2203. A remote part of Mars.
“Charlie, we’re not supposed to be here.”
Trina stared over the edge of the crater. Rocks dotted the surface of the red soil all the way to the bottom, where a massive pile of metal pipes lay beside a few pieces of heavy machinery.
“You know the grown-ups don’t want us playing here. It’s not safe.”
“We’re not playing,” said Charlie. “I’m showing you something.”
“Your ‘Devil Rock’? There’s no such thing.”
“See for yourself!”
Late at night, over bottles of beer, the townsfolk would tell tales of “Devil Rocks” in the Martian soil, cursed stones that would drive insane anyone who touched them. When Trina was little the stories had scared her, but now that she was almost twelve, she knew better. The adults just wanted to keep the children safe. Don’t play in the mines – you might fall and touch a Devil Rock.
From time to time, scientists from Interplanetary Expeditions – archeologists – would even travel to remote Mars mining towns to investigate a “Devil Rock” claim, but they always left empty-handed. They were chasing fairytales.
People on Earth had stories like that, too, she knew. She’d read in storybooks all about sea monsters, trolls, Sasquatch, and tikbalangs. Trina’s town had nothing but rocks and dirt. Kids couldn’t get lost in the woods or eaten by wolves – they had had rain, no rivers, no trees, no animals, not even pets. You couldn’t have a proper sea monster if you had no sea, or a jungle beast if you had no jungle. So, the Marsie miners had invented their own myths, including the “Devil Rocks.”
“There’s no such thing as a Devil Rock,” Trina said, with a skeptical huff, peeing over the edge of the cliff. “IPX came out here when we were little, and they found nothing.”
“I saw it. You’re chicken.”
She’d never seen a live chicken – like all food products, chicken came in a paste. She had no idea why animal protein had come to mean cowardly, but there were a lot of things she didn’t understand.
“Well?” Charlie called up to her. “Are you coming?”
Against her better judgment, Trina lowered herself over the edge of the pit, and down the steep incline. She slipped a few times before landing on the bottom in the red Martian soil, her shirt and trousers covered with fine dust.
“I’m not scared of anything,” she said boldly, scrambling back up to her feet. “But there’s no such thing as a Devil Rock. You’re just going to get us into trouble.”
Charlie led her across the rocky soil, past a pile of pipes and down into a crevice. Up close, Trina could see that workers had been digging a foundation for the new housing complex. She grumbled to herself as she followed her friend deeper into the construction pit. Couldn’t Charlie find a safer game to play?
“We’re getting too old for this, Charlie.”
He ignored her. “No one’s digging here today because they found a Devil Rock,” he said. “The council’s meeting to decide what to do. It’s true. See for yourself.” He pointed.
“There’s no such thing as a-”
Her gaze ran along the length of pipe and stopped where a strange, black object jutted out from the ground. It was darker than anything she had ever seen – darker than the moon-less Mars night, darker than the time she’d hid in the closet during a game of hide and seek with Charlie, darker than nothingness itself. Her stomach turned. The object didn’t merely absorb light, it ate it, devoured it, twisted and maimed it.
“That’s not a rock, Charlie.” Her words felt distant and cold. The object moved, writhed, almost shimmered. Could a rock scream? she wondered, because in the back of her brain, she could almost hear shouts of pain, torment, anguish. The rock was alive. Trina had only seen spiders in books and on vids, but she nonetheless felt that the “rock” was made up of millions and millions of them.
In her mind, the rock had eyes. The rock was watching her.
“Charlie, let’s get out of here.”
“It’s a Devil Rock,” Charlie replied. “I told you.”
She couldn’t take her eyes off the terrible thing, its sharp angles biting out into space. A few small fragments lay in the soil near the main portion, perhaps broken off from the larger slab by the construction equipment.
No. No, there aren’t any Devil Rocks. This has to be some kind of trick.
“Charlie,” she repeated, more urgently this time, “let’s get out of here. That’s not a rock.”
Charlie headed for the object.
“What are you doing?!”
“Getting a piece. Who’s ever going to believe us that we saw a real Devil Rock unless I have a piece to show them?”
“Get back here! It’s dangerous!”
He laughed. “I thought you didn’t believe in Devil Rocks! Now you’re scared of them?”
She hesitated. “I don’t,” she replied, a little weakly. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
He shrugged. “I’ll be fine.” And he picked up one of the smallest fragments.
Everything happened so suddenly, it would take Trina days, even weeks, to piece back together the order of events. As soon as Charlie’s fingers brushed the smooth black stone, a jolt went through Trina’s body. Charlie started screaming and ripping off his clothes, shouting “get them off of me!”, his voice cracking into an almost inhuman screeching. Trina, heart pounding, turned and climbed out of the crevice and ran for the edge of the pit, leaving Charlie behind with the Devil Rock.
Help. I have to get help!
She scrambled up the rocky cliff-face, but in her panic, she slipped several times, once almost all the way back to the bottom. At last, her palms bloody and knees scraped, she reached the rim, but lost her grip again and tumbled back down, this time hitting the left side of her head on an ordinary rock.
“Get them off me!” Charlie was still screaming, from deep in the pit. “Trina! Trina!”
Charlie’s shouts seemed to go into her, through her, and what flashed through his mind also flashed through her own. Dazed, Tina scrambled up the wall of the pit again, at last making it over the top, heart pounding, lungs burning. Frantically, she sprinted to the hamlet’s housing complex, her overalls ripped and dirty with red Marsian soil, blood trickling down onto her jumper, tears streaming down her face.
Coughing, covered in dust, she ran into the arms of the first grown-up she found, and somehow managed to explain that Charlie had fallen into the construction pit and hurt himself. A team of workers ran to the site, while her own parents shouted at her.
“Anna Katrina Carlisle, why were you playing in the construction pit?!”
She cried, and threw up. What could she tell them, that an ancient, unspeakable evil had emerged from the ground and lured her best friend into madness, maybe even death?
“Did you touch it?!” her grandfather demanded later, once the workers had dragged Charlie from the pit and given him drugs to make him sleep until medics could arrive. He lay on a stretcher, under a sheet, covered in blood – someone told her that the poor boy had scratched most of the skin off his arms, legs, face and chest.
“Did you touch it?!”
She shook her head, remembering Charlie’s screams for help. If only she had run faster. If only...
She knew that it might take medics hours to reach their remote hamlet from the capital city of Syria Planum. People sometimes died waiting for help.
But not Charlie, this couldn’t happen to Charlie…
It’s all my fault. I could have stopped him. I never should have climbed down that pit. If I hadn’t gone with him, he never would have touched it...
“I didn’t touch it. I ran. I left him in the pit.”
The council held an emergency meeting, while Trina waited with the town’s only nurse and the badly injured Charlie. Every minute ticked by like an eternity, waiting for the emergency medical team from the city. She picked at calluses on her hands. Having nothing to do made everything worse.
But it wasn’t the team from Syria Planum who arrived for Charlie, but two men and a woman from Psi Corps. The men, medics, treated Charlie’s wounds, while the woman asked questions about the boy’s accident.
“Psi Corps?” asked Trina’s grandfather. “Excuse me, ma’am, but if you’ll forgive me, I’m confused. You’re not who we expected.”
“We were in the area when your distress call went out.” She gave a small grin. “As they say, ‘we’re everywhere, for your convenience.’”
Strange as the telepaths’ arrival was, no one protested. There was still no sign of the medical team from the city, and Charlie was in bad shape.
“I don’t care who you are,” said one of the miners. “You could be Narn for all we care, as long as you have doctors.”
The telepaths stabilized Charlie and offered to take him to Syria Planum in their own shuttle. The townsfolk agreed – Charlie would arrive at the hospital much more quickly this way. Trina watched as the telepath medics carefully took Charlie through the airlock and into their shuttle, with a big letter PSI emblazoned on the side.
The woman looked up, and gave Trina’s parents a peculiar look. “Trina, here, she’s your daughter?”
“Has she been tested lately? You know, for telepathy?”
Trina’s parents shook their head. Every few years someone from the Corps came to test the local children, but the last time they’d been by, Trina had been only eight.
“Why?” asked Trina’s father.
The woman handed him a card with some contact information. “That’s ‘the Center,’” she said, pointing to the card with a gloved finger. “Give them a call.”
“You think Trina’s one of you? There must be some mistake-”
The woman, however, didn’t stick around for a chat. She and the two men left with Charlie, and in less than an hour, the hospital in Syria Planum called to let the town know Charlie had arrived safely.
No one knew why the Corps had medics so far from civilization, out in this remote corner of Mars. But the grown-ups didn’t spend too long wondering. The telepaths’ arrival had been nothing short of a miracle.
“Thank God for the Psi Corps!” exclaimed Charlie’s mother. “They saved my baby!”
Three days later, a medical transport from Syria Planum brought Charlie home. He was wrapped in bandages and regen-packs, but alive, and glad to be home. He remembered little of what had happened.
“I was playing with Trina,” he told the adults. “I know we weren’t supposed to, but we went into the pit.”
“You touched a Devil Rock,” Trina told him.
Charlie shook his head. “I don’t remember anything from the time I climbed down into the pit, until I woke up in the hospital.”
“You touched a Devil Rock, I told you. That's why you took me down there - to show it to me.”
He shook his head.
“You don’t remember it? You were screaming like someone set you on fire.”
Trina could now plainly see that the old folks, for all their stories, didn’t actually know very much about Devil Rocks. They didn’t have any answers for Charlie or the other children in town, other than to say that Devil Rocks were terribly dangerous, and that Charlie was lucky to be alive. Whole mines, they explained, had been abandoned because a Devil Rock had been found there.
Trina wondered if the mysterious medics from Psi Corps knew anything about the Devil Rocks. Probably not, she decided... if the old folks in town didn’t know, then why would outsiders know anything?
What didn’t make sense is why anyone – telepath or normal – would be flying a medical transport near Trina’s town in the first place. Where had they been going, and why? There were a few scattered mining towns in the area, but not much else. They couldn’t have just been flying by, waiting for a distress call.
She was, however, like everyone else, very grateful to the Corps for rescuing Charlie. The townsfolk had always said that telepaths were scary, but these people had saved Charlie’s life, so they couldn’t be all that bad.
No one worried about Charlie’s amnesia – he’d touched one of the cursed rocks, and whatever they were, they messed with people’s minds in weird and terrible ways. A bit of amnesia was, all in all, relatively harmless – and perhaps even for the best, given what he had gone through.
Workers filled in the pit, abandoning the site completely.
But while Charlie’s nights were peaceful, Trina’s were restless, her dreams nightmares. Night after night, Charlie was still screaming for help, and the faster she tried to run, the slower she went. Paradoxically, the farther from the pit she ran, the louder her friend’s shouts became, till her feet would inevitably fail, she would trip, she would fall, she would be unable to move. Paralyzed, she would lie in the Martian dust till night fell, and she’d find herself covered in millions of spiders – and wake up screaming in the dark, shaking in a cold sweat.
The rock was still watching her with its millions of eyes.
She envied Charlie’s amnesia. The Devil Rock – at least her memory of it – gave her no peace at all.
The Spiders are coming. The Spiders are coming.
In every dark corner, in every shadow of her room, spiders lurked. Waiting.