Authors: Stanislaw Lem
They changed direction again, now turning to the east, toward the seashore. After following a zigzag course for about seven miles through the black ruins that became gradually lower and then finally completely disappeared in the sand, the expedition reached bare rocky ground. They came to a halt on top of a cliff that was so high above the sea that they could hear the breakers only as a weak murmur far below. The coast line was a barren chain of rocks that looked unnaturally smooth, almost polished. Toward the north the shore rose to form a line of mountain peaks that plunged abruptly into the ocean like a petrified waterfall.
They had left the “city” behind them. Now its silhouette stood out black against the reddish horizon. Rohan called the
to report what few findings they had managed to get. Then the group turned around, driving back to the interior of the field of ruins. The men were careful to observe all precautionary measures, driving under the shelter of their energy screen.
On the way back one of the energo-robots enlarged the area of its force field—probably because of some tiny directional error—and its edge brushed against the overhang of a pointed “building.” However, the antimatter mortar was connected to the output meter of the force field and had been instructed for automatic annihilation of any hostile attackers. The mortar apparently interpreted the sudden surge of energy as evidence that something was trying to penetrate the protective dome, and bombarded the ruin. The entire top part of the arched structure—it was as tall as the Empire State Building—lost its dirty gray color and began to glow, turning into a dazzling bright shape. A few seconds later it exploded into a fiery metallic rain. Fortunately not a drop could reach the men in their vehicles, for the incandescent shower slid off the invisible vault of the energy wall. The metallic spray turned into vapor before it could even touch the ground.
The radiation level shot up while the mortar carried out the annihilation of the structure. The Geiger counters automatically gave an alarm signal. Rohan was cursing loudly and threatened to tear apart the man who had programed the instruments. It took quite a while to cancel the alarm instructions and explain the whole affair to the
who had inquired with concern what had caused these fireworks.
“All we know so far is that we are dealing here with some kind of metal. Probably some alloy of steel, tungsten and nickel,” said Bellamin, who had taken advantage of the general confusion to make a spectrum analysis of the flames.
“Any idea how old it might be?” asked Rohan as he brushed the fine sand off his face and hands.
“No. But this stuff is damn old. Damn old,” he repeated.
“We should examine it more thoroughly. And I’m not going to ask the Old Man for permission, either,” added Rohan with sudden determination.
They had left behind the molten metal lump that had been part of the spiry ruins. It had turned into a solid body that hung like a broken wing over the path they had taken. Now they stopped in front of a complicated object consisting of several arms that came together at the center. A gap opened up in the force-field marked by two light signals. They approached the strange object. Seen at close range, it presented a scene of confusion. The façade of the building was formed by sheets overgrown with metallic tufts. These slabs were supported from the inside by pillars as thick as tree trunks. There was still some kind of order at the outside surface. The men peered inside, illuminating the tangle with the help of powerful searchlights. Utter chaos was created as the forest of poles branched out in all directions, gathering in thick knots from which metallic twigs sprouted in every direction. It reminded the men of a huge wire tangle made up of cables twisting in millions of different fashions. They tested the structure for electric currents, traces of polarization, magnetism and finally for radioactivity; but they failed to detect anything.
The green light flares that marked the entrance into the tangled area were flickering in the wind. Air masses blew through the steely thicket, got caught inside and whistled eerie chants.
“I wish I could figure out what this damned jungle is supposed to be!” complained Rohan as he rubbed the sand off his sweaty skin. He was standing next to Ballmin on top of the flying scouter robot. A low railing before them rose several yards above the “street,” a sandy triangular dune between two converging ruins. Way down below they could see their vehicles and the men, like a set of miniature toys. They were craning their necks to gaze up at Rohan and Ballmin.
The scouter robot floated along. Now they passed over an uneven, torn area full of sharp, jagged metal peaks that were occasionally covered by triangular plates. These plates were arranged in an irregular fashion, jutting out at various angles, sometimes bent aside, sometimes turned upwards. This permitted occasional glances into the dark interior. Yet the tangle of rods, intersections and honeycombed walls was so dense that the sun’s rays could not penetrate to the bottom. Even the bright cones of their searchlights were swallowed up by the gloomy abyss.
“Tell me, Ballmin, what is that damned jungle supposed to be?” asked Rohan once more. He was furious. He had kept rubbing the sand off his face and now his forehead was reddened, his skin smarted, his eyes were burning. On top of it all he would shortly have to make his next report to the crew back at the spacecraft. He had no idea how he could describe what they had encountered here.
“I’m not a clairvoyant,” replied the scientist. “I’m not even an archeologist. Not that an archeologist could tell you a great deal here either. It seems to me—” Suddenly he fell silent.
“Go on. Finish what you were going to say.”
“This doesn’t look like any dwelling or the destroyed houses of any humanoid creatures. Do you see what I mean? The only thing I could compare it to would be a machine of some kind.”
“A machine? What type of a machine? A computer, maybe?”
“What gives you that idea?” countered the planetologist laconically. The robot made a left turn. It was flying close to the metal poles which were jutting out from the bent slabs. Several times the robot almost touched the crazy black network.
“No, no electric circuits to be seen. Or did you notice any switches? Insulators? Anything that might be part of an electronic brain?”
“Maybe they weren’t fireproof. There could have been a fire here. After all, this is nothing but ruins,” replied Rohan. But his voice lacked conviction.
“Who knows? Maybe you’re right,” admitted Ballmin unexpectedly.
“But what should I tell the astrogator?”
“Why don’t you let him see for himself and transmit the whole deal here by television?”
“That can’t have been a city,” said Rohan, suddenly summarizing his thoughts about what he had seen here.
“Most likely not,” agreed Ballmin. “At least not the kind of city we know. Nothing that corresponds to our notion of what a city should be like. No human beings, nothing resembling us could have dwelled here. And since the life forms we found in the ocean here were similar to those back home on Earth, it would be logical to assume the same thing for any living organisms on the mainland.”
“Yes, I keep racking my brains. None of the biologists will commit himself to make a statement. What do you think about that?”
“They don’t want to talk about it, because it simply seems too improbable, as if something had prevented life from becoming established on land; as if the aquatic creatures had never been permitted to leave the water.”
“There might have been some reason for that—a nearby supernova explosion, for example. The Zeta of the Lyre constellation is known to have been a nova several million years ago. Organic life on the continents may have been annihilated by radiation, while life survived in the deeper regions of the ocean.”
“If there had ever been radiation, we would still be able to find traces of it, but there is practically no radioactivity in the soil of this part of the galaxy. Aside from the fact that evolution would have moved ahead during the several million years since. You wouldn’t expect any vertebrates on land, of course, but the more primitive forms should be present. Didn’t you notice the total absence of any life forms in the littoral zone?”
“Yes, I did. But what does that mean?”
“A great deal. Life usually originates in the shore regions of the oceans, and migrates to deeper waters only afterwards. It can’t have been any different here. Only something must have chased it away from the edge of the sea. Something must be preventing it from going on land.”
“What basis do you have for your conclusions?”
“The fact that the fish were frightened by our probes. On all the other planets I have known, animals were never afraid of machines. They are not afraid of things they have never seen before.”
“Do you mean to say the fish have seen some probes before ours?”
“I couldn’t tell you what they have encountered. But why else would they need a magnetic detector sense?”
“I really wouldn’t know, damn it!” grumbled Rohan. He regarded the tom metal garlands and leaned over the railing. The bent ends of the black metal rods trembled slightly in the robot’s slipstream. Ballmin used long pliers to pinch off some wires sticking out from a tunnel-shaped opening.
“Let me tell you,” he continued, “there could never have been very high temperatures around here; otherwise you would find traces of oxidation on these metal surfaces. So much for your hypothesis about a fire having caused this destruction.”
“Any hypotheses would fail the test here,” muttered Rohan. “You know, I just can’t see the connection between this maze and the fact that the
has vanished somewhere on this planet. Everything is dead here.”
“That can’t always have been the case.”
“Maybe it was alive a thousand years ago, but not just a few years back. There is nothing else for us to do here. Let’s return to the convoy down there.”
They did not exchange another word until the robot landed in front of the green signal lights, Rohan ordered the technician to let the television cameras roll and transmit a report to the
He and the scientists withdrew to the cabin of the lead vehicle. They released additional oxygen into the air supply of the tiny room, then they ate and drank coffee from their thermos bottles. The white light of the overhead fluorescent lamp felt pleasant to Rohan’s eyes after the red daylight of this planet. Ballmin spat into a paper napkin; it was some sand that had insinuated its way into the mouthpiece of his breathing mask and gritted between his teeth.
“That reminds me of something,” said Gralew unexpectedly, as he screwed down the top of his thermos bottle. His thick black hair glistened in the light of the fluorescent lamp. “I’ll tell you about it, but don’t take it too seriously.”
“If it reminds you of anything at all, that means something,” replied Rohan with his mouth full. “Shoot!”
“It’s nothing special, really, I heard a story a long time ago, almost a fairy tale, about the inhabitants of the Lyre constellation.”
“Why a fairy tale? They did exist. Achramian even published a treatise about it,” remarked Rohan. A small bulb began to flicker behind them on the dashboard, a sign that contact had been established with the
“Yes. Payne suspected some of the inhabitants may have succeeded in saving themselves in time. I’m not so sure that he is right there. They must have all perished when the nova exploded.”
“That took place sixteen light years from this planet,” said Gralew. “I don’t know the book. But I did hear somewhere that these people tried to escape. They presumably sent spaceships to all the planets of the other stars in their vicinity. They were well acquainted with the principle of space flight close to the speed of light.”
“That’s all I heard. Sixteen light years is not such an enormous distance. Why shouldn’t one of their spaceships have landed here?”
“Then you think they might still be somewhere around?”
“I couldn’t say. I was just reminded of them when I saw these ruins. They might have been their buildings, who knows?”
“What did they look like?” asked Rohan. “Did they resemble us?”
“According to Achramian, they did,” replied Ballmin. “But that is just another hypothesis. Practically no trace of them has survived, not even as much as from our own Pithecanthropus.”
“Not at all. Their planet submerged for thousands of years in the chromosphere of the nova. Sometimes its surface temperature exceeded ten thousand degrees. Even the rocky foundation of the planetary crust underwent a complete metamorphosis. No trace remained of the oceans. The entire planet was thoroughly cooked. Just think of it, ten thousand years in the middle of the fires of a nova!”
“Then you really think it’s conceivable that some of these people might have survived here on Regis III? But why should they hide? And where could they be?”
“Perhaps they’ve died since then. I don’t know the answers. I simply voiced what crossed my mind when I saw these ruins.”
The men fell silent. Suddenly an alarm signal flared up on the dashboard.
Rohan jumped up and grabbed the headphones.
“Rohan here. What did you say? Oh, it’s you! Yes! Yes! I’m listening! All right, we’ll return at once!”
His face had turned pale. He turned to the rest and said: “Group II has found the
About 180 miles from here.”
From a distance the rocket looked like a leaning tower. This impression was strengthened by the sand massed around it. Since the wind came from the west the sand wall had piled up much higher than in the east. Several tractors near the rocket had been almost totally buried by the sand. Even the antimatter mortar had been put out of action. It stood there with its hood raised, half filled with sand. But one could still see the jet openings at the ship’s nose which rested in an unobstructed depression in the ground. One had only to remove a thin layer of sand in order to reach the objects that lay strewn around the ramp.