Because of miscalculation, the craft dipped too low and hit the atmosphere with an earsplitting scream. Lying flat in their bunks, the men could hear the dampers being crushed. The front screens showed flame and went black; the cushion of incandescent gas at the bow was too much for the outside cameras. The control room filled with the stench of hot rubber. Under the force of the deceleration, the men temporarily lost their vision, their hearing. This was the end...
No one could think. No one had the strength, eve, to inhale. Breathing was done for them by the osypulsators, forcing air into them as into straining balloons. Then the roar abated. The emergency lights went on, six on either side. The Crew stirred. Above the instrument panel the warning signal showed the floor. There was no roar now, only a dull whistle.
"What -" croaked the Doctor after spitting out his rubber mouthpiece.
"Stay down!" warned the Captain, who was watching the one undamaged screen.
The ship somersaulted, as if hit by a battering ram. The nylon netting that enfolded them twanged like the string of a musical instrument. For a moment everything was poised upside down, and then the engine began to rumble.
Muscles that had tensed in anticipation of the final blow relaxed. The ship, atop a vertical column of exhaust flame, slowly descended; the nozzles throbbed reassuringly. This lasted several minutes. Then the walls throbbed; the vibration increased-the turbine bearings must have worked loose. The men looked at one another. They knew that everything depended now on whether or not the vanes would hold.
The control room suddenly shook, as though a steel hammer were striking it furiously from the outside. The last screen became covered with a cluster of circles; the convex phosphorescent shield darkened. The faint light of the emergency lamps cast enlarged shadows of the men on the sloping walls. Now the engine howled. Beneath them there was a grating, a breaking; then something split with a shrill sound. Jolted repeatedly, the hull was like a blind and lifeless thing. They held their breath in the darkness. Their bodies suddenly were flung against the nylon cords, but did not strike the shattered panels, which would have torn the mesh. The men swayed like pendulums. . . .
The ship seemed to move in an avalanche. There were distant, dull reverberations. Lumps of earth that had been thrown up slid along the outer hull with a feeble sound.
All motion stopped. Beneath the men, something gurgled. The gurgling became louder, more rapid-the sound of water leaking-and there was a repeated, penetrating hiss, as though drops were falling, one by one, on heated metal.
"We're alive," said the Chemist. In total darkness, he could not see a thing. He was hanging in his nylon bag fastened on four sides by cords. The ship had to be lying on its side: otherwise the berth would have been horizontal. There was a crackle, and the pale glimmer of the Doctor's old lighter.
"Roll call," said the Captain. A cord on his bag snapped, causing him to rotate slowly, helplessly. He reached out through the nylon netting and tried unsuccessfully to grab a knob on the wall.
"Here," said the Engineer. "Here," said the Physicist. "Here," said the Chemist.
"I'm here," said the Cyberneticist, holding his head. "And here, that's six," said the Doctor.
"All present and accounted for. Congratulations." The Captain's voice was calm. "And the robots?" There was no reply.
"Robots!!" Silence. The lighter burned the Doctor's fingers; he put it out. "I always said we were made of better stuff." "Anyone have a knife?"
"I do. Should I cut the cords?"
"It would be better if someone could crawl out without cutting them. I can't."
Struggling, heavy breathing, then a pounding, and a grinding of glass.
"I'm at the bottom. On the wall, that is," said the Chemist. "Doctor, throw a little light here, so I can help you.
"Hurry up. The thing's almost out of fluid." The lighter brightened again. The Chemist went to the Captain's cocoon but could reach no farther than the legs. At last he managed to open a side zipper, and the Captain dropped to his feet with a thud. The two of them together could work faster. Soon everyone was standing on the slanted wall of the control room, which had a semielastic covering.
"Where do we begin?" asked the Doctor, applying a band-aid to the cut on the Cyberneticist's forehead. The Doctor always carried odds and ends in his pockets.
"We see if we can get out," replied the Captain. "First we need light. Doctor, shine it over here-there may still be current in the panel, or at least in the alarm system."
This time, the lighter produced only a spark. The Doctor thumbed the flint over and over again above the Captain and the Engineer as they rummaged through fragments of metal on their knees.
"Found anything yet?" asked the Chemist, behind them. "Nothing yet. Anyone have a match?"
"The last time I saw matches was three years ago. In a museum," the Engineer muttered indistinctly. He was attempting to strip the end of a wire with his teeth. Suddenly a small blue glow filled the Captain's cupped hands. "Here's current," he said. "Now for a bulb."
They found an undamaged bulb in an emergency display above a side panel. A sharp electric light illuminated the control room, giving it the look of a tunnel with curved walls. High above them was the door.
"More than twenty feet," said the Chemist gloomily. "How are we going to get up there?"
"I once saw, in a circus, five men standing on top of one another," said the Doctor.
"We're not acrobats. We can climb up the floor," the Captain said. He took the Chemist's knife and began making cuts in the spongy floor covering.
"Steps?" "Yes." "Why is the Cyberneticist so quiet?" asked the Engi
neer. He was sitting on the shattered instrument panel, applying a voltmeter to some protruding cables.
"The man feels orphaned," replied the Doctor with a smile. "What's a cyberneticist without his robots?"
"I'll fix them," said the Cyberneticist. He was looking at the screens. Their yellow glow grew dimmer.
"The accumulator, too," muttered the Physicist. The Engineer got to his feet.
"So it would appear."
A quarter of an hour later, the six-man expedition was working its way toward the front of the ship. First they entered the corridor; from there they went to their separate quarters. In the Doctor's cabin they found an old flashlight. (The Doctor liked to collect things.) They took it with them. There was devastation everywhere. The furniture, bolted to the floor, had not been damaged, but the instruments, tools, vehicles, and supplies made a sea of junk through which they waded.
"Now let's try to get out," said the Captain when they were back in the corridor.
"What about suits?"
"They're in the air lock. They should be all right. But we won't need suits. Eden has a breathable atmosphere." "Has anyone ever been here before?"
"There was a cosmic probe twelve years ago, when Altain disappeared with his ship. Remember?"
"But no men landed?"
Translated by Marc E. Heine, Harcourt Brace 1989