Linda Mendez's mission was to get rid of an infestation of killer rocks, as the Board had called it. She felt excited about her first real job after college, but still found it strange to consider rocks (or anything coming from the earth) as an enemy.
During her childhood, when Linda felt nervous or ungrounded, her grandmother used to help the girl bury herself in the earth. The rich soil of the Amazonian shores comforted Linda and she remained there until she felt soothed. She remembered being in close contact with small rocks, old roots, even worms that walked all over her with their sticky little bodies. She was never afraid. They were all, in their own way, reassuring. "You belong to the earth," her grandmother would say.
But Celeste 21 was a distant asteroid, not the Amazonian jungle. And the rocks here had nothing in common with the ones Linda knew. They killed.
The first thing Linda noticed when the shuttle prepared to land was how small Celeste 21 really was-less than two square miles. Her face tensed and she felt the now familiar pain inside her womb. "I am wounded," she told herself, as she had done for the last two months. "I have no business coming here."
The shuttle landed softly. As she adjusted her protective, anti-gravity suit and got ready to step outside, Linda wondered why anybody would want to build a spatial station in such narrow quarters. The air that greeted her (fresh, moist, real air after seventy-nine days of breathing in the recycled atmosphere of the pressurized cabinet) reminded her of the answer. That was the only asteroid in the entire galaxy that had an atmosphere similar to the Earth's. Better actually; clearer, with a delightful hint of grass. There were no trees or plants of any kind around, which made the smell more appealing-and unexplainable.
Linda grabbed her backpack, opened the cabin door and walked out. The station was a small, square metallic building connected to the landing pad by a cement hall. A couple stood at the entrance of the hall and made hurry-up gestures.
"Run!" a man's voice shouted.
Linda wasn't used to people telling her, much less yelling at her, what to do. She stopped and looked around, trying to get a glimpse of the rocks she had come to destroy.
Obsidian. That was what they looked like, obsidian blocks, though there were no volcanoes around. Linda wanted to touch the rocks, but the woman was now screaming at the top of her lungs. Linda finally arrived at the hall sporting her best I-don't-know-what-the-fuss's-all-about expression.
"Welcome," the man said. "I'm Dr. Samuel Acorn and this is my wife, Janet."
The women offered a nervous tic that could pass for a smile.
Here they were, the others, the tall and beautiful and impossibly handsome, perfect ones. The kind Linda had mistrusted and even hated several years before. She blushed, ashamed of her thoughts, and stretched out her hand.
"Welcome to Celeste."
A few more pleasantries were exchanged while the couple guided her through the hall.
When Linda was a child, she used to think that people like the Acorns belonged to a different species. She would see their images on the school screens (many were her virtual instructors because there were few teachers at the village where she was born) but she didn't believe they were real. Could someone be six-foot tall, with those clear blue eyes and clean-cut features? Nobody around her looked like that. It wasn't until she was eighteen years old that she saw them in person. But by then, most of her real-life professors in Biogenetics School resembled the Acorns.
Some elders in her mother's tribe considered these people the enemy, but Linda was soon taught that it was a just a prejudice. There were no enemies anymore, her professors and the global leaders repeated. All wars (well, most of them) were a thing of the past. After the last nuclear mishap, mankind had learned to coexist in peace and the excess energy, both physical and mental, was used to conquest the outer space where many of them lived now.
Yet, despite the goodwill initiatives, despite the peace and brotherhood speeches, there were still few people like Linda at the University of Space. She had earned her place, winning scholarships and applying herself so efficiently that there she was, the first woman from her Amazonian town in charge of a space operation. "A cross between a Chihuahua and a bulldog," someone had said of her. A Chihuahua, of course, because of her height-Linda didn't reach five feet. To the bulldog part could attest those who had tried to oppose her or to get in her way. But even the bulldog part was now hurting, wanting to howl out to the moon.
Besides her personal heartbreak she had to cope with another gloomy deed-the explosion in mid space of shuttle AG 23, an accident where her best friend, Captain Hilario Paneque, had died. Paneque had come from a city located near her village and his parents shared tribal connections with Linda's mother. He even knew a few words in their native language, though he didn't speak it as fluently as Linda did. She had once thought of asking him to be an egg donor, but decided against the idea. Hilario's wife, already jealous of their friendship, was sure to take it the wrong way. Linda had chosen an unknown donor and later wondered if it was such foreignness what had made her body reject the fetus… She sighed, shook her head and turned her attention to the Acorns.
"They have stoned to death five construction workers, two astronauts and…," Mrs. Acorn stopped.
"A young civilian," her husband said.
Linda knew about it. Several bleeding bodies (and all the gory details of the attacks) had been shown to her in a video session during the trip. The images blended in her mind with that of Hilario's body disintegrating in the airless space. Hilario had talked to her briefly before the accident, explaining that he and his crew were in trouble, a mechanical failure of some sort. They had considered the possibility of reaching Celeste 21, but the landing track was too small and there was the danger (almost the certainty) that the shuttle would smash against the small station, destroying it and killing the Acorns, and probably themselves in the process. Though the crew had a small chance of surviving, Hilario decided against landing. "I do not want to hurt these people. We'll see if we can make it to the Lunar Station," were the last words she heard from him…
"Let's get in the house," Mrs. Acorn said.
The living room had ultra safe translucent windows and Linda looked at the motionless sea of rocks that surrounded the building. The rocks would rise up when they felt human presence around-though the word "felt" had never been used in the reports, this was the idea that Linda got. They would hit people as if thrown by a strong, invisible hand. The rocks, which on the ground stayed at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, became ignited as soon as they were airborne. Their impact was doubly dangerous: they scalded and knocked people down.
The spray that Linda had devised would pulverize the blocks and dissolve itself in the air, without causing any harm to the atmosphere. "It will destroy anything on contact," she had explained to the Space Board. "We just need to cover the surface of the asteroid, hover around the station for five hours and when we come back, the place will be squeaky clean."
But the samples she had used in her experiments (grayish, dead looking ones) didn't resemble the shiny ones that enclosed the station. Linda found herself doubting, for the first time, her product's efficiency.
"Have you tried my spray?" she asked.
"The same day the samples got here. Look," Dr. Acorn pointed to a strip of barren land three feet away from a window. A gray rectangle stood up against the dark surface. "It wiped out all the stones, and not even one has come close to that spot afterwards."
"It's the only thing that has worked up to now," Mrs. Acorn said. "They are stubborn… I mean, difficult to deal with."
Linda smiled at her and suddenly realized that perfection was marred. The woman was missing her left eye. Though she had replaced it with a good artificial one, a deep scar crossed her left temple and cheek.
"You have come as a blessing," Mrs. Acorn said.
"Thanks. I hope we can get it as soon as possible."
"We can start tomorrow."
Her husband cut her off, "Not so fast, Janet, please. Miss Mendez may want to rest for a whole day at first."
"When she feels ready, then."
"What about tomorrow afternoon?" Linda said.
"That would be fine."
They walked Linda to her room. She wanted to take a shower with clean (or at least not overly recycled) water but Mrs. Acorn insisted on showing her the station-or the house, as she referred to it. Just like any hostess down there, Linda chuckled silently. It was common for space workers to call the Earth "down there," as if they were somehow in a position above it.
The master suite was aseptic, bland and ordinary. The only thing that called Linda's attention was the picture of a young man. He was blond, tall and blue-eyed-obviously the couple's son.
"Is he down there?" she asked.
"No," Mrs. Acorn answered. "He is down here, buried under the rocks. They killed him and did this to me," she pointed to the left part of her face, "when I tried to save him."
"I am sorry," Linda felt a sympathetic pang in her womb.
"We have to get rid of them before they cause more harm. They really, really hate us."
"That's not the way to put it, Janet," Dr. Acorn said softly.
She shrugged, "Let's go see the kitchen, Miss Mendez. I'll make you a cup of tea and a decent homemade dinner."
After the dinner, which was decent enough, though not exactly homemade, Mrs. Acorn excused herself and went to bed. Her husband showed Linda the lab, which was next to the heart of the station-a room where they kept the control panels and communicated with astronauts and the Earth. He helped her transport the bottles and spray-making materials to the lab.
"What did your wife mean when she said 'they' hated us?" she asked. "Have you found any intelligent life form here?"
"None at all. It's a way of speaking. She has taken all this very personally… not that I can blame her for that."
"Do you have any idea about why the rocks attack people?"
"They don't attack people. I believe that movement, caused either by humans or by the arrival of a shuttle, triggers an electromagnetic response on the earth, and that is why the rocks get hot and start flying around. There may be something in them that is attracted to moving targets, I don't know. Of course, I am not an expert. This is just my personal theory."
He accompanied Linda to her room and pointed to the window.
"We open it every morning to let fresh air come in. But don't try it yourself unless there is a real emergency, like a fire. And I dare say that we can better control a fire than those damned things, if they sneak inside."
He took Linda's right hand and shook it. "Call me if you need anything, OK?"
Once alone, Linda reached for her nightgown. It was a maternity gown she had worn only a few times, but couldn't yet part with.
I wonder if I should get myself a guy… someone like him.
Up to then Linda had rejected the idea of including a man in her life. Her baby, the one she still felt in her womb, though she had lost it four months before, was an implanted embryo. Now she thought that the loss might have been easier to bear had she had a partner to comfort her afterwards.
She approached the window. Save for the connecting hall there was nothing else around, not even a porch or a sidewalk. It had been hard enough to build the station under the rain of rocks. High on the horizon shone the Pink Moon, a reddish ball that floated in the empty immensity of the space.
Linda turned her attention to the ground and noticed several rocks scattered by the window. The bigger ones emitted a soft glow. And… they all moved. Their progress was almost imperceptible but she could follow it. There were three smaller rocks trailing behind two big ones. They advanced in coordination, one inch at a time, toward the station.
Linda opened the window. The rocks stopped and the biggest one got between the window and the smaller ones.
Like a cat protecting a liter of kittens.
The other big rock stood in its place as if waiting-for her. Linda forgot all caution. She jumped outside and took a deep breath. Nothing happened. No mass of fiery stones rose from the earth to hit her. She picked up the rock, which felt strangely warm and soft against her hand, and went back inside with it.
She sat on the bed and placed the rock on the dressing table, next to a clock that read 10 p.m. The samples that had been sent to her lab looked grayish and much like any ordinary stone one could find on the earth. They had lost this peculiar, shiny blackness and they certainly didn't glow.
Linda dozed off. When she opened her eyes again, it was six thirty a.m. She looked out the window, but nothing had changed. The Pink Moon still winked in the sky while a frozen dark sea stretched under it. The sky, as seen from Celeste 21, was always the same. There was never real night, never real day, only a permanent twilight.
Linda had a blurred memory of a weird dream-images of a mineral city brimming with shiny, living things. The rock she had picked up was still on the table. She leaned down and touched it. A cloud came off and Linda saw in the air a holographic replica of the other big rock and the smaller ones. They appeared for a second before vanishing as quickly as they had shown up.
Someone knocked at the door. Linda smoothed and buttoned her blouse, covering, as if by accident, the rock with the nightgown she hadn't gotten to wear.
"How did you sleep, my dear?" Mrs. Acorn asked. She looked less nervous this morning and her bright, clear eye indicated that she had rested well. A small velvet purse hung from her neck.
"Come with me and I'll fix you breakfast."
That was also a way of speaking borrowed from the Earth because all meals consumed at the station were packaged and ready to eat. The only "fixing" required was taking them out of a plastic container and pushing the self-heat button.
After breakfast Linda returned to the lab. All the equipment she needed was in working order, ready for her to start on. She began to mix the content of the boxes and place the combination inside the automatic spray machines. Mrs. Acorn stayed around, chatting and wanting to be of help. She had been a nurse "down there" and had taken early retirement to be here with her family.
"Maybe it wasn't a good decision," she concluded. "But Earl wanted to so much to be part of his father's life, to learn from him. He planned to go to medical school too."
"How old was Earl?"
"Eighteen years old."
At least you had him for so many years.
"I wonder if it would be really dangerous to go outside," Linda said after a brief pause. "I'd like to collect a couple of samples before going on."
She could have used the rock she had gotten the night before, but didn't want to admit that the first thing she did was disobey her host's orders.
"No problem. We'll get them."
Linda followed Mrs. Acorn to the main entrance. Dr. Acorn was in the control room and his wife brought a finger to her lips.
"He doesn't need to know we are going out," she whispered.
Linda was going to ask why not, but Mrs. Acorn was already out. She opened her purse and brought out a pocket-size pulverizer.
Air. Air again. As Mrs. Acorn bent to shoot at the rocks, Linda inhaled deeply. How good it felt to breath.
Mrs. Acorn's yelp made Linda jump. She saw a small rock flying away and then heard the metallic, cranky sound of the pulverizer.
"Bastards! Let's go back inside!"
Linda followed the woman, without fully understanding what had happened until she noticed her companion's raw, red index finger, and smelled her burned flesh.
"Did it hit you?"
"Not too badly, it could have been worse. I should have known…I should…"
Dr. Acorn came out of the control room.
"Gosh, Janet, I had asked you not to..."
"It was my idea," Linda said. "I wanted to get another sample."
She was recalling how easily she had retrieved the rock.
"It has become more and more dangerous," Dr. Acorn brought bandage and a cream and began to take care of his wife's wounded hand. She looked angry and defeated. Linda couldn't tell if the tears running down her cheeks were caused by pain or anger.
"Now they scald at the slightest contact," he said. "But if you need more samples, I'll take the nuclear pulverizer and try to get one. It may come out in small pieces, though."
"No, I'll do without them," Linda hurried to say. "It wasn't that important. I can manage as it is."
"Are you sure?"
She worked in the lab for six hours, alone, and didn't stop until the bottles were ready to be used. Only then she went back to her room and locked the door.
Did I dream everything?
She lifted the maternity gown. The rock was still there and Linda caressed it. It warmed up and gave off the same luminosity it had produced the night before. The holographic images of the other rocks appeared inside.
"Family?" Linda whispered. A tenuous smoke screen enfolded her now. There was an unformed baby girl inside. She tried to touch it but the image dissolved in the air.
The door opened abruptly. Linda was sure she had locked it but there they were, the Acorns, standing at the threshold. All the images vanished. The rock became cold and Linda took a step back. Mrs. Acorn had the pulverizer in her unharmed hand.
"This isn't just a rock," Linda blurted. "It can communicate. It is…" she stopped, feeling the icy glare of the couple on her. "It is a sentient being."
"I know that," Dr Acorn said. "But we still have to get rid of them."
Mrs. Acorn aimed the pulverizer at the rock. She shot but missed her target. The rock sprang away, passed by Linda, without touching her, and jumped out the window.
"Who the hell opened that?" Dr. Acorn barked.
Linda glared back at them and they became "the other" again.
"These rocks are sentient beings," she repeated.
It was Mrs. Acorn who spoke this time, "It doesn't matter. They are our enemies. You came here to kill them."
They explained things to Linda later on. Or at least they tried to. She couldn't figure out if the Acorns hadn't reported the fact that the rocks were not inanimate things, or if they had and the Space Board had decided to go ahead and build the station anyway. It was the only place with an atmosphere located less than two months away from the Earth, the Acorns repeated as a well-learned lesson. It would save lives. It would be an emergency medical post for those who needed urgent help.
Maybe that was what the Space Board had ordered them to say. Maybe the Space Board didn't know what went on. But, above all, the Acorns were waging their own battle against the rocks that had killed their son and they were going to carry it out, no matter what.
"They started attacking people from day one." Dr. Acorn said.
"They are full of hate," his wife added.
The three sat in the living room. Outside, the dark basaltic sea gleamed ominously.
It's possible that they can see our thoughts all the time, like I saw hers… his… its… a while ago. I bet they can feel these people's hostility.
Linda realized that in her mind she had referred to the Acorns as "these people," as if separating herself from them.
"I hope you understand," Mrs. Acorn said.
"Listen," Linda tried to speak calmly. "Think of a strange civilization invading us, closing on the Earth. Think of them as bigger than you, stronger, looking completely different," she avoided their eyes, aware of how different they looked from her. "You try to communicate, to tell them you have families, lives to protect… and if they don't care, if they persist on destroying your home, they become the enemy and…"
"Are you taking their side?"
"I am just trying to explain."
"How clear it is you've never lost a child," Mrs. Acorn said, and left the room.
An uncomfortable, awkward silence grew between Linda and Dr. Acorn. It became like a dense, sticky substance that could almost be touched. He broke it, "My wife doesn't feel well. As I said, she takes things very personally."
"I see, but sill -."
"At a certain level, I feel the same way you do," he lowered his voice. "I do, despite Earl's death, and despite… everything. I know we are the invaders. But we need this base. You probably heard about shuttle AG 23 accident. It could have been avoided had we had a proper station here with a landing pad big enough to receive them."
Hilario's memory swirled around Linda. But she knew he would have never agreed to sacrifice a whole planet of sentient beings, even if they looked like obsidian stones, for his own safety.
"Does the Space Board know..?"
"Of course. We provided them with living samples. They are studying them right now. They may keep some of the rocks… alive, and form another community later, somewhere else. In any case, they sent you to do a job, and I certainly hope you are not backing off."
"Have you communicated with the rocks? Have they…?" Linda stopped. She didn't want to talk about the projection, as she wasn't sure the Acorns had had time to perceive it.
Dr. Acorn shrugged, "They will pretend to be friendly at first. They will make you feel you can trust them. Then they will kill you."
"Why didn't you tell me that before? You lied to me, giving me all that crap about electromagnetic fields."
"I just wanted you to do your job in peace and not be bothered by other concerns... emotional concerns, I mean. And now you tell me, how did that rock end up in your dressing table?"
"I went outside and picked it up."
"Didn't it attack you?"
"Well, it was trying to win your trust. You shouldn't have picked it up. You should never do it again."
The bulldog woke up inside Linda. Who was that guy to give her orders? She forced herself to smile, though.
"When will you start working?"
"I started this morning. I will go on right now."
Linda went back to the lab. Her initial intention had been to dismantle everything but now, in front of the four-feet spray containers, she hesitated.
In a sense, I am a soldier and I'm supposed to obey orders. The orders were to destroy the rock soil and help build a safe landing strip, a place that would save lives. Like Hilario's.
She mixed all that had to be mixed and prepared a small bottle of spray, feeling as focused as if she were in her own lab, "down there." When everything was ready, she went back to the living room and cracked the window a bit. There was one rock nearby.
Please, go away. Just go away. I don't want to do it, really. But I will.
Linda heard a noise behind her and turned back, but there was no one there. When she looked at the place where the rock had been, it was empty. She sighed, relieved, and whispered, "I am sorry, guys. I wish this wasn't necessary."
Linda thought of Hilario, his ship disintegrating in space. She even thought of Earl's young face. And she sprayed the ground-a small area, about ten inches. She waited as the upper layer started to melt like a black soup in the oven. It became a bluish vapor and disappeared, leaving below a granite-like surface that looked sterile, safe-and dead.
Something moved behind her again. Linda turned around fast and saw Mrs. Acorn sneaking into the master bedroom.
Was she spying on me?
She heard Hilario's voice in her hear, "I do not want to hurt these people."
"Neither do it," Linda said aloud.
She returned to the lab and began to dismount the equipment. It took her less than half an hour to leave it in its original condition, mumbling to herself as she worked.
"They can't make me do it. I will call the Board and tell them what I saw."
The idea that the Space Board might already know stopped her in her tracks, but she shrugged. "I don't care. I won't do it anyway."
Linda walked to her bedroom, her head high and a spark of defiance in her eyes. She took a gun out of her backpack and put it in her right pocket. Then she opened the window and concentrated to convey her thoughts.
I know I just sprayed part of your territory. But I was careful not to hurt anyone…. at least I hope I didn't. I will not kill you.
She saw them, the two big rocks followed by the three little ones. But they were not alone-there were dozens of small and big rocks all advancing toward the station under the reddish light of the Pink Moon.
Linda heard the door open. This time, when the Acorns appeared in the threshold, she had a gun aimed directly at them.
"Get out of here," she said.
Mrs. Acorn lifted the pulverizer. Her husband grabbed her hand.
"It seems there is a misunderstanding here," he spoke in the same tone that Linda's first professors used when talking to her, as if they weren't sure she could understand them. "We need to discuss this."
Mrs. Acorn opened fire. Linda felt a burning sensation on her left shoulder and Dr. Acorn positioned himself in the middle of the two women.
"Are you crazy, Janet?" He took the pulverizer away from her. "How hurt are you, Miss Mendez?"
Linda touched her shoulder. There was no blood, though it hurt.
Mrs. Acorn pushed her husband away and left.
"I am sorry," he said. "This shouldn't have happened. She is-crazy."
"No question about it. Now, let me make myself clear: I will not lift a finger to destroy life in this place."
"Fine. Then you go back to Earth. But we won't end up shooting at each other like savages."
Linda had forgotten about the open window. She only looked at it after they heard the noise.
"Jesus," Dr. Acorn muttered.
A rain of rocks of all shapes and sizes was coming through the window.
"Run!" Dr. Acorn said. "Get in your shuttle!"
Linda didn't move. The man turned around and ran away.
The rocks started congregating in the room and surrounding Linda, who still had the gun in her hand.
She dropped it.
The racket came from the lab. Linda suspected right away what Mrs. Acorn had been up to. Of course she wouldn't know how to put the ingredients together or to use the spray bottles, but still, she could harm someone, most likely herself.
Linda hurried to the lab and a cluster of rocks followed her. She saw Mrs. Acorn next to one of the sprayers. Her husband was by her, shaking and pale.
Mrs. Acorn shot the first round against the rocks. It wasn't the right measurement, but contained a potent acid that dissolved a bunch of the smaller ones, cracked up the walls and made holes in the furniture. The next one was directed at Linda. Before she could run for cover, a mass of rocks rose from the floor and stepped in between her and the deadly fluid so not even a drop touched her. Linda closed her eyes and only heard the screams, two at the same time. Then there was nothing else but darkness-for a while.
When Linda woke up the station had been flattened and the shuttle was being quickly covered by a mass of rocks. She wondered through the veil of drowsiness that hung over her how and what she was going to eat.
Though she was lying on the ground, it didn't feel uncomfortable. The soil was soft and warm like the earth where she used to be buried in. She tried to move her feet and stand up, but couldn't. Her feet weren't there anymore and yet, Linda didn't seem to miss them. Like in the old times she sensed she belonged to the earth, to this earth, as she melted in it and became part of it.
x x x
Grew up in the 60's and 70's. Loved Rock. Might not have liked this kind of rock, though. Howzabout you? Let us know on the BBS - GM