foundation – the syllables reshaped themselves into words in my head. I saw the fragments. I saw what the others saw. But these sparse syllables reconfigured into flowery, ornate meanings as I read them.
If my neural-translations are correct, I have no idea.
They said “moving forwards in this fog leads backwards until even before” and “every seed harbors my own invasive species” and “I won’t remember a single one of us anymore.”
Then the fragments abruptly end, and it’s followed by a long treatise in which he speculates about the reader of the report. He imagines two criminals scanning it, imagining him here, among these ruins blazing in the light of this dead vermillion sky.
He imagines me seeing him, following him. And, eventually, forgetting him.
The Foundation wanted to see us again. We were called into an office where a fit man with a nervous tic under the right eye told us that what we had done had broken the trust of the Foundation. I thought for sure we would be fired but instead he told us we would be relocated in the organization. It would take some time – “Maybe a week, maybe three” – and in the meantime we would be on our own. “But remember to stay fit,” he said. He sighed as if an insect was burrowing into his back and went into a strange monologue about how grievous our error had been, but we would still be paid during our leave because we clearly had not meant to do anything wrong.
I wanted to tell him I never wanted to do anything wrong. In my life whole life of crime it was always as if something else did it. I wanted to say, I have vermillion in my heart. But I didn’t. I just listened.
“The important thing is,” the man said and paused for emphasis, “that you tell nobody about this. This mission, though insignificant and outdated, could upset people. Especially people who had lost loved ones in past missions. And, even worse, people may become homesick. That would threaten our entire civilization.” He looked at Alexandria, then at me. Then at Alexandria, then me. I wondered if he expected us to say something.
“You’re right,” said Alexandria, looking the man straight in the eyes. “We just did what we thought was right.” She stood up and reached out her hand. They shook. I stood up clumsily and shook his hand as well. Then we hurried out of the office.
At the bar ten minutes later, Alexandria monologued about how lucky we were to be paid to do nothing while stirring and sipping an insectoidly yellow-green drink.
As an earth-nostalgic, I drank the beer through a metallic straw.
I interrupted her by wondering why they were so concerned about homesickness, if that was the real reason they didn’t want us to talk to anyone about the log.
Alexandria didn’t care. She sipped her insectoid drink and said there are so many movies we haven’t watched. We should spend all our time watching them. We should become expert on movies. Maybe we should become experts on movies about earth, she concluded, it would be fitting, don’t you think?
“How do you know when a movie is set on earth and not?” I wondered.
Alexandria took this as sophistry and waved it off. “If it’s set in the space station, it’s not set on earth,” she replied and began to catalogue films she wanted to see.
But I was serious. What about this mission whose log book we had just illicitly poured through? How did we know it was earth and not my grandparents’ farms in “the dark area”?
The Dark Area wasn’t actually dark. Or I don’t know if it was. That’s what it was called because civilization had withdrawn from that part of the ship. The common understanding was that there had been a technical problem that had made a big area – but the mothership was huge, a little planet circling the sun – inhospitable to human thriving. Trains and walking paths leading into that part of the mothership were closed off. My grandparents and my parents had to move into the center. I was just a toddler, I don’t remember much – plants, flowers, trees, mushroom that we would pick and fry in butter, the light, the rain, the smell of the greenery. My grandparents always told me about their farm, how they made it look just like their parents’ pictures of earth, and using the seeds from earth, developed to flourish in slightly different conditions. We were told we could never return to the Dark Area, that people no longer lived there. But when I became a teenager and got involved in criminal activities, I found out that many underworld kids not only visited but lived in the Dark Area. I was a shambling nobody, sullen because my mother had died. But when the other kids found out that I was a “darksider,” raised in the Dark Side, I was received with wonder and respect. These kids would ask me what it used to look like, what it was like to be raised there. I didn’t remember much but I invented fanciful stories – about mutations, strange beasts developed out of the mating of flowers and sand and glitches in the atmosphere. Almost immediately, these kids wanted to bring me to the Dark Side. It wasn’t hard. The subway stops had been abandoned but they were still there. If you walked on the tracks you could get there. Lets go tomorrow, one kid said. My brother lives there, we can stay with him.
It turned out the brother had some kind of illegal drug operation in the Dark Area. Apparently, he had a whole house, complete with beds and tables. As well as a garden full of bright purple poppies and a chemical lab.
We rode to the last stop before the Dark Area and got off. Once the train had pulled out, we got down on the rails and walked. I was constantly looking back. “Don’t worry,” said the lead kid. “We have 20 minutes to get to the next station.” But it wasn’t the train I was nervous about. In fact, getting hit by a high-speed train would have been a relief. I was nervous about going to my childhood, nervous about entering the Dark Area, nervous that my grandparents would be alive in there.
I couldn’t go through with it. Once we got to the stop, I decided I couldn’t do it. I can’t do it, I told the others. What’s your problem? It’s not a big deal, they replied. I just shook my head, I can’t, I can’t do it. OK then, you’ll have to wait for the next train then head back. You’ll have 15 minutes.
As they began to file up the broken escalator, I stood there shuddering. I was scared of going with them and scared of going back. Suddenly it struck me how dangerous it would be to walk on the tracks. As the last wisps of their voices trailed off, I sat down on the grimy platform. I couldn’t move. I just sat there. After a few minutes, I started to look at the scribbles on the wall. Names, obscenities, body parts. But also: flowers, so many pictures of flowers, ghost flowers. And pictures of bees. Someone had written in large bright letters “Bee Death.” And in even larger letters, in bright vermillion: “Welcome to Vermillion.”
This was the day I met Alexandria. Suddenly she stood there on the platform and said: “I thought you might need help getting back.”
I thought about our meeting while we, back at her place, began watching a movie about earth. It was an old movie. “This is both set on earth and filmed on earth,” Alexandria said as if to shut down any objections I might have. A horrible virus has broken out, due to some kind of eco terrorist league, and made earth uninhabitable.
“Why did it say Welcome to Vermillion in the train station in the Dark Area?” I asked her.
“I don’t remember, I think it was an old graffiti, from before we started going there. Maybe even before it was closed down,” Alexandria replied.
“We could make a movie about the log book we read yesterday,” I told Alexandria.
She nodded but she was paying attention to the movie.
“We could film it in the Dark Area,” I said.
On the screen: a woman and a man in a park. They are tracing year rings on a tree.
I fleeted off into sleep.
I dreamt I was the pilot going back to earth. Or I was acting the role of the pilot going back to earth. “Beware of the vermillion gash,” Alexandria told me. No, my mother told me. My mother said: “Don’t let the vermillion gash you.” Alexandria said: “Don’t go in there. The bees are dangerous, they will swarm around you.” But I went. I walked through the tall tall grass. It was silent except for the chirping and buzzing of insects. I sat down on a hill and looked out on the fields. Miles and miles of fields of flowers and grass. And somewhere a hundred meters away a figure carrying a bundle of something snook away. I ran after the figure. I knew where it was going. Intuitively I knew where – I just followed. It was a house – blue, with big windows looking over the woods and a creek. I had come home.
We’ve started to share the same dreams, Alexandria and I, but maybe they aren’t dreams at all but memories. Memories someone else is remembering for us, and inside of us. Alexandria says every word and touch that passes between us increases the infection, that vast vermillion fog, between us.
We will be going soon, she and I. Into the fog. Into the script we’re writing. Into the old films about earth by directors who never visited that planet.
In her dreams, she is the pilot and I am the figure, and in mine it’s the mirror reflection of those terms.
We carry the bundle. We carry the seeds.
One time, when I was a child, I walked through the airport corridors holding my mother’s hand. Ships were leaving, and we were leaving too, but to what place, or what territory, I no longer remember. From the corner of my eye I saw a woman in the middle of the crowd. She wore a head ornament that at first looked like it was made from cheap plastic or tinsel, but as we came closer, as she grew in my child’s-eye vision of her, I saw it wasn’t constructed of material at all but of wisps of smoke. Vermillion smoke. A head ornament of curling and twisting fog.
“Her name is Alexandria,” my mother said. “She’s your friend, just as she was mine. She’s our patron saint. Saint for those who dream of the Dark Area.”
At her feet was a dying man, purple blood dripping from his mouth. A crowd had formed around him, and travelers in a hurry walked around that gathered crowd, hoping to make their flights away from this over-heated world. My mother and I approached, and I sensed my mother wanted me to look at him, study him.
Next to his side was a bloodied knife. I picked it up, and I held it tight in my small hand. He whispered, “Thank you,” and stared into my eyes. “I know you can do this.”
I looked to the woman in the head ornament. She nodded to me in support.
I brought the blade to the man’s chest, the tip just over his heart. I looked into his eyes, and he into mine, and I saw him leave this world as I would one day leave this one.