Then he saw himself sitting at a table with her again. They were eating. Napkins lay on the tablecloth. There was turkey. He was in a festive mood, and he thought that white flakes should really be falling outside the window, shut tightly against the cold which reigned outside. The candles burned, flickering. One of them had blown out, and its acrid smell rose pleasantly in his nose.
We seem to return to ourselves from the memories of our childhood or youth - from the pleasant and the joyful things - when the situation demands it. Now even the turkey tasted more like the potatoes which he had enjoyed so much in his parents' house. Furtively he looked at her face, and there was a pang in his heart as he realized how beautiful she was.
On the wall hung a calendar, which he noticed directly behind her body. As if out of the blue he remembered the name of the painter from whom all the pages stemmed: Caspar David Friedrich. But he grew afraid as he looked more closely at the picture for December, with its harsh, drifting ice floes, with its mighty, angular slabs of snow and with its gleaming white and blue landscape.
He felt as if he were suddenly transported into this scene. And indeed, as he lowered his knife and fork he heard the frost cracking in the depths. Flurries of snow swirled through the room. Novitzki froze at his table as the floor was covered from bottom to top, glittering. Now the sideboard was completely white, and the turkey lay glassy on its platter.
She looked at him quickly. A tear shimmered in the corner of her eye.
"Paul," she said calmly, "pull yourself together."
The ice began to melt. The words had touched him somewhere within.
"Karin?" he stammered almost helplessly, and slowly, as if he had trouble formulating her name.
Her voice came gently: "I'm with you."
White shadows passed behind the blue veil. They held instruments in their hands. One of them stepped through the curtain and opened Novitzki's eyes and shone a yellow, friendly ray of light through his iris. He murmured something about pigmentation. That he still wasn't quite satisfied. He seemed displeased with the retina or something of the sort.
"Say 'Ah'," he rumbled, and Novitzki stuck out his tongue.
"How much longer," asked Karin behind the curtain, "will he need?"
"Hard to say," answered the man in the white smock with the long face. "It's getting better. I think we'll pull him through."
"Will he be the way he was before?"
"I think we'll be able to desalinate him fully."
Salt - as he said that, Novitzki began to clump, or tried to, but it was only his muscles cramping. He cried out as his sinews contracted like steel.
"It's all right," began the man in the white smock, and injected a pain-reliever.
This removed Novitzki's self from his body - far out into space, under the silver stars, to the Spell Sun, at the end of the galaxy, where life passes so calmly and peacefully, without excitement and tension, without toil and torment, where the crystals glitter and where we find our true purpose as if it were self-explanatory.
"He's asleep," said Karin.
The doctor growled a little, harshly, as he stared down at the monster: "Yes, let him sleep."
Paul Novitzki had always thought he was something special. This is understandable when one considers the diversity of the world, the manifold influences, the countless people who stream toward us, whom we encounter in a big city at rush hour, for example. Each consciousness feeds upon the other. We cancel out each another's plans. If I lift up the other, I sink myself. Thus my self can only come into being if I trample the others.
Thus had Paul Novitzki found the little niche in which he kept his self. He rarely talked about it, and then only to people he knew fleetingly, in bars, perhaps, that is, to people who could not become dangerous to him in his profession or in other respects. He was like a lighthouse whose light always circles about this one hub, and precisely because he thought this way, he went - somewhat - further than other people.
First he had become one of the many space lieutenants, and after three years of training and desk jobs he had taken command of a research ship, the BELLOROPHON. He had carried out three successful voyages in a row, allowing mankind to broaden its image of its place in the cosmos, not to an especially high degree, perhaps, but in secondary questions. What drove him on was of no significance to his employers; only his functionality was important. It is sometimes surprising what psychological factors spur on important people.
It was as if he foresaw the approach toward Spell VII, a planet in the outer regions of the Milky Way, circling a sun of the same name. Even before Radukanu, the cartographer, had confirmed the existence of heavenly bodies orbiting Spell, an indeterminate restlessness had gripped Novitzki. First he invented God knows what pretexts for himself so that - as in the days of his childhood - he could put off going to be
d, but then, finally asleep, he began to dream.
It must be understood that the nightly visions of many spacefarers are difficult, and that there are only a few of them who undertake the voyage to the stars in a kind of beer-induced calm. We know the diversity of the cosmos, the unheard-of experiences and impressions brought us by the endless expanses between the galaxies. Man is indeed a part of the universe, and thus his brain is equal to the diversity of space, but that does not mean that it is so easy to swallow everything which he encounters out there.
Thus, as if Novitzki wanted to suppress what awaited him, he dreamed of harmless things. They were merely spiders, which, poisonous and slavering, crawled over the hull of the BELLOROPHON. They had captured a pretty white girl, paralyzed with fear. Before the Commander could go outside to rescue beauty, the spiders became gigantic worms which fell out of a space hole and sprayed slime and pus over the research ship. As Novitzki turned to the other side of his bunk, the worms were transformed into peaceful slime beings which fertilized the planets - this proved to him that nothing is useless under the stars.
As he sliced the top off his breakfast egg, he had already forgotten his dream. The control room of the BELLOROPHON was warmly filled with people. Evita, the wife of the steersman, had curlers in her hair, which was against regulations, but could be tolerated in this low-risk phase of the flight, as long as she fulfilled her duties properly. It took a little while for Novitzki to get going. For a fleeting moment he blinked, and it seemed to him as if something were hanging heavily in his thoughts, something suppressed; but once the ship started up he had more important things to do than brood about the past.
The profile of the solar system ahead of them, generated by Radukanu, crossed the screen in an ideal projection. There were eight planets orbiting Spell, a dying sun. Its age was estimated as twice that of Sol. The inner worlds were either molten or covered by desert. The ring of the middle bodies was still volcanic, and as yet no atmosphere or plant life had formed.
The outermost planet, Spell VIII, which BELLOROPHON was already gliding past, was a ferrous lump frozen in space and time, and if there had been life on it, it would have been buried beneath an armor of ice. While the search ray scanned the worlds and delivered information with dwindling uncertainty, it became clear that the material of this system had at least made the attempt to bring forth life on all the heavenly bodies.
In the computer attached to the search ray, in which the organization of consciousness was registered, complex structures were found, which, however, had nowhere developed beyond crystalline molecular groups. Nonetheless, the striving of the material substances to unfold themselves was clear. And just as some people on the Earth speculate about all the lost, the unborn life, about all the possible children who never saw the light of the world - for a moment Novitzki wondered what would have become of these planets, or at least one of them, if the cosmic and local conditions had been different, more advantageous for the development of intelligent forms.
But these were vain thoughts. Life means that material brings forth a structure. Just as on Earth only Man, among all living forms, could be gifted with consciousness, this groping of material toward countless forms went on everywhere, a precondition for the success of at least one attempt.
Novitzki felt the warmth with in him, a sign that he was fully there, as he spread a piece of toast with jam and as Radukanu tossed a bundle of maps and diagrams onto the table with a broad smile.
"So?" said the commander, leafing somewhat superficially through the documents.
Then his eyes fell on a molecular analysis at the very end of the folder. For one who knew how to read such interpretations it was as if a window had been opened, while for others the Earth was still veiled in darkness.
"Uh, say," Novitzki stammered.
And the cartographer, who had expected this reaction, explained: "That's Spell VII, located in an advantageous area of the planet belt."
"Yes," Novitzki murmured, chewing, "those are interesting structures. Do they know yet how far the material came on this world?"
Radukanu hesitated for a second. "We've focussed the greater part of the systems on that planet. It's already clearly visible to the search ray. But the major signs, if that's what you mean, haven't turned up yet."
"Nevertheless," rumbled the commander, "I've seldom seen such beautiful, regular crystals."
The planet was the size of the Earth, possessed its mass and gravity as well, and a thin, gaseous veil surrounded it. The BELLOROPHON went into orbit around Spell VII, at first stationary at a great height. Then the orbit was changed, until the entire visible surface of the planet was mapped. At first glance Spell seemed rather empty and barren, but rich crystal deposits could be found, not only in its mountainous regions - one extinct volcano was six kilometers high.
A third of it was covered by something which could be called an ocean. It was a gigantic, unbroken white mass in which the glittering structures had gathered - as if a primeval sea once harbored by the planet had dried up and left behind these layered, shifting barriers. The surface of the world, which seemed dead at first to the superficial observer, was in fact in motion. Not only did the white sea toss, raising high waves, as if beaten to foam. Even the mountains seemed to wander, though at an unnoticeable pace - as could be seen from observation altitude by watching the changing thermal structures, as well as the shifting magnetic fields in the depths.
The usual security measures for the approach toward an unknown planet were taken. A probe, infrared and remote controlled, flew over sea and mountains and landed in a promising area, on the borderline between both formations, and the mice and microorganisms showed no negative reactions of any kind. Even after the experiment had been run for hours the rodents seemed to feel exceptionally well; their only fright was caused by the pressure of the seal against their boxes on the return flight.
The investigation of the probe was undertaken outside the BELLOROPHON in orbit and concluded negatively. Before it was retrieved, Schmidt from the observatory rushed excitedly into the control room, where Novitzki and the officers were discussing the final preparations for landing. It really had escaped their notice. At the spot where the probe had stood - which the telescope could resolve to the size of a postage stamp - the ground was seething. While previously the ground had been moving in the manner which was apparently normal for the planet, now white hills, like towers of sugar, had emerged and were multiplying.
The mouse Richard from the probe climbed over Novitzkis's left arm and ate a piece of sugar. However highly developed technology may be - it is often intuition which guides us. The commander - what else could he have decided? - ordered the landing. Near the seething ground, the BELLOROPHON touched down in a sea of fire which churned up the surroundings, which burned glowing rivers in the ground and kindled a storm in the thin atmosphere. For a long time nothing could be seen outside but the bright flames which rose before the spaceship like a rippling sea, then were suddenly extinguished.
Where had they landed? When the screen showed the first pictures of the location, Novitzki involuntarily reached for a photo which showed the surroundings of the ship before touchdown. In the immediate vicinity the ground was black with fire. But now, somewhat further away, white and blue flora sprang up, plants such as they had never seen before, large, greenish grapes which hung from snow-bright boughs, bushes which bordered the landing area like a bulwark at a distance of a hundred meters, and on which glass fruits swung.
And the sight of this greenhouse was an agony. For from all the straight and crooked stems, from the things which grew and proliferated, from the precious-seeming products which fell - round and square - from the branches, came a fabulous radiance in the bright sunshine. When the ship was completely still and the star motor ran down as well, a cracking became audible in the depths, as if continental plates were shifting in time lapse, or as if the ground were in continuous motion.
One of the landing legs was already covered to the joints with a white powder which the computer analyzed as salt. They had extended a camera arm from the tip of the BELLOROPHON. As it swiveled they saw that the desert was blossoming glassy and gleaming around them. The further one looked, the more the plants seemed stunted, until perhaps five kilometers away the planet showed a normal profile.
While further close analyses followed, they shot out a small probe which touched down about ten kilometers away, visible from the photographic arm. Where it landed, the ground came into motion. The material which seemed like salt balled together, formed branches, trunks - leaves unfolded as if in time lapse. One could study the shock waves in the ground stemming from the impact of the probe - as if a pond had frozen rapidly.
In the night they still felt safe, though almost all of the crew members were afflicted with bad dreams. Novitzki thought he saw a glass giant rise up at the edge of the plain, snap the research cruiser in two like a straw and, after tearing it apart, stick its parts in the ground like dragon's teeth. Beate Kirstmann dreamed that a man made of crystal attacked her in the bend of the corridor; because of their composition his limbs were so sharp that she woke up bleeding; but, as she admitted shamefacedly, she had gotten her period early because of the landing.
Valerie, the cabin-boy, was overcome by the worst vision. He was wandering in the mountains of Spell VII. When he looked back, the BELLOROPHON was nothing more than a tiny, glittering needle in the distance. Something drew Valerie onward. At a turn in the road a blue shadow detached itself from the cliff - a giant with big glass teeth through which the wind whistled horribly. When the cabin boy attempted to flee, the giant grasped him with a cold hand and shoved him into his shimmering maw; in the giant's stomach there were mirrored walls which moved closer without end.
Thus the mood at breakfast the next day was oppressive. The landscape had changed only slightly in the vicinity of the cruiser. On the landing supports the rust was now quite apparent. Crystals and bitterite forced their way into the jets. Richard the mouse was dead; Rall, the biologist, found salt deposits in his stomach. The chamber of the probe which had been exposed to the planet was covered inside with a white layer which could hardly be loosened, even under great heat. They were still eating when cries rang out from the medical station. The channel which Novitzki switched on brought only empty images. Then Spellman, the second doctor, cried for help. His shouts trailed off into a dull noise. In the final phase there was a whispering in the control room of the BELLEROPHON, then a shuffling, then a ripping as if all the wires were being torn out of the walls.
Breakfast egg, toaster and coffee were forgotten. Since imaging was impossible there, Novitzki hurried down the ship's tunnel, a pole-axe in his hand. The door to the medical center was as if covered with frost. When it did not react to the automatic signal, he smashed its frame with the sharp blade without touching it. It was as if it were snowing in the corridor. Salt bit into the eyes of the commander and the men who followed him.
There lay Spellmann, on his back. His arms reached up, white. His face was covered with a bright crust. He still seemed to be breathing, for the mask cracked on his chin and cheeks and showed cavities filled with saltpeter. Transparent spikes fell from the ceiling of the station and covered the floor with blue patches which spread out in rays. Blood kept in a cabinet behind glass doors crystallized and sank to the bottoms of the jars as a red powder.
"Mother of God," said a lieutenant.
"Stand back!" shouted Novitzki, "Seal off the bulkhead! Don't let anyone leave the medical rooms!"
"I don't understand it," mused Ruth Meran once she had calmed down somewhat. "What kind of things are they, what kind of spores? Who brought them on board? Richard? But we were so careful!"
"What do we do now?" demanded Lieutenant Kennan. "We can't just leave the people there in the lurch. And we can't just take off. Do you think we should make an excursion outside?" Novitzki dumped sugar in his coffee.
"Everything is sealed," he answered. "No further cases of illness have cropped up. Let me think. We can't just disappear before knowing the methods of this attack. It's out of the question to return to Earth with this dangerous cargo - maybe we're all contaminated."
While the computer created an image of the outside, he took a sip of coffee. The liquid tasted bitter. Thoughtfully the commander stirred the sweetener, which was lumpy.
He said, before it became clear to him: "What's with the sugar?" Ruth, walking back and forth in front of the screen, her hands clasped behind her back, began to take on a bluish tinge. She fell to her knees as if she wanted to pray. Her torso bent forward. She vomited, white crystals streaming from her throat. Then she fell to the side, and on closer examination it almost seemed as if she had become transparent; even her clothes seemed to float about her like the finest silk, like a ghostly web, so fragile that no one dared to touch it.
Novitzki smelled the sugar. The taste was so bitter that he was sick. There was a thin fluid in his throat. As Kennan stared at Ruth Meran, he froze in his chair. He made a gesture with his left arm, but he seemed - as if after long illness - out of practice. He began to massage his wrist, when he discovered white eruptions on the back of the rubbing hand. He gave the impression of a very unfortunate man whose entire body has been contaminated from one second to the next.
For a few moments he scratched his knee, as if he had forgotten his manners. He unbuttoned his shirt. When he saw the skin above his stomach he went white as sugar. Guiltily, as if out of his mind, he buttoned it again. It seemed as if he were about to blush, but all the blood had left his face. A tear which formed in the corner of his left eye was abortive; his lips were brittle and surrounded by a crust of salt.
That night they lay creaking in their beds. It was as if nothing had changed. They were like herrings packed in salt to preserve them as long as possible. Hastings got up once to reply to an urgent need. But when he passed his urine he had terrible pains. The saltpeter seemed to cut him up, and also it seemed as if the product of his body were now crystallizing as well.
Novitzki withstood the onslaught the longest. When he noticed the encrustation of his arms he began to keep himself moist. This seemed to help, and he dragged the remaining men and women under the showers and let the water run. He himself lay there in a warm stream and would nearly have drowned, only the awakening was his rescue. Then he saw that his left leg was already completely black.
Whether fully active or completely out of his senses - wrapping wet cloths around his body, he crawled to a closet where he knew there was a set of pole-axes, and began to hack away at the splintering leg. But it was as if he were flailing away at a glass forest. Hardly had he nicked the crystallizing bones when they began to grow again, white and translucent. Exhausted from the sawing, he stopped and watched mutely, with horror, as he froze from bottom to top. Then consciousness fled.
He woke as a wet nose touched his earlobe. Reaching toward it, his eyes still closed, he felt Richard the mouse in his hand. Where did you come from? he thought, still somewhat foggily. It seemed to him as if the mouse said: It's all very well for you to ask! Should I research you for once? But then he remembered that rodents couldn't talk, except in cartoons. But what is that anyway, a cartoon?
That's a thing, came the memory, which is run through a projector. Those are separate pictures. Oh, yes, it's a movie, it's drawn. Many separate pictures give rise to motion. When you are thirsty, you must drink. Salt was on the floor. Precious, wonderful bitterite had collected there. He licked up some of the mass. When he opened his eyes - I believe, he thought, I can see even with closed pupils - he was lying in the control room.
Several seconds passed before he could orient himself. The ship was as usual. A ridiculous thought still hung in his head. In his sleep he had kept thinking of Christmas. As children they had liked to dream that Christmas would be white. But that's nonsense. Usually the snow doesn't come. Anyway, why should it snow on a spaceship? He glanced at the calendar: it was the 13th of December. Now they had already been on the planet for fourteen days. Or was this a false impression?
The saltpeter deposits, tiny hills in the control room, caught his eye. The ship had a cleaning service which functioned almost fully automatically, but apparently the artificial mice had not been put to work properly. Salt, no matter how precious, had no business in a clean spaceship, especially not on such a touchy mission as this one. I am Paul Novitzki. In his wallet, which fell into his hand as he fumbled clumsily at his jacket, there was a picture of his wife. His wife was called Karin Novitzki. So they had the same name. He felt slightly dizzy as he stood up. He was unsteady on his legs. He creaked as he walked, as if he were moving with glass joints. He laughed, and his teeth chattered. With them, he thought quite senselessly, you could cut diamonds.
"Hello?" he said, looking about him, "is anyone there?"
Hey, they lifted up in a whirl, a celebration. It was a joy to be alive, and splendid to fly a spaceship. Bitterite was in the bunkers, the refrigerator filled with crystals. They entered the interstice. The automatics functioned. The BELLEROPHON-S (S for salt) flew as if through a fog. Blue lights glowed on board.
Then a medusa came swimming up. It had big gray hairs, moving. Snakes forked their flickering tongues. It was Paul Novitzki - bitter or not bitter - who went out. He had never imagined that it could be so splendid under the stars. Stark naked he moved into the void. Only a cord of salt was wound around his body.
The medusa, he saw now, was made of steel. A gigantic, glowing steamer, flooded with light. Music trembled over its walls, and Paul Novitzki felt the vibrations. For a long time he stayed alongside the colossus. Laid his hands on the trembling metal struts, the way a person lays his hand against another's vibrating vocal cords, in order to hear him.
The ships drifted apart slightly. Then a lock opened in the steamer. Particles flooded into space, green and blue - water, Novizki realized with fear and panic, which froze and crystallized and flew away. Now he identified the gurgling on board the colossus. Now he was certain that the strange craft came from a waterworld.
Now Paul Novitzki, salt or no salt, grew angry. He became furious. Lying in the cold and the emptiness of space, he swung himself about, shed white powder and directed his body toward the lock. As if three pipes had been filled with liquid - thus the figures stood in the bulkhead and seemed unable to decide what should be done about the strange behavior of the commander.
The water in the first spacehelm blistered as the thing with the long eyes saw the approaching Novitzki. It made a gesture with its hands as if it wanted to say - no, anything but that! That can't be! Is that possible? Meanwhile the liquid flowed down frothing inside the bell and rose up again and sprayed as if in desperation.
With a large hand the commander caught hold of the edge of the trapdoor. Salt and shreds of skin clung. Nimbly he swung himself through the opening. He said: "Well, friends," and reached for the helm bell nearest him.
Immediately the liquid seemed to freeze. The being in the protective suit froze as if it had taken a forbidden look at something too terrible to behold. It dried out. It stood there as if in a termite hill which grew around it. It babbled, then fell still.
One of the others plucked Novitzki from the upper left-hand corner of the bunker, where he - stupid, stupid - had fled. How foolish it is to want to flee into space! Picked at him with white-crusted hands. Salt, salt, how I love you! The other one became one of them. But where was the third, though the commander could not take care of all of them at once?
Then he saw him back there, falling down into space; yet both ships were in powerful motion, split space, gathered light-years like stone's throws. The whole world, the universe, lay at Novitzki's feet. And there that man fell into the depths, vanished like a tiny pulsing light.
Crystal, creeping over the steamer. A noise as if from a siren. Uncouth companions who did not want to let him go. Stupid people. Water creatures. Saltpeter, precious saltpeter, which they had never tasted! Were uninitiated in the deep rites. How can anything live under the sun that is not salt! But the strange colossus crystallized. Was covered with white. Bitterite crept into its cracks. Fire which erupted from its body smothered under white-congealed layers. A vibrator, a glass machine running on five legs, which they - drolly - heaved out of a hatchway, was corroded from the salt even before Novitzki could have enjoyed the waves. Finally, as the other ship turned, crystal shavings fell from the walls.
It had grown still within, and only from the shields did that pulsing movement still come which was really supposed to churn up its liquid, now solidifying and congealing contents into artificial currents - now pushed back and forth by the white material, covering pillars of salt with crusted hills (which looked like termite mounds) - namely, figures with red, gleaming eyes, which looked in death as if they were alive. Water creatures, incapable of assimilation. But the excursion across the endlessness of space revived the commander, did him good. Now he saw his true value. Oh salt, salt, if only there were more such saltpeter planets!
The moon hung above the BELLOROPHON, pale and wavering. It was as if its attraction had grown weaker. On the bittersweet distance gauge they read that they had already covered half the distance to Earth. Once, in the storeroom, under crystallized plants which lay buried in the saline solution, it seemed to Paul as if the ground were falling from beneath his feet. The freight cube swayed. Two tiny rosy beings glided down the hill of saltpeter. They laughed and twittered in a language which the commander at first could not understand. He reached for them with glittering claws. But they only flickered in the air and stayed where they were and laughed. They twittered like birds and had bows in their hair and were children.
They seemed to be young people. When he got up it seemed impossible to stay on his feet. He swayed. Cooing creatures. Salt, they had never tasted salt. Boys and girls. The moon edged between Spell VII and the earth. The magnetic forces which bound them to their planet seemed to fade. What were children?
They looked at him, laughing and twittering, and he stared out from empty, dead, white-dusted sockets. Crystallized children. You put salt in coffee. Or sugar. You need bitterite to live. He swayed. Something was wrong with his head. Something was there which did not function. He remembered the saltpeter fields of Spell VII, and he felt better. Can you eat children? As he walked down the hall he kept staggering.
"Hey, you," he said to Mathilda or Brunhilda or Gunhilda, names which he could not keep straight. He loved the opera.
"Children," he hissed with a grunt. They looked at him with wide dead eyes. Spat at him from salty lungs. Licked their crusted lips.
"Children?" His skull was about to burst. Martyrdom. Pains in his thoughts. It was great to be alive. But who was he? What was with the planet? What were girls and boys? He reeled.
"You, woman there," he groaned, trembling.
He did not know how he came to be lying on her. She lay there and clumped. The holes in her face began to break open.
Children. What are children?
She laughed, and her features burst.
She hummed: "You will crystallize. Ha ha! In the rice fields you will crystallize. In the mountains, when the moon shines. The attraction of the Earth's satellite will provide you the tension. Fission-fungus. We'll split. You'll see it."
He tore at her clothes. Tore away her bead necklace. One of her breasts had trickled away. She had an enormous hole in her stomach, through which he could see her intestines. Like snakes, they were in motion. The area around her navel was tarnished. Her legs gleamed. He began to lick her chest.
Crystalline salt. Wonderful, precious crystalline saltpeter. Slurping, he forgot what he had wanted.
She bit him in the shoulder. Thick blood trickled down her throat. She dug into his hard flesh with sharp teeth. The material developed affinities. Her legs clumped. He lay on her. First their legs melted. Were a single entity. The same salt flowed through their veins. He felt her pump her blood through his great heart. Pangs in the lungs. She cried out as she sensed his adrenaline rush.
Now they had grown together at the stomach. He poured his vital fluids into her as if he were poisonous. There, once again. And again. Snakes ticked. They fell from the walls. Salt filled up the hall. There was motion in the bitterite. The crystal woman twitched. Something was going on inside her. A red drop rolled from her white breast. Her lips were glassy, trembling. The eyes as bright as if she were feeble-minded. Now she cried out. Where they touched one another they sweated out salt. Saltpeter, precious, wonderful, liquid.
Bitter, bitter, it was you. Snakes which ran from her body, white and poisonous. Crystal forms, turning rapidly. A glass reptile fell in the corridor, and the woman's face blossomed with a strange flush. Her bosom trembled. Again a drop had drawn a red path over her breast.
Oh salt world, you splendid salt world! What he is missing, who does not know you! He still lay on her, who now was cold. Icy and glassy. Strange red on her lips. The gaze was bright as a crystal lake. Oh, my dear, here and here you may touch me. He staggered as he remembered that material reproduces itself through fission. He saw the blood on her lips. What am I doing on her?
Then the BELLOROPHON entered a dark zone - now more than half of the way to Earth was behind them - which screened him from Spell VII. Novitzki tore salty pieces from Irma - that was her name - as he freed himself from her, pieces which closed up in her in the space of seconds. Revulsion. Animal-man. Termite mound. What is wrong with me? He felt stupid and impure. In horror she stared at the hand tinted with blood. Singing brightly, the BELLOROPHON fell through the silence and the stillness, down to Earth.
He dreamed, lying in the refrigerator, of a blue planet covered by something which was all salt. He smiled in his sleep and babbled. He was an enormous baby, shifting in the ice-chest. Turkey being preserved. Salted, the way they used to keep meat. He was happy. The refrigerator hummed. The ship was in rapid motion.
When he opened his eyes, blue mountains rose before him. An opening in one of the hills looked like a great door. He saw caterpillar tractors, torches, men on whose helmets yellow lamps glowed like tiny worms. It was a while, for the syllable formed haltingly on his lips, before he managed to pronounce the word "saline".
With the workers, behind their backs, on a wagon which ran on rails, he slipped through the great door into the mine. From the roof of the tunnel which they had entered hung long stalactites. They were completely white and seemed to grow noticeably in the course of the centuries. Notitzki made time stand still and listened to the creaking, while in the decades he rested the drop descended.
Back there, in the shine of the pale electric light, great waxen cones grew out of the ground. Once he jumped off the wagon - which drove on, rattling - and crept behind one of the stalactites, which, as he had suspected, was made entirely of salt. He licked it with a long tongue, much like that which anteaters develop. Precious bitterness clung to his feelers.
At some point they saw him. A man, pale with terror, began to scream. Two came around the corner with a rifle. A mechanical creature full of lights on its body, which was built on saltpeter solutions and thought with crystalline structures, rolled toward him, shooting out harsh, blue, rectified light. When it was very close he took it in his arms, cracked its skull and licked its thoughts.
But since that was only a dream, in the real world the BELLOROPHON was jolted. Something which Novitzki could not understand howled in the control room. He turned about as if he were still on Spell VII in a wonderful embrace. It was cold and glassy. The refrigerator doors had locked themselves from outside. He looked into the dark. Lay there in the midst of salted meat. Kicked out at the doors, which fell into the corridor with a crash. But then the voice which had only just been screeching in the control room fell silent.
For a moment he felt a vibration. Something was pulsing. It seemed as if an alien energy field had touched the BELLOROPHON and retreated again. His eyes were reddened. He came to himself again. The dream was gone. Medical instruments all around. Now he remembered that he was also a doctor. He shivered slightly as his gaze fell on the retorts which stood on a shelf. Some of them were still intact. Saline solution met him as he rattled at the shelves. Bittersweet solution which burned sharply, but was good.
He drank blood, blood group number seven (?).
"And I?" said Gunilda, coming through the door. "What about me? Do you think you're the only one who's thirsty, my dear?"
"No, my dear, come here and take your share. It's a good serum."
As they drank their fill, he held a scalpel in his hands. When he saw the flashing instrument his thoughts wavered again. She said: "What do you want? Haven't you gotten your fill of fission?"
"Yes, of course," he answered distractedly.
Scalpel there. What was with the scalpel? He looked at the moon which shone through the wall. Big moon, good and swaying. The moon pulled the water. It pulled the fluids of the body. The moon was salty. Saltpeter mines on the moon. The Earth's satellite had been split, he remembered, because it was full of the bitter taste. All the hungry and thirsty people.
Mathilda spilled a bottle. The serum flowed red over the ground. She was a little unsteady, for there were holes in her legs which did not close. The blinding color crystallized. Tiny teeth grew out of it. They grew larger. There was something on the floor, pale and spongy. A belly, like that of a dragon, seemed to swell there. A whining voice came from the reflecting parquet which was so bright.
By the time Novitzki closed the door behind him, the thing in his back had already grown quite large. It pulsed. Filled the doctors' room. Covered the walls. Whined, cried and wept. Rubbed against the shelves. Represented his world, but it was as if the material now had a life of its own. The ground had fallen from beneath his feet. He was cut away from his real habitat. Was no longer that which the planet had once given him. Was old and strange. Deformation.
By the time the BELLOROPHON had covered two thirds of the distance to Earth, the power of Spell VII began more and more to fade. The commander sat in front of the mirror which had once belonged to Evita. He sat there, his hand in his face, and tried to make himself up. But the greasepaint which the wife of the helmsman used burned, although it was red. He put on eye shadow, mascara. Spell VII. For a moment he had the feeling that he was being wound up mechanically in his back, like a doll which the old spacefarer thought of again and again. He no longer knew which of the two of them would gain the upper hand.
He put on one of Evita's nightgowns, with frills on the hem; through it he saw the hole in his stomach, while the light from the great torch fell on the bed. When he thought of the crystal sea of Spell VII, of his comrades, of the material, of everything which made life worth living, he felt dizzy.
The salt on the dresser seemed lifeless. Even when he blew on it, it refused to move. Eau de Cologne ran down his neck. It took several seconds before he realized that he was burning his skin with it. In the mirror shadowy figures danced. A man, tall and with a red neck, came toward him. He stopped before he could climb out of the reflecting glass.
He said: "Well, Paul? You look so pale. Is everything all right? Should we call a doctor? What do you think?"
When no answer came, he went on, regarding Novitzki attentively: "You should take a little refreshment. Look in the refrigerator. You'll find a hip-flask under the meat."
Then he disappeared, flickering as if in a draught, as if he had bent over a pond and now retreated. Two laughing girls, arm in arm, appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the mirror. They giggled when they saw the commander. One of them stuck out her tongue. The other made an obscene gesture. Red in their faces. Saltpeter in their breasts.
Salt, precious salt - salt, I nearly forgot you. But then music struck up. It was a waltz. They rose out of the pane rapidly, one after the other, while Novitzki's memories crystallized. As they danced, he staggered from one to the other. The warmth which they gave off made him freeze. At some point he fell against the glass, which shattered and dissolved into bitterite.
The sun, pale and yellow, was already visible. It hung over the screen, and its surface was in motion. One could follow the streams of gas which rose out of its interior. Tongues of the solar wind broke over the BELLOROPHON. From the darkest point of the ball a torch reached out into space. There, in the shadow of the sun, a call came again. This time Novitzki sat in an armchair in the control room. Above him stalactites of salt hung from the ceiling, fed from long, slender bottles. Perhaps it was because of the currents of the molten ball, perhaps because of the already-immense distance to Spell VII, perhaps altogether the saltpeter-matter affinities, which they had wildly overestimated, were wearing off.
"Paul," a soft voice said again.
It seemed as if the commander were dreaming - of salt rivers, of salt lakes, of salt oceans. His neck was stiff. Bitterite dripped down upon him. Bittersweet, keeping him fresh. His thoughts, which should really have run smoothly, elastically, eluded him.
Though he stared at the monitor, on which the face of a woman rose up over the image of the sun, he could not quite place her. And the female face seemed to flicker. At first he could not manage to hold onto the sight. It seemed as if there were a command within him which bade him look at the team, at Radukanu, at Evita, at the others (insofar as they had been conserved), who tended their salt calmly.
"Paul," said the woman with soft lips, while Evita dabbed bright nail-polish on her nails, or tried to.
One never knew what something like that might be good for. As if he dare not venture to look at her, Novitzki held his neck rigid, now turning it with an effort.
Yes, there she was. Who was that? A bittersweet woman? Had he split her? Where did they know each other from? What were their affinities? Was she a hole? Who am I? Why are my thoughts wavering? It seemed to him that there was an expression of sorrow (Sorrow? - he rummaged in the back of his head, yes, there was something; explanation - sorrow: you are split and not yet fused again) in her face. Looked at him like a stranger. Though she was his - yes, his wife. His split. How often they had split already! You are one of many who have come from me. Crystal sea, salt sea, white shimmering porous mountains. Karin?
Now, finally, he stared at her face. Her features were framed by fuzz which burned golden in the light. He smelled the moisture on her brow. A few saltpeter drops broke away, up there, inside, from the brain, rolling out her nose. The trace they drew in her make up. Her salt component was considerable. He could see it clearly. Had she overlooked something?
But across the distance and across the medium and despite the solar wind cloud, something stirred in his encrusted heart. There something seemed to beat. Moved under the crystalline armor. Her face looked red. Her lips were drawn back. Eyes surrounded by black eye-shadow.
"Don't you remember anymore, Paul?" her voice sounded.
"Yes, yes of course," he murmured. "It was so many years ago, Karin. We were lying together on the beach. Salt. . ., salt. . . , salt beach. Do you remember," he creased his forehead, "how we rejoiced like little children? Yes, rejoiced? And just think of all the precious salt, salt. . ., salt. . ., which we, damn it - I'm tired - enjoyed."
"Paul, Paul," she said, weeping, "you have such large pores. What has happened to your eyes? Your gaze is so glassy. Paul, my poor boy, where were you? What happened? Tell me, my dear, dear boy! Tell us, so that we'll know what awaits us!" In the background, as he could see in the reflection of the screen, the salty face of Radukanu emerged. The cartographer full of holes. Face porous. Yes, her words had been right. Raised his salty claws.
Said: "Enough of this nonsense. We have to make ourselves up."
"What," a male voice, unidentifiable, gasped from the screen in the background. "What are you talking about? What was that?"
They moved so far away from Spell VII. Space bent so vast between them. Affinities which no longer worked. Two or three lay in the corner in a clump. Clung to each other, tried to create a superstructure. But the relationship which they sought was not there. And there was this red vein.
As Novitzki finally studied the face on the monitor, it seemed full of fear and revulsion. The man who now stepped to Karin's side stroked her face. The image flickered as the sun emitted - bittersweet? - particles. No, not that kind. The sun was not lined with saltpeter. Life can only creep from the planets. Salt, salt, somehow it didn't taste good, even though it wound down from the ceiling in long streams and was crystal clear.
They had climbed a hill on a narrow path. It was autumn, and the rain fell in streams. Far below the river described a bend which every atlas records. They were wearing yellow boots which kept sinking in the deep mud. The puddles, which they were not always able to avoid, spattered their clothes.
They stopped at a little mountain lake. Its surface was full of holes where the rain fell in. Novitzki looked at Karin. Even after six years of marriage he still liked looking at her. She wore greenish clothes. Her chestnut-brown hair was hidden under a hood which almost anticipated Christmas. She had dark eyes, and as the water ran over her face it almost seemed as if she were weeping.
Now she looked at him, laughing. But she complained that her left boot was rubbing her. While he went on regarding her image, it was as if something in him, in his perception, were stopped. Her mouth stood out, red and porous. Her teeth, which had only just been gleaming like pearls, were now long pegs contaminated by nicotine.
He shivered, and fear seized him as she seemed to withdraw from him. Now his teeth chattered. She had noticed nothing and kept fumbling at her boots. Then she looked at him, and it seemed that he too was further away from her. She rubbed her forehead as if she could smooth out her thoughts that way.
Something glittered in the mountain lake. The rain too, which kept falling ceaselessly, began to gleam like milk. Something crunched between Novitzki's teeth. When he raised his hand, he saw black flecks with white places. The splashing of the precipitation was interrupted by her dragging voice. He did not understand what she was saying.
A bird which had lost its way in the rain fell at the feet of the commander. The animal stretched its white claws far in front of it. A bright powder trickled from its beak. What was that? The water of the pond seemed about to freeze over. A concentric motion came from the middle outwards. The pond lay there as if covered with frost, and the rain drummed down on it glassily.
Novitzki tried to touch Karin. But, like a flame, she was ungraspable. Instead he discovered that the hill which they had climbed was made of metal. Where wet leaves lay, he scraped away a little soil. He struck the steel cylinder, which resounded hollowly. Now he also found that the cone curved inward. The downpour came from a shower. The world tipped over. Sliding out of his dreams, the commander found himself in an iron prison. His lips burned. He sank to his knees and licked salt from the metal ribs. He lay that way for a long time between the struts, until his metabolism stabilized. Once, in a moment of inattention, he saw the yellow boots and the dark eyes again. But when he concentrated, he himself was cold and glassy.
They came - the BELLOROPHON had flown past the outer orbit - directly out of the tiny sun. They were three hunters, silver-shimmering spheres. They were there so quickly and had already hung for a while over the force field which the research ship emitted, so that their approach had to be gathered from the automatic records; the alarm in the space cruiser was glass. "Identify yourself," said the middle hunter, and on the screen of the BELLOROPHON appeared a man of perhaps forty-five, somewhat angular, with bushy eyebrows, not at all a nice customer.
"Identify yourself," he said again, "who are you?"
"Spaceship BELLOROPHON," answered Novitzki, and his thoughts wavered at the unaccustomed impact (Spell VII, Spell VII, how far away was Spell VII!); it was as if the ground had vanished from under his feet. "From the stars, research mission in the outer belt of the galaxy. We had a little problem on board, colonel, a fungal infection which took a harmless course, but disfigured us slightly."
Make-up, he should have made himself up. The bottles rocked over their heads. Two or three of his people clumped in the corner. One of them was about to split from sheer excitement. Through the corridor - the commander sensed it behind him - the white reinforcement mass came creeping from the storage rooms. But Spell VII, the distance was so vast.
"So," growled the colonel. "Wait a second."
His face and his voice disappeared.
Then he came again: "We want to inspect the BELLOROPHON. Open the lock! Do you understand?"
Novitzki pulled himself together: "We don't want your man to get infected."
"Don't worry," answered the officer, "he has his instructions as to how to proceed."
When the image had vanished, the commander drank salt in deep draughts. It took all his concentration not to disintegrate. He had not thought that their mission, so far from their native sun, would be so hard. They had thought, woken to life by the light and the warmth, that it would be easy to cling to this alien life form. He was about to flow apart.
The interception patrol really did send a man in a spacesuit - or was it a robot, as implied by the silicon crystals which Novitzki sensed? - who fell down to the research cruiser from the first hunter with a tiny, thin recoil jet flame. Novitzki had difficulty holding back the clumping material which flowed down the console.
He thought he could see an unusual swell in the floor on the colonel's screen - in order to avoid arousing suspicion, they let the camera keep running. The floor covering had a strange gray hue and glittered here and there, as if crystal dust could be harvested here. Someone slurped in the corner, and all that gnawed at the commander's nerves, considering that it was all he could do to hold himself together.
Richard was now on the stern supports and crawled, sparkling and glittering, in the direction of the opening. For a moment he got stuck on an auxiliary combustion chamber, and though he was only a part of the entire organism, they could sense his cry; but the panic passed, and Richard in the discharging slot was ready to spring, so inconspicuous, the immortal being.
"Major Kreidler," said the man who now arrived at the BELLOROPHON's lock.
His face hung enormous in the monitor. He seemed a little bit scaly. Cheeks and nose seemed bordered by red veins, as if he were a - a - something projected into Novitkzi, as when the crystal ran wild - crystal which had lost the control over its I-center - a - a drinker, yes, a drinker, that was contained in his thoughts.
When the major entered the corridor, one of Eva's offshoots was unable to keep from clumping and dripping. Salt fell to Kreidler's feet.
"Damn it," he thundered into his microphone, "what's going on here? Where have they been?"
Novitzki opened the lock to the control room.
"Fungal infection," he answered, and spoke with a stiff jaw, with a completely distorted voice, "remain in your spacesuit. We may be dangerous. Is the quarantine station in orbit?" he asked harmlessly.
"Yes," replied the major, who stood tall under the bulkhead. "You know the safety regulations."
Then his eyes filled with tears. He gurgled and whimpered as he saw the interior of the ship. Novitzki fluctuated. But Richard, Richard was over there. Good Richard. He had entered the third hunter through the stern jets and had split there, and now he was also inside the two other hunters, if only with offshoots, and wonderful, what security, what warmth! Then the major mastered himself. It seemed as if the fear, the panic, even the revulsion which had gripped him gave him new strength - as if he had been called upon to rescue humanity as the great, the lonely hero which he had suddenly become. He knew (and with him the commander began to sense it) that the radio contact was not between the three hunters alone, but that the Earth control was also a part of the net.
He groaned: "What I see is gruesome. The ship must have disintegrated. The people have half their bodies. They can change their forms. Their skin looks black. There are holes in their bodies. You can see a white glitter everywhere, as if someone had sprinkled salt or sugar or potassium cyanide around. The walls are bubbling. The floor is buckling. An enormous pale mass is welling out of every crack under the steering console. It's insane. And yet the man responsible for the research ship (or whatever it is) just spoke to me. But it was as if he had to force his thoughts together, press them out.
"Calm down," warned Novitzki. "As I said, a fungal infection. . . ."
"Withdraw cautiously," commanded the colonel. "Use your beamer. Try to vaporize part of the material. It's important to know how we can deal with this stuff."
Now Novitzki knew it: Richard had penetrated the control room of the other two hunters as well. He sat there, somewhat large, spongy too, and he left the colonel's mouth open - he wanted to model and form him first of all.
"I'm afraid," came the major's answer. "I've never been so afraid in my entire life."
"Try to burn," said Richard. "We have to know how to get the better of it."
"I can't," groaned the major. "It's not working. My reflexes are failing me. My God, I was never a coward. But I can't." Coldly Richard answered: "Raul, if you can't, you're lost."
"Major Kreidler," Earth contact spoke now, "follow the instructions of the colonel."
"I don't have control over my jaw anymore," answered Kreidler. "My teeth are chattering. It's horrible."
Lieutenant Birnbaum, the third hunter, said: "There's a white cloud hanging over the BELLOROPHON. Looks like a mushroom emitting spores. We shouldn't wait any longer." But his voice sounded cheerful. It was Richard. Now he had taken over Birnbaum's vocal cords as well. Playful, he even squeaked a little.
"Withdraw, Major," Earth contact commanded.
The commander groped toward him with a long thin thread clearly visible on the screen. The major was a facade. Artificial creation. Silicon feelings and thoughts. He had known it immediately. It was a test, a trap.
Kreidler was silent.
"What's wrong with the major?" Earth contact asked, a little hysterically.
"I can't tell exactly," answered Richard, the colonel. "It seems as if one of the things has spun a white thread around him."
"I'm losing my mind," said the lieutenant.
"Stop fooling around," Earth connection growled. "We've trained you to deal with situations like this as well. You knew that your job could be dangerous. You're working for humanity. Don't lose your nerve!"
"Yes," the colonel wheezed out. "There really is a cloud hanging over the BELLOROPHON, and it's spreading slowly."
"You shouldn't wait any longer," Earth control ordered.
"Destroy the space ship!"
"What do you think?" the colonel asked the Lieutenant.
"I agree with you," answered Birnbaum.
"All right," signed the colonel, "although Kreidler was one of our best men."
Richard laughed. From one moment to the next tongues of fire reached out from the two hunters, burning the BELLOROPHON in front of the cameras, while the surplus material emerged on the other side. Novitzki and Mathilda and Evita and the others, including the main mass, drifted in space, clumped and glittering white, while the research cruiser blazed. It was somewhat lonely there, the distance to Spell VII had grown no less; now everything depended on Richard, who thought of dark tunnels through which he could speed, who followed the trickling water in the sewers and who once had almost been poisoned in a mousetrap.
But all that was not tangible. Poor Richard. For a moment the mass was almost lost in space. But then the colonel had taken over once and for all, and though he was not exactly dynamic, he was calling the shots again. It was only a few seconds before he promised the Earth connection that, with the greatest of caution, he would take samples of the material in the magnetic cages. The Devil was in it if they couldn't manage to deal with the stuff once and for all.
The first hunter - for they had been able to reproduce the major only imperfectly (they needed a pilot) - flew as if drunk. When a solar eruption reached him, discharging in a thin film of gas, the crystal turned outward into the vastness of space and, since the material was clumping, could only be held on course. Earth control had sat up and taken notice, and were unwilling to accept the explanation that the positronic brain had been damaged.
In general a problem now emerged which they had not reckoned with before. Only united was it strong, the material from Spell VII. They - who split and clumped, where one was identical with the other and where an I-identity had not developed - were not growing weaker only with the enormous distance to Spell VII, but now more because of the fact that they had to divide themselves among three scenes of action. They had won with the takeover of two intact men, but the fission among three projectiles opened a gulf. In addition, it became more difficult to coordinate all the essences. With the new men, so many impressions and structures entered the entire complex that they were hardly even able to process them properly. It was as if the I-pressure were tearing apart the total picture.
Novitzki was still doing best; his host was very strong and, apart from the salt formations, had even retained certain natural bodily functions. Thus the commander had decided to remain within this world of memory. The others battled with unexpected difficulties; with sorrows for which they had no names; for repression which - now that all the psychic floodgates were opened - rose unhindered and uncontrolled and irritated the original I as well as the inhabitants.
That was the state of things when they reached the outer solar defense ring. Though they had only just been dreaming of the conquest of the Earth, of a crystal ring which they were going to cast over the entire universe - the part which was in the colonel had difficulty merely holding onto his identity when a cool lieutenant fixed him with cold eyes on the screen.
He asked: "Who are you?" "Colonel Grandullion," groaned the colonel, "with two other hunters, mission in the outer region," but he clumped. He could not stop it. One eye dripped.
Rats whose tails had grown together. They bit to death a male of another species which had entered their population.
The cadaver twitched. Novitzki saw silken hair. It was a tomcat who operated the light thrower.
Gleaming reflections. It yawned. Stretched out its paws. Licked its claws, for now it was a tiger. Stood up, gigantic. Stretched its body. Golden, striped fur, as if in flames. The stars trembled in its roar.
The commander of the BELLOROPHON was the tiger. Lashing his tail, he found himself lying on a bed. Beside him, his wife, Karin, had yellow eyes which he reached for with a silken arm. She trembled under the claws. Lay still as if paralyzed with fear. He touched her body. Her face was glass. Under her closed lids, cold eyes gleamed. The round mouth was red and harsh. Her face was now tinged with blue, as if she were crystallizing within.
The curtains seemed to swell. It grew hot in the room. The wallpaper split in the warmth. The wood of the closet began to burn. The curtains were in flames, roaring. Then, for the first time, Novitzki noticed the dark-gray opening which pointed straight in his direction. On the chamber was a glass cuff. As he looked into the pipe he saw only a flickering, as if one could see through space and time, to the end of the world.
He was the commander and leader through and through as a bright, clear light left the glass. He loved Karin for the last time. Held her in his arms. The radiance fell waxen over her features. Illuminated the bones. Her teeth gleamed. All this happened in the fraction of a second. When she is broken apart like that, one can infer the infiltrated material's ability to adapt itself to time - she, who only remotely knew anything like mortal fear. The band to Spell VII was sundered.
The conquest of the Earth. The attack on the blue planet. Sometimes one thinks that would be so easy. The initial success inebriated them. It seemed to them as if humanity had never thought about space. One forgets what rivers of sweat and blood humanity had to wade to become what it is today.
As the commander plunged into the depths and his clumping I stabilized once again, these thoughts rose from the original Novitzki. They came quite unsummoned, like something which is now true. Why had he not read his host? Why had he not leafed through the book which lay open before him?
He looked - high in space the hunter - at the earth. Studied its immense blue curve. The fine white shimmer which hung over the horizon. Even before his protective hull burst into flames, he remembered the continents. That was the west coast of America which now fell back. A burst of flame from one of the hunters, missing him.
Beautiful, wonderful earth. For a moment his sight failed him in the midst of the fire. Saltpeter trickled from his feet. That which was still human in him quailed in his heart. Something like blood pumped vigorously through his veins. Then the curtain of flames was torn, and blue and black and like ink the water rushed up to him, the water which, even from space, he had sensed intensely as salt.
A hunter changed course to catch Novitzki, so quickly that it burst somewhere in the sky in a cloud of smoke. Another one, shooting out a harsh ray of light, crashed in the sea; its fragments danced over the water and sank, gurgling.
Then the commander exploded onto the water, the protective screen expanding about him like a light phenomenon. Bitterite, he had smelled the bitterite. The supporting roof collapsed. The place where he struck closed over him, white. In the blink of an eye it seemed to freeze over in all directions, must have wanted to saltpeterize. Like rays the ice ran in all directions before losing its force.
There, where the sea was almost solid and tides washed over it like a block of salt, they found him - or it - unconscious, at any rate, crushed to death by crystal - in the depths. When he came to himself, he had lost some of his encrusted characteristics and hung in a radiating bell which neutralized him for the earth field and human beings.
There are things in life which we would rather never experience again, things to which our consciousness closes itself. The world had a false bottom. Once we have gone through it, we are wiser. But who warns us that we should never turn around, lest we turn into pillars of salt?
When the commander was asked whether he would ever return to Spell VII, he answered with a smile (baring his black teeth) that one must do whatever one is called upon to do. Sometimes during this kind of discussion, which did not come up until he had begun to recover, he spoke no further; he seemed to be clumping; seemed once again like that collective being for which he inexplicably longed.
They had desalinated him in a process lasting months. It was not easy, for they could treat him only through the energy cage. When he slept with his wife for the first time after his recovery, it was difficult. The night before she had dreamed that she had saltpeter children from him now, but that was nonsense, as Doctor Kenwood assured her.
Again and again, as he devoted himself to the long phase of recovery, the memories came. It could be felt most vividly when his muscles contracted. Once he nearly bit out his tongue. But his powerful will was victorious. His wife was gladdest of the intimate sphere of his rehabilitation, and did not want this all to be lost again.
Once they visited the remains of the mass, which was held captive in another radiation cage and - since it no longer displayed any kind of form or structure - was to be left that way, to be on the safe side. When Novitzki entered the web of energy, it was as if the clump went into confused motion - as if it sensed or felt something which had taken place long ago. But the spasm passed.
Ultimately this was the sign that the researchers were over the hump once and for all, and he no longer reacted even when the moon was at its zenith. His wife, who knew him better than anyone, was finally reassured as well. Only sometimes, at meals, when he salted too heavily, or put the salt-shaker away without a word, she had a few second thoughts, but these passed when he lay vigorous in bed with her. This strange aversion to bitter substances also seemed to be passed on to their children, a girl and a boy.
The expeditions which finally, armed with all conceivable caution, went to the saltpeter planet (as it was now known), came to the conclusion that it - if the radiation barriers were used - could serve quite well as a research world and energy supplier.