The endless ocean which washes the stars carried along a small, glittering ship named HOKUSAI on its foam-crests. The gravitational fields of the stars licked the HOKUSAI with many tongues and carried it forward like a giant with energetic muscles. The energy lore was at once science and art. One sought the collision of different energy currents, entered the resulting vortices, and the explosions in the center of the vortex storms propelled the ships on as if hurled from a catapult. Thus the HOKUSAI followed that strange zig-zag course which is the result of high-speed travel in space.
Far in the distance, barely visible, beacons flashed. They danced like shining buoys on the energetic ocean, gave a red warning of parts of space in which the energy temporarily came to a standstill, and flashed yellow and green where the roaring energy ocean foamed at the mouth. The mother, Maria Itsuko by name, who stood at the rudder, saw the dancing beacons of the main route in the corner of her eye. Since she had gotten her license only recently, and was not in very good practice yet, the family had chosen a by-road far from the noisy freighters.
In this part of space the energy current flowed along calmly and deliberately, and Itsuko held the rudder somewhat carelessly in her hands. A glance at the board clock showed her that it would soon be time for lunch. From the ventilator shaft rose smells from the kitchen; where Paul, her husband, stood over the self-heating pots, the smell of broiled eel rose.
Itsuko made for Saturn, which, with its radiant band, already hung great and impressive on the screen. Occasionally she wrote down some position lights, which made Robso, the computer on board, clear his throat disapprovingly, for he did not like being unemployed. Apparently electronic apparatuses are not at all as unfeeling and cold as we are told; sometimes, when it thinks it can do everything better, it even tends toward vanity.
At the moment Itsuko's thoughts were divided between the course of the HOKUSAI and her four children. Maria, the oldest, called Saphire, sweated over work which she was doing for her study of Mars botany; she had shut herself up in her room in the uppermost floor of the HOKUSAI. Jasmine, her astral passport said Theresia, sat over a political paper regarding the question of the fair partition of the planetary surfaces among humanity. The third sister, who was surely the loveliest of all, called Magdalena in the Occident and Jadestone in the Orient, was typing up some lectures with which she earned some money; she was saving for a Venusian Octophanus fur, which came from a raccoon-like animal. Despite his three almond-eyed sisters, Leonardo, the youngest, and the only son, was that day's star. Since it was his fourteenth birthday, he had stipulated that for once Father should stand in the kitchen and Mother at the rudder, and he had added slyly that he thought it would be a good thing if such a birthday were to take place every other day.
Robso cleared his throat and said in a voice which resounded with evident disapproval: "The magnetometer is indicating turbulence. A planetoid is crossing our path. According to my predictions, contact will take place in ten minutes."
"That's strange," said Itsuko, "we crossed the planetoid field days ago."
"It happens occasionally," rumbled Robso, and struck up a deeper tone in order to give more emphasis to his words, "that a shattered planetoid drifts out of the energy field."
"Can you find out any more about the nature of the planetoid?" Itsuko asked.
"Not yet," Robso answered. "My telescopic eyes can't see that far yet. It seems to be a fairly small planetoid. It's emitting a red glow."
The mother asked no further questions. In the humming of the ventilation she thought to herself, quietly, because Robso was so easily offended, that the computer was acting important again, as he always did when he thought he was being neglected. She smiled to herself and made a further note of position in thin, elegant brushstrokes.
Leo came into the control room and asked how far his father had come with his birthday meal. Itsuko replied that he was almost finished. Leo brushed the blue-black hair from his forehead. He, like his sisters, had inherited it and the almond eyes from their parents. He sat down in a corner, and without being asked Robso tossed the Red Planet Courier into his lap. He read without enjoying it. He was distracted by something which could not be determined in words. It was a little bit as if a thunderstorm were rising, the ocean tasted a pinch of ozone on its tongue, flung experimental bolts of lightning from its eyes and cleared its throat, making distant thunder resound in the ears.
Then a terrible blow jarred the ship, shook it and its passengers, dropped like a moonquake from the antenna at its nose to the energy supports at the stern. The stabilizers, otherwise used to the leaps of the HOKUSAI, though set at half power during the slow cruise, shrieked like the springs of a mattress jumped on by a wild horde. Leo fled into one corner of the control room, his mother into the other, a confused noise came from the kitchen, boding no good for the birthday meal and the Chinese porcelain.
Robso thought feverishly, as could be seen from his flashing lights, and bellowed in a voice which escaped breaking only because of the internal lock: "Alaaarm! Alaaarm! Alaaarm! Spacesuits on! Alarm level one! Everyone to the control room immediately!
By the time Paul, the father, wiping his sweating bald head with a snow-white handkerchief, a dragon pattern embroidered on it, came in through the door, Leo had already picked himself up and, even before helping his mother to her feet, pressed automatic course. But despite the automatic course the stars went on dancing, as if the screen were used merely as a colorful kaleidoscope. They spun across the glass, left bright trails, exploded as rare, unheard-of fireworks. However, the audience was in no mood for applause.
Now Robso was howling his alarm only in the upper floors, for the sisters, who had not yet come down. Down in the control room he supplied another pair of loudspeakers, through which he now began to speak calmly and matter-of-factly. At first Itsuko was somewhat distraught; the others also thought at first that she had been at fault.
Robso said: "We're stuck in an energy knot. It's a noose, the way Schmulloch first described it. An extremely odd thing."
"I've heard of such a thing," said Paul, and daubed the sweat from his forehead. "An energy knot never attacks without reason."
"Robso," asked Itsuko, "is the HOKUSAI damaged?"
"One moment," said the computer, and now for the first time Leo noticed that all vanity, every trace of injury had vanished from the voice of the computer; in difficult situations Robso's qualities showed through. "The energy knot has concentrated several sheaves of rotten energy on the stern supports."
"What does that mean?" inquired Leo.
Robso explained: "Our ability to maneuver is shot."
The stars danced on the screen like a colorful merry-go-round, as if someone were shooting New Year's fireworks into the night.
"Robso, can't you stop the merry-go-round?" urged Paul.
"That's impossible," replied Robso, "the rotten energy neutralizes my pressure."
"Then we really are in the soup," cursed Paul. "Robso, how big is the thing anyway?"
"About fifty kilometers in diameter, the planetoid seems to be its core, its crystallization point."
"Can we at least reach the planetoid on our own?"
"That should be possible," said Robso.
"But what good does that do us?" Leo interjected.
"Does it at least let light quanta through?" asked Itsuko.
"Yes," said Robso. "You want to find out what material the planet consists of, am I correct?"
All three nodded.
"It is a red substance," Robso explained, "gives an organic impression, could be a kind of eye."
"An eye?" all three wondered.
"Something of the sort," Robso replied. "One must be careful when making comparisons between energy knots and human beings. They perceive their environment through other organs. Schmulloch upholds the view that they speak a pictographic language, that their means of expression is a symbolic, flowery one, a little like Chinese or Japanese characters."
The father broke out in grim laughter. "Then it's come to the right people, hasn't it?"
Itsuko, Leo, even Robso joined in Paul's laughter. Then Paul became serious again. The mother and Leonardo understood immediately.
"Where can the girls be?"
The energy knot was forgotten, the swirling screen, the smiles sank from their golden faces like the sun which sets rapidly in the Japanese sea. Leo was the first one outside and up the stairs. The last steps which he had to take were difficult. A strange, sweetish smell washed down the stairs. It was a mixture of opium and... He hardly dared to think... It smelled like a hint of rotting, sweet human flesh.
That was the attempt at a scream, but only a dry rasping came from his throat.
He looked around and saw that his parents had followed him, that they had to struggle just as he had, and that the smell rose brutally in their nostrils as well. Then Leo threw open the door to the elastic room. No trace of Magdalena. In her stead, a little tree in the middle of the room, bearing blossoming catkins on its branches. Most of the branches lay about on the floor, and from the wounds on the tree flowed a red liquid which rose into the air and dissolved into smoke, at last becoming invisible and stealing as a perfume into the noses of Leo and his parents. They looked at one another speechlessly. Then an invisible fist broke out of nothingness into the elastic room, reached for another branch, a violent groan resounded as if the bones of a person were being dislocated, then there was a crack, a crash, and the branch fell against the wall and to the floor, while a furious howl rang out, expressing pain, anger and helplessness.
Since, at the moment, nothing could be done, they turned to Jasmine's room. Leo involuntarily drew his jacket closer about him, for with every step he took toward Jasmine's room the temperature fell as if he were plunging toward the North Pole. This happened so quickly that the red froze on his cheeks, leaving two orange blots of color behind. His parents rubbed their cracking fingers, stamped vigorously like Leo, bent into the piercing wind which came from the ventilator, and struggled toward Jasmin's room, which was only a few steps away from Magdalena's elastic room, as if they were trudging up Fujiyama.
When Leo pushed open the door to Magdalena's room the ice fell from the hinges with a ringing crash, and an icy maw spat at him from the room as if it wanted to cover Leo with frost and submerge him at the bottom of the sea of ice as harbinger to the humans who would survive the next ice age. Jasmin's seat was empty too. Her typewriter was snowed in, the cold had swept together the paper with bony fingers, and now a little vapor rose from it.
On the chair in front of the desk lay a crystal which was perfectly clear and gave off light in all colors of the rainbow. The three intruders stood still. Again the wind rose, quietly now, whistled around the closet, polished the desk, raised snow flurries, icicles fell from the ceiling. When they held their breaths they could hear the sadness of the song of the wind.
Outside in the corridor - the refrigerator door clicked shut again, giving itself a narcissistic, cool kiss - they swung their arms, stamped their feet warm and gradually unthawed again. Once their limbs were finally, against their will, completely in their control again, they climbed the last flight of stairs and entered Sapphire's room.
Itsuko let out a sound of joy, at least Sapphire was still there in her original form. She stood in front of the window, backlit, and a golden shimmer from the artificial sun fell over her blue-black hair. She stared at the three of them wide-eyed through her glasses, surprised, as if she did not know them, and was silent. Only now and then did her hand move, and glittering dust fell to the floor. Now for the first time Leo, whose thoughts, in the stress of their strange situation, sped like arrows from the bow, noticed that the floor beneath their feet was like naked, torn-up earth. A monster must have delved in the earth with its jaws. Upon this realm of earth, whose soul was so clearly torn, Sapphire sprinkled her dust as if she were a wonder doctor attempting to heal the torn-up earth by mysterious means, with an invocation, a ritual.
Down in the control room the old image on the screen. Robso met them with cool light.
"One might think," he began, "that you've all taken leave of your senses."
As no one responded to his words, he went on: "You climb the stairs as if you had asthma, wave your arms as if winter were coming, and now you're even coming down with clay-smeared shoes. I think these are really the wrong circumstances for a silly trick."
"Now, turn down the tension a little," Leo returned, "otherwise one might think you're going rusty."
"And the same goes for your sisters," Robso continued undaunted. "Sitting up there, throwing their work away and disguising themselves as if they were at a masquerade ball."
"Didn't you see a pussy-willow tree, a crystal, a fairy sprinkling glittering dust?"
Robso laughed deeply. "Your imagination is steaming out of your heads like thick fog! Here, have a look, I've been rubbernecking in the meantime. An earthly spacecraft has berthed on the planetoid."
This news revived the spirits of all three at one blow. They crowded up to the telescope, but there was little more to be seen than the silhouette of the craft.
"What can they possibly want on such a lonely, barren planetoid, especially one of such a strange nature?" wondered Paul.
"Maybe it's a research ship," put in Itsuko, "it's high time they start researching the energy knots, it's easy to see what a disaster you can end up with."
Paul shook his head decisively. "All research projects between the sun and the outer planets are registered and announced. It must be something else." "Could this ship have some connection with this incident of ours?" Paul thought this over, then nodded. "That must be it," he said. "Maybe they're not even authorized."
Robso made himself heard. "I was just thinking. A ship in this region, aside from ours, is unregistered. The next radio-beacon answers in the negative. Strange affair, isn't it?"
Leo made a thoughtful face. "What business can a few people have in such remote parts, so far away from any other route? What interests them here?"
The mother said: "Of course they have their own interests in mind."
Robso said with decisiveness: "That is impossible, that's not a part of our world culture. For decades nothing has been heard of plunderers. The treasures of the solar system belong to all human beings equally." He added, grinning, "Of course, that doesn't exclude this possibility."
Leo said: "So, as we heard before, the energy know expresses itself symbolically. What happened to my sisters can only be seen as an attempt to communicate with us symbolically." He paused briefly and thoughtfully, and his parents looked at him, expectant. "Let's assume for the moment that there really is a symbol embodied in the present state of our sister, what message could that be?"
Robso put in: "There are always the fundamental possibilities that it means it well or ill."
"If it were ill-meant," the father said, "we surely would have noticed it already. If it wanted to attack us it wouldn't send us a fairy, a crystal and a peaceful pussy-willow whose blood dissolves in heavy clouds of opium. Furthermore, every being, that is, even an energy knot, needs a reason, a material cause which makes it 'ill'."
"An energy knot," put in Robso, "is sufficient unto itself; on the other hand, if you drive a stake into its eye - if it is an eye - of course it'll go wild."
"You're right," said Itsuko, "the attack isn't very severe, although I'd rather it hadn't happened at all."
"Good," said Leo, "so it's trying to tell us something. The branches are torn from its body, and blood flows forth. The wind whistles cold in its ear, and a lament resounds from the crystal. A fairy tries in vain to heal the brutally torn-up ground with inadequate stardust. What do you think of that theory?"
Paul gave him an appreciative clap on the shoulders.
"I think," he said, "you're on the right trail."
"Now the only question is," Leo continued, "what to do."
"The stern supports are jammed," Robso reminded gently.
Paul motioned to them energetically with his hand and now, for the first time, tucked away the handkerchief, which was already completely gray, in his kimono.
"I suggest," he said, "that we have something to eat, since all of our stomachs are growling. Leo's birthday meal was almost done. When we're full, our thinking will be less hectic. We'll find a way out of this dilemma."
They saw the sense in that. And without wasting another word they climbed the stairs again. They mended and watered the tree as well as they could. They polished the crystal and removed all bothersome heat radiation. Before the fairy's eyes they leveled the torn-up earth and smoothed it out.
In the midst of their hurried meal from the automatic kitchen machine the stars suddenly stopped spinning on the screen, and Robso said in a deep, satisfied bass: "Now the stern supports are free too."
They immediately realized that the energy knot was giving them a sign. They discussed the matter and developed a strategy for tackling the gangsters on the planetoid, and immediately set to work.
In one of the closets built into the walls Leonardo found himself a spacesuit which was right for his size. He clothed himself meticulously and then entered the lock. He waited until the oxygenated air had been pumped out, and then stepped up to the edge of the lock, which was synonymous with stepping up to the edge of nothingness. The sun burned in the distance like a small yellow eye, like a piercing needle-head. The stars hung before Leo's eyes so clear that he was overcome by the temptation to pluck them like berries from a blackberry bush glowing in all possible colors. The band of the Milky Way receded over his head like a distant, dully, whitely gleaming cloud, rather as if on the other end, where the band began, a giant had smoked an enormous milky pipe and had blown the congealing smoke across the firmament. Yonder, close enough to touch, spun the planetoid. Now that Robso had maneuvered the HOKUSAI into a better position the search lights of the other spacecraft could be seen like tiny, ghostly feelers in the distance.
The energy knot was visibly excited. When Leo pushed the violet filter in front of his eyes he saw the outlines which the knot drew in space. Against the black of the universe a purple-red rim emerged, on whose edge there was a flurry like that of red snow; that was where the energy flickered against the background of the variegated starlight. Now the energy knot unfolded an indentation as if its appetite for Leo had been awoken. Leo fired the recoil gun, sailed toward the indentation in an elegant curve, and was immediately swallowed, like a midge by a frog. The energy knot belched and eructated, but only out of politeness, for Leo was very easy to digest. Leo, now within the energy knot, saw the stars, the Milky Way, the sun, the planetoids, above all the HOKUSAI, as if through a curtain formed of falling water, the objects swam in his gaze as if he had dissolved in tears. Seeing the change in the position of the HOKUSAI, he noticed that it was moving. The HOKUSAI became small and thin, like a spindly child, and the worried faces of his parents, who has only reluctantly let Leonardo go, shrank to an imaginary point which only existed theoretically.
At the same rate the planetoid grew larger, and Leo saw this part of the universe the way the energy knot saw it. He saw the whitecaps of the energy ocean, saw the St. Elmo's Fire, it leapt from star to star, saw, grotesquely distorted, the freighters shuttling between Earth and the system, but still, despite the new sharpness and clarity, it was as if a trail of water were running down the film, for which the sensation of salt, that is, of tears, came to Leo's tongue.
Now Leo also realized why the sense of direction and of up and down was so confusing for him. The eye, which the planetoid was for the energy being, pressed Leo out from the inside, and thus Leo was rising to the surface within the planetoid, unnoticed by the gangsters. His birth on the surface of the planet resulted, as is usually the case with eyes, in a tear, which emerged into the starlight at a soft spot of the planetoid. The puddle in which Leo lay near the strange spacecraft evaporated as quickly as it must on a small star which possesses neither an atmosphere nor enough gravity to hold onto water.
Leo drew his radiation gun, reassured himself that it was loaded, and then floated out onto a cliff ledge to observe the plunderers. They were two men, who had painted over the numbers of their spacesuits, as well as the number of the ship and all the names which could have served as a clue, with white paint. They had employed tiny, agile ant-robots which dug up the earth and brought red-gleaming minerals to light. They transported the material into the belly of the spacecraft on a conveyor belt, while other useful materials were shot with catapults in the direction of Saturn, which was meant their present annihilation for humanity. Leo swallowed with rage when he saw that. Not only did the plunderers enrich themselves with treasures which belonged to all humanity in equal shares, no, they even destroyed other valuable substances which were of no use to them.
Everything was clear to Leo. Now he floated down the hill and boarded the spacecraft of the plunderers. A weight was taken off his mind when he noted that the ship's alarm siren was not set off. The plunderers had to be so sure of themselves that they had disregarded even the most elementary security measures. Leo grinned to himself, looked for the control center, blocked the manual steering and entered an ABSOLUTE PROGRAM which permitted only one route for the spacecraft with its booty on board - to the police station on Luna. Just to make sure, he installed a human rights program in the computer so that it wouldn't let itself be duped by some trick of the plunderers.
With that Leo's task was really already completed. But, since his sisters were still imprisoned by the energy knot, it seemed advisable to accelerate the course of events, and that meant banishing the plunderers from the surface of the planetoid as quickly as possible. So Leo left the ship again and floated up the hill, which was already the commander's hill in his eyes. The plunderers still had noticed nothing. Leo drew his pistol and fired it at the stars. A lurid glare fell across the bent surface of the little star and for a moment made the floodlights pale in whose light the ground was being plowed up. The plunderers, their thoughts heavy with the millions, jumped up.
They saw Leo standing on the hill. They whipped out their weapons, but in this position they froze. A nameless horror fell black in their eyes and made them nearly blind with fear. There, where Leo stood, a giant loomed larger and larger. His spacesuit swelled up, and his features enlarged. Now he had almost reached the height of an elephant, went on growing, became as large as a four-family house, continued to swell, already blocked Saturn with his back, and now had already attained the height of the plunderers' spacecraft. A gesture with his free hand as if he were about to tip over the spacecraft, which was obviously nothing more than a toy to him.
As cowardly as all people who feather their own nests at the cost of others, the gangsters dropped measuring equipment and steering instruments, ran as if on command, but without a word of agreement, each on his own, each rescuing only his own skin, to their spaceship, before it could sink into the dust of the planetoid and thus cut off their escape route. At the hatchway there was a fistfight, for each considered his own skin particularly precious, then both closed the hatch behind them with some delay, and mighty, soundless laughter, for in this world there was no atmosphere to carry the sound, raced inside behind them, in thought. Shortly thereafter the spacecraft disappeared from the energy knot and, as the gangsters did not yet know, in the direction of the moon.
Leo had covered the torn-up flanks of the planetoid. The ant-robots were at work, just as diligently as in their prospecting operations. Robso landed the HOKUSAI on the planetoid in an elegant curve and a dense cloud of dust. Leo's sisters floated down from the lock like butterflies. They had put on their birthday space suits and laughed and twittered over the radio contact and told their hero what it had been like as a fairy, a crystal, or a pussy-willow.
Once they had already passed beyond the planetoid and the whims of the energy knot - it had given them precious jade stones in remembrance - they stopped the board clocks, for, after all, Leo's birthday still had to be celebrated. Paul was sent to the kitchen again, and they discussed the thank you which the energy knot had given them in parting. They had taught it that there are two sorts of people: those who only think of themselves and steal the fruits of other people's labor, and others who have grasped the fact that one always finds oneself in others, and that, if one does not give them their due, one robs oneself.
To be sure, it - for it seemed to be very intelligent - had added that the world should be arranged so that all possess the same, so that no one has cause to be "evil". It, it insisted, possessed enough, and for that reason alone it had tried friendliness once again, despite its bitter experiences with the plunderers. Here they immediately pointed out that there were not enough resources on Earth, was there no hope for human beings? It asked for time to think it over, which, given its high life expectancy, might take a small eternity. Thus they parted in friendship and in the hope of a speedy reunion.
Then Paul also had dinner ready. There was unagi donburi, at least that was what he maintained. They all praised the meal immoderately, and thought to themselves that he already cooked quite well for a beginner.