Matt Spangler is a freelance writer and playwright based in New York. His short stories have been published in The Horror Tree, Red Fez and Blood Moon Rising.
Before moving to New York, he lived in Washington, DC, where he ran the theater company Next Day Theater. By day, he worked for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), a federal agency charged with oversight of historic preservation laws. He was inspired to write “The Rocks” by ACHP's efforts to save historic sites associated with the U.S. space program, as well as by the ongoing cultural legacy issues the preservation community grapples with.
A boom, followed by another, echoed across the vermilion sky as the cylinder penetrated the atmosphere of the rocky planet. It shook off the ball of flame that had engulfed it and, steadying as it descended toward the line severing the light and dark sides of the planet, began slithering forward just above the chasms. For a few minutes the gleaming vessel seemed coiled in a mortal struggle with the craggy landscape, before it settled on a flat expanse just large enough to land on.
The hiss of the cylinder faded, and then it stood motionless on the span of weathered sandstone. After some time, an opening appeared on the side of the craft. Through the darkness a figure materialized, clad in a gray shell that shrouded its body, save for a globe atop its neck that reflected the rugged topography and gave it the suggestion of an insect. The figure cautiously scaled down a ladder, which protruded from the hatch, to the rocky terrain below. Another body, hoisting a container, emerged from the vessel and followed down the steps. They clung to the ladder for a moment, turned towards one another, then shuffled forward.
Reaching a small pool of water that flooded from a crack in the surface, they drew a sample into the container. Doubling back toward the cylinder, they paused to survey the vast stretch of canyons and mesas and buttes, and the dark clouds hanging in the blood-red firmament, then strode to the craft and dissolved once more into the shadows.
Beneath the shade of the cylinder the emptiness seemed to stretch to the horizon, broken only by the life-giving water.
The vial of clear liquid tremored slightly in Cassen’s gloved hands as he handled it through the glass encasement. He squeezed a couple drops of phenolphthalein into the vial. The liquid remained clear, just as he had suspected. He knew clean water when saw it. Water clean enough to splash on your face. Water pure enough to –
“But is it good enough to chase this?”
It was Dixon. The habitat’s pilot – a decorated pilot, having flown hundreds of combat missions in Lebanon and Yemen – dangled a packet of SynFood before Cassen, powerless to receive it with his hands buried in the glovebox. Cassen considered for a moment, before he tested for hardness, bacteria content, and so forth, why not, in fact, let Dixon dump the powdered mix of synthetic nutrients into a glass, stir in some water that the lips of a human being had never touched, and sit back and see what happens?
“It’s got about eight parts per million of dissolved oxygen, but I haven’t measured the pH,” said Cassen, “so you better steer clear of it after you jump off the 360-treadmill. But,” he added, “it might allow you to get that quarterly shampoo in.”
“Or you a shave, right, Cassen?” said Dixon, a toothy grin spreading across his pale visage. Cassen reflexively patted the months-old growth that had sprouted from his own face. He thought of the beard matting as water dripped from it in slow motion.
“Have you ever tried to use shears in zero gravity?” asked Cassen.
The grin expanded so widely that it seemed to fall off the edges of Dixon’s face. “Not without a vacuum cleaner, my friend.” His cheeks slowly folded back into place. “Maybe we can fill the tank with it anyway.”
“If we can find enough of it, sure,” said Cassen.
Dixon inspected the twin computer monitors above the glove box. “If it registers normal pH balance and low turbidity, you think that would indicate there was life on this planet at some point?”
Before Cassen could chime in with a nothing-above-the-microbial-level musing, his skepticism was usurped by a voice behind them. “Not in the Opiochus constellation there wasn’t.”
Garret was an avowed proponent of the school of thought that, despite a century of effort by private and public research organizations, the failure to locate life in so-called habitable systems such as Proxima Centauri and Trappist-1 – or, for that matter, to identify a single Dyson sphere in over 200,000 galaxies – was incontrovertible proof that humans would never find another advanced civilization close enough to be reached by the 22nd century’s solar propulsion spacecraft.
“This is a snipe hunt,” drawled the flight engineer, who joined Cassen and Dixon behind the glove box. “No infrared, no little green men.”
“Or brown,” said Cassen.
“Science fiction isn’t part of our operational directives, gentlemen,” rang the familiarly assertive voice of Commander Ford. His shoulders back, jaw square, hair high and tight, and eyes locked with whoever he engaged, Ford not only looked like what the space agency was after, but had the pedigree to match: third in his class at the Academy; instructor and test pilot at Schriever; commander of the 545th wing of Space Corps; time behind the consoles at Cape Canaveral; and even an Eagle Scout with 85 merit badges.
“But as you know,” Ford continued, assembling with them at the console, “dispatching an unmanned aircraft system to perform a routine survey of the landscape when we have detected a water source on one of our target planets is.”
Garret snapped to attention. “I’ll get ‘er online, Commander.”
“You better let me help you find the on switch,” quipped Dixon. They disappeared down the white corridor together.
Ford’s eyes returned to the console. Cassen knew what the ask would be. “Let me know what you turn up on the mineral content in that water, Cassen.”
“I’m on it, sir.”
“Thanks.” Ford turned on his heels and filed down the passageway, fingers curled at his sides.
The blades protruding from the mechanical insect began spinning furiously, and it whipped the surrounding dirt into a storm as it lifted from the ground next to the ship. One of the gray-sheathed figures, his head no longer topped with a globe, sat below, his arms stretched to another machine. He watched the insect ascend to the height of a mature pinyon pine. The device, legs extended from it like a spider, emitted a loud pestilent whirr as it crept across the sky.
Harrington was more reclusive than the other crew members of the habitat, often seeming to blend into the consoles and control panels of the sterile white interior. But his cohorts were keenly interested at the moment in what the soft-spoken archaeologist, the first such specialist to ever accompany a deep space mission, had to say as they gathered around his computer monitor.
“Now, the UAS laser scan covered an area of 31 square kilometers, with an altitude range from 65 to 500 meters,” said Harrington, his fingers tracing the contours of the 3-D topographical map on his screen. “I was browsing the reference images uploaded from the drone, and stopped when I ran across this outcrop here.” He pointed to a black spot in the midst of the yellow and orange hues coloring the image.
“What the hell is it?” asked Dixon.
“A cave,” said Brookes, his arms folded and a knowing expression painted on his face. His composure masked any intimation that he might erupt if pushed too far in a debate.
“Now there’s a geologist,” said Harrington. “And Brookes can speak to this better than I, but there are, of course, the possibility of volcanic formations on Wolf 1061c. Perhaps this is some sort of lava tube like they found on Mars in the 2030s. But another scenario –“
“Is that there are additional hydro sources in the cave that host microbial life,” said Cassen.
“Precisely. And with Cassen’s confirmation that the water is potable,” Harrington added, “maybe there were once higher life forms on this planet –“
“Oh Lord,” said Garret. “Here we go. He thinks he’s going to find the Pompeii of Opiochus.”
Harrington shot Dixon an icy glare, then turned to Ford. “Sir?”
The commander gave his chin an authoritarian scratch, then dropped his arms to his sides. “Alright, listen up,” he said. “We’ve got about two weeks before we could get stuck in a blizzard, so let’s make it snappy. Brookes, get the gear and a team together. Let’s get soil and mineral samples. And make sure you’re armed,” he paused, noting the absurdity of the proposition, “in case we run across any microbial unfriendlies.”
“Yes sir,” Brookes replied. He allowed some levity to crack the unruffled veneer. “Dixon, you got the .50 cal under your pillow?”
“You bet your ass I do,” said Dixon.
They cracked matching grins at each other, then quitted the lab, followed by Ford. Cassen scrutinized Harrington with a mix of bemusement and frustration.
“Good eyes, Harrington,” said Cassen. “You might get your name on the map after all.”
Harrington said nothing, keeping his sights trained on the webs of color before him.
Brookes and Harrington disembarked guardedly from the space exploration vehicle, then paused at the cave’s entrance. Though they were on the side of the terminator line that was bathed in the glow of the red dwarf, they switched on their headlamps. Behind them were Martin, the mission specialist in botany, and Dixon, the rifle slung across his chest. The quartet stepped forward and, probing the interior with beams of light, were stunned by what they saw.
The cave appeared to be over a hundred meters high and an equal distance wide, putting it on par with the largest on Earth. Small pools of water, flowing over with calcite crystals shimmering white and yellow and orange, were scattered across the base of the orifice. From the ceiling hundreds of stalactites drooped, and, most impressively, in the center stood a stalagmite some 60 meters high, the rock flowing through it like the pipes of a church organ.
While Brookes marveled over the tapestry of thorny prisms before him, Martin extended a telescopic pole with a metal container on the end to the cave’s floor. On the verge of plunging the container into the soil, he halted as Brookes cried out.
“Oh my Lord!” Brookes’ eyes were fixed on a crystal formation that looked like a stack of white sheets of paper.
“What you got there, Brookes?” asked Martin, whisking the beam of his headlamp to the geologist.
“I think what I’m holding here is a compound of thorium and molybdenum known as ichnusaite. One of the rarest minerals on Earth.”
“Outstanding. I’m guessing you may not need a hammer for that one.”
“Negative. It should be,” Brookes said, carefully extricating the sheet of crystals, “brittle enough to come right off in my hands.”
“Nice work, Brookes,” said Dixon, a small camera with which he had been documenting the space coiled around the index finger of one hand, the other poised on the rifle’s trigger. “How you making out, Harrington?”. No reply came. “Harrington?”. He spun around.
Harrington stood motionless, his headlamp illuminating a carefully laid stack of rocks on the floor of the cave.
The purity of the habitat’s interior was disturbed by the dark metal storage container resting on a table next to Brookes’ workstation. Ford and Dixon flanked the box that held the geologist’s haul, their fists alternately resting on their chins or their palms patting their cheeks. Harrington, Cassen and Martin lingered in the background, arms folded and eyes trained on Brookes.
“If there is a strong occurrence of ichnusaite on Wolf 1061c,” said the geologist, “we may be able to collect enough samples to improve our understanding of the chemistry of the actinide molybdates that can cause radiation to be released from nuclear waste repositories.” He saw the eyes glaze over. “So that’s a huge win for the nuclear industry.”
The significance of the discovery began to dawn on the men. “Of course,” mused Garret, “before we proceed to large-scale resource extraction, we would want to study the impacts the temperature, atmospheric pressure and chemistry of the planet could have on our equipment.”
“Affirmative,” said Brookes. “You’ll recall they had to develop special drill bits to withstand the wide range of terrain and environmental conditions on Mars. But I suspect they will ultimately be able to adapt those technologies to Wolf 1061c’s ecosystems.”
Harrington’s muted voice suddenly intruded from the shadows. “What if the cave shouldn’t be mined at all?”
The crew members twisted their necks to view the archaeologist with incomprehension. “I beg your pardon?” asked Brookes.
Harrington stepped forward cautiously. “What if that pile of rocks was deliberately placed?”
“Oh, here we go,” said Garret, throwing his arms up in frustration.
“I’m not saying anything is definitive, but … well, the columnar configuration of the stones suggests to me … a North American burial cairn dating from the Mississippian period,” said Harrington.
The men were silenced by his appraisal. Their heads told them it was wild speculation, but this was countered with the exhilaration they felt from being confronted with the possibility of such a monumental breakthrough.
Brookes broke the peace. “Well, that would obviously be a find of extraordinary magnitude. Should there be any … foreign objects … in the ground there, we do have a process for their recovery and examination. The procedures, of course, allow for the simultaneous exploration for mineral resources once a protective buffer has been established around the … archaeological site.”
“Yes, I agree, I’ll excavate and see what’s under the rocks,” said Harrington. “But if something is buried there … then I think we should consider recommending that it be preserved in situ, and the entire cave placed off-limits to extraction activities.”
Brookes turned to Ford to plead his case. “Sir, I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. We all can appreciate the potential import of that rock formation. But it’s only a potential. And I know I don’t need to remind you that our agency is guided by Space Council policy that prioritizes research promoting the economic benefit of the United States.”
“Sir, I would point out that the Outer Space Treaty, as amended, says that celestial bodies and the lands wherein are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty,” said Harrington. “And if, on the off chance the cave is a cultural site –“
“Cultural site?” said Brookes. “Look, that treaty is a century old,” said Brookes, “it makes no mention of alien archaeological properties; no one is talking about appropriating anything other than mineral resources; and American mining law – emphasis added – says finders keepers, losers weepers.”
Ford cut in. “At ease, gentlemen. Let's table this discussion and focus on what we need to get done. We’ll establish a perimeter around the rocks, and Cassen and Martin will work with Harrington to excavate the site. Garret and Dixon will be assigned to Brookes to continue searching for mineral samples. Clear?”
“Yes sir,” said Harrington, and Brookes reluctantly echoed.
“Outstanding,” said Ford. “Get your toys out of the playroom, and we’ll set out at 0600.”
Brookes glowered at Harrington, then turned to exit. Harrington regarded the container. He peered deep into it, and saw a group of elderly women, sitting in a circle next to a lake. They cried as water lapped menacingly at the top of a stone wall that held the lake back from their land.
The cave was a hive of activity, with the men fanning out to inspect for mineral and archaeological resources. Dixon and Garret had installed an antenna just outside the entrance, which allowed their handheld to communicate with the neutron star-based galactic positioning system. Carefully avoiding the strings staked around the boundary of the rocks, they recorded coordinates, images of the cave, and voice notes – which were occasionally punctuated by an epithet followed by an allusion to Kepler, the namesake of one of the dead stars that sometimes failed to provide a proper signal. Brookes scanned the floor of the cave for major and trace elements with a portable x-ray fluorescent spectrometer. Martin helped guide Cassen as he used a magnetometer to search for objects potentially buried under the surface.
Harrington was on his hands and knees next to the rock column. He applied an electric trowel to the soil, gently peeling away layers that he dusted into a pan and then discarded to his side. He had covered about three quarters of the perimeter surrounding the column. His eyelids began to droop from the tedium of the activity. The tool whisked back and forth, side to side, like a metronome.
Suddenly a pallid tinge emerged through the dirt. Harrington instinctively lurched back, and his gloved hands clutched his face. Martin, observing Harrington’s reaction, helped Cassen extricate himself from the magnetometer, and, easing around one of the crystalline pools, they hiked to the piling.
No longer exercising restraint, Harrington attacked the soil furiously with the trowel. The dirt gave way around the sallow object, until finally revealing a long and slender bone.
The men gathered around the biosafety cabinet, implying in the manner they regarded the bone they were gazing upon the first addition to a musty old cabinet of curiosities.
“And by the way it appears to have facets for articulation with the sternoclavicular and acromioclavicular joints at the medial and lateral ends, I would say, gentlemen, without a doubt we’ve got ourselves a collarbone,” said Cassen.
“I’ll be damned,” said Ford, stroking his neck. “Martin, can you date a soil sample for us?”
“Already on it,” said the botanist, always eager to lend a hand to the crew. He produced a small plastic container of dirt. “I’ll run it through the OSL reader.”
“Great,” said Ford. He swiveled his neck in Harrington’s direction, and spoke haltingly. “Then I guess we just go and dig the rest of it up.”
Harrington sat reticent, his arms folded and legs crossed.
The commander had not planned to micromanage the crew’s activities on this mission. But given the developing friction Ford had observed, he thought it best to supplement the data he was collecting from the crew’s behavioral interaction badges with a site visit.
He halted at the cave’s entrance and admired the rays of multihued light bouncing off the puddles and stalactites. The tranquility of the grotto was interrupted only by the thumping of Brookes’ electric hammer on the wall, and Harrington’s monotonous delivery into a handheld. Ford made his way to the rock pile.
“The remains are interred roughly three meters beneath another meter of unbroken strata,” Harrington said into the device. He glanced at Ford, then continued without interruption. “The specimen has been placed on its right side, its brain case pointed in a southerly direction, and its legs bent at a right angle.”
“Note that the femur and tibia are joined by a ball-and-socket, like a shoulder, and not a hinge joint like a knee,” said Cassen, who was on his hands and knees, sculpting the soil with the electric trowel.
Ford stepped to the edge of the alien grave and gasped at what he saw. There, emerging from the dirt, speckled by flickering crystals, was what figured to be an intact human skeleton.
“There are features that are distinct from human bone structure,” said Cassen, as the crew gathered around the skeleton, now laid on its back in the biosafety cabinet. “It has fewer molars, no coccyx, longer fingers, and extra ribs – which presumably aided with lumbar-core resiliency.” He tapped the portion of the cabinet nearest the skeleton’s feet. “And there seems to be some damage to the phalanges and metatarsals that I want to probe a little more closely. Ultimately, once we’ve completely minimized backward contamination, we’ll want to send the specimen to the Gateway for radiocarbon dating, DNA extraction, and other lab tests.”
“Amazing,” said Ford. “And yes, of course. Martin, anything on that soil sample?”
“Nothing conclusive,” replied the botanist. “The organic matter from the decaying body – or bodies, I suppose – makes it difficult to arrive at an estimate. And curiously there is an overall elevated level of carbon-14 in the sample. But at any rate we’re looking at, maybe, several centuries since the surface layer was last disturbed.”
Dixon whistled. “And God said, let there be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,” he mused. “And it was so.”
“Yes, well, I guess that debate is over,” said Garret resignedly.
Cassen then outlined his plan for strict biological containment of the specimen according to planetary protection protocol, and for their return to the Gateway once any risks of backward contamination were eliminated. He asked if there were any questions.
Harrington broke his silence. “I have one: what is the protocol for notifying next of kin?”
“This is no time for jokes,” said Ford sternly. “We’re days away from Wolf 1061c’s version of a nor’easter.”
“I’m not kidding,” insisted Harrington. “If these were human remains, we would be obligated under the law to notify the family.”
“Okay, does anyone have any serious questions?” asked Ford.
“No, if he wants to go there again, then I say let’s run with it,” said Garret, stepping in front of Harrington. “You all know I thought we were chasing Bigfoot, but now that we’ve crossed that line in our understanding of the universe, let’s break it down. Let’s say that the law required us to notify next of kin – or descendants – in the event of the discovery of alien remains, and we actually encountered a live alien in this wasteland. How would we talk to it?”
Harrington remained dispassionate, his eyes trained on Garret.
“Matter of fact,” the engineer continued, “if we were considering the rights of these aliens, how would we even define them under the law? Are they human rights? Animal rights?”
“We’re just talking about a heap of rocks,” Dixon interjected. “Doesn’t indicate a higher order of intelligence in my book. They may only be slightly evolved from what we know as animals.”
“Animals don’t bury their dead,” said Harrington.
“Crows hold funerals for them,” mused Cassen.
Ford’s patience was wearing thin. “What is it you’re getting at, Harrington?”
Harrington stood and puffed out his chest, his arms still folded. “I’m saying, before we rush to turn this site into a mining pit, or become grave robbers, let’s consider another perspective. What if this cave was a sacred burial ground for this species – whatever we call it? There were traces of ichnusaite in the site, which suggests it could have been employed as a preservative, such as how natron or pumice were used in the ancient world.”
Brookes’ eyes pierced Harrington, but the geologist said nothing. “If we desecrate the site,” the archaeologist continued, “we could be wiping out years – centuries – of their history. We can’t replace that. And how would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot, and they came to our planet and dug up our cemeteries?”
It was Brookes’ turn to plead with Ford. “This is horseshit! Now I know I was wrong to dismiss Harrington’s premise about the rocks. But dead aliens do not have rights. At least not on Earth. We’re not philosophers or politicians. We’re scientists, tasked by the American people with gathering data and samples from other planets in the hopes of reversing the decline of our own resource supply. And,” he said, pointing a finger at Harrington, “you know the protocol on this was settled over a century ago: when remains are found interred in areas where mineral resources are located, those remains are to be excavated, relocated and contained in a safe environment for scientific study.”
“Human remains,” said Harrington. “And we’re not on Earth.”
“You are not here to rewrite law, Harrington! You’re just here to pack up the pots and bag the bones!”
“Who’s the one rewriting the law?” said Harrington, backing Brookes into a corner.
Ford placed himself between them. “That’s enough! Harrington, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but with all this talk about hallowed alien ground, I’m beginning to wonder if you’re not prioritizing the interests of our nation and its values and traditions. Like Brookes says, the rocks we find here could create American jobs, and improve our technology in ways we can’t even begin to fathom.”
“What if we pulled up stakes and the Russians or Chinese got here next?” Brookes demanded of Harrington. “Do you think they would respect any treaties? Do you think your remains would be in better hands with them?”
“Finders keepers, right?” said Harrington with a smirk.
“Gentlemen, you’re both out of line!” snapped Ford. “Now I want you all to go back to your quarters and cool off. Check in with your wives and kids, or whatever.”
The men groaned obligingly, then filed out. “Not you, Harrington,” barked Ford. The archaeologist halted and his eyes met Ford’s. “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but you need to get your head screwed back on. After centuries of asking the big question, we’ve finally made first contact, and now you’re worried about being haunted by alien ghosts. This,” he gestured at the skeleton, “belongs to the entire human race. It’s this century’s Lucy, and you’ve got the chance to study it. And you can help demonstrate that we’ve found a planet that can sustain life while we –“. He stopped himself.
A half smile crept onto Harrington’s face. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’m with the team.”
“Great,” said Ford. “We need you.” He clapped the archaeologist on the shoulder. “Don’t forget to ask yourself why you got into this field,” he added, then wheeled and departed.
Harrington lingered behind, withdrawing into the recesses of the ship. His hand reached into his pocket, where he grasped a small pouch, and thought of the bucket with the steel teeth on it that had wrenched the soil in the bag from his land. To protect, he thought, answering Ford’s query.
Cassen and Harrington had found an empty chamber that appeared to be out of range of the visible light network. Free of ducts and valves and canisters, the space seemed less confining than the common areas where they congregated with the rest of the crew.
“I’ll kill you and your family, you infidel,” said Cassen, with only a trace of actual menace.
They waited, but no one came. Harrington tapped the sensor strapped to his chest, paused, then nodded at his crewmate. “What you got?” asked Harrington.
Cassen inhaled, then let out the airless breath. “I thought, given your objections, you should be the first to know the results on the injuries to the lower limbs.”
Harrington’s pulse quickened. He dreaded what he would hear next. “And?”
“My conclusion,” he began, then correcting himself, “my supposition is that the broken bones indicate blunt force trauma that was inflicted upon the feet of the specimen.”
Harrington’s shoulders sank with the realization. The irony of what he had blurted out many years previous, during a lecture on Weber’s Protestant work ethic theories, intruded upon his thoughts. History isn’t that straightforward. It’s muddled. His classmates had gawked at him as he if were from another planet, and now Cassen too seemed very far away as he went on about how they couldn’t be certain until there was a CT scan and 3D modeling and so forth.
“What if,” Harrington said, clinging desperately to speculation, “what if this were committed by a hostile occupying force upon a peaceful group?”
“What if it weren’t?” said Cassen dispassionately.
He saw Harrington’s spirit being drained slowly out, and he could read the archaeologist’s expression: we have to bury it. Cassen’s mind wandered to when he had seen Earth from space, entirely blanketed in darkness, save for the brilliant orange glow over the sea and mountains and desert.
“There are many sides,” said Cassen, a smile breaking on his now hairless face, which he stroked purposefully. “But I’m on yours.”
If the men were suspicious of Harrington’s abrupt change of heart, they didn’t make plain their skepticism. They had learned that achieving consensus sometimes amounted to nothing more than taking advantage of a temporary suspension of the debate.
At any rate, Harrington had informed them that upon careful reflection he had concluded that activities that benefitted the welfare of American society trumped any implicit sovereign rights this alien species might enjoy – the latter being little more than an error of judgment he in turn ascribed to the difficulties in psychological adaptation to the duration of deep space missions.
The incident was smoothed over in the official mission report – “consultation amongst the crew terminated with the decision that full excavation of the specimen is deemed in compliance with existing laws or regulations” – and no mention was made of it at all when the crew contacted the Gateway via the lasercom system to report their findings. The discussion, rather, largely centered around a painstaking recap of Cassen’s plans to adhere to planetary protection protocol, as well as what procedures to follow in terms of notifying the chain of command and/or the general public. They agreed that, given the overall sentiment in favor of research activities that promote fiscal growth – weighed against the discomfort that might be aroused in society by the revelation that intelligent life may exist elsewhere in the universe – they would recommend to Houston that the ladies in the public affairs office emphasize in their communiqués the landmark discovery of ichnusaite and plans for future geological assessments of Wolf 1061c. The crew further advised that ongoing studies of its value as a habitable exoplanet should be positioned well below the lead. The Gateway pledged to relay to headquarters the proposal that a Space Corps outpost be immediately established to secure American mineral interests.
Afterwards, Harrington and Cassen stood on the surface underlying the habitat one last time, and admired the tiny ice crystals falling on their faces that signaled it was time to depart. They thought about what they were leaving behind, entombed beneath the rocks, and smiled, knowing in the end it mattered to no one.
Snowflakes tumbled upon the cylinder, which discharged a plume of fire and seemed to devour the clouds as it ascended.
Also exiting the planet’s atmosphere was a micro-drone that had observed the activities of the Earth people. It made its way past constellations shaped like animals these beings could never comprehend. Beasts that the people who had sent the drone had hunted in the deserts of Kugama land for centuries. Before the Old One had a vision about a great fire in the sky, which eventually came to be, spewing foul air that had extinguished all life on the Wolf planet.
Their Nagiham brethren had come to save them. First they brokered a settlement with the enemies of the Kugama, saying that the sky fire was a sign they must lay down their weapons. Then the Nagiham helped both sides bury their dead. The enemies return to their home planet, and the Kugama were carried to the Nagiham planet. There the Kugama were looked after for twelve thousand winters.
Over those millennia, they gazed together at many worlds, but took a particular interest in Earth. They saw how, at the same time the German astronomer peered through his glass at their dying star, humans were assigning colors to each other. Then the white ones broke treaties with the colored ones, and seized their territory, and stole their people, and killed people of all colors. No peace could be made with such creatures.
The ancient Kugama had warned that one day danger would come from the sky. Giant snakes made of metal would arrive, breathing fire, and belching up an alien race. They would build settlements, and dig in their caves and under their rocks, and take whatever they found – by force if necessary.
But not this time. Now that the hour of return to Kugama land was approaching, the confederation of Wolf people would not let the prophecy happen.
At the mesa, the Wolf women and men received the drone into their hands, where after viewing what it had recorded, they would paint themselves, dance in a ring, and prepare to rain fire down on the trespassers.