Beta Bali Basketball

thonk thonk of hollow rubber on a hardwood floor in an echoing gymnasium thonk thonk flash of long legs, long arms, long bodies glistening thonk thonk weaving gracefully in fast-forward ballet thonk thonk the high soaring bound that defied gravity before the rocket engine did...

Nobody willingly lived on a planet any more. I had hereditary rights in a family station with a classic view of the Milky Way, and I certainly preferred being there than down a gravity well. Anybody would. Being able to play basketball at just about any gravity level or Coriolus force you chose was only one of the plusses. Why it was the one currently obsessing me, I had no idea. There wasn't anybody else down here with me to play psych.

Every other poor sucker who ever lay in a lonely bed and listened to alien life rustling and barking outside her prefab hut (guaranteed to stand all natural disasters - the blokes who disappeared must have done something wrong) must have wondered occasionally if keeping your citizen rights was worth standing a year of Watch scouting for intelligent life that hadn't made it off its planet of origin yet. But I guess it beats being drafted for fighting and dying, which the histories say they used to do.

Beta Bali Five was one of the plain little planets around a little yellow star that we only knew was there when our ships got close enough to it, kind of like Sol surprised the hindspurs off the Hazzelfack. One wag on the initial survey tried to slip the name Anna Thema onto it, claiming she was a girl back home. It isn't anathema like the nasty stinking killer worlds-it's just that there's only so much of waving greenish-purple fronds that an Earth eye can take before sea sickness sets in, and there isn't much else on Anna Them… sorry, Beta Bali Five.

Greenish-purple foliage and bouncing orange seed-balls.

Okay, so maybe I knew what triggered the obsession with basketball. I was also three months into my Watch and looking at nine more months of transmitting the exact same report each day, varied only by height of greenish-purple foliage and circumference of bouncing orange balls. If I didn't find something stimulating to do the relief ship was going to find me a gibbering idiot. They probably would anyway, but at least I'd have some fun getting there.

Finding a pole to raise the hoop on was the first challenge. Absolutely nothing on Bali is rigid. The "tree fronds" were the height of trees, but as thin as bamboo and a lot more flexible. They bent in the constant breezes and lay flat in the frequent high winds. Watch supplies were always the minimum judged necessary in the opinion of a supply master, who was not standing Watch.

I laid the mattress of my old-style bed on the floor, took the frame apart, then welded the pieces into a pole that was regulation height for one gravity.

I didn't mind in the least sacrificing one set of the long underwear that Supply had resurrected from the history books to weave myself a net.

Now I had to catch a basketball.

A Bali Palm is nothing like a palm, but humans have a compulsion to name things after some familiar form even when the likeness is a stretch, which is why the fanged and thick-furred quadruped of Delta Draconix that has long hooved legs and bounds while running is called a Draconix Gazelle. Bali Palms look more like giant saw-grass — two fronds angling up from a common sheath. As a Bali Palm matures, a spray of flowers begins growing in the crotch of those fronds, once a year-cycle. This spray of flowers matures into tiny fruit which, for the first few year-cycles, are sterile. The flowers and the resulting fruit become larger and larger as the Palm itself grows, until one year the "fruit" is orange, signalling fertility. Some of these fruit will explode before full maturity, releasing clouds of particles somewhere between seeds, spore and pollen. The majority will drop one by one and bounce off across the endless savannah of Bali. For months or years or decades — who can tell one big orange ball from another, to identify its lifespan — this "fruit" is rolled about by Bali's winds, occasionally piling up in great drifts that may last for weeks or months before they are scattered again by the winds. The popular name for them is "Tumbleberries." At some point — we hadn't found the trigger for this yet — a Tumbleberry stops on a fertile patch of mulch and begins to sag like a rotting pumpkin. Slowly it soaks into the earth of Bali, and a season later a handful of Bali Palms spring from the spot. As they grow, one crowds out the rest, and the cycle begins again.

I'd gathered and dissected enough Tumbleberries to know that the skin was as thick and resilient as a basketball. The inside wasn't completely hollow, but close enough to it that the ball-berry was light and tossable.

Tumbleberry drifts are easy to spot, but they give me the willies. Tumbleberries in large masses seem to cling to each other by some sort of surface tension — an effect I couldn't duplicate in the lab — and even appear to move, to slowly glide over each other and exchange places in the stack. I wanted to find a Tumbleberry rolling on its own, where it behaved like a decent vegetable should.

I also wanted to find one as close to regulation basketball size as possible.

The search made my daily scouting trips lively for several weeks. As soon as I found the perfect ball, though, I began grudging every moment I spent out taking samples, doing analysis in the lab, or transmitting my reports. I spent hours shooting hoops every evening. I slept sweetly and peacefully.

Learning to shoot hoops in the constant yet constantly varying winds of Bali was the challenge that kept the game interesting. After two months a sudden gust could still grab a ball lofting in a perfect arc for the net and slam it into the side of the hut thirty feet away instead. Then I would play tag with the wind, trying to catch my ball as it veered all over the yard for ten minutes.

Until the day that the ball stopped and rolled upwind toward me.

It's understandable, isn't it, that I was so preoccupied staring at the approach of that one ball that I didn't notice when the drift of Tumbleberries began piling up on the other side of the court?

It's understandable, isn't it, that when my "basketball" stopped right in front of me, I didn't want to pick it up again?

It waited several minutes, pulsing slightly and silently, then rolled across the court — that's when I saw the drift.

Rolling up to the edge of the pile, Basketball nudged one of the Tumbleberries repeatedly until it dislodged from the mass and rolled clear. Then he — he/she/it/whatever — rolled behind the other ball and began pushing it toward me!

Okay, I wasn't standing there completely blank by now. Everything I'd ever been taught about communicating with alien species and how to make First Contact was spinning through my head. But I was stumped, absolutely stumped, on how to apply them to something that looked like a basketball.

Basketball was very patient with me. He/she/it nudged the new Tumbleberry up against my foot gently, repeatedly, again and again, never becoming agitated, until I stooped and picked it up. After a moment's hesitation, I gave the new ball a couple of bounces.

Basketball One sort of leaned back and glowed.

I played until my regular bedtime, then something about that hulk of stacked Tumbleberries and the constant regard of One kept me playing. When I knew I couldn't keep it up anymore, though, none of them prevented me from stumbling off to bed.

But they prevented me from going out to scout the next morning. Basketball One was waiting at the door of my hut, backed up by older mobiles that looked rough. I felt literally herded to the basketball court. For the next two weeks, all I was allowed to do was play, eat, play, piss, play, sleep, play.

When Basketball Two began moving on its own, Basketball One — I was calling him "Bo" now — introduced me to a new Tumbleberry.

It is possible to think quite complex thoughts when playing basketball, once it becomes routine. I had opportunity to watch more Tumbleweeds in one place than ever before, and began to correlate the unmarred hides of the ones that had no independent mobility and the rough, scarred hides of the ones that did. I recalled the fibrous netting that webbed the interior of the rougher, scarred specimens that I'd dissected in the lab (and did I wince about that now!) and compared it to the amorphous powder filling the balls with clean, fresh hides. I theorized that the accumulated jars of being blown around Bali built up the equivalent of a neural net inside the Tumbleweeds, maturing them into the sentient stage of their life cycle.

As each Tumbleweed I played ball with eventually became an independent being and rolled off to yield its place to another, I added evidence to the theory.

Earth would have liked to send a ship early to deal with the new discovery. By the time the scientists, linguists and diplomats were assembled and shipped out, however, they landed the day my Watch would have normally ended. I didn't care. I'd stopped being impatient long ago. I ran for the ship as soon as the blast had cooled, eager to greet everyone and introduce them to my friends.

I couldn't find Bo — Basketball One.

Searching in ever-widening circles, I found a slumped pumpkin with a hooked scar on its upper side — memento of the time I had tried to slam-dunk him into the rim of the basket instead of into the center of the net.

Who the hell is crazy enough to cry for a dead basketball? For a vegetable gone to seed?


How long could Basketball One have lived the life of a mindless, free-rolling Tumbleberry? We're only beginning to find out, tagging and tracing wild Tumbleberries, but in theory they could live in the vegetable state for over a century. As an intelligent being, they live six months. The Tumbleberry drifts may be a stage of self-organized group sentience, which transfers information from older Berries to younger ones, and nurtures and protects pre-sentients.

Is six months as a self-aware member of a serial civilization better than a century as a nomadic vegetable?

This has all Earth in a philosophical fit. Slamming a Tumbleberry around triggers its sentient cycle. Sentience triggers its death and birth cycle. Humans can accelerate the process. The Basketballs want us to do it.

Should we?

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