rock and a hard place
by
joseph guzzo

A mystery attack in the Belt... and powers from the past...  This tale came too late for Volume One of the Anthology, but it is a candidate for Volume Two.


Wild Ride to Nowhere

 

It happened so fast that they hadn’t a chance of avoiding it. A beam of energy, flashing from one of the asteroids, struck the main engine sitting at the tail end of the ship. The blast shook the ship, affectionately known as Mother Lode by the crew, and disabled that main engine. Rock cursed as the controls went haywire. He looked to his right to his partner, Fitz.

“Did you see what that was, Fitz?”

“Hell, no! I wasn’t looking out the port. All I can tell you is that our instruments all went nuts just before that hit us. It must pack quite a punch to do that to everything we have. Let’s button up our suits now. If whatever is out there hits us again, we might get holed.”

Getting holed without being suited would mean instant decompression and certain death. It was not something any spacer would want to see happen, especially to oneself.

Fitz was reaching for his helmet, stored close alongside his science station when a second bolt of energy hit one of the cargo containers attached to the spine of the ship.

“Shit, shit, shit!!” was all Rock could hear coming from Fitz’s side of the cockpit. Well, that and about 10 alarms of various kinds telling them that things were broken. Rock snagged his helmet and got it placed over his head, locked on and sealed. He looked over toward his partner, still cursing like a drunken sailor and saw he had grabbed his helmet, too.

As Fitz got the helmet on his head and sealed, the cursing could not be heard as clearly. In the next moment the cursing came in loud and clear. Rock knew that Fitz must have activated his suit radio.

In between curses, Fitz said, “I am transmitting a mayday call, Rock. I hope that whatever is out there thinks we have help close to us and bugs out of here.”

Fitz fired up the radio and called for help.

“Mayday, mayday! This is Gary Fitzgerald of Mother Lode. We’ve been hit and disabled by some sort of energy weapon. We need…”

Moments after that transmission began, a third deadly beam struck the ship. This time it hit the cockpit directly. It instantly and explosively heated a large area of the wall and its supporting girders splattering Fitz with molten debris, holing his suit in dozens of places. Much of the debris was moving so fast that it was like being hit by dozens of hot, molten bullets. One of those speeding particles struck Fitz’s neck at the base of his brainstem, severing his spinal cord and another cut his jugular vein an instant later. His body never had the chance to register the impact or any pain. Death was instantaneous.

The frame of the ship, badly damaged now, twisted with the unbalanced torque acting upon it, and a large area, along with the seat where Rock’s station was located, was slowly and inexorably torn from the main structure of the craft. There it slowly drifted away and toward an unknown destination. Rock had little hope left that he would find something that might offer him a chance of survival. He also guessed that if the radio was still operational, and if he risked using it to call for help, that radio transmission would target his small place of refuge to another barrage from that energy weapon. With no active beacon to trace, in the vastness of the asteroid belt, finding one small fragment of a ship would be impossible. Heart beating wildly, he clung to the hope that someone had heard the original transmission and could triangulate the area where the attack took place. He hoped that whatever was out there would leave him and any would-be rescuers alone. Trembling like a leaf, he otherwise sat quietly to gather his wits, inventory what was at hand and began to think how to save himself if possible. He suspected it would be in vain, but it was not in his nature to stop hoping for a miracle.

 

Mom’s Emporium

 

If you recall your history lessons, you will remember that the war with the Martians ended a little over 60 years ago. The Martians, whose bodies were unable to fend off Earthly microbes, failed in their attack on the Earth as they started to weaken and eventually die. When the Martians started to bombard the Earth with canisters of deadly gases in an effort to destroy Earthly life, effectively a strategy suspected to be a sterilization program, we quickly responded. Using technology stolen from the Martian’s spaceships, we created our own fleets able to reach Mars and able to fight. We armed them with weapons like the ray beams they used against us and added powerful bombs of our own devising. With these weapons and strategy developed by our best military minds, we put them on the defensive.

It was not an easy win; make no mistake on this. The forces from Earth took on a heavy burden, and many lives and ships were lost, yet we managed to prevail. Ships harassed the Martian cities, bombing them into dust. Canals were destroyed, leaving many areas without the life-giving water needed in those cities remaining. Within a Martian year, most of those miserable creatures had been killed, and the few remaining were either taken into captivity for study and experimentation, or they fled the planet somehow managing to evade the Earth ships in orbit around Mars. It is not known how many left, but it did not matter. Frustrated and unable to prevent this exodus, we watched as the ships vanished into deep space. It was believed that no one would ever see these ships and the Martians inside them again. At the velocity with which they were heading away, our scientists and best military minds felt secure that those creatures were making the best of a disastrous situation. As one General from a state in the western U.S. was heard to say, “It looks like they are gettin’ out of Dodge, boys.”

It did not happen overnight, but soon after the war ended, the nations of Earth had begun the settlement of Mars. Small enclaves of scientists, farmers and engineers were in the process of making Mars into a twin of Earth. As the settlements grew, so did the need for metals and other resources. Some hearty souls decided to ply the space between Mars and Jupiter, harvesting asteroids for their riches, scooping gases from Jupiter’s upper reaches, and exploring the vastness that was this part of our solar system. Earth’s entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well in the far reaches of space.

One group of entrepreneurs consisted of four unlikely people. Michelle Olivia Marceau, called Mom due to her initials, Terrance “Terry” Washburn, Gary “Fitz” Fitzgerald and David “Rock” Russo.

Mom ran this organization, because she was the one with the biggest stake. Using riches from her family inheritance back on Earth, she bought the two ships used to move between the asteroids and Mars, Mother Lode and Mother’s Way. Some of her money also went toward the purchase of land on Mars. It was just large enough to hold a small landing area to which the harvested material was brought, and a small building used to refine, and separate materials brought back. It was prepared for market and sent to Mom’s Emporium, as it was commonly called by the locals. The Emporium became known as the best supplier of metals, ice, gases and other resources. Many of Mars newly seeded businesses and communities became regular customers. This was far too big a job for one person, so she partnered up with others to complete her enterprising little team.

Fitz was a grizzled old curmudgeon, thought to be in his early 60s. Since even he did not know the year in which he was born, he chose one at random. He was always griping about something, most of the time imaginary things, but he was a terrific prospector, often finding veins rich in precious metals or rare minerals needed back on Mars. Although not dearly loved by his fellows, they held his skills in high regard. The ship assigned to him and his partner was able to tow three large cargo containers along its spine. He would work with whoever was his partner for the week to ensure a good load of material made its way back into the Emporium’s landing zone.

Terry was the youngest of the group at the tender age of 22. His father and mother died during a horrible accident in the asteroid belt. He was a small child when it happened. He could barely remember his parents. Orphaned as he was, he wound up in foster care for a short time until Mom said she would adopt him and took him under her wing. Terry grew to be as strong as an ox. His family had come from a slave background, generation upon generation tilling the soil of the antebellum South to scratch out a meager existence for themselves while making their owners wealthy. He vowed to work hard and do well to honor those enslaved ancestors.

The last of the partners was David, and he insisted that everyone call him Rock as he hoped it would bring him the luck he needed to find that one special asteroid that would make them rich and famous. At 36 years of age, he was a man of medium height, with naturally dark skin and a strong physique. He fit right into the team as another workhorse. His true love was to create art of all sorts, but his hobbies included learning many martial arts. He was a prodigious reader of old novels, and he could supply a quote without hesitation. Since the martial arts and other hobbies were a luxury that could not be given much attention, Rock mostly worked. He managed only a few moments daily to apply to those things he most enjoyed. Still, he felt quite lucky in everything he did have.

When the attack occurred, no one knew what to do. Although accidents happened all the time, something like this had not occurred since the last of the Martians had been captured or escaped. Was this the start of a new wave of Martian depredations? Back at the Emporium Mom and Terry stood near the radio hoping to hear more than the short distress call and the burst of static that followed.

 

Needle in a Haystack

 

Terry was looking shocked as he absorbed what they had heard in the message. What did that even mean? Were the Martians back and attacking again? And why so far from Mars itself?

Those were just a few of the many questions that popped into Terry’s head in the minutes that followed. Mom stood next to him, her face as white as a sheet which was really something when one considered that her Cajun background gave her complexion a normally ruddy and dark color.

She struggled to comprehend the enormity of what was happing. She looked at Terry and said, “I need, I mean we, of course. We need to help them. Let’s put out word to all the other prospectors and ships in the belt to see if anyone is near where Mother Lode’s flight plan shows it went today. In fact, I will do that while you start to poll others both here on Mars and in the belt to see if anyone else has been keeping hidden any similar events.”

Terry looked at Mom.

“You think that others would hide something like this? Isn’t that a little crazy considering what we have to deal with daily?”

Mom gave out a snort of derision, “With some of the people we know among our competitors, why would you think they would show any signs of weakness that could be exploited? I agree that most would spread the word, but a few would sit back and watch the competition get destroyed without blinking an eye.”

Nodding slowly, Terry had to agree that some of their counterparts could be damned antisocial and selfish. It was a harsh reality living out here, and many would steal the blood from your veins if they thought they could get a buyer. Hell, they might even try a sip to see if it tasted good.

With this image of a straw sticking out of his neck, he set about crafting two messages. One that would be broadcast to anyone working among the rock-strewn area of the belt near Rock and Fitz’s last known location. After some discussion with Mom, it was decided that this particular message should have the same tone as an emergency mayday. He hoped that someone would be willing to assist. He knew that it would take him a full day to get that far out into the belt in his own ship even if he dropped all the cargo containers and flew with a reduced mass. Thanks to the CO2 recyclers built into all modern suits, breathing would not be so large an issue, but without water? He left the thought unfinished as he knew that would kill them far more quickly than any lack of food. The second message was going to be sent out planet-side as well as broadcast to the belt. This one would ask if anyone else had been attacked in any way. Since there were attention seekers in every society, he did not give any details as to what was happening. He merely said his crew had been attacked. Hopefully someone would know something of this and be able to shed some light on it.

 

Knight-Fall

 

Long minutes passed as the signal asking for help went out among the asteroids. Since radio signals move at the speed of light, and the distances involved were significant, it meant that it would take 5 or more minutes for the signal to get that out far and be heard. After being received, it would take just as long to hear back from anyone who might elect to respond. Terry felt like heading into space, but he knew that Mom would have her own hands full if and when they got replies from anyone. So, conflicted though he might be, he sat and fidgeted while they awaited word from someone…. from anyone!

When the radio blared to life, both Mom and Terry jumped like frogs on a hot-plate. Now, understand that the conversation that follows was not an instant give and take. There went long minutes between each exchange due to the time lag.

“Mom, this is Starr Williams on the Cluster Truck. I am not real close, but within a few hours of reaching that area. In fact, I was already headed that general direction, so all I need is to give my course a slight nudge to get to where you say those boys are located.”

Starr was a wonderful woman of integrity and strength. She owned the Cluster Truck and used it to do emergency runs to anyone in the belt who was within reach. She always carried life-support goods, medicines and a hundred other items that might be needed in emergencies. It was nothing but good luck that had her flying through that area of the belt. It was also good luck that she was the only good Samaritan working for the good of anyone needing assistance. She had been affectionately called the Lady Knight Starr by more than a few of the prospectors as she went about her business of keeping them alive. At the age of 51, she made her solo way among the belt’s myriad rocks doing what she could to make life better.

“Lucky for you, or more accurately, lucky for them, I can be there pretty damned soon. The message asking for help was rather vague. Let me give you a laser burst with my secure channel code. We can talk privately that way.

“I would like to know what the hell I am getting myself into.” You could hear a smile in her voice as she said that. “Burst heading your way in just a few seconds.”

As promised, the laser array got the code, and soon a secure radio link was set between Starr and the Emporium. Mom and Terry pulled chairs into position near the radio.

“Starr, we really appreciate you getting back to us so fast. I can’t believe you were in the area, but I am not going to complain that you’re close. We don’t have a lot to go on, but here is what I have. Just a short time ago, Mother Lode was hit by what Fitz described as an energy weapon. The message ended abruptly, and we are worried sick at what that might mean for our men. Let me play it back for you. Hang on while I pull up the recording,” said Mom.

Terry found the recording and nodded he was ready to replay it. Mom nodded in return and said, “Here it is, Starr.”

The recording played for them, “Mayday, mayday! This is Gary Fitzgerald of Mother Lode. We’ve been hit and disabled by some sort of energy weapon. We need…” This was followed by the burst of static just like happened originally.

“That’s all we have, Starr. You can change your mind if you want, but we surely would appreciate any aid you could render,” said Mom.

Back on her ship, Starr was frowning at the newly gained knowledge. She considered how this could affect her own life and survival, but on the other hand, she was paid by any number of groups, Mom’s team included, to provide just such services should they be needed. If she were to turn tail and run, it would impact her profits and ability to remain an independent shipowner. Fuel and supplies did not grow on asteroids, so she had to earn her way just like everyone else.

“Well, now,” she said. “It is hardly much of a choice I have, Mom. I am near your crew’s last location, and I did offer my services to folks like you in emergencies, so,” she paused here, “I am going to keep my word and help if I am able to do so.

“Let me do some preparation work, so I can make a safe approach. If there is something attacking ships out here, I don’t want to be one of the victims.

“I will contact you again after I get there. Until then, say some prayers for everyone’s safe return. Looking at the time now, I see the orbit of the planet will put you out of the line of sight for me to use the laser array to beam you a communication. I will have to wait until you come around again before I send information to you. I am not risking using the radio. If that was what triggered that last attack on your ship, I don’t want to be an idiot and do the same thing.”

Once Mom and Terry got the reply, they sent back a last response. “Understood and although we are not happy with the radio silence, we support that decision one hundred percent!” Mom said. “Godspeed to you, Starr. We will talk again soon.”

 

What a Cluster Truck!

 

Starr was a very sharp woman. Hard working, empathetic, highly intelligent, and even a bit of a cynic when she considered her fellows out here among the asteroids. It was that cynicism that had her take some interesting precautions when she designed and modified the small ship she owned. Originally intended as a small space-yacht, she had transformed it to house a medical bay and a powerful suite of unusual tools.

First and foremost were small levered panels covering the entire ship. Under those panels sat tiles of dark metal that could be levered out and used to create an uninterrupted covering that would absorb visible light, heat, and most of the electromagnetic spectrum. When the panels were deployed, the only way the ship could be “seen” would be if it eclipsed a light source, and even then, with the small footprint of her ship, that would be extremely unlikely. She also was able to deploy an unusual mode of propulsion. In addition to the usual engines contained on a ship, the Cluster Truck was able to use bursts of compressed gas gathered from asteroids or stored in onboard tanks before she left Mars.

Starr worked on her ship and made sure that all steps were taken to assure her ability to penetrate the area safely, find the Mother Lode, and return safely with her charges. Most of the time between her last talk with Mom and her arrival in the area where the attack might have happened was spent toward making her ship undetectable and ready to enact a rescue if necessary.

Starr had some very effective passive detection devices. With the ambient temperatures as cold as they were this distance from the Sun, she knew that the best way to find human habitats, active or otherwise, would be to look for sources of heat. Since her infrared scanner and heat sensing devices were better than anything available to the typical non-military spacecraft, she knew that it could find heat sources otherwise invisible to most. Any ship that contained human life would be radiating some amount of heat. It was that heat signature for which she looked. The story of how she obtained this technology was simple. Her father had been in the military all of his life. Some of his friends wanted to help her as best they could, so a few pieces of military gear drifted her way over the years. Sometimes it pays to have connections. So, with the tools she had, and knowing that the heat signature of her own ship could hide an external one if it was too weak, she hoped that her rapid arrival in the area would give her a chance to find the Mother Lode.

It did not take her long for her instruments to detect a touch of heat coming from some distance to one side. As she continued to drift through the asteroid field, she saw a larger second heat source indication. Since she was not ready to risk moving on a directed course just yet, she moved into her observation dome to use her video telescope to examine the two areas. This was a device of her own invention. This little beauty was a combination of a high-resolution telescope and a state of the art video capture unit. As she searched the asteroid belt, she caught everything in the telescope’s field of vision at the same time. This came in extremely handy as she could review the scene after the emergency was over. It already had paid her big dividends when she sold information from her video to prospectors at a decent profit. They made out well, too. No fuel to waste finding a good rock to harvest. Just cruise to the area and get to work knowing they had something of value.

Starr moved into position behind the video telescope, and slowly rolled the dome to face the two areas of interest. Since one area of heat was so large, she decided to check that one first. As she focused on what she assumed would be either an active prospector’s ship or the damaged ship, her eyes grew wide as she took in the total wreckage of the Mother Lode. As she looked at the twisted metal and shards of steel that once was a functioning ship, she swallowed hard upon seeing the shattered cockpit. Zooming her focus for a closer look, she could see that it was most, but not all the cockpit area. A substantial area was missing. Her best guess was that the missing piece held a pilot’s chair. She knew that the other pilot’s seat was held in the wreckage she examined. She could see part of it, and some drifting pieces of a shattered helmet. Her heart sank as she realized the helmet still contained the remains of a person’s head. She was glad she had this on film, so she would not have to describe this to Mom and Terry. There were things that happened that made her quite cowardly. Bringing unwelcome news was the main one. She hated making anyone upset or sad, and this would certainly qualify.

With a feeling of helplessness, Starr shifted her focus toward the other heat source. As she found it drifting between some significant asteroids, it seemed to sparkle or shimmer for a moment with an unusual light not natural of a reflection. She pulled her head back from the telescope, blinked her eyes a few times, and looked again. Whatever it was that caused the unusual light had stopped, and the object seemed to have vanished. As she continued to look at the area, she could not find the heat source or any sign of a man-made object again.

“What the hell,” she said. “My old eyes must be getting weak!”

She sat back in her seat, scrunching her nose as was her habit when perplexed. “Time to review what the camera caught,” she said.

Her fingers flew over the controls, and she examined the images. One of the nice features of her invention was her ability to magnify the scene to show details she may not have seen with the naked eye. Doing what she could to zoom into the area where the light had acted so strangely, she slowed the images to a crawl moving a single frame at a time.

After a few frames passed with nothing to see, she reached some that held images of interest. She saw what appeared to be a twisted piece of wreckage, albeit small, that looked to have been the missing piece of the Mother Lode in that first frame. Frame two showed that same piece tumbled slightly to one side. She could tell it was large enough to possibly hold a pilot’s chair and survivor.

By the time she advanced to frames four through eight, it showed clearly that there was a chair and person within the fragment of the broken ship. Of course, it did not reveal the condition of the person, but it was not displaying certain death for that person. That’s when things got strange, however. Image nine did not make sense. The ship fragment seemed to be shimmering in an odd manner. Moving to image ten caused Starr to doubt her senses. Impossible to describe from any normal frame of reference, Starr stared at nothing. In the instant between the frames, the small fragment of the ship seemed to disappear.

“Oh, no! This is NOT good,” she mumbled to herself. In one frame she could see the wreckage well-lit by some unknown source. Then the next frame showed no signs that anything had ever been there. The fragment containing Rock’s seat had vanished completely. Starr knew this was far too much for her to attempt to understand. She needed to take this back to Mom and Terry for them to see. She also knew that going closer would be a fool’s mission, so she decided to remain on her present course.

While her ship continued moving on its unpowered course, she plotted the fastest way back to Mars and the landing zone near the Emporium. Waiting until she had drifted far enough from the position where she estimated that the ship had been destroyed, she adjusted her heading, lit her ship’s powerful engines, and the Cluster Truck headed toward Mars at its top speed. Since the orbit of Mars had taken the Emporium out of direct radio or laser contact, she knew that she would have to give her report to Mom and Terry in person.

 

Laying and Tired and Bare, Oh My!

 

Imagine, if you can, drifting along in a busted piece of your ship with little hope of talking to another human being ever again, and then add the likelihood that you have even less chance of finding any opportunity of making your way back to what passes as civilization out here among the asteroids. You might busy yourself with assessing the resources within the broken fragment of ship in which you sat, and that was exactly what Rock was doing.

There was not much there that would be of use. Little in the way of tools, and even less in the way of sustenance on which to live. His beacon, an emergency transmitter that seemed to be in decent shape, was within reach, but to get it working, he would have to route power from his suit. The unit usually got power from the ship itself, but he could see that the wires used to supply power now floated free, torn from their original home. The hazard created by the few jagged edges of metal where the frame and walls had torn from the main structure made his assessment painstakingly slow. He had to be very careful not to brush his suit too roughly against those sharp surfaces. Although resistant to tearing, the suits certainly did not fare well if snagged carelessly on something sharp or pointed. So, keeping that in mind, Rock completed his inventory with great deliberation.

When completed, his list was short. It consisted of a few general tools from the kit under his chair. One flat blade screwdriver, one Phillips head driver, one adjustable wrench, one set of pliers and a small hammer. He also found a bar of metal that he could use as a lever or larger hammer if needed, and in his emergency kit was a blanket and flashlight. The First Aid kit was gone. He wasn’t sure if it had ever been properly stored under the seat in its assigned slot, or if it was jarred loose in the attack. Whatever the reason, the emergency kit was not there. All remaining stock consisted of the parts of his chair and the metal frame in which it sat. He supposed he could take everything apart to see if he could jury-rig something from the components, but that did not hold much promise. He still lacked a power supply, water and food.

As the wreckage drifter further afield, he noted that a significantly large rocky asteroid drifted in a nearly direct line with his current course. He could hope that he could reach that rock, that it was radio-tagged as being mined by someone, and that he could use that radio to call for help. Of course, that would be miraculous at best. If it offered nothing, he knew that his drift was taking him into an area that held very few asteroids. Most prospectors stayed in areas where they were more densely packed. Those areas offered a greater chance find something among the many asteroids. It would also allow a prospector to save fuel while doing so. The outliers would be harvested eventually, but it was most likely to be decades before that happened.

With little left to do, Rock sat and thought about Fitz. Tears filled his eyes, his grief still fresh as he relived the horror of the attack over and over in his mind. Once his imagination was unleashed, he wondered if the attack was a precursor to the Martians returning to destroy humanity. A cold shiver ran down his spine as he imagined Mom, Terry, and everyone else he knew being killed by the unknown adversary.

Dread filled his heart and he doubted that anyone would survive such a scenario. Humanity barely survived the first time! His imagination, vivid at the best of times, now ran completely amok. He wanted to warn everyone of the possible danger, and his helplessness only magnified his anxiety and fear. At that moment he was blinded by a bright light, and agonizing pain hit him, his body went rigid. Within moments the pain became so intense that he lost consciousness, his fading thought was that the attackers had found him and returned to finish their work by killing him.

Strange dreams and sensations seemed to infiltrate his mind as he slowly gained some semblance of consciousness. Warm air seemed to be moving over his naked body, but that could not be possible. He was bone-weary and had trouble focusing his thoughts. He could not even seem to open his eyes at this point.

I know I am floating in some wreckage in the asteroid belt. I cannot possibly be unclothed, and there cannot be air here to blow over me. Maybe I am having a lucid dream. Maybe I have died, and this is the afterlife.

A buzzing inside his head, felt as much as heard, began to grow and fill his entire existence. His body started to tingle and twitch uncontrollably. Whatever was wrong seemed to be getting worse by the moment. Pressure on his skin seemed to come from every direction. It felt as if he were being compressed and trapped in some hard substance. He could not move of his own volition. The twitching and shaking continued for a long time. Everything began to grow very cold, then very hot, and alternating back and forth over and over. His weight seemed to change in remarkable ways, feather light for one moment, then so heavy he struggled to take a breath.

The changes continued for a long time, his consciousness waxing and waning as time passed. Then, finally, he realized that he felt almost completely normal. Well, he would have said normal except he still felt naked with warm air blowing over his body. He also realized that he could now move, so he did the most modest movement possible. He opened his eyes.

He was floating weightlessly in a semi-dark area. He could not understand why he could not focus on his location until he realized it was a surface only inches from his nose. Muted gray tones filled his vision, and he moved his arm slightly. His arm brushed against a soft yielding surface, and as he pushed, it drifted free of his arm. Rippling from the movement of his arm, the material that shrouded him, gently moved aside like a soft sheet that had been drifting near his body. He blinked a few times. His brain did not seem to want to register what he was seeing. His senses told him he was completely naked and floating in a room that could not possibly exist. He continued to inspect his surroundings, but he only saw more of the muted gray surface, identical in color to the shroud. Inertia carried the shroud away from him and as it slowly moved against the wall, it seemed to be absorbed.

“Guuur,” was the only sound that came from his mouth when he tried to speak. He cleared his throat and tried again.

“Hi,” he said softly to the empty room. “Is anybody here?” His voice still croaked hoarsely, but at least he was able to speak.

There was no response to his query. He moved his arms and legs experimentally and discovered that he was indeed naked. He took a mental inventory and found all his parts were where they should be. The good thing was that he also felt no discomfort or pain. In fact, he realized that he also felt like he had eaten a satisfying meal and had no desire for food or water at this moment. How odd, he thought. This was all too strange. How could he be in an enclosed space, undressed with no sign of his clothing or spacesuit, and no memory of how this came to be? He did remember the pain and the fear that filled him just before he lost consciousness, but nothing else.

That’s when he felt the buzzing again. It was in his head, like a gentle murmuring brook. Thinking that this could be the start of him going completely insane, he swung his arms and legs as if he could shoo away whatever was causing the buzzing. It made no difference. The buzzing continued and as he got more used to it, he realized that the sound had some gentle and modest changes. He could hear some slight modifications in the volume, the frequency, and eventually a mild pulsing became noticeable. It kept changing. His ears felt like there were pressure changes taking place in the air around him. He shook his head gently, but the pressure persisted. It felt the same way it did when a ship or spacesuit was pressurized or depressurized.

He continued to look at the grayness that surrounded him and realized that his skin seemed to have a similar gray pallor. It was almost as if he had a thin coat of something metallic coating his skin. Despite the distraction caused by the buzzing and pressure in his ears, he began cataloging what he could determine through his sense of touch. Gingerly touching his skin to see if he could remove the gray coating, he had to repeat the action a few times to understand what was happening. His skin would return to its normal tone as soon as he put any pressure on it, then fade back into the dull gray color once he stopped.

He pinched the skin on his left arm firmly. He felt what he was doing, but the pressure caused absolutely no discomfort. With the amount of force that he was using, he should have felt some minor pain. He then tried to dig his nail into his skin, and they just dented it without doing any harm whatsoever. He found that he was unable to do any damage regardless of how hard he tried.

The buzzing and pressure changes became a great deal more noticeable at that point, and he started to feel extremely uncomfortable. The discomfort grew in stages. It moved from simply pressure and noise upward to mild then severe pain, and the buzzing sounded as if it would shatter his eardrums. Then it was over as if nothing had ever happened. His body relaxed, and he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

 

Mom Faces Facts

 

Starr safely got to Mars and landed on the Emporium’s concrete pad. She hustled from her ship into the offices of Mom. In her arms she held a machine that would allow them to play and review all the recordings she had made. Starr knew that she would never believe it if she had not witnessed it first hand and caught the events on film, so she would not expect anyone else to believe her without some hard evidence. A copy of that proof was going to be provided to Mom and Terry.

Mom greeted Starr as she approached the door. “Starr, we are so glad you got here safe and sound. I don’t see our men with you, so I have to assume you could not effect a rescue.”

“Mom, I don’t know how to explain what I saw out there. Rather than mincing words, let me set up this machine. I will show you a playback of everything I was able to detect and see. It will do far more justice than any words I could use.”

Terry made room on a small table by moving a lamp and some papers to the floor. “Use this table. What else do you need.”

Starr set her equipment on the top of the small table and handed the electrical wire to Terry. “If you would be so kind, Terry. Just get this plugged into the outlet, and we can look at everything together.”

Terry took the wire and inserted the end into the socket. Starr immediately activated the power and opened a large panel that held a screen. Moving some switches and knobs, she soon had a dark image visible on the screen. It clearly showed a field of stars and the nearby asteroids gently lit by the light of the distant Sun.

“What you are going to see is from two sources. First, are the images provided by my heat detection equipment. If you look right here in the top left corner, you can see this area has something that is bright and colored with a soft yellow glow.” Starr pointed at the area with her finger.

“That is a heat source. It is very small and not very warm, but it is clearly something that is warmer than the ambient temperature one would naturally expect out there.”

Starr allowed the pictures to advance and a second glowing area appeared. Tapping her finger gently on the screen, she said, “This is a much larger area and it is a bit warmer than the first area I found. There were no other areas of heat detected. Not all that unusual considering that this was on a fringe area of the belt rather than deep inside a cluster of asteroids.” Tapping the screen again she added, “Having found some areas showing promise, I switched over to my camera telescope to grab a closer visual of the two spots.”

Twisting the knobs on her device again, she quickly had a new image on the screen. It was sharply focused, and Mom and Terry could clearly see there was only a handful of asteroids strewn about the area.

“If you look right here, I am going to advance the film slowly. You will see a large piece of the Mother Lode come into clear view.”

Starr silently allowed the film to advance. The three of them saw the wreckage of the ship, and the body of one of the men who had manned it. Starr could not look at anyone in the conference room, her eyes locked on the scene spread before them.

“Oh, my God!” said Terry. “That’s got to be Fitz. I can see the bandana I gave him. The one he kept tied around his head to keep his hair out of his eyes.”

Sure enough, everyone could see the splash of color as the helmet and its gruesome contents drifted across the screen. One death had been confirmed, but there were no signs of Rock. The wreckage showed that part of the ship had been separated from the rest, and they knew it was the part that held the other pilot’s chair.

Mom stood there with tears in her eyes. “Damn it! I was hoping…” she began to say but found her throat had closed as her grief overcame her.

Terry was growing impatient wondering about the other heat source. “What did the other area show, Starr? I am guessing there is more to see.”

“Yes,” she answered. “I have to admit, I do not understand what I saw. Even after all this time, and after having reviewed it at least a dozen times since I caught it on film, I have no clue as to what this means. It just doesn’t make sense to me. You will agree once you have seen this, too.”

Making a few adjustments on her machine, she pulled up the next sequence of images. Together, they watched as the events unfolded. Starr pointed out the figure of Rock held in his seat.

“We can see him there from this image, but I cannot determine his status at all. It makes no difference,” she began, “as the next images will show. There is no way for me to recover him.”

Both Mom and Terry looked at Starr in surprise. “Wait! But we both saw him in the chair. Why…” Terry muttered, objecting to what Starr had said.

Starr interrupted him saying, “Just watch the next images, and you will understand why I said that. I don’t understand anything about what we are going to see. Just watch.”

The image focused on the small fragment of the ship. Starr did not magnify it; she just let the video run to its conclusion.

Terry burst out with, “Wait! What happened to it? Can you replay that again? Can you give us a closer look?”

Mom looked at Terry and placed her hand gently on his. “Don’t badger her, son. I am sure she knows what she’s doing.” She turned back to the image and just as she expected, Starr had begun the playback again, this time magnified and in a slower format. All three of them could clearly see the fragment of the ship until it vanished from sight.

“If either of you can offer an explanation,” said Starr, “then you are a lot smarter than I am. This goes against everything I know about physics.”

Terry just sat there with his mouth agape. Words failed him.

Mom was wide-eyed and could not understand what she saw any more than Starr could. “Can we get a copy of everything, Starr? I want to be able to show this to some friends who might be in a position to help, and I don’t want to keep you from earning a living. Hell, we should probably even get the MSF to assist now that we have seen these images.”

The MSF was the acronym for the Martian Security Forces, a military arm of the Martian government that evolved to police the asteroid belt and the area around Mars after the war against the Martians ended.

“Well, sure, of course! I am not heading out any time soon, though. I have no clue as to what is happening out there. Seeing a ship that has been blown apart and one of its fragments vanishing like that gives me a bad feeling. When I do head back, it won’t be to that area of the belt. You know, I wish my Dad was alive. He would get help from some of the best brains in the military.”

Mom and Terry nodded their agreement, and over the next few hours they reviewed everything a few more times. Despite all their eyes and brains working to figure what was taking place, everyone was still totally baffled. Starr provided a full copy of everything that she had captured as Mom requested.

Finally, realizing how late it had grown, they enjoyed a dinner together before Starr announced that she was leaving. “I will be in Edgartown at my apartment for a few days. I will be in touch at least once more before I head outward again, but if something important comes to light, give me a shout,” she said. “I am so sorry about your men. I liked Rock a lot, and Fitz, too even if he was as crusty a curmudgeon as I’ve ever met. I will miss both of them. Let me know when you hold services. I would like to be there.”

After exchanging a few more words of condolences and making plans to talk regularly, Starr left the Emporium in the knowledge that she had done all she could to help. It did nothing to lessen the pain of them losing two fine men, but she resigned herself to the fact that Mars had lost two decent people.

 

What’s Up, Rock?

 

Rock was sitting at a desk in a fancy office with huge windows that looked out on the city of New York. In the distance he could see the mighty buildings that soared one hundred or more stories above the bustling streets below. He must have been pretty high in whatever office building this was as he could see over the vast majority of New York’s towering skyscrapers. It all seemed perfectly natural that he was sitting here. The desk behind which he sat was crafted of a rich and dark wood that glistened in the artificial light. Before him sat a Martian. Its tentacles settled in whatever passed for a lap on these beings.

“What is your name?” he asked the Martian.

The creature looked at Rock with its head tilted slightly to one side. “You may call me, Bob,” he replied.

“Why are you here, Bob?”

A soft trilling sound emanated from the Martian’s throat. Rock realized that must be the sound of laughter. “I am your teacher,” the Martian responded.

“Teacher?” queried Rock. “Teacher of what?”

“Everything, of course.” Bob responded.

Rock turned the chair to gaze out the window and woke from the dream.

He found that he was still floating in the gray room. The only thing that had changed was that there was no buzzing noise and no pressure changes that he could discern. He was still as naked as the day he was born, and his skin still seemed to have a slightly gray sheen. He still did not see anyone else or anything other than the same gray walls. With the buzzing no longer filling his ears, he could now tell that the room was totally silent. No sound came to his ears other than those that would come when one moved. He could detect his heartbeat if he listened closely.

The room was not as warm as it was when he awakened the first time. He wished he was wearing his nice flannel shirt and cotton pants, and just like that, he was wearing the clothing. He also drifted slowly until he was standing upright on a floor. His weight slowly increased until it was close to what he judged as Martian normal.

“No, no, no. This cannot be happening,” he said aloud. He thought that he might have lost his mind. People just do not go from being naked one breath to fully clothed in the next. He also knew that gravity was not something that varied from one moment to the next. Almost as an aside thought, he had to admit that human beings were not gray skinned. They were some variant of pink or brown or red or yellow depending on ethnicity. As he considered that, his skin changed to each shade of which he thought.

“What the hell is happening here?” he asked the empty room. “If no one is going to answer me, then show me the way home!” he screamed at the gray walls.

No sooner had he finished speaking when one wall of the gray room rippled. As he watched, an opening appeared slowly growing as an iris-shaped doorway formed and drew back upon itself. Through the opening, Rock could see a hallway and a wall of windows that looked toward the asteroid belt. Rock took one step and realized he had no footwear. He thought about his most comfortable socks and boots, and they appeared on his feet.

Still unable to understand what was happening, he took a few halting steps toward the door. Then he stopped and thought about what was taking place. He needed some answers before attempting to move about this strange space. What if he accidentally thought of something that could kill him?

“If someone can answer me, please show yourself,” he requested.

Sitting just outside the room in a plush red velvet armchair with its tentacles slung over the two arms and cushions was what appeared to be a familiar looking Martian. “Is this what you had in mind?” came a voice in his head.

Rock looked at the reclining creature and said, “Can I presume that your name is, Bob?”

The Martian bobbed its head in a most human-like nod of assent. “You can call me by that name if you wish. It does not matter as my true name would be incomprehensible to you.”

“Why did you attack our ship?” asked Rock angrily.

The Martian raised one tentacle and waved it slowly. “You think that I harmed your ship? Why would I do that? I just rescued you from a certain death as you drifted slowly through the rocks near us. Eventually, you would have met with sudden death as a rogue planetesimal came rocketing through the area.”

An image of his fragment of the Mother Lode drifting in space came into his mind. Moments later it was smashed into a flattened disk as a large metallic rock crashed into it and carried it out of the area. The image faded again leaving Rock to look at the Martian in its chair.

“Neither I nor any other member of my tribe would harm any human being. We are not among those who believed in destroying life on your world so that we could settle there. Our world held two tribes at one time. One was warlike and hated anything that showed weakness. The other tribe valued knowledge and peace above all else. When your kind attacked my world, we hid and planned to leave this solar system forever. We secretly built some ships and collected the remaining members of the tribe and left the world that birthed us forever. I vow that your kind will never need fear my kin bringing harm upon your heads. Those that escaped you, those who were of the tribe that brought war and death upon your kind have been taken into custody, isolated and disarmed, so they cannot do further harm to humanity or anyone else. As the last members of that tribe ages and dies, we will raise any newly born children to believe as we do.”

“So, who attacked my ship if you didn’t do it?” Rock asked with some doubt in his voice.

“Your own kind did so. Men desperate to hide what they consider to be a treasure trove of technological riches. They are motivated by avarice and dreams of having power over other humans,” came the answer.

The Martian continued his tale saying, “Since our kind already did so much harm to humanity, we felt a need to guard you from anything that threatened the balance of nature for your kind. To that end I have saved you.”

Rock shook his head, “No, wait. What does that mean?” he asked. “How am I going to make a difference against a group who has advanced technology. I am just one man, and not a very smart one at that.”

Bob trilled again in enjoyment. “You give yourself too little credit when it comes to intelligence, David Russo. You like to have others call you by the name Rock, and in many ways, you are like a rock. Tough, able to withstand powerful forces, rich in many ways, you have many skills yet unexplored. We have also gifted you with some extra advantages, advantages that will give you a way to stop those who do wrong.

“As you make your way from this place, you will have a chance to do many remarkable things. You will start by preventing those who destroyed your ship from doing more harm.”

Rock looked at Bob. “And just how do I perform this little miracle. I have no ship, no weapons, no one even knows I am alive, and I have no one to assist me even if all that was not true.”

“That is not completely factual, David Russo. Think about what has happened here in the last few minutes. Did you not just make your clothing appear? The same with the socks and boots? Did you not just ask for someone to answer your questions and I appeared?

Rock scowled at that response. “Yeah, those things happened, but it was you that did it, not me. If you had not been here to help, I would have been talking to a gray wall for the rest of my life.”

“Once again you have made an error in your evaluation of what has been happening. There is no living creature here but you. This station,” the Martian indicated the surrounding walls by waving its tentacles in their general direction, “is an automated one. All of us left this solar system. I am nothing more than an intelligent machine. The image you see is a projection. If you were to try to touch me, your hand would pass right through it.”

“So, what is real? Is this base real?”

“The base is very real. It looks like a small useless piece of rock to anyone else who looks at it. If people were to try to land on it or otherwise approach it, small mechanical things would go wrong with the spaceship. It would simply be impossible to land here. You will always see it for what it is, a fully operational harbor from which to base your future activities.”

Rock frowned at a sudden thought. “So, what is to prevent me from becoming a power hungry, greedy animal and preying on my fellow man? If I can just think of something to make it happen, what prevents me from destroying instead of building?”

“You cannot bring harm to another human being. Even when you use your gift to stop an evildoer, you will not be able to purposely end a life or cause permanent injury. Besides, when we examined your mind, you did not have the mental wiring of someone who would do wrong for selfish purposes. You already knew this, but you needed to hear that you would not grow corrupt. We understand that. Your kind has a saying, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. You will not need to fear becoming corrupt.

“It is almost time for you to leave this place. Your first task will be to contact your friends. You need to let them know you survived and found an old derelict ship that you are using to return to your home. You will have to disclose everything to those you trust, but perhaps it is best to do so gradually. Also, remember that most people will try to use your power for their own personal gain. Keep your secret well.”

“Oh, and one last thing. You will never be alone. You have but to ask for me, and I will appear.”

 

Rock and Roll

 

Rock had a very joyful and tearful reunion with Mom and Terry. Starr joined them for Fitz’s funeral services, and he decided that he would trust this small group with his secret. It took everyone a little bit of time, but soon they grew used to having a miracle working within their small team. Starr continued to fly the asteroid belt, assisting with rescues and aiding prospectors who needed assistance. Mom ran her business as usual and hired on a few extra hands. One person to replace Fitz and a second to fill in for those times when Rock was busy being a heroic figure. Thanks to his gift, he could look like a completely different person, and his ship could become any shape or size required.

The first mission he flew was to clean out the nest of vipers who shot the Mother Lode. For now, I can say that Rock had an interesting time figuring out how to have justice served while avoiding harming anyone. That is a tale for another time, however. All you need to understand now is that Rock became a legend among the citizens of Mars and the Belt. If you ever find yourself in deep trouble out among the stars, maybe you will meet Rock. You never know.