Authors: Stanislaw Lem
The group stopped at the edge of the western dune wall. The vehicles they had brought along from the
already ringed the area in a wide circle and the bunched rays of the emitters formed a protective energy screen. The men had left their transport vehicles and the info-robots about one hundred yards from the spot where the sand wall encircled
base. Now the men looked down onto the ridge of the dune.
The ramp was suspended about five yards above the ground, as if it had been suddenly stopped in midair while it was lowered downwards. The elevator, however, was untouched and its open door beckoned the men to enter. Nearby oxygen bottles stuck out from the sand. Their aluminum sheaths glistened brightly as if somebody had left them lying there just a few minutes earlier. Several steps further on, a blue object rested gleaming on the sandy ground. It was a plastic container, as they noticed on closer inspection. Everywhere inside the hollow around the foot of the spaceship was scattered a vast quantity of all kinds of things: cans of food, some full, some empty; theodolites, cameras, tripods, canisters, some still intact, others badly damaged.
As if someone had thrown the whole mess helter skelter out of the rocket, thought Rohan, and looked up at the darkened hole through which the crew would usually leave or enter the spaceship. The hatch was halfway open.
The small flying scouter robot that accompanied deVries’ expedition had found the dead spaceship quite by accident. DeVries had not tried to enter the
but had immediately informed Horpach of his discovery. It had been decided that Rohan’s group would be the one to uncover the mystery that shrouded the
sister ship. Now the technicians came running from their engines, lugging their toolboxes with them.
Rohan noticed something round on the ground, thinly covered by sand. With his foot he scraped away the fine sand, assuming he would dig up a small globe. Not suspecting anything, he kept on raking until he brought to daylight a pale yellow vault-like form. He recoiled rapidly, stifling a startled outcry. Alarmed, his companions turned around, looking at him. He held a human skull in his hand.
They found more bones and even a complete skeleton in a spacesuit. Between the dropping jaw and the upper teeth stuck the mouthpiece of the oxygen apparatus. The manometer had stopped at 46 atmospheres. Jarg knelt down and slowly turned the valve. The gas escaped with a hissing noise. Because of the dry desert air no trace of rust had formed on the metal parts of the reduction valve; it worked easily.
They entered the elevator but pushed the buttons in vain: there was no electrical current. It would be quite difficult to climb up the scaffolding of the elevator shaft and Rohan began deliberating whether to send up some of the men in a flying saucer robot. But in the meantime two men of the crew had already started their upward climb; they had secured themselves to each other by ropes as if they were mountain climbers. The rest of the group silently watched their ascent.
a spacecruiser of the same class as the
had been built a few years earlier; externally, the two crafts could not be distinguished. The men were silent. Although none of them expressed the thought out loud, they all would have preferred to find the wreckage of a crash or even the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. They were all shaken by the sight of this ship in the sand, listing lifelessly to one side as if the ground had given way under the weight of the support pillars of the stern. There the apparently undamaged craft leaned in the midst of a confusion of objects and human bones; the men shuddered.
In the meantime the climbers had reached the entrance hatch, opened it fully and quickly disappeared from view. They remained there for a long while. Rohan was growing restless, when suddenly the elevator jerked upward for about one yard and then descended smoothly to the ground. At the same time the figure of one of the technicians became visible in the open door, beckoning to them to get in.
There were four of them going up in the elevator: Rohan, Ballmin, the biologist Hagerup and Kralik, one of the technicians. Out of habit, Rohan examined the mighty, rounded body of the ship that was gliding by behind the moving elevator. He was numbed with fear for the first time this day. The armored plates had been scratched and pitted by some incredibly hard tool. The marks were not especially deep, but so close together all over that the entire hull seemed to be dotted with smallpox scars.
Rohan seized Ballmin’s arm but he had already become aware of this strange phenomenon. Both men tried to get a good look at the nicks and indentations. They were quite small, as if they had been chiseled out with a fine instrument. But Rohan knew for a fact that there was no chisel capable of piercing the cruiser’s hull for even the fraction of a millimeter. The titanium-molybdenum skin was of such hardness that it could be affected only by chemical corrosives. Before he could come to any conclusion about this problem, the elevator had reached its destination. They entered the airlock.
The interior of the ship was lit up. The technicians had already switched on the auxiliary generators powered by compressed air. The dustlike sand had accumulated in a heavy layer only at the threshold where the wind had driven it through the open hatch door. But there was none in the corridors. They proceeded to the third floor and found clean and neat, brightly lit rooms. Here and there they saw an oxygen mask, a plastic plate, a book or part of some protective suit. But farther down, the cartographers’ cabins, the mess halls, the dormitories, the radar rooms, all the main corridors and side passages, were in a state of indescribable disarray.
The worst was the command center. Not one single dial of the many instruments, clocks and screens had remained in one piece. Those disks had been made of a tough shatterproof glass that now covered tables, chairs, wires, plugs and sockets in the form of a fine silvery powder. Next door, in the library, were heaps of microfilms, partially unrolled and twisted into wild tangles and coils. Torn books, broken sliderules, compasses, shattered spectroscopes had been wildly thrown all over the floor. There were stacks of Cameron’s big star catalogs shredded to pieces. Somebody must have vented special fury on these thick volumes; they had ripped out the heavy, stiff folio-size pages in big bundles. The impression was one of frenzied rage combined with unbelievable patience.
Inside the club room and in the neighboring auditorium, the passages had been blocked by heaps of clothing and leather pieces cut from the upholstered seats of the chairs. According to one of the technicians, it looked as if the place had been invaded by a herd of rampaging apes.
The men were speechless at this senseless destruction. They went from deck to deck: in a small cabin, lying arched over in a heap near the wall, they found the corpse of a man clad in a dirty shirt and linen trousers. Now he was covered by a ground sheet that the technician who had been the first to enter the room had thrown over him. The dead man was mummified.
Rohan was one of the last to leave the
He felt dizzy. Nausea overcame him in spurts and it took all his will power to fight off the recurring attacks. He felt as if he had just awakened from some incredibly horrible dream. But one look at the men’s faces told him that the whole thing had been real.
They sent brief radio messages to the
Part of their expedition remained on board the
to restore some measure of order. But before they began this gigantic task, Rohan arranged to have each room photographed and carefully described.
Together with Ballmin and Gaarb, one of the biophysicists, Rohan started on the way back. Jarg was driving. His broad and usually smiling face seemed now to have shrunk, bearing a grim expression. He was driving rather recklessly, quite unlike his customary highly disciplined self. The heavy vehicle, weighing several tons, was raked by sudden jolts and hobbled across the dunes, throwing out sandy fountains on either side. One of the energo-robots moved ahead of them at an even pace, shielding the men in the truck with its energy field. All were silent, each man busy with his own thoughts.
Rohan was almost afraid to face the astrogator; he did not know what to tell him. He had kept to himself one of the discoveries he had made, one which seemed particularly incomprehensible and insane, and thus chilling. In one of the bathrooms on the eighth floor he had found
several soap bars pierced with tooth marks.
Famine? There had certainly been no dearth of food on board the
. The storerooms were filled with all kinds of provisions. Even the milk in the freezer rooms had not spoiled.
About midway they received radio signals from a small vehicle with a robot drive. It came toward them, raising a heavy dust cloud that followed them like a dirty umbrella. Rohan’s car braked; the other vehicle also came to a halt. Two men were in it: Magdow, a middle-aged technician, and Sax, the neurophysiologist. Rohan switched off the energy screen. This way it was possible to communicate with each other by shouting back and forth.
After Rohan’s departure they had discovered the frozen body of a man lying in the hibernator of the
They thought they might be able to bring the man back to life, and Sax had brought the necessary instruments from the
Rohan decided to go along, justifying this sudden change of plans by saying that Sax was traveling without an energy field. The truth was, however, that he dreaded the confrontation with Horpach; he was glad to have an excuse for postponing this unpleasant task. Rohan’s group turned around and chased back, raising big dust clouds.
There was a great deal of activity around the
Various objects were still dug up from the dunes. Off to one side was a row of corpses, now neatly hidden under white sheets. More than twenty dead bodies had been found. The ramp was in working order, the power supply had been completely restored.
The approaching convoy had been detected by the men at the
for the dust cloud was visible from quite a distance. A passage into the inside of the energy dome had been readied for them. There they were greeted by a physician, Dr. Nygren, who had refused to examine the man from the hibernator without some professional assistance.
Rohan availed himself of the privilege of acting here as the commander’s deputy; he accompanied the two physicians aboard. The wreckage that blocked the entrance into the hibernator had since been cleared away. The thermometers registered zero degrees Fahrenheit. The two doctors exchanged meaningful glances. Rohan understood enough about hibernation to realize that this temperature was too high for a reversible death, and on the other hand, too low for hypothermal sleep. There was no indication that this man had been intended to survive his stay in the hibernator. He had most likely stumbled inside by accident—another riddle, just as nonsensical as everything else that had happened on board the
And indeed, as soon as they had changed into thermoprotective suits, turned the handwheel to “open” and lifted up the heavy trapdoor, they saw, stretched out on the floor, face downwards, the body of a man in his underwear. Rohan helped the physicians carry the frozen man to a small upholstered table with three overhead lamps that supplied light without casting shadows. It was not a proper operating table but merely a kind of stretcher for small manipulations that were sometimes carried out inside the hibernator.
Rohan hesitated before looking at the man’s face; he had been acquainted with many members of the
But this man was a stranger to him. If his limbs had not been so icy cold and stiff, one could have believed that he was simply asleep. His lids were closed. Thanks to the dry, hermetically sealed room, his skin had not lost its natural color, although he looked quite pale. His subcutaneous tissues, however, abounded with tiny ice crystals. Once again the two physicians communicated with each other by meaningful glances. They laid out their instruments.
Rohan sat down on one of the empty, freshly made up cots that were arranged in two long rows. Everything here was in perfect order. Several times he heard the clicking of some instruments, the whispered consultation between the two medical men. Finally Sax stepped back from the stretcher and said: “There’s nothing else we can do here.”
“You mean he’s dead,” said Rohan. It was not so much a question he posed as a conclusion he drew, the only possible interpretation of the doctor’s words.
Nygren had switched on the air conditioning system in the meantime. It was not long before warm air began to stream into the room. Rohan rose from the cot in order to leave the hibernator when he noticed the physician returning to the stretcher. He picked up a small black satchel off the floor, opened it and pulled out that apparatus about which Rohan had heard so much but which he had never seen until now. With slow, almost pedantic movements, Sax began to untangle the cords whose ends had flat electrodes attached to them. He placed six electrodes against the dead man’s skull and fastened them with an elastic band. Then he crouched down and pulled three pairs of headphones out of the satchel. He put on one of these and kept testing the buttons of the machine inside a plastic case. His eyes were closed, his face bore an expression of deepest concentration. Suddenly he frowned, bent over further and stopped fiddling with the button. He quickly removed the earphones from his head.
“Dr. Nygren—” he said in a strange voice. His colleague seized the earphones in turn.
“What is it?” whispered Rohan with trembling lips.
This apparatus was referred to by the space crews as the “corpse-spy.” With it one could “auscultate the brain” of recently deceased persons, or those dead in whom decay had not yet set in, or a body like this one that had been preserved by very low temperatures. Long after death had occurred one could ascertain what the last conscious thoughts and emotions had been.