Short story 3

The Invincible by Stanisław Lem

The Invincible moved across the outermost quadrant of the Lyre Constellation. The heavy cruiser was propelled through space by photon drive. It was the largest ship at the disposal of the space fleet based in this section of the universe.

The ship’s complement numbered eighty-three men, all of them presently asleep inside the hibernation tunnel. The flight distance was sufficiently short that it had not been necessary to resort to full hibernation; the men were simply kept in deep sleep, body temperature regulated so as never to fall below 50° F. Within the cruiser’s control center only the automats carried on their work.

Dead center in the direction finder hung the disk of a sun not much hotter than an ordinary red dwarf star. The moment the sun filled half the screen the space-drive automatically cut off. For a while dead silence reigned throughout the ship. The air conditioning system and the computers functioned noiselessly. The slight vibration ceased when the photon stream no longer emerged from the spacecraft’s stern. This stream had been like an infinitely long sword, sheathed in darkness, thrusting the cruiser ahead through the vastness of space. The Invincible still coasted along just under the speed of light; rigid, deaf and seemingly without any life aboard.

Tiny lights on the instrument panel reflected the reddish glow of the distant sun that loomed on the central videoscreen. Now the magnetic tapes began to move. Programed coded strips crept slowly into the intake slots of a series of instruments. Sparks flew from the transformers; and the current flooded into the supply network, accompanied by a faint hum that was not heard by any living tiling. Electromotors overcame the resistance of long dried-out lubricating oil and started humming. Their low roar soon changed into a highpitched moaning sound. Cadmium rods were pushed outwards by the auxiliary reactors; magnetic pumps squeezed liquid natrium into the cooling coils; a mild tremor ran through the ship’s stern. Faint rattling noises came from inside the hull as if swarms of tiny animals were busily scurrying about, scratching the metal walls with their sharp little claws. This was the sign that the repair robots had started out on their rounds, checking the solidity of the braces of the ship’s framework; making sure that the hull had not been damaged anywhere and that all seams were still welded tight. The entire ship came to life, filled with myriad noises and activities. Only the crew had not yet awakened.

Finally the last automat was fed the proper coded strip and began to send signals to the hibernation center, Antihibernation gas was injected into the cold air. Warm air streamed through the gratings in the floor, up towards the long rows of the sleeping cots. The sleeping men, however, appeared reluctant to wake up. Slowly they began to move their arms with feeble jerks, trying to ward off the nightmares and feverish fantasies that invaded the void of their icy slumber. Finally the first man opened his eyes. The ship had been fully prepared for this moment. For the past few minutes bright daylight had chased the dark shadows that filled the long corridors, the elevator shafts, the cabins, the control center, the workrooms, and the airlocks. And while the hibernation chamber resounded with the sighing and moaning of the drowsy men, the spaceship began its first braking maneuver, as if it were too impatient to await the complete awakening of the crew. Sheaves of fire emanated from the jets at the craft’s nose. A violent shock disrupted the velocity of the cruiser that had constantly traveled at the speed of light. The tremendous counter-forces produced by the forward jets tried to crush the Invincible whose stationary mass of eighteen thousand tons had been multiplied by its gigantic initial velocity. Everything that had not been nailed down tight began to move; lifeless objects seemed to come alive. Hermetically sealed maps bounced about on their rollers in the map room. In the galleys dishes rattled, the backs of the empty foam-rubber chairs began to shake, safety belts and wall ropes swung like pendulums in the long corridors of the decks. All the sounds of clinking glass, tin and synthetic products combined; the noise spread like a wave throughout the heavy cruiser. The hibernation center was filled with a din of voices. Following a brief transitory slumber the men now returned to the world of reality after having spent the past seven months in a state of limbo.

The spaceship kept losing speed. Red clouds shrouded the planet, obliterating the stars in the sky. An ocean became visible, reflecting the sun’s rays as though it were a convex mirror. Now the craft glided over a brownish continent dotted with craters. The crew, however, saw none of this; they were at their posts. A cloud passed through the path of the braking ray. A sudden white glimmer appeared as if quicksilver had exploded. The cloud disintegrated and vanished. For a moment the howling of the propulsion drive grew intense. The reddish disk down below became flat: the planet had turned into an expanse of land. Sickle-shaped dunes stood out, whipped by a strong wind. Strands of lava radiated from a nearby crater like the spokes of a wheel, reflecting the fiery glow of the rocket jets, and almost blotting out the sunlight.

“Central axis — full power! Static drive!”

The needle advanced slowly toward the next sector of the gauge; the landing maneuver proceeded according to plan. The spaceship hovered like a fire-spewing volcano balanced on its head. Half a mile below lay the scarred surface of the planet, covered by sandy ridges of rock.

“Central axis — full power! Brake static drive!”

Now the spot was already clearly to be seen where the braking ray hit the ground. A cloud of red sand rose from the flat surface. Violet bolts of lightning flashed, apparently without any sound, for the thunder was drowned out by the roaring gases. Gradually the potential difference evened out and the lightning disappeared. The spaceship descended steadily without any vibrations; like a mountain of steel held taut by invisible ropes.

“Central axis — half power! Small static drive!”

Steaming clouds of sand swelled up like ocean waves and sped outward in concentric circles. At the epicenter where the bunched braking ray had struck full force from a short distance away, neither steam nor sand had been left. The red, blistery mirror had changed into a lake of molten silicates which finally had evaporated in a column of shattering explosions. The primitive rock of the planet, bare as fleshless bones, turned soft.

“Cut down nuclear drive!”

The glowing blue of the atomic fire died down. A stream of diborane sprayed at a slant from the jet openings. Suddenly a ghostly green flooded the desert, crater walls and clouds. The basalt rocks would no longer remain in a molten state, just where the broad stern of the Invincible was supposed to touch down.

“Reactors zero power. Land with cold drive!”

The men’s hearts began to beat faster. They looked at the instruments. Their sweaty hands grasped levers. This last command meant there would be no turning back now. Soon they would be able to step down on terra firma; even if it was only the sand of a barren planet. Nevertheless they would see the sun rise and set again, see a horizon and clouds, and feel the wind.

“Landing dead center at nadir!”

A continuous moan filled the ship: the turbines extruded the fuelin a downward direction. A cone-shaped green column of fire connected the invincible to the rocky steaming ground. Sand clouds obscured the periscopes located on the middle decks. Only the radar screens in the control center showed the constantly changing outlines of the surrounding landscape which rapidly disappeared under the full fury of the raging typhoon.

“Stop at touchdown!”

The colossal descending rocket compressed the fiery column inch by inch. Rebellious flames swirled directly beneath the ship’s stern. Long tongues licked out from this green fiery hell into the quivering clouds of sand. The space between the burned rock and the Invincible narrowed down to a tiny gap, a glowing green line.

“Zero, zero! Cut all power!”

The rocket had come to rest on the ground. The chief engineer kept a firm grasp on both levers of the emergency starter in case the rock might suddenly cave in. They waited; the seconds crept by slowly, painfully. For a while the commander observed the plumb line, but the tiny silvery lamp did not show the slightest deviation to either side.

They were silent. The nozzles of the jets that only a short time ago had glowed white with incandescent heat began to contract while cooling off. This was accompanied by a characteristic sound not unlike a hoarse groan. Little by little the reddish dust clouds that had been hurled into the air several hundred yards high began to drift towards the ground. The spaceship’s blunt nose emerged first, then the rump, blackened by atmospheric friction matching the color of the old basalt rocks. But the red sand still whirled around the ship’s stern, which now stood firmly on the ground as if welded to the planet’s surface. The Invincible seemed to have become a part of this planet, seemed to have rotated along with it sluggishly for many centuries under the violet sky where bright stars now could be seen, growing dim only in the vicinity of the red sun.

“Normal procedure?”

The astrogator looked up from the log where he had just jotted down the exact time of their touchdown next to the name of the planet: Regis III.

“No, Rohan. We’ll start with the third step routine.”

Rohan tried to hide his surprise.

“Fine,” he replied with the note of familiarity that Horpach occasionally tolerated in their conversations. “However, I’d rather not tell the crew myself.”

Seemingly ignoring Rohan’s remark, the astrogator took his officer by the arm and steered him over to the videoscreen.

Gazing through the stereoptic, multicolored screen of the electron transformer as if it were a window eighteen storeys high opening onto the outside, they saw a true image of the landscape surrounding their landing site.

The force of the landing jet stream had hurled the sand outward and piled it up in a ring of dunes surmounting a shallow hollow. They noticed the jagged rocky rim of a crater some three miles away, its western edge blending into the horizon. Impenetrable dark shadows hung below its steep slopes toward the east. The ridges of wide lava streams pushed through the sand like rivers of reddish-black congealed blood. A bright star in the sky was visible at the upper rim of the videoscreen.

The cataclysm, brought about by the arrival of the Invincible, had gradually died down. Now the desert wind — a violent air mass constantly moving from the planet’s equatorial zones toward its poles — was already driving sandy tongues underneath the ship’s stern, as if patiently trying to heal the wound that the fiery jets had torn open.

The astrogator switched on the network of the outside microphones. The distant sound of malicious howling merged with the nearby rustling of sand gusts as they scoured the steely hull of the ship. For a moment the eerie, grating noise filled the high-ceilinged room of the control center. Horpach switched off the mikes and silence returned.

“Well, that’s what it looks like,” he said slowly “But the Condor never returned home from here, Rohan.”

Rohan clenched his teeth. Better not enter into an argument with his commander. Though they had flown together many parsecs, they had never become friends. Maybe the generation gap was too wide, or the dangers they had overcome together had not been sufficiently severe. This man, whose hair was almost as white as the suit he wore, showed no consideration now for his crew.

Nearly one hundred men waited silently at their posts. Behind them lay the tremendous strain of the approaching maneuver, those three hundred hours needed to brake the kinetic energy that was stored in every atom of the Invincible, to swing the ship into the proper orbit and to bring it in for the landing. Almost one hundred men who had not heard the rustling of the wind for many months, who had learned to hate the emptiness of space in the manner of those who have become too familiar with it. But the commander certainly did not take this into consideration now. Slowly he walked across the control center, grasped the back of his chair and growled: “We don’t know what that is out there Rohan.” And suddenly he snapped, “Well, what are you waiting for!”

Rohan hurried over to the panel and switched on the intercom. His voice betrayed his inner resentment as he shouted, “Attention, all hands! Attention! Landing maneuver completed. Terrestrial procedure, third step routine. Deck number eight — get the energy-robots ready! Deck number nine — start the protective screen reactors! All protection personnel to proceed to their stations! The rest of the crew to remain at their usual posts! These are commander’s orders, men!”

As he bellowed these commands into the intercom speaker he kept his eye on the green eye of the amplifier, which oscillated according to the intensity of his voice. Suddenly he seemed to see inside the flickering light the perspiring faces of the men who were turned toward the loudspeakers. He knew the expression on those faces was changing from amazement to cold fury. Now that they had understood, they would start cursing.

“Terrestrial procedure, third step routine started, Astrogator,” he said without looking at the old man. The old man glanced at Rohan and a slight smile showed unexpectedly around the corners of his mouth.

“That’s just for the beginning, Rohan. You should know that. We’ll probably go for long walks when the sun is setting over the horizon. Who knows…”

He took a thin, long book from a small built-in cupboard at the far end of the wall. He opened it and placed it on the instrument panel that was studded with buttons and levers. He asked: “Have you read this, Rohan?”

“Yes.”

“The last signal registered by the seventh hyper-relay station reached the base just a year ago.”

“I know the message by heart.

‘COMPLETED LANDING ON REGIS III. DESERT PLANET OF TYPE SUBDELTA 92. LANDING PARTY FOLLOWING TERRESTRIAL PROCEDURE, SECOND STEP ROUTINE. LEAVING FROM THE EQUATORIAL ZONE OF THE EVANA CONTINENT.’ “

“That’s right. But this was not the last signal

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