Authors: Stanislaw Lem
“I’m afraid there isn’t too much to report,” said Dr. Nygren as he rose to his feet. Slowly he walked over to the astrogator. Nygren was almost one foot shorter than Horpach.
“Among the corpses we found nine that were mummified, that is in addition to the one the Commander has just told you about; that one is undergoing special examinations. Outside in the sand, mostly skeletons or remains of skeletons were dug up. The mummified bodies were found inside the ship where especially favorable dry conditions are present such as low humidity, almost no putrefying bacteria and fairly low temperatures. Those bodies that remained on the outside have all decayed. This process has accelerated here in the rainy season due to the high iron oxide and iron sulfide content in the soil. These chemicals react with weak acids—but I believe these details are insignificant. In case a more thorough explanation of these reactions should be desirable, our colleagues from the chemical department would certainly oblige. In any event, mummification was impossible outside the spaceship, considering that rain water and dissolved substances from soil and sand have been working on everything in the area for several years. This accounts for the polished surface of the bones.”
“Pardon me, Nygren,” interrupted the astrogator. “The most important aspect for us is the cause of death, not what happened afterwards.”
“There are no indications of violent death, at least none we could detect in the well-preserved bodies we saw,” replied Nygren quickly. He did not look at anybody in the room, but stared at something invisible in his raised hand. “Apparently they must all have died from natural causes.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“No external causes could be detected. Several fractures of legs and arms might have come about at a later date, but it will take additional experiments to determine that. Those bodies that had been dressed show no damage either to the epidermis or the skeleton. No injuries—apart from some scratches, and they assuredly did not bring about death.”
“How then did they perish?”
“I don’t know. It almost looks as though they starved or died of dehydration.”
“There was plenty of food and water left aboard the
,” interjected Gaarb.
“I am aware of that.”
For a moment no one spoke a word.
“Mummification means first of all complete dehydration of the body,” explained Nygren. He was still not looking at anyone present. “The adipose tissues undergo changes, but they do not disappear. But these people had practically no fats left. As if they had starved to death.”
“But this was definitely not the case of the man from the hibernator,” remarked Rohan, who was standing behind the last row of seats.
“Correct. He probably froze to death. It is a mystery to me how he could have ventured inside the hibernator. Maybe he simply fell asleep there while the temperature kept falling.”
“Is there any likelihood of mass poisoning?” inquired Horpach.
“But Doctor, how can you so categorically…”
“I can very well dismiss this so easily,” replied the physician. “Under planetary conditions, poisoning is conceivable only by way of the lungs, when breathing in poisonous gases via the esophagus or the skin. However, one of the well-preserved bodies was wearing an oxygen mask. The oxygen tank was still half full and would have lasted for several more hours.”
That’s right, thought Rohan. He remembered the man, the tight skin around his skull, the brownish spots on his cheekbones, the eye sockets filled with sand.
“These people could not have eaten anything poisonous, simply because there is nothing edible to be found. At least not on land. And they never got as far as the ocean. The catastrophe occurred shortly after landing. They had sent out only one scouting troop into the interior of the ruins. That was all. But here comes McQuinn. Are you through, McQuinn?”
“Yes, I am through,” answered the biochemist from the door. All heads turned around. He made his way through the rows of chairs and remained standing next to Nygren. He was still wearing his lab coat and a rubber apron.
“Do you have the results of the analysis?”
“Dr. McQuinn has examined the corpse we found in the hibernator,” explained Nygren, “Will you tell us what you have found out?”
“Nothing,” replied McQuinn. His hair was so light that it was difficult to know whether it was blond or gray. His eyes were just as pale. Even his eyelids were covered with freckles. But right now his big horsey face did not strike anyone as funny.
“No organic or inorganic poisons. All enzyme values normal. Nothing abnormal detected in the blood. The stomach contents were some half-digested zwieback and food concentrate.”
“But how did he die?”
“He just froze to death,” answered McQuinn. He noticed that he still had on his rubber apron. He untied the strings and threw the apron over the back of a chair before him. The slippery material slid off the chair onto the floor.
“What is your opinion, gentlemen?” the astrogator asked. He would not let go so easily.
“No opinion, countered McQuinn. “All I can say for sure is that these people were not the victims of some poisoning.”
“How about radioactivity, some substance with a very brief half-life? Or hot radiation?”
“Hot radiation in fatal doses leaves traces such as damaged capillary walls, petecchiae, changes in the blood. There are no such changes. No radioactive substance in a fatal dose would completely vanish within eight years. There is less radioactivity here than we have on Earth. These men were not exposed to any type of radiation. I could swear to that.”
“But something must have killed them,” insisted Ballmin, the planetologist, raising his voice.
McQuinn did not speak. Nygren whispered into his ear. The biochemist nodded his head in affirmation, walked out of the room. Nygren stepped from the podium and sat down in his usual seat among his colleagues.
“That’s not too encouraging,” remarked the astrogator. “Apparently we can’t expect much help from the biologists. Would someone else express an opinion?”
“Allow me.” Sarner, the nuclear physicist, rose from his chair. “We might find a clue to what brought about this catastrophe in the very condition of the ship itself,” he began, letting his eyes run slowly along the row of his seated colleagues. He had big farsighted bird’s eyes whose iris looked almost pale next to his pitch-black hair. “That means there is an explanation somewhere that we can’t perceive at this moment. The chaos in the cabins, the untouched provisions, the condition and location of the dead bodies, the damaged installations—all this must mean something.”
“Is that all you have to say about it?” interjected Gaarb angrily.
“Take it easy. We’re still completely in the dark, and the first thing we have to do is find the right approach to this problem. I believe we lack the courage to call some of the things we observed on board the
by their right name. This is why we cling so desperately to the hypothesis of some mysterious poisoning which resulted in mass insanity. Just remember, it is necessary, for our own sake as well as for that of the dead crew of the
to face the facts with an open mind. I’d like to urge you—in fact, I insist—that we all speak out freely: what was it that shocked you most when you were at the
? Something that you have not been able to confide to anybody yet, something so horrible you’d rather forget than even mention it—”
Sarner sat down. Rohan overcame his inner resistance and told about the soap bars he had noticed in the bathroom.
Then Gralew got up. Underneath the stacks of torn maps and books the whole deck had been strewn with dried human excrement.
Another spoke of a can of food that showed impressions of teeth, as if someone had tried to bite through the metal. Gaarb had been deeply shaken by the scrawls in the log book and the entry about the flies. But he did not stop there.
“Let’s assume a cloud of poisonous gas escaped from the tectonic vault inside the city. Couldn’t the wind have carried this poisonous air to the rocket? If they’d been careless, hadn’t closed the air hatch properly—”
“Only the outer hatch was not properly closed, Gaarb. We know that from the sand accumulated inside the airlock. The inner hatch was tightly shut, remember?”
“They might have closed it later on, when they were already feeling the effects of the poison gas.”
“That is impossible, Gaarb. If the outside hatch isn’t locked, you can’t open the inside hatch. The two never open at the same time. The possibility of carelessness or accident is totally ruled out.”
“In any event, one thing is clear: it must have happened suddenly. Mass insanity—look, I won’t pretend we never see cases of psychosis during space flights, but never on a planet, especially not a few hours after touchdown. Mass insanity that gripped the entire crew could only be the result of some kind of poisoning.”
“Or infantilism,” remarked Sarner.
“What? What did you say?” Gaarb was dumbfounded. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“I’d hardly be joking in a situation like this. I said infantilism. No one else seems to have thought of it, despite the childish scribbles in the log book, despite the star almanacs that were ripped to pieces, despite the painstakingly drawn letters. You’ve all seen them, haven’t you?”
“But so what?” said Nygren. “Are you trying to say that’s a disease?”
“No. Not a disease. You are right there, doctor.”
Once again they all fell silent. The astrogator hesitated.
“We might be on the wrong track. The results of necroscopy are always uncertain. But for the moment I can’t see what harm it would do. Doctor Sax—”
The neurophysiologist described the image they had found in the brain of the frozen man in the hibernator; he also mentioned the syllables in the acoustics memory bank of the dead man. A veritable flood of questions followed. Even Rohan was cross-examined by his colleagues, since he had been present during the experiment. Still, no conclusion could be drawn.
“When you speak of tiny black spots, doesn’t that remind you somehow of the word ‘flies’?” said Gaarb. “Wait a minute. Maybe the cause of death was something else. Maybe the whole crew was attacked by poisonous insects. You can’t recognize insect bites on mummified skin. And the fellow in the hibernator was simply trying to escape from the insects that got his friends—and then froze to death.”
“But how would you account for his total loss of memory before death?”
“Total amnesia? Are you sure that diagnosis is correct?”
“Yes, as far as we can generally rely on the results of a necroscopic examination.”
“What do you think about this poisonous insect theory?”
“Let’s hear what Lauda has to say about that.”
Lauda was the chief paleobiologist on board. He stood up and waited until they had calmed down.
“It isn’t simply by accident that we haven’t brought up the matter of these ‘flies.’ Anyone who understands anything about biology knows that outside a certain biotope—in other words, a higher unit composed of environment and all species occurring in it—no organism can exist. This holds true for every comer of the universe we have explored thus far. Life either creates a large variety of forms or none at all. Thus no insects could develop without simultaneous development of plants on the dry land, or other symmetrical nonvertebrates. I don’t intend to give you a lecture on evolution; I trust it will suffice if I assure you that there cannot possibly be any flies here. Or any other arthropods, for that matter—no hymenoptera or spiders. There aren’t any related forms, either.”
“How can you be so sure about that?” demanded Ballmin.
“If you were one of my students, you wouldn’t be here with us now,” said the paleobiologist drily. “You would never have passed the exam.” The others smiled involuntarily. “Naturally I can’t judge your knowledge in the field of planetology, but I’d give you an F in the biology of evolution.”
“Typical shop talk. What a waste of time,” someone whispered behind Rohan. Rohan turned around and looked into Jarg’s tanned, broad face winking at him.
“Maybe the insects didn’t evolve here,” insisted Ballmin. “Maybe they were brought in from the outside.”
“From the planets of the Nova.”
Now the whole group began to talk at once; it took a long time before order was restored.”
“Colleagues,” said Sarner. “I know where Ballmin got his idea. From Dr. Gralew.”
“Well, I won’t deny it,” admitted the physicist.
“Excellent. Let us assume we can no longer afford the luxury of plausible hypotheses and need some really wild ones. That’s all right with me. My dear colleagues and fellow biologists, suppose a spaceship had imported insects from a planet of the Nova into Regis III. Could these insects have adapted to local conditions?”
“Of course, if we want to get into wild hypotheses,” admitted Lauda. “But even wild hypotheses have to be able to supply explanations for everything.”
“Such as what?”
“Such as an explanation as to what corroded the outer armor plate hull of the
to such an extent that the ship can no longer take off unless it’s completely overhauled. Do you really believe some insects could adapt to a diet of molybdenum alloy? That’s one of the hardest substances in the whole universe. Engineer Petersen, tell us, what could destroy this type of armored plate?”
“If it’s been properly tempered, nothing I know of,” answered the deputy chief engineer. “You could drill into it with diamonds, but you would need a ton of diamonds and a thousand hours at your disposal. Another possibility would be acids. Anorganic acids, of course, and only at temperatures of at least two thousand degrees and with the proper catalysts.”
“Then how do you explain what corroded the armored plate of the
“I haven’t the faintest idea. If the ship had been immersed in an acid solution, and at the proper temperature, it would look like that, all right. But how anyone could get the same results without arc-light plasma burners and catalysts is beyond me.”