tagSci-Fi & FantasyLife in Deep Rock

Life in Deep Rock


It was the shell of an ammonite, about three inches across, a spiral whorl with deep scallops between each chamber so that it looked strangely malicious, like a blade for a little circular saw. It was very old, about 400 million years, and it was embedded in the sandstone in a way that John was seeing more and more these days, held in a tight, intimate embrace as if it had crystallized right out of the rock. The same tiny veins of silvery quartz than ran through the rock ran through the fossil too, innervating the shell like blood vessels in an organ. Only the obsidian gloss of the fossil against the flat gray-black of the fractured rock gave a hint that it hadn't appeared like a crystal right out of the stone itself. It hadn't, of course. It had come from the living world of the Devonian sea that surged over the quarry long before there was a consciousness to see it. Still, it was strange. Disturbing.

He slid his facemask back down and picked up the old dental drill, gritted his teeth against the irritating whine and started to work as the dust and tiny chips flew.

He worked in the front window of the museum-gift shop. The light was good here and he was able to keep an eye on the parking lot and front door. It wasn't much of a gift shop, just an old house that guarded the entrance to the quarry where the fossils came from, fossils arranged on the walls and lying in the mismatched collection of glass display cases beneath the fluorescent lights.

It was early spring and business was slow, still too raw and muddy for people to trek to the quarry to do their own collecting for thirty dollars a head. The light outside was harsh and thin like snow melt, and the racing clouds sent shadows flying over the deserted parking lot. It was peaceful—serene. It was much quieter now that Maggie was gone. There were times when he didn't think about her for hours at a time.

He shifted on his stool to take the weight off his right hip, and just then heard tires crunch on the parking lot gravel, and here was a car.

A big SUV, not new and streaked with mud. The car pulled right up to the window so that the grill was grinning at him and a man got out—mid-thirties maybe, and slight, frazzled and academic-looking, in jeans and worn denim barn-coat, his jeans spattered with dried mud. A digger for sure.

John put down his drill. took off the face shield, and slid off his stool, always favoring his hip. "Good morning sir." He could afford to be gracious to a single visitor.

The man looked confused and stood holding the door. "You're open? I couldn't tell if you were open or not from outside."

"Open we are. Yes sir," John said. "All year 'round."

The man looked at him long enough for John to form the opinion that he wasn't a normal tourist or rock hound. He seemed confused and almost alarmed, then he walked in with studied nonchalance and started peering intently into the display cases as if hiding his face. John watched him carefully.

The man cleared his throat and looked up. "Is Maggie here? Maggie Livingston?"

John stuffened. "Maggie? No sir, she's not." He limped over to the display case. "She no longer works here, I'm afraid."

The man looked at him blankly, confused.

"She was my wife," John said. "I'm John Livingston. We're no longer together."

"Oh, I'm sorry," the man said. "I'm sorry to hear that. I came out here to see Maggie. She was very helpful the last few time I was here, some months ago."

That would have been when John was the hospital, but there was no sense in telling the stranger that. John was still sensitive about it, even thugh he knew quite well that a lot of people needed help at times, and after what she'd put him through, it was perfectly understandable. The smile stayed on his face.

"Well, maybe I can be helpful too now," he said. "Anything special you're looking for?" It was obvious the man was looking for something.

The man tore himself from his reveries and looked around at the display cases. "Ammonites, crinoids, brachiopods. Local stuff. Things from this quarry."

"Yes, sir! A man who knows his fossils! You'll find most of the invertebrates over here." He gestured to a long, low display case that had once held high school trophies. "You're a collector?"

"I'm a chemist," the man said. "A surface chemist. Fossils were a hobby of mine. You own the quarry?"

John laughed. "Not hardly. Monee Limestone still owns the quarry. I just lease rights from them."

"But you still live here, right? Maggie said she lived upstairs. I suppose you...?"

John gave the man time to feel his embarrassment, then answered politely. "Yes. We lived here together. I was in the hospital for a time around Christmas—bad hip, you know? That must have been when you were out."

His smile barely slipped as his guard went up. "Just what is it you want, my friend? Is this a personal matter? Or is this business?"

The man took off his glasses and turned pale eyes on him. "Well, it's a bit of both, I suppose. See, I was talking to Maggie. She was helping me. She never mentioned me? Ron Kassiter?"

"She did not. Not that I remember."

Kassiter sighed. he seemed very disappointed, almost distraught, and that made John uneasy. He waited for him to continue.

"I'm curious as to whether you hear noises at night around here," the man said. "Maggie said she sometimes heard noises."

"Noises? What kind of noises?"

Kassiter realized that John was looking at him very suspiciously now, and he dropped the subject. He turned back to a case and tapped on the glass. "This ammonite here. Astronathes. May I see it?"

"What kind of noises?" John repeated, hobbling over and fishing the keys out of his pocket.

"Noises in the rocks," the man said. "Maggie—er, your wife—mentioned hearing them. Tapping. Clicking. Sharp sounds. Or maybe all at once—a kind of swishing sound, like rain."

"Like spalling? Rocks splitting? Sure. Happens all the time when the weather changes. That's how I find some of my best stuff. Water melts into the cracks and freezes at night and the rocks split. Sometimes sounds like cannon fire."

He opened the case and took out the fossil but he kept an eye on the man. It wasn't an exceptional fossil, a twisted cone like a little narwhal horn, but this specimen was very large and handsome, one of the first he'd found showing that strange veination, quite striking. The man took it in his hands and turned it over eagerly.

"Left handed whorl," he said. "You've noticed how rare these are?"

John looked at the spiral shell and shrugged. "Can't say as I have. Some are left, some are right. They go both ways."

"No," the man said. "The shell of Astronathes is a right-handed helix. This one's left-handed."

The man put down the shell and glanced rapidly over the rest of the display, the various fossils, some still in their rocky matrices, some totally free, some polished and some left crude and rough. John watched him carefully. There was something not right about him..

"Not all these specimens are local, are they?" the man asked. "The matrices are different. Limestone, chert, granite. Marble too, huh?"

"Well, we like to keep a good stock on hand. I go to the shows, buy some interesting stuff. But most of the sandstone stuff is from here. Monee Number Four is pretty famous, you know."

"Yes," the man said. "I know."

John went on, "You can dig your own if you like, right out of the rock. Maggie tell you about that? Thirty dollars and you get to keep what you can carry out in a bucket. Rent you a hammer for another five."

"Yes, yes, she mentioned it. She said it was forty dollars, though."

Despite himself, John had to repress a smile. Maggie had been a character.

The man looked up at him and suddenly seemed exhausted. He was pale as he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a slightly grimy business card. It bore the logo of the NaturaPure Water Company and said "Ronald A. Kassiter, M.S."

John looked at the card and then up at Mr. Kassiter, M.S. He smiled a bit indulgently. He was used to PhD's visiting his quarry, and apparently Ronald hadn't made the grade, but his expression turned grave when he saw the man pull out an inhaler and take a couple of quick hits. He truly looked ill.

"Are you okay. Mr. Kassiter? You want to sit down? You some water? Coffee?"

Ronald waved his hand but sat down on the stool John pulled out for him.

"I'm all right. I'm okay. It's just been an exhausting morning. An exhausting week, really. I was really looking forward to seeing Maggie."

"Yes, well, she's gone, I'm afraid, and I don't know where." This was more information than he ever gave out, and he waited for some reaction, but there was none. He was relieved.

"Just what are you looking for, Mr. Kassiter, if you don't mind my asking? I know most of the diggers and collectors around here, know most of what's available too—who found what and where. Maybe I can help you out."

Kassiter turned rheumy eyes on him. "Anomalies. Enantiomorphs. Know what those are?"

"I know anomalies, sure. What's that other?"

Kassiter slid his spray back into his pocket and tested his breathing, his hand on his chest. "Enantiomorphs. Mirror images, reflections. Like your left hand is an enetiomorph of your right? Like the Astronathes shells. Astronathes has a right-handed helical shell. Only once in a great while do you find the enantiomorph, the left-handed helix, and only around here, like in this quarry here, this very one."

John shrugged "Well, it's a kind of sport or sub-variety, I guess. That figures. Makes sense they'd be localized in one area. They worth much?"

Kassiter ran his hand through his thin, wild hair. His voice was weary, as if he'd told the story to disbelievers a hundred times. "The left-handed shells aren't really fossils. They're something artificial, something put there in the rocks."

John looked at him.. "You mean phonies? Frauds?" He laughed. "Mr. Kassiter, why would anyone do that? I sell Astronathes for ten bucks a pop and I've got buckets of them. If I were going to fake something, I'd fake something valuable, not a common fossil like that."

"No, that's not what I mean," Kassiter said. "I mean there's something in the rocks that manufactures them. Something's making them. Whatever it is, I think it's alive. There's something living in the rocks. In the quarry."

John's smile froze on his face. The man was a nut case. He got them out here surprisingly often, mostly religious nuts, anti-evolutionists. Some of them could be troublesome or even dangerous. Kassiter was a small man, but he had a rabid look to him.

"Something living in the quarry? In the rocks?" He smiled. "Okay, Mr. Kassiter. Whatever you say."

"No, look— I'm sorry. I don't mean to come off as crazy, and I know it sounds crazy..." He sighed and tried to look reasonable. "I'm a surface chemist. You know what that is?"

"Haven't the slightest."

"I study surfaces, the surfaces of things—solids, liquids— the parts we see."

John snorted. "Sounds fascinating."

"I know. Sounds dull as dirt, but it's not. See, when you stop to think about it, all we ever see are surfaces, right? All we ever interact with are surfaces. All chemical reactions happen at surfaces. We interact with the world through surfaces. That's all we know—what's on the outside of things. Those rocks you have, the ones with the fossils in them. You don't know what's inside till you open them up, do you?"


"So when you open them up, what do you do? You create new surfaces to look at, see? You're still looking at the surface."


"And I got interested in trying to see what's inside. I wanted to see what's under the surface, understand?"

John shrugged, not very interested, and Kassiter moved to engage him.

"Think of it this way— That piece of sandstone on your bench over there. What color is it inside?"

John looked over at the piece of rock he'd been working on. He realized now that the shell he'd been freeing was left-handed, and that gave him a little thrill.

"It's gray," he said. "Same color it is inside."

Kassiter shook his head. "No. It's not. If you crack it open or drill into it it'll look gray, but that's just the new surface you expose. The truth is, it has no color inside. Color has no meaning on the inside of a rock. There's no light. We can't say what color it is.

"There are other properties like that, other things we don't know about the insides of things. Acoustical properties are one. We don't know whatthings sound like in rock. How waves behave. There's all that rock in your quarry, and we have no idea what's going on inside. No idea whatsoever."

A semi passed by outside, causing a swift black shadow to race through the shop. John shrugged. The man was insane but not dangerous and he was losing interest. He was still hoping to learn something about Maggie, though, so he indulged him.

"Did you say there was coffee?" Kassiter asked.

John ignored him. "So what does all that have to do with something living in the rocks? That's pretty far-fetched. And how does that relate to Maggie? Just what was she helping you with?"

Kassiter slipped off the stool, reached in his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled spiral notebook. John understood he was supposed to look at it, but when he did all he saw was indecipherable scrawls and diagrams.

"You can see past the surface," Kassiter said. "Well, not see, but you can poke around in there, you can probe. Sonar does it—seismography—sending sound waves into it. That won't tell you what it looks like in there, but it will tell you where density changes, where things are. That's what I was doing, using seismography to look at ground water sources."

"What kind of things?"

There was a loud crack and a gravelly rumble outside, as if a truck had just dumped a load of coal down the wall of the quarry. Kassiter looked at John in alarm, but John just shrugged.

"Spalling," he said. "Just like I said. Now back to the subject. What kind of things?"

Kassiter flipped some pages in his book. "Not just seismography. You can use NMR too—nuclear magnetic resonance, what the medical people call MRI. It's not easy, and you can't use it in the field, but you can get an idea of what's going on there inside smaller rocks, what the internal structure's like."

"And what's in there?" John asked. "Fossils swimming around? Bigfoot living in there? Nessie?"

Kassiter was used to ridicule. "No. Nothing like that. But there's something. When I was listening in the deep rock I heard something. Patterns, too regular to be natural. I've been listening for months now, all over the county, but this is the best place—the Monee Formation. Wherever it surfaces and the rocks are exposed, you can hear them. Your quarry has the largest exposure of Monee limestone in the state, and that means in the world. That's why I've come here. I've been recording them."

The man was serious.

"Your wife Maggie? She let me listen out here. Just put some microphones into cracks and holes in the rock. I could hear them. We both heard them. I can't believe she never told you."

John straightened. "Just how well did you know my wife, Mr. Kassiter? How many times were you out here while I was away?"

The man wasn't very succesful at hiding his look of alarm. He looked hurt and drew back. "Five, six times. Doing research, that's all. She was very helpful. She didn't tell you I was here? She didn't tell you about the recordings?"

"No, but there's a lot she never told me about. Quite a lot."

Kassiter picked up his notebook and put it away, and his hands were shaking. John watched him closely.

"You have no idea where she is?" Kassiter asked. "I really need to find her to corroborate. She was my only witness for the recordings, and I need her to vouch for the experiments we set up."

"What experiments?"

"Just some simple things. Little experiments, but very important. Outside."

John grew angry. "You set up experiments here on my property without my permission? What kind of experiments, Mr. Kassiter?"

Kassiter looked frightened now. "It was minor, all very minor. We just buried some objects. Your wife said it was okay."

John drew himself up. "Well she never told me, and I don't like people poking around without my permission. Did you get permission from Monee?"

"I can't go to them until I have proof," he said. "They'd laugh me out of there. I'm sorry. She said it would be all right. There's no way you can contact her?"

John drew himself up. "I'm afraid you're out of luck," he said carefully. "I don't know where she is. She just disappeared. Packed up some things and cleaned out our savings and disappeared. I think she had a young man out in California, but it seems she had young man quite a few places."

Kassiter's face went blank and he grew even paler. He slumped in his stool. "I'm sorry to hear that. Very sorry. You must think I'm nuts then, huh?"

"Quite honestly? I don't much care. But I want you to collect your experiments and get them out of here. You want to do research on my land, maybe we can work out a deal if the price is right. Otherwise you're trespassing, Mr. Kassiter, and the sheriff is a friend of mine."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Livingston," Kassiter said resignedly. "I've been under a terrible strain. These last weeks have been terrible. I've quit my job, been traveling non-stop, trying to arrange funding, no one listening..."

He lifted his face up and John felt contempt as he thought the man might start to weep

"Do you have any idea of what it would mean if I'm right? The fame, the prestige? This would be the scientific discovery of the century—a new form of life, right under our feet, sharing the planet with us, living within our world. Can you imagine the money? Isn't it worth at least hearing me out?"

In the silence of the shop the ticking of the big antique regulator wall clock could be heard. John locked the display case and stood up, ignoring the stiffness in his hip.

"What do you take in your coffee, Mr. Kassiter?"

"Two sugars and cream," he said. "And thank you."

* * *

Dark clouds chased the sun from the sky and a cold spattery rain began to fall. Occasionally, a passing car's tires sizzled on the wet asphalt outside, and John sat on his stool, his right leg extended, holding his coffee in both hands as Kassiter set up his laptop

"What geologists call homogeneous isn't homogeneous to a chemist. Rocks are mixtures—solid mixtures of minerals. These microscopic crystals of mineral form domains and they have different properties from the domains around them. The properties I care about are acoustical, because I think these things in the rocks are standing waves."


Kassiter looked at him. "You shouldn't be surprised. We're waves too. All the cells and neurons and all that stuff in our head, it's all there to produce very complicated waves. For us, they're electrochemical. For these creatures, they're acoustic, but the result is the same—the phenomenon we call thought. Complicated, but it's built up out of very simple processes, like Fourier waveforms: very complex wave forms built out of many, many simple ones."

It was obvious John didn't know anything about Fourier transforms, so Kassiter dropped it.

"Anyhow, these creatures, these entities, are like brainwaves, only they're vibrations instead of electrical, and instead of being in our brains, they're in the earth—the rock. They're like the thoughts of the earth."

"But waves go through the earth. They don't stay in one place."

"No, they do. Standing waves do. When there's a change in density at the ends — the nodes — the material in between can act like a violin string, vibrating between two fixed points. A standing wave. Build up enough of these simple standing waves in one area, and you've got very complex patterns, patterns that could be thought."

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