By Stanislav Lem - full text:
by Stanislaw Lem
It was still quite a hike from the stop, all the more so for someone carrying a suitcase. A predawn fog hugged the ground, spectral white in the half-light. Diesel trucks, announced by silvered columns of exhaust, tore along the asphalt highway with their tires humming, their taillights flashing bright red as they rounded the bend. Pirx shifted his suitcase to the other hand and gazed skyward. A low-lying fog, he thought, seeing stars overhead. Routinely he scouted the sky for the Mars reference star. Just then the gray dawn quivered and the fog was shot through with a searing green. Instinctively he lowered his jaw. There was a low rumble, a hot blast. Ground tremors. Seconds later a green sun rose above the land. The snow glared sinisterly all the way to the horizon, the shadows of the road posts skipped on ahead, and those things not already tinted a brilliant green were suffused with ember-red. Pirx set his suitcase down and, rubbing his hands, watched as one of the spiring minarets—eerily luminous, towering above the basin’s hilly skyline as though obeying some strange architectural whim—wrenched itself loose from Earth and began its majestic ascent atop a pinnacle of fire. The thunderous roar soon became something palpable, filling the atmosphere; through his fingers he saw in the distance a cluster of towers, buildings, and reservoirs bathed in a brilliant aureole. The windows of the control tower were ablaze, much as if a fire were raging inside; contours buckled and broke in the incandescent air as the instigator of this spectacle vanished into the heavens with a triumphant roar, leaving behind an enormous black ring of smoking earth. Before long a thick, warm shower of condensation descended from the star-studded sky.
Pirx picked up his bag and trudged on. It was as if the blast-off had breached the night; daylight came with a rush now, brightening everything around him: the melting snow lying in the ditches, the valley floor emerging from its misty cover.
Skirting the shiny, wet ships were long, grass-covered bunkers, the place where the ground crews took cover. The dead, water-soaked grass was slippery, hard to get a foothold on; but Pirx was in too much of a hurry to bother hunting for the nearest crossing. He took the grassy slope in one leaping charge—and feasted his eyes on her.
She stood alone, tall as a steeple, surpassing all others in height. An obsolete giant. He picked his way among the puddles on the concrete, the puddles soon tapering off where the water had been instantly evaporated by the thermal blast, until the rectangular slabs rang out hard and crisp under his feet as after a summer dry spell. The closer he got, the farther back went his head. The ship’s armored hull looked as if it had been plastered with glue, then buffed with mud-caked rags. An attempt had obviously been made to reinforce the tungsten shield with carbide asbestos fiber. And with good reason. Ships of that mass could have their hulls ripped to shreds—literally skinned—by the heat of air friction during atmospheric reentry. And stripping it did no good, either; the process just repeated itself, so horrendous was its aerodynamic drag. As for its stability, its maneuverability… it was downright criminal, a matter for the Cosmic Tribunal.
The suitcase was getting heavier, but Pirx took his sweet time, the itch to inspect the ship carefully from the outside being much too powerful to resist. The gantry stood etched against the sky like Jacob’s ladder; everything was coated the same dull gray: the hull, the empty crates strewn about on the concrete, the metal cylinders, the rusty scrap iron, the coils of metal hose… The random chaos testified to an expeditious loading. When he was within twenty paces of the gantry, he put down his suitcase and surveyed the launchpad. Hm, cargo already aboard, he thought, seeing the huge mobile loading ramp standing less than two meters from the ship’s hull, its grappling hooks dangling in midair. He circled the steel hold-down clamp being used to anchor the ship—now a soaring black tower against the crimson dawn—and stepped under the skirt. The concrete around the base of the clamp sagged under the tremendous weight, with cracklike fissures radiating in all directions.
Ouch! They’ll pay a pretty penny for that, he thought, referring to the shipowners, and he stepped into the pool of shadow under the tail section. When he stood directly beneath the main thrust chamber, he tilted back his head. Its gaping flange, too high for him to reach, was caked with soot. He sniffed the air suspiciously. The engines were cold, but the acrid and familiar stench of ionized gas was still in the air.
“Over here!” someone shouted in back of him. He spun around but saw no one. The same voice again, coming from what seemed like no more than three steps away.
“Hey, anyone home?” he yelled, his voice rebounding under the black, domelike tail bristling with nozzles.
He cut across to the other side. Three hundred meters away, some men, strung out in a line, were in the process of hauling a fuel hose across the ground. The pad was otherwise deserted. He kept his ears open; then he again heard voices—distorted and unintelligible—this time coming from higher up. The exhaust ducts, he thought—they’re acting like dish reflectors… He trotted back, picked up his bag, and headed for the gantry.
He climbed the six-story flight unthinkingly, his mind on matters he would have been hard put to name. The gantry ended in a platform surrounded by an aluminum guardrail, but Pirx did not so much as pause for a glimpse of the scenery. No farewell glances, no fond good-byes. Before flipping open the hatch, he ran his fingers along the armor plating. Rough as a rasp, as a badly corroded rock.
“Just my luck,” he muttered. The hatch gave grudgingly, as if blocked by a boulder. A pressure chamber like the inside of a wine barrel. He ran his hand along the pipes and rubbed the dust between his fingers. Rust.
As he was squeezing through the inner hatch, he had a chance to observe that the gasket was a patch job. Passage-ways lined with flush-mounted lamps ran up and down like vertical tunnels, the light coalescing at the far end into a bluish blur. In the background the steady hum of electric fans, the nasal clucking of an invisible pump. He pulled himself up straight. He was surrounded by such a solid mass of deck and armor plate that it nearly felt a part of him, a prolongation of his own body. Nineteen thousand tons… Goddam!
On his way to the cockpit, he met no one, saw no one. A dead, vacuumlike silence reigned in the passageway, as if the ship were already spaceborne. The padded walls were stained, the guide lines slack and decayed. He saw sleeve joints that had been spliced and welded so many times they looked more like charred bulbs left over from a fire. He crossed one ramp, then another, and came out in a hexagonal compartment with rounded metal doors set in each of the walls. Cord-wrapped copper handles instead of pneumatic releases.
The displays stared vacantly, like glass cataracts. He punched the keyboard; the relay clicked and the metal console hummed. The screen remained dark.
“Now what?” he sighed. “Run and complain to the SSA?”
He opened the hatch. It looked more like a throne room than a cockpit. He saw himself mirrored in the blank screens; in his rain-crumpled hat, light overcoat, and with his suitcase at his side, he made the impression of some errant, law-abiding citizen. The contoured pilot seats, rather imposing in size, their backrests still preserving the deep imprint of a man’s body, stood on a dais. Setting his suitcase down on the floor, he went up to the nearest one, its shadowy projection looming like the last navigator’s ghost. He slapped the backrest until the dust tickled his nose, broke out in a fit of sneezing, then anger, and wound up laughing. The foam-rubber padding on the armrest was shot, the computers like nothing he’d ever seen before. Their designer must have modeled them on a Wurlitzer, he mused. The consoles were peppered with dials; no man could have monitored them all at the same time, not with a hundred eyes. He made a slow about-face and let his eyes roam from wall to wall surveying the tangle of soldered cables, corroded isolation plates, emergency manual hatches polished smooth from handling, the faded red finish of the fire extinguishers… Everything about this ship was so old and decrepit and dingy…
He kicked the seat’s shock absorbers, and immediately the hydraulics sprang a leak.
Oh well, he thought, if others can get her up, so can I; went back out into the passageway, came out through another hatch into the outboard passage, and kept on going. Just past the elevator shaft he noticed that the wall bulged a little and was a shade darker in one spot. One touch of the hand, palm down, bore out his suspicions: a cement patch. He scoured the passageway for signs of other ruptures but couldn’t find any; the rest of the walls and the ceiling were like new. His eyes meandered back to the patch. The cement was bumpy in places; Pirx thought he could make out the vague outline of handprints, proof of a job executed in terrific haste. He got into the elevator and rode down to the reactor, the different deck levels indicated by lighted numerals flashing through the window: 7… 6… 5…
It was cold down below. The passageway curved before joining up with others to become a long and narrow corridor, at the end of which he sighted the door to the reactor chamber. The closer he came, the lower the temperature dropped, turning his breath to silver vapor in the light of the dusty lamps. He shook his head in consternation. The freezers, he thought. They must be somewhere close by. He paused to listen. The metal bulkheads pulsated with a weak but steady vibration. As he passed under the ceiling—a steeply inclined ceiling, echoing his every footstep—he couldn’t rid himself of the impression that he was descending underground. The door was hermetically sealed. He exerted all his weight on the handle; it wouldn’t budge. He was just about to force it with his foot when he realized that the safety bolt needed pulling out first.
A double door, as sturdy as a bank vault door, followed. At eye level, in places where the enamel finish hadn’t completely flaked away, a few letters painted in red were still legible: NG R.
The door opened onto an even narrower passage, this one almost pitch-black. The moment he set foot inside the door, something clicked, his face was struck by a blinding light, and a warning sign flashed a skull and crossbones.
They weren’t taking any chances in those days, were they? he thought. The metal stairway reverberated with a loud clanging as he went down into the chamber. Down below, he had the sensation of standing at the bottom of a dry moat; opposite him, rising up like the battlement of some medieval fortress, was the reactor’s gray, two-story shielding, its surface pitted with yellowish-green, pockmarklike indentations: scars of old radiation leaks. He started to do a quick count but gave up as soon as he walked out onto the catwalk and examined the reactor from above; in some places the concrete wall was totally obliterated by the sealed leaks.
Supported by metal uprights, the catwalk was insulated from the rest of the chamber by glass panels wrapping all the way around: a huge transparent cube. Lead glass, probably—to cut down the radiation. A relic of atomic architecture. How quaint.
The gamma-ray counters were clustered under a small canopy, fanlike, each one aimed straight at the reactor’s belly. He found the gauges housed in a separate compartment, all of them on zero except for one: the reactor’s idling gauge.
Pirx worked his way down, knelt, and peered into the observation well. The periscope mirrors were discolored with age. Too much radiation exposure, he thought. So what? This was a trip to Mars, not Jupiter—with a ten-day turnaround. Fuel supply okay, enough for several runs. He activated the cadmium rods. The needle quivered and grudgingly shifted to the other end of the scale. He checked the delay: it was close enough to squeak by the SSA, but just barely.
Something stirred in the corner. A pair of luminous green dots. He kept an eye on them, flinching as they slowly slinked away. He closed in on it. It was a cat. A black and bony cat. Meowing softly, it rubbed its spine against his shin. Pirx smiled, canvassed the room until his eye landed on something high up on a metal shelf: a row of cages. Now and then something white flickered inside, a glittering black bead would show through the netting. Mice. They were still in use on some of the older ships—as live radiation gauges. He stooped down to stroke the cat, but it slipped away from him, stopped dead in its tracks, and turned in the direction of the room’s darkest, narrowest corner. Arching its back, meowing softly, it crept on outstretched paws toward a concrete buttress, beyond which the mouth of a passage gaped rectangularly. Wiggling the end of its tail, now stiffly perpendicular, it advanced slowly, so black as to be almost indistinguishable in the dark. Pirx, intrigued, crouched down for a better look. A small door, halfway open, was set in a sloping wall; something glinted inside, which at first he took to be a coil of metal hose. The cat stood transfixed and immobile, its hair on end, its stiffened tail describing little curls in the air.
“Aw hell, there’s nothing in there,” he grumbled, at the same time squatting down for a closer view inside the dark compartment. Someone was sitting inside, the upper half of its body giving off a dull, metallic sheen. The cat, meowing all the while, started for the chute. Pirx’s eyes gradually got accustomed to the dark; soon he could make out a pair of pointed knees raised up high, and shinguards, made of a low-luster metal, around which a pair of segmented arms was wrapped. Its head was lost in the shadows.
“Me-o-w-w,” went the cat.
One of the arms creaked, reached out, and laid its metal fingertips down to form a sloping ramp; instantly the cat sprinted up the arm and onto the shoulder of the hunched-over figure.
“Hey, you!” Pirx cried out, not sure himself whether he meant to address the cat or that other creature. The arm had begun to retract slowly, as if having to overcome a powerful resistance, when Pirx’s barking cry paralyzed it, causing its fingers to clank against the concrete.
“Who—is—there?” came a voice that sounded as if it were being filtered through a metal tube.
“What are you doing here?” asked Pirx.
“Terminus… free-freezing in he-here… ca-can’t see…” the robot stuttered in a husky voice.
“Are you in charge of the reactor?” asked Pirx, who was beginning to despair of learning anything from the robot, whose condition seemed as run-down and dilapidated as the ship itself. But something—the green eyes?—urged him on.
“Terminus… re-reactor…” it stammered from its concrete refuge. “Terminus in charge… reactor,” it repeated with something like moronic self-complacency.
“Get up!” Pirx shouted for lack of anything better to say. He heard a crunching of metal, stepped back a little, and watched as two iron gauntlets with splayed fingers came out of the dark, swiveled around, clamped hold of the rim, and began hoisting the rest of its creaking torso. A metal hulk, half doubled up, soon emerged and, with a lot of grinding and screeching in the joints, drew itself up straight. Oil leaks in the couplings had combined with the dust to form a dark sludge. The robot rocked back and forth, more like a knight in armor than an automaton.
“Is this your station?” asked Pirx.
The robot’s glass eyes rotated in opposite directions in 180-degree sweeps, lending the flat metal face a look of even greater vacuity.
“Sealant pre-prepared… two, six, eight pounds… can’t see too well… cold…”
The voice issued not from the head but from the robot’s breastplate.
The cat, curled into a ball, contemplated Pirx from its perch on the robot’s shoulder.
“Seal-ant prepared…” Terminus continued to grunt, accompanying his words now with a scooping and shoveling of the hands—the preliminary gesture of a procedure well known to Pirx: the sealing of radioactive leaks. As the rocking of the oxidized trunk gained momentum, the black cat hissed and clawed the metal plating, then lost its balance and bolted down, brushing Pirx’s leg in flight. The robot appeared not to notice. The words had stopped, but not the hands, whose movement became more and more convulsive, residual, a mute echo of his words, until finally grinding to a halt.
Pirx glanced up at the reactor wall, its surface scarred and fossillike, riddled all around with the dark stains of cement patches, then back at Terminus. He must have been as old as the ship itself, maybe older. His right shoulder didn’t match his left, there were welding scars on his hips and thighs, and the treated metal around the seams had taken on a gray-blue luster.
“Terminus!” He hollered as loudly as if he were addressing a deaf man. “Report to your station!”
“I hear and obey. Terminus.”
The robot retreated, crablike, to his sanctuary and began squeezing inside to the sound of crushing metal. Pirx’s gaze swept the room in search of the cat; it was nowhere to be seen. He climbed back up the stairs, sealed the airtight door behind him, and rode the elevator up to the navigation room on the fourth deck.
A squat and spacious room, with reddish oak paneling, a low beamed ceiling, and brass-ringed portholes that let in the daylight, it had more the feel of a ship’s cabin. Forty years ago such nautical decor had been the rage, even the vinyl wall coverings were a deliberate imitation of the old-style wainscoting. He opened one of the portholes and nearly rammed his head into a blank wall: the daylight was fake, artificially simulated by means of camouflaged lighting. He slammed the window shut and turned around. Star maps, colored a pale marine-blue, like the sea illustrations in a world atlas, draped from the chart tables clear down to the floor; the corners were littered with reams of carbon paper decorated with course diagrams; a plotting board, its surface embossed with circular depressions, stood under a small spotlamp; there was a desk in the corner, next to it a swivel oak desk chair, bolted to the floor and flanked by a hefty recessed bookshelf.
A real Noah’s Ark.
Is that why the agent had commented, after the signing of the contract, “You’re getting a historic ship”?
But “old” was not quite the same as “historic.”
He began pulling out the desk drawers, one by one, until he found what he was looking for: the log—a big, glossy, leather-bound book with tarnished clasps. He examined it standing up, not yet having mustered the courage to sit down in the sprawling, worn-out desk chair. He turned back the cover. The first page bore the date of the ship’s trial run, along with a photocopy insert of its technical specs. He glanced at the date again and batted his eyes; he wasn’t even born then! He turned to the last, and most crucial, entry. It confirmed what the agent had told him: for the past week the ship had been taking on machine equipment and general cargo for Mars. Lift-off, originally scheduled for the twenty-eighth, had been several times postponed, making this the third demurrage day. That explained the rush; the demurrage fees in a terrestrial spaceport were steep enough to bust a millionaire.
He thumbed through the book slowly, his eye occasionally lingering over a bit of navigational lingo, course data, or computer figures—but only in passing, as if on the lookout for something else. Only one page stood out from all the others, the one headed:
Ship consigned to Ampers-Hart Shipyard for class A repairs.
The entry was three years old.
Let’s see what repairs were made. Out of idle curiosity he scanned the itemized list of part replacements, his incredulity growing from one item to the next: ablation shield, sixteen deck sections, shielding braces, airtight bulkheads…
New bulkheads and shielding braces?!
Okay, the agent had said something about an accident in the past. But accident, hell! Disaster would be more like it!
He flipped back a page to see what he could dig out of the entries that came before:
Port of destination: Mars. Payload: General cargo. Crew: Pratt—engineer and first officer. Wayne—second officer. Potter and Nolan - — pilots. Simon—mechanic…
Hm. No mention of the skipper.
He turned back another page and winced.
The date of the ship’s first command was—nineteen years ago! The signature of the ship’s first commanding officer read Momssen, first navigator.
A dry heat engulfed him.
It can’t be! Not the Momssen! But… that was on another ship!
The date squared, though; it was exactly nineteen years ago that… Whoa, there! Easy does it…
He went back to the log. A strong and legible hand, in faded ink. First day out. Second day, third day… Moderate reactor leakage: 0.42 roentgen per hour. All leaks sealed. Course coordinates such-and-such… Stellar fix…
Come on, come on!
He was no longer reading, just skimming over the hand-written lines.
There it was!
The date he had been forced to memorize as a schoolkid, and underneath it:
1640 hours. Rec’d. Deimos’s met. warning re: cloud headed our way from Jupiter perturbation of the Leonids. Cloud approaching on a collision course at vel. 40 km/sec. MW confirmed. PM alert sounded for crew. Despite persistent reactor leakage of 0.42 roentgen per hour, full-thrust escape maneuver on a course approximating Orion delta.
The rest of the page was blank.
No marks, no scribbling, no ink stains—nothing except for the final vertical stroke of the letter m, dipping down in willful defiance of the rules of good penmanship.
This wobbly, several-millimeters-long extension, breaking off the text to wander aimlessly across the white expanse of paper, told the whole story: the crash on impact, the exploding decompression, the shrieks of men at the moment their throats and eyeballs burst…
But Momssen’s ship had a different name. What was it called?
It was unreal. A ship almost as famous as Columbus’s, and he couldn’t remember the name of it!
What was the name of that ship, Momssen’s last ship?
He hopped over to the bookshelf. The fat volume of Lloyd’s Shipping Register seemed to plunk down right into his hands. A word that began with C. Cosmonaut? No. Condor? Not it, either. A longer name… the title of a play… a hero, a knight…
He flung the book down on the desk and squinted at the walls. Hanging between the chart cabinet and the bookshelf were some instruments: a hygrometer, a radiation counter, a carbon-dioxide gauge…
He scrutinized each of them, turning them this way and that. Not one inscription. They looked brand new, in fact.
Over in the corner!
Screwed into the oak paneling was a chronometer, plainly visible because of its shiny dial. A rather quaint-looking model, an antique, with cute little brass doodads around the dial… Wasting no time, he undid the screws, carefully slipped the chassis out with his fingertips, and cradled it in his palm. The glossy, brass-plated bottom bore the engraving CORIOLANUS.
That was it—the name of Momssen’s ship.
His eyes swept the cabin. So it was in this room and in this very same chair that Momssen had sat during the final moments!
He opened Lloyd’s Shipping Register to the C’s.
CONDOR, CORINTHIAN, CORSAIR, CORIOLANUS: Registered with the company of… rest mass 19,000 tons… launched in the year… uranium-hydrogen reactor, type… cooling system… maximum thrust… introduced on the Terra-Mars line; listed as missing following a collision with the Leonids; located sixteen years later by a patrolship in the aphelion of its orbit… underwent class A repairs at Ampers-Hart… reintroduced by the Southern Company on the Terra-Mars line… licensed as general cargo transport… insurance premium … Ho hum… Ha, here it is:… under the name THE BLUE STAR.
He shut his eyes… Gosh, it’s quiet in here. So that’s it—they changed the name. To make it easier to hire a crew, I bet. Maybe that’s what the agent had meant when he said…
He began thinking back to when he was still a cadet. One of their patrolships from the Base had discovered the wreckage… Those were the days when meteorite warnings always came too late… Then there was the Commission’s report, brief and to the point: “Conditions beyond control. No one at fault.”… What about the crew? The evidence indicated that not all of them had been killed instantly… that among the survivors was the skipper, and that, thanks to him, the crew—though cut off from one another by the collapsing bulkheads and with no hope of being rescued—had held out to the end, down to the last oxygen bottle… But there was something else, some morbid detail that the press had played up for weeks, until some new sensation had put it out of the public’s mind… What in the world was it?
Suddenly he saw the Institute’s huge lecture auditorium… his pal Smiga, caked with chalk, plodding his way through a blackboard full of math equations… and him-self, his head bent over an open desk drawer, reading on the sly the newspaper spread out flat on the bottom: “Only the Dead Survive” … Of course! There was only one who could have survived, who was not in need of any oxygen or food… The robot! Sixteen years, and all that time it was lying there, buried under the rubble!
Pirx rose to his feet. Terminus! The lone surviver had to be Terminus! And to think that he had him right here on board his ship… Now was his chance, his golden opportunity…
To what? Pump a mechanical moron, a machine programmed for sealing leaks, by now so old it was almost deaf and blind? What a laugh. It was the press’s fault, the press in its eternal effort to sensationalize the hell out of everything, whose glaring headlines had made him a “mysterious witness” of the tragedy, even had him being interviewed by the Commission behind closed doors. He thought of Terminus’s imbecilic patter. What a put-on!
He slammed the log shut, tossed it back into the drawer, and checked the time.
0800 hours. No time to lose. He started rounding up the shipping papers. Everything was set for lift-off: hatches closed, health and port inspection out of the way, flight clearance, customs declarations… He skimmed through the bill of lading and was surprised not to find any cargo manifest. Machines, okay—but what kind of machines? What about the tare weight? And why no loading chart specifying the ballast? Nothing except for the gross tonnage and a rough plan showing the freight distribution in the holds. Why only 300,000 tons back aft? Was it to lighten the maximum load for takeoff? Say, why wasn’t this brought to his attention earlier? While he was rummaging through the files in search of something, he became so distracted that he completely forgot about the ship’s past history; the moment he laid eyes on the dismantled chronometer, however, he winced in recollection. A second later he found what he was after: a little slip of paper on which it was noted that the last hold—the one abutting on the reactor chamber—was stocked with forty-eight crates of what was generally described as “food perishables.” Why in the hold with the worst ventilation? he wondered. Didn’t they care about the spoilage?
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in!” he hollered, hurriedly gathering up the papers scattered on the desktop and stuffing them back into their folders. Two men entered but ventured no farther than the doorway.
“Boman, nuclear engineer.”
Pirx got up from his desk. Sims was a young, lean man with squirrelish features, a nervous cough, and flickering eyes. One glance at Boman was enough for Pirx to know that he was dealing with a space veteran. His sunburned face had that peculiar orangish tint that comes from prolonged exposure to cosmic radiation. He barely came up to Pirx’s shoulder (ever since he had begun flying, Pirx had been accustomed to counting every kilo aboard ship). His face, in contrast to his scrawny build, was puffy, bloated, and there were dark bags under his eyes—the mark of a man who’s been tested many times over the years. He had a drooping lower lip.
“You’ll be looking like that yourself, one day”—it crossed Pirx’s mind as he went to greet them with outstretched hand.
Hell began at 0900 hours. The launch site was the scene of the usual bedlam: ships lining up for takeoff; loudspeakers blaring away every six minutes; warning rockets being fired; the screeching, rumbling, deafening roar of test-firing engines; the dust cascading down out of the sky after every blast-off, which no sooner would settle than the tower was already giving the go-ahead to the next ship; the constant hustling to gain a few extra minutes’ time—a familiar enough scene at any shipping port during the peak hours. Most of the ships were bound for Mars, now desperate for machines and fresh produce. People there hadn’t seen a piece of fruit or a vegetable in months, construction on the hydroponic solariums having barely got under way.
Meanwhile, last-minute deliveries continued right up until countdown: cranes, girders, bales of fiberglass, cement vats, crude oil, medical supplies… At the sound of a warning buzzer, the ground crews would take cover wherever they could—in the antiradiation bunkers, in special armored crawlers—and were back at their jobs before the pads had had time to cool. By ten o’clock a smoky, crimson, bloated sun hung over the horizon, the concrete safety barriers dividing the stands were already cracked, blackened with soot, and eaten away by exhaust. The deeper fissures were immediately doused with quick-drying cement, which shot up out of the hoses in a fountainlike spray, while antiradiation crews in helmeted suits piled out of transport vehicles and sandblasted the residue of radioactive fallout. Black-and-red-checkered patrol Jeeps careened in and out, their sirens wailing. Someone in the control tower was yelling himself hoarse over a megaphone. Huge, boomerang-shaped radar dishes combed the skies from the tops of gaunt towers… In a word, a routine workday.
Pirx was all over the place—taking aboard a last-minute shipment of meat, tanking up on drinking water, having his cooling system inspected (when the best it could do was -5, the SSA inspector shook his head but mercifully relented in the end), attending to the compressors, which, though just recently overhauled, began sweating around the valves… Pirx’s voice was beginning to sound more and more like the trumpet of Jericho. At one point it was discovered that the water ballast was off because some idiot had switched off the valve before the lower tanks had been properly filled. There were papers, up to a half-dozen at a time, that had to be signed—more often than not, blindly. It was 1100 hours, with one hour to go before lift-off, when the bombshell came.
The control tower was denying them clearance. The Star ’s jet system was too old, they said, the radioactive fallout too risky; they should have had an auxiliary borohydride propulsion system like the one on the Giant, the freighter that took off at six… Pirx, now hoarse from shouting, took the news calmly. Did the traffic controller realize what he was saying? Had he just now noticed the Star ? Another delay was bound to mean trouble—big trouble. Beg your pardon? Additional safeguards? What sorts of safeguards? Sandbags? How many? Three thousand? No sweat. You bet your sweet ass—lift-off as scheduled. Bill the Company? Be my guest.
He was dripping with perspiration. Everything was conspiring to make an already chaotic situation even more hopeless. The electrician was chewing out the mechanic for not checking out the emergency system; the second pilot had taken off on a “five-minute break”—to say farewell to his fiancee—and was still not back on board; the medical orderly was missing; the ship was besieged by an army of forty armored crawlers, and by men in dark overalls who, urged on by frantic semaphore signals from the tower, went about the job of piling sandbags; a radiogram came, was taken not by the pilot but by the electrician, who forgot to record it (“Sorry, not my department”)… Pirx went about in a daze, only pretending to be in control of things. At T minus twenty minutes he made a dramatic decision: he ordered all the water pumped from the nose tanks to the tail section. What the heck, in the worst case it might boil up a bit… but anything to get greater stability!
1140 hours. Time to test-fire the engines. The point of no return. As it turned out, not everybody on board was a bumbler. Take Boman, for instance—now there was a man to his liking. You might not see or hear him, but he had everything running like clockwork: engine purge, low thrust, full thrust… At T minus six minutes, by the time they got the signal to prepare for lift-off, they were ready. They were already strapped down when the orderly showed up, followed by the second pilot, who came back from his fiancee looking very down at the mouth. The loudspeaker snarled, bawled, barked until the automatic sequencer hit zero: lift-off.
Pirx knew enough to know that a 19,000-ton vessel wasn’t a patrol skiff where a man barely had room to crack a joke. He also knew that a spaceship wasn’t a flea: it didn’t just hop into the air; it had to build up thrust gradually. But he wasn’t prepared for anything like this ! The gauge showed only half-thrust, the hull was on the verge of a breakup—and they hadn’t even left the pad yet! He was beginning to wonder if they hadn’t snagged on something—freak accidents like that were rare, but they happened—when the needle started fluttering. They went up on the fire column; the Star shook; the gravimeter went wild. Pirx sighed, sank back into his couch, and relaxed his muscles; from now on, it was out of his hands. They were no sooner in the ascent stage than they were reprimanded by radio: the Company was being fined for lifting off at full thrust, prohibited on account of the excess radioactivity. The Company? thought Pirx. Go right ahead. The Company be damned! Pirx brushed it off with a sneer; he didn’t even bother to dispute the charge by pointing out that he had bootstrapped at half-thrust. What was he supposed to do? Land, request a hearing, and demand that the reprimand be withdrawn from his uranographs? Like hell he would.
Besides, he had plenty of other things to worry about at the moment. Like the way they were breaking through the atmosphere. Never had he been aboard a ship that vibrated so much. He now knew how it must have felt to be at the head of a battering ram when storming a castle wall. The whole ship jumped, the men jumped—in their straps, no less!—even the accelerometer was jumping around: 3.8, then 4.9, at one point pushing its way up to 5, only to plummet pusillanimously back down to 3. What were those rockets firing, anyway? Dumplings? With the ship now on full power, Pirx had to squeeze his helmet with both hands to hear the pilot’s voice in his earphones. The noise was tremendous, but it was not a triumphant ballistic roar—more like a life-and-death struggle with Earth’s gravity. There were moments when he had the sensation not of a lift-off but of hanging in midair and repelling the planet by force, so physically palpable was the Star ’s agonizing ordeal. The vibrations blurred the contours of everything—bulkheads, joints… At one point, Pirx thought he heard the seams giving way. But it was only an illusion; in that madhouse he would have been lucky to hear the horn of the Last Judgment.
The nose-cone heat sensor was the only instrument whose needle didn’t waver, didn’t fluctuate wildly, but climbed steadily higher: 2,500, 2,800… There were only a few more scale marks left on the gauge when Pirx happened to check the accelerometer. They weren’t even close to orbital velocity!
Fourteen minutes of flight and the best they could do was 6.6 kilometers per second. Pirx was struck by a horrible thought, one of those nightmarish fantasies with which space pilots are continually haunted: What if those weren’t clouds drifting by on the scanner but vapors escaping from the cooling ducts? Luckily it wasn’t so; they were definitely spaceborne. The orderly lay there pale as a sheet. A lot of help he’ll be in an emergency, thought Pirx. The engineers were holding up better. Boman wasn’t even perspiring; he lay there, a little peaked in the face, relaxed, scrawny—like a kid with its eyes shut. By now the hydraulic fluid was leaking out onto the floor with a vengeance; the pistons were in almost all the way. What happens when they really go? Pirx wondered.
Because he was used to more modern consoles, Pirx’s head kept turning in the wrong direction every time he went to check the thrust performance, cooling, velocity, thermal load, and, most important, their position relative to the synergic curve.
The pilot, who had to scream over the intercom to make himself heard, was having trouble keeping on course. True, they were only fractional deviations, but that was all it took, when escaping Earth’s atmosphere, to make one side heat up more than the other, setting up powerful thermal stresses in the outer structure, often with fatal consequences. Pirx’s only consolation was that the Star had survived plenty of other lift-offs in the past; chances were, it would make this one as well.
The thermocouple was now on maximum: 3,500 degrees. Ten more minutes of this and the hull would come apart at the seams, carbide or no carbide. What gauge was the skin? he wondered. No telling—except that it was, for sure, hot. He felt warmer himself, but it was only his imagination: the temperature in the control room was the same as at lift-off: 27 degrees. They were at the 61-kilometer mark, Earth’s atmosphere practically behind them, flying at a velocity of 7.4 kilometers per second, with less turbulence but still at 3g . The Star had as much oomph as a block of lead, its rapid acceleration nil. Damned if he could understand why.
A half hour later they were steering a course for the Arbiter; once past the last navigational satellite, they would be veering onto the Earth-Mars ellipsis. The crew was sitting up now; Boman was massaging his face; Pirx, too, felt swollen around the mouth, especially in the region of the lower lip. Everyone had bloodshot, stinging eyes, a dry cough, and a sore throat—all the usual symptoms, normally disappearing with-in an hour.
The reactor was working, but that was about all; if its performance didn’t decrease, neither did it increase, as well it should have in a vacuum. The Star appeared to defy even the laws of physics. They were up to 11 kilometers per second, barely above escape velocity. They would have to bring her up to cruising speed if they didn’t want to take months getting to Mars.
Pirx, like every other navigator, was expecting nothing but hassles from the Arbiter. Like getting reprimanded for having too big an exhaust flare, or getting bumped to make way for some more important mission, or hearing complaints about how his ionization discharge was causing radio interference. A false alarm. The Arbiter let them through without a boo, just a belated radiogram warning of a “high vacuum” ahead. Pirx acknowledged the warning, and thus ended this exchange of cosmic civilities.
As soon as they were locked onto Mars, Pirx ordered an increase in thrust, people got up, stretched, moved about, and the radio mechanic, who also doubled as crew cook, headed off to the galley. Everyone was famished, most of all Pirx, who had flown on an empty stomach and sweated pounds during takeoff.
The temperature in the cockpit was rising, as the heat generated by the shield began to make itself felt inside. There was also a faint odor in the air—the oil that had escaped from the hydraulics and which now formed neat little puddles around the seats.
The nuclear engineer went down to the reactor chamber to check for neutron leakage. Keeping one eye on the stars, Pirx shot the breeze with the ship’s electrician; it turned out they moved in the same crowd. For the first time since coming aboard, Pirx began to unwind, to see the brighter side of things. Whatever else the Star might be, 19,000 tons was nothing to sneeze at. Commanding a clunker that size was a lot tougher than piloting your ordinary freighter. Tougher, yeah, but also more prestigious, a good thing to fatten your dossier with.
They were 1.5 million kilometers out beyond the Arbiter when their morale suffered its first blow: the lunch was unfit for human consumption. The radio mechanic, it turned out, was no cook. But the man with the biggest gripe was the orderly, already nursing an upset stomach. Just before lift-off, the orderly had made a bargain on some chickens, one of which he had entrusted to the mechanic’s culinary art; the result was a broth full of quills. The rest of the crew was served rump steak, tough enough to consume a lifetime of hard labor.
“A little tough, eh?” commented the second pilot, who pronged his meat with such gusto that it flipped off the plate.
The mechanic, who also had a tough skin, told the orderly there was nothing wrong with the broth that a little straining wouldn’t cure. Pirx felt obliged to act as mediator in the dispute, to exercise some authority as the ship’s CO, but he was too choked with laughter to even open his mouth.
After a canned lunch, Pirx moseyed on back to the cockpit. He had the pilot take a star fix, entered the accelerometer readings in the log, and whistled when his glance landed on the reactor gauge. That was no reactor, brother—that was a volcano! Eight hundred degrees in the shielding after only four hours of flight was no laughing matter. Coolant circulated at a maximum pressure of 20 atmospheres. Hm. The worst was probably over. Landing on Mars would be a breeze—thinner atmosphere, with a gravity less than half Earth’s… But the reactor, what to do about the reactor…? He went over to the computer, to calculate how long it would take to reach a cruising velocity at their present rate of thrust. Anything less than 80 kilometers per second would mean a ferocious delay.
“Seventy-eight hours to go,” registered the display.
Seventy-eight hours?! By then the reactor would be blown to bits, splattered like an egg. As sure as his name was Pirx. He decided to build up speed gradually. It’ll mean screwing up the flight plan a little, thought Pirx, it’ll mean going without thrust for a while… it won’t be no joyride without any gravitation… but, well, it’s that or nothing. He told the pilot to keep an eye on the astrocompass, then took the elevator down to the reactor chamber. He was working his way down a dim passageway, with cargo holds to the right and left of him, when he heard something on the order of a hollow drumming—the sound an armored squadron riding over metal might make. He quickened his step. A cat—the same black cat—sprang out of nowhere and squirmed between his legs; not far off, a door banged shut. By the time he reached the cavelike mouth of the main passageway, it was quiet again. Before him lay a desolate stretch of bleakly blackened walls, an emptiness relieved only by a solitary lightbulb at the far end, still jittering from the impact of the slamming door.
“Terminus!” he called out blindly, but he got only an echo in reply. He turned and followed the passageway all the way back to the reactor chamber. Boman, who had already come down earlier on the elevator, was gone. The arid, desertlike air irritated his eyes. A hot wind seethed inside the air ducts, blending with all the boiler-room racket. The reactor was performing like any other reactor—in silence. The noise came from the cooling system, now strained to the maximum—a strangely rueful, yammering whine produced by the kilometers of tubing that circulated the ice-cold liquid deep inside the concrete shielding. The needles on the lenslike gauges of the pumps were uniformly tilted to the right. Standing out prominently from all the others, its dial radiant as the Moon, was the most critical gauge of all: the one measuring neutron flux density. Its indicator was verging on the red, a sight guaranteed to give any SSA inspector cardiac arrest.
The rugged, rocklike surface of the shielding gave off a deadly heat; the catwalk’s sheet-metal construction vibrated, sending unpleasant ripples through his body; the electric lights cast an oily glare on the vent covers. A white light flickered and went out; in its place a red warning signal came on. He ducked under the catwalk to check the timing switches but saw that Boman had already beat him to it; the automatic tinier was programmed to interrupt the chain reaction in four hours. Without tampering with the timer, he checked the gamma-ray counters. They were ticking gingerly away. The radiation monitor indicated a slight leak of 0.3 roentgen per hour. He tossed a glance into the chamber’s darkest corner. Empty.
No answer. The mice fidgeted in their cages—back and forth, like white specks—manifestly miserable in the subtropical temperature. Pirx climbed back up the stairs and bolted the door behind him. He felt a chill the moment he hit the cooler air in the passageway: his shirt was soaked through. On a whim he made his way aft, down a series of passage-ways that kept getting narrower as they approached the tail section, and came to a dead end. He placed one hand on the bulkhead. It was warm. He sighed, retraced his steps, rode the elevator up to the fourth deck, and entered the navigation room. The chronometer showed 2100 hours by the time he had finished plotting the ship’s course. Must have lost track of the time, he thought, a bit bewildered. He hit the lights and went out.
The deck seemed to slide out from under his feet the moment he stepped into the elevator. The timer had shut down the reactor as programmed.
At midships the passageway purred with the steady hum of fans in the subdued lighting. The lightbulbs on ahead smoldered in the circulating air currents. Using the elevator door as a springboard, he propelled himself swimmer-style down the passageway, one side of which was almost totally immersed in darkness. In the bluish haze he passed a series of hatches—hitherto unexplored—and black walls set off by ruby-red lights: the emergency escape hatches. With a fluent, somnolent motion, he glided weightlessly beneath the vaulted ceiling, his elusive, untrodden shadow creeping along the deck, wriggled through a partially open door, and entered the former mess hall. Below him, its surface streaked with light, stretched a long table flanked by chairs. He hung suspended above the furniture like a deep-sea diver exploring the interior of a sunken ship. Lights played in the shimmering panes along the wall before dispersing in a shower of blue sparks. The mess hall opened onto another, even darker room. Though his eyes were accustomed by now to the dark, he had to feel his way, blindly fingering everything as he went. His fingertips brushed something pliable—deck or ceiling, he couldn’t tell. He pushed himself away, twisted around like a swimmer, and glided on in silence. A row of white, geometrically shaped objects sparkled in the velvety darkness. Their smooth surface felt cold to the touch. Washbasins. The one closest to him was flecked with spots. Blood?
He stuck out his hand—cautiously. Grease spots.
A third hatch door. He opened it and, suspended obliquely in space, was confronted by an eerie procession of paper and books fluttering by in the shadowy penumbra before with-drawing with a faint rustling noise. He propelled himself in the opposite direction, using his feet this time, and wound up back in the passageway, hounded by a cloud of dust, which clung to him instead of dispersing—trailed after him like a long, reddish-brown veil.
The string of night-lights burned with a serene calm, inundating the decks with a watery blue shimmer. He swam up to a rope dangling from the ceiling; the moment he let go of the end, it coiled itself up lazily, snakelike, as if suddenly animated by his touch.
His head snapped back. A clunking noise, similar to a hammering on metal, sounded nearby. He swam in the direction of the echoes, their volume now rising, now falling; along the way spotted a set of rusty tracks embedded in the deck—once used for wheeling dollies to and from the holds, he guessed—and soon was sailing along so fast he could feel the air buffeting his face. The clanging kept getting louder. He sighted a pipe angling around the corner from the next passageway and running along the ceiling. A section of old, one-inch pipeline. He touched it with his hand; it jiggled. The resonances now came in clusters of twos and threes. That’s when it hit him. The banging was in Morse.
The series came again:
Then the pipe chimed, “A-m-b-e-h-i-n-d-b-u-l-k-h-e-a-d.” By force of habit, he spliced the letters together, syllable by syllable.
Ice? he wondered, caught completely off guard. What in…? Ice? What ice?
“R-e-a-c-t-o-r-v-e-s-s-e-l-c-r-a-c-k-e-d,” the pipe resonated. He wrapped his hand around it. Who was signaling? And where was it coming from? He tried to figure out which way the pipe ran—from the bow or back aft. If looked like one of those emergency pipelines, obsolete, with branches on ever deck. Maybe someone was practicing his Morse…? That’s crazy. The pilot up in the control room, maybe?
Pirx was breathless. The mention of that name was like a blow to the gut. For a second he stared wide-eyed at the pipe, then suddenly lurched forward. That’s it—the name of that second pilot, he thought as he hit the bend, bounced off, and made for the control room, gathering speed as he went, the pipe all the while reverberating overhead.
The echoes receded. Pirx momentarily lost sight of the pipe, picked it up again where it swerved into the next passageway, lunged after it, was bounced off the wall by his own momentum, and saw something through the dust cloud: a gnarled stump of metal, fixed with a rusty cap. A pipe bend. Severed. So it came from the tail section, not the cockpit… Huh? There was nobody back aft…
“P-r-a-t-t-i-n-s-i-x-t-h-t-o-l-a-s-t-h-o-l-d…,” the pipe chimed.
He hung like a bat under the ceiling, clutching the pipe with his fingers, and felt the vibrations throbbing in his head. The banging resumed after a short intermission.
Another series of three.
He looked around. Dead silence except for a faint whirring noise in one of the fan outlets. The incoming fresh air sent particles of dirt swirling up to the ceiling, where under the light they took on the aspect of misshapen moths. Then came a torrent of clanging, rapid and staccatolike: “P-r-a-t-t-p-r-a-t-t-p-r-a-t-t-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-d-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w-e-r-o-x-y-g-e-n-i-n-n-u-m-b-e-r-s- e-v-e-n-c-a-n-y-o-u-t-r-a-n-s-f-e-r-o-v-e-r…”
A pause. The lighting remained constant; the dust and waste particles continued their pirouette in slow motion. Pirx felt like letting go of the pipe, but something prevented him. He waited. Then it started up again. “S-i-m-o-n-t-o-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-p-r-a-t-t-i-n-n-u-m-b-e-r-s-i-x-b-e-h-i-n-d-b-u-1-k-h-e-a-d-t-o-l-a-s -t-b-o-t-t-l-e-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-c-o-m-e-i-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n…”
This last sequence, hard and intense; the pipe went on vibrating long after it was over.
A pause. A dozen or so unintelligible taps, followed by a brisk series:
The pipe barely palpitated. The next series came at faint intervals, as though from far off: three dots, three dashes, three dots. SOS. There was a gradual tapering off. Two more dashes… one… then a long-drawn-out screeching noise, similar to a scraping or scratching against metal, amplified only by the aura of total silence.
He thrust himself away and swam headfirst along the pipe, veering where it veered, now climbing, now dipping, while the parting air brushed his face. An open shaft. A ramp. Narrowing walls. The cargo holds. Number one, number two, number three… He could barely see, it was so dark. He ran his fingertips along the pipe in order not to lose it, the brittle dust coating his hands charcoal-black, and found himself in another part of the ship, one not enclosed by any decks or ceilings, in the space between the armored hull and the holds. The bloated carcasses of the reserve tanks loomed up darkly between the crossframes, with only an occasional dust-speckled light beam knifing through the darkness. At one point he looked up and spotted a double row of lights in a black shaft, the bulbs encrusted with the same reddish-brown dust that kept trailing him like a cloud, like smoke from an undetected fire. The air was stuffy, stale, permeated with the smell of treated metal. He was sailing among the vaguely adumbrated shadows of the trusses when the clanking reverberations started up again:
The pipe suddenly forked. He wrapped one hand around each of the forking branches, but he failed to tell from which direction the sound was being transmitted. He gambled on the left. A hatch tunnel, pitch-dark, constricting to a bright disk at the other end, brought him out into a well-lighted room. The entrance to the reactor chamber.
“W-a-y-n-e-h-e-r-e-p-r-a-t-t-d-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w-e-r…” the pipe went on resonating while he unbolted the door. A blast of hot air hit him flush in the face. He climbed up onto the catwalk. The compressors were humming away. A warm wind ruffled his hair. From the catwalk he saw, in foreshortened perspective, the reactor’s concrete wall, the luminous gauges, the warning lights shimmering like red drops.
“S-i-m-o-n-t-o-w-a-y-n-e-i-h-e-a-r-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-b-e-l-o-w-m-e…” the pipe reverberated, hammerlike, only a short distance away. At the point where it looped down out of the wall to join up with the main pipe inlet, standing with legs astride in front of the reactor shielding, was the robot; with quick jablike movements, as in some imaginary sparring match, he was applying cement filler by the fistful, slapping it around, smoothing it, molding it, before moving on to the next section. Pirx concentrated his ear on the rhythm of his movements, on the cadence produced by his pistonlike arms:
Terminus stopped, with both arms uplifted, and poised opposite his deceptively human shadow. First to the left and then to the right he pivoted his box-shaped head in search of the next seam. He bent down, scooped up the sealant with his trowellike claws, and again the driving rhythm of his arms pulsated through the pipe:
Pirx side-vaulted over the railing and floated down. “Terminus!” he yelled before his feet had even touched down.
“I hear and obey,” came the robot’s instantaneous reply. One eye—the left—remained fixed on the man while the other rotated in its orbit, oblivious of the hands, which went on plastering to a steady beat:
“Terminus! What are you doing?” hollered Pirx.
“Reactor leak. Four-tenths of roentgen per hour. Repair leak,” the robot replied in a hollow bass while his hands kept drumming away:
“Terminus!” Pirx yelled a third time, now glancing up at the metal face staring cross-eyed at him, now down at the blinding flurry of metal claws.
“I hear and obey,” answered the robot in the same singsong lilt.
“What are you signaling in Morse?”
“Repair leak,” the deep voice intoned. “S-i-m-o-n-w-a-y-n-e-p-o-t-t-e-r-p-r-a-t-t-d-o-w-n-t-o-z-e-r-o-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-d-o-e-s-n-t-a-n-s-w -e-r…” the tube reverberated in response to the pelting, swishing jabs of steel. When the viscous paste began to run, the metal claws were immediately there to scrape it back up, pack it, and mold it to the cylindrical surface. For an instant the upraised arms remained poised in midair; then the robot bent down, scooped up another batch of cement, and let loose with a barrage of lightning-quick jabs: “M-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-c-o-m-e-i-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n-m-o-m-s -s-e-n…” The cadence reached a frenzied pitch; the piping shook and wailed from the unrelenting shower of blows—at times verging on a prolonged human cry.
“Terminus! Stop it!” He made a stab for the robot’s oily wrists, but they slipped out of his grasp. Terminus suddenly went stiff; not a sound was heard except for the whining, whimpering pumps behind the concrete containment wall. Before him loomed a metal hulk, bathed in the oil that oozed down his stiltlike legs. He stepped back.
“Terminus…” he said, his voice lowering to a whisper. “What are you…?”
He broke off at the sound of metal grinding against metal; the robot was rubbing his claws together, trying to peel away the leftover scabs of dry cement. Instead of dropping to the floor, the flakes spiraled up and scattered like wisps of smoke.
“What… have you been up to?” asked Pirx.
“Repair leak. Four tenths of roentgen per hour. May I proceed?”
“What were you signaling in Morse?”
“In Morse,” the robot repeated after him, mimicking his exact tone, and then added, “Not understand. May I proceed?”
“You may,” muttered Pirx, watching as the powerful arms straightened. “Yes, you may…”
Pirx waited. Terminus, seemingly unmindful of him now, ladled up some cement with his left hand, slung it against the shielding, and in three brisk strokes packed it, flattened it, smoothed it. Then the right hand came up and the pipe responded with a rat-a-tat-tat:
“P-r-a-t-t-t-r-a-p-p-e-d-i-n-s-i-x-t-h… m-o-m-s-s-e-n… c-o-m-e-i-n-m-o-m-s-s-e-n…”
“Where is Pratt?” Pirx burst out in a shrill voice.
Terminus, his arms converted by the light into luminous bolts, replied at once, “Don’t know,” at the same time thumping away with such speed that Pirx had trouble deciphering the Morse.
Then an amazing thing occurred. The first series, produced by the right hand, was joined by a second set, much weaker in intensity, this one coming from the fingers of the left hand; the signals overlapped, and for a while the pipe reverberated with the percussions of a double hammering, incomprehensible except for one gradually dissolving sequence:—“F-r-z-i-g-h-a-n-d-s-i-m-p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e-t-o…”
“Terminus,” Pirx said with his lips only, slowly retreating in the direction of the metal staircase. The robot was too distracted to pay him any heed; his torso, glistening with oil, went on rocking to the rhythm of his work. Pirx didn’t need to listen to the pounding signals anymore; he could read them in the back and forth movement of his arms, in the play of light on the metal plating:
He lay on his back, wide awake. The darkness teemed with a proliferation of flickering images. Let’s see, Pratt must have wandered back aft, then run out of oxygen. Wayne and Simon knew where he was but couldn’t get to him. Why didn’t Momssen return their signals? Maybe he was already a goner. Impossible—Simon said he heard him. In which case he must have been quite close by—next door, even. Next door? That would mean there was air in Momssen’s compartent. Otherwise, Simon wouldn’t have heard anything. What did he hear, I wonder? Footsteps? Why were they calling him in the first place? And why no answer?
The voices of a life-and-death struggle, reduced to a lot of dashes and dots… Terminus. But how? Hold it. Wasn’t he found in the wreckage? Hm. I’ll bet I know where, too—in the spot where the piping runs outside. From there he could have picked up all the signaling back and forth… I wonder how long they were able to keep it up. With a good oxygen supply, they could have held out for months. Food supply, ditto. Okay, so he was trapped in the wreckage… Wait a minute. If there was zero gravity, what immobilized him? The cold temperature, probably. Robots can’t function at extremely low temperatures. The oil congeals in the joints. The hydraulic fluid freezes up, busts the lines. All that’s left then is the electronic brain. Terminus’s computerized brain must have picked up and recorded the signals, preserved them in the electronic coils of his memory. And he doesn’t know… He doesn’t realize that those signals are regulating the rhythm of his work. Or was he lying? Nah, robots don’t lie.
Fatigue overran his senses like a black liquid. Maybe it was wrong of him to eavesdrop. There was something obscene about it, about being a spectator to someone else’s death throes, witnessing it in all its gruesome detail and later analyzing every signal, every plea for oxygen, every shriek… It was immoral—if you could do nothing to help…
He was fading fast, now so far gone he could no longer keep track of his thoughts, though his lips kept repeating, inaudibly, as if in protest:
“No… no… no…”
Then nothing—a total blank.
He woke up with a start, circumscribed by darkness. He tried to sit up but was held back by the restraining blanket, fumbled blindly with the straps, then switched on the light.
The engines were running. Wrapping a coat around his shoulders, he did a few knee bends to gauge the rate of acceleration. His body must have weighed a good 100 kilos. He pegged the acceleration at about l.5g . The ship was turning; he could feel the vibrations. The wall cabinets rattled ominously, one of the cabinet doors flew open with an angry bang; everything that wasn’t secured—shoes, clothes—started sliding, imperceptibly and in unison, aft, as if animated by some conspiratorial plot.
He walked over to the intercom box, flipped open a little door, and spoke into a gadget reminiscent of the old-style telephone receiver.
“Control room!” he barked, wincing at the sound of his own voice. He had a headache. “First navigator speaking. What in hell is going on up there?”
“Course correction, sir,” came the pilot’s distant reply. “We strayed off course a little, that’s all.”
“How much off course?”
“Six… maybe seven seconds.”
“Reactor temperature?” he demanded in a slow, deliberate voice.
“Six hundred twenty in the shielding.”
“How about the holds?”
“Fifty-two in the port holds, forty-seven in the bow, twenty-nine and fifty in the stern.”
“Give me the yaw correction again, Munro.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” he said, and he slammed the receiver down. The pilot was lying through his teeth. You didn’t need that much acceleration to make a seven-second correction. He guessed the deviation to be more in the neighborhood of several degrees.
Those holds were getting too damned hot. What did they have stored back aft, anyway? Food? He sat down at the desk.
Blue Star Terra-Mars to Compo Earth. Skipper to shipping agent. Reactor causing overheating in holds stop cargo in jeopardy stop no manifest available for cargo aft stop guidance requested navigator Pirx out.
He was still writing when the engines shut down, eliminating the last vestige of gravity, with the result that when he pressed down on the pencil he was catapulted up out of his seat. He bounced impatiently off the ceiling, settled back down in his chair, and ran through the radiogram message again.
On second thought, he tore up the radiogram and stuffed the scraps into a drawer. He decided not to get dressed—always a rather tricky affair during weightlessness, involving a lot of awkward gymnastics and a fair amount of wrestling—and so, dressed as he was, with a coat draped over his pajamas, he left the cabin.
The bluish ambience made the dismal state of the wall padding less conspicuous. The nearby fresh-air vents—recessed, gaping, black—were sucking up the particles of dirt eddying in the corners. The whole ship was blanketed by silence, deep and unbroken. Hanging almost immobile above his own shadow, whose oblique extension could be seen climbing the wall, he shut his eyes in silent concentration. It happened that people sometimes fell asleep in this position, which was a hazardous thing to do, since the slightest burst in acceleration—in preparation, say, for a maneuver—could slam a person smack against the deck or ceiling.
Soon he couldn’t hear a sound—not the fans, not even his own heartbeat. The nocturnal silence aboard ship was unlike any he had ever experienced. Earthly silence has limits; one senses its finite, transitory quality. Even when you’re out among the lunar dunes, you’re always accompanied by your own private little silence; trapped by your space suit, it magnifies every squeak of your shoulder straps, every crack of your bone joints, every beat of your pulse—even the act of breathing itself. Only on a ship at night can you be truly immersed in a black and glacial silence.
He brought his watch up to eye level: it was going on 3:00 A.M.
If this keeps up, I’ll collapse, he thought. He caromed off a convex partition wall and, stretching out his arms like a bird braking its speed, landed on the cabin doorstep. It was then he heard it—a faintly audible sound that seemed to resonate from an iron interior:
Bong -bong -bong.
He uttered a profanity, slammed the hatch door shut, and recklessly flung his coat into space, where it swelled and ascended upward like some grotesque phantom. He turned off the light, climbed under the covers, and buried his head in the pillow.
“Idiot! Goddamned metal-plated idiot!” He kept muttering with his eyelids closed, shaking with a rage that even he found hard to justify. But fatigue got the better of him, and he was out before he knew what hit him.
It was going on seven when he opened his eyes. Still half-asleep, he lifted his arm up high; it didn’t want to come back down. Zero g , he thought. He got dressed, went out. On his way to the control room, he instinctively kept his ears open. A hush. He paused in front of the hatch. The cabin’s twilight interior was suffused with the greenish, almost aqueous luminescence given off by the low-luster radar screens. The pilot was reclining in his contour couch, smoking a cigarette; the flat wreaths of smoke hung in front of the screens, refracting the sea-green light. From somewhere came the subdued tinkling of Earthly music, punctuated by cosmic static. Pirx lowered himself into the contour couch directly behind the pilot; he didn’t even feel like checking the gravimeter readings.
“How long till the next burn?” he asked.
The pilot saw through his question. “Not till eight. But I can fire ’em up now, skipper, if you feel like a bath.”
“Nah… We’d better stick to our timetable,” mumbled Pirx.
The ensuing silence was marred only by the persistent buzz of the loudspeaker music, monotonous in its endless repetition of the same mindless melody. Pirx felt himself getting sleepy. Several times he would manage to shake it off, be wide awake, then slowly surrender to a drowsy stupor. Or he would have visions of cats’ eyes in the dark—big green cats’ eyes—which, the moment he blinked, turned into luminous instrument dials. He went on like this, treading that thin line between sleep and reality, until the loudspeaker began to crackle.
“This is Deimos on the air. The time is exactly 0730. Stay tuned for the daily meteorite report for the inner zone. A frontal disturbance influenced by the gravitational field of Mars has been reported in the Draconids, last seen leaving the Van Allen Belt. In the next twenty-four hours the storm is expected to hit sectors eighty-three, eighty-four, and eighty-seven. The meteorite station on Mars estimates the cloud to be in the four-hundred-thousand-kilometer range. Sectors eighty-three, eighty-four, and eighty-seven are hereby declared closed to all traffic until further notice. Stand by for the cloud’s composition, as relayed by Phobos’s ballistic probes. According to the latest report, the cloud is made up of micrometeorites of the X, XY, and Z type…”
“Whew! Am I glad we’re not affected,” sighed the pilot. “I just ate breakfast, and I’d sorely hate to have to rev up the engines.”
“Really? Not bad,” mumbled Pirx. Before heading off to the mess hall, he took a course reading, consulted the uranograph readings, and checked the radiation count—it was holding steady. The other two officers were already in the mess. Pirx kept waiting for someone to squawk about all the nocturnal clamor, but, to his surprise, the conversation never once left the subject of the next lottery draw. Sims, visibly the more excited of the two, kept up a steady recital of friends and acquaintances who, at one time or another, had hit the jackpot.
After breakfast Pirx stopped by the navigation room to plot the distances already traveled. Suddenly, in the middle of it, he dug his compass into the plotting board, tore open the desk drawer, pulled out the logbook, and scanned the Coriolanus ’s last crew list:
Officers: Pratt and Wayne. Pilots: Nolan and Potter. Mechanic: Simon…
He pondered long and hard the commander’s vigorous handwriting. Finally he tossed the book back into the drawer, finished plotting the ship’s course, and rode down to the control room, taking the carbons with him. It took him a half hour to compute their exact time of arrival on Mars. On his way back, he peeked through the window in the mess-hall door. The officers were playing chess; the orderly sat slouched in front of the TV, with a heating pad on his stomach.
Pirx shut himself up in his cabin, browsed through the radiograms handed him by the pilot, and, before he knew it, was lulled into a light snooze. Once or twice he thought he heard the engines running, tried to rouse himself, and dreamed instead of having gone down to an empty cockpit and of having combed the pitch-dark passageways back aft in search of one of the crew… When he awoke he was seated at his desk, drenched with sweat-peeved at the prospect of a sleepless night brought on by such a long afternoon nap.
When, toward evening, the pilot reignited the engines, Pirx took advantage of the gravity to indulge in a hot bath. Feeling greatly revived, he then stopped by the mess, poured some coffee into himself, and phoned upstairs for a temperature reading. The reactor was up around the 1,000-degree mark, demurring, for some reason, at crossing the danger point. Around 2100 hours he was summoned to the control room: a passing ship was requesting medical assistance—to help out with an acute appendicitis on board. Pirx was debating whether to dispatch his orderly when a nearby passenger liner radioed that it was willing to stop and offer assistance.
Thus began a fairly routine and uneventful day. At 2300 hours sharp, the white lights on all the decks—except for those in the control room and reactor chamber—were switched off, and the blue night-lights came on. Only one light was left on in the mess hall—the one over the chessboard, where Sims, the electrician, stayed up until around midnight playing chess by himself.
Pirx went below to check the temperature in the cargo holds. On the way down, he ran into Boman, just returning from an inspection of the reactor. The ship’s engineer was in good spirits; the leakage was stable and the cooling system checked out okay.
The engineer said good night and retired to his cabin, leaving Pirx alone in the dark and deserted passageway. A draft was blowing in the direction of the bow, gently ruffling the remains of spiderwebs clinging to the air vents.
The passageway between the main holds rose up tall and cavernous, like a church nave. Pirx meandered back and forth for a while, until a few minutes after midnight when the engines shut down.
At once a variety of sounds, muted and high-pitched, assailed him from all sides. Liberated by the drop in acceleration, objects not secured began shifting and colliding with walls, ceilings, decks; the reverberations, diverse and multitudinous, bestowed on the ship a strange animation. They hung in the air for a while before giving way to silence, a silence made even more extreme by the monotonous hum of the fans.
Pirx suddenly remembered that a desk drawer in the navigation room needed fixing, so he set off in search of a wood chisel. A long, narrow passageway that ran between the port holds and a cable duct took him to the toolroom; a dirty place at any time, the room now fairly swarmed with dust that wouldn’t settle, so that Pirx was almost asphyxiated by the time he groped his way to the exit.
He was almost amidships when footsteps sounded in the passageway. Footsteps? In zero gravity? It could be only one thing, he knew. The clicking of magnetic suction disks gripping the deck was a confirmation! Pirx waited until a dark silhouette appeared in the passageway, its back to the lights at the far end. Terminus advanced with a rocking motion, paddling his arms for balance.
Pirx stepped out of the shadows.
“I hear and obey.”
The ponderous figure halted; the upper half of his body was pitched forward by the force of inertia, then gradually righted itself.
“What are you doing up here?”
“Mice restless.” A voice resonated from behind the armored breastplate, a voice strongly suggestive of a husky-voiced midget. “Mice cannot sleep. Fidgety. Thirsty. When thirsty, must have water. Mice drink much when temperature high…”
“So what are you doing about it?”
The robot swayed on its stiltlike legs.
“High temperature. Must move. Always move when temperature high. Water for mice. When drink and sleep—good. Often errors when temperature high. On duty. Must report back. Water for mice…”
“You bring the mice water?”
“Where do you get the water?”
Twice the robot repeated the words “high temperature”; then, fully as if some human were prompting him from within, he lifted up both hands in a gesture of surprise—a gesture as abrupt as it was pathetic—passed each hand before the lenses rotating in their socketlike orbits, and fixed his gaze on his sheer metallic palms.
“No water… Terminus.”
“Well, where is the water?” Pirx pressed, squinting up at the towering robot. After uttering a few unintelligible sounds, Terminus unexpectedly intoned in a deep bass:
It was pronounced with such helplessness that Pirx almost lost his composure. He studied him for a while, this figure swaying before him, and said:
“Forgot, did you? Go on back to the reactor, y’hear?”
“I hear and obey.”
Terminus made a crunching about-face and walked off in the same stiff, almost senile fashion as before, gradually diminishing in the receding distance. He stumbled on one of the ramps, paddled his arms oarlike, managed to regain his balance, and disappeared around the bend into the adjoining passageway. His marching step rebounded off the walls for a while.
Pirx was already on his way back to his cabin when he suddenly changed his mind; hugging the deck, he glided noiselessly along until he came to the sixth ventilator shaft. Although the shafts were strictly off limits, a rule that applied even during engine shutdown, he shoved off from the guardrail and covered the seven flights separating the mid-ships from the tail section in a matter of seconds. This time, however, instead of entering the reactor chamber, he swam up to a sliding trap set at head level in the wall, slid back the metal plate, and found himself staring through a steel-framed, rectangular window of leaded glass. The back of the mice cages. How convenient—an observation port. The littered cages on the other side of the glass were empty; through the wire netting in front his attention was drawn to the center of the chamber, where, reflecting the light from above, his torso glistening with water, the robot hung almost horizontally in space, twirling his arms in a slow, comatose motion. The panoplied body was crawling with white mice; scurrying over brassards and breastplate, they congregated in the hollows of the robot’s segmented abdomen—where the water had generously gathered into drops—drank, somer-saulted, and flew strange patterns in the air, while Terminus tried hard to retrieve them, only to have them slip through his metal pincers each time, their tails describing weird arabesques as they squirmed their way to freedom… It was a spectacle so bizarre, so comical, that Pirx could hardly contain himself. Once, as Terminus went about corraling the mice, his metal face narrowly missed Pirx’s gaze. The last of the mice finally captured, Terminus shut the cages and vanished from sight, leaving only his behemothian shadow to fall crosslike from the main pipe joint, clear across the reactor’s concrete wall.
Pirx quietly slid the door back into place, returned to his cabin, undressed, and climbed under the covers. Unable to sleep, he opened a volume of Irving’s memoirs—of astronavigator fame—and read until his eyes began to burn. With a groggy head, yet feeling as alert as ever, he contemplated in despair the number of hours still separating him from daylight, then climbed out of bed, threw on his coat, and went out.
He picked up the plodding footsteps at the point where the main passageway merged with the outboard passage. He brought his head up close to the air vent; the noise was coming from below, resonating in the shaft’s iron well. A push of the hands propelled him forward, feet first, toward the nearest vertical shaft, and he dropped down to the tail section. The echoing footsteps grew louder, then fainter. He strained to listen; they started up again, more booming than before. He was coming back. Pirx hovered motionlessly, high up under the ceiling, and waited. The deck reverberated with the clinking, clanking of metal-plated soles. Then silence. Just as he was running out of patience, the measured treading resumed, and a large shadow, with Terminus marching at the rear of it, flooded the passageway. He came toward him, passing so close underneath that Pirx could hear his hydraulic heartbeat. After he had taken a dozen or so steps, he stopped and emitted a high-pitched, hissing sound, tilted several times to the right and left, as if bowing to the iron bulkheads, and moved on. When he came to a side passage, he halted just this side of its gaping mouth, peeked around the corner, and hissed a second time. His fingertips grazing the high ceiling, Pirx trailed after the hulking figure.
“Ssss… Ssss…” The closer Pirx came within range of the robot, the more distinct the hissing became. Terminus interrupted his march again, this time in front of a ventilation shaft, tried—but without success—to squeeze his head through the grate, hissed, then straightened up and wobbled on his way. Pirx had heard and seen enough.
“Terminus!” His yell brought the robot to an abrupt standstill, just as he was in the process of leaning over.
“I hear and obey.”
“What are you up to now?” Pirx demanded, staring at the same time into that misshapen metal mask of his, too expressionless to be a real face.
“Cat… I look for cat,” replied Terminus.
Terminus drew himself up to his full height, his arms dangling listlessly, almost forgetfully, at his sides. It was a slow, rising movement, accompanied by a faint creaking in the joints, so slow it seemed somehow fraught with menace…
“I look for cat.”
“The cat? What for?”
Terminus, for just a moment, became a mute metal statue.
At last he said, lowering his voice, “I don’t know.” Pirx was momentarily disoriented. With its dead silence, grim lighting, and rusty bed of rails skirting the sealed hatches, the passageway could have been an abandoned mine tunnel.
“Well, this has got to stop,” he said. “Go on back to the reactor—and don’t let me see you up here again.”
“I hear and obey.”
Terminus turned on his heels and tramped back the same way he had come. Pirx lingered for a while, suspended midway between deck and ceiling, while an air current gently nudged him, centimeter by centimeter, into the direction of a gaping ventilator shaft. Bouncing off the wall with his feet, he veered toward the elevator and made his way topside, passing as he went the yawning chasms of the shafts, still reverberating with the robot’s footfalls, as regular as the swinging of a pendulum in a gigantic clock.
In the course of the next few days, Pirx was consumed by problems of a more mathematical nature. After each burn, the reactor would heat up a little more and put out a little less. Boman speculated that the neutron reflectors were wearing out—a hunch corroborated by the slow but persistent increase in the amount of radioactive leakage. Using a complicated equation, the engineer tried to proportion the periods of propulsion and cooling; during shutdown, he would reroute the freezing liquid coolant from the portside holds to back aft, where the temperature was reaching truly tropical proportions. This balancing of extremes demanded much patience on Boman’s part, and he spent many hours at the computer, searching by trial and error for the right ratio. Thanks to Boman’s mathematical endeavors, they were able to cover 43 million kilometers with only a minimal delay. Finally, on the fifth day of the trip, despite Boman’s pessimistic predictions, they managed to achieve the desired speed level. Pirx ordered the reactor shut down, to allow for cooling prior to landing, and breathed a discreet sigh of relief. Commanding an old freighter like the Star was a full-time job; it left precious little time for stargazing. But then what did Pirx care about the stars, or even the copper-red disk of Mars, when he had the course charts to content him?
On the last day of the flight, late in the evening, when the darkness, only intermittently relieved by the blue-tinted night-lights, seemed to swell the decks, he suddenly remembered that he had neglected to inspect the cargo holds.
He exited from the mess hall, leaving Sims and Boman to finish their nightly game of chess, and rode the elevator down below. Since their last encounter he had neither seen nor heard Terminus. Only one thing served as a reminder—the cat. It had disappeared without leaving a trace, as if it had never been aboard in the first place.
At midship the barely lighted passageway sighed with the continual flow of air. He opened the hatch to the first hold, and the dust-coated lamps filled the interior with a sullied glow. He covered the area, sailing from one end of the hold to the other. A narrow passage divided the crates, some of which were stacked as high as the ceiling. He checked the tension of the steel straps securing the pyramids of cargo to the deck. A draft created by the open hatch started sucking debris out of the dark corners, the sawdust and oakum rocking gently up and down like duckweed on a water swell.
He was already back out in the passageway when he heard a succession of sounds, slow and cadenced:
Pirx drifted on an air current, which lifted him imperceptibly higher. Willing or not, he had to listen. It was a two-way transmission he heard now. The signals were weak, re-strained, as if the object was to conserve strength. The rhythm varied: now slow, now fast; one of the parties kept making mistakes, as if rusty with the Morse alphabet. At times there would be a prolonged pause; at other times the signals would overlap. The dark, sparsely lit passageway seemed interminable, as if the fanning breeze had its origin in the cosmic void.
Pirx recoiled off the wall, tucked in his legs, and torpedoed his way back aft, each passageway a little darker than the one before, the gradual accumulation of powdery red dust around the lamps a sign that he was nearing the stern. The door to the reactor chamber was open. He peeked inside.
He was struck by its coolness. The compressors, already shut down for the night, were quiet. The piping immured inside the concrete wall now and then emitted a strange, almost gurgling sound—gas bubbles impeding the flow of congealing liquid.
Terminus, cement-splattered from the top down, was diligently at work. A fan whirred frantically just above his head, which kept shifting back and forth with a pendulum-like regularity. Holding on to the railing with one hand, Pirx glided down the stairs without touching the steps. The robot’s iron appendages barely echoed, their impact being cushioned by a freshly applied coat of cement.
Whether by accident or by command of the same source dictating the transmissions in Morse, the fact was that the resonances were abating. Pirx stood an arm’s length away from the robot, close enough to see the overlapping segments of its belly, which, every time it doubled up, evoked the image of an insect’s crenulated pouch. The lights, reflected in miniature, swung back and forth in his glass eyes. Their impersonal stare impressed on Pirx the fact that he was alone in that empty chamber with its sheer concrete walls. Terminus was a machine, an insensate machine, capable of transmitting a prerecorded set of sounds—that and nothing more.
“C-o-m-e-i-n-s-i-m-o-n…” He barely managed to decipher it, so faint and erratic were the signals that came now. Above the slaving robot’s head was a half-meter section of pipe; Pirx reached up and grabbed it. As he was adjusting his grip, his knuckles accidentally brushed the metal tubing. Terminus froze momentarily; the tapping broke off in the middle of a series. Seized by a sudden impulse, before he had time to reflect on the folly of his action, on this insane urge to intrude on a conversation from out of the deep past, Pirx rapped out the following quick message:
At almost the exact instant his knuckles touched the pipe, Terminus responded with a rapping of his own. The two series ran parallel for a while, when suddenly, as if in recognition of his question, the robot’s hand stopped, remained poised until Pirx was finished hammering, and a few seconds later began packing cement into the fissures:
A pause; Terminus bent over to scoop up another batch of paste. What did he mean by that? Was it the beginning of an answer? Pirx waited with bated breath. The robot straight-ened again and began pelting the shielding with cement, but so hard and so fast that the reverberating blows seemed to flow into a single, drawn-out drone:
Pirx ducked his head down: it was a regular barrage.
“W-h-o-w-a-s-s-i-g-n-a-l-i-n-g-i-d-e-n-t-i-f-y-y-o-u-r-s-e-l-f-w-h-o-w-a-s-s-i-g-n-a-l-i-n-g… w-h-o-w-a-s-s-i-g-n-a-l-i-n-g… w-h-o-w-a-s-s-i-g-n-a-l-i-n-g-w-h-o-w-a-s-s-i-g-n-a-l-i-n-g-t-h-i-s-i-s-s-i-m-o-n-t-h-i-s-i-s-w-a-y-n- e-c-o-m-e-i-n…”
“Terminus!” he suddenly cried out. “Stop it! Stop it!”
The pounding ceased. Terminus stood up straight. His whole body was shaking-arms, shoulders, claws… The robot was convulsed by a fit of metal hiccups, racked by spasmodic jolts that seemed to arrange themselves into a familiar pattern:
“W-h-o-i-s-s-i-g-n-a-l… w-h-o… w-h-o…”
“Stop it!!!” Pirx screamed a second time. He had a profile view of him now: the quaking shoulder blades, the light bouncing off the armored metal in mimicry of the sounds:
The storm spent, the robot suddenly went limp. Hovering above the deck, he scraped loudly against the horizontal piece of pipe and hung there, in the dead calm, like a trapped animal. But even from a distance, Pirx could see that one of the robot’s drooping hands was still twitching in millimeter spasms:
Somehow he wound up back in the passageway. The fans purred ever so softly. He swam topside into a cool, dry breeze coming from the upper decks. Pools of light slid across his face whenever he passed one of the wall lamps.
The cabin was partially open, the desk lamp still on. Flat, wedge-shaped planes of light stretched to the base of the walls, cleaving the darkness.
Who was calling? Was it Simon? Wayne? No, it couldn’t be! They’ve both been dead for nineteen years!
Okay, who else could it have been? Terminus. But he was just a robot, good for patching leaky reactors. Pick his brain? Sure, and listen to a lot of mumbo jumbo about roentgens, neutron leakage, and cement patches! He knew nothing about anything, much less how his labor was being transformed nightly into a ghostly cadence!
One thing was clear: his recorder was far from dead. Whoever those people were—those voices, those signals—you could talk to them, converse with them. You just had to have the guts, that was all…
He pushed off from the ceiling and drifted leisurely over to the other wall. Goddamnit! He wanted to walk, to feel the ground under his feet again, to feel his own weight, to bang his fist down on the table! Oh, it was a cozy feeling, all right, this constant weightlessness that kept turning everything, including his own body, into flimsy shadows—as cozy as a bad dream! Everything he touched slipped away, drifted off-precarious, disembodied, fraudulent, a sham, a dream…
Hold it. If I dream about someone, ask that person a question, I won’t know what that person has said until he has said it. Yet that someone is a product of my brain, a brief and momentary extension of it. It happens almost every day, or rather every night—in dreams, when the self splits up, divides, and begets pseudopersonalities. These dream personalities can be invented, or taken from real life. Don’t we sometimes dream of the dead? Carry on conversations with them?
They were dead.
Did that mean Terminus was…?
Immersed in such thoughts, he circled around the cabin, ricocheting off the hard surfaces of the walls until he stood hovering in the hatchway. Holding on to the rim, he contemplated the long, dark passageway, the light trailing off into the darkness…
Should he go back?
Go back—and ask?
It must involve some physical mechanism, he thought—one more complicated than the standard recorder. What the hell, a robot is not a sound-recording device. So it must be equipped with something else, some unique kind of recorder, one endowed with a certain autonomy, a certain mutability… one capable of being probed, of throwing light on the fates of those men—Simon, Nolan, Potter—and Momssen’s silence, that terrifying, inexplicable silence of the commander…
What other explanation was there?
He knew there wasn’t, but he still couldn’t bring himself to budge, to move from the hatchway, as if waiting, hoping for some other explanation…
What was Terminus, anyway? An electronically wired box. Hell, anything alive, any living creature would have perished long ago in the wreckage. So now what? Rap out a few questions before his glass eyes? And even if he did that, what would he get out of him? Would they—those dead men—give him a neat and coherent narrative of what happened? Or wouldn’t he just hear a lot of screaming and yelling, cries for oxygen, for help… And what was he to tell him? That they didn’t exist? That they were only “pseudopersonalities,” isolated figments of his electronic brain—an illusion, a case of the hiccups? That the terror of those men was a fake terror, that their death struggle, repeated every single night, had as much meaning as a worn-out record? He recalled the response provoked by his question—that sudden burst of signals, and that cry, so full of shocked bewilderment and hope, and that frantic, urgent, unremitting pleading: “Come in! Who is signaling? Come in!!!”
He could still hear it ringing in his ears, could feel it pulsating in his fingertips: the terrible despair and fury of those banging supplications.
Didn’t exist? But then whose voices were those? Who were those people calling out for help? Oh, the experts would have an explanation, all right. They’d blame it on some electrical discharge, on the resonating effect of the vibrating metal. He sat down at his desk, pulled out a drawer, angrily slapped his hand down to keep the papers from fluttering away, fished out the printed form he was looking for, and carefully spread it out before him, pressing it flat so his breath wouldn’t disturb it. One by one he began filling in the blanks.
MODEL: AST-Pm -15/0044.
TYPE: Universal maintenance.
NATURE OF DAMAGE: Functional disintegration.
He hesitated, holding the pen up close to the paper, then pulling it away. He began thinking about the innocence of machines, about how man had endowed them with intelligence and, in doing so, had made them an accomplice of his mad adventures. About how the myth of the golem—the machine that rebelled against its creator—was a lie, a fiction invented by the guilty for the sake of self-exoneration.
RECOMMENDATIONS: To be scrapped.
And with a perfectly rigid face, he signed it:
Pirx, first navigator.
... our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load. (c) William R. Catton, Jr