THE CALLISTO INCIDENT

art by Patrick Ijima-Washburn

A story by Gerd Maximovic

(Translation: Isabel Cole)

Bad thing to have happened.

    They had glided into space near the sun Aurelia; the CALLISTO wobbled about its two axes, and the ship's artificial center of gravity shifted from the tip to the stern of the ship like the bubble in a spirit-level. So they hung in their ropes for a whole quarter of an hour, until the engineer managed to shake off the last drops of magnetic blackness from the ship and anchor them and the ship in space and time, stable once again.

    The electronic mice hummed about their feet and cleaned up, and they counted the planets, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. The computer spat out a dozen measurement sheets, and so they were able to read the data on the planets. It soon grew clear that of the seven, only the planet farthest from the sun came into question. The others were barely-condensed gaseous fog, or puddles covered with swimming seas of metal, which would enter a better and more useful state only after millions of years.

    In a hop, skip and a jump they were on the seventh planet, rocking a little bit in the magnetic Off until they came to rest. They illuminated the interior of the planet down to a depth of fifty kilometers, as deep as the orbital radiation reached. The values measured exceeded all their expectations. The planet was a sheer treasure trove of minerals, ores and other materials occurring in a concentration and abundance such as they had never seen before.

    But what utterly delighted them was the sparkling glass constructions which had been erected in regular patterns near the richest mineral deposits. These structures could not have been chance geological formations; they had surely been erected by intelligent beings.

    They broke out in jubilant cries, the modern conquistadors, and embraced each other joyfully, forgetting the strains of the journey and, for the moment, the dangers which might lie ahead. Some already saw, in their mind's eye, the energy containers whirling through space.

    In principle, the whole thing was a simple and cheap affair, since the newly discovered forces of the universe could be exploited. It had begun when the Earth's resources approached exhaustion and the transformation of other material of which the Earth possessed great quantities, as well as the use of the quanta, threatened to disrupt the balance of the solar system. In this time of crisis the magnetic sling had been invented, permitting containers filled with resources to be hurled through space on magnetic fields. The first experiments were successfully carried out along the Allison Belt in the Pacific and in the Sahara. At last, when the sling principle matured into the mantle-fold drive for spaceships, the next step to the distant stars and their planets could be ventured with increased accuracy.

    And thus the CALLISTO, where the men embraced each other and suppressed the thought of possible dangers, had been assigned to space cube 170. Like the cubes to be explored by their sister ships, it lay in a peripheral area of the galaxy. This choice was based on the theory that the chances of finding intelligent life would be greater in the outer regions of the galaxy than in the center, where the concentrated radiation would prevent the development of intelligent forms of life for millions of years; only in the phase of its cooling could one expect to find life forms like those that already occurred at the edge of the galaxy, such as human beings. In addition, in areas where the radiation was less intense, the hurricanes were weaker, and it was easier to jump and maneuver.

*

They landed near a blue lake, at the edge of the glass constructions. According to all their calculations and measurements, the planet and its inhabitants posed no risk, for no concentrations of metals, imperative for any system of weapons, had been found. The air of the planet was so pure and clear that the hatches could soon be opened and the men felt at home, as if on the Earth. Only the day lasted much longer than on Earth, due to the slow rotation of the planet.

    As they climbed out onto the grass, they felt blinded by the glass constructions. At intervals of perhaps a hundred meters, twenty-meter high cubes, partly transparent, had been erected. Wherever they could look into the cubes, they saw varied and colorful movement heading for the ground ever since the landing of the ship, pouring out onto the grass through glittering hatches, approaching the spaceship and its crew, or those who had already disembarked, rapidly and curiously, but completely without inhibitions.

    The inhabitants of the planet moved over hill and dale, gliding onwards on air cushions. Their bodies were hidden beneath shimmering spheres. Each of them glittered in a different color; like fingerprints, the colors varied so that none was repeated. Yet it was impossible to distinguish differences in rank between them, for they were all equally curious and disciplined, constantly exchanging the prime places from which the strangers could best be observed.

    There was something natural in the encounter of the two cultures, a friendly and relaxed atmosphere as if they had known each other for a long time; this relaxed atmosphere came from the shimmering spheres who were their hosts. To help the Earthlings get over their diffidence, they were immediately invited into the crystal city with the help of vivid lightning flashes. The Earthlings saw that the city reached far down into the earth, which put the mining engineers into a state of great excitement. The principle which allowed the shimmering beings to dig into the earth with apparent ease also met with delight and astonishment.

    Once they had gotten to know the shimmering spheres a bit better, they saw that they led a playful life and co-existed with their environment in great harmony. Above all, what was lacking here was the ambiguity which, on the old Earth, so frequently covered up the material interest which they had brought here with them, closing one's mouth even as one spoke and making the brain into a calculator. One of the strangers' first actions was a nice, playful, yet calculated gesture. According to the principles of the universe, all living beings must perform some kind of exchange of substances with their environment, and so the humans, or, for they were suspicious, at least some of them, were invited to a great feast, at which the hosts soon grasped the organic composition of the humans and were at once able to present them with suitable dishes. But it was also typical that the humans, in return, presented them with beads.

    Soon they were able to communicate with the shimmering spheres. For this, they used adapters which transformed the piping sounds of the spheres - they had already enjoyed their music as joyful and never-before heard tunes. The mining engineers cautiously attempted to elicit details about the natives' means of production, but there were still significant obstacles to comprehension in this area, for they were unable to come to an understanding on important terms such as work, wealth, and so forth. The natives' reactions were foolish and childish, just as the human beings would have reacted if the shimmering spheres had landed on the Earth and attempted to probe the human beings' private life.

    The sun had gone about a third of the way across the sky, and according to earthly time reckoning two days had passed. The captain was visibly impatient, since there were special bonuses for particularly rapid work, so to speak for getting in before the deadline, and in their area they could rise progressively. Thus they began to explain to the shimmering spheres which metals and congealed liquids they wanted to obtain from the ground, in what degree of purity, and how they were supposed to be packed in the containers, and they already began setting up the magnetic pylons to open the short bridge to the pole, from which the transport was to proceed automatically.

    When they expressed these wishes, a faint disturbance occurred in the music of the spheres, as if an electrical storm had passed, but then the music once again rose cheerfully into the sky, and the spheres moved down into the ground to begin production. Not enough of them, however, for the captain. He pointed to the crystal towers in which many more spheres, who had satisfied their curiosity about the strangers, were romping and not lending a hand. So the towers emptied, but the friendliness with which they did so was reserved, hesitant, as if they did not want to offend their good friends, as if they thought they would let things clear up first and then negotiate the matter when things were calmer.

    It could clearly be seen how the spheres grew restless as the work dragged on, how they were attempting to understand, how the wheels turned in their heads, how they struggled with this unfamiliar problem. After five or six hours the music grew shrill and scratched rusty out of the holes in the ground. When you listened closely, you could hear more songs about pauses and relief, but the captain remained firm and had them continue working. Like blind mice, following their instincts, some of the spheres crawled into the sun on their own. They were met with powerful bursts of energy which made the earth spray up, causing an incredible crashing and thundering and hurling the impertinent spheres through the air like marbles, until they came to rest, motionless.

    Naturally, their comrades attempted to come to their assistance, but the alien thunder filled all the holes and made them remain below, fearfully. Finally, when it was clear that the spheres would submit, the captain allowed them to bury the victims of the first rebellion. They were sunk into the earth, where they began to radiate an intense violet light. Now the music was helpless, muted and sad. The illumination of the towers which made up the city had changed as well. When the spaceship landed, it had been radiant, sparkling, of an unheard-of splendor; now the crystals shed dull beams, or, when the sun broke its path through the structures, a gleaming, harsh light which had lost its soul.

    Thanks to the miraculous energies of the shimmering spheres which, as they had thought, they only needed to put to work, after only four earthly days, when this sun had crossed two thirds of the sky, the first container bridge could be opened. The planet's natural magnetic fields were used to hurl the filled containers, which the natives were forced to manufacture in a natural lake of meltwater, to the polar ice cap and from there into the broad corridor which led through the sky to the earthly solar system.

    On the evening of this first day on the seventh planet of the spheres' sun there was finally a break, which abruptly revealed the full misery into which the natives had been plunged. Sluggish and weary and even incapable of any kind of gratitude, the spheres crept back to the surface of their planet; unable to seek their food, they remained lying near the holes from whence they had crept, feeble and shining only weakly, like dim lamps placed before the red sun. All the energy remaining them rose in their plaintive songs, which grew louder and louder until they rose into the sky, piercing the humans' ears so unpleasantly that they had to turn off their adapters.

*

All that could now be seen of the sun was its upper half, it was as if half a weary eye had rolled upward to turn its gaze away from the misery of this world. Suddenly balls rose from the sun and above the horizon, almost invisible in their red glow, one or two dozen, it was hard to tell, rapidly approaching the place where, once again, humans had encountered alien intelligence. The weary spheres were the first to grasp the altered situation; even below ground, where the new shift was at work, they had registered the change. As if at a secret signal, the weary spheres began to shine brightly again, and the moles under the earth dropped their work and crept up to the surface of the earth in a steady stream.

    The Earthlings had frozen. They stared spellbound at the horizon, where the red, pulsing balls which came from the sun now swelled up in hosts. One switched on the adapter, and sudden jubilation which took the place of the sad songs rustled about the humans' ears. All the earthly minds had the same associations. These were the very image of the spheres which slaved away under ground, but they were less smooth, less friendly, not so radiant, cloaked by a mysterious menace. The humans reeled about and ran to their spaceship, the CALLISTO, where the heavy artillery was kept, and the sirens began to howl, announcing through the clear air that everything was set for the emergency start. But it was a long way to the spaceship for their weak, white legs, which seemed suited only for crushing little marbles.

    Goodness! a mighty voice echoed from the heavens, What are they doing with the kids?

    And another voice called, just as angrily: Look, they've turned the kids into moles!

    One could intermittently hear the captain yelling commands. But neither he nor the others who neared the spaceship in great leaps managed to enter it, much less reach the cannons. The red spheres were already over them, and a wave of indescribable jubilation met them. Ruby-red light shot from the clouds and vaporized first the captain and then the other humans, with one single exception.

    This one remained standing as if paralyzed, and now threw himself onto the ground. He heard them cursing at each other, how stupid that they had left the children alone for a whole day with no one to watch them. Scouts, having quickly circled the planet, returned to report that no more reptiles had landed. In the meantime the graves had been opened to breathe fresh light and life into the purple hills.

    A short debate followed, held quite openly before the last of the reptiles. Their thought was that it could not hurt to grant one of the treacherous beings its life and set it free as a witness of their defeat, so that the others would think twice about whether it was worth visiting their solar system. They also spoke of certain principles which supposedly were valid all over the universe, but the survivor was unable to understand much of that.

    So they gave him an electric kick which put him on board his spaceship, locked the hatches, sealed the cannons and then hurled him along the pylons to the pole and out into the universe until the man felt sick as never before in his life. He no longer saw them destroying the container bridge and healing the little ones' wounds and attempting to explain to them what they had had to go through for those six earthly days.

    But they lacked the words for that.

CONTENTS