The Invincible, a class II cruiser, the largest vessel of the fleet stationed at the base in the Lyra constellation, was moving in photon sequence across a quadrant on the very edge of that cluster of stars. The eighty-three men of the crew were sleeping in the tunnel-shaped hibernation chamber on the main deck. Since the journey was relatively short, rather than full hibernation they had been put into a deepened sleep in which body temperature did not drop below fifty degrees. Only automatons were working on the bridge. In the crosshairs of their field of vision was the disk of a sun that was not much hotter than a regular red dwarf. When it filled half the width of the screen the annihilation reactor was turned off. For some time, throughout the ship there was a dead silence. The air conditioning and digital instruments went on functioning without a sound. There was no longer the faint vibration accompanying the shaft of light that had previously been streaming from the stern and, like a sword of infinite length thrust into the darkness, had been propelling the ship forward. The Invincible continued to move at close to the speed of light: inert, mute, and seemingly deserted.
Then control lights began to wink at one another from the consoles bathed in the pink glow of the distant sun filling the main monitor. Ferromagnetic tapes started up, programs were slowly drawn in by one piece of equipment after another, the commutators gave off sparks, and current flowed into the cables with a hum unheard by anyone. The electric motors, overcoming the resistance of lubricating oil that had long gone unused, kicked into action, the sounds they made rising from a bass to a high-pitched whine. Lusterless cadmium rods slid out of the auxiliary reactors, magnetic pumps fed liquid sodium into the cooling coils, and a shudder passed through the metal flooring of the stern decks, while at the same time a faint pattering sound inside the walls, making them sound as if they were filled with entire herds of small animals tapping their claws against the metal, indicated that the moving automatic check-and-repair devices had already set off on their journey of many miles, inspecting every weld of the girders, testing the air-tightness of the hull and the integrity of the metal joints. The whole ship filled with murmurs and movement as it woke up; only its crew was still asleep.
Eventually, though, one of the automatons swallowed its program tape and sent a signal to the control center of the hibernation chamber. Waking gas mingled with the current of cool air. A warmth blew among the rows of bunks through the grilles in the floor. For a long time the crew seemed reluctant to wake up. Some moved their hands torpidly; their icy sleep, previously empty, was now being filled with nightmares and hallucinations. One of them finally opened his eyes. The ship was ready for it. A few moments earlier the long passageways of the decks, the elevator shafts, cabins, bridge, work stations and airlocks, till now plunged in darkness, had brightened with the white glare of artificial daylight. While the hibernation chamber swelled with a hum of human sighs and semiconscious groans, the ship, as if too impatient to wait for its crew to wake up, had begun the initial phases of deceleration. The main monitor showed streaks of fire from the nose. The stillness of sub-lightspeed travel was broken by a judder as the powerful prow-mounted rockets strove against the eighteen thousand tonnes of invariant mass of the Invincible, multiplied now by its immense velocity. In the cartography cabins the tightly stowed maps shook uneasily in their rolls. Here and there, objects that had not been fastened down shifted as if coming alive. In the galleys the dishes rattled; the backs of unoccupied foam armchairs were set rocking; and across the decks, the straps and cords along the walls started shaking. A clatter from the combined sounds of glass, sheet metal, and plastic passed through the entire craft from stem to stern. In the meantime, the sound of voices could already be heard from the hibernation chamber; after the nothingness they had been immersed in for seven months, the human beings there had passed through a short sleep and were now returning to a waking state.
The ship was reducing speed. The planet covered up the stars; it was swathed in wooly red clouds. The convex mirror of an ocean, in which the sun was reflected, moved past ever more slowly. A dull-colored continent dotted with craters hove into view. The men at their stations on the various decks saw nothing. Far below them, in the titanium-built innards of the engine room there was a growing roar; a powerful gravitational pull prised hands from levers. The cloud cover that had come within reach of the rockets turned silver in a burst of mercury, scattered apart, and vanished. The boom of the engines intensified for a moment. The reddish disk flattened: The planet was turning into land. Windswept crescent-shaped dunes could be made out; fingers spreading like the spokes of a wheel from the nearest crater lit up with the reflected fire of the rocket’s nose-cone, brighter than the light of the sun.
“Full axis power. Static thrust.”
The needles eased lazily into the adjacent section of the scale. The maneuver went off without a hitch. The craft, like an inverted volcano breathing fire, was hovering half a mile above the pitted surface with its patches of rock half-buried in sand.
“Full axis power. Reduce static thrust.”
It was already possible to see the place where the blast of the jet engines hit the ground vertically below. They kicked up a dark red storm of sand. Purple streaks of lightning shot from the stern, seemingly soundless as the noise they made was drowned out by the louder roar of the gases. The difference of potential evened out, the lightning faded. One bulkhead in the prow emitted a creak. The captain indicated it to the engineer with a nod of the head: resonance. That needed to be fixed. But no one said anything, the drive shafts wailed, and the ship descended, though now without a single shudder, like an iron mountain strung on invisible wires.
“Half axis power. Low static thrust.”
Smoking waves of desert sand were blowing away in circles in every direction like breakers on an actual ocean. The epicenter, struck at close range by the unruly flame from the jets, was no longer giving off smoke. The sand had disappeared, turned into a mirror of blistered red, a seething lake of melted silica, a pile of loud explosions, till it evaporated. The ancient basalt of the planet, exposed like bone, began to soften.
“Atomic piles to neutral. Cold thrust.”
The blue of the atomic fire faded. Diagonal streams of boranes burst from the nose cone jets and in a single moment the desert, the walls of the rocky craters, and the clouds above them were bathed in a spectral green. The basalt base on which the broad stern of the Invincible was to come to rest was no longer in danger of melting.
“Piles to zero. Cold thrust through landing.”
Every heart was cheered; heads leaned over instruments; levers were gripped by sweaty palms. These time-honored words meant there was no turning back, that their feet would stand on real ground, even if it was only the sand of a desert globe; that there would be a sunrise and sunset, a horizon, and clouds, and wind.
“Landing point at nadir.”
The Invincible was filled with the protracted howl of the turbines compressing the drive matter. A green, cone-shaped pillar of fire joined the ship to the steaming rock. Clouds of sand rose on all sides, obscuring the periscopes of the central decks; it was only on the bridge that the radar screens, fading in and out along with the circling signal, continued to show the outlines of a landscape plunged in typhoon-like chaos.
“Cut engines on contact.”
Fire churned rebelliously under the stern, compressed by the vast body of the rocket inching down on top of it; the green inferno shot long tongues of flame deep into the quivering billows of sand. The gap between the stern and the scorched basalt was no more than a narrow crack, a green burning line.
“Zero and zero. Cut all engines.”
A bell rang: a single chime, as if of a huge cracked heart. The rocket was still. The Chief Engineer stood with his hands on the two levers of the emergency jets, in case the rock subsided. They waited. The second hands of the clocks kept moving at their insect-like pace. The captain gazed for a while at the level indicator; its silvery light did not deviate in the slightest from the red zero mark. They were silent. The jet nozzles, which had gone cherry-red from the heat, began to contract, emitting a characteristic series of noises like hoarse grunts. The reddish cloud of sand, thrown hundreds of feet into the air, began to settle. The blunt top of the Invincible emerged out of it; then its sides, blackened by the atmospheric friction so it looked like ancient rock; then its double-plated hull. The red dust was still swirling around the stern, but the ship itself had come to a definitive standstill, as if it was now part of the planet and was turning along with its surface in a languid motion that had been going on for centuries beneath a purple sky in which the brightest stars remained visible, fading only in the immediate vicinity of the red sun.
“Regular procedure, sir?”
The star captain straightened up from the log book, where in the middle of the page he had written the customary symbol for landing, the time, and had added in the next column the name of the planet: Regis III.
“No, Mr. Rohan. We’re going to start with degree three.”
Rohan tried to mask his surprise.
“Yes, sir. Though,” he added with a familiarity that Horpach often permitted him, “I’d rather not be the one to make the announcement.”
As if he had not heard what his first officer had said, the captain took him by the arm and led him to the monitor as though to a window. The sand blown aside by the force of the landing had formed a kind of shallow basin ringed by crumbling dunes. From a height of eighteen floors they gazed, via a tri-colored surface of electronic impulses creating a faithful image of the outside world, at the jagged rock rim of the crater three miles away. To the west it receded beyond the horizon. To the east, impenetrable black shadows were gathering under its steep gullies. The broad rivers of lava, their tops rising above the sands, had the color of dried blood. One bright star burned in the sky near the upper edge of the screen. The upheaval brought about by the Invincible’s descent from the heavens had passed, and the desert wind, a fierce current of air blowing constantly from the equatorial regions toward the planet’s pole, was already packing the first tongues of sand under the ship’s stern, as if patiently seeking to heal the wounds caused by the fire from the jets. The captain turned on the exterior microphones and for a moment the high space of the bridge was filled with a virulent distant wailing along with the sound of sand scraping against the hull. He turned the microphones off again, and silence fell.
“That’s how it looks,” he said slowly. “But the Condor didn’t return from here, Rohan.” The latter’s jaw tightened. He could not argue with his commander. They’d traveled many parsecs together, but had never become friends. Perhaps the age difference was too great. Or the dangers they had faced together too small. He was uncompromising, this man with hair almost as white as his uniform. Nearly a hundred men remained motionless at their stations after the intense labor that had preceded the approach: three hundred hours of deceleration of the kinetic energy amassed in every atom of the Invincible; entering into orbit; landing. Nearly a hundred men who for months had not heard the sound of the wind and had learned to hate the vacuum of space as only those who know it can. But that was certainly not what their commander was thinking about. He walked slowly across the bridge and, leaning a hand on a chair back that had been raised to a different height, murmured:
“We don’t know what it is, Mr. Rohan.”
Then suddenly, sharply:
“What are you waiting for?”
Rohan strode up to the control consoles, switched on the intercom and in a voice in which suppressed disapproval still trembled, said brusquely:
“Attention all decks! Landing complete. Degree three ground procedure. Eight deck: Prepare energobots. Nine deck: Activate shield batteries. Force field technicians to their stations. The rest of the crew, assume your positions. Over and out.”
As he spoke, watching the green eye of the amplifier dance to the modulations of his voice, he imagined their sweat-bathed faces turning toward the speakers and freezing in sudden amazement and anger. It was only now they would understand, only now they’d begin to curse…
“Degree three ground procedure underway, captain,” he said without looking at the older man. Horpach glanced at him and unexpectedly smiled out of the corner of his eye.
“This is just the beginning, Mr. Rohan. Maybe later on there’ll be long walks at sunset, who knows.”
From a small wall cabinet he took out a tall slim volume, opened it and, placing it among the numerous levers on the white console, asked:
“Have you read this?”
“Their last signal recorded by hyperrelay no. 7 reached the closest beacon to the base a year ago.”
“I know what it said by heart. ‘Landing on Regis III complete. Desert planet, sub-delta-92 category. Following degree two procedure; exiting onto land in the equatorial zone on the continent of Evana.’”
“Right. But that wasn’t their last message.”
“I know, sir. Forty hours later the hyperrelay recorded a series of impulses that appeared to be sent in Morse code but made no sense whatsoever; then some strange sounds that were repeated several times. Haertel described them as ‘the mewling of cats being tugged by the tail.’”
“Right,” said the captain, but it was clear he wasn’t listening. He was standing in front of the monitor once again. At the very edge of the field of vision, right by the rocket, there had appeared the scissor-shaped struts of the ramp, down which, as if on parade, came an even line of energobots, thirty-ton machines plated with fireproof silicon. As they crawled along their shells gradually opened and rose upwards, increasing the space between them; leaving the ramp they sank deep into the sand, but they moved confidently, plowing through the dune that the wind had already formed around the Invincible. They dispersed alternately one way then the other, and within ten minutes the entire perimeter of the ship was marked by a ring of metal turtles. As each one came to a stop, it began to dig itself steadily into the sand till it vanished, and only shiny spots situated at regular intervals along the red slopes of the dunes indicated the places where turrets bearing Dirac transmitters poked out. The foam-covered steel floor of the bridge suddenly trembled underfoot. A distinct though barely perceptible shudder, brief as a flash of lightning, passed through the bodies of those present and was gone, though for a moment longer they felt a tingling sensation in their jaws, and their vision blurred. The whole thing lasted less than half a second. Silence returned, broken by the distant hum of the motors starting up in the depths of the ship. The desert, the black and red taluses, and the sluggishly moving waves of sand came into focus on the monitors and everything was as it had been before, but now the invisible dome of a protective force field extended over the Invincible. Down the ramp came metallic crabs, their rotating antennas moving now left, now right. These inforobots, much larger than the devices creating the force field, had flattened trunks and curving stilt-like legs extending from their sides. Plunging their legs into the sand and extracting them as if with disgust, the arthropods spread out and took up positions in the gaps between the energobots. As the shielding operation progressed, control lights flashed on beneath matted glass on the main console, and the disks of the percussion dials filled with a greenish glow. Now it was as if dozens of large cat’s eyes were staring motionless at the two humans. All the needles rested at zero, indicating that nothing was attempting to pass through the invisible barrier of the force field. Only the power gauge climbed higher and higher, passing the red lines of successive gigawatt readings.
“I’m going to go down and get something to eat. Oversee the standard procedure, Mr. Rohan,” said Horpach, his voice tired all of a sudden, as he stepped reluctantly away from the screen.
“If you’d rather, you can send someone. Or go yourself.”
With these words the star captain slid open the door and left. For a moment longer Rohan could still see his profile by the faint light of the elevator, which moved noiselessly downward. He glanced at the force field indicators. Zero. Actually it would have been best to start with photogrammetry, he thought to himself. Orbit the planet long enough to gather a complete set of pictures. Maybe that way they would find something. Because visual observation from orbit was of little value; continents are not the sea, nor are observers with their telescopes sailors in the crow’s nest, however many of them there are. It was another matter that acquiring a full set of photographs would have taken almost a month.
The elevator returned. He got in and rode down to six deck. The large platform in front of the airlock was crowded with people who in fact had nothing more to do there, all the more so since the four bells signaling the time for the main meal had been repeating for perhaps the last fifteen minutes. The men stepped out of his way.
“Jordan and Blank, you’ll go set up the procedure with me.”
“Full space suits, sir?”
“No, just oxygen masks. And one robot. Preferably one of the arctans, so it doesn’t get stuck in this damn sand. The rest of you, what are standing around for? Have you lost your appetite?”
“We were hoping to go… outside, sir.”
“Just for a few minutes…”
A buzz of voices arose.
“Easy, guys. There’ll be time for outings. For the moment we have degree three.” They grudgingly dispersed. In the meantime, a crane emerged from the service elevator carrying a robot that was a head higher than the tallest humans. Jordan and Blank, already wearing oxygen equipment, were returning in an electric cart—he watched them as he leaned against the handrail in a passageway that, now the ship stood on its stern, had turned into a vertical shaft running all the way down to the first machine bulkhead. Beneath and above him he was conscious of the multiple levels of the metal infrastructure; at the very bottom the quiet-running conveyors were operating, he could hear the faint slap of the hydraulic ducts, while from the depths of the hundred-and-thirty foot long shaft came the steady flow of cool purified air from the A/C unit in the engine room.
The two men working the airlock opened the door for them. Rohan automatically checked the placement of the straps and the tightness of his mask. Jordan and Blank followed him in, after which the metal plate creaked loudly from the steps of the robot. There was a fearful prolonged hiss of air being sucked into the interior of the ship. The external hatch opened. The machine ramp was four floors below. For the crew there was a small elevator that had already been extended from the hull. Its framework reached all the way down to the top of the dune. The cage was open on all sides. The air was not much cooler than on board the Invincible. The four men climbed in; the magnets were released, and the elevator moved smoothly down eleven floors, passing successive sections of the hull. Without thinking, Rohan checked their condition. Outside of the dock, opportunities to examine the ship from the outside were rare. It’s been through a lot, he thought to himself, seeing the traces left by meteors. In places the armor plating had lost its sheen, as if it had been eaten away by a powerful acid. The elevator reached the end of its short run, coming to a gentle stop on a crest of windblown sand. The men jumped out and immediately sank in up to their knees. Only the robot, which had been designed to work in deep snow, moved in a comical, ducklike, but confident manner on its disproportionately large flat feet. Rohan ordered it to stop, while he and the other humans carefully examined all the outlets of the stern-mounted jets, to the extent that they were accessible from outside.
“They could use a clean and a polish,” he said. It was only when he came out from under the stern that he noticed what a huge shadow the ship cast. It stretched like a broad roadway across dunes that were lit up by the already low sun. There was a particular calm in the regularity of the waves of sand. At their base they were filled with light blue shadows, while their tops were pink from the sunset, a warm, delicate tint that reminded him of colors he’d seen once in a children’s picture book. It was so mild, in such an unreal way. He looked slowly from dune to dune, finding ever new shades of the peachy glow; the further away they were, the redder they became, being crisscrossed with crescents of black shadow all the way to the point where, merging into a single yellow grayness, they surrounded formidable slabs of bare volcanic rock jutting into the sky. He stood there and gazed while his men, unhurriedly, with movements automatized from years of practice, took their time-honored measurements, enclosing samples of air and sand in small containers, checking the radioactivity of the ground with a portable probe whose drilling mechanism was supported by the arctan. Rohan paid no attention to their toing and froing. His mask covered only his nose and mouth, while his eyes and the rest of his head were free, as he had taken off his small helmet. He felt the wind in his hair; tiny grains of sand settled on his face, tickling as they blew between his cheek and the plastic rim of the mask. Restless gusts set the pant legs of his jump suit flapping; the great, swollen-looking disk of the sun, which it may not have hurt to stare at for a second or so, now lay immediately behind the nose of the rocket. The wind whistled continuously: the force field did not affect the movement of gases, and so he was quite unable to spot where its invisible wall rose up out of the sand. The vast expanse he took in with his gaze was lifeless, as if no human had ever set foot on it, as if it were not the planet that had swallowed up another spaceship of the same class as the Invincible, with a crew of eighty, a huge, seasoned mariner of the void that was capable of releasing a billion megawatts of power in a split second and turning it into an energy field that could not be penetrated by any material body, or concentrating it into exterminating rays the temperature of the stars that could reduce a mountain chain to dust, or dry up an entire ocean. And yet that steel organism, built on earth, the fruit of centuries of technological progress, had perished here, in some unknown way, without a trace, without an SOS signal, as if it had melted into this gray-and-red wilderness.
And the entire continent looks the same, he thought to himself. He remembered clearly. From up above he had seen the pock-marks of the craters and the only movement that abided among them—the slow, unceasing drift of clouds hauling their shadows across the endless dunes.
“Activity?” he asked without turning around.
“Zero, zero and two,” responded Jordan as he rose from his knees. His face had turned red and his eyes shone. The mask distorted his voice.
Which is to say, less than nothing, Rohan thought. Besides, the others wouldn’t have perished from such a crude lack of caution; the automatic sensors would have sounded the alarm, even if no one had carried out the standard tests.
“Nitrogen seventy-eight percent, argon two percent, carbon dioxide zero, methane four percent. The rest is oxygen.”
“Sixteen percent oxygen? Are you sure?”
“Radioactivity in the air?”
That was strange. So much oxygen? This information galvanized him. He went up to the robot, which immediately presented him with a list of the readings. “Maybe they tried to go without oxygen equipment,” he thought foolishly, for he knew that was impossible. True, it occasionally happened that some person especially tormented by homesickness would disobey orders and take off his mask, because the surrounding air would seem so pure, so fresh—and he would suffer from poisoning. But that could only happen to a single person, two at the most.
“Do you have everything?” he asked.
“Go back in then,” he said to them.
“What about you, sir?”
“I’m going to stay awhile. Go back in,” he repeated impatiently. He wanted to be alone now. Blank took the strap holding together the handles of the containers and slung it over his shoulder, Jordan gave the probe to the robot and they moved away, plodding with difficulty through the sand. The arctan paddled after them, looking from behind like another human in a mask.
Rohan went up to the furthest dune. From close up, poking out of the sand he saw the flared tip of one of the transmitters creating the force field. Not so much to check it was working, but rather on a childish whim he took a handful of sand and tossed it in front of him. It flew through the air and, as if encountering an unseen sloping pane of glass, scattered vertically to the ground.
His hands itched to take off the mask. He knew the feeling well. Spit out the plastic mouthpiece, yank off the straps, take a full breath of air, fill your lungs…
“I’m losing it,” he thought, and turned slowly back to the ship. The empty cage of the elevator was waiting for him, its platform gently immersed in the dune; during the few minutes he’d been absent the wind had already managed to coat it with a thin layer of sand.
Once he was in the main passageway of five deck he looked at the information screen on the wall. The commander was in the star cabin. He rode up.
“In a word, idyllic?” said the captain, summarizing what Rohan told him. “No radioactivity, no spores, bacteria, fungus, viruses, nothing—just the oxygen… Though of course we should run culture tests on the samples.”
“The lab has them already. It may be that life developed on other continents here,” said Rohan without conviction.
“I doubt it. Insolation outside the equatorial zone is poor; you saw the thickness of the polar caps, right? You can bet the covering of ice is at least five, even six miles deep. The ocean is more likely—algae, seaweed of some kind. But why didn’t life come up onto the land?”
“We’ll need to take a look at the water,” said Rohan.
“It’s too early to ask our people, but this looks like an old planet to me. A decrepit old egg like this has to be six billion years old. Not to mention that the sun is long past its prime. It’s almost a red dwarf. Yes, the absence of life on land is striking. A particular kind of evolution that can’t tolerate drought. Hm. That would explain the presence of oxygen, but not the matter of the Condor.”
“Maybe there are forms of life, underwater beings, that are concealed in the ocean and have made a civilization down below,” suggested Rohan. Both men studied a large Mercator projection map of the planet that lacked detail, since it had been drawn on the basis of data from unmanned probes in the previous century. It showed only the outlines of the principal continents and seas, the extent of the polar icecaps and a few of the largest craters. In the grid of intersecting lines of latitude and longitude there was a point circled in red at eight degrees north—the spot where they had landed. The captain shifted the map impatiently on the table.
“You don’t believe it yourself,” he objected. “Tressor couldn’t have been more foolish than us, he wouldn’t have let himself be overcome by something from underwater. That’s nonsense. Besides, if intelligent aquatic beings had existed, one of the first things they would have done would be to conquer the land. Even in suits filled with water, let’s say… Utter nonsense,” he repeated, not to put the final nail in the coffin of Rohan’s idea, but because he was already thinking about something else.
“We’ll stay here awhile,” he concluded finally, and touched the lower edge of the map, which rolled up with a soft snap and disappeared into one of the horizontal drawers of the map case. “We’ll wait and see.”
“And if not?” Rohan inquired cautiously. “Will we go looking for them?”
“Be sensible, Mr. Rohan. Six star years later and this—” the captain sought the right expression, failed to find it, and instead made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “The planet is the size of Mars. How are we supposed to look for them? The Condor, that is,” he corrected himself.
“Well, yes, the ground is ferrous,” Rohan admitted reluctantly. In fact, the analyses had revealed a significant quantities of iron oxides in the sand. So ferroinductive detectors would be useless. Not knowing what to say, he remained silent. He was confident the captain would eventually find some way forward. After all, they couldn’t return empty-handed, with nothing to show for their efforts. He waited, staring at Horpach’s bushy eyebrows that stuck out from his forehead.
“Truth be told, I don’t believe that waiting for 48 hours will do anything for us, though the regulations require it,” the commander said in an unexpectedly confessional tone. “Have a seat, Mr. Rohan. You’re standing over me like a bad conscience. Regis is the stupidest place you could imagine. Absolutely unnecessary. Who knows why the Condor was even sent here. Well, never mind that, since it already happened.”
He broke off. He was in a bad mood, and as usual at such times he became talkative and was easily drawn into discussion, even on confidential topics, which was a little dangerous since at any moment he was capable of cutting the conversation short with some malicious comment.
“In a word, one way or another we have to do something. You know what? Send up a couple of small photo surveillance planes into orbit around the equator. Just make sure they follow a regular path, and tight in. Forty miles, say.”
“That’s inside the ionosphere,” objected Rohan. “They’ll burn up after a few dozen orbits.”
“Let them. Before they do, they’ll photograph everything that can be photographed. I’d even recommend you risk thirty-five miles. They may burn up after ten orbits, but only pictures from that close can serve any purpose. You know what a rocket looks like from sixty miles away, even with the best telephoto lens. A whole mountain looks like the head of a pin. Go right away and—Mr. Rohan!”
At this exclamation the navigator turned in the doorway. The commander threw the report from the analyses onto the table.
“What is this? It’s idiotic. Who wrote it?”
“One of the automatons. What is it?” asked Rohan, trying to remain calm, because he too felt a rising anger. What’s he found to complain about now, he thought, coming back into the room at a deliberately slow walk.
“Read this. Here, this part.”
“Methane four percent.” He himself was suddenly dumbstruck.
“Methane four percent, eh? And oxygen sixteen percent? You know what that means? It’s a lethal combination! Can you explain why the entire atmosphere didn’t explode when we were landing with boranes?”
“You’re right, captain… I don’t get it,” stammered Rohan. He hurried to the exterior control console, took a little of the outside atmosphere in through the suction sensors, and while the captain paced around the bridge in ominous silence, Rohan watched the analyzers earnestly rattling their glass containers.
“The same. Methane four percent… oxygen sixteen,” said Rohan. He had no idea how this was possible, it was true; at the same time, though, he felt a sense of satisfaction: At least now Horpach wouldn’t be able to accuse him of having done bad work.
“Let me take a look! Methane four. Well I’ll be… Fine. Mr. Rohan, get those probes up into orbit, then come to the small lab, if you please. What do we have scientists here for anyway? Let them worry their heads over it.”
Rohan took the elevator down, summoned two rocket technicians and repeated the commander’s orders. Then he went back up to two deck. Here were the laboratories and the specialists’ cabins. He passed a series of narrow doors set into the metal wall, each bearing a plate with two letters: “C.E.,” “C.P.,” “C.T.,” “C.B.” and many more. The door of the small lab stood wide open; the captain’s bass voice rose from time to time above the monotonous hum of the scientists’ voices. Rohan stopped in the doorway. All the “Chiefs” were here—the Chief Engineer, Chief Biologist, Physicist, Physician, and all the technicians from the engine room. The captain was sitting, silent now, in the farthest chair, beneath the electronic programmer of a portable digital device, while olive-skinned Moderon, with folded arms that were as small as a little girl’s, was saying:
“I’m not a specialist in gases. But in any case it’s probably not regular methane. The energy of the bonds isn’t the same; the difference is only in the second decimal place, but it’s there. It doesn’t react with oxygen except in the present of catalysts, and even then only reluctantly.”
“What’s the source of the methane?” asked Horpach. He was twiddling his thumbs.
“The carbon in it is for sure of organic origin. There isn’t much of it, but there’s no doubt.”
“Are there isotopes? How old are they? What’s the age of the methane?”
“From two to fifteen million years.”
“That’s quite a span!”
“We’ve only had half an hour. I can’t say any more.”
“Doctor Quastler! Where’s the methane from?”
“I don’t know.”
Horpach looked from one specialist to another. It seemed he was about to explode, but all of a sudden he gave a smile.
“Gentlemen, you’re all experienced scientists. We’ve been flying together now for how long. Please, tell me what you think. What are we to do now? Where should we begin?”
Since no one seemed eager to speak, the biologist Joppe, one of the few who were not afraid of Horpach’s quick temper, looked the commander calmly in the eye and said:
“This is not a regular sub-delta-92 class planet. If it were, the Condor wouldn’t have perished. Since it carried experts who were neither better nor worse than us, the one thing we know for certain is that their knowledge proved inadequate to avoid a disaster. That means we need to maintain degree three procedures, and run tests on the land and the ocean. I think we should commence geological drilling, and at the same time take a look at the water here. Anything else would be mere hypothesis, and in such a situation we can’t allow ourselves that luxury.”
“Very well.” Horpach tightened his jaw. “Drilling within the perimeter of the force field isn’t a problem. Dr. Nowik can oversee it.”
The Chief Geologist nodded.
“As for the ocean… How far is the coastline, Mr. Rohan?”
“About a hundred twenty miles,” said the navigator, not in the least surprised that the commander knew he was present, though he couldn’t see him—Rohan was standing several feet behind him by the door.
“That’s rather far. But we’re not going to move the Invincible at this point. Take as many men as you see fit, Mr. Rohan—Fitzpatrick, or another oceanologist too, and six of the reserve energobots. Go to the shore. You will operate exclusively within a force field—no sorties onto the ocean, no diving. And be sparing with the automatons—we don’t have that many of them. Is that all clear? You can begin. Oh, one other thing. Is the air here fit for breathing?”
The physicians consulted among themselves in whispers.
“In principle, yes,” said Stormont eventually, though as if without particular conviction.
“What do you mean, ‘in principle’? Can it be breathed or can it not?”
“These quantities of methane aren’t a trivial matter. After a certain time the blood will become saturated, and that could produce certain minor brain symptoms. Confusion, for instance… But such a thing would only happen after an hour, maybe a few hours.”
“Would it not be enough to use some kind of methane filter?”
“No, commander. That is, it wouldn’t be worth producing filters, because they’d need to be changed frequently; and besides, the percentage of oxygen is actually rather low. Personally I’m in favor of using breathing apparatus.”
“Hm. You other gentlemen agree?”
Witte and Eldjarn nodded. Horpach rose to his feet.
“Very well, let’s begin. Mr. Rohan! What’s the situation with the probes?”
“We’ll be launching them any moment now. Can I check the orbits before I head out?”
Rohan left the lab, which was still filled with a buzz of voices. As he entered the bridge the sun was just setting. The flushed red rim of its disk, so dark it was almost purple, was peeking out from behind the jagged edge of the crater with unnatural distinctness. The sky, which in this part of the Galaxy was dense with stars, at the present moment seemed somehow magnified. Great constellations appeared shining in ever lower regions, swallowing up the desert that was vanishing in the darkness. Rohan contacted the satellite launch pad in the prow. The launch of the first pair of photosatellites had just been ordered. The next ones would go in an hour. The following morning, daytime and nighttime photographs of both hemispheres of the planet would give an image of the entire equatorial zone.
“One minute thirty-seven… azimuth seven. Loading… ,” the singsong voice repeated over the loudspeaker. Rohan turned down the volume and swiveled in his chair to face the main console. He would never have admitted it to anyone, but he always enjoyed the play of lights when a probe was being launched on a planetary orbit. First the glowing ruby-red, white, and blue check lights of the boosters came on. Then the starter automaton growled into action. When its hum suddenly cut out, the entire hull of the cruiser shook slightly. At the same time the desert visible on the monitors lit up in a phosphoric glow. With a high-pitched roar that was strained in the extreme, a miniature projectile shot from the bow-mounted launcher, bathing the mother ship in a stream of flames. The light from the receding booster flashed across the sides of the dunes ever more faintly, till it faded completely. At this point the rocket itself could no longer be heard either. The console, on the other hand, was a riot of gleams. The elongated lights of the ballistic gauge leaped out of the gloom with frantic rapidity; the pearl-gray lamps of the remote control answered them reassuringly; then the signals indicating the successive discarding of burned-out casings came on like a colorful Christmas tree; and lastly, above the entire seething rainbow of lights a pure white rectangle came on, showing that the satellite had entered its orbit. In the middle of its glowing white surface was an indistinct patch of gray that quivered and formed into the number 41. That was the altitude of the satellite. Rohan checked the settings for the orbit one more time; both perigee and apogee were within the requisite limits. He had nothing more to do here. He glanced at the ship’s clock, which showed eighteen hundred hours, then at the clock that now showed local time—eleven pm. He closed his eyes for a moment. He was pleased about the coming mission to the ocean. He liked to work independently. Now he was sleepy and hungry. He wondered for a moment whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to take an energy tablet. But he decided it was enough to eat a regular supper. As he stood he realized how tired he was; this surprised him, and the surprise itself cleared his head a little. He took the elevator down to the mess. His new team was already there—two drivers of the hovercraft transporters, including Jarg, whom he liked for the latter’s unfailing good humor. Fitzpatrick was also there with two of his colleagues, Broza and Koechlin. They were just finishing their supper when Rohan ordered hot soup, and took from a wall cabinet some bread and a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. He was carrying his tray over to the table when the floor shook slightly. The Invincible had just launched another satellite.
The commander did not permit them to travel by night. They set out at five am local time, before the sunrise. Because of the order of the convoy, which was dictated by necessity, and its problematic slowness, such an arrangement was known as a cortege. At front and back there were energobots creating a ellipsoidal force field for the protection of all the vehicles inside—all-purpose hovercraft, jeeps carrying the radio equipment and the radar, a field kitchen, a transporter with a self-assembling hermetic barracks, and a small direct-strike laser on caterpillar tracks that was referred to informally as the punch. Rohan took his place along with three of the scientists in the leading energobot; it was far from comfortable, as there was barely room for everyone, but at least it gave the impression of reasonably normal travel. The cortege had to move at the speed of its slowest vehicles, which were in fact the energobots. It was not an especially pleasurable ride. The caterpillar tracks snarled and screeched in the sand, the turbines whined like mosquitoes the size of elephants, conditioned air blasted from the grates immediately behind the travelers’ heads, and the entire energobot rocked like a heavy boat on the waves. The black spire of the Invincible soon dropped below the horizon. For some time they traveled in the horizontal rays of the cold blood-red sun across an unvarying desert; gradually there was less and less sand, while sloping sheets of rock jutted out and had to be maneuvered around. The oxygen masks, along with the wail of the motors, disinclined them to conversation. They watched the horizon closely, but the view was unchanging—agglomerations of rock and huge weathered boulders. At one point the plain began to slope downwards, and at the bottom of a gentle basin they came across a narrow creek, half dried up, its water glistening with the reflection of the red dawn. The rocks extending in layers on either side of the stream indicated that at times it was significantly fuller. They stopped for a short moment to test the water. It was entirely clean, quite hard, and contained iron oxides and trace amounts of sulphides. They set off again, at a somewhat higher speed now, since the caterpillars could move smoothly across the rocky surface. Low cliffs rose to the west. The last vehicle was in permanent contact with the Invincible; its radar antennae turned as the radar operators sat glued to their monitors, adjusting their headsets and chewing on slices of concentrate. From time to time a rock was flung from underneath one of the hovercraft as though it had been picked up by a little whirlwind, and it skipped up the rocky hillside as if suddenly come to life. Then low, bare hills rose up in their path. Without stopping, they took some samples, and Fitzpatrick shouted to Rohan that the silica was of organic origin. Finally, when the surface of the ocean appeared before them as a blue-black line, they also found limestone. They drove down to the shore, crunching over small flat pebbles. The hot blast from the vehicles, the hiss of the caterpillar tracks, the whine of the turbines—everything abruptly fell silent when they were about a hundred yards from the ocean, which from close up looked greenish and very much resembled a terrestrial sea. Now it was time for a complex maneuver, for in order to protect the working group beneath a force field, the leading energobot needed to be moved a considerable distance into the water. After ensuring it was water-tight, it was guided into place remotely from the other energobot. It stirred up waves and foam till in the end it was no more than a dark, barely discernible spot far out on the surface; only then, at a signal from the command post, did the huge submerged machine elevate its Dirac transmitter; once the force field was in place, its invisible dome extending across part of the shore and the nearby waters, they began their tests.
The ocean was somewhat less saline than on Earth. But the tests produced nothing in the way of surprises. After two hours’ work they knew more or less what they had when they started. They decided to send two remotely controlled televisual probes far out to sea, following their progress on monitors at the command post. It was only when the probes disappeared over the horizon that the signals sent the first important information. There were organisms resembling bony fish living in the ocean. At the sight of the probes, however, they fled at immense speed, seeking refuge in the depths. Echo sounders in the place where living beings were first encountered revealed the ocean to be five hundred feet deep.
Broza insisted on capturing at least one of the supposed fish. So they hunted them, the probes sending off electrical discharges as they pursued shadows twisting in the greenish murk. But the creatures were extraordinarily agile. It was only after firing multiple times that they succeeded in hitting one. The probe seized it in its pincers and was immediately directed to return. In the meantime Koechlin and Fitzpatrick operated the other probe, gathering samples of fibers that floated far out on the water, and that they took to be some kind of local algae or seaweed. Finally they directed the probe all the way to the ocean bed, to a depth of eight hundred feet. A powerful underwater current at that depth made it extremely difficult to maneuver the probe, which kept drifting toward a large cluster of submerged rocks. In the end, however, they managed to move some of the rocks aside, and, as Koechlin had predicted, under this cover was an entire colony of supple, brush-like little creatures.
The two probes returned to the force field and the biologists went to work. In the barracks set up in the meantime, where it was at last possible to take off their cumbersome masks, Rohan, Jarg and the five other men ate their first hot meal of the day.
The time till evening was spent gathering mineral samples, testing levels of radioactivity near the ocean floor, taking insolation measurements, and a hundred other equally humdrum tasks that nevertheless had to be carried out conscientiously, pedantically even, if the results were to be valid. By nightfall everything that could be done, had been done, and Rohan could pick up the microphone with a clear conscience when Horpach called from the Invincible. The ocean was full of living forms, every one of which, however, avoided the coastal zone. The organism of the fish they had dissected had not revealed anything of particular interest. According to their preliminary estimates, evolution had been taking place on the planet for several hundreds of millions of years. Significant amounts of green algae had been found, which explained the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. The division of living beings into plant and animal kingdoms was standard, as was the bone structure of the vertebrates. The only developed organ in the dissected fish for which the biologists knew of no terrestrial equivalent proved to be sensitive to very subtle changes in the intensity of magnetic fields. Horpach ordered the whole team to return as soon as possible and, just before bringing the conversation to a close, he said there was news: They had in all probability identified the place where the lost Condor had landed.
For this reason, despite the protests of the biologists, who asserted that even several weeks of further tests would be too little, the barracks was broken down, the motors started, and the column set off in a northwesterly direction. Rohan was unable to tell his traveling companions anything about the Condor because he himself knew nothing. He was eager to get back to the ship as soon as he could, because he guessed the commander would be assigning the next mission, which might be richer in discoveries. Now, of course, above all else he wished to explore the place where the Condor had supposedly landed. Rohan squeezed every drop of power from the vehicles, and they returned amid an even more hellish clatter of rocks crushed beneath caterpillar tracks. When night fell they turned on the huge headlights of the vehicles. It was an extraordinary, even sinister sight—at every other moment the roving beams of light picked out of the darkness the misshapen, seemingly mobile silhouettes of great giants that turned out to be only rocks that were the last lingering evidence of collapsed mountain chains. Several times they had to halt at deep crevasses yawning open in the basalt. In the end though, well after midnight, they caught sight of the trunk of the Invincible, lit up from all sides as if it were on parade, and gleaming from far off like a metal tower. Columns of vehicles were moving about in every direction within the force field: Fuel and supplies were being unloaded, while groups of men stood by the ramp in the blinding glare of floodlights. From far off those returning could hear the noises of the antlike bustle. Above the moving beams of the headlights rose the cruiser’s silent, streaked hull. Blue flares were lit to indicate where an opening would appear in the force field, and one by one the vehicles, coated in a thick layer of fine dust, entered the circular space. Before he had even jumped to the ground, Rohan was already calling to one of the men standing close by, whom he recognized as Blank, to ask about the Condor.
But the bosun knew nothing about the alleged discovery. Rohan learned little from him. Before burning up in the denser strata of the atmosphere, the four satellites had provided eleven thousand photographs, transmitted by radio and printed on specially prepared plates in the map cabin as they came in. So as not to waste time, Rohan summoned the cartographic technician Erett and, as the former showered, he questioned the other man about everything that had happened on the ship. Erett was one of those who had been searching for the Condor on the series of photographs sent by the satellites. About thirty people were simultaneously looking for that grain of steel in an ocean of sand—along with the planetologists all the cartographers, radar operators, and the ship’s pilots had been put to work. Twenty-four hours a day, in shifts they examined the incoming photographic materials, making a note of the coordinates of any questionable object. But the news that the commander had conveyed to Rohan turned out to be mistaken. What they had thought to be the ship was in fact an exceptionally tall pinnacle of rock that cast a shadow strangely reminiscent of that of a rocket. So as it turned out, it was still the case that nothing was known about what happened to the Condor. Rohan meant to report to his commander, but Horpach had already turned in, so he went to his own cabin. Despite his exhaustion, for a long time he was unable to fall asleep. When morning came, the captain sent Rohan an order via Ballmin, the head planetologist, to have all the materials they’d gathered brought to the main lab. At ten in the morning Rohan suddenly felt so hungry—he’d not eaten breakfast—that he took the elevator down to the radar operators’ small mess on two deck. It was here, as he stood drinking coffee, that Erett found him.
“Do you have her?” he exclaimed, seeing the excited expression on the cartographer’s face.
“No. But we’ve found something bigger. Come right away—the captain’s sending for you.”
The glass-cased cylinder of the elevator seemed to Rohan to be moving at a snail’s pace. Silence reigned in the subdued lighting of the cabin; all that could be heard was the hum of electrical relays, while the machine spat out ever new, still damp photographs. But no one paid any attention to them. Two technicians had slid a kind of epidioscope from a hatch in the wall and were just turning off the last lights when Rohan opened the door. He could see the commander’s white head among the others. The next moment a screen dropped from the ceiling and glowed silver. In the quiet of intent breathing Rohan moved as close as he could to the large bright surface. The picture was not of the best quality, and only black and white. In a ring of small craters dotted here and there, a bare plateau could be seen that on one side broke off with a line so straight it looked like the rock had been cut with an immense knife; this had to be the coast, as the rest of the image was filled with the uniform blackness of ocean. At a certain distance from the line there extended a mosaic of indistinct shapes which in two places were covered by a blur of clouds and their shadows. But even so there was no doubt that the bizarre, fuzzy formation was not a geological phenomenon.
A city… Rohan thought in his excitement, but did not say it out loud. Everyone remained silent. The technician at the epidioscope was trying in vain to make the image sharper.
“Was there any static?” The commander’s calm voice broke the silence.
“No,” answered Ballmin from the darkness. “Reception was good, but this is one of the last pictures from satellite number three. Eight minutes after sending it, it stopped responding. The lenses were probably already damaged by the rising temperature.”
“At the epicenter the camera was no higher than forty miles,” added another voice that sounded to Rohan like Malte, one of the ablest of the planetologists. “Actually, I’d estimate it to be between thirty and thirty five. See here.” His silhouette appeared against the screen. He took a clear plastic stencil in which circles were cut and placed it one after another against several of the craters in the other half of the picture.
“They’re visibly larger than in the preceding images. Though in fact,” he added, “that’s neither here nor there. Either way…”
He trailed off, but everyone understood what he was implying: that soon they would check the accuracy of the photograph since they would be exploring that part of the planet. They all stared a moment longer at the image on the screen. Rohan was no longer so sure it showed a city, or rather its ruins. The geometrically regular formation had long ago been abandoned, as could be told by the razor-thin, undulating shadows of the dunes, which had washed over the complex shapes from every direction till some of them were virtually submerged in the sandy deluge of the desert. Also, the geometric arrangement of the ruins was divided in two unequal parts by a zigzagging black line that broadened away from the coast. It was a seismic fissure that had split some of the larger “buildings” in two. One of them, which had clearly collapsed, formed a kind of bridge whose other end rested on the far rim of the cleft.
“Lights, please,” came the voice of the commander. When they were turned on, he glanced at the wall clock.
“We leave in two hours.”
A confusion of voices arose; the most energetic protests came from the Chief Biologist’s team, who had reached a depth of six hundred fifty feet even in their test bores. Horpach gestured with his hand to indicate there would be no discussion.
“All the vehicles are to be brought back on board. Secure the materials we’ve gathered. The analysis of the photographs and the other tests are to continue as before. Where’s Mr. Rohan? Oh, there you are. Good. Did you hear what I said? In two hours everyone is to be in takeoff positions.”
The task of embarking the vehicles proceeded hastily but systematically. Rohan was deaf to the entreaties of Ballmin, who begged for fifteen more minutes’ drilling.
“You heard what the commander said,” he kept repeating left and right, hurrying the mechanics, who were driving up to the recently dug bore holes with huge cranes. In turn the drilling equipment, the makeshift gangways, the fuel canisters made their way into the cargo holds; when the uneven ground alone remained to mark the work that had been carried out, Rohan and Westergard, the Deputy Chief Engineer, made a final round of the area. Then the humans vanished into the ship. It was only now that the sands around the distant perimeter began to move. Summoned by radio, the energobots returned to the ship one by one, after which the ramp and the vertical shaft of the elevator retracted beneath the armor plating of the ship. There was a moment of stillness; then the monotonous whistling of the wind was drowned out by a metallic hiss of compressed air from the jets. The stern was swathed in billows of dust lit by a green glow that mingled with the red light from the sun, and, in a whirl of unceasing booms that rocked the desert and echoed back again and again from the rock walls, the ship rose slowly into the air, leaving behind it a torched circle of rock, vitrified dunes and splashes of condensation, and receded with increasing velocity into the purple sky. For a long time afterwards, when the last trace of its path, marked by an off-white vapor trail, had melted away into the atmosphere, and the shifting sands had begun to cover the bare rock and fill the abandoned drilling shafts, from the west there appeared a dark cloud. Moving along close to the ground, it spread out; with a swirling extended arm it surrounded the landing site and hung there motionless. It remained there for some time. Then, when the sun had definitively dropped to the west, a black rain began to fall on the desert.
translated by Bill Johnston