“Yaaaaaah!” Joe screamed from the seat of his bike. He was barreling down a dirt hill, hands tight on the handlebars, legs akimbo, mouth open in a delighted grin.
Maggie followed behind, her bike set at a more sedate pace. “Joe, one of these days you’re going to hit a rock. You’ll go flying and hit your head and kill yourself. Then I’ll have to tell your parents and the whole sixth grade how it happened, and everyone will know about our secret.”
She stepped down from her bike and carefully balanced it on the kickstand in the rocky terrain at the new construction site. She fell to her knees and began sifting through the red earth, searching. Creamy skin and doe-like eyes were well hidden behind a pair of sturdy, brown-framed glasses. Her very straight brown hair was pleated into a matter-of-fact braid that hung down her back. The usual mid-afternoon wisps had escaped and she absently brushed them aside.
Joe pedaled back around, hopped off his bike, and let it crash land next to Maggie’s. He squinted his freckled nose in the sun. Tall and stocky, with a thatch of straight red hair, he clapped both hands to his chest and took a deep breath. Soon he, too, was engrossed in the search.
The friends had found an arrowhead in this spot only the day before, and they were anxious to find more. They had come here right after school.
Suddenly Joe stopped. Some movement had caught his eye. “Maggie,” he whispered carefully. “Over there.” He pointed.
Maggie looked, then stiffened. “What in the world?”
It was about the size of a beanbag chair, and similarly lump-shaped. Its surface was smooth and bumpy. Had it not moved, Joe and Maggie might have assumed it was a large rock. Mostly gray with maybe a little purple, the thing seemed to have a rather aimless pattern of movement. It stopped.
“I think it noticed us,” said Maggie.
“Can you hear it?” asked Joe.
“No, not hear it exactly.”
“Yeah, like … thoughts. Like I can tell what it’s thinking,” he said.
They watched it for a while. It was quiet.
“I think it’s watching us,” Joe said. “I mean, if it had eyes. You know,” he said thoughtfully, “I don’t think it’s very old.”
“Yeah. It kinda reminds me of my baby brother. Not the way it looks, exactly, but sort of the way it talks.” She frowned. “Or whatever.”
“I wonder if he knows what we’re thinking,” said Joe.
“Let’s test it. Concentrate on him coming closer to us.”
The little creature started moving in their direction.
“It worked!” Maggie was excited.
“How does he do that?” Joe looked intently at the creature. “Look. He doesn’t have any legs, and he’s not rolling, but he is touching the ground, and he is moving.”
The creature was by now just a foot or two away. “A pretty trusting little fellow, aren’t you?” said Maggie. “Do you think we can touch him?”
“Might as well try.” Joe leaned forward and gingerly put his index finger on the thing. “It’s hard. I thought he would feel like a marshmallow from the way he moves, but he’s hard.”
“Where did you come from?” Maggie concentrated her question.
There came a jumble of thoughts in reply.
“I think he’s lost,” she said. “He’s not from Earth, that’s for sure, but I think he’s from our solar system.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. “I think he’s in trouble, too, like from his folks. I wonder if he ran away.”
Maggie stood up. “How did he get here?” She looked around. “There must be some kind of spaceship or something.”
“Ohhh, cool!” Joe stood with her. “Let’s ask him.” Together they concentrated.
The creature started moving again, away from them. Joe and Maggie followed. When they stopped, they were in an open, grassy area, not far from the construction site. The grass was about knee-high, and they would have missed the spaceship had not the thing stopped just next to it.
“This?” said Joe in disbelief. “This is a toy!” He picked it up. “It’s smaller than the little guy. What’s he do, ride on top?”
“Well, put it down and we’ll ask him.” Maggie took the spacecraft from Joe’s hands and placed it on the ground again. They both concentrated their question.
The creature moved closer to the spacecraft, lightly touching it. Suddenly the craft was big.
“Magic!” exclaimed Joe. “I love it!”
“No, more like this switch down here, I think,” said Maggie.
“Say, this thing is big enough for us to go in.” Joe mused.
Maggie eyed the craft uncertainly. “Let’s not. I mean, what if it suddenly takes off or something?”
“Aw, c’mon. Spoil sport.”
“No, maybe later.” She moved away.
Joe flipped the switch back and they watched the spacecraft suddenly miniaturize. He sat down next to the creature. “What are we going to name you?” he asked as he put his arm around the top of it.
“How about George? He kinda seems like a George,” said Maggie.
Joe shrugged. “Sounds good to me. I think we should take George with us until we can figure how to get him home. If we leave him, he might not be here when we get back.”
“Whose house would we keep him at?” she asked.
“Well, we could keep him in the shed at my house. Mom just uses it for her gardening stuff, and she’s gone on that business trip until next Tuesday. Dad never goes in there.”
“Then that settles it,” she decided. “Do you think he’ll let us carry him?”
“Probably.” Joe bent down and braced himself. He almost fell backward picking George up, but regained his balance. “Hey, he’s practically nothing. Doesn’t he look heavy to you? Here, you hold him.”
Maggie took George in her arms. “Wow. No density here at all. How can he be so solid, but be so light?” She carried George, and Joe took the spaceship.
Once inside the shed, Maggie stared at the creature, her arms folded. “We’ll have to approach this scientifically,” she said.
Joe was wary. “What do you mean?”
“We need to go to the library and find out all we can about our neighboring planets. I’m almost sure he’s from our solar system.”
“I think he’s from Mercury, myself,” said Joe.
“Mercury is too hot,” she countered.
“So maybe he likes it hot.”
“But anything on Mercury would just burn up.”
“Mercury doesn’t burn up. Say, my folks have a heat lamp. We could shine it on him. If he laps it up, he could be from Mercury.”
Maggie looked at him. “Yeah, right.”
“Well, it’s an idea.” Joe was silent for a minute. “I suppose you’re right. If he’s from Mercury he’d be freezing cold here. He’d be shivering.”
“If he can shiver.”
“Let’s go to the library before dinner,” she urged.
“How about you go to the library and I jump on the Internet?”
“Fine. I like books better, anyway. I prefer something you can hold in your hands.” She looked at her watch. “We don’t have much time before dinner. How about we each research, and I’ll call you before bed tonight. We can compare notes.”
“Okay. And let’s not do the same planets, we don’t want to waste time doing the same stuff. You do the inner, and I’ll do the outer planets.”
“Sounds good. Talk to you later. And make sure you check on George. Lock up.”
Hours later, they were on the phone. Neither had had time to finish their research, but had a good start. “How’s George?” Maggie asked.
“He was still in there when I checked on him fifteen minutes ago. I guess he’ll be safe, anyway.”
The next morning Joe was waiting when Maggie stopped by on her way to school. She parked her bike. “Oh, my gosh.” She looked at Joe. “You’re ready to go. I can’t believe it.” Her frown mirrored Joe’s. “What’s up?”
“I’m not sure, exactly,” he replied. “You better come take a look at George. I want to see if you notice anything different.” They walked over to the shed. Maggie looked in and saw George in the corner behind a rake.
“Come on out,” she cooed. She looked carefully at him. “Joe, he’s smaller than yesterday.” She picked George up. “I’m sure of it.”
“That’s what I thought. I don’t get it. Why’s he shrinking?”
“I don’t know. Say, have you got a tape measure anywhere? I want to measure him. Then, if he shrinks any more, we can measure him again to see how fast he’s shrinking.”
Joe got a tape from a drawer and he and Maggie measured around George. Joe wrote it on the wooden counter. “We’re going to be late for school if we don’t leave right now,” said Maggie, “but we’ll come here right after school and see how he’s doing.”
“If he keeps shrinking like that,” Joe said, “there’ll be nothing left of him. We’re going to have to find out pretty quick where he came from so we can get him back home.”
After school they raced to the shed to see George. “One more research session should be enough,” Maggie suggested as they opened the door.
“Oh, man.” Joe groaned when they saw him. George was about the size of a basketball.
Maggie took measurements. “He’s lost 50% of his size since this morning.” She wrinkled her brows. “I don’t know if he shrinks proportionately or on a set scale.”
“I don’t know if he loses half of his present size every day, or if he loses the same amount every day.” Maggie looked almost in tears. “Joe, we’re really going to have to hurry. Either way, he’s not going to be around in a few more days. We not only have to gather the data, we have to analyze it, too, and figure out where he’s from.”
“We’ll do it.” Joe was determined. “You’re awfully smart, Maggie. I know we can do it.”
Maggie looked down at George. “Thanks,” she said softly. “Maybe I know a lot of stuff, but you’re the one who’s good at putting things together to make sense of it.” She smiled at Joe. “You’re right. We will do it. We’re a great team.”
Joe reached down to pat George. “Don’t worry, little fella. We’ll get you home.”
George was about the size of a balloon by the time they met in the shed the next day after school. Joe opened his pack and took out his finished notes. Together with Maggie’s, their completed list of information looked like this:
-279 to 800 F
made of mostly iron, mantle of silica, sulfur, calcium, helium
-173 to 872 F
rocky ground under thick atmosphere, lots of volcanoes, made of granite, basaltic stuff (calcic plagioclase, augit, and iron ore), lava flows
-195 to 70 F
crust is made of silicon, oxygen, iron, magnesium, aluminum
Atmosphere -234 F
Core maybe 24,000 F
At least 60 moons
made of hydrogen, some helium; don’t know if there is a solid surface
at least 62 moons
not solid; has hydrogen, helium, methane, ammonia; might have a rocky core
has many rings
made of hydrogen, helium, other gases
possible solid core
-353 F; wildest and strangest weather in the solar system with huge storms
Hydrogen and helium gasses
Maybe has rock core
covered by ice
rocky core, methane ices
“We need to keep in mind two things,” said Maggie. “One: all the information we looked at said no biological forms of life have been found on any of the planets. Two: both Jupiter and Neptune emit lots of radio waves.”
“You mean Georgie here knows all the latest tunes?” Joe teased. He scanned the list they’d made. “Look at this. We can cross four of ‘em off the list right now. He couldn’t live on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Pluto because they don’t have solid surfaces. He’d just sink down.”
“Unless he lives at the core.”
“Maybe he lives at the center of the planet, where it’s hard.”
Joe thought for a minute on that one. “Okay, I could buy that. So now we’re back where we were. What next?”
I have to go help Mom with dinner now. Your mom’s still gone, right?”
“Do you want to come over and have dinner with us, or eat whatever your dad brings home?”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Good. We can work on this at my house for a while. I need some time to think about stuff.”
“Okay, but no talking about it in front of your folks. This is our secret.”
“Duh!” She leaned over George and stroked him. “Hang in there, guy.” She turned and they took off.
After dinner they returned to the shed.
“Good thing it’s Friday night,” said Joe. We’ve got a little more time before you need to head back home.”
They sat on the floor with George and studied him.
“I wonder if he breathes,” Joe said at last.
“If he does, I wonder which of our gases he uses. That would help us figure out where he’s from,” Maggie reasoned.
“I don’t think he does breathe.”
“Think about it. So far he hasn’t done anything to show he’s living except to think and move. I mean, no cuts that bleed, no sneezes, no itches … I think it’s time for a physical.”
“Yeah. He’ll let us touch him. We can find out if he has a heartbeat, or if he has breathing movements.”
They went separate ways to collect the needed instruments, and were back a short time later.
Maggie held up the thermometer. “So where do we stick this?”
“Uh, well, that probably isn’t important. Where’s the stethoscope?”
Maggie handed it to him.
“This is it?” he said weakly. “Your little brother’s plastic toy from his doctor’s kit?”
“It’s the closest I could find. I can hear my heart through it.”
“Hand it over.” Joe listened carefully from all around the creature. “Nothing. No heartbeat, no breathing. Seems like, if he’s this small, we’d be able to hear if anything was going on in there. You try it.” He handed the stethoscope to Maggie.
“Nope, me either,” she said after her test. “How about if we try to get him to answer some questions? We could ask him if his planet has any rings around it. That would really narrow it down.”
“He’d have to be from Jupiter, Saturn, or Uranus then. They’re the only ones with rings, and they all have lots of moons.”
They both closed their eyes and concentrated on planets with rings and moons. After a while they opened their eyes. “I’m not getting anything,” said Maggie. “What about you?”
“I wonder if that means his planet doesn’t have rings or moons, or if he doesn’t know.”
“Maggie, he doesn’t have any eyes. Even if his planet does have rings and moons he wouldn’t picture it the same as we do. Of course we didn’t get an answer.”
They sat silently together for a while, watching George move around and bump things.
“I’m getting frustrated,” Joe said finally. “Seems like every time we come up with a great lead, it’s not so great.”
“Joe, look at George,” said Maggie.
“I am. What?”
“See how he’s bumping into everything but not really bumping? Like he’s touching. You know what? I’ll bet he’s looking for food. I’ll bet he’s hungry.”
“Omigosh, of course he’s hungry. I guess I never thought about it because he doesn’t have a mouth. He looks so much like a rock. Maybe that’s why he’s shrinking! He must be starved! Let’s go! We can take him back to the construction site. He must have been there for a reason.”
“Yeah, but we’ll have to be fast. It’s getting dark,” Maggie said, looking at the sky.
At the site, they watched in amazement. “Joe, he’s eating rocks. Rocks, Joe.”
“I bet his folks really save a bundle on groceries.”
George sat on another little rock. When he moved, the rock was a tiny pile of fine dust.
“Joe, where’s he putting it? Do you suppose he’s got a whole digestive system in there?”
“How could he? He doesn’t have a blood system to carry it around in.”
“He’s not getting any bigger, either. Wait. Let’s pick him up. Don’t let him eat any more.”
“Why not? The poor little guy’s starving.” He picked George up.
“No, no, don’t you see? Your rock collection!”
Joe eyed her suspiciously. “What about it?”
“You’ve got all the rocks labeled. We could find out exactly which rocks he eats, and match it with the information we found in the research.”
“Oh, but Maggie, my collection!”
“Come on. We’ve got to save George. How else can we find out where he’s from? You said yourself we haven’t had any good leads.”
“What if this turns out to be another dead end? My collection!” Joe shook his head.
Maggie cajoled and persuaded all the way back to his house. Joe brought out his rock collection. He looked at it. He looked at it some more.
“Come on!” Maggie had to almost pry his fingers from the box. “Now, then.”
They offered George a tray of rocks.
George seemed to be deciding between them, much like a kid at an ice cream shop. Finally he settled on the lodestone, and that rock was soon a few grains of dust.
“Lodestone is mostly iron.” Joe quickly checked their research list. “Hey, yo! Chalk one up for Mercury.”
“Also Venus and Mars,” Maggie pointed out. “And possibly Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune because we don’t know what their cores are made of. But we’re getting closer. Let’s see if he picks another one.”
Joe pouted, but again offered the tray to George.
When they were finished, George had also eaten a meteorite, a large chunk of quartz, a slab of limestone, and a sliver of opal.
“Meteorites are mostly iron and nickel, heavy on the iron.” Joe ticked off on his fingers while Maggie took notes. “Quartz are silicates, limestone is calcium carbonate, and – oh, not my opal – opal is a hydrous silica.” He removed the tray.
“So what we have here is iron, nickel, calcium, carbon, and two silicates.”
“Bingo!” cried Joe. “Look at that: A meteorite is mostly iron, like the lodestone; limestone is mostly calcium, and two silicates. I told you we should have gone with Mercury. Only Mercury has all three.”
“You don’t know that for sure. We don’t know what the cores are made of for three planets.” Maggie chewed her pencil. “But this is pretty good evidence, even though I still think Mercury is too hot.” She looked at George. “How can he eat but not get any bigger? If anything, he’s even smaller.”
“Let’s take him back to the construction site. He can have all the rocks he wants there,” said Joe, sliding his rock collection out of reach.
Back at the site they watched George gobble up more rocks as the sun set. Maggie was worried. “He’s still shrinking. We’ve got to find a way to get him back to Mercury. I don’t think he can make it by himself.”
“Of course not. We’ll go with him.”
Maggie stared at him. “Are you crazy? Go to Mercury? Are you crazy? We’d burn up.”
“He didn’t,” Joe countered. “I bet his spaceship is built to withstand heat. I bet it’s probably made of silicate.”
“It would take ‘way too long to get there. I mean, like hundreds of years or something. We could never leave here for that long.”
“It couldn’t be for too long. George isn’t very old, but he was old enough to get lost in a spaceship when he started.”
Maggie looked doubtful. “You make it sound so logical. I don’t know… What if we get burned up? We’re not made like him, you know. And we’re not perfectly sure Mercury’s it. We can’t go flying off on a good guess.”
“Even if Mercury’s not it, we could go anyway, just to see. You said yourself we’ve got to save George. C’mon. I can see you want to.”
Maggie smiled ruefully. “What an opportunity! What a chance to discover – who knows what?”
“Then we’ll go?”
Maggie was silent for a moment. “If we can all fit into the spaceship.”
Joe let out a whoop. “Yes!” he cried. “O – kay! Yes! I’ll get the spaceship and meet you and George back here in fifteen minutes.” He was already hurrying toward home.
“Hold it.” Maggie held up a hand. “Don’t you think we should plan this first? Take supplies?”
“You mean like baloney sandwiches?”
“And water. Rocks for George. Maybe a knife and some rope. Joe, we don’t know how long we’re going to be gone.”
“Well we can’t pack enough for a hundred years. I say we pack enough for a week.”
“A week.” Maggie closed her eyes and sighed. “Fine. I don’t have any better guesses.”
They started toward home. Maggie made mental lists of things to pack. “How will I ever make up all my school work?” She moaned.
They agreed to collect all they could at home, and hide it under their beds. After a good night’s sleep and morning chores, they would meet at the shed.
Late Saturday morning they were back in the grassy area where they’d originally found the spaceship. They carried full back packs and sports bags, several grocery bags in a wagon, and George and the spaceship. George was only the size of a baseball now.
“I hope we’re not too late,” Maggie said with a worried frown at George. She turned to Joe. “You got everything on your list?” she asked again.
“Yes, but we didn’t have any baloney left in the ‘fridge. I had to go with liverwurst,” said Joe feelingly.
“You left a note for your dad?”
He took a deep breath. “Yeah.”
They stood looking at the ground, the trees, the sky.
“Let’s go.” Joe started toward the ship. He flipped the switch and it got big. To enter, they first had to pass through a small chamber. “This must be the decompression chamber,” he said. They waited for the ship’s outside door to close, and for the clear, inner door to open.
Once inside the ship they arranged their things and themselves comfortably. They had decided they’d better leave the driving to George, and had situated him on the control panel. “Let’s start concentrating,” said Maggie. “Remember to keep it real abstract.” They closed their eyes and thought of the sun, the position of Mercury from Earth, light, heat, life, and feeling of home.
“I don’t think anything is happening,” she said after a while.
Joe opened his eyes. “Yeah, I know. Wait. Where’s George?” His eyes darted around the ship’s interior. “There! He’s going into the decompression chamber. Hey, George! Where are you going?”
“Oh!” Maggie breathed. “Joe! The window. Look! I think we’re here.”
Joe’s jaw dropped. Indeed, they were somewhere. The landscape outside was barren and very bright, even through the heavily filtered window.
“I think he’s going to his mom,” said Maggie. The inside decompression chamber door closed, with George inside the chamber.
“I think he’ll be back, though – – whoa! Where’d he go?”
George vanished. Then the ship’s outside door opened and closed.
Maggie’s face fell. “It’s like he disintegrated. Maybe he burned up. Oh, Joe, what if this is the wrong planet after all?”
“I don’t know. I hope not. We sure can’t go chasing after him. We better wait.” He paused. “He disappeared before the outside door opened. That’s probably a good sign. It might not have been the heat.”
They didn’t have to wait long. Soon the outside door opened and closed, and then there were two creatures inside the decompression chamber. George, restored to his bean-bag-chair size, entered the ship with another, bigger George. The bigger one was a bright red color.
“George is his regular size again!” exclaimed Joe. “How’d that happen?”
“I don’t know. That must be his mom he’s with,” whispered Maggie.
“She looks like she’s ready to go to a party,” Joe returned under his breath. “I wonder if she talks the same as George.”
“Oh, a little better, I think.” George’s mom laughed.
“You use words!” Joe was surprised. “Say something again. I can’t tell if I hear you or think you.”
“It is thought transmission,” the mom replied. “It’s just at a higher level. I want to thank you for helping my son. We weren’t sure where he’d got to, but we knew it was a good distance once we realized the transport was missing. It would have taken us quite a while to find him. He could have been in any galaxy.”
“Gosh, we were just glad to help.” Joe shuffled his feet and looked at Maggie.
“You have many questions,” said the mom. “Please, I’ll be happy to answer.”
“How can you speak our language?” Maggie asked.
“We travel to your planet often,” the mom said. “We don’t usually get found out because we look like your rocks. Our adults know not to move around if people are watching.”
“How did George disappear when he was in the decompression chamber?” Joe wanted to know.
“George.” The mom chuckled. “I think I like that.”
“Oh, well, we didn’t know what to call him,” said Maggie. “What is his name?”
“We have no use for names here,” said the mom. “We simply… I don’t know how to explain since you are not familiar with complete thought exchange.”
“So how did he disappear?” Joe repeated his question.
“I think you will understand many things much better if you know that we exist naturally as a gas.”
Maggie and Joe stared at her blankly. “A gas!” Maggie was fascinated. “So in the chamber, George’s molecules just separated. And what we see here are you and George with your molecules just – pulled together.”
“In a manner of speaking,” said the mom.
“How can you exist as a gas?” asked Joe.
“There are many different kinds of life forms,” the mom explained. “Some are made of molecules, just as you are. Our molecules are not arranged into cells, as yours are, and ours are farther apart.”
Joe looked at Maggie. “Sort of makes you think twice about the air you breathe,” he said.
“Or what you drink,” added Maggie, much struck. “Why aren’t you a gas now? And why wasn’t George a gas on Earth? Why did he keep shrinking?”
“Your climate is far cooler than ours” she replied. “Temperature dictates our state of being.”
“So,” said Maggie, “He was still all there, but our temperature made him denser and denser?”
“And your gravity,” replied the mom. “I’m sorry you were concerned about that, but I don’t think my son could have explained it to you.”
“Gee, we didn’t even think to ask him,” said Joe. “He just seemed so little. Say, how do you guys move like that? I mean, not walking or anything?”
“When we are in solid form, we simply rearrange our molecules, shift them from one place to another in the direction we wish to travel. You must understand, we are not like you. One part of our body can be at the top just as well as at the bottom or in the middle. Our molecules move freely about. That is also how we use a food source. We rearrange our molecules around the food source until all molecules have absorbed some of the food content.”
“I am afraid you must go now,“ said the mom. “It will soon become uncomfortably hot for you in here. We aren’t restricted to the same temperature range as you are, and we construct our transports accordingly. You were very brave to have come here. Thank you again for your help. Maybe we can be of some assistance to you in the future.”
“We’d sure like to see George again sometime,” said Joe.
“Perhaps that may be arranged,” the mom replied. “Now ‘George’ and I must let you go. I will program the transport to take you home again. You may keep the transport, if you like, as a token of our gratitude.”
“No kidding? We sure would!” Joe’s eyes sparkled.
“I don’t know what harm it could do. I’m sure you could never understand how it works,” said the mom.
“Thanks,” said Maggie, beaming. “It was very nice to meet you. And George was fun. ‘Bye George.”
The return trip was as fast as the trip there.
Joe looked at his watch. “We’ve only been gone an hour. I feel kinda stupid carrying all this junk back home. I hope Dad hasn’t found that note I left.”
“Egad, you’re right!” yelped Maggie. “Mine, too. Let’s go!” They took off at a gallop, balancing their supplies.
They reached the side alley where they would part to go to their homes. Joe looked at Maggie. “You want to go to the construction site tomorrow? We could look for arrowheads.”
Maggie smiled. “Sure. Who knows what we’ll find?”