Authors: Stanislaw Lem
Rohan wanted to report directly to the commander but he had already retired for the night, so Rohan went to his own cabin. Despite his exhaustion he could not fall asleep for a long time. Shortly after he awoke the next morning, he received a request from the astrogator via Ballmin, chief of the planetologists, to dispatch his entire material to the main laboratory. By ten o’clock Rohan felt so hungry—he had not yet had breakfast—that he took the elevator down to the mess hall for the radar observers. He was just drinking his coffee when Erett stormed in, rushing straight to Rohan’s table.
“Did you find the
Rohan asked when he saw the cartographer’s excited face.
“No, but we’ve detected something much bigger. Come along right away, please. The astrogator is waiting for you.”
It seemed as if the glassed-in cylinder literally inched its way up the elevator shaft. Nobody spoke to them when they arrived at the quiet darkened cabin. The humming of the relays could be heard and the automatic developer spat out shiny moist photos; but no one paid any attention. Two technicians were just pulling a projector out from behind a hinged door in the wall. Just before the technician switched off the light, Rohan managed to locate the white-haired cranium of the astrogator amid all the other heads. The next moment a silvery shimmering screen descended from the ceiling. Tense breathing was the only audible sound. Rohan got as close to the screen as possible. The rather fuzzy image (unfortunately only a black-and-white photo) showed a bare high plateau, surrounded by an irregular ring of small craters, jutting out from the landscape. On one side this tableland fell away steeply, as if sliced off by a giant knife. That was the shoreline, for the rest of the picture was filled by the even black expanse of the ocean. At some distance from this precipice Rohan noticed a mosaic of indistinct shapes that lay partially obscured under some low clouds and their shadows. No doubt about it, this peculiar structure with its blurry outlines could not be mistaken for any geological formation.
It’s a city, thought Rohan with excitement. The room was silent as the technician tried in vain to get the picture into a sharper focus.
“Were there any disturbances during transmission?” the astrogator’s calm voice broke through.
“No,” replied Ballmin out of the dark. “We had good transmission, but this shot was one of the last of the third group of satellites. Eight minutes after it had been launched, it no longer reacted to our signals. This photo was probably taken after the objectives had already been damaged by the rapidly rising temperature.”
“The camera was at a distance of roughly forty miles from the center of this structure,” interjected another voice, that Rohan recognized. It was Malte, one of the most talented planetologists.
“I’d be inclined to put the distance rather at some thirty to thirty-five miles. Will you look at this, please?” The astrogator’s body obscured part of the screen. He took a transparent stencil with many circles and placed it over the various craters in the visible part of the screen.
“These are definitely larger than those of the earlier shots. But it doesn’t matter, either way you look at it…” he added without completing his sentence.
They all knew what he had meant to say: soon they would be able to judge for themselves whether the satellite cameras had been properly focused. For a few moments they regarded the image on the screen. Rohan was no longer certain whether this was a city or the ruins of one. That these geometrically regular structures must have been abandoned for quite some time could be concluded from the pencil-thin wavy shadows of the dunes which encircled them. Some of these constructions had been almost totally covered by the sand. The geometrical order of the ruins was divided into two uneven parts by a zigzag line which grew wider as it stretched further inland. This tectonic fissure cut several of the large “buildings” in half. One of these had toppled over and formed a bridge across the chasm.
“Lights, please,” sounded the astrogator’s voice. As bright lamps illuminated the cabin he glanced over to the clock on the wall.
“We’ll leave in two hours.”
Dissatisfied comments greeted this announcement. The loudest protests came from the assistants to the chief geologist; they had already drilled 200 yards down into the ground to obtain soil and rock specimens. With a slight wave of his hand Horpach indicated that he wished no further discussion.
“All machines are to return on board ship. Make safe any material obtained so far. Continue examining the photos and carry on with all necessary analyses. Where is Rohan? Oh, there you are. Did you hear what I said? Everyone to be ready for takeoff in two hours!”
The men loaded the machines into the
hold. They worked fast but with systematic precision. Rohan turned a deaf ear to Ballmin’s pleas for just fifteen minutes more to finish drilling for his last core sample.
“You have all heard the commander’s orders; now get a move on,” he shouted, urging the men to greater speed as they drove their big cranes toward the ditches and drilling holes. Drilling equipment, provisional turnstiles and fuel drums disappeared quickly in the open hatches leading to the ship’s storerooms. Soon the upturned ground was the only sign left of all their activities. Then Rohan and Westergarde, the substitute chief engineer, made one final inspection of the now deserted working places outside the spacecraft. After having taken care of this last precautionary measure, the two men quickly embarked.
A great commotion then sprang up in the sandy dunes around the ship, caused by the energo-robots obeying the radio signal to return to their craft. Quickly waddling along in single file they soon reached their home base.
Now the ramp and the vertical elevator shaft were pulled inside. For another instant nothing moved: the lull before a storm.
Then the metallic whistling of the air sounded its noisy protest as it was squeezed through the jets. A storm broke loose. Around the nose of the
greenish dust clouds performed a mad dance. Their pale glow seemed to ooze out until it blended with the red light of the sun.
Deafening thunder shook the desert around the ship. Amidst the echoes reverberating from the nearby rock walls the spaceship ascended slowly but with growing speed and soon disappeared in the violet skies above. All that remained of the landing area was a circle burnt into the rocky ground, glazed-over dunes and vapor trails high up in the sky.
When the last trace of the rocket’s presence, a whitish haze, had been absorbed by the atmosphere, when the wandering sandy waves gradually began to cover up the naked rock of the ground, at the same time filling in the deserted digging spaces—only then, much later, did a dark cloud gather in the west. Hovering low above the earth it pushed close, grew, encircled the landing area with a threatening arm. There it remained, motionless.
As the sun was about to set, a black rain fell on the desert.
landed at a carefully selected spot almost four miles from the northern periphery of the “city,” which could be clearly seen from inside the control center. The impression of dealing here with some artificial constructions became even stronger now than before, when the men had carefully scanned the photos made by the satellites. The structures were angular, usually broader at the bottom than at the upper end. They came in various sizes and stretched over many miles, sometimes with a metallic sheen, sometimes simply black. But even the strongest field glasses would not reveal any details. Most of the buildings seemed to be perforated like a sieve.
This time the tinny clanking of the cooling jets had scarcely died down when the
put out the ramp and the elevator shaft, and surrounded itself with the protective chain of energo-robots. But there were some additional precautionary measures. Exactly opposite the “city,” which could not be seen from the ground as it lay hidden by some low hills, a convoy was formed. An energy dome arched over the convoy that consisted of five cross-country jeeps and a mobile antimatter mortar. It was about twice the size of the vehicles and resembled an apocalyptic bug with bluish glittering wing cases.
Rohan was the commander of this operational troop. He stood upright in the turret hatch of the first vehicle awaiting the signal that would allow them free passage through the force field. Two info-robots had been positioned on nearby hillocks; there they began shooting off a series of long-burning green flares. This clearly marked the path; the small column started to roll. Rohan’s car was at the head of the troop.
The engines hummed with their deep bass voices; the heavy balloon tires spewed up fountains of sand. Two hundred yards ahead flew a scouter robot, skimming close to the ground. The robot looked like a flat saucer with rapidly vibrating antennae. These vibrations created an air current which shot hissing into the ridges of the dunes. One could almost believe the flying robot had set the dunes aflame with an invisible fire. The swirling dust cloud lingered in the still air, marking with a puffy reddish line the direction taken by the expedition.
The shadows of the machines grew longer; it was shortly before sunset. The column was forced to make a detour around a small crater that was almost filled with sand. Twenty minutes later the troop reached the edge of the ruins.
They broke formation. Three unmanned vehicles left the train and placed blue lights as a sign that a localized force field had been erected. The two manned cars rolled forward under the protection of the mobile energy dome. Fifty yards behind them the giant antimatter mortar followed, stalking along on its curved telescopic legs.
On one occasion they had to stop. Just as they crossed a thicket resembling torn metal ropes and wires, one of the robots’ legs got stuck in the sand and it was in danger of sinking down into an invisible crevice. But two Arctanes simultaneously jumped off Rohan’s vehicle and helped the colossus out of the tight spot. Then the column continued on its way.
What they had called the “city” in reality bore no resemblance to any terrestrial settlement. Dark massifs, anchored in unknown depths, jutted out from the sand of the wandering dunes. With their spiny, brush-like surfaces, these structures looked unlike anything ever before seen by man. The undefinable formations reached a height of several storeys. They had neither windows nor doors, nor even any walls. Some looked like closely woven nets, folded into many layers, penetrating each other in countless places. Wherever they joined there occurred a thickening of the matter. Others reminded the men of complicated spatial arabesques such as might be formed by multilayered honeycombs or sieves with three- or five-cornered openings. Each larger structural unit and every visible facet revealed a certain regularity, not as uniform as that in a crystal, but nevertheless arranged in a certain rhythm. Yet the rhythm was frequently broken by traces of destructive forces. Still others consisted of tightly intergrown branches with curiously angular shapes. These twigs, however, did not branch out as they did on trees and bushes back home on Earth, but rather formed part of an arch; elsewhere two spiraling twigs wound in opposite directions.
In other places the men saw constructions that leaned at an angle as if they were the supporting girders of a drawbridge. The prevailing winds from the north had deposited sand on all horizontal structural surfaces and wherever the ground fell away with a gentle slope. From a distance, several ruins produced the effect of stocky pyramids whose tops had been lopped off. But up close it became evident that the apparently smooth surface really consisted of a system of many-forked bars and poles, ending in sharp points, forming such an impenetrable tangle in certain places that even the sand got caught in it.
Rohan thought that he could make out cube-like and pyramid-shaped remnants of rocks supporting a dried-out, dead vegetation. Even this impression dwindled the closer he came: despite the chaotic destruction a certain regular pattern was still evident that was alien to any organic lifeforms. These were no genuine massive ruins. It was possible to peer inside through the many chinks in the metal thicket. And yet they were not hollow, for they were entirely filled by this impenetrable growth. Above everything hung the breath of deadly loneliness and isolation.
Rohan thought of the antimatter mortar, but even the use of force would produce no real results, for here was nothing to be invaded. The storm swept stinging clouds of dust through the tall bastions. The even mosaic of the black apertures was filled with sand that trickled down in a steady stream to build up steep cones at the foot of the honeycombs. This dry sound of the trickling sand never left them during the foray into the ruins. But there was nothing but utter silence from the whirling antennae, the Geiger counters, the supersonic microphones and the radiation dosimeters. The crunching of sand under wheels and the howling of the starting motors were the only noise to be heard as the colonnade changed direction. The troop now swerved off to one side and soon disappeared in the deep cool shade of the gigantic constructions, After a while they came out again into the bright light that lay scarlet red on the sand.
Finally they arrived at the tectonic fissure. It was a crevice one hundred yards wide, its depth unfathomable: it had not yet been filled in by the sand that was constantly swept down from the edges by violent gusts of wind.
They stopped, and Rohan sent the flying scouter robot across the chasm. He followed the robot’s progress on his television screen, observing whatever the tele-lenses were registering. But there was always the same familiar sight. Rohan recalled the scouter one hour later. As soon as it had returned to the troop, he had a brief consultation with Ballmin and the physicist Gralew who were traveling with him in his vehicle. They decided to take a closer look at some of the ruins.
At first they tried to measure the depth of the sand layer which covered the “streets” of the dead “city.” They used supersonic probes: a rather wearisome procedure, as it turned out, for the various test results conflicted with each other. Probably this was due to some decrystallization process that had occurred inside the rocky ground as it was torn apart by an earthquake. This was a possible explanation for the origin of the chasm. The depth of the sandy stratum covering the gigantic basin within this sector seemed to vary from seven to twelve yards.