Authors: Stanislaw Lem
The force of the landing jet stream had hurled the sand outward and piled it up in a ring of dunes surmounting a shallow hollow. They noticed the jagged rocky rim of a crater some three miles away, its western edge blending into the horizon. Impenetrable dark shadows hung below its steep slopes toward the east. The ridges of wide lava streams pushed through the sand like rivers of reddish-black congealed blood. A bright star in the sky was visible at the upper rim of the videoscreen.
The cataclysm, brought about by the arrival of the
had gradually died down. Now the desert wind—a violent air mass constantly moving from the planet’s equatorial zones toward its poles—was already driving sandy tongues underneath the ship’s stern, as if patiently trying to heal the wound that the fiery jets had torn open.
The astrogator switched on the network of the outside microphones. The distant sound of malicious howling merged with the nearby rustling of sand gusts as they scoured the steely hull of the ship. For a moment the eerie, grating noise filled the high-ceilinged room of the control center. Horpach switched off the mikes and silence returned.
“Well, that’s what it looks like,” he said slowly. “But the
never returned home from here, Rohan.”
Rohan clenched his teeth. Better not enter into an argument with his commander. Though they had flown together many parsecs, they had never become friends. Maybe the generation gap was too wide, or the dangers they had overcome together had not been sufficiently severe. This man, whose hair was almost as white as the suit he wore, showed no consideration now for his crew.
Nearly one hundred men waited silently at their posts. Behind them lay the tremendous strain of the approaching maneuver, those three hundred hours needed to brake the kinetic energy that was stored in every atom of the
to swing the ship into the proper orbit and to bring it in for the landing. Almost one hundred men who had not heard the rustling of the wind for many months, who had learned to hate the emptiness of space in the manner of those who have become too familiar with it. But the commander certainly did not take this into consideration now. Slowly he walked across the control center, grasped the back of his chair and growled: “We don’t know what that is out there, Rohan.” And suddenly he snapped, “Well, what are you waiting for!”
Rohan hurried over to the panel and switched on the intercom. His voice betrayed his inner resentment as he shouted, “Attention, all hands! Attention! Landing maneuver completed. Terrestrial procedure, third step routine. Deck number eight—get the energo-robots ready! Deck number nine—start the protective screen reactors! All protection personnel to proceed to their stations! The rest of the crew to remain at their usual posts! These are commander’s orders, men!”
As he bellowed these commands into the intercom speaker he kept his eye on the green eye of the amplifier, which oscillated according to the intensity of his voice. Suddenly he seemed to see inside the flickering light the perspiring faces of the men who were turned toward the loudspeakers. He knew the expression on those faces was changing from amazement to cold fury. Now that they had understood, they would start cursing.
“Terrestrial procedure, third step routine started, Astrogator,” he said without looking at the old man. The old man glanced at Rohan and a slight smile showed unexpectedly around the corners of his mouth.
“That’s just for the beginning, Rohan. You should know that. We’ll probably go for long walks when the sun is setting over the horizon. Who knows…”
He took a thin, long book from a small built-in cupboard at the far end of the wall. He opened it and placed it on the instrument panel that was studded with buttons and levers. He asked: “Have you read this, Rohan?”
“The last signal registered by the seventh hyper-relay station reached the base just a year ago.”
“I know the message by heart, ‘
COMPLETED LANDING ON REGIS III. DESERT PLANET OF TYPE SUBDELTA
LANDING PARTY FOLLOWING TERRESTRIAL PROCEDURE, SECOND STEP ROUTINE. LEAVING FROM THE EQUATORIAL ZONE OF THE EVANA CONTINENT
“That’s right. But this was not the last signal.”
“Yes, I know, Astrogator. Forty hours later another message was received by the same hyper-relay station. This time apparently in Morse code. The message did not make any sense at all, jumbled up words. And then several times odd noises. Haertel said it sounded like someone was pulling a cat’s tail.”
“Right,” mumbled the astrogator, but he was obviously no longer listening. He stood in front of the videoscreen. Near the lower rim the scissor-like supports of the ramp could be seen. Energo-robots glided down the ramp at equidistant intervals. Each weighed thirty tons of heavy machinery protected by a fireproof armor made of silicon. As they slid towards the ground, each opened and raised its helmet. They left the ramp; soon they were sinking deep into the sand. Still they made good progress, working their way through the dune that the wind had already blown around the
One after the other they turned to the right or the left. Ten minutes later the entire ship was surrounded by a chain of metal turtles. The moment each robot had reached its place it started burrowing down into the sand. Soon they disappeared in the sand except for the glittering domes of their Dirac emitters that peered out from the red dopes of the dunes, forming the evenly spaced links of one huge circular chain.
Suddenly the steel floor of the control center began to vibrate. The men could feel it distinctly through the thick padding of foam rubber that covered the floor. An almost imperceptible tremor flashed through their bodies, and for a moment they noticed a quivering in the muscles of their jaws. Everything around them grew hazy. The phenomenon lasted no more than half a second. Once again all grew silent around them, interrupted only by the distant hum of starting motors that rose up from the lower decks. Then everything came back into focus again. The desert, the dark red rocky hillsides, the slowly creeping sandy waves showed up in sharp outlines on the videoscreen. All seemed as it had been before—but now an invisible field of energy formed a protective dome around the
cutting off access to the spaceship.
Now metal crabs made their appearance on the ramp. They descended slowly, their antennae twirling like the arms of a windmill. These flat info-robots were considerably larger than the field emitters, and walked on curved metallic stilts that projected on either side. The metal arthropods soon bogged down in the deep sand; with reluctance, they extricated their extremities in order to take their places inside the spaces next to each link formed by the chain of the energo-robots.
While all protective measures began to function, tiny control lamps lit up against the dull background of the central panel. The dials of the instruments that counted incoming impulses were suffused by a greenish glow, becoming dozens of luminous green cat’s eyes that stared at the two men. The needles on all the dials pointed to zero. Nothing attempted to break through the invisible wall of their energy field. One needle only kept steadily moving upwards: an illuminated arrow rose up on the energy distributor gauge, advancing beyond the Gigawatt lines.
“I’m going down to get something to eat. Get started with the stereotype, Rohan.” Horpach’s voice sounded very tired as he turned away from the videoscreen.
“Not necessarily. You can send somebody out. Or even go yourself, if you want to,” said Horpach as he was opening the door and leaving the room. For one more moment Rohan could see the old man’s profile inside the dimly lit elevator as it started to go down. He looked at the field gauge. Zero. We should really begin with the photogrammetry, he thought to himself. Circle the planet and photograph it systematically. Perhaps something might be found that way. Much better than relying only on visual observations. After all, a continent isn’t the same thing as an ocean, where one sailor in the crow’s nest will do the trick. But photogrammetry would take about one month. Too long.
The elevator had returned. Rohan got in and descended to the sixth deck. A crowd had gathered on the big platform in front of the airlock. The men no longer had any business being there
the dinner gong had been sounded for almost fifteen minutes steadily.
The men stepped aside to let Rohan pass.
“Jordan and Blank, come along for a stereotype investigation.”
“Full protective gear, Navigator?”
“No. Just the oxygen tanks. And a robot. Let’s take an Arctane. He won’t get stuck in that damned sand.” Rohan turned to the men standing around. “Well, what are you still doing here? Lost your appetite?”
“We’d like to see what it’s like outside, Navigator.”
“Why can’t we go ashore?”
“Just for a few minutes—”
They all spoke at once.
“Steady, steady, men. Don’t lose your cool now. We’ll all soon be going sightseeing. For the time being it’s terrestrial procedure, third step routine.”
The men left reluctantly.
In the meantime a robot had arrived from the ship’s hold. It stepped off the freight lift. It was at least a head taller than the men. Jordan and Blank returned on an electrocart bringing some oxygen tanks with them. Rohan stood leaning against the railing of the corridor. Now that the spacecraft rested on its stern the corridor had turned into a vertical shaft reaching down all the way to the first engine room. Above and below him were the many storeys of the rocket; somewhere in the depths the conveyor belts ran quietly. He could hear faint smacking sounds coming from the hydraulic system. Cool air blew up the shaft from forty yards below where the air conditioning plant inside the engine room had cleansed the fouled atmosphere.
The personnel at the airlock opened the door for them. Rohan made a routine check: the straps were tight; the mask fitted properly. Jordan and Blank entered behind him, followed by the robot. The steel floor resounded under the metal monster’s weighty steps. A piercing, constant hissing sound came from the air that was sucked inside the interior of the ship. The outside hatch sprung open, and they could see the engine ramp four storeys below. A small elevator was already waiting for them. (It had been released from inside the hull the moment they had entered the airlock.) The elevator shaft consisted of a wire network which stretched all the way down, touching the rim of the sand dunes. The elevator cage had no walls, and the men could feel the air, but it was hardly cooler than inside the
As they stepped onto the waiting platform, the magnetic brakes were released. From a height of eleven storeys up, the four glided down gently, passing the various sections of the ship’s hull on the way. Rohan inspected the walls mechanically. You rarely get a chance to look at a spaceship so closely from the outside, he thought to himself. That rocket had a pretty rough time, all these years. Must have been hit by some meteors … looks as if the armored plate has corroded in spots here; no longer looks shiny…
The elevator reached its destination and came to a complete standstill on top of the soft sand dune. The men jumped out, sinking knee-deep into the shifting sand. The robot waddled ahead with firm strides, like a giant duck. It had been outfitted with absurd-looking monstrous flat feet, reminiscent of snowshoes, for just this purpose. Rohan ordered the robot to stop. Then he and his men examined the outer rim of the jet openings around the stern, approaching as closely as possible.
“They could stand a good cleaning. Need to be ground and polished again,” he remarked to his companions.
As they crept out from under the ship’s stern, he noticed the gigantic shadow cast by the
ahead of them, a dark road stretched straight out across the sand dunes, bathed in the light of the setting sun. A strange calm emanated from the monotonously even sandy waves. Blue shadows gathered in the ridges while rosy twilight played on the crests. This warm, delicate pink reminded him of the pastel hues he had seen in picture books as a child. Such incredibly soft colors. His eyes wandered across the dunes, detecting ever new variations of this yellowish-pink glow. Farther away the colors deepened to a rich red interspersed with sickle-shaped black shadows. Far off in the distance where the dunes nestled at the foot of bare, threatening volcanic rocks, the warm colors faded into a uniform yellowish gray.
While Rohan stood gazing at the landscape, his men carried out their routine measurements. They worked at a deliberate pace, mechanically employing the skills they had acquired over so many years. They filled small containers with samples of the atmosphere, the soil, the rocks. They tested the radioactivity of the ground with the help of a probe manipulated by the Arctane robot.
Rohan paid no heed to what his men were doing. The oxygen mask covered only his nose and mouth, while his eyes and the rest of his head were exposed to the air. He had removed his protective helmet, and could feel the wind ruffling his hair. Tiny grains of sand were blown against his face and clung to the skin, tickling where they penetrated the gap between the mask and his cheeks. Heavy gusts of wind pulled at the loose trousers of his protective suit. The huge, bloated sun disk was dipping down close to the horizon; it was possible to look straight into the dark red ball for a moment or two. The wind whistled with long drawn-out sighs. Since the energy field around the ship permitted free passage of gases, Rohan could not make out where its invisible wall rose up from the sand.
The gigantic area that stretched endlessly out before him seemed totally devoid of life, as if no living being had ever set foot on it. Could this be the same planet that had devoured a spaceship as immense as their own? A heavy cruiser with a crew of one hundred men, a mighty experienced sailor of the void, capable of developing energies of several million kilowatts within the fraction of a second which could be transformed into protective screens impenetrable by any matter; energies which might be bunched into destructive rays with the soaring temperatures of a burning star, that would change mountain ranges to dust and ashes, or dry out entire oceans. Yet the
had disappeared from this very same planet without a trace. How was it possible to explain the fact that a huge steel structure, built on earth, the fruit of a highly developed technology that had already flourished for centuries, could simply vanish in this red and gray desert without so much as even sending an S O S?