Authors: Stanislaw Lem
“Well, so much for your flies, my dear Ballmin,” said Lauda and sat down.
“There is no sense in continuing this discussion any longer,” remarked the astrogator, who had remained silent until now. “Perhaps it was too soon for such a debate. All we can do now is carry on with our examinations. We’ll split up in three groups. One will explore the ruins, another the
and the third will make forays into the interior of the western desert. That’s stretching our forces as far as they will go; I simply can’t remove more than fourteen energo-robots from our perimeter here, even counting some machines we might take from the
Third step routine procedure is still in force, of course!”
Smouldering, slippery blackness enveloped him. He was choking. He desperately tried to free himself from the invisible ropes that bound him. He wanted to shake them off but kept ensnaring himself in an inextricable net. His scream was caught in his swollen throat. In vain he searched for a weapon. He was naked. One more time he strained every fiber of his being to choke out a cry for help.
Some ear-shattering noise tore him out of his sleep. Rohan jumped off his cot, aware only of the darkness around him and the endless ringing of the alarm signal. This was no longer a dream. He switched on the light, slipped into his protective suit and rushed out into the corridor.
Men were crowded in front of the elevators on all floors. Only the constant ringing of the signals could be heard. On the walls the word
glowed in big red letters.
He ran to the command center. The astrogator, dressed in his usual day uniform, stood in front of the big videoscreen. “I’ve already given the all-clear signal,” he said calmly. “It’s only raining. Look here, Rohan, what a beautiful sight!”
Indeed, a spray of innumerable sparks covered the videoscreen, which showed the upper part of the nocturnal sky. Raindrops were falling from a great height, spattering against the invisible protective shield of the energy field that surrounded the
like an overturned bowl. Upon impact the drops of water instantaneously changed into microscopic fiery explosions, bathing the whole landscape with glittering light that resembled a hundredfold intensified display of the Northern Lights.
“The automats should have been better programed,” said Rohan softly. He felt wide awake now, “I have to tell Terner to eliminate the instructions for annihilation. Otherwise every handful of sand that comes drifting against the energy dome will jerk us out of our sleep.”
“Let’s assume this was nothing but a fire drill,” replied the astrogator, who seemed to be in an unexpectedly good mood. “It’s four o’clock in the morning now. You can go back to sleep, Rohan.”
“To be frank with you, I don’t feel in the least bit like it. How about you?”
“I’m not sleepy at all. All I ever need is four hours of rest. After sixteen years of space travel not much has remained from the sleeping pattern I used to have back on Earth. Rohan, I’ve been trying to figure out the maximum security for our search troops. It’s too cumbersome for them to drag energo-robots along everywhere they go in order to set up protective screens. What do you think about that?”
“Why not send along a personal emitter for each member of the group? No, that wouldn’t do the trick either. You can’t touch anything if you’re surrounded by the protective bubble—you know what that’s like. And if you shorten the field radius too much, you risk nasty burns. I’ve been through that before.”
“I’ve even considered not sending any men out at all, but using remote-controlled robots instead,” confessed Horpach. “Of course that would only work for a few hours, or one day at best. But I believe we are going to stay here for a while.”
“What are your plans?”
“Each research team will have a base of operations, protected by an energy field. But there must be a certain freedom of mobility, otherwise we won’t obtain any useful results because of all the protective measures. But only under one condition: any man who works outside the protective screen must have a shielded companion immediately behind who will observe him. You must never lose sight of anyone under any circumstance; that is absolute law for our stay on Regis III.”
“Which group will I be assigned to?”
“Would you like to work at the
Or would you rather explore the desert or the ‘city’? It’s up to you.”
“I’ll take the ‘city,’ astrogator. I still think that’s where we will find the solution to this mystery.”
“Possibly. Tomorrow—no, today, the sun’s coming up already—you will take the same group of men who accompanied you yesterday. I’ll send along a few Arctanes. Several hand laser weapons wouldn’t be a bad idea either. I have the impression that it is effective from a short range.”
“What do you mean by ‘it’?”
“If only I knew. Well, don’t forget to take along a field kitchen. You’ll want to be completely independent so you can carry on without having to count on supplies from the spaceship.”
The red disk of the sun hardly supplied any heat as it rolled across the firmament, the shadows of the grotesque structures grew longer and fused. The wind whirled the wander dunes between the metal pyramids from place to place. Standing on the roof of a heavy caterpillar truck, Rohan peered through his field glasses and observed Gralew and Chen, who were busy outside the protective screen investigating something at the foot of one of the black honeycombs. His portable searchlight hung from a strap around his neck. The strap cut uncomfortably into his skin. Without ever letting the two men out of his sight, he tried to adjust the strap, pulling it away from his neck. The plasma burner in Chen’s hand was sparkling like a tiny diamond. From inside the truck came a radio signal, calling at regular intervals. Rohan did not turn his head. He heard the driver answer the call.
“Navigator! Orders from the astrogator! We’re to return at once!” yelled Jarg excitedly and stuck his head out of the turret hatch.
“Did you say return? Why?”
“I don’t know. They’ve been sending the return signal constantly—EV four times already.”
“EV? Damn it, my neck feels stiff! All right, let’s get a move on. Give me that microphone and get out the blinker signals.”
Ten minutes later all the men who had been working in the outer zone were back inside the vehicles. Rohan urged his small column to hurry as fast as it could over the hilly terrain. Blank, functioning now as wireless operator, suddenly held out the earphones to him. Rohan climbed down into the steel belly of the vehicle, where it smelled of hot plastic. Over the humming of the ventilators, whose air blasts ruffled up his hair, he listened in to the exchange of radio messages between Gallagher’s group in the western desert and the
A thunderstorm seemed to be brewing. Ever since that morning the barometers had indicated low air pressure, but not until this moment did flat, dark blue clouds creep up on the horizon. High above was the clear sky. The atmospheric disturbance kept increasing, until the static noise grew so strong in the earphones that communication could take place only by Morse Code signals.
Rohan intercepted a group of coded messages. He had come in on the middle of the transmission, however, and did not grasp what it was all about. He only understood that Gallagher’s group was also returning at top speed and that a red alert had been called on the
Even the physicians had been ordered to man their stations.
“Alert for the physicians,” Rohan said to Ballmin and Gralew, who looked at him expectantly. “An accident, but surely nothing serious. Maybe there was a landslide somewhere and someone was buried under it for a while.”
He mentioned this because he had been told that Gallagher’s men were supposed to scout a certain area and make geological excavations there. But in his heart he did not really believe that it was a matter of an ordinary accident.
They were less than four miles from the spaceship, but the other group evidently had been called back much earlier, for when they sighted the steep dark silhouette of the
they came across fresh tracks made by the caterpillar drive vehicles. The impressions in the sand could have been no more than thirty minutes old, otherwise they would have been wiped out by the strong wind.
They approached the perimeter of the energy dome and called the command center to open a pathway for them. They had to wait surprisingly long for an answer. Finally the blue light signals appeared and they were let into the protected area. The group from the
had already arrived. Then they and not Gallagher’s people had been admitted inside before them. Several trucks were parked next to the ramp and near the drive entrance; men ran about aimlessly, sinking into the sand up to their knees. Automats blinked with their searchlights.
Dusk was falling. Rohan did not know what to make of this chaotic scene. Suddenly a bright ray of light flared up high, transforming the rocket into a giant lighthouse. Far back in the desert, the searchlights had pinpointed a column of lights that danced crazily back and forth as if an entire military convoy were approaching. Once again the blue lights flared up, marking the entrance to the energy field to let in Gallagher’s party. Hardly had the vehicles come to a stop when the patrol Jumped to the ground. A second searchlight rolled down the ramp, and a small procession passed through the narrow lane between the parked trucks, bearing a man on a stretcher.
As they went by Rohan, he pushed past the men in front of him, then stopped in his tracks. For a moment he really believed an accident had taken place, for the man on the litter had been tightly strapped down. He kept struggling against his bonds, and they creaked under the strain. At the same time, a terrible whine rose from his open mouth.
The group continued to follow the path marked by the cone of the kleig light. The procession drew farther and farther away, but he could still hear clearly the nonhuman howling, unlike anything he had ever heard before, as he stood there alone in the dark. The white spot with the figures grew smaller, slid up the ramp and disappeared in the darkly gaping hole of the loading hatch. Rohan called out to some of the men, asking them what had happened, but they did not know any more than he did, since they belonged to the
Quite some time passed before he regained his composure and could find his bearings again. The column of vehicles began to move and drove noisily up the ramp. Lights came on at the elevator; gradually the small crowd waiting down below dwindled. Rohan was one of the last to take the elevator up. With him were the heavily laden Arctanes, whose imperturbable calm irritated him to an irrational degree. Inside the spacecraft, the telephones and informators rang constantly; the walls were still lit up by alarm signals for the physicians.
Soon the warning lamps went out, the corridors were empty. Part of the crew went down to the mess hall. Rohan heard snatches of conversation in passageways and the sounds of steps disappearing in the distance. A tardy Arctane stomped toward the robot section.
Finally they all had dispersed. But Rohan remained as if paralyzed, utterly despairing of ever comprehending the scene he had just witnessed, for it came to him in a flash of insight that there simply was no explanation and could never be one.
Gaarb stood before him, wrenching him back to reality.
“Oh, it’s you, doctor! Did you see it too? Who in the world was that?”
“What? I can’t believe it!”
“I saw him almost until the end.”
“Yes. I was with him,” said Gaarb, his voice unnaturally quiet. Rohan saw the reflections of the hall lamps in Gaarb’s glasses.
“Was that with the expedition that went to the desert?” Rohan wanted to know.
“And what happened to him?”
“Gallagher had picked that spot according to his seismographic probes. We penetrated a labyrinth of narrow, winding canyons.” Gaarb spoke haltingly, as if he were talking to himself and wanted to visualize once more the exact course of events, “Soft, washed-out rock of organic origin, full of grottoes and caves. We had to leave our trucks behind… We walked in single file, keeping close together. Eleven men. The ferrometers indicated the presence of large masses of iron. That was what we were looking for. Kertelen thought some kind of machines might be hidden there.”
“Yes. He told me something about that. And then?”
“In one of the caves he found a machine, under a surface layer of mud. In the same cave we even found some stalactite and stalagmites.”
“So you discovered a machine.”
“Not the kind you would imagine. It was a wreck. Not in the least rusty—it must have been constructed of some rustproof alloy—but the thing was corroded, half burned, nothing but a wreck.”
“Perhaps there are others as well—?”
“But this machine was at least three hundred thousand years old!”
“How do you know?”
“We found deposits of limestone from the water that had dripped down from the stalactites on the ceiling. Gallagher himself calculated the approximate age of three hundred thousand years by figuring the rate of evaporation, the time it would take for a stalagmite of a certain size to form. By the way, can you imagine what the machine looked like? Almost like the ruins!”
“Then it’s not a computer?”
“No. It must have been mobile, but it didn’t have two legs. And it wasn’t like a crab, either. Besides, we didn’t have time to make a thorough examination, because just then…”
“I made a count of my crew at regular intervals. In fact, I stayed back in the energy field in order to watch them—you know about the commander’s orders. But they were all wearing masks, and consequently they all looked alike, especially since their colored protective suits were completely caked with mud. Suddenly I was one man short. I called them together and we began our search. Kertelen had been so pleased about his find; apparently he had continued his search alone. I simply assumed he had lost his way in one of the side gullies. The canyon is full of detours, all short, level and well lit. Suddenly he came around the corner. He was already in that state. Nygren was with us. At first he thought it was a heat stroke.”