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I understand

cover of solarisAt nineteen hundred hours ship’s time I climbed down the metal ladder past the bays on either side into the capsule. Inside, there was just enough room to raise my elbows. After I attached the end of the cables into the port jutting from the side of the capsule, my space suit filled with air and from that point on I couldn’t make the slightest movement. I stood, or rather hung suspended, in a bed of air, all of one piece with my metal shell.

Raising my eyes through the convex porthole I could see the walls of the bay and higher up, leaning in, Moddard’s face. It quickly disappeared and everything went dark as the heavy protective cone was put in place from above. I heard the eight-times-repeated whirr of the electric motors tightening the screws. Then the hiss of air entering the shock absorbers. My eyes were getting using to the dark. I could already make out the pale green shape of the only gauge.

“Ready, Kelvin?” I heard in my headset.

“Ready, Moddard,” I replied.

“Don’t worry about a thing. The Station’ll bring you in,” he said. “Bon voyage!”

Before I could answer, there was a rasping sound overhead and the capsule shook. I tensed my muscles instinctively, but nothing else happened.

“When do I take off?” I asked, hearing a rustling noise like fine grains of sand falling on a diaphragm.

“You’re already in flight, Kelvin. Be well!” came Moddard’s voice in my ear. Before I believed it, a broad gap opened up in front of my face, through which I could see stars. I tried in vain to spot Alpha Aquarii, towards which the Prometheus was now headed. The sky in this part of the Galaxy meant nothing to me; I didn’t know a single constellation, and all I saw through the porthole was glittering dust. I waited for the stars to start smoking. I didn’t get to see it. They merely began to fade and disappear, dissolving against a reddening background. I realized I was in the upper strata of the atmosphere. Stiff in my cocoon of pneumatic cushions, all I could do was look straight ahead. There was still no horizon. I flew on, not feeling any movement, but slowly and insidiously my body grew hotter and hotter. Outside there arose a soft penetrating twitter like the sound of metal against wet glass. If it weren’t for the numbers flashing on the gauge I wouldn’t have been aware of the speed of my descent. The stars were gone. The porthole was filled with a ruddy-colored brightness. I could hear the heavy beat of my own pulse. My face burned; on my neck I felt cold blowing from the air conditioning. I regretted not having managed to see the Prometheus—it must have been out of sight by the time the porthole automatically opened.

The capsule shuddered once and twice, vibrated in a disagreeable way; the shaking passed through all the layers of insulation and cushions and entered deep into my body. The green face of the gauge grew hazy. I stared at it without being afraid. I hadn’t come all this way only to perish at my destination.

“Come in, Solaris Station,” I said. “Solaris Station. Solaris Station! You need to do something. I think I’m destabilizing. Solaris Station, this is newcomer. Over.”

And once again I’d missed the crucial moment when the planet came into view. It extended vast and flat; from the size of the streaks on its surface I could tell I was still a long way off. Or rather, a long way up, since I’d already passed that intangible boundary where distance from a celestial body becomes altitude. I was descending. Still descending. I could feel it now, even when I closed my eyes. I opened them at once, because I wanted to see as much as possible.

I waited out a minute or so of silence then called again. I received no response this time either. Crackling volleys of static repeated in my headphones, against the background of a hum so deep and low it seemed to be the voice of the planet itself. The orange sky in the spy hole covered over with a film. The glass darkened; I flinched involuntarily, insofar as the pneumatic swathes permitted it. Then, a moment later, I realized these were clouds. A whole host of them moved abruptly upwards as if blown. I was still flying, now in sunlight, now in shadow, because the capsule was turning on its vertical axis and the huge, swollen-looking face of the sun was passing smoothly across my eyes, appearing on the left and setting on the right. All at once, through the crackle and the hum, a distant voice began talking right in my ear:

“Solaris Station to newcomer, Solaris Station to newcomer. A-OK. Newcomer is under control of the Station. Solaris Station to newcomer, prepare for docking at zero hour. Attention, commencing countdown. Two hundred fifty, two hundred forty-nine, two hundred forty-eight…”

The individual words were separated by split-second mewing noises that showed it was not a human talking. That was strange, to say the least. Usually, every living soul would run to the docking bay when someone new was arriving, especially someone directly from Earth. I didn’t have time to think about it, however, because the huge circle that the sun had been turning around me stood on end along with the plain towards which I was dropping. After this movement there came another in the opposite direction; I was rocking like the bob of a huge pendulum, fighting back dizziness. Against the expanse of the planet rising vertically like a wall, striped with dirty lilac-colored and blackish streaks, I spotted a fine checkerboard of white and green dots that marked the location of the Station. At the same time, something detached with a snap from the exterior of the capsule—the long necklace of an annular parachute, which flapped abruptly. In this noise there was something unutterably terrestrial—after so many months, the first real sound of wind.

Everything began to happen very quickly. Up till now I’d only known that I was falling. Now I could see it. The white-and-green checkerboard was getting rapidly bigger. I could already see it was painted on an elongated, whale-shaped hull glistening silver, with the needles of radio antennas protruding from its sides, and rows of darker window openings; this metal colossus wasn’t resting on the surface of the planet but was suspended above it, its shadow moving across an inky background in the form of an elliptical patch of even more intense blackness. Simultaneously I noticed the violet-flushed furrows of the ocean, which betrayed a faint motion; the clouds suddenly rose high up, their edges marked with dazzling crimson, the sky between them grew distant and flat, dull orange in color, and everything became blurred: I’d entered a spin. Before I could utter a word, a brief impact returned the capsule to a horizontal position, and the ocean, glittering with a mercuric light to the very limits of the horizon, appeared in the spy hole. The droning cords and rings of the parachute suddenly detached and flew off over the waves, carried by the wind; the capsule rocked softly with that particular slowed-down motion characteristic of an artificial force field, and moved downward. The last thing I was able to see were latticework flight catapults and the grids of two radio telescope dishes that looked to be several stories high. Something immobilized the capsule with a terrifying noise of steel striking firmly against steel. Something opened up beneath me, and the metal shell in which I’d been rigidly encased ended its hundred-and-ten mile journey with a prolonged wheezing sigh.

“Solaris Station. Zero and zero. Docking complete. Over and out,” came the lifeless voice of the control mechanism. With both hands (I could sense a vague pressure on my chest, and my innards felt like an irksome burden) I took hold of the grips directly opposite my shoulders and disconnected the cables. A green sign reading EARTH came on, and the side of the capsule opened. The pneumatic berth pushed me gently in the back, so that in order not to stumble I had to take a step forward.

With a soft hiss like a resigned sigh the air left the coils of the space suit. I was free.

I stood beneath a silver funnel high as a nave. Bundles of colored pipes led down the walls, disappearing into circular wells. I turned around. The ventilation shafts were roaring, drawing in what was left of the poisonous atmosphere of the planet that had gotten in during the docking. The cigar of the capsule, empty as a burst cocoon, stood in a concavity set into a steel platform. Its external plating had been scorched to a dirty brown color. I walked down the short ramp. Beyond it, a layer of rough plastic had been welded to the metal deck. It had worn away in places from the wheels of the mobile rocket jacks. The air conditioning compressors suddenly went off and there was complete silence. I looked around somewhat helplessly; I’d expected someone to appear, but nobody had come. There was nothing but a glowing neon arrow indicating a soundless moving walkway. I stepped onto it. The ceiling of the hangar curved down in an elegant parabola that became the tube of a corridor. In its alcoves there were heaps of pressurized gas cylinders, containers, annular parachutes, crates, all in disorderly piles, any old how. That made me think, too. The walkway ended at a point where the corridor widened into a circular space. Here there was an even bigger jumble. Under a mound of metal canisters an oily fluid had leaked and formed a puddle. A strong, unpleasant odor filled the air. Boot prints marked clearly in the sticky substance led in different directions. Among the cans lay rolls of white telegraph tape, torn papers, and trash, all of which looked as if it had been swept out of the cabins. And there was another illuminated sign directing me to the middle door. It led to a corridor so narrow that two people could barely have passed one another. Light came from high-placed windows with biconvex panes directed at the sky. There was another door, painted with a green-and-white checkerboard. It was ajar. I entered. The semi-spherical cabin had one large panoramic window in which the mist-covered sky was aglow. Down below, the blackish hills of the waves moved soundlessly. There were numerous open cabinets around the walls. They were filled with technical instruments, books, glasses with a dried residue at the bottom, dust-covered thermos flasks. Around the dirty floor there were five or six mechanical tables on wheels, and among them several armchairs that were deflated and sagging. Only one was blown up, its backrest leaning to the rear. In it sat a small, scrawny man with a sunburned face. The skin was peeling from his nose and cheekbones. I knew who he was. It was Snaut, Gibarian’s second-in-command, a cybernetician. In his time he’d published a number of highly original articles in the Journal of Solaristics. I’d never met him in person before. He was wearing a mesh shirt, tufts of gray hair on his flat chest poking through, and once white linen pants with multiple pockets like a mechanic’s, stained at the knees and burned from reagents. He was holding a plastic bulb of the kind used to drink out of on ships that lack artificial gravity. He looked at me as if he’d been dazzled by a blinding light. The bulb fell from his fingers as they unclenched, and bounced a couple of times on the floor like a ball. A splash of clear liquid spilled from it. The blood drained slowly from his face. I was too taken aback to say anything, and this wordless scene continued until in some mysterious way his fear was transferred to me. I took a step forward. He shrank into his armchair.

“Snaut,” I whispered. He winced as if he’d been struck. Staring at me with inexpressible aversion, he said hoarsely:

“I don’t know you, I don’t know you, what do you want… ?”

The spilled liquid evaporated quickly. I caught the smell of alcohol. Was he drinking? Drunk? But why was he so afraid? I was still standing in the middle of the cabin. My knees were wobbly, and my ears felt like they’d been stopped up with cotton wool. The pressure of the floor beneath my feet still didn’t seem entirely reliable. Outside the convex window the ocean was moving evenly. Snaut kept his bloodshot eyes on me. The fear was leaving his face, but the unutterable disgust remained.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked in a murmur. “Are you sick?”

“You’re concerned… ,” he said in a hollow voice. “Aha. So you’re going to be concerned? But why about me? I don’t know you.”

“Where’s Gibarian?” I asked. For a moment he held his breath, his eyes glassed over, something lit up in them and went out again.

“Gib… Gibar… no! no!!”

He shook with soundless, idiotic laughter, then abruptly fell silent.

“You’ve come to see Gibarian… ?” he said almost calmly. “Gibarian? What do you mean to do with him?”

He was looking at me as if all at once I’d ceased to be a threat to him; in his words, and even more in their tone, there was something hateful and offensive.

“What are you talking about,” I stammered, feeling dazed. “Where is he?”

He was stunned.

“You don’t know… ?”

He’s drunk, I thought to myself. Drunk to the point of unconsciousness. I was growing increasingly angry. I really ought to have left, but I ran out of patience.

“Get a grip on yourself!” I roared. “How am I supposed to know when I just flew in a moment ago! What’s the matter with you, Snaut!!”

His jaw dropped. Once again he held his breath for a second, but in a different way, and a sudden glint appeared in his eye. He gripped the armrests of the chair with trembling hands and stood up with difficulty, his joints cracking.

“What?” he said, almost soberly. “You flew in? From where?”

“From Earth,” I replied, furious. “Maybe you’ve heard of it? Though it doesn’t look that way!”

“From Ear… Good grief… So you’re… Kelvin?!”

“That’s right. Why are you looking at me that way? What’s strange about that?”

“Nothing,” he said, blinking rapidly. “Nothing.”

He wiped his forehead.

“Kelvin, I’m sorry, it’s nothing, you know, just the surprise. I wasn’t expecting you.”

“What do you mean, you weren’t expecting me? You were informed months ago, and Moddard telegraphed today, from the Prometheus…”

“Right. Right… No doubt. It’s just that here, as you can see, there’s a certain amount of… confusion.”

“No kidding,” I retorted drily. “It’s hard not to notice.”

Snaut walked around me as if he wanted to check out the look of my space suit, which was the most ordinary kind, with its harness of pipes and cables on the chest. He gave a series of coughs. He rubbed his bony nose.

“Maybe you’d like to take a shower… ? It’ll do you good. It’s the blue door across the way.”

“Thanks. I know the layout of the Station.”

“Are you hungry maybe… ?”

“No. Where’s Gibarian?”

He went up to the window as if he hadn’t heard my question. With his back turned he looked much older. His close-cut hair was gray; the back of his neck, burned by the sun, was crisscrossed with wrinkles deep as cuts. Outside the window the crests of the waves glistened, rising and falling so slowly it seemed as if the ocean was congealing. Looking down there I had the impression the Station was moving imperceptibly sideways, as if it were slipping off an invisible base. Then it returned to equilibrium and tipped lazily in the other direction. But it was probably an illusion. Stretches of slimy foam the color of bone were gathering in the troughs between the waves. For a split second I felt a twinge of nausea in the pit of my stomach. The cold orderliness of the Prometheus now seemed to me something precious and irrevocably lost.

“Listen,” Snaut said unexpectedly. “For the moment it’s just me…” He turned around and rubbed his hands nervously. “You’ll have to be content with my company. For now. Call me Rat. You only know me from photographs, but it doesn’t matter, everyone uses that name. Nothing to be done about it, I’m afraid. Besides, when you have parents with such cosmic aspirations as mine, even Rat starts to sound OK…”

“Where’s Gibarian?” I asked again insistently. He blinked.

“I’m sorry I greeted you like that. It’s… not entirely my fault. I’d completely forgotten, there’s been a lot going on here, you know…”

“All right,” I replied. “Never mind that. So what’s with Gibarian? Is he not on the Station? Did he fly somewhere?”

“No,” came the answer. He looked into the corner of the cabin, which was hidden behind a pile of coiled cables. “He didn’t fly anywhere. And he’s not going to. Precisely because of that… among other things…”

“What?” I asked. My ears were still blocked and I had the feeling I wasn’t hearing right. “What’s that supposed to mean? Where is he?”

“Come on, you know,” he said in a completely different tone of voice. He looked me in the eye so coldly it gave me gooseflesh. He may have been drunk, but he knew what he was saying.

“Surely he’s not… ?”

“Yes.”

“An accident?”

He nodded. He wasn’t just confirming, he was also sanctioning my reaction.

“When?”

“Today, at dawn.”

Strange to relate, I didn’t feel shock. This entire short exchange of monosyllabic question and answer rather calmed me by its matter-of-factness. I felt I now understood his previously unaccountable behavior.

“How?”

“Go get changed, settle in and come back here in, let’s say, an hour.”

I hesitated a moment.

“Fine.”

“Wait,” he said, as I was turning to the door. He gave me a peculiar look. I could see that what he wanted to say stuck in his throat.

“There were three of us and now, with you, there are three again. Do you know Sartorius?”

“Like I know you, from pictures.”

“He’s in the lab upstairs. I doubt he’ll come out before nightfall, but… in any case you’ll recognize him. If you should see anyone else, you understand, not me or Sartorius, you understand, then…”

“Then what?”

I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming. Against the background of the black waves glinting bloodily in the low sun, he sat back in the armchair, his head drooping as before, and stared to the side, at the reels of cable.

“Then… don’t do anything.”

“Who might I see? A ghost?” I exclaimed.

“I get it. You think I’ve gone crazy. No. I haven’t gone crazy. I don’t know any other way to tell you… for the moment. Besides… maybe nothing’ll happen. In any case, remember. You’ve been warned.”

“About what?! What are you on about?”

“Stay calm,” he persisted. “Act as if… Be prepared for anything. That’s impossible, I know. But try anyhow. It’s the only way. I don’t know any other.”

“But WHAT am I going to see!!” I almost shouted. I barely kept myself from grabbing him by the shoulders and giving him a good shake as he sat there staring into the corner, with his tired sunburned face, every word he uttered costing a visible effort.

“I don’t know. In a certain sense it depends on you.”

“Hallucinations?”

“No. It’s—real. Don’t… attack. Remember.”

“What are you talking about?” I said in a voice not my own.

“We’re not on Earth.”

“Polytheria? But they don’t look anything like humans!” I burst out. I didn’t know what to do to make him snap out of his trance, in which he seemed to be reading something so senseless it chilled the blood in his veins.

“That’s exactly why it’s so terrible,” he said quietly. “Remember: be on your guard!”

“What happened to Gibarian?”

He didn’t answer.

“What’s Sartorius doing?”

“Come back in an hour.”

I turned and left. As I opened the door I looked at him one more time. He sat with his face in his hands, small, shrunken, in stained pants. It was only now that I noticed he had dried blood on the knuckles of both hands.

 

Translated by Bill Johnston