Just before nightfall the Captain went out on top with the Engineer to get a breath of fresh air.
They sat down on a bank of upturned earth and fixed their eyes on the last visible sliver of the ruby-red solar disk.
“I wouldn’t have believed it,” murmured the Engineer.
“That pile — they built it well.”
“Solid Earth workmanship.”
They said nothing for a while.
“It’s a good start,” said the Captain.
“Yes, but we’ve only done about a hundredth of what has to be done in order for the…”
“I know,” the Captain replied calmly.
“And we still don’t know if…”
“Yes, the steering nozzles, the whole lower deck.”
“But we’ll do it.”
The Engineer’s eyes stopped on a long mound at the top of the knoll: the place where they had buried the creature. “I completely forgot…” he said in amazement. “It’s as if it happened a year ago.”
“I haven’t. I’ve been thinking about it — about the creature — the whole time. Because of what the Doctor found in its lungs.”
“What did he find?”
“Or not a needle — you can see for yourself. It’s in a jar in the library. A piece of thin tubing, broken, with a sharp end, almost like something used to give injections.”
The Engineer stood up. “It’s curious, but somehow I don’t find that interesting. I feel now like someone at a foreign airport, at a stopover of a few minutes, who mixes with the local crowd and sees strange, incomprehensible things but knows that he doesn’t belong to the place and that soon he will be flying away. So to him it’s all distant, indifferent.”
“It won’t be that soon…”
“I know, but that’s how I feel.”
“Let’s go back. We have to replace the stopgaps before we turn in. And install proper fuses.
Then the pile can be put on idle.”
“All right, let’s go.”
They spent the night in the ship, leaving the small lights on. Every so often one of the men would wake up, check with sleepy eyes to see if the bulbs were glowing, and fall asleep again, reassured.
In the morning, the first piece of equipment to be mobilized was the cleaning robot. Every quarter of an hour or so, it became helplessly stuck in the wreckage that obstructed everything. The Cyberneticist, armed with tools, would run after it, extricate it from the rubbish, removing pieces that had proved too large for the neck of the grasper, then start the thing up again. The robot shuffled forward, took on the next heap of wreckage, and soon got stuck again. After breakfast the Doctor tried out his shaver. The result was a man in a bronze mask: the forehead and skin around the eyes were tanned, but the lower part of the face was white. Everyone followed his example.
“We should feed ourselves better,” concluded the Chemist, surprised by his gaunt reflection in the mirror.
“What do you say to fresh game?” proposed the Cyberneticist.
The Chemist shuddered.
“No, thank you. Don’t even mention it. I had nightmares about that… that…”
“What else could it have been?”
“Can an animal start a generator?”
Everyone was listening to the conversation.
“All things at a higher level of development wear clothing of one form or another,” said the Engineer, “and that doubler was naked.”
“Interesting. You said ‘naked,’ ” observed the Doctor.
“You wouldn’t say that a cow or an ape was naked, would you?”
“That’s because they have hair.”
“A hippopotamus or a crocodile has no hair, yet you don’t call them naked.”
“So? It just seemed the right thing to say.”
They fell silent for a while.
“It’s almost ten,” said the Captain. “We’ve had a rest, so I think we should make another excursion now. In a different direction this time. The Engineer was supposed to prepare the jectors — how is that coming along?”
“We have five, and all are charged.”
“Good. We went north before, let’s try east now. And don’t use the jectors unless you have to.
Especially if we come across those… doublers, as the Engineer called them.”
“Doublers,” the Doctor muttered to himself, as if trying out the name and not liking it.
“Shall we go?” asked the Physicist.
“All right. But let’s secure the hatch first, to avoid new surprises.”
“Shouldn’t we take the jeep?” asked the Cyberneticist.
“I’ll need at least five hours to get it working,” said the Engineer. “Unless we postpone the excursion until tomorrow?”
But no one wanted to postpone it, so they set off around eleven, after preparing their equipment.
As if by arrangement — though no one had suggested it — they went in pairs and kept close together; the only man without a weapon, the Doctor, was in the middle pair. Whether the terrain was more walkable or they simply walked faster, they lost sight of the rocket in less than an hour. The landscape changed.
There were more and more slender gray “calyxes,” which they avoided, and in the distance, in the north, they saw hills that appeared domed and met the plain in steep crags. But the hills ahead of them, as they marched, were covered with patches of vegetation darker than the soil.
The vegetation rustled underfoot and was the color of ashes. The young shoots, however, were whitish veinlike tubes with small beads growing out of them.
“Do you know what I miss the most here?” said the Physicist. “Grass, ordinary grass. I would never have thought that grass would be so…” He groped for the word. “… necessary. “
The sun was brutal. As they approached the hills, they could hear a soughing sound.
“Strange. There’s no wind, but there’s the sound of a wind,” remarked the Chemist, who was in the first pair.
“It’s coming from higher up,” the Captain said, behind him. “Look, those are Earth trees!”
“They’re a different color…”
“They’re two colors,” said the Doctor, who had sharp eyes. “They alternate — now they’re violet, now blue with yellow highlights.”
The men left the plain and entered a broad canyon with clay walls that were covered with a delicate mist. On closer inspection the mist turned out to be a kind of lichen that resembled loose fiberglass insulation.
They looked up as they passed the first clump of trees, growing at the edge of a precipice about forty feet above their heads.
“But those aren’t trees at all!” cried the Cyberneticist with disappointment, at the end of the line.
The “trees” had thick, extremely shiny trunks, as though they had been greased, and multilayered crowns that pulsed rhythmically, darkening, then expanding and paling, letting the sunlight through in a hundred tiny places. This was accompanied by a sound, as though a chorus were whispering, over and over again, “fsss… hhaaa… fsss… hhaaa…” Then they noticed, on the nearest tree, growing out of its twisting branches, blisters as long as bananas and swollen with grapelike excrescences that puffed and darkened, collapsed and paled, puffed and darkened, collapsed and paled.
“It’s breathing,” the Engineer murmured. He listened raptly to the sounds that drifted down and filled the canyon.
“But observe that each has a rhythm of its own,” the Doctor cried, excited. “The shorter it is, the faster it breathes! They are… lung-trees!”
“Let’s keep moving!” called the Captain, who was a dozen or so paces ahead of the standing group.
They followed him. The canyon narrowed, and its floor led gradually uphill, bringing them to a domed rise between two clumps of trees.
“When you shut your eyes, it’s like being at the seashore. Try it!” the Physicist said to the Engineer.
“I’ll keep my eyes open, thanks,” muttered the Engineer in reply. He left their line of march and made for the highest point on the rise.
Before them now lay a rolling landscape with copses of breathing trees here and there, olive and russet. There were hillocks with clay slopes the color of honey and patches of moss that were silver in the sun and gray-green in the shade. The whole expanse was crisscrossed by thin, narrow lines that went in different directions. They ran through the valleys but avoided the hills. Some were reddish, some white, as though strewn with sand, and some were black as coal.
“Roads!” exclaimed the Engineer, but corrected himself immediately. “No, they’re too narrow for roads… What could they be?”
“We found something similar beyond the spider grove,” said the Chemist, raising binoculars to his eyes.
“No, that was different,” the Cyberneticist began.
“Look! Look!” The Doctor’s shouts made them all jump.
Something transparent was gliding along a yellow line that passed, descending, between two hillocks half a mile away. The thing shone pale in the sunlight; it was like a semitransparent wheel with spokes, rotating. When it appeared against the sky, it became almost invisible, but farther down, at the foot of a clay escarpment, it gleamed more clearly, a spinning cloud, and shot off in a straight line past a clump of breathing trees — and vanished into the mouth of a distant canyon.
The Doctor turned to his colleagues, his eyes bright, his teeth bared, as if smiling, but there was no gaiety in his face. “Interesting, no?”
“Damn, I forgot my binoculars. Give me yours,” said the Engineer, turning to the Cyberneticist.
“Never mind,” he added, because it was too late.
The Cyberneticist hefted his jector. “We’re not well armed,” he mumbled.
“Why, do you think we’re going to be attacked?” asked the Chemist, glaring at him.
They said nothing for a while, staring at the scene around them.
“Well, let’s move on,” the Cyberneticist suggested.
“Yes,” said the Captain. “Wait! There’s another!”
A second cloud, moving much faster than the first, snaked in and out of the hills. It kept low to the ground. When it came straight in their direction, they lost sight of it altogether; it was only when it turned that the blurred, revolving disk again became visible.
“Some kind of vehicle…” muttered the Physicist, putting his hand on the Engineer’s shoulder but not taking his eyes off the gleaming cloud, which grew smaller and smaller as it retreated among the copses.
“I have a Ph.D.,” said the Engineer, as if to himself, “but this… Anyway, there is something inside there, convex, like the hub of a propeller.”
“Yes, and it’s brighter than the rest,” said the Captain. “How big do you think the craft is?”
“If the trees down there are the same height as the ones above the canyon, then I would say at least thirty feet in diameter.”
The Doctor pointed to a line of hills. “Both of them disappeared there. So we should head in that direction, agreed?” And he began to descend the slope. The others hurried after him.
“We’d better prepare ourselves for contact,” said the Cyberneticist, nervously licking his lips.
“We have no idea what form it will take. The best thing is to remain calm, to exercise self-control,” said the Captain. “But we should change formation. One man in front, one in the rear, and let’s spread out a bit more.”
“Do we have to stay in the open?” asked the Physicist. “It might be better if we were less visible.”
“We don’t want to conceal ourselves too much. That will look suspicious. But, true, the more we observe without being observed, the better…”
After descending a few hundred feet, they came to the first of the lines.
It resembled a furrow made by an old-fashioned plow; the soil, crumbly, had been thrown up on both sides of a groove no more than two hands wide. The sunken, moss-covered strips that they had encountered on their first expedition had been of similar dimensions, but here there was no moss, only bare, broken ground that ran through a uniform cover of whitish overgrowth.
“Strange,” grumbled the Engineer, rising from his haunches. He wiped his hands on his suit.
“The grooves to the north, I think, are older,” said the Doctor, “and haven’t been used for a long time. While these…”
“That’s possible,” agreed the Physicist. “But what made this? Not a wheel — the track of a wheel would be totally different.”
“Some sort of agricultural machine?” the Cyberneticist suggested.
“Why would they plow to a depth of four inches?” They stepped across the line and walked on.
As they passed a wooded copse, whose noise made it difficult even to carry on a conversation, they heard a piercing whistle from behind and instinctively dived behind some trees. From their concealment they saw, high above the meadow, a luminous perpendicular vortex traveling at the velocity of an express train. Its rim was darker, and the bright center shone violet, orange, violet, orange. The diameter of the center was from six to eight feet.
The craft rushed past and was gone. They continued in the same direction. When the copse came to an end, they were obliged to cross open country, which made them uncomfortable. They kept looking over their shoulders. The chain of hills was already quite close when they heard another piercing whistle.
There being no cover whatsoever, they dropped to the ground. A gyrating disk hurtled by, its center a deep blue.
“That one must have been more than fifty feet high!” the Engineer hissed excitedly. They got up and dusted themselves off. Between them and the hills lay a hollow that was exactly bisected by a strangely colored ribbon: a brook with a bright, sandy bottom visible through the water. The flowing water was bordered on both sides by a strip of iridescent blue vegetation, followed by another strip of pale rose and, after that, thin silver plants that were interspersed with fluffy spheres as big as a man’s head; above each sphere rose the three-lobed chalice of an enormous flower white as snow.
The men approached this unusual collection of colors. When they reached the fluffy spheres, the nearest flowers suddenly started quivering and slowly lifted into the air. They floated overhead for a while in a flock, emitting a soft hum, then soared upward, whirling and gleaming in the sun, and alighted in a thicket of spheres on the other side of the brook. Where the brook intersected the furrow, its banks were lined by an arch of a glassy substance perforated at regular intervals by circular openings. The Engineer tested the strength of this bridge with his foot and gingerly crossed to the other side. As soon as he got there, a host of white flowers flew up from under his feet and circled above him anxiously like startled pigeons.
At the brook the men stopped to fill their canteens with water. Not for drinking, obviously, but to run tests on it later. The Doctor plucked one of the small plants that formed the rose strip and put it in his buttonhole, like a flower. Its stem was covered with tiny translucent flesh-colored nodes whose fragrance was exquisite. No one said so, but they were sorry to leave such a beautiful spot.
The hillside they ascended was overgrown with mosses that rustled underfoot.
“There’s something at the top!” the Captain said. Against the sky, a vague shape moved. There were blinding flashes of light. Several hundred feet from the summit, they saw the object, a low revolving dome. On its surface were mirrors that reflected now the sun, now fragments of the landscape.
Running their eyes along the ridge, they noticed another, similar dome — or, rather, guessed its presence by its regular flashing. And there were more and more such points, sparkling along the ridge as far as the horizon.
From the top of the hill, they were finally able to gaze into the interior of a region hitherto unseen.
The gentle slopes became fields crisscrossed by rows of pointed masts. The farthest masts blurred at the foot of a blue edifice made indistinct by the intervening atmosphere. Above the nearest masts the air roiled in vertical columns, as if from intense heat. Between their rows went dozens of grooves, all leading in the same direction, to the east. There, on the horizon, in a hazy mosaic of irregular angles, towers, and gold and silver spires, lay a multitude of buildings which, because of the distance, merged into a glimmering bluish mass. The sky was not as bright there, and in some places milky vapor poured into it and spread mushroom-like into a thin layer of cloud, in which, when they strained their eyes to the limit, they could see tiny black points appearing and disappearing.
“A city…” whispered the Engineer.
“I saw it, before we crashed…” said the Captain, at his side.
They began the descent. The first row of masts or pylons lay across their path at the bottom of the slope. These were pitch-black cones at the base, which, about ten feet above the ground, continued as semitransparent poles each with a central pin of some kind of metal. The air shimmered overhead, and they could hear a hollow, steady droning.
“Vents?” the Physicist asked.
They touched the cone bases, cautiously at first, then more boldly. There was no vibration.
“I feel no air current,” said the Engineer. “Perhaps these are emitters…”
They proceeded across gently undulating fields. The city was no longer in view, but there was no way they could get lost: the masts and the grooves both indicated the direction. Occasionally a luminous, spinning vehicle flew by, but always so far away that they made no attempt to conceal themselves.
A copse appeared up ahead, an olive-yellow patch of trees. At first they thought to go around it, as the row of masts did, but since it extended so far on both sides, they decided to cut through it instead.
Breathing trees surrounded them. Dry leaves crunched underfoot at every step, and the soil beneath them was covered with little tube plants and white moss. Pale, spiked flowers protruded here and there from among thick roots. Droplets of aromatic resin trickled down rough trunks.
The Engineer, at the head of the column, slowed down and said, “Damn! We shouldn’t have come this way.”
A deep hollow opened up between the trees; on its loamy walls were festoons of long, snakelike vines. The men had gone too far to turn back now, so they climbed down, using the vines, to the bottom of the hollow, where a thread of water flowed. The opposite wall was too steep, so they followed the bottom, looking for a place to climb up. After about a hundred feet, the sides became lower, and the light improved.
“What’s that?” the Engineer asked suddenly. A breeze brought a sweetish, unpleasant smell, as of something burning. They halted. Speckles of sunlight moved across them; then it grew darker again. The canopy of trees rustled high overhead.
“There’s something nearby,” whispered the Engineer.
By now they could climb the other side, but instead, keeping close together and crouching slightly, they continued toward the thicket at the end of the hollow, through which they saw, when occasionally the breeze moved stalks aside, a pale, elongated mass. The ground grew muddy and squished, but they paid no attention to that. When the stalks, covered with racemose gnarls, were parted, the men beheld a sunny clearing. Through the clearing ran a single groove, which terminated in a ditch at a right angle to it and lined with upturned clay. They stood stock-still at the edge of the thicket. The stalks rustled as they rubbed against the men’s suits, touching them lazily with their gnarls and then withdrawing, as if repelled. The crew stared.
The waxy heap along the edge of the ditch at first appeared to be a homogeneous mass. The men could barely breathe, the stench was so bad. Then they began to distinguish separate figures. Some creatures lay with their humps upward, others on their side; frail torsos with small upturned faces were wedged in between huge muscles, and massive trunks lay intermingled with tiny hands, knotty fingers, that dangled limply. The swollen bodies were covered with damp yellow patches. The Doctor gripped the men on either side of him so tightly that they would have cried out, had they been aware of him.
Slowly the men stepped forward, arms linked, eyes fixed on what filled the ditch. The ditch was big. Thick drops of fluid, glistening in the sunlight, trickled down waxy backs and sides, and collected in the sunken, eyeless faces. The men thought they could hear the sound of dripping.
An approaching whistle made them jump, and in a second they had rushed back to the thicket and dived through the vegetation to the ground, clutching their jectors. The stalks were still swaying when the whirling column appeared shining in the air between the trees opposite the men and entered the clearing.
It slowed when it was about a dozen feet from the ditch, but its whistle grew louder, and a strong wind blew around it. The craft circled the ditch. Suddenly clay exploded into the air, and a reddish cloud covered the luminous disk halfway up. A shower of fragments rained down on the thicket and on the men hugging the ground. They heard a ghastly sound, as though a gigantic spur were ripping wet canvas, and then the disk had reached the other end of the clearing and was returning. For a moment it halted, the whirling column shifting slightly to the right, to the left, as if taking aim, then suddenly accelerated, and the other side of the ditch was hidden in a cloud of exploding clay. The disk hummed, shuddered, appeared to be expanding. The men glimpsed mirrorlike bubbles on either side of it, which reflected the trees and scrub on a reduced scale, and inside something moved, shaped like a bear. The sharp vibrating sound grew fainter, and the column sped away along the same groove by which it had come.
A bulging ridge of fresh clay now rose above the clearing, and alongside it was a trench three feet deep.
The men got up slowly, brushing bits of plant filaments off their suits. Then, as if by agreement, they backtracked, leaving the hollow, the trees, and the rows of masts. They were halfway up the slope, in sight of the revolving mirror-dome, when the Engineer said, “Maybe they were only animals.”
“And what are we?” asked the Doctor, like an echo, in the same tone of voice.
“No, I meant…”
“Did you all see what was sitting inside that disk?”
“I didn’t see anything,” said the Physicist.
“It was in the middle, sitting in something like the gondola of a balloon. Did you see it?” the Captain asked the Doctor.
“I did. But I’m not sure…”
“You mean, you’d rather not be sure?”
They climbed higher, passing the ridge in silence, and then the brook. When some luminous disks approached from the next copse, the men hit the ground.
“It’s odd they haven’t noticed us so far,” remarked the Engineer, when they got up and moved on.
The Captain suddenly stopped. “The lower RA channel is undamaged, am I right, Henry?”
“Yes, it’s intact. Why?”
“There’s a reserve in the pile. We could draw off some of it.”
“As much as five gallons!” said the Engineer, and a wicked smile spread on his face.
“I don’t understand,” the Doctor said.
“They want to load the gun,” explained the Physicist.
“With uranium?” The Doctor went pale. “You can’t be thinking of…”
“We’re not thinking,” the Captain snapped. “From the moment I saw that thing, I stopped thinking. Later we can think. But now…”
“Look out!” shouted the Chemist.
A luminous disk flew past, but then slowed and circled back toward them. Five jector barrels rose from the ground, looking like children’s rifles against the colossus that filled half the sky with its flickering.
The disk hovered; the noise intensified, then died away; and the whirling slowed. They saw a broad azure polygon, which began to tilt, as though about to tumble, but two arms extended to support it.
From the central gondola, which had lost its mirrorlike sheen, a thing emerged, small, dark, hairy, and with rapid movements of its limbs, which were connected by a loose membrane, it clambered down the slanting perforated edge, sprang to the ground, and in a half-crouch made straight for the men.
At the same time, the gondola unfolded on all sides at once, like a flower opening, and a large gleaming body floated down on a thick oval surface that immediately shrank and disappeared. The big creature then slowly straightened to its full height. They recognized it, though it was strangely altered — wrapped in a lustrous, silvery material that spiraled from bottom to top, where a small flat face appeared in a black-rimmed opening.
The furry thing that had leaped from the now-motionless disk came nimbly and quickly toward them, not losing contact with the ground. They saw that it dragged behind it a very large, flat, spatulate tail.
“I’m shooting,” the Engineer said in a low voice. He pressed his face to the stock of his jector.
“No,” cried the Doctor.
The Captain was about to say “Wait” when the Engineer shot at the crawling creature and missed. The electric beam was invisible; they could only hear a feeble hiss. The Engineer still had his finger on the trigger. The huge silvery creature had not budged. Suddenly it moved — and whistled — and the crawling creature sprang, covering something like fifteen feet in one leap. As it landed, it rolled itself into a ball, bristling and strangely swollen. Its spatulate tail stiffened, stood vertical, and spread, and from its surface, which was cupped like a clamshell, something flickered and drifted in the crew’s direction, as though carried by the wind.
“Shoot!” yelled the Captain.
A ball of flame, no larger than a walnut, floated gently on the air, moving a little to one side, to the other, but approaching steadily. And it hissed, a sound like drops of water dancing on a hot plate. They all shot at once.
Hit several times, the small creature dropped to the ground and curled up with its fanned tail completely covering it. Almost simultaneously, the ball of flame veered, as if suddenly losing its direction.
It passed them at a distance of a dozen feet and disappeared from sight.
The large silver creature drew itself up still higher. Something gossamer appeared above it, and the creature began to climb up that web toward the open gondola. The men could hear the smack of the shots hitting its body; then it folded and fell to the ground with a thud.
They got up and ran to it.
“Overhead!” shouted the Chemist.
Two gleaming disks emerged from the forest and flew toward the hills. The men dived into the hollow, ready for anything, but, strangely, the disks went by without slowing down and disappeared.
Then came a muffled boom. The men turned around: it was from the copse of breathing trees behind them. One of the trees had split in two and come crashing down, branches crackling, spewing a cloud of vapor.
“Hurry!” shouted the Captain. He rushed over to the small creature, whose paws protruded from under its hairless, fleshy tail; pointing his barrel at it, he fired continuously for fifteen seconds, then scattered its burned remains with his boot and stamped them into the ground. The Engineer touched its hump, which was bulging and appeared to be slowly expanding.
“Burn it!” shouted the Captain, running over to them. He was very pale.
“It’s too big,” muttered the Engineer.
“We’ll see!” the Captain said through, clenched teeth and fired from a distance of two feet. The air around his jector barrel shimmered. Suddenly in the silver carcass there were patches of black, soot began whirling, an awful stench filled the air as the creature’s flesh began to bubble. The Chemist watched for a while, then turned away. The Cyberneticist also withdrew. When the Captain was finished discharging his weapon, he reached for the Engineer’s without a word.
The carcass, black, collapsed and flattened. Smoke circled above it, and pieces of ash rose into the air. The bubbling turned into a crackling, as of logs in a fireplace, but the Captain went on squeezing the trigger with a numb finger, until there was nothing before him but a pile of glowing cinders. Holding his jector high, he jumped on them and began to kick them apart.
“Give me a hand!” he cried hoarsely.
“I can’t,” groaned the Chemist. He was standing with his eyes shut, his forehead beaded with sweat, and clutching his throat with both hands, as if prepared to strangle himself.
But the Doctor joined the Captain in kicking the cinders apart. The two of them looked funny, jumping up and down. When they had stamped the burned lumps into the ground, they raked the soil over the spot, using the butts of their jectors, until no trace was left.
“How are we better than they?” asked the Doctor when they paused to rest, covered with sweat and panting.
“It attacked us first,” snarled the Engineer, wiping the soot from his jector, both furious and revolted.
“All right, it’s done!” the Captain called to the others. They approached slowly. There was a piercing smell in the air, and the plant cover was charred across a wide radius.
“And what about that?” asked the Cyberneticist, pointing to the azure craft, which towered over them at a height of four stories.
“Let’s see if we can get it going,” said the Captain.
The Engineer’s eyes opened wide. “You think we can?”
“Watch out!” cried the Doctor.
Three disks appeared over the copse, one after another. The men ran and hit the ground. The Captain checked his battery charger and waited, elbows spread wide against coarse moss. The disks passed over and continued on.
“Are you coming with me?” the Captain asked the Engineer, nodding at the gondola that hung twelve feet above the ground.
Without a word, the Engineer ran to one of the arms supporting the craft and, putting his hands in the perforations, quickly climbed up. The Captain followed on his heels. Reaching the gondola ledge first, the Engineer moved something — whatever it was, the men could hear the sound of metal against metal.
Then he pulled himself up and extended a hand to the Captain, who grabbed it; both men disappeared from view. For a long while nothing happened; then the five outspread sides of the gondola slowly closed without making the slightest sound. The men below shuddered and stepped back.
“What was that ball before?” the Doctor asked the Physicist as they looked up. Inside the gondola shadows were moving around.
“It looked like spherical lightning,” said the Physicist after some hesitation.
“But it was the animal that emitted it!”
“Yes, I saw that. Maybe some local electrical effect — look!”
The azure polygon suddenly shook, clanged, and began revolving. It almost fell when the arms supporting it spread and twisted. At the last moment, as it teetered dangerously, there was another clang, and this time a high, piercing tone; the entire craft dissolved in a blur, and a breeze swept over the men below. The disk whirled, faster, slower, but stayed in place. It roared like the engine of a giant plane; the men moved back. One supporting arm, then the other, rose and disappeared into the luminous vortex.
Like a shot, the disk sped along the groove, left the groove, and slowed down just as suddenly, kicking up soil. It made a dreadful noise, but little progress. When finally it returned to the groove, it flew off at a terrific speed, and in fifteen seconds diminished to a glimmer on the slope where the forest was.
On its way back, the disk left the groove again and slowed to a crawl, moving with apparent difficulty, and the cloud of dirt churned into the air enveloped it at its base.
There was a clang as the arms extended and the craft became visible. The gondola opened, and the Captain leaned out and shouted, “Everybody get in!”
“What!” cried the Chemist in amazement, but the Doctor grasped the situation.
“We’re going for a ride.”
“Will we all fit?” asked the Cyberneticist, clutching a metal support. But the Doctor was already on his way up.
Several disks flew past the copse, but none appeared to notice the men. In the gondola there was seating space for four, not six, so two had to lie on the concave floor. A familiar bitter smell assailed their nostrils, reminding them of everything that had happened, and their euphoria vanished.
The Doctor and the Chemist, on the floor, could see nothing. There were long panels under them, like the staves of a boat. Another shrill clang, and they could feel themselves moving. Almost immediately the panels on which they were lying became transparent, and they could see the plain below them, as though they were sailing over it in a balloon. There was a great noise around them. The Captain talked feverishly with the Engineer, both forced to assume unnatural and extremely tiring positions near the finlike object in the front of the gondola, which held the controls. Every few minutes one of them would spell the other, and that exchange required the Physicist and Cyberneticist to lie on top of the two men at the bottom.
“How does it work?” the Chemist asked the Engineer, who had inserted both hands into the deep openings in the fin and was keeping the craft on a straight course. They were moving rapidly, along a groove. In the gondola there was no sense of gyration — it was as if they were floating.
“I have no idea,” groaned the Engineer. “A bad cramp — you take it now!” As he slid over and the Captain squeezed in, the disk shook, jumped off its groove, braked violently, and began making a sharp turn. The Captain put his hands into the control mechanism and a moment later steered the gigantic top out of its turn and back onto the groove. They sped along faster now.
“Why does it travel so slowly outside the groove?” asked the Chemist. He was propped against the Engineer’s shoulders to keep his balance; between his outspread legs lay the Doctor.
“I told you, I have no idea,” said the Engineer, massaging his wrists, which bore welts from the steering. “It may have something to do with a gyroscope. Who knows?”
They passed a second chain of hills. The terrain below appeared familiar — they had crossed it before, on foot. Around them was the barely visible outline of their disk. The groove suddenly changed direction: to return to the ship, they would have to leave it. Their speed fell to less than fifteen miles an hour.
“These craft are practically useless outside the grooves — we’ll have to remember that!” the Engineer shouted over the noise.
“Take over!” cried the Captain.
This time the switch went smoothly. Then they were ascending a steep slope at little more than a walk. The Engineer found the canyon with the clay walls. When they reached the lung-trees, he got a cramp.
As he pulled out his hands, the Captain rushed to replace him. The disk tilted and came dangerously close to the precipice. At that point there was a sharp crack; the rim of the whirring craft had hit a treetop. Broken branches flew, and the gondola crashed sideways with a hellish din. An uprooted tree swept the sky with its crown, and thousands of blister-leaves exploded with a hiss over the craft, as a landslide half-buried it. A cloud of white seeds filled the air; then there was silence. The gondola, dented, was embedded in the cliff.
“Crew?” said the Captain, shaking his head to clear it. His ears rang.
“One,” groaned the Engineer, on the floor.
“Two,” came the Physicist’s weak voice.
“Three,” said the Chemist, holding his bloody mouth.
“Four,” said the Cyberneticist.
“Fi… ve.” The Doctor was under everyone else, at the very bottom of the gondola.
They all laughed.
They were covered with a layer of fluffy, tickling seeds that had found their way inside through the apertures at the top of the gondola. The Engineer banged on the wall of the craft to make the door open. The others, whoever had the room to, pushed against the concave surface. The hull shuddered, a faint cracking could be heard, but the gondola would not open.
“Try again,” said the Doctor in a muffled voice. He was unable to move. “I’m getting tired of this. Oof, hey, don’t step on me!”
Although the situation was hardly amusing, they laughed, and together pulled a comb-shaped frame off the front and used it like a battering ram against the ceiling. The ceiling bent, became covered with pits, but would not open.
“Enough is enough,” growled the Doctor, and tried to get up. At that moment the bottom gave way, and everyone spilled out, rolling down the steep twenty-foot slope to the floor of the canyon.
“Anyone hurt?” asked the Captain, the first to get to his feet. He was covered with clay.
“No, but you’re bleeding! Let me have a look,” said the Doctor.
Indeed, the Captain had a deep cut on his head. The Doctor bandaged it as best as he could.
The others were only bruised, but the Chemist spit blood — he had bitten his lip. They set out for the ship, without even glancing at the shattered craft.