"Incubation Layer" by Ehrad


The Calydo Factor
(A Langford Joh Story)
by William Alan Rieser


"Nadirian, what brings you to Manic?"

"Have you already forgotten your mentor?"

"Certainly not. But I am totally self-sufficient here, and there are no problems extant that have presented themselves to me."

"Aside from myself, the Prail and your son, no one knows of your existence. There is some unfinished business that you have failed to take into consideration. It is not because you haven't been attuned according to my instructions, that you haven't noticed the dilemma, but it is soon to become very real and personal for you."

"That can only be Iron Feather. What has happened to my son and why have I not sensed the urgency?"

"It is not a question of fault, Langford. The Prail have set things in motion, even when you were still the Earth Ambassador of the Confederation. There were, if you recall, several tests to measure your ability."

"I distinctly remember, Nadirian. Are you saying that I left something undone?"

"I prefer the term, unresolved."

Langford deliberately paused to review his actions in adventures such as the Blue Cabukhy, the Edge Cutter Incident, Menky's Folly, and several other cases where he knew the Prail had instigated his participation. Nothing struck him as particularly unresolved or potentially dangerous, which it would have to be for Nadirian to pay him a special visit.

"I am only permitted to steer your thoughts, Langford. The revelation must be yours."

"The Aegis Crop, Ponely 5, the problem with the Voiders, what?"

"Perhaps a more well-rounded remembrance."

"Something spherical? That could be anything. No. Wait. There was something that left me particularly unsatisfied, even though I solved the problem at hand. The Robain incident!"

"What bothered you about that little drama?"

"The Calydo. I was never able to get any sort of reliable data about them. They are as mysterious and odd today as they were then. I suspected that Consul Karaff was not being truthful about his representing them, but couldn't prove it."

"It seems my appearance has not been wasteful. I suggest you dedicate an entire synaptical session to what you know and can elicit from Calydo."

Nadirian was telling Langford to concentrate his enhanced will, via the fabulous Prail throne sensors, to look deeply into a species considered inferior by every Confederation standard, a species that failed to register even retarded sentience, according to the League. By resurrecting the Robain incident in Langford's logarithmically expanded mind, he was focusing his friend's attention on something that the Prail considered important and relevant to his new authority, that of guiding the continuance and safety of all entities within his aura of influence.

* * *

"This is merely our third meeting since the loss of Langford," said Caron Phel, the spidery rep who stroked a worry web with his tentacles. "Like you all, I feel his absence deeply and wish he was here to assist our deliberations."

"No one mises him more than I," added Byl Troif, the foliant from Suul, absently cracking open a nourishment pod. "We were closer than you can imagine. I was honored to have his confidence from time to time."

"We all feel similarly," said Auby Jamp, the stalactite Ambassador from Cygnus, "but weeping about spilled moisture is weak and solves nothing."

"I'm with Jamp," intoned Burruk Tahm, the Andromedan ammonia ball who enjoyed bristling arguments to stir things up during crises. "Why did you summon us here to the Jekorfan satellite, Phel? What is the nature of the problem?"

"A galactic plague of immense proportions. At first, it was limited to Barasque and Tobalim. You must understand that those civilizations, though not our responsibility in the Confederation, have been virtually wiped out of existence. Not a trace of their entities have survived what occurred there."

"What suggests a plague?" asked Troif.

"I intercepted a transmission from a trade rep passing through the Monukis system. They are being inundated by black, spherical objects that release a deadly gas when they reach the surface. Monukis is shriveling even as we speak. It's inhabitants are dying in droves and they are not that distant from Tobalim."

"Monukis is a member of the Confederation," stated Tahm. "We are obligated to act."

"Precisely," agreed Phel. "And I have enlisted the aid of someone whom I think you will approve, someone of whom Langford thought very highly."

"Without consulting us?" shouted Tahm.

"If Monukis found itself in such dire straits that it could not find time to beseech our aid, I thought we would need all the help we could get."

"Who?" inquired Troif, phrasing everyone's question.

"He returned to Luna mysteriously, approximately 30 days after Langford disappeared," said Phel carefully. "Considering the legends of his incredible prowess, I thought I would be remiss not to make contact. And he was relatively easy to find. It seems that a dome apartment has been maintained by someone for him in perpetuity, as though he was expected to return. He told me himself he would never go back to Earth, but not why. But above all, and rather beyond my expectations, he is eager to assist us and has already begun an investigation."

"Who are you talking about?" insisted Auby Jamp petulantly, swaying in obvious discomfort.

"His craft is already docked, gentlemen. He is here. May I please introduce ... the one entity capable of replacing our former ally, Langford Joh. Please join me in greeting ... Captain Iron Feather."

His entrance was accompanied by several security droids, both the Confederation's and his own. He was suited for long-distance travel, his face masked by a sun-screened helmet, mounted with a communicator and translator. He wasted not a single word on pleasantries.

"Please energize your tactical display and pull up the third quadrant of the Peridolian section near Arcturus," said a pleasant baritone voice. "Thank you. Now call up the graphics of Barasque, Tobalim, and Monukis. Yes, that is what I want. Now, to demonstrate what I have discovered, I had to know the position of those planets at the exact time of their travail. Here are the coordinates. Please punch these into your console and you will immediately see what I saw."

"All three planets appear to be aligned," commented Tahm.

"Yes. We can project a very straight line through those trajectories," added Jamp.

"It means, Ambassadors," said Iron Feather, "that the course of the plague is predictable. We can infer where it is going because it is undiverted. Now project a star map of all planets that may intersect that course in the next year. There, you see. It is headed directly toward Cygnus, your home planet, Ambassador Jamp. And I have further intuited its speed. It will be there in less than three of your moon's cycles."

"This is terrible," shouted Jamp. "Why have I not been informed of this? We'll have to evacuate."

"That may well prove to be the only temporary solution, pending research on Barasque and the others. It is possible the influx permanently damages the terrain or poisons the atmosphere for a great length of lags. I don't know that yet. I need you to decide immediately what you want done. I can try to meet the plague and stop it; I can analyze what it has already done or I can trace its roots. I cannot do all three."

That produced a sharp debate. At the end, it was decided that the Captain would best utilize his time in opposing whatever caused the plague while the Confederation launched simultaneous probes to uncover its origin and observe its aftermath.

"I will work myself backwards from Cygnus," continued the Captain. "I am going to assume if I need anything that I have carte blanche?"

"Indeed," said Jamp. "I'll see to that personally. What about a team?"

"Not until I know what we're facing. I'll communicate on the P-wave. Expect me and make provisional preparations to evacuate Cygnus."

* * *

His craft was a modernized version of a Needle, lethally equipped with weaponry but also containing sophisticated scanners of his own design for delving mysteries. The current crisis demanded a close-up view of the enigma, hopefully without attracting attention. He had already determined that the Needle could outrun the phenomenon should he need to make a rapid disappearance. To achieve this goal, he settled on an unnamed asteroid field between Cygnus and Monukis, selecting one rock with an ideal crevice where he could position his ship and activate its sensors.

"Wrath, have you localized them?" he demanded of his most senior and efficient AIPS (artificially intelligent psyche simulator.) He preferred the intellectual types to the standard utilitarian droids.

"Just getting them now, sir. On the screen."


"Approximately 2,000 entities, sir."


"Spherical. I believe we can insert an invasive probe in their midst. That is, I cannot guarantee its survival, but it might be enough to gather some needed data."

"Approved. Get me some facts."

"Affirmative, sir."

Iron Feather prepared his scanners while Wrath launched the probe. It was timed to stifle its own progress and "ride" with the anomaly using cold fusion energy, so as not to be detected by entities that might recognize a heat source. The maneuver worked and the probe soon began transmitting data.

"Distinct ciliatic appendages, not observable without the probes picoscopic view,"said Wrath unemotionally.

"How is it propagating itself? We need to know that."

"Not certain, but the cilia appear to be gathering hydrogen particles, possibly to amass energy for propulsion. Yet, they expel nothing that the probe can pick up. It may be a form of echolocation, bouncing their masses from prior objects like old-fashioned satellite communication."

"Any clue as to substance?"

"Possibly biological, but we'll need a scan to be sure."

"I'm engaging one now. What about size?"

"Approximately 1,000 miles in diameter, all roughly the same dimensions."

"That's too large for a biological."

"It is unusual. The scan ought to distinguish whether we are dealing with chemicals or a living entity. Do you have a reading?"

"This is unbelievable. Those objects are radiating a protective, electrical aura, preventing the scan from working. I'll have to penetrate the aura first with a photon spear. There, I've localized one. We'll know in a moment."

There was a flash of brilliant light that temporarily entered the Needle's cockpit. The spear succeeded in breaking open the shield and allowed the scan to briefly do its work. But the heat generated by the spear alerted the anomaly to its presence and the orbs stopped en masse. Abruptly, they congregated around the intrusion, generating a mystical green illumination of their own. Sensors revealed that both the probe and the spear had been melted away in absolute zero. But the scan had time to transmit one undeniable fact. The entities, in spite of their size and odd appearance, possessed DNA.

Before Iron Feather could dwell on the implications of that discovery, Wrath signaled an alert. The beings had somehow traced the origin of the spear and were now racing toward the asteroid field. Fortunately, the Captain was prepared for this sort of thing and fired the Needle's engines, outdistancing the foe as he rushed headlong to Cygnus. There hadn't been enough time for him to determine any kind of defensive strategy.

On Cygnus, he discovered that the Confederation had acted efficiently and were in the process of evacuating the cities. He conferred with several scientists and military personnel, coming to the conclusion that Cygnus probably did not possess the means to oppose the coming onslaught. They were a sedentary species, devoted to arcane pursuits and lives that expressed themselves best with what they considered to be poetry, though their technology was sufficient to grant them membership in the League of Sentients. From the human perspective, Cygnats were little more than dripping stalactites, just like Auby Jamp. Crises like this one were beyond their milieu and the Confederation's assistance was both timely and necessary.

In a private chamber, where he was granted a moment of respite, Iron Feather stared at himself in a pool of Cyngnatic wading methane, used by the indigenous for conjuring their unique odes. There, to his astonishment, he saw a familiar face.

"Father! What are you doing here?"

"Projecting myself, son. Actually, I'm still on Manic."

"But why?"

"Because you need to know something. I missed it myself the last time I looked. So did the Confederation."

"The aliens?"

"Precisely. It is easy to overlook because of the way we gauge intellect. We always assume that all species develop language the same way, but that is not true. The images in the minds of the Calydo are not based upon individual terms, rather whole phrases."

"The Calydo? They can think?"

"Not the way you and I do. In fact, I know of no other species like them. They are what we refer to as bacilli. And they communicate by means of complex cell division, not realizing that they might be causing harm. A phrase to them is basically a reproduction of themselves in a giant chain of intricate molecules. What we see as an invasion is to them nothing more than a conversation they think they are having with a planet, which they believe is a similar entity."

"My G-d. How do I stop them?"

"For that, all you need to do is have a dialogue they can understand."

"Even if I could achieve such a thing, I would be responding in gibberish. I need an interpreter, someone who has dealt with them."

"Obviously. And I know of one entity capable of doing that. Consul Karaff, who assisted me during the Robain Incident. I didn't know it at the time, but he was being compelled to act by the Prail."

"Have you found him?"

"Yes and no. It seems he instigated this travesty to punish Cygnus for some imagined slight. A most devious fellow and not above sacrificing whole civilizations to get what he wants. I could not discover his motive but I have dispatched a friend of yours to bring him to you ... in chains. He will not be cooperative, so you must find a way to force the solution to the Calydo from him or dupe him into revealing it."

"A friend of mine?"

"A very good one. Surely you haven't forgotten Geronimo."

"My gannathor? How did you ever manage to find him? I thought he fell into a black hole."

"He did. And he was quite grateful when I rescued him from a paralytic nebula where he was helplessly trapped. He is also looking forward to serving with you again and has not forgotten your kindnesses. He will find Karaff. The rest is up to you."


"Momentarily. He is likely to scare the Cygnats out of their wits, so you'll need to prepare them. And you'll need a proton cage for Karaff. He's a changeling, perfect meat for a gannathor, but a very slippery customer for humans."

"Thank you, father. I couldn't have done this without you."

"It isn't done yet. Be ready."

* * *

Germ, the name Iron Feather had bestowed upon his friend, did more than simply capture and bring the mysterious Karaff to Cygnus for examination. He knew instinctively that the Captain required knowledge from this entity, information that would likely be withheld once the reason for his incarceration was learned. In his experience, changelings always sought deception and considered it their moral obligation to fool other species. Therefore, he took the precaution of discovering precisely what Karaff most feared, so that Iron Feather, if necessary, could make use of it. That turned out to be a fortunate decision, because Karaff, once he realized his position as a prisoner, was exceptionally obstinate and refused to speak. To solve this dilemma, and before Karaff understood where he was or by whom he was being held captive, Iron Feather pretended to be thrown into the proton cage with Karaff as a co-prisoner. It took several days before he could strike up a conversation with the fellow, but he finally succeeded by sharing some food. Revelation commenced with an old ploy.

"Damn. This is worse than being in a Calydonian tar pit."

"You know the Calydo?" asked Karaff, hooked at last.

"If it hadn't been for my shipmates, I'd still be there. Dead, probably."

"They usually don't bother with other species. I'm surprised you were noticed at all."

"Oh, there was no talking with those scary beasts. But I was trapped on the surface when my shuttle lost power."

"Then you are extremely lucky. How is it the gases didn't erode your suit?"

"I was wearing an anti-matter jacket when I went down. It probably saved me."

"I'll say. Good thing you didn't contact any of them."

"Why not?"

"Because they cannot understand any language other than their own. They would have considered you a disease and melted you in seconds."

"Don't tell me you can speak their language."

"It took months of failure before I succeeded." Karaff went on to explain that by the merest chance, he force-landed on a barren planet to make some repairs to his ship and encountered a lone Calydo who had been left behind for dead. Somehow, he resuscitated the fellow and they became friends. Among other things, he learned their extremely difficult method of communication. This particular being was defective and could not speak traditionally by reproducing himself, so he compensated by constructing message bubbles. It was an arduous process, but Karaff decided it might be worth something in the future.

The Calydo, he explained, use complicated molecular glyphs, intricate webs of networks to form images that contain symbols meaningful only to them. An affirmation could be as simple as a translucent snake, similar to the letter S. If colored red, it indicated an emphatic yes. Blue stood for a grudging admission and so on. From these meager beginnings, Karaff was eventually able to build a rudimentary lexicon so that conversation was possible. By the time the entity died, Karaff could actually communicate with the Calydo, a skill he later took advantage of.

Iron Feather was extremely careful not to give away his keen interest and found ways to learn more of the language by subterfuge.

"I'll tell you what! Give me some more of that soup you have there and I'll teach you how to greet a Calydo properly," said Karaff. It went on like that until Iron Feather knew nearly as much as Karaff.

Then one day when the Captain thought he knew enough, he said:

"And now tell me how you convinced the Calydo to come to Cygnus."

It might have gone badly with Iron Feather at that moment, because Karaff, in his rage at being deceived by a weakling human, transformed himself into a multi-fanged, heavily taloned, poison-spewing millipede, one of the ferocious Colossa types that all
sentients avoid. But Germ was watching the proceedings and entered the proton cage in time to strike mortal dread into the changeling, simply by appearing as himself. That was how Captain Iron feather and his companion gannathor elicited the last bit of information they needed before trying to deal with the Calydo.

* * *

"If Captain Iron feather wants ten-thousand gigantic transparent spheres, then we are going to provide them," insisted Auby Jamp to the mystified Cygnat politicians surrounding him at their Cave of Conferences. "And he needs colored gas canisters in
red, green, and yellow, enough to fill the globes."

There was a great deal of chemical murmuring and expressed annoyance, but it ended in compliance. The Cygnats, without understanding why, transported the material to a position in space between their planet and Monukis, the direction from which the Calydo were coming. There, Iron Feather and a team of Confederation scientists, positioned and colored the globes in a specific pattern. To anyone viewing the spectacle, it was a hopelessly confused matrix of scattered orbs. To the Calydo, who were stunned when they observed it, it said:

"Greetings. You have been deceived by Karaff. No other beings like yourselves exist here."

There was more, of course, but that was basically what it took to turn the Calydo around and head for home. They turned out to be much more sentient than anyone had a right to believe, evidenced by their acceptance of Karaff to atone for his misdeed. Also, to pay for their own misjudgement, the Calydo bestowed their green illumination on one of the barren moons of Cygnus, producing a chemical change that filled the planet with a wealth of mineral resources, enough to supply ten needy civilizations for a hundred generations.

Iron Feather, relaxing aboard his craft with Geronimo, sipping some Lunaberry wine from a silver decanter, glanced at a blank wall panel where he saw an image forming.

"That went much better than I expected," said Langford. "You did well."

Story © 2003 by William Alan Rieser wrieser@juno.com

Artwork © 2003 by Ehrad ehrad@eraduoncomics.net

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