It was dusk. The tunnel opened near the base of a gently sloping knoll about forty feet high.
Beyond, a vast plain stretched to the horizon, over which the first stars twinkled. There were vague, slender treelike forms in the distance, but the light of the setting sun was now so dim that everything merged into a uniform gray. The men stood silently. To their left, the huge hull of the ship jutted at an angle into the air. One hundred twenty of its two hundred feet, the Engineer estimated, were embedded in the knoll. But no one was interested any more in the silhouette of the tube ending in useless vanes and exhaust cones. The men inhaled the cool air, with its faint, unfamiliar odor that no one could give a name to, and a strong feeling of helplessness came over them. The hoes and pipes dropped from their hands.
They stood gazing at the plain, its horizons in darkness, and at the stars shining overhead.
“The Pole Star?” the Chemist asked in a hushed voice, pointing to a low star flickering in the east.
“It wouldn’t be visible from here. We’re now… yes, we’re directly under the Galactic South Pole. The Southern Cross ought to be over there somewhere…”
They craned their necks. The black sky was bright with constellations. The men pointed them out to one another, naming them. This raised their spirits for a while. The stars were the only things familiar on the empty plain.
“It’s getting colder, like the desert,” said the Captain.
“We’ll accomplish nothing today. We’d better go back inside.”
“What, back in that grave?” the Cyberneticist exclaimed, indignant.
“Without that grave we’d perish in two days here,” the Captain said. “Don’t be childish.” He turned around, walked steadily to the opening, which was barely visible from several feet higher on the slope, lowered his legs, and pulled himself inside. For a moment his head was still visible; then it disappeared. The others looked at one another.
“Come on,” muttered the Physicist. They followed him reluctantly.
As they began crawling into the narrow opening, the Engineer said to the Cyberneticist, who was last in line, “Did you notice the smell in the air?”
“Yes. Strange, pungent… Do you know its composition?”
“Like Earth’s, with something added, I forget what. Nothing harmful. The data are in a small green volume on the second shelf in the —” Then he remembered that he himself had filled the library with soil. “Damn,” he said, and squeezed himself through the hole.
The Cyberneticist, now alone, suddenly felt uneasy. It wasn’t fear but an overwhelming sense of being lost, of the strangeness of the landscape. And, too, there was something humiliating, he thought, about returning to the ground like worms. He ducked his head and crawled into the tunnel behind the Engineer.
The following day, some of the men wanted to carry their rations to the surface and have breakfast there, but the Captain was against this. It would cause, he maintained, unnecessary trouble. So they ate by the light of two lanterns, in the air lock, and drank coffee that had grown cold. Out of the blue, the Cyberneticist said, “Wait a minute. How did we have good air the whole time?”
The Captain smiled. There was gray stubble on his hollow cheeks.
“The oxygen cylinders are intact. But purification is a problem: only one of the automatic filters is functioning — the emergency one, on batteries. The electricals, of course, are worthless. In six or seven days we would have begun to suffocate.”
“You knew that?” the Cyberneticist asked slowly. The Captain said nothing.
“Now what do we do?” asked the Physicist.
They washed their utensils in a bucket of water, and the Doctor dried them with one of his towels.
“The atmosphere has oxygen,” said the Doctor, tossing his aluminum plate on top of the others.
“That means there’s life here. What information do we have?”
“Next to nothing. The space probe took a sample of the atmosphere, that’s all.”
“You mean it didn’t land?”
“It didn’t land.”
“That’s loads of information,” said the Cyberneticist. He was trying to clean his face, using alcohol from a small bottle and a piece of cotton. With very little water fit for use, they had not washed for two days. The Physicist examined his face in the polished surface of an air-conditioning unit.
“It’s something,” the Captain replied softly. “Had the composition of the air been different — without oxygen — my mistake would have killed all of you.”
“What?” The Cyberneticist almost dropped his cup.
“And myself as well. We wouldn’t have had one chance in a billion. Now we have.”
There was silence.
“Does the presence of oxygen mean plants and animals?” asked the Engineer.
“Not necessarily,” said the Chemist. “On the Alpha planets of Canis Minor there is oxygen but no plants or animals.”
“What is there, then?”
“No, they’re not bacteria.”
“It’s not important,” the Doctor said. He put the utensils and cans of food away. “We have other worries now. We can’t activate the defenses — am I right?”
“We can’t even get to them,” the Cyberneticist acknowledged. “All the robots came loose from their moorings. We’d need the two-ton hoist to clear away all the scrap, and it’s lying at the very bottom.”
“But what do we do for weapons?” asked the Doctor.
“There are the jectors,” said the Cyberneticist.
“And what are you going to charge them with?”
“There’s no current in the control room? We had current before!”
“There must have been a short circuit in the accumulator,” said the Engineer.
“Why aren’t the jectors already charged?”
“Orders. We can’t carry them charged,” the Engineer muttered.
“Orders! Damn —”
“Cut it out!”
Hearing the Captain’s voice, the Cyberneticist shrugged in exasperation. The Doctor walked out.
The Engineer had taken a light nylon knapsack from his cabin, and was stuffing K rations into the pockets when the Doctor reappeared, holding a short oxidized cylinder that ended in a valve.
“And what is that?” the Engineer asked with interest.
“What does it shoot?”
The Engineer burst out laughing.
“What makes you think that your gas can put to sleep anything living on this planet?”
“If you were attacked, you could always anesthetize yourself,” said the Chemist. Everyone laughed, including the Doctor.
“This should knock out any oxygen-breathing creature,” he said. “And if there’s an attack — watch!”
He pulled a trigger at the base of the cylinder. A needle-thin stream of vapor shot into the darkness of the corridor.
“Well, for lack of anything better…” said the Engineer doubtfully.
“Shall we go?” asked the Doctor, slipping the cylinder into one of the pockets of his suit.
The sun was high overhead — small and distant, yet hotter than the Earth’s. But what struck them most was that the sun was not completely circular. They observed it through the cracks of their fingers and through the semitransparent red paper used for wrapping the individual antiradiation packs.
“It’s flattened because of the velocity of its revolution around its axis, is that right?” the Chemist asked the Captain.
“Yes. The flattening was more noticeable during the flight. You don’t remember?”
“But, you see, I wasn’t paying attention then…”
They turned away from the sun and looked at their ship. The white cylindrical hull jutted obliquely from the low hill in which it was embedded, resembling a gigantic cannon. Its surface — milky white in shadow and silvery in sunlight — appeared undamaged. The Engineer approached the spot where the ship had entered the ground, stepped over the rim of upthrown soil that surrounded the hull like a collar, and ran his hand along the plating.
“Not bad material, this ceramite,” he said, not turning around. “If I could just have a look at the funnels…” He looked wistfully up at the jets suspended above the plain.
“We’ll do that later,” said the Physicist. “But now let’s reconnoiter.”
The Captain had reached the top of the elevation. The others hurried after him. Smooth and buff-colored, the sun-drenched plain stretched unvaryingly in all directions. The slender silhouettes that they had observed the day before rose in the distance, but in the bright sunlight it was clear that these were not trees. The sky, overhead as blue as Earth’s, took on a distinctly greenish tinge at the horizon. To the north, faint cirrus clouds moved slowly. The Captain was checking directions on the small compass strapped to his wrist. The Doctor bent over and began poking at the soil with his foot.
“Why isn’t anything growing here?” he asked, amazed.
They were all struck by that. The plain was bare as far as the eye could see.
“It seems to be a region subject to increasingly steppe-like conditions,” said the Chemist uncertainly. “Farther on, there to the west — see those patches? — it gets yellower. That must be desert.
And the wind blows the sand here. Because this knoll is clay.”
“That we certainly know,” said the Doctor.
“We need a plan of some sort for our expedition,” the Captain began. “The supplies we’re taking with us will last two days.”
“Not even that — we don’t have much water,” the Cyberneticist said.
“We’ll ration the water until we locate some here. Where there’s oxygen, there’s water. I suggest we proceed as follows: from the base we go in a straight line, and only so far that we can return safely and without haste.”
“A maximum of fifteen miles in any direction,” the Physicist said.
“Agreed. The only question is the kind of reconnaissance.”
“Wait,” said the Engineer, who had been standing apart as though mulling something over. “Don’t you think this is a little crazy? We’ve crashed on an unknown planet, we’ve just managed to crawl out, and instead of doing the most important thing, instead of concentrating all our energies on repairing what can be repaired, on digging the ship out, and so on, we’re going exploring — with no arms, no means of defense, and no idea at all of what we will find here.”
The Captain heard him out in silence, looking around at the men. They were all unshaven, and their three-day’s growth had begun to give them a wild look. The Engineer’s words made an obvious impression, but no one spoke, as if they were all waiting to see what the Captain would say.
“Six men can’t dig out a spaceship, Henry,” he said, weighing his words carefully. “You know that perfectly well. As things now stand, we can’t even tell how long it will take to get the smallest unit operating. The planet is inhabited. Yet we know nothing at all about it. We didn’t even circle it before the crash. We approached from the nightside and by error fell into its tail. As we fell, we reached the terminator. I was lying near the last screen to go. I saw, or at least I thought I saw, what resembled… a city.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” the Engineer asked slowly.
“Yes, why?” the Physicist also asked.
“Because I wasn’t certain. I don’t even know in which direction to look for it. The ship was spinning. But there is a chance, a small chance, that we will receive help. You all know how desperate our situation is. We need water. Most of it flooded the lower level and is contaminated. So I think we can allow ourselves to take risks.”
“I agree,” said the Doctor.
“So do I,” said the Physicist.
The Cyberneticist moved off a few paces and faced south, as though not wanting to hear what the others said. The Chemist nodded. The Engineer walked down the knoll, put on his knapsack, and asked, “Which way?”
“North,” said the Captain. The Engineer began walking, and the others joined him. When they looked back a few minutes later, the knoll was barely visible — only the ship’s fuselage stood against the sky.
It was hot. Their shadows grew shorter the farther they walked. Their boots sank in the sand, and the only sounds were their footsteps and their breathing. As they approached one of the slender shapes that in the twilight had resembled trees, they slackened their pace. Out of the buff-colored soil rose a perpendicular trunk, as gray as an elephant’s hide and with a faint metallic luster. The trunk, no thicker at the base than a man’s arm, developed, at the top, into a flattened cup-shaped structure some seven feet above the ground. It was impossible to see whether or not the calyx was open at the top. It was completely motionless. The men stopped about twenty feet from this extraordinary growth, but the Engineer continued toward it and was lifting his hand to touch the “trunk” when the Doctor cried, “Stop!”
The Engineer drew back reflexively. The Doctor pulled him away by the arm, then picked up a small stone and tossed it high into the air. The stone described a steep arc and dropped straight into the flattened top of the calyx. They all gave a start, so sudden and unexpected was the reaction. The calyx began undulating and closed; there was a brief hissing sound, like gas escaping, and the whole grayish column, now trembling feverishly, sank into the earth as if sucked in. The hole that was created was instantly filled by a greasy, foaming brown substance. Then particles of sand began to float on the surface, the coating of sand became thicker, and in a few seconds no trace of the hole remained: the ground was smooth and unbroken. They were still standing there in amazement when the Chemist shouted, “Look!”
They lifted their heads. Before, they had been surrounded, at a distance of a few hundred feet, by three or four similar tall and slender growths — now there was not one.
“They all disappeared!” exclaimed the Cyberneticist.
They strained their eyes but could see no trace of the calyxes. The sun was growing stronger; the heat was hard to bear. They moved on.
After an hour they had spread out in a long file, like a caravan. First came the Doctor, now carrying his knapsack under his arm; behind him was the Captain; the Chemist brought up the rear. They had all opened their suits, rolled up their sleeves. Bathed in sweat, their mouths parched, they slowly dragged themselves across the plain. A long horizontal strip loomed on the horizon. The Doctor halted and waited for the Captain.
“How far do you think we’ve gone?”
The Captain looked back into the sun, in the direction of the ship. It was no longer visible.
“The planet has a smaller radius than Earth’s,” he said, wiping his face with a handkerchief. “I’d say about five miles.”
The Doctor squinted, his eyelids swollen. His black hair was covered with a cloth cap. Every now and then he dampened the cap with water from his canteen.
“This is madness, you know,” he said, as they both looked at the spot on the horizon where, not long before, the ship had stood, a faint oblique line. All they could see there now were the slender silhouettes of the calyxes, pale gray in the distance. The calyxes had re-emerged behind them. The other men came up, and the Chemist threw his tent roll on the ground and sat on it.
“Strange, that there are no signs of civilization,” said the Cyberneticist, rummaging in his pockets.
He found some vitamin pills in a crumpled packet and offered them around.
“You wouldn’t find such desolation on Earth,” the Engineer agreed. “No roads, no aircraft of any kind.”
“What, you expect to find a replica of Earth’s civilization?” the Physicist snorted.
“This system is stable,” the Doctor began, “so a civilization on Eden could be older than on Earth, and therefore…”
“Assuming it’s a civilization of anthropoids,” the Cyberneticist said.
“Let’s get moving,” said the Captain. “In half an hour we ought to reach that.” And he pointed at a thin purple strip on the horizon.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. Water, maybe.”
“Shade would be enough for me right now,” the Engineer croaked. He rinsed his mouth and throat with a gulp of water.
There was a squeaking of straps as they hoisted their packs onto their shoulders, and the group spread out once more and resumed its trek across the sand. They passed a dozen more calyxes and several larger growths that appeared to be supported by lianas or creepers, but none of these was closer than six hundred feet, and they had no wish to deviate from their line of march.
The sun was at its zenith when the landscape changed. There was less sand. Red, sun-scorched earth began to show in long, low ridges overgrown here and there with clumps of gray moss. When the men nudged the moss with their boots, it crumbled like burned paper. The purple strip, they saw, was made of separate groups of squat shapes, and its color was now clearer — more a green sprinkled with faded blue. A northerly breeze brought a delicate fragrance, which the men drew into their nostrils with cautious curiosity. As they neared a bent wall of tangled shapes, the men in front slowed so that the others could catch up, and the whole group finally came to a halt before a motionless fa?ade of bizarre forms.
From a hundred feet, the forms still looked like scrub, like a bluish thicket full of birds’ nests — not so much because of any true resemblance as because of the eye’s endeavor to find the familiar in the alien.
“Are they spiders?” the Physicist asked hesitantly, and everyone saw spiders with small spindle-shaped bodies covered with thick bristles, standing motionless on extraordinarily long legs tucked under them.
“They’re plants!” exclaimed the Doctor, drawing nearer to one of the tall gray-green creatures. In fact, its “legs” turned out to be stalks, whose thickened, hair-covered nodes could easily be taken for the joints of an arthropod. These stalks, emerging from the mossy ground in groups of six, seven, or eight, converged, archlike, to form a “body” that, surrounded by thin gossamer threads glittering in the sun, resembled a flattened arachnid abdomen. The vegetable spiders grew fairly close together, but it was possible to pass between them. Here and there on the stalks were brighter offshoots, almost the color of Earth leaves, and they ended in closed buds. Once again the Doctor threw a pebble into the “abdomens” suspended twenty feet above the ground; when nothing happened, he examined one of the stalks and finally nicked it with his knife. Out came tiny drops, a bright-yellow sap that immediately began to foam, turning orange, red. In a few moments it coagulated to form a thick resin with an intense aromatic odor that they all liked at first but soon found sickening. Beneath this curious shrubbery it was a little cooler than on the plain.
The plant abdomens offered shade, and there was more shade the deeper they went. They tried not to touch the stalks, and particularly the whitish buds at the ends of the youngest shoots, which aroused an unaccountable repugnance.
The ground was soft, spongy, and gave off a vapor that made it difficult to breathe. The shadows of the abdomens passed across their faces and hands — now larger, now smaller. Some abdomens were slender with orange spikes; others were withered, faded, with long flaccid threads dangling from them.
When a wind came up, the entire thicket emitted an unpleasant hollow rustling, not the sigh of an Earthly forest but a sound like that of sandpaper. At times individual plants blocked the way with intertwined branches, and the men had to go around. Thus they proceeded even more slowly than on the plain. After a while they stopped looking up at the thorny abdomens, stopped trying to see nests, cones, or cocoons in them.
Suddenly the Doctor, who headed the column, noticed a thick black hair hanging before his face — a shiny thread, a painted wire. He was about to brush it aside with his hand, but since this was something new, he raised his eyes — and froze.
A pearl-colored, bulbous thing hanging from the stalks that converged at the base of one of the “cocoons” was watching him. The Doctor felt its gaze even though he could not locate the monster’s eyes.
He saw no head, no limbs — only puffy skin filled with blebs, glistening, and a dark, funnel-shaped protuberance from which dangled a thick black hair six feet long.
“What is it?” asked the Engineer, behind him. When the Doctor did not answer, he looked up and also froze.
“What’s it looking with?” whispered the Engineer, and instinctively backed away, such was the revulsion he felt for the creature, which seemed to be piercing him with a greedy, extraordinarily intense gaze — though no eyes were visible.
“Disgusting!” the Chemist hissed. They were now all standing beside the Doctor, who had been the first to retreat from under the monster — the others stood as far away as the stalks allowed. The Doctor produced the oxidized cylinder from his suit, aimed it slowly at the swollen body, which was lighter than the vegetation surrounding it, and pressed the trigger.
In the next second a great deal happened. First there was a flash that blinded them all except the Doctor, who blinked at that exact moment. A thin stream was still squirting upward when the stalks began sagging, collapsing. A puff of black vapor enveloped the men, and the creature fell with a heavy, wet smack. It lay helpless for perhaps a second, like a gray, rough balloon deflating. The black hair alone danced and whipped above it like a mad thing, cleaving the air in lightning-fast convulsions. Then the hair disappeared, and shapeless pieces of the creature began to crawl like snails in all directions on the spongy moss at their feet. Before any of the men could say or do anything, the creature’s escape — or dispersal — was completed: its last pieces, as small as caterpillars, burrowed into the soil beneath the stalks and were gone. All that remained was a nasty acrid smell.
“A colony of some kind…?” the Chemist asked uncertainly. He pressed his hand to his eyes, still seeing black spots.
“It stinks to high heaven,” said the Physicist. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Let’s,” agreed the Doctor. But when they had gone about fifty feet, he said, “I wonder what would have happened if I had touched that hair.”
“To find out might have cost you a lot,” the Chemist suggested.
“Or possibly nothing. Evolution often gives fearsome forms to completely harmless species.”
“Look, it’s getting brighter over there, to the side,” cried the Cyberneticist. “Let’s get out of this damned spider forest!”
The sound of a brook reached their ears, and they stopped. They continued, and the sound grew louder, then fainter, then disappeared altogether. They could not find its source. The forest thinned, and the ground grew softer, almost boggy. It was unpleasant walking. Sometimes something creaked underfoot, like soaked grass, but no water was visible anywhere.
They found themselves on the rim of a circular depression a few hundred feet in diameter. A number of eight-legged plants stood inside it, not that close to one another. They seemed very old, their stalks splayed, as though supporting with difficulty the central swellings. They resembled spiders — huge emaciated spiders — to a greater degree than anything the men had encountered so far. At the bottom of the depression, here and there, were rust-colored, pitted hunks of metal half-buried in the ground and partly wrapped by plant tendrils. The Engineer immediately slid down the steep though short slope.
Curiously, once he was inside it, what had looked like a depression to the men now looked like a crater — a bomb crater.
“A war?” said the Physicist. He stood at the top of the ridge, watching the Engineer approach a large fragment at the base of the biggest “spider” and attempt to move it.
“Iron?!” the Captain called out.
“No!” the Engineer shouted back. He disappeared behind an object that resembled a shattered cone, then emerged from a clump of stalks, which snapped as he pushed through them. He returned frowning. Several hands reached out to help him as he clambered up. Seeing the expectant faces of the others, he shrugged. “I don’t know what it is. Ruins of some kind. Erosion is far advanced. They’re a hundred, maybe three hundred years old…”
The men filed past the crater in silence and headed for where the vegetation was lowest. Then it ceased — or, rather, it parted to form a narrow trench, a kind of corridor, perfectly straight. The stalks here seemed to have been cut and trampled, the large abdomens pushed aside onto other plants. These other plants were flat, dry, with husks that cracked underfoot like sloughed-off tree bark. The men decided to take the path. Though they had to wade through the dead stalks, they made better progress than before. The path arced northward. They left the dead vegetation and found themselves on a plain on the other side of the copse.
An indistinct line met the path at the point where it emerged from the forest, a continuation of the path, though not paved. In the barren soil there was a rut or groove about six inches deep and six inches wide, covered with a green-gray growth silky to the touch. This curious “moss,” as the Doctor called it, went straight as an arrow, terminating at a bright strip that went like a wall from one end of the horizon to the other.
Above this wall — it
Between the arches were downward bulges, from which something grayish fell in a fine dust or mist.
Drawing closer, the men smelled a strange, bitter, but pleasant odor, as of unfamiliar flowers. The arched roofs loomed higher as the men approached, like an enormous suspension bridge inverted. Against the clouds, at a point where two arches joined, something shone brightly, as if mirrors had been placed there to direct the sun’s rays downward. The wall opposite them was in motion. Grayish brown, it moved like a peristalsis; convex waves ran across it from left to right, as if, behind a curtain, elephants — or animals larger than elephants — were passing at regular intervals, brushing the material with their sides.
Where the narrow, moss-covered groove came to an end, the bitter odor grew intense, unbearable. The Cyberneticist, coughing, said, “It may be poisonous.” Despite the odor, fascinated by the rhythm of the waves, the men moved closer, until only a few steps separated them from the “curtain.” It looked like a thick mat of interwoven fibers. The Doctor picked up a pebble from the ground and tossed it at the wall. The pebble vanished, as if it had dissolved or evaporated before touching the moving surface.
“Did it go inside?” the Cyberneticist asked hesitantly.
“Impossible!” said the Chemist. “It never reached that… that…”
The Doctor picked up a whole fistful of pebbles and threw them in quick succession; they all disappeared a few inches away from the wall. The Engineer removed a key from a small key ring and threw it at the surface, which just then happened to be swollen. The key clinked, as if striking metal, then disappeared.
“What now?” asked the Cyberneticist, looking at the Captain. The latter said nothing. The Doctor put his knapsack on the ground, took out a can of food, with his knife cut from it a cube of jellied meat, and threw it at the “curtain.” The piece of food stuck to the surface, hung there for a while, then began to disappear, as if melting.
“It’s a kind of filter,” said the Doctor, his eyes sparkling. “A selective membrane… something like that…”
In the buckle of one of his knapsack straps the Chemist found a withered tendril of the “spider” plant; it must have got caught there while they were pushing their way through the thicket. Without thinking, he tossed the tendril at the undulating wall. It bounced and fell at his feet.
“A selector…” he said uncertainly.
The Doctor went up to the wall, so close that his shadow touched it, aimed his sleeping-gas weapon, and pulled the trigger. The needle-thin stream instantly produced a hole in the wall, revealing a large dark space with sparks scudding along high and low, and a multitude of tiny white and pink lights glimmering deep inside. The Doctor pulled back, choking; the bitter odor had burned his nostrils and throat.
The aperture contracted like an iris. The waves in the wall slowed as they approached it, went around it, above or below, then picked up speed again. The hole grew smaller. All of a sudden a black fingerlike thing emerged from it and quickly touched all around the rim. The hole closed, and once more the men found themselves in front of a rhythmically rising and falling surface.
The Engineer suggested they stop and deliberate. The Doctor disagreed, feeling that that would be a sign of indecision. Finally they decided to continue along the wall, picked up their knapsacks, and moved on. They went about two miles, crossing more than a dozen moss-grooves that led out to the plain. They discussed what the grooves might be. The hypothesis of irrigation was rejected as unlikely.
The Doctor attempted to examine a few plants plucked from the dark-green ruts. They did resemble moss, but their rootlets had beadlike swellings that contained tiny, hard black grains.
It was long past noon. Hungry, they stopped to eat. There was no shade anywhere, but they preferred not to return to the copse, which lay three thousand feet to their right, because the spider plants had made them uneasy.
“According to the stories I read as a boy,” said the Doctor, his mouth full, “a hole belching fire ought to open up in this damned wall now, and out come a being with three arms and one leg. Under his arm he has an interstellar telecommunicator, or he’s telepathic and tells us that he represents a highly developed but deranged civilization that —”
“Stop that jabbering,” said the Captain. He poured some water from his thermos into his mug, which was immediately covered with condensation. “We’d better decide what to do.”
“I think we should go in there,” said the Doctor, and he got up as if intending to do just that.
“Go in where?” the Physicist asked lazily.
“You must be crazy!” the Cyberneticist exclaimed in a high-pitched voice.
“Not at all. Of course, we could keep on walking like this, hoping the aliens will toss us something to eat.”
“Let’s be serious,” said the Engineer.
“I am serious, and do you know why? Because, quite simply, I’ve had enough of this.” The Doctor turned on his heel.
“Stop!” shouted the Captain.
The Doctor walked straight toward the wall and was only a few feet from it when they jumped up and ran after him. Hearing their pursuit, he stretched out his hand and touched the wall. His hand disappeared. The Doctor stood motionless for a second, then stepped forward and was gone. The other five stopped, gasping, and knelt at the spot where his left boot print was still visible. Suddenly the Doctor’s head appeared above them, his neck disembodied, as if severed by a knife; tears streamed from his eyes, and he sneezed loudly, repeatedly.
“It’s stifling in here,” he said, “and it stings your nose like the devil, but for a few minutes it’s bearable. It’s a little like tear gas. Come on in. It doesn’t hurt — you don’t feel anything at all.”
And at the level of his shoulder an arm appeared in midair. “Damn you!” muttered the Engineer with a mixture of fear and admiration, and he clutched the Doctor’s hand, which pulled him in, so that the Engineer, too, disappeared from sight. One by one the others entered the undulating wall. The Cyberneticist was the last. He hesitated. Then, his heart pounding like a hammer, he closed his eyes and took a step forward.
After a moment of darkness, everything brightened. He found himself with the others, inside a vast place full of puffing and throbbing. Diagonally, vertically, and from side to side, enormous tubes moved, crisscrossing. Of varying thicknesses, bulging here and thinning there, they turned and vibrated, and from the depths of this vast, ceaselessly moving forest of glistening bodies a splashing noise could be heard. It accelerated, stopped, was followed by gurgling; then the sequence was repeated.
From the bitter air they began sneezing, one after another, and their eyes ran. Holding handkerchiefs to their faces, they backed away from the wall, which from the inside looked like a cascade of black syrup.
“Well, we’re home at last — this is a factory, an automated factory!” cried the Engineer between two sneezes.
Gradually they got used to the smell, and the sneezing ceased. Blinking and watery-eyed, they looked about.
A dozen or so paces ahead, in the ground, which was as springy as rubber, they came to black wells; glowing objects the size of a man’s head shot up out of them so quickly it was impossible to see their shape. As they flew up, one of the tubes sucked them in while continuing to turn. The objects did not completely disappear, because their pinkish glow showed faintly through the tube’s quivering walls, as through tinted glass, so that it was possible to watch them travel inside the tube to somewhere farther on.
“A conveyor belt,” the Engineer said through his handkerchief. “Mass production.”
He walked around the wells, stepping carefully. What was the source of the light here? The ceiling was semi-transparent, but its monotonous gray was dissipated in the sea of objects that flowed nimbly by on invisible currents. All this movement appeared to be orchestrated, to have the same tempo.
Fountains of hot material gushed into the air, and the same thing was happening high above, where just beneath the ceiling they could see red arms in the air.
“We must find where the finished product is stored,” the Engineer concluded.
The Captain tapped him on the shoulder. “What kind of energy do you think this is?”
The Engineer shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“It would take you a year to locate the finished product — this room is miles long,” the Physicist said.
It was curious, but the deeper they went into the hall, the easier it was for them to breathe — as if the bitter smell came only from the wall.
“Are we lost?” the Cyberneticist asked anxiously.
The Captain checked his compass.
“No. The reading is good… There’s probably no iron here, and no electromagnetism.”
For more than an hour they wandered through the pulsing forest of this unusual factory, until the area around them became more open. They felt a cool, almost refrigerated gust of air. The network of tubes parted, and they found themselves near the mouth of an enormous helical funnel. Boughs from above descended to it, flapping like whips, each ending in a nodule, and from the nodules came a sudden hail of somersaulting objects, black and shiny, that dropped into the funnel in a place the men could not see, since it was twenty feet above their heads.
The dark-gray wall of the funnel now began to expand: something was pushing it from within.
They stepped back instinctively, so ominous was the appearance of the swelling bubble. Then, without a sound, it burst, and a stream of black things poured from the opening at the top. At the same moment, lower down, a trough with outward-turned edges emerged from a wide well, and the objects dropped into it with a drumming sound. The trough shook in such a way that in a few seconds the black objects were resting in a neat quadrangle on its shallow bottom.
“The finished product!” cried the Engineer. He rushed to the edge and without a moment’s hesitation bent over and grabbed the nearest black object. The Captain caught him by the belt of his suit at the last moment, and this was all that kept the Engineer from falling headfirst into the trough, because he refused to let go of the heavy object but was unable to lift it himself. The Physicist and the Doctor had to give him a hand, and together they hauled the thing out.
It was as large as a man’s torso and had semitransparent segments, inside which were rows of small crystals, metallic, sparkling, and there were apertures surrounded by earlike swellings, and, at the top, an uneven mosaic of projections made of an exceptionally hard substance that did not reflect the light. In a word, the object was extremely complex. The Engineer knelt in front of it, fingered and tapped it, examined the apertures from various angles in an attempt to discover any moving parts.
Meanwhile the Doctor was observing the trough. After forming a geometric quadrangle of the black objects, it rose a little, pivoted, and suddenly softened, but only on one side. Changing shape, it turned into an enormous spoon. Then a large snout protruded and opened, giving off a hot, bitter stench; the opening sucked in all the objects with a loud smack and closed again, whereupon the snout began to glow in the middle. The Doctor could see the objects melting inside, fusing to form a fiery orange slurry.
Then the glow dimmed; the snout went dark.
Forgetting his colleagues, the Doctor walked around two great soaring columns, inside which lumps of the molten material now flowed, as through a monstrous esophagus. Craning his neck and wiping his teary eyes from time to time, he attempted to trace the path of the incandescent slurry through the labyrinth of tubes. At times it disappeared from view, but he would come upon its trail again as it glowed in the depths of the tortuous black conduits. Finally he stopped at a spot that seemed familiar, and saw red-hot objects, already partly formed, flying into a pit, while nearby others shot out of one of the open wells — only to be swallowed up by a row of thick tubes dangling overhead like elephant trunks. Cooling, now pink, the objects traveled up through the tubes. The Doctor walked on, head back, oblivious to everything, then suddenly almost fell and uttered a strangled cry.
He had returned to the open space; before him the helical funnel was larger than ever as the volley of black objects, which had cooled completely after their travels, fell into it. The Doctor examined the sides of the funnel, now knowing in which direction the “delivery” would take place — and found himself back among the others gathered around the Engineer, who was still examining the black object.
Again a huge bubble burst and spurted out more “finished product,” and again a trough emerged.
“I’ve figured the whole thing out! I can tell you!” he shouted.
“Where were you? I was beginning to worry,” the Captain said. “Have you really discovered something? Because the Engineer has drawn a blank.”
“A blank wouldn’t be so bad!” growled the Engineer. He got to his feet, kicked the object furiously, and glared at the Doctor. “Well, what’s the big discovery?”
The Doctor smiled. “These things are drawn in here” — he pointed to the snout, which just then happened to open. “Now it’s warming up inside, see? And now they’re melting, fusing, being carried to the top in portions, where they’re treated. Then, still red-hot, they drop to the bottom, underground — there must be another level there — and something else happens to them, and they come back up, by the same well, pale but still glowing. They journey up to the ceiling, fall into this” — he indicated the funnel — “and from there go into the trough, then the snout, melt, and so on and so on, forming, melting, forming.”
“Have you gone mad?” whispered the Engineer. On his forehead were large drops of sweat.
“You don’t believe it? See for yourself.”
The Engineer did, twice, which took him a good hour. By the time they returned to the trough, which was filling up with a new quadrangle of the “finished product,” it was growing dark; the light was turning gray.
The Engineer looked demented; his face twitched. The others, though astounded, were less shaken than he by this mystery.
“We’d better leave now,” said the Captain. “It may be difficult once it’s dark.” He took the Engineer by the arm. The Engineer first let himself be pulled away, but then suddenly tore free, ran back to the black object which they had left behind, and lifted it with difficulty.
“You want to take that with you?” asked the Captain. “All right. Someone give him a hand.”
The Physicist grasped the earlike swellings and helped the Engineer with his burden. In this way they reached the concave wall. The Doctor quietly moved through the glistening, syruplike “waterfall” and found himself back on the plain, in the cool evening air. With joy he took a deep breath, filling his lungs.
The others emerged behind him; the Engineer and the Physicist lugged the black object to the spot where they had left their knapsacks and dropped it on the ground.
The portable stove was lit, some water was heated, and meat concentrate dissolved in it. The men ate in silence, ravenous. It was now completely dark. The stars had come out, and their brilliance increased minute by minute as the murky brushwood of the distant copse disappeared into the night. Only the stove’s bluish flames swaying gently in the breeze provided light. The high wall of the “factory” behind them made no sound, and it was impossible to see, in the darkness, whether the horizontal waves were still rippling across it.
“It gets dark here as in the tropics back home,” said the Chemist. “Is this the equatorial zone?”
“I guess,” said the Captain. “Though I don’t even know the planet’s angle with respect to the ecliptic.”
“But that must be known.”
“Yes, but the data are on the ship.”
Silence. The cold was beginning to bite, so they wrapped themselves in blankets, and the Physicist began to pitch their tent, inflating the canvas until it was a taut hemisphere with a small entrance at the ground. He walked around looking for rocks to hold down the edges of the tent — they had pegs, but nothing to drive them with. All he could find were small chips, so he returned empty-handed and rejoined the others sitting around the blue glimmer. Then his gaze fell on the heavy object that they had brought with them from the “factory.” He anchored the tent with that.
“At least it’s useful for something,” said the Doctor, watching.
The Engineer sat hunched over, his head in his hands, a picture of dejection. He said nothing, and even when receiving his plate of food only grunted. Then, unexpectedly, he stood up and asked, “Well, and what now?”
“We go to sleep, of course.” The Doctor solemnly took a cigarette from his pack, lit it, and inhaled with obvious pleasure.
“And tomorrow?” asked the Engineer.
“Henry, you’re acting like a child,” said the Captain, cleaning the saucepan with a handful of sandy earth. “Tomorrow we’ll investigate more of the factory. Today we must have covered a quarter of a mile.”
“And you think we’ll find something different?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have the whole morning. In the afternoon we return to the ship.”
“Wonderful,” grumbled the Engineer. He stretched, groaned. “I feel as if I’ve been beaten.”
“So do we,” the Doctor assured him good-humoredly. “But listen, you really can’t tell us anything about this?” He pointed the glowing tip of his cigarette at the barely visible shape holding down the tent.
“Of course. Isn’t it obvious? It’s a device to —”
“No, seriously. After all, the thing has so many parts. But this is not my line.”
“And you think it’s mine?!” the Engineer exploded. “It’s the work of a lunatic, or, rather” — he pointed in the direction of the factory — “lunatics. A civilization of lunatics, that’s what this damned Eden is!” Then he added calmly: “The object we hauled here was manufactured by a whole series of processes — compression, segmentation, thermal treatment, polishing. It’s made of polymers, inorganic crystals.
What it’s for, I have no idea. It’s a part, not a whole. But even as a part, taken out of this crack-brained mill, it looks crazy to me.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Captain. The Chemist, having put away the utensils, was spreading out his blanket. The Doctor extinguished his cigarette and carefully put the unsmoked half back in his pocket.
“I have no proof. There are power cells, units of some kind, in there — not connected to anything. Like a closed circuit, but crisscrossed by a strange insulating substance. This thing… cannot function. That’s how it looks to me. After a number of years a man develops a kind of professional intuition. I could be mistaken, but… no, I’d rather not talk about that.”
The Captain got up. The others followed his example. When they extinguished the stove, they were plunged into total darkness. The stars above sparkled intensely in what seemed a peculiarly low sky.
“Deneb,” said the Physicist softly. The men looked up.
“Where? There?” asked the Doctor. Unconsciously they lowered their voices.
“Yes. And the smaller star nearby is Gamma Cygni. Very bright!”
“About three times brighter than on Earth,” said the Captain.
“We’re a long way from home,” muttered the Doctor. Nobody said anything more. One by one they crawled into the round tent. They were so tired that, when the Doctor said his customary “Good night,” deep breathing was the only reply.
He lay awake, thinking. Were they being careless? What if something nasty crawled out of the neighboring scrub during the night? They should have posted a sentry. For a while the Doctor considered getting up and standing guard, but then he smiled his ironic smile in the darkness, turned over with a sigh, and fell sound asleep.
The morning greeted them with sunshine. There were more white cumulus clouds in the sky than before. The men ate little breakfast, saving the rest of their food for a final meal before returning to the ship.
“If only I could wash!” the Cyberneticist complained. “I stink. There must be water here somewhere!”
“Where there’s water, there must be a barber,” the Doctor added, peering into a small mirror and grimacing. “Only I’m afraid that on this planet a barber, after shaving you, would put all the hairs back.”
“You’ll joke on your deathbed,” the Engineer said.
“Well,” replied the Doctor, “that’s not a bad way to go.”
They gathered their things, deflated and packed the tent, and set off along the undulating screen, until they were almost a mile from their campsite.
“Maybe I’m mistaken, but the wall seems a bit higher here,” said the Physicist, squinting at the ripples going in both directions. Higher up, they shimmered, like silver.
The men put their packs down in one pile and entered the factory without incident, as on the previous day. The Physicist and the Cyberneticist were the last to enter.
“How does that disappearing work?” asked the Cyberneticist. “So much happened yesterday, I forgot all about it.”
“Something to do with refraction,” the Physicist replied, without conviction.
“And what supports the roof? It can’t be that.” He pointed to the rippling curtain before them.
“I don’t know. Maybe the supports are inside somewhere, or on the other side.”
The place was similar to what they had seen the day before. They walked through it now with greater confidence and speed. At first it seemed that everything was the same: the columns, the wells, the forest of pulsing tubes, the incandescence, the whole flickering confusion of processes taking place at different tempos. But the “finished products,” whose troughlike receptacle it took them a while to discover, were not the same; they were larger and shaped differently from those of yesterday. And that was not all.
These “products,” which were also being reclaimed and recycled, were not identical. They all resembled half of an egg, each notched at the top and with various details that indicated it was to be joined to other things. The half-egg also had protruding pipes, in the mouths of which were lens-shaped pieces that moved like valves. But some of the objects had two pipes, and others three or four. The additional pipes were smaller and often seemed unfinished, as though work on them had been interrupted. Sometimes a lens filled the entire bore of a pipe, sometimes only part of it, and sometimes there was no lens, or only the “bud” of one, a particle hardly bigger than a pea. The surface of the half-egg was smooth, polished.
And the pipes varied in other ways: in one half-egg the men found two pipes fused together and communicating through a small opening, their lenses forming something in the nature of a figure eight. The Doctor called this “Siamese Twins.” And the mouths of some small pipes were closed.
“What do you say to this?” asked the Captain, kneeling as the Engineer worked his way through an entire collection fished out of the trough.
“For the time being, nothing. Let’s move on,” said the Engineer, getting up. But it was obvious that his spirits were improved.
They now saw that the hall was divided into sections, according to the process being performed in the cycle. The production mechanisms themselves — such as the forest of esophaguslike tubes — were everywhere the same. Half a mile farther on, the men came to a section that, while going through the same motions as the one before, carried nothing in its tubes, deposited nothing into its wells, and absorbed, treated, and melted nothing. Thinking at first that the product was so transparent as to be invisible, the Engineer leaned over to a chute and put out his hand to catch what should have been dropping out, but there was indeed nothing.
“This is crazy,” said the Chemist.
But somehow the Engineer was not that surprised. “Interesting,” he said, and they walked on.
They approached an area of increasing noise. It was a dull noise, but deafening — as of millions of heavy, wet pieces of leather dropping on a huge untightened drum. Then the noise became more distinct.
From dozens of club-shaped, quivering stalactites hanging from the ceiling overhead, a veritable hail of black objects fell, and were deflected, now on one side, now on the other, by inflated gray membranes, like bladders, then were snatched in midair by fast arms and arranged neatly at the bottom, side by side, in quadrangles and straight rows. Every so often a huge thing, the size of a whale’s head, would emerge and with a long sigh suck in several rows of “finished product” at a time.
“The storehouse,” the Engineer explained. “They arrive from above — that’s a kind of conveyor — and are collected and returned to the cycle.”
“How do you know they’re returned?” asked the Physicist.
“Because the storehouse is full.”
Nobody really understood this, but they said nothing and continued on.
It was almost four o’clock when the Captain gave the order to leave. They were in a section consisting of two parts. The first part produced rough disks equipped with handles; the second cut off the handles and attached elliptical rings in their place, whereupon the disks journeyed underground and returned smooth — “clean-shaven,” as the Doctor said — in order to have ear-shaped handles affixed to them again.
When the men came out on the plain, the sun was strong, still high overhead. As they walked to the spot where they had left their tent and packs, the Engineer said, “Well, it’s beginning to make sense.”
“Really?” the Chemist sneered.
The Captain nodded and turned to the Doctor. “How would you describe it?” he asked.
“A corpse,” the Doctor said.
“What do you mean, a corpse?” asked the Chemist, who was still in the dark.
“An animated corpse,” the Doctor added. They went on a bit farther in silence.
“Is someone going to explain or not?” asked the Chemist, irritated.
“It’s an automated complex for the production of miscellaneous parts, which eventually, in the course of time, went completely out of kilter, because it was left unsupervised,” the Engineer said.
“Ah! And how long ago, do you think…?”
“That I don’t know.”
“A rough guess… several decades,” said the Cyberneticist.
“Or even longer. I wouldn’t be surprised if the complex was abandoned two hundred years ago.”
“Or a thousand years ago,” the Captain said.
“Management computing systems fail at a rate corresponding to the coefficient —” the Cyberneticist began, but was interrupted by the Engineer:
“Their systems may operate on different lines from ours; they may not even be electronic.
Personally, I don’t think they are. The elements are nonmetallic, semifluid.”
“Never mind that,” said the Doctor. “What do you think the prospects are? Myself, I’d say they’re poor.”
“You mean the planet’s inhabitants?” asked the Chemist.
“That’s precisely what I mean.”