The Heart of the Serpent
Original title Russian: Сердце Змеи, Latin: Cor Serpentis
Translator Roza Prokofieva
Foreign Languages Publishing House (Moscow) — 1961
Music broke through the mists of oblivion. “Awake, ye, yield not to sinister entropy…” The words of the familiar song stirred memories and started off an endless chain of accustomed associations.
Life returned to the great ship. It still trembled, but the automatic devices went on with their work. The whirls of energy that had enveloped the three beehive-shaped green metal domes in the control room had died down. In a few seconds the domes leapt up and disappeared in niches overhead among a maze of pipes, trusses and wires, revealing three men reclining in deep padded seats.
Two of the men remained motionless, but the third stirred, opened his heavy-lidded eyes and tossed back a mane of dark hair. He raised himself up from the depths of the soft insulation, and leaned forward to read the multitude of dials on the slanting illuminated surface of the main instrument panel that stretched across the compartment half a metre in front of the three seats.
“So we’re out of the warp,” he heard a strong voice say next to him. “I see you are again the first to awake, Kari. You really have the ideal constitution for an astronaut!”
Kari Ram, electronics engineer and astronavigator of the space ship Tellur, turned sharply to meet the still clouded gaze of the ship’s captain, Moot Ang.
The captain shifted his position with an effort, sighed with relief and turned his attention to the panel.
“Twenty-four parsecs… We’ve passed right by a tar. New instruments are always inaccurate… or perhaps I should say we haven’t learned to use them properly yet. You can cut off the music — Tey’s awake.”
In the silence that fell Kari Ram could distinctly hear the uneven breathing of the man who had just regained consciousness.
The main control room was a good-sized circular chamber safely hidden deep in the bowels of the space ship. Above the instrument panels and hermetically sealed doors a bluish screen ran all round the wall. Forward, along the ship’s longitudinal axis, there was a gap in the screen for the locator disc, almost twice the height of man in diameter. Transparent as crystal, the disc seemed to merge with cosmic space, sparkling like a black diamond in the light from the instrument dials.
Moot Ang made an almost imperceptible movement and all three at once threw up their arms to shield their eyes. A gigantic orange sun had burst out on the port side of the screen. Although its intensity was reduced by powerful filters, the light was all but unbearable.
Moot Ang shook his head.
“We nearly went through the corona. No more exact courses laid out in advance for me! It’s much safer to by-pass.”
“The worst thing about these warp ships is that you lay the course and then shoot off blindly like a bullet fired into the night,” Tey Eron’s voice came from the depths of his seat. Tey was second in command and the head astrophysicist. “Besides, we too are blind and helpless cooped up inside the vortical protective fields. I don’t like this kind of cosmic flight, even though it’s the fastest way man has been able to devise.”
“Twenty-four parsecs, yet to us it has seemed like an instant,” Moot Ang said.
“An instant of death-like sleep,” Tey Eron muttered gruffly. “As for the Earth…”
“It’s best not to think about the Earth,” Kari Ram said, getting up. “Or the fact that seventy-eight years have passed down there since we took off, or of the friends and folks at home who’ve died of old age, or the other changes. What will it be like when we get back I wonder?”
“It would be the same no matter what type of space ship you use,” the captain said calmly. “The only difference is that in the Tellur time moves faster for us. Although we’re going farther out into space than anybody before us, we’ll be little changed when we return.”
Tey Eron went over to the computer.
“Everything’s normal,” he said a few minutes later. “That’s Cor Serpentis over there, or as the ancient Arab astronomers called it, Unuk al-Hay — the Heart of the Serpent.”
“Where is its neighbour?” Kari Ram asked.
“Behind the main star. Look here: spectrum K0. It’s eclipsed for us.”
“Strip all receptors!” ordered the captain.
The infinite blackness of the Cosmos enveloped everything — a bottomless blackness that seemed blacker still for the golden-orange blaze of Cor Serpentis port and aft. The Milky Way and other stars paled in the glare. Only one white star down below held its own.
“We’re nearing Epsilon Serpentis,” Kari Ram said. His voice was louder than necessary; he evidently expected a compliment from the captain. But Moot Ang said nothing. His eyes were turned to starboard, to the bright white blaze of the distant star.
“That’s where my old ship, the Sun, went,” he said at last, conscious of the expectant silence in the control room. “To explore new planets…”
“So that’s Alphecca of the Corona Borealis!”
“Yes, Ram. Or to use its European name — Gemma. But it’s time to get to work.”
“Shall I wake the others?” Tey Eron asked.
“No. We’ll make one or two warps if it’s all clear ahead,” Moot Ang said. “Switch on the optical and radio telescopes. Check the tuning of the memory machines. Tey, start the nuclear engines. We’ll use them for the time being. Accelerate.”
“Six-sevenths of the speed of light?”
The captain nodded and Tey quickly flipped over switches. Not a tremor passed through the space ship, only a blinding blaze lit up all the screens and completely blotted out the faint stars — our own Sun among them — of the Milky Way below.
“We have several hours to wait before the instruments complete the observations and check them over,” Moot Ang said. “We’ll eat now and then we had all better get some sleep. You carry on, Kari. I’ll relieve you.”
Kari Ram dropped into the swivel seat facing the centre of the control panel. When the two other men had gone, he switched off the stern receptors and the flames of the rocket engines disappeared from view.
The reflected glare of fiery Cor Serpentis danced on the gleaming surface of the instruments. The disc of the forward locator remained a black bottomless well. This was reassuring, for it showed that the calculations which had taken six years of work by the finest minds and computing machines on Earth were correct.
The Tellur, the first space-warp ship ever made on Earth, was moving down a great corridor in space devoid of stellar clusters and dark clouds. This type of ship, capable of moving in zero-space, was designed to reach much farther out into the Universe than the previous anameson nuclear-rocket ships which could not exceed five-sixths or six-sevenths of the speed of light. Operating on the principle of compression of time, warp ships were thousands of times faster. Their drawback was that during each lunge forward they were out of human control; as a matter of fact, astronauts could endure the moment of space warp only in an unconscious state, protected by a powerful vortical energy field. The Tellur moved in spurts, and before each spurt care had to be taken to see that the way ahead was clear.
Now the Tellur was on its way past the Serpent and through practically starless space in the high latitudes of the Galaxy to a carbon star in Hercules. The object of this incredibly distant journey was to study the still mysterious processes of transformation of matter directly on the carbon star. The findings would be of inestimable value to power development on Earth. There was a theory that the star itself had some connection with a disc-shaped electromagnetic dark cloud revolving edgewise to the Earth. Scientists thought the processes going on here in relative proximity to the Sun might be a repetition of the birth of our own planetary system, the “relative proximity” in this case meaning one hundred and ten parsecs, or three hundred and fifty light years.
Kari Ram checked the safety devices. They showed all the automatic installations of the ship to be working normally. He sat back and gave himself up to his thoughts.
The Earth was now far, far away. Seventy-eight light years separated them from the good and beautiful Earth which mankind had made a haven of happy life, of inspired, creative labour. In the classless society man had created for himself every individual knew his planet so well there was little left to learn — he knew not only its factories and mines and plantations, its marine industries and research centres, its museums and preserves, but also the quiet retreats where one could enjoy the beauties of Nature in solitude or with one’s beloved.
It was a wonderful world, but man in his insatiable desire for more knowledge had reached out to the icy chasms of cosmic space, searching for the solution to the riddle of the Universe, eager to fathom Nature’s secrets and subordinate her more and more to man’s will. First he had reached the Moon and seen the lunar plains and mountains drenched in a lethal shower of X-ray and uftra-viofet radiation from the Sun. Then on to torrid,
lifeless Venus with its oceans of oil, sticky, tarry soil and eternal fog; on to cold, sandy Mars with only a faint flicker of life in its subterranean depths. Hardly had exploration of Jupiter begun when new ships reached the nearest stars. Space ships from Earth visited Alpha and Proxima Centauri, Barnard’s star, Sirius, Eta Eridani and even Tau Ceti — not the stars themselves, but their planets or their immediate vicinities, as was the case with the twin stars of Sirius which have no planetary system.
But never had astronauts from Earth been on planets where life had reached its highest stage of development, in other words, planets inhabited by thinking beings.
From the infinity of the Cosmos ultrashort radio waves brought tidings of other populated worlds, sometimes reaching us thousands of years after they were sent out. Man was only learning to read these messages, obtaining the first inkling of the vast ocean of scientific and engineering skill and artistic accomplishment that washed the shores of the inhabited worlds of our Galaxy. These worlds were as yet beyond our reach. And what of those other worlds in island universes millions of light years away!
Knowledge of all this whetted man’s eagerness to journey to planets inhabited by men — perhaps unlike our Earthmen, but men nevertheless who, like ourselves, had built rational, sane societies where every member had the right to his share of happiness in a measure limited only by the degree of mastery acquired over Nature. It had already been established that there existed worlds inhabited by people like ourselves, and that these were probably the majority. For the laws governing the development of planetary systems and of life on their planets were the same not only through our Galaxy, but throughout the entire known Universe.
The space-warp ship, the latest triumph of human genius, had made it possible to answer the call of all these distant worlds. And now the Tellur was on its way. If the flight was successful, then… But as was the case with everything else in life, there was another side to this invention.
“Yes, there’s the other side,” Kari Ram said aloud, so completely immersed in his thoughts that he was unaware he had spoken until Moot Ang’s deep, resonant voice singing an old song brought him to with a start.
The other side of Love, Now rolling deep as the ocean’s flood, Now narrow as a winding stair, There’s no escape, ‘tis in your blood,
the captain sang.
“I had no idea you liked old songs too,” he said. “That one’s at least five hundred years old.”
“I wasn’t thinking about songs,” replied the astronavi-gator. “I was thinking of this flight. And what Earth will be like when we return.”
The captain’s face clouded.
“We have only made the first warp. Are you already thinking of our return?”
“Oh no! You know how eager I was to be among the few chosen for the voyage. I was just thinking that when we return to Earth seven hundred years of terrestrial time will have passed. And even though the average life-span has doubled, our sisters’ and brothers’ great-grandchiidren will be dead by then.”
“Didn’t you know that?”
“Of course. But something else has struck me.”
“The seeming futility of our flight?”
“Exactly. Long before the Tellur was built or even invented, ordinary rocket ships set out for Fomalhaut, Ca-pella and Arcturus. That was fifty years ago, but the Fomalhaut expedition is expected back only two years from now. The Arcturus and Capella parties will be returning in some forty or fifty years; you know Arcturus is twelve and Capella fourteen parsecs away. But the warp ships being built now can get to Arcturus in one warp. The distance there is nothing in comparison with this flight. And by the time we get back people will have completely conquered time, or space, whichever way you want to put it. The space ships they will build then will have a range much greater than ours and leave us to waddle back with a cargo of obsolete and useless information.”
“You mean our departure from Earth was something like death, and that we’ll return as primitive men, mere survivals of an age long past?” Moot Ang said.
“You’re right and at the same time completely wrong. Accumulation of knowledge and experience, including exploration of the Universe, must never cease. Otherwise the laws of development would be violated, and development is always uneven and contradictory. Suppose the ancient scientists who now seem naive to us had waited for, say, the modern quantum microscope to be invented. Or if the farmers and builders of ancient times who drenched the earth with their sweat had decided to do nothing before automatic machines were made. Had they done that we would still be living in holes in the ground and subsisting on the crumbs Nature might bestow on us.”
Kari Ram laughed, but Moot Ang went on.
“Besides, we have our duty to perform, like every other member of society. The price of being the first to penetrate to hitherto inaccessible parts of the Universe is to die for seven hundred years. But those who remained behind to enjoy all the pleasures of terrestrial life will never know the wonder and joy of glimpsing the innermost secrets of the Universe. As for going back… I don’t think you need to fear the future. There has never been an age since the beginning of human history when mankind did not retain something of the past in spite of the ascending spiral of progress. Every century has had, besides its own unique peculiarities, features common to all times. Who knows but that the tiny particle of knowledge we shall take back to Earth will help to bring about a new advance in science, to make men’s lives still richer and fuller. And even if we ourselves will be returning from the distant past, are our lives not dedicated to the future? Can we be strangers to the new people we shall be going to? In general, can anyone who gives his all to society be a stranger to his fellow-men? You must admit that man is more than just an accumulation of knowledge; he is also a carrier of complex emotions, and in this respect we shall not be found wanting after the trials of our voyage.” He paused, then added in a lighter tone: “Speaking for myself, I am so eager to look into the future that for that alone…”
“You’re ready to die for a while as far as the Earth is concerned?” prompted the navigator.
The captain nodded.
“You’d better go and have something to eat,” he said. “It’ll soon be time for the next warp. What are you doing here, Tey?”
The second-in-command shrugged his shoulders.
“I wanted to take a look at the course the instruments have plotted. And it’s time to relieve you.”
He pressed a button in the centre of the panel and a polished concave cover slid open. A spiral of silver-coloured metal ribbon rose from the depths of the instrument. Through it ran a black needle indicating the course of the ship. Tiny lights gleaming like jewels on the spiral represented the stars of various spectral classes past which the Tellur’s course lay. On innumerable dials indicator needles danced as the computing machines worked out the direction of the next warp so as to keep the ship well away from the stars and dark clouds and luminous nebulae that might conceal unknown heavenly bodies.
Tey Eron was so engrossed in his task that he hardly noticed the passage of time. In the meantime the huge space ship continued hurtling through the black emptiness of the Cosmos. While the astrophysicist worked, his two comrades sat in silence in the soft depths of a semi-circular seat just inside the massive triple door that separated the control room from the rest of the ship.
Several hours later a gay tinkle of chimes announced that the computations were finished. The captain walked over to the control panel.
“Excellent! The next warp can be nearly three times as long as the first.”
“Not as much as that. Look at this…” Tey pointed to the tip of the black needle which was vibrating faintly in rhythm with a series of indicators.
“At any rate fifty-seven parsecs gives complete certainty. Knock off five to allow a margin of error. That leaves fifty-two. Stand by for the warp.”
Again the countless devices and relays were checked over. Moot Ang plugged in on the cabins where the remaining five crew members were fast asleep.
The automatic physiological observation devices reported all five in normal condition. This established, the captain switched on the protective field around the crew’s quarters. Red streaks running along the frosted paneling on the port wall showed the flow of gas through the tubes concealed behind.
“Ready?” Tey Eron asked the commander.
The captain nodded, and the three men in the navigation room settled into their deep padded seats. Secured firmly with air cushions, each took a metal hypodermic syringe ready for use from a compartment in the left arm rest.
“Well, here goes — for another hundred and fifty years of Earth-life,” said Kari Ram, driving the point of the needle into his arm.
Moot Ang looked at him sharply. But the faintly mocking gleam in the young man’s eyes reassured him. When his comrades had dropped back in their seats and lost consciousness, the captain switched on the robots controlling both the warp mechanism and the protective shield, and finally flipped over some levers on a small box next to his knee which brought the massive domes down noiselessly from the ceiling. When the domes were in place, he took one last glance at the dials now illuminated with a dim bluish light and plunged the hypodermic needle into his arm.
* * *
The ship came out of its fourth warp. It was cruising along at a speed less than that of light not quite four parsecs away from its destination — the dark giant KNT-8008 belonging to the rare class of dark carbon stars. The most powerful telescopes on Earth could hardly pick it out, but now it loomed as large as the Sun viewed from Mercury on the starboard, or “north,” screens of the ship.
Stars like this with diameters 150 to 170 times the diameter of the Sun were distinguished by the abundance of carbon in their atmospheres. At a temperature of 2,000-3,000 °C. the carbon atoms formed a specific type of molecules consisting of three atoms each. Stellar atmospheres with such a molecular structure absorbed radiation in the violet region of the spectrum and hence the luminosity of stars of this class was very low in relation to their size.
The cores of the carbon giants, however, had temperatures running to 100 million degrees, and this made them powerful neutron generators that transformed light elements into heavy ones, even heavier than uranium, all the way to californium and rossium. The latter was the heaviest of the known elements, with an atomic weight of 401, and had first been obtained a good four centuries earlier.
Scientists believed it was the carbon stars that were the Universe’s factories of heavy elements which they spread into space in periodical eruptions, and that they were the source of the new chemical elements that were constantly appearing in our Galaxy. The advent of the warp ship now enabled man to study carbon stars at close range, and observe the processes of transformation of matter going on there.
The crew of the Tellur had regained consciousness?m& were at work on the research programme for the sake of which they had cut themselves off from Earth for seven hundred terrestrial years. All were fully aware that they had a long job ahead of them. The processes the expedition was to investigate were complex indeed and physicists on Earth had not yet been able to find a clue to their secrets.
The ship seemed to be cruising very slowly now, but no greater speed was needed. Its course deviated somewhat to the south from a straight line to the carbon star so as to keep the locator screen shaded from its radiation; indeed the disc remained a black void for weeks and months and years in succession.
The Tellur, or IF-1 (Z-685), as it was listed in the register of the Earth’s Cosmic fleet (meaning the first inverted-field space ship, and the 685th ever to be built), was not as huge as the long-range subphotonic space ships which had preceded it. The older type of ship had carried crews of up to two hundred, and their voyages had lasted the lifetime of more than one generation, which enabled them to penetrate quite deep into interstellar space. Each time one of these long-range ships returned, however, it brought back with it several score men and women from the distant past. But while physiologically and intellectually on a high level of development, they found it so hard to adapt themselves to the times that many of them succumbed to melancholy and depression.
Now warp ships would carry people still farther out into the Cosmos, and in a very short time — as time is measured by astronauts — Methuselahs a thousand years old would be appearing in human society. Those who would undertake voyages to other island universes would be returning to their native planet millions of years later. This was the negative side of cosmic exploration — the great barrier Nature had laid in the path of the cosmic ambitions of her restless Earth-sons.
The latest space ships carried a crew of only eight. And whereas previously astronauts had been encouraged to raise families during flights, these travellers into boundless space and the future were strictly forbidden to do so.
Although the Tellur was smaller than its predecessors, its dimensions were nevertheless huge for so small a crew.
As always after a long sleep, the eight astronauts on board, most of them young people, were brimming with energy that sought an outlet, and they spent most of their free time in the gymnasium. They devised all sorts of difficult exercises and complicated dances, or performed the most fantastic acrobatics in the antigravitation corner of the hall. Another favourite pastime was swimming in the big pool filled with ionized luminescent water that retained the exquisite blue of that cradle of humanity, the Mediterranean.
Kari Ram was hurrying to the swimming pool when he heard a melodious voice behind him.
“I need your help, Kari. This turn just won’t come off right.”
The speaker was Taina Dan, a tall, slender girl in a short tunic of a shining green fabric that matched her eyes. She was the party’s chemist, the youngest and most high-spirited member of the expedition. Often enough she irritated the staid, level-headed Kari by her impulsiveness, but he shared her passion for dancing. Smiling, he turned and went toward her.
Afra Devi, the expedition’s biologist, called out to him from the diving board as he passed by. With her back to the water, she was pulling a bathing cap over her luxurious black hair. In the meantime Tey Eron came up to Afra on the springy plastic diving board and held out his muscular arm behind the girl’s back. She threw herself backward against Tey’s arm and for a fraction of a second was balanced there, then completed the turn around the arm and the two plunged down into the water, their tawny skins gleaming with that glint of bronze that only a healthy outdoor life can give. Kari’s eyes followed them.
“He’s forgotten all about me!” Taina cried, pressing the tips of her fingers against his eyes.
“But it was beautiful, wasn’t it?” Kari replied, drawing the girl to him and leading her into the first step of the dance as they entered the sound strip.
Kari and Taina were the best dancers on board. None of the others could abandon themselves so completely to melody and rhythm. Now too Kari was swept into the world of dance, oblivious to everything but the fascination of co-ordinated movement. The girl’s hand resting on his shoulder was at once strong and tender. Her green eyes deepened in colour.
“You are just like your name,” Kari whispered. “I believe in an ancient language Taina’ meant something mysterious, unfathomed.”
“I’m glad of that,” the girl replied gravely. “I had thought that the mysterious and unfathomed existed only in the Cosmos — that it didn’t apply to Earth any more. It certainly doesn’t to people — there’s nothing enigmatic or unpredictable about us.”
“Do you regret it?”
“Sometimes. I should like to meet someone like the people who lived in the distant past. Someone who has to hide his dreams and his feelings from a hostile environment, to steel his resolve in secret and to build up his will till nothing can shake it.”
“I see what you mean. But I wasn’t thinking of people — only of unfathomed secrets… The kind one reads about in ancient novels — mysterious ruins, unknown depths, un-attained heights. And before that there were enchanted forests and springs and haunted houses where all sorts of exciting supernatural things happened.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Kari, to find some secret passage on board…”
“Leading to some mysterious chambers where…”
“Yes, Kari, go on.”
“My imagination doesn’t go any further,” said the engineer.
But Taina had got into the spirit of the thing and she
pulled Kari after her into a dimly-lit side passage. The vibration indicators blinked wearily on the walls as if the ship itself was fighting an overpowering drowsiness. Taina tiptoed down the corridor a little way and then stopped. A shadow of boredom flitted over her face but was gone before Kari could be certain that he had really seen it. An unfamiliar emotion seized him and he took the girl’s hand again.
“Let’s go to the library,” he said. “I’ve still got two hours before my watch.”
She followed him obediently.
The library was a large common room with indirect lighting that created the illusion of a luminous mist floating under the ceiling. It was located immediately aft of the central control room, as was customary in all space ships. Kari and Taina opened the pressurized door of the third transverse passage and came to the double-doored elliptical hatchway of the central gallery. No sooner had Kari stepped on the bronze plate in front of it and caused the heavy leaves to slide open than the air grew vibrant with sound. Taina brightened.
“It’s Moot Ang,” she said, pressing Kari’s fingers.
They slipped into the library. There were three men in the room. The ship’s doctor, Svet Sim, and the stocky warp engineer Yas Tin, were ensconced in soft armchairs between the upright columns of the film cabinets, and to the left, the commander of the Tellur himself was bent over the keys of the EMV.
The EMV, or electromagnetic viono, had long replaced the harsh-toned piano of old, retaining the tonal wealth of the piano but imparting to it the melodious richness of the violin. Amplifiers could give the sounds it produced an amazing power.
Moot Ang was unaware of the newcomers. He sat, leaning forward slightly, his face lifted to the rhombic panels of the ceiling, his fingers running lightly over the keyboard. As in the old-time piano, every nuance of sound depended on the musician’s touch, although the sound itself was produced not by hammers striking strings but by delicate electronic impulses that might almost be compared to the nerve impulses of the human brain.
The music flowed in interweaving harmonies that spoke of the fusion of Earth and Cosmos. Presently the pattern broke, notes of wistful melancholy mingled with the rumble of a distant storm in a gradual crescendo of sound through which rang notes like cries of despair. The tension rose higher and higher until it reached the final cataclysmic burst that resolved itself in an avalanche of dissonances sliding down and down into a dark abyss of inconsolable grief for that which was gone for ever.
But suddenly pure clear notes of limpid joy rang out under Moot Ang’s fingers and merged with the gentle sadness of the accompaniment.
Just then the door opened and Afra Devi, who had changed into a white smock, slipped into the room and went over to Svet Sim. The doctor listened to her, then signed to the captain. The captain’s hands left the keyboard and silence broke the spell of the music as swiftly as the tropical night banishes day.
The captain left the room with the doctor followed by the worried glances of the others. Something most unusual had occurred — the second navigator had had an attack of acute appendicitis. He had evidently neglected to carry-out the full programme of medical preparation for the voyage. Now Dr. Sim had to ask the captain’s permission to operate without delay.
Moot Ang hesitated. Modern medicine, with its methods of regulating nervous activity in much the same way as the impulses were regulated in electronic devices, was able to cure a great many ailments. But the doctor insisted. He argued that although the condition could be cured at the moment, the enormous strain imposed on the organism by cosmic flight might cause a relapse.
The patient was placed on a wide operating table and enmeshed in a maze of wires leading to the thirty-six electronic devices that gave a complete picture of his condition. The hypnotic sleep-inducer blinked and hummed rhythmically in the darkened room. Dr. Sim read the instruments once more and nodded to Afra Devi. It was her job to assist the doctor. Each member of the crew, besides being an expert in some branch of science, was trained for some particular shipboard duty — servicing the ship’s mechanisms, taking care of the feeding arrangements, and so on.
Afra brought out a transparent vessel filled with a bluish liquid. In it lay a segmented metal device resembling a good-sized centipede. Afra took out the device and from another vessel she extracted a conical-shaped instrument attached to some long fine tubes. A light click and the metallic centipede came to life with a barely audible whirr.
Svet Sim nodded and the apparatus was inserted in the patient’s mouth. Moot Ang moved closer to the semi-transparent screen which had been placed at an angle over the sick man’s abdomen. In the greenish glow of the screen the grey contours of the internal organs and the segmented metal device making its way down the alimentary canal were clearly visible. In a little while its blunt end was pressed against the base of the appendix.
With the apparatus pressing in the area of inflammation the pain increased and sedatives had to be administered to counteract the convulsions that appeared in the intestines. In a few minutes the data processor had completed the diagnosis and recommended the antibiotics and disinfectants needed. The metallic centipede inserted its long flexible feelers deep into the appendix and sucked out the pus and the alien bodies that had caused the inflammatory process. This was followed by a vigorous irrigation with biological solutions which quickly restored the mucous membranes of the appendix and the adjoining intestine to normal.
The patient slept peacefully while the ingenious automatic device did its work. Now the operation was over and it only remained for the doctor to remove the instrument.
The captain heaved a sigh of relief. Despite the force of medicine, unforeseen peculiarities of individual organisms often resulted in unexpected complications, for it was obviously impossible to establish in advance every deviation from the normal among all the thousands of millions of inhabitants of the Earth. And if these possible complications were nothing to worry about on Earth with its great medical institutions, they could very well be dangerous enough on expeditions like the present.
But everything had gone off well. With an easy mind Moot Ang returned to the now deserted library and sat down at the viono. But he did not play, though his hands rested on the keys. Instead his thoughts returned, as they had so many times before, to human happiness and the future.
This was his fourth voyage into the Cosmos. But never before had he embarked on a flight covering so much space and time. With man forging ahead at great speed from one accomplishment and discovery to another, with the sum total of knowledge mankind had accumulated, seven hundred years now could hardly be compared with an equal span of Earth-time in the days of the ancient civilizations. Then society’s progress was limited to opening up formerly uninhabited expanses of our planet to human habitation. In those distant days, time crawled and human progress was as slow as the movement of the Arctic and Antarctic glaciers. Time seemed to have stood still for centuries. What indeed did the human life-span amount to then, or a century, or ten centuries, for that matter?
What would the people of the ancient world have felt, Moot Ang thought with a shudder, had they known in advance how slow social development would be, had they foreseen that oppression, injustice and chaos were to remain man’s lot for so many years to come? You could sleep for seven hundred years in ancient Egypt and wake up to find the same slave system in existence, except for perhaps even more brutal exploitation. In ancient China seven-hundred-year spans began and ended with the same wars, the same dynasties, and Europe passed in like time only from the beginning of the Dark Ages to the height of the Inquisition.
But now the mere thought of the grand vistas that would be opened up by the next seven centuries — centuries packed with changes, improvements in life, ever new knowledge — staggered the imagination.
And if true happiness consists in movement, change, rapid progress, Moot Ang mused, who could be happier than he and his comrades? Yet things are not as simple as they might seem. Man’s nature is as complex as his environment. While reaching ever forward, we are always saddened by the passage of time, or rather by the loss of the fine things of the past — things that are hallowed by memory and that once gave rise to legends about golden ages vanished in the labyrinths of time.
Men could not help looking to whatever had been good in the past, and yearning for its return, for only the most clear-minded were able to foresee the inevitable coming of something better in the future. And ever since then there has persisted in the minds of men a deep regret for that which is gone, a nostalgic longing for what has ceased to be, a sadness one most poignantly feels when viewing ancient ruins and monuments to mankind’s past history. One felt all this more and more keenly as one grew older.
Moot Ang rose from his seat and squared his powerful shoulders.
Yes, all that had been vividly described in historical novels. But what was there to frighten the young men and women on board a space ship bound for the future? Loneliness? The loss of one’s relatives? The loneliness of a man projected into the future had often been described in old novels. It had meant being torn away from one’s kin. Yet these kinsfolk had been a handful of individuals linked only by the formal bond of blood. Were not all men brothers now, had not the old conventions and barriers between men everywhere on Earth been banished for ever?
What should he, the captain of the Tellur, tell his young colleagues? “We ol the Tellur have lost all those whom we hold near and dear on Earth. But the people awaiting us in the future are no less near and dear to us — their minds will be keener and their feelings richer than those of the contemporaries we have left behind…” Yes, that is what he must tell them.
In the meanwhile Tey Eron was at work in the control room. As usual, he had turned off all the unnecessary lights and in the half-gloom the large round chamber looked cosier. Humming a simple tune, he was checking the calculations over and over again. The ship was near-ing the farthest point on its journey, and today the course would have to be altered in the direction of Serpentarius in order to skirt the carbon star they were investigating. But it was still dangerous to approach it. The increasing pressure of its radiation was apt to wreck the ship moving at a speed close to that of light.
Sensing someone behind him, Tey Eron turned to face his commander.
Moot Ang leaned over his assistant’s shoulder to scan the summarized indicator readings flashed on in a row of little square windows along the lower edge of the control panel. Tey Eron looked up at him questioningly. The captain nodded. In response to a barely perceptible movement of Tey Eron’s fingers the intercommunication system sprang into action. There was a pealing of bells through the ship accompanied by the metallic words: “Attention all!”
Moot Ang pulled the microphone toward himself, knowing that all members of the crew were tensely waiting for the next words to come from the loudspeakers concealed in the walls.
“Attention all!” Moot Ang repeated. “Deceleration in fifteen minutes. All except those on duty should lie down in their cabins. The first phase of deceleration will end at 18:00 hours, the second phase at 6g will continue for 144 hours. Change in course after Collision Danger signal. That’s all!”
At 18:00 hours the captain rose from his seat, conscious of the usual deceleration pains in his back and the back of his head, and announced that he would retire to his cabin for the remaining six days of braking action ahead. The rest of the crew sat glued to their instruments for this was their last opportunity to observe the carbon star.
Tey Eron frowned as he watched the captain leave the control room. He would have felt better with the captain there beside him during the difficult manoeuvre. For although there was little comparison between a powerful cosmic ship like the Tellur and those flimsy shells called ships that plied the Earth’s seas, it too was nothing more than an egg-shell in the infinity of space.
* * *
Kari Ram started at the sound of Moot Ang’s merry laugh. A few days ago the crew had been greatly alarmed to learn that the captain had been suddenly taken ill. Only the doctor had been allowed to enter his cabin, and everyone had spoken in whispers when passing the tightly-closed door. With the captain laid up the task of bringing the ship around and accelerating again to get it away from the radiation zone of the carbon star and send it back toward the Sun and home had been left to Tey Eron.
Now Tey Eron was walking beside the captain with a faint smile on his lips. He had just learned that the latter had conspired with the doctor to leave the ship in Tey’s hands and force him to rely on himself alone. He would not confess to the agonized doubts that had assailed him just before he swung the ship around, but he reproached the captain for having unnecessarily alarmed the crew.
Moot Ang laughed it all off and assured Tey that the ship was perfectly safe in the great open spaces of the Cosmos. The instruments could not err, and the system of fourfold check-up of every computation excluded the possibility of mistakes. Nor could there be any belt of asteroids and meteorites in the vicinity of the carbon star: the pressure of radiation was too heavy.
“You really think there will be no more surprises?” Kari Ram put in cautiously.
“Unforeseen accidents, of course, are always possible. But that great law of the Cosmos we call the law of averages works in our favour. You can be certain that in this deserted corner of the Universe we cannot expect to run into anything new. We shall go back some distance and warp back along our old path to the Sun, past the Heart of the Serpent. For some days now we’ve been heading for Serpentarius. We’ll be there soon enough.”
“Strange, but I feel no joy, no satisfaction at a job well done, nothing that might justify leaving Earth-life for seven hundred years,” Kari went on thoughtfully. “Oh, yes, I know all about the tens of thousands of observations and millions of computations, photographs and notes — all that will help to delve deeper into the secrets of matter back on Earth… But how inconsequential it all seems! A mere spore of the future — nothing more.”
“Have you ever stopped to think of the effort humanity has spent and the lives it has sacrificed for the sake of what you call spores of the future — not to speak of the countless generations of unthinking animals that preceded it on the ladder of historical progress?” Tey Eron said heatedly.
“You’re right enough, so far as reason goes. But emotionally the only thing that matters for me is Man, the only rational force in the Universe, capable of mastering and making use of the elemental development of matter. Yet how infinite is Man’s solitude! We know beyond doubt that there are many inhabited worlds, but Earthmen have not yet met another thinking being in all the vastness of space. Do you realize how long men have dreamed — in vain — of such encounters, how many books have been written, how many songs composed and pictures painted in anticipation of the great event? And yet this dream cherished ever since religious blindness first began to be dispelled has not yet come true.”
“You speak of blindness,” Moot Ang put in. “Do you know how our distant forebears back at the time of the Initial Emergence in Space visualized encounters with the inhabitants of other worlds? War, destruction of each other’s ships, mutual killing at the very first encounter.”
“Incredible!” Kari Ram and Tey Eron cried in one voice.
“Our modern writers seem to have preferred not to write about the period of the decline of capitalism,” Moot Ang went on. “But you know from your school history books about that critical period in human development.”
“Of course,” Kari said. “Though man had begun to master matter and space, social relations retained their old forms and the development of social thought lagged behind the achievements of science.”
“You have a good memory, Kari. But we could put it this way too: man’s conquest of space, his knowledge of the Universe, clashed with the primitive thinking of the individualistic property-owner. The future and the very life of humanity hung in the balance for years before progress triumphed and mankind joined into one family in a classless society. Before that happened people in the capitalist half of the world refused for a long time to see any new paths into the future and regarded their mode of life as eternal and unchanging, with war and self-destruction as man’s inevitable lot.”
“Most likely, every civilization has its critical periods in whatever planet and solar system it may exist,” Tey Eron said, running a quick eye over the instrument panel. “So far we’ve found two planets where there is water and an atmosphere with traces of oxygen, but no sign of life. We’ve photographed lifeless wind-swept sands and dead seas and…”
“I just can’t believe it,” Kari Ram interrupted him, “I can’t believe that people who had already savoured the infinity of space and the power that science gave them could…”
“…reason like beasts who have just acquired the faculty of logical thinking?” Moot Ang completed his thought. “Don’t forget the old society came into being as a result of an elemental play of forces, without the planning and foresight which distinguish the higher social forms created by man. Man’s thinking, the very nature of firs reasoning, was still at the primitive stage of simple, mathematical logic, which reflected the logic of the laws governing the development of matter and nature as perceived through direct observation. But as soon as mankind accumulated enough historical experience and came to perceive the whole historical process of the development of the world around it, dialectical logic appeared as the highest stage of thought. Man came to understand the duality of the phenomena of nature and his own existence. He realized that while as an individual he was as minute and transitory as a drop of water in the ocean or a spark struck in a high wind, he was at the same time as great as the Universe which his reason and emotions embraced in the infinity of time and space.”
The captain rose and paced back and forth in silence while the others watched in deep concentration. Then he continued:
“I happen to have in my film library a book that gives an excellent picture of that time. It was translated into Modern not by machine, but by Sania Chen, the last-century historian. I think we ought to read it.”
The young people were eager to start at once. Pleased at their reaction, Moot Ang left the control room to fetch the book.
“I know I’ll never make a real captain,” Tey Eron sighed. “I’ll never know as much as Ang.”
“I heard him say once that his biggest shortcoming is the wide range of his interests,” Kari put in as he settled down in the navigator’s seat.
Tey Eron looked at Kari in wonder. Neither spoke and the room was soundless except for the even hum of the navigation instruments. The ship was running at full speed away from the carbon star toward a quarter of the Universe where four island universes quivered in the blackness of space as pinpricks of light too tiny to be detected by the naked eye.
Suddenly a glowing spot burst out and trembled on the main locator screen and the pealing of the caution signal cut through the control room. For a moment the men in the room froze into breathless immobility.
Then Tey Eron gave the alarm signal that sent every member of the crew to his post.
Moot Ang rushed into the control room and in one bound was at the control panel. The black screen of the locator was no longer dead; on it, as in a bottomless lake, swam a tiny glowing globe with sharply defined outline, swaying up and down but slowly bearing to starboard. The robots on guard against collision with meteorites did not react, however. Did this mean that the spot of light on the screen was a reflection not of their own beam, but of someone else’s?
The ship was still following the same course and the spot of light was now quivering in the bottom starboard square of the screen. Realization of what this meant made the three men quiver with excitement. Kari Ram gripped the edge of the control panel until his hands hurt. Something stupendous and unimaginable was coming toward them preceded by a powerful locator ray of the kind the Tellur cast ahead.
So great was the captain’s hope that his surmise should prove correct, and so great his fear that this upsurge of hope might again end in the bitter disappointment Earth astronauts had experienced hundreds of times before, that for a moment he could not speak.
The spot of light on the screen went out, came on again, then flashed on and off at regular intervals — four quick flashes, a pause, then two in succession. Such a pattern of regularity could be attributed only to human agency — the sole rational force in the Universe.
There could be no doubt now — another space ship was heading toward them. And in these parts of the Universe where ships from the Earth had never been before it could only be a ship from another world, from some planet of another, distant sun.
The locator of the Tellur too was now sending out intermittent signals; the thought that they were probably being received on board the unknown ship seemed utterly fantastic.
Moot Ang’s voice coming over the intercommunication system betrayed his agitation:
“Attention all! An unknown ship is approaching. We shall veer off course and begin emergency deceleration. All hands to landing stations!”
There wasn’t a second to lose. If the oncoming ship was running at roughly the same speed as the Tellur, the two were approaching each other almost at the speed of light, or some 294,000 kilometres per second. According to the locator the gap would close in no more than one hundred seconds. While Moot Ang was at the microphone, Tey Eron whispered something to Kari, whose hand flew to the locator panel.
“Excellent!” cried the captain as he watched the light ray playing on the control screen describe a curve to port and then go into a spiral.
In some ten seconds a glowing arrow-like shape appeared on the screen, curved over the right side of the black circle and also went into a spiral. A sigh of relief that was more like a groan broke from the three men in the control room. The strangers coming towards them from the unfathomed depths of the Cosmos had understood them. Just in time!
The caution signal went on again. This time it was not a locator ray but the solid hull of a space ship that was reflected on the main screen. In an instant Tey Eron had switched off the robot and turned the ship a fraction to port. The pealing stopped and the main screen was black again. The starboard scanner showed a mere streak of light moving aft. The two ships had passed each other at a staggering speed and were now hurtling farther and farther apart.
Several days would pass before they could meet again, but meet they would, for like the Tellur the strange ship would brake and swing around and return to the point of their meeting as determined by the precision instruments on board.
“Attention all! Emergency deceleration/ All stations signal readiness!” Moot Ang spoke into the microphone.
In response the row of lights above the now dead engine counter indicators turned green one after the other. The engines had stopped, and a tense air of expectation settled over the ship. The captain glanced quickly at the control panel and nodded toward the seats as he switched on the deceleration robot. His aides saw him bend grim-faced over the programme scale and turn the main switch to the figure “8.”
To swallow a pill to reduce heart action, drop into the seat and press the robot button was a matter of seconds.
The ship seemed to brace itself against the emptiness of space, throwing its crew into the depths of hydraulic seats and momentary unconsciousness, just as the racehorses of old would throw their riders as they dug their hooves into the ground to come to a sudden stop.
* * *
The crew of the Tellur had gathered in the library. Everybody was there except the man on duty at the electronic devices control post designed to signalize if anything went wrong with any of the circuits. The ship had cut its speed enough to put about, but not before it had travelled more than ten thousand million kilometres beyond the point where it had passed the space ship from another world. It was now moving at only one-twentieth absolute speed, held to the exact return course by the computing devices. At least eight terrestrial days would pass before the two ships could be expected to meet — provided the Tellur kept within the margin of error allowed for and the unknown space travellers also possessed equally precise navigation instruments and an equally reliable ship. If everything went well the two ships, two tiny specks in the infinity of the Cosmos, might be expected to come within locator range of each other.
When that happened, man, for the first time in his history, would meet his counterparts from another part of the Universe, thinking beings with comparable powers and aspirations whose existence had been foretold and established beyond all doubt by human reason. If hitherto the vast gulfs of time and space that separated different inhabited worlds had been insurmountable, now Earthmen would clasp the hands of other thinking beings and establish through them a link with still others as a token of the final triumph of thought and conscious labour over the elemental forces of Nature.
For billions of years minute droplets of living protoplasm had inhabited the dark warm waters of ocean gulfs, and hundreds of millions of years more passed before they developed into more complex organisms that finally emerged from the water to dry land. Then more millions of centuries passed in an elemental struggle for survival, in complete dependence on the forces of Nature, before the brain developed into a powerful instrument to guide the living creatures’ search for food and the battle they waged for survival.
The rate of development speeded up, the battle to exist grew more bitter and natural selection proceeded at an ever more rapid pace. And all along that long path there were countless victims — herbivorous animals devoured by carnivorous, carnivorous animals that perished from hunger, the weak and sick and old that succumbed, the males that were killed in battle over females, those that perished defending their young or in natural disasters…
This went on through the long course of blind, elemental evolution until some distant relative of the ape in the rigorous conditions of the great ice age replaced instinct with conscious labour in his search for sustenance. It was then that he became man after he first realized the mighty power of joint labour and rational experience.
But even after this thousands of years were still to pass in wars and suffering, hunger and oppression and ignorance; but always too there dwelt hope and faith in a better future.
That hope and faith were not betrayed. The radiant future men had looked forward to had come, and humanity, united in a classless society and free of fear and oppression, &ad reached heights of scientific and artistic achievement without equal in all previous history. What had seemed the most difficult of all — the conquest of space — was accomplished. And finally, as the culmination of this long and laborious ascent up the ladder of progress, the latest fruit of man’s accumulated knowledge and labour — the invention of the Tellur, this long-range space ship now exploring remote areas of the Universe. Now this supiems product of the development of matter on Earth and in the Solar System was about to contact what represented the crowning accomplishment of another, and probably no less tortuous and difficult, path of development that started thousands of millions of years ago in another corner of the Universe.
These were the thoughts that in one form or another occupied the minds of all the members of the Tellur crew. Even young Taina was awed by the tremendous significance of the moment. Would they, a handful of people representing all the thousands of millions inhabiting the Earth, prove worthy of their exploits in labour, their physical perfection, their intelligence and steadfastness? How was one to prepare oneself for the meeting? There was no better way than to review the great yet bitter battle humanity had waged for freedom of body and spirit.
At the moment, however, most exciting was the thought of the coming meeting with living creatures from another world. What would they be like? Monsters, or models of perfection, judged by Earth standards?
Afra Devi, the biologist, was the first to speak.
Flushed with excitement, she looked even more beautiful than usual. As she spoke her glance rested from time to time on the painting over the door — a coloured panorama in three-dimensional paint of a mountain scene in Equatorial Africa. The startling contrast between the sombre, forest-clad slopes and the shining splendour of the peak seemed to illustrate her thoughts.
Afra recalled the time long ago when it was still widely believed that thinking beings could exist in practically any form, that the structure of their organisms could vary greatly. That was when the survivals of religious prejudices induced even serious scientists to assume that a brain could develop in any body — just as men once believed gods could assume any physical form. Actually, however, the anatomy and physiology of man, the only creature with a brain capable of rational thinking on Earth, were not the result of some accidental caprice of Nature. On the contrary, they represented a maximum degree of adaptation to environment and corresponded to man’s highly developed reasoning powers and nervous activity.
Our concepts of beauty in human beings and beauty in general evolved in the course of thousands of years as a result of unconscious acceptance of structural expediency and forms best adapted for one action or another. That is why we see beauty in powerful machines, in ocean waves, in trees and in horses, although none of these have anything in common with beauty as we see it in human beings. Even at the animal stage, man, thanks to the development of his brain, ceased to be compelled to adapt himself to only one mode of life as is the case with most animals.
Human legs are not adapted for constant running even on firm ground, yet they enable man to travel far and fast and to climb trees and rocks. As for the human hand, it is the most universal organ, capable of doing millions of things; indeed it was the hand that transformed the primitive beast into a human being…
In other words, man beginning with the earliest stages of his development evolved as a universal organism adapted to a great variety of conditions. With subsequent socialization of his existence, man’s organism became increasingly adapted to his multiform activities. As distinct from all other animals, the beauty of human beings consists, besides physical perfection, in their universality enhanced by the activity of the mind and nobility of spirit.
“Any thinking being from some other world that has been able to reach the Cosmos must be just as perfect and universal as the humans of our Earth, and hence just as beautiful,” Afra went on. “There can be no thinking monsters, no mushroom-men, no octopus-men! I cannot say what we shall meet in reality — some similarity of form or other aspect of beauty, but that it will be beauty, I have no doubt.”
“I like your theory,” Tey Eron said. “But…”
“I know what you mean,” Afra cut in. “Even slight departures from the norm can produce monstrosities, and here departures are highly probable. A human face without a nose, eyelids or lips is repulsive because the disfigurement is a departure from the normal. The face of a horse or dog also differs greatly from the human face, but we do not consider it ugly. On the contrary, it can be beautiful. The reason for this is that its beauty springs from natural expediency, whereas in the disfigured human face natural harmony has been upset.”
“You suggest that even if they may look quite different from us, we may not think them ugly?” Tey persisted. “But supposing they resemble us but have horns and elephant-like trunks?”
“A thinking being does not need horns and hence will not have them. The nose may be somewhat elongated to form a trunk, although a trunk too is unnecessary for a being with hands, and a human being must have hands. If there is a trunk, it will be a mere exception to the rule. But everything that comes into being as a result of historical development, of natural selection becomes the rule, however numerous the exceptions. Therein lies the beauty of expediency. No, I do not expect to find monsters with horns and tails in the space ship we shall meet. Only the lower forms of life differ greatly from one another; the higher the form the closer it is bound to be to us Earth-dwellers.”
“You win,” Tey Eron said, looking around at the others with obvious pride in Afra’s logic.
Kari Ram held another view, however, and he propounded it in his somewhat diffident manner. He believed that the strange beings, even if they were quite human in appearance and beautiful besides, might prove to be utterly remote from us as regards intelligence and outlook on life. In which case they might turn out to be cruel and terrible enemies.
Moot Ang came to the defence of the biologist.
“I happened to think of this quite recently,” he said. “And I realized that at the highest stage of development all thinking beings must reach a state of perfect mutual understanding. The mind of the intelligent being reflects the laws governing the development of the entire Universe. In this sense man is a microcosm. Thinking follows the laws of the Universe which are the same everywhere. Thought, no matter where it is found, will inevitably be based on mathematical and dialectical logic. There cannot be any other entirely different thought process, just as man cannot exist outside of society and Nature…”
A murmur of approval rose from his listeners.
“How wonderful it is when the ideas of many people coincide!” said Afra Devi. “That is proof of their correctness and evidence of a sense of comradeship …especially if each approaches a problem from the standpoint of his own particular branch of learning.”
“You mean biology and the social sciences?” asked Yas Tin who had taken no part in the conversation so far.
“Yes. The brightest page in the entire history of man on Earth was the steady growth of mutual understanding that accompanied the development of culture and knowledge. The higher the level of culture, the easier it was for the different peoples and races in the classless society to understand one another, and the clearer became the common goals of human existence, the need to unite first countries and then the whole planet. At the present level of development attained by humanity on Earth and no doubt by those we are about to meet…” Afra broke off.
“Yes, indeed,” agreed Moot Ang. “Two different planets meeting in outer space will be able to understand each other better than two savage nations on a single planet!”
“But what about the theory that war is inevitable even in the Cosmos?” asked Kari Ram. “Our ancestors who already were at a rather high level of culture were convinced of it.”
“Where is that book you promised to show us?” Tey Eron remembered. “The one about the two space ships which tried to destroy each other at their first meeting?”
The commander went to his room. This time nothing interfered and he returned shortly carrying the small eight-rayed star of a microfilm roll which he placed in the reading machine. The astronauts gathered around to hear the tale of fantasy told by an ancient American author.
* * *
“The First Contact,” as it was called, was a dramatic story of the meeting between a space ship from Earth and one from another world in the nebula of Cancer at a distance of more than a thousand parsecs from the Sun.
The commander of the Earth ship ordered the crew to prepare all the astronomical charts, records of observations and calculations of the course for immediate destruction and to train all their anti-meteorite guns at the approaching ship. The Earthlings then proceeded to wrestle with the momentous problem: should they attempt to enter into negotiations with the other ship or were they in duty bound to attack and destroy it without warning? They feared that the men from another world might be able to trace back the course of their ship and use their knowledge to try to conquer the Earth.
These ridiculous apprehensions aroused no opposition on the part of the entire crew. It was taken for granted that the meeting of two civilizations that had sprung up in different parts of the Universe was bound to lead to the subordination of one by the other, to the victory of the one possessing the strongest weapons. A meeting in space could only mean one of the two things — trade or war. They could not conceive of anything else. It soon turned out that the men from the other world closely resembled the Earthlings except that they could see only in infra-red light and communicated with one another by radio waves. Yet the Earthlings at once deciphered the strangers’ language and intercepted their thoughts. It turned out that the commander of the space ship from the other world entertained just as primitive views on social development and relations as the Earthmen and was primarily concerned with how to get out of the situation in which he found himself without jeopardizing his own life or destroying the Earth ship.
In other words, the long-awaited encounter of representatives of two human races threatened to turn into a fearful tragedy. The two ships hung in space some seven hundred miles apart while negotiations went on for more than two weeks through a robot. Both captains gave each other assurances of their peaceable intentions and at the same time declared their distrust of the other. The situation might indeed have been hopeless had it not been for the ingenuity of the hero of the story — a young astrophysicist. Concealing bombs of terrific destructive power in their clothing, he and his commander boarded the strange ship ostensibly to continue the negotiations. Once there, however, they presented an ultimatum to the strangers: to exchange ships, with part of the strange ship’s crew going over to the Earth ship, and part of the Earth-men boarding the unknown craft, first putting all meteorite guns out of commission; the boarding parties were then to learn to run the ships and all the supplies were to be transferred from each of the ships to the other. In the meantime the two heroes with the bombs would remain on board the strangers’ ship, ready to blow it up at the first sign of treachery. The captain from the other world accepted the ultimatum, and the exchange of ships proceeded smoothly. Finally the black space ship with the Earthlings on board and the Earth ship now manned by the strangers hastily drew apart, vanishing into the feeble luminosity of the nebula.
As soon as the story came to the end the library filled with the hum of voices. During the reading some of the astronauts had shown signs of impatience and disagreement. So eager were they to have their say that they barely refrained from committing the worst breach of good manners — interrupting someone. All turned to the captain as if he were personally responsible for the ancient story he had brought to their attention from the limbo of the past.
Most of the astronauts pointed to the contradiction between the time of the action and the psychology of the characters. If the space ship had managed to travel four thousand light years away from the Earth in three months, the time of the story was obviously later than the present, for nobody had yet reached out so far into the Universe. Yet the mode of thinking and the actions of the Earthmen described in no way differed from those that prevailed under capitalism so many centuries ago.
There were technical inaccuracies too. For instance, space ships could not be stopped as quickly as the writer assumed. Nor was it feasible for two thinking beings to communicate with each other directly by radio waves. If the unknown planet had an atmosphere of practically the same density as Earth — and that was how it was described in the story — its inhabitants would inevitably have developed the sense of hearing as we have on Earth. For this requires far less expenditure of energy than communication by radio waves or biocurrents. It would also have been impossible in such a short time to decipher the strangers’ language with the accuracy required for coding it in a translating machine.
Tey Eron pointed out that the meagre knowledge of the Universe displayed in the story was all the more surprising since several decades before the story was written the great ancient scientist Tsiolkovsky had warned that the Universe was far more complex than was believed at the time. But in spite of the work done by dialectical thinkers, there still were scientists who thought they had practically reached the outermost bounds of human powers of cognition.
As centuries passed countless discoveries revealed the infinite complexity of the interdependence of phenomena and on the face of it seemed to slow down the growth of man’s knowledge of the Cosmos. Yet science found solutions to an enormous number of the most complicated technical and other problems. A good example was the creation of the warp ship, which seemed to defy the conventional laws of motion. Indeed, it was in this kind of solution of problems seemingly insoluble from the viewpoint of mathematical logic that the irresistible power of progress was manifested most spectacularly. But the author of “The First Contact” did not even have an inkling of the boundlessness of knowledge implicit in the simple formulas of the great dialecticians of his time.
“There’s another thing nobody here has pointed out,” the usually reserved Yas Tin spoke up. “The author gave his characters English names, although the action was laid so far in the future. I think this too is indicative. You see, linguistics happens to be my hobby and I made a study of the formation of the first world language. English, of course, used to be one of the most widespread languages, but in assuming that it would always remain so, the author was reflecting his absurd belief that the social set-up of his time was also eternal. The exceedingly slow development of the ancient slave society or of feudalism was erroneously taken as proof of the stability of all forms of social relations, including language and religion and of the stability of the last of the anarchic societies, capitalism. The dangerous social lack of equilibrium of the last period of capitalism was considered everlasting. As for the English language of the time, it was even then archaic, consisting as it did of actually two languages — the written and the spoken, both completely unsuitable for translation machines.
“The faster relations among men and their outlook on the world change, the greater and more rapid are the changes in language too.
“As it was, the half-forgotten ancient Sanskrit was found to be the most logical in structure, and because of this it came to be used as the basis for the intermediary language needed for translation machines. Sometime later this developed into the first world language, which has changed a great deal since then. The old Western languages proved rather short-lived. Still less enduring were people’s names derived through religious legends from long-dead languages.”
“Yas Tin has noted what I think is most important,” Moot Ang joined in the conversation. “Ignorance or mistaken methodology in science are bad enough, but still worse is conservatism, persistence in defence of social forms which have failed even in the eyes of their contemporaries. At the root of this conservatism, apart from the rarer cases of simple ignorance, lay a selfish desire to prolong the existence of a social system whose benefits were enjoyed by a small minority. Hence the disregard for the interests of mankind as a whole displayed by these proponents of social stagnation, their disregard for the future of our planet, waste of its power resources and complete unconcern for the health of its inhabitants.
“Wanton waste of mineral fuels and forests, exhaustion of rivers and the soil, dangerous experiments to create murderous atomic weapons — these were the actions of those who sought at the cost of untold misery and suffering for the majority to prolong the existence of social relationships that had outlived their time. It is against this background that the poisonous concept of the privileged elite sprang up and developed, a concept that proclaimed the superiority of a group or class or race over others and justified violence and war — everything that came to be known as fascism.
“Any privileged group will inevitably seek to put a brake on progress in order to retain its privileges, while the oppressed section of society is bound to fight all such attempts in order to stand up for its own rights. The greater the pressure exerted by the privileged few, the greater grew the resistance to it, the more bitter the struggle, the more cruelty there was in the world and the greater moral degradation among men. Now remember that besides the struggle between classes there was a struggle between the privileged and oppressed countries. Remember too that there was a struggle between the new, socialist world and the old, capitalist, and you will understand why there sprang up a war ideology, why it was believed that there would always be wars and that they would eventually be fought on a cosmic scale. I see in this the very quintessence of evil, a serpent that is bound to strike however it may be hidden because it cannot but strike. Remember the sinister reddish-yellow glow of the star we passed on our way…”
“The Heart of the Serpent!” cried Taina.
“Right. And in the writings of those who sought to defend the old society, proclaiming the inevitability of war and the eternal existence of capitalism, I also see the heart of a poisonous snake.”
“In other words, our fears too are atavistic survivals of an ancient time when that snake poisoned the lives of men, isn’t that so?” Kari said sadly. “And I am probably the most serpentine of all of us, since I have fears — doubts, if you wish.”
“Kari!” Taina cried.
“Our commander has told us about the deadly crises that engulfed civilizations,” Kari went on. “And we all know about lifeless planets which are dead today because their inhabitants were overtaken by atomic war before they had time to create a new society in conformity with the laws of science, to put an end to the lust for destruction — in a word, tear out the heart of the serpent! We also know that our own planet barely escaped a similar fate. Had not the first socialist state appeared in Russia and started a chain of epoch-making changes in the world, fascism would have taken the upper hand and plunged the world into nuclear wars. But supposing the people out there,” the young astronavigator pointed in the direction from which the strange ship was expected to appear, “supposing they have not yet passed that dangerous Rubicon in their history?”
“That is out of the question,” replied Moot Ang. “There may be a certain analogy between the development of the highest forms of life and the highest forms of society. Man could develop only in a comparatively stable and favourable environment. This does not, of course, mean that there were no changes. On the contrary, there were some rather radical ones — but only in relation to Man himself, not Nature as a whole. Global cataclysms would have made it impossible for the reasoning being to develop. The same applies to the highest form of society capable of conquering space, building space ships and penetrating deep into the Universe — all this can be achieved only after global stabilization of conditions of life for the whole of humanity, and, of course, when the disastrous wars accompanying capitalism have been done away with for good. That is why I am certain that the men of another world whom we are about to meet have passed the danger point. They too must have built a truly rational society.”
“It is my opinion that you will find what might be called a universal, elemental wisdom running through the histories of the civilizations found on the various planets,” Tey Eron said, his eyes alight with excitement. “Human beings cannot vanquish space before they have achieved a higher mode of life when there are no more wars and when each individual has a high sense of responsibility to all his fellow-men!”
“In other words — humanity has been able to harness the forces of Nature on a cosmic scale only after reaching the highest stage of the communist society — there could be no other way,” added Kari. “And the same applies to any other human race, if we mean by this the higher forms of organized, thinking life.”
“We and our ships are the hands mankind on Earth reaches out to the stars,” Moot Ang said, “and these hands are clean. But that cannot be true only of us! Soon we shall clasp other hands just as clean and strong as ours!”
The younger members of the crew cheered their commander in an outburst of feeling. But neither were the older members who had learned to control their emotions able to conceal their agitation as they gathered round Moot Ang.
* * *
Somewhere millions of kilometres away the ship from a planet of some distant star was headed toward the Earth ship whose crew was to be the first in the Earth-dwellers’ long history to contact another race of men from a different world. No wonder the astronauts were unable to suppress their feverish excitement. Any thought of rest was out of the question. But Moot Ang insisted, and having once again gone over his calculations as to when the two ships would meet, he told Svet Sim to issue tranquillizers to everyone.
“We must be in perfect form mentally and physically when we meet our cosmic brothers,” he said, brushing aside all protests. “We have an enormous job ahead of us: we must find a way of communicating with them so as to take over the knowledge they possess and give them ours.” Moot Ang’s face darkened. “Never before have I been so afraid of proving unequal to a task.” Anxiety lined the captain’s usually calm features and the knuckles of his clenched fists grew white.
Now, perhaps for the first time, the rest of the crew realized how great a responsibility the coming meeting imposed on each one of them. They took the pills Svet Sim gave them without a murmur, and withdrew to their cabins.
At first Moot Ang intended to remain on duty with Kari alone, but then he changed his mind and signed to Tey Eron to accompany them to the control room.
Moot Ang settled down in his seat. Only now did he realize how tired he was. He stretched out his legs and rested his head against the palms of his hands. Tey and Kari said nothing. They did not want to disturb the captain’s thoughts.
The ship was now travelling very slowly as far as cosmic speeds go — at what was called tangential velocity. This was the speed, 200,000 kilometres per hour, at which space ships usually entered the Roche’s limit of any heavenly body. The autopilots kept the ship strictly to the calculated course. It was time for the locator to pick up the other ship’s signals, but so far there was no sign of its approach. Tey Eron grew more and more nervous every moment.
Suddenly Moot Ang sat up and his lips parted in that whimsical smile of his which every member of the crew knew so well. “Come, distant friend, enter the cherished gate. .”he sang in a low voice. Tey frowned as he peered into the blackness of the forward screen. He felt the captain’s levity to be out of place under the circumstances.
But Kari joined in the chorus of the merry song with a sly glance at the sour face of the second-in-command.
“Try sweeping ahead with the locator ray, Kari — two points port and starboard and as much up and down,” Moot Ang broke off in the middle of the song.
Tey flushed slightly. He should have thought of that himself. Song or no song, the captain had his wits about him!
Two hours passed. Kari pictured the locator ray sweeping the vastness of space ahead in strokes hundreds of thousands of kilometres long. This was “flagging” on a scale undreamt of even in the most fantastic legends ever invented on Earth.
Tey Eron sat lost in thought — slow, lumbering thought completely drained of emotion. Ever since they had left Earth he had been unable to shake off a strange feeling of detachment. Primitive man must have had the same feeling, a sense of being bound down to nothing, free of all obligations, all concern for the future. Men caught in the midst of natural disasters, wars and social upheavals must have felt the same. For Tey too the past, everything he had left behind on Earth, was gone never to return; from the future he was separated by a gulf of hundreds of years beyond which everything was new and unknown. Hence the absence of personal plans, feelings and desires. All he had wanted was to carry back to Earth the new knowledge the expedition was to wrest from the Cosmos. This had been the meaning and purpose of his life. And now here was something beside which everything else dwindled into insignificance.
In the meantime Moot Ang’s thoughts were occupied with the ship they expected to meet. He tried to picture the ship and its crew as being very much like his own. But he found it easier to endow the unknown space travellers with the most fantastic characteristics than to restrict his imagination to the rigid laws Afra Devi had spoken of with such conviction.
Moot Ang was not looking at the screen when it happened, but the sudden tension of his comrades told him at once that their vigil had not been in vain. The point of light flashed across the screen, and the sound signal was over almost as soon as it had begun. The astronauts sprang up and leaned forward over the control panel in an instinctive effort to obtain a better view of the locator screen. But as brief as the fleck had been, it had told its story. The other ship had turned back to meet them. This meant it was manned by creatures no less versed in the art of space navigation than themselves; they had worked out the bearings of the two ships with sufficient accuracy and now were searching for the Tellur with their locator. The imagination reeled at the thought of the two minute particles lost in the vastness of space searching for each other — two grains of dust that at the same time were two enormous worlds full of energy and knowledge probing for each other with directed beams of light waves. Kari moved the main beam control from 1488 to 375, then further down the scale. The point of light returned, vanished, reappeared, accompanied by a sound signal that died in a fraction of a second.
Moot Ang gripped the locator verniers and described a spiral from the periphery to the centre of a gigantic circle in the quarter where the signals originated.
The oncoming ship evidently did the same, for after a great deal of groping the spot of light settled firmly within the limits of the third circle of the black screen, vacillating only as much as might be due to the vibration of the two ships. The sound signal was constant now, and it had to be cut off. There was no doubt that the signals of the Tellur had been received by the strangers. The two ships were now approaching each other at a rate of no less than 400,000 kilometres per hour.
Tey Eron read the computer calculations. The ships were now about three million kilometres apart. At the present speed they would meet in seven hours. Integral braking action could be started in an hour; this would delay the meeting a few more hours, provided the oncoming ship did the same and decelerated at a like rate. It might be able to stop sooner than the Tellur, but on the other hand they might pass each other again and this would cause a further delay; the astronauts hoped this would not happen, for to wait any longer seemed unbearable.
The oncoming ship did not hold things up. It cut speed faster than the Tellur and then, having established the lat-ter’s rate of deceleration, settled down to an equal pace. The ships were now closing in. The crew of the Tellur again gathered in the central control room and all eyes were glued to the pin-point of light on the locator screen spread out into a luminous blotch. This was the beam of the Tellur reflected back from the other ship. Gradually the blotch took the shape of a tiny cylinder girdled with a thicker ring in the middle. The other ship bore no resemblance whatever to the Tellur. At closer range cupola-shaped bulges could be discerned at both ends of the cylinder.
The glowing contours of the ship spread out until they filled the entire diameter of the screen.
“Attention all! All hands to their stations! Final deceleration at 8 g!”
Blood rushed to the eyes and sticky sweat rose on faces as bodies developed a leaden weight pressing down on the hydraulic shock-absorbers of the crew’s soft padded seats. At last the Tellur hung motionless in the icy darkness of space where there is no above or below, right or left, one hundred and two parsecs from its home star, the yellow Sun.
As soon as they had recovered from the deceleration the astronauts switched on the direct-view scanners and the ship’s powerful illuminator. But they saw only a bright fog forward and to port. The illuminator went out, and at once a strong blue light completely blinded the men peering at the scanners.
“Polarizer at thirty-five degrees. Light filter!” ordered Moot Ang.
“At a wave-length of 620?” asked Tey Eron.
The blue glow was gone. Instead, a powerful orange flood of light cut into the blackness, swung over, caught a corner of something solid and finally spread over the whole of the strange ship.
It was now only a few kilometres away. This did credit to the skill of the pilots of both ships. But the distance was still too great to determine the exact size of the stranger. Suddenly a thick orange ray shot upward from the ship; its wave-length was the same as that of the light of the Tellur. Then the finger of light disappeared only to shoot up again and remain vertical.
Moot Ang passed his hand over his forehead as he always did in moments of intense concentration.
“That must mean something,” Tey Eron said cautiously.
“I’m sure it does. I believe they are signalling us to stand still while they come up alongside. Let’s try answering.”
The Tellur switched off its projector, then on again with a wave-length of 430. The blue beam swept aft. The orange light on the other ship died at once.
The astronauts waited, breathless with tension. The ship lying abeam was now clearly visible. Roughly its shape was that of a cylinder with a cone, base outward, at each end. The base of one of the cones, evidently the forward one, was covered with a dome-shaped nosepiece, while aft there was a wide funnel-like opening. Amidships was a thick band of uncertain outline which emanated a faint glow. Through it the contours of the cylindrical part of the hull could be seen. Suddenly the band grew dense and opaque and began spinning around like the wheel of a turbine. The ship grew bigger and in three or four seconds filled the entire range of vision of the scanners. It clearly was bigger than the Tellur.
“Afra, Yas and Kari, I want you on the observation platform with me,” Moot Ang said. “Tey, you will remain at the controls. Switch on the planetary illuminator and the port landing lights.”
In the airlock the four quickly got into space suits which were used for exploring planets and for emerging from the ship in outer space wherever there was no danger from stellar radiation.
Moot Ang inspected the gear of his three companions, quickly checked up on his own, and threw in the air-pump switch. In a moment the airlock was a vacuum. When the pressure-gauge indicator reached green he flipped over three levers one after the other. In response, several layers of sliding panels slid aside noiselessly, a round hatch opened overhead, and a hydraulic lift went into action. Slowly the floor of the airlock rose until the four astronauts were standing four metres above the nose of the Tellur on the round upper observation platform.
* * *
In the belt of blue lights the strange space ship was pure white. It gleamed with the dazzling brilliance of mountain snow, unlike the Tellur whose outer armour of metal polished to a mirror-like sheen was designed to reflect all types of cosmic radiation. Only the central ring-like structure of the mystery ship continued to glow faintly.
Its huge bulk had drawn noticeably closer to the Tellur. Far from other gravitational fields, the two ships attracted each other, which was proof that the ship from the unknown world was not made of anti-matter. The Tellur extended its port landing struts. These were a structure of telescoping tubes tipped with cushions of a resilient plastic covered with a protective layer designed to safeguard the ship against possible contact with anti-matter. In the meantime a black gash that looked like a sneering mouth appeared on the nose of the other ship and a retractable balcony with a barrier of thin uprights all around emerged from it. Something white moved in the dark opening, then five figures stepped out on the platform. Afra caught her breath sharply. The figures were all white and of extraordinary proportions, roughly of the same height as people on Earth, but far greater in girth, and with a ridge of humps down their backs. Instead of spherical transparent space helmets they wore something like large sea-shells with a fan-shaped fringe of spines in front under which there was the dull gleam of black glass.
The first of the strangers made a sharp movement which revealed that they had two arms and two legs. The white ship swung around and when its nose was pointed directly at the Tellur it projected a red metal framework to a distance of more than twenty metres.
There was a gentle bump and the two ships were in contact. But there was no blinding flash of atomic disintegration: the two ships that had met consisted of identical matter.
Afra, Yas and Kari heard a low chuckle in their helmet telephones. It was the captain. They exchanged question ing glances.
“I can assure you all, and especially Afra,” Moot Ang said. “Just imagine what we must look like to them. Bulbous dummies with articulated limbs and huge round heads that are three-quarters empty!”
“Everything depends on what’s inside the space suits. The outside doesn’t matter.”
“At least they’ve got the same number of legs and arms as we have,” observed Kari.
An accordion-pleated white covering appeared around the metal framework the white ship had projected. Its end reached out toward the Tellur.
The first of the figures on the platform — Moot Ang was certain it was the commander — made inviting gestures that left no doubt as to their meaning, and in response the closed gallery which the crew of the Tellur used to communicate with other ships lying alongside in outer space was ejected from its nest in the lower part of the hull. But the gallery of the Tellur was round, whereas the strangers’ was elliptical in shape. To make it possible to connect the two, the Earth ship’s technicians quickly made a new frame of soft wood, which became stronger than steel as soon as it was exposed to the intense cold of outer space, for the low temperature changed its molecular structure. In the meantime a cube-shaped red-metal box with a black screen in front appeared on the platform of the white ship. Two of the crew members bent over it, then straightened up and backed away. A figure resembling the human body in outline appeared on the screen. Its upper part expanded and contracted while tiny white arrows either flowed into it or were expelled in rhythm with the expansion and contraction.
“Ingenious!” cried Afra. “That’s breathing! Now they’re bound to tell us the composition of their atmosphere. But how?”
As if in answer to her question, the figure on the screen was replaced by a black spot in a greyish annular cloud — evidently the nucleus of an atom surrounded by electrons in orbit. Moot Ang’s throat contracted. He wanted to cry out in amazement, but he couldn’t utter a sound. For now there were four figures on the screen — two, one above the other — in the centre with a thick white connecting line in between, and one on each side with black arrows pointing to them.
With fast-beating hearts, Moot Ang and his companions counted the electrons. The bottom figure probably represented the principal element in the unknown world’s oceans; it showed one electron spinning around the nucleus — hydrogen. The uppermost was by the same token the principal element of their atmosphere — nine electrons in orbit around the nucleus meant fluorine!
“Fluorine!” Afra cried out in despair.
“Keep on counting!” snapped Moot Ang. “Top left — six electrons, that means carbon. Right — seven, meaning nitrogen. Couldn’t be clearer. Pass on the word to draw up a similar table of our atmosphere and metabolism. It’ll be the same as theirs except for the top centre figure, which will be oxygen with its eight electrons instead of fluorine. What a pity!”
When the table was displayed, the astronauts on the observation platform of the Tellur saw the foremost of the white figures on the other space ship start and raise his hand to his helmet in a gesture that made it clear he was no less, if not more, disappointed than the Earthmen.
Bending over the railing of the platform, the captain of the ship from the unknown planet made a sharp movement with his arm as if severing some invisible bond. The spines on his helmet seemed to bristle menacingly at the Tellur, which was then several metres below the level of his ship. Then he raised his arms and brought them down as if trying to indicate two parallel planes.
Moot Ang repeated the gesture, whereupon the other raised one arm high in wordless greeting, turned round and disappeared into the black maw behind him. His companions followed him.
“Let us go down too,” Moot Ang said, pressing the descent lever.
The hatch closed over them before Afra had had more than a fleeting glimpse of the magnificent sight of the stars blazing in all their brilliance in the black void — a sight that never failed to delight her. The lights went on in the airlock and there was a faint hissing of the pumps — the first indication that the air pressure had reached that at the Earth’s surface.
“Shall we set up a dividing wall before joining the galleries?” Yas Tin asked as soo nas he had got his helmet off.
“Yes,” Moot Ang replied. “That’s what the captain of the other ship was trying to tell us. It’s a tragedy that they can’t exist without fluorine, which happens to be deadly to us. Oxygen would be just as lethal for them. Besides, many of our materials, paints and metals which are durable enough in an oxygen atmosphere would corrode from their breathing. Instead of water they have hydrofluoric acid which eats away into glass and attacks all silicates. We will have to put up a transparent partition that is not affected by oxygen while they will have to make another of some substance resistant to fluorine. But we must hurry. We can talk things over while the partition is being made.”
The quenching chamber which separated the crew’s quarters from the engine room of the Tellur was turned into a chemical laboratory. Here a heavy plate of crystallike transparent plastic was cast of ready components brought from Earth and left to set.
In the meantime the white space ship showed no signs of life although it was kept under constant observation.
In the library of the Tellur work was in full swing. The members of the expedition were busy selecting stereofilms and magnetic recordings of photographs of the Earth and its finest works of art. Diagrams and drawings illustrating mathematical functions and the crystal structure of the most common substances on Earth, other planets of our solar system and the Sun were being hurriedly prepared. A large stereoscopic screen was being adjusted and an overtone sound unit which reproduced the sound of the human voice without the slightest distortion was being encased in a fluorine-proof jacket.
During the brief intervals for food and rest, the crew of the Tellur discussed the unusual atmosphere of the planet from which the others had come.
The processes on the unknown planet set in motion by the energy radiated by its sun which made it possible for life to exist and accumulate energy to offset the dissipation of energy, must follow a general pattern similar to that on Earth. A free active gas — oxygen, fluorine or any other — could accumulate in the atmosphere only as a result of the vital functions of plants. Under all circumstances animal life, human beings included, must use up this gas, combining it with carbon, the basic component of both animals and plants.
The oceans of the planet must consist of hydrofluoric acid, which the plants broke up with the aid of the radiation energy of the system’s luminary as plants on Earth break up water (hydrogen oxide), accumulating carbohydrates and releasing free fluorine. The fluorine mixed with nitrogen was breathed by humans and animals, who obtained energy from the combustion of the carbohydrates in fluorine, and must exhale carbon fluoride and hydrogen fluoride.
This type of metabolism would give one and a half times as much energy as oxygen metabolism. It could very well serve as the foundation for the development of the highest forms of life. But the greater degree of activity of fluorine would require more intensive solar radiation. To produce enough energy to break up the molecules of hydrogen fluoride by photosynthesis, what is needed is not radiation in the yellow-green region, which will do for water, but the more powerful blue and violet radiation. Evidently the luminary of the unknown planet was a very hot blue star.
“There’s a contradiction there,” said Tey Eron, who had just returned from the workshop. “Hydrogen fluoride readily turns into a gas.”
“Quite so. At plus twenty degrees,” Kari replied after a glance into a manual.
“What’s the freezing point?”
“That would make the planet rather cold. How does that theory go with the hot blue star hypothesis?”
“No discrepancy at all,” said Yas Tin. “Its orbit may be a distant one. And the oceans may be located in the moderate or polar zones. Or…”
“There may be a great many reasons,” Moot Ang said. “Whatever it is, we have run across a space ship from a fluorine planet and soon we’ll learn all about it. What’s more important at the moment is this: fluorine is not very common in the Universe in general. Although recent discoveries have raised it from fortieth place to the eighteenth as regards prevalence, oxygen still remains the third most common element, after hydrogen and helium, and followed by nitrogen and carbon. Other estimates show that there is two hundred thousand times more oxygen in nature than fluorine. This is a clear indication that there are very few planets in the Universe which are rich in fluorine, and a still smaller number of planets with a fluorine atmosphere — that is, planets that have a vegetation that has released free fluorine into the atmosphere. The latter must be very rare indeed.”
“Now I can understand the gesture of despair their captain made,” Afra Devi said. “They are searching for other human beings like themselves. That’s why we are such a disappointment for them.”
“That would suggest they’ve been searching for a long time and had already found other thinking beings.”
“Yes, oxygen-breathing beings like ourselves!” cried Afra.
“There may be other kinds of atmosphere,” objected Tey Eron. “Chlorine, for instance, or sulphur, or hydrogen sulphide.”
“They wouldn’t be able to support the highest forms of life,” exclaimed Afra triumphantly. “They all produce in the living organism anything from one-third to one-tenth the energy oxygen yields!”
“That doesn’t apply to sulphur,” put in Yas Tin.
“It’s the equivalent of oxygen.”
“You mean an atmosphere of sulphuric anhydride and an ocean of liquid sulphur?” Moot Aug asked the engineer. Yas Tin nodded.
“But in that case the sulphur would be taking the place of hydrogen, not oxygen, if we compare with the Earth,” Afra said. “And hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe. Sulphur in view of its rarity can hardly take the place of hydrogen in very many cases. Such an atmosphere would obviously be a rarer phenomenon than a fluorine atmosphere.”
“And possible only on very hot planets,” Tey Eron said, turning over the pages of the manual. “A sulphur ocean would be liquid only at a temperature of one hundred to four hundred degrees.”
“I think Afra is right,” Moot Ang said. “All these atmospheres we have been talking about are far less likely than our standard type of atmosphere consisting of the most common elements in the Universe. That it is made up of these elements is no chance phenomenon.”
“I agree with you there,” put in Yas Tin. “But the element of chance occurs often enough in the infinity of the Universe. Take our ‘standardized’ Earth, for instance. Both it and its neighbours the Moon, Mars and Venus have a great deal of aluminium which is rare enough elsewhere in the Universe.”
“And yet it can take tens if not hundreds of thousands of years to run across repetitions of these chance phenomena,” Moot Ang said gloomily. “Even with warp ships. If the people of the other ship have been looking for another planet like theirs for a long time, I can understand what they felt like on meeting us.”
“It’s a good thing our atmosphere consists of the most common elements in the Universe,” Afra said. “At least we can look forward to finding a great many planets like ours.”
“And yet our first encounter was with one of a different order,” Tey remarked.
Afra had a retort ready but the ship’s chemist came in just then to report that the transparent screen was finished.
“But we can enter their ship in space suits, can’t we?” Yas Tin asked.
“Of course we can. And so can they visit ours. We’ll probably have many such exchanges of visits, but it’s better to get acquainted from a distance,” replied the captain.
The Earthmen mounted the transparent sheet of plastic at the outer end of the gallery, and the others did the same in theirs. Then the members of both crews met in space where they worked together to connect the two galleries. Pats on the sleeve or shoulder were exchanged as a token of friendship equally understandable to both sides.
Thrusting the horn-like protuberances of their helmets forward, the strangers tried to peer through the Earthmen’s space helmets, which afforded a much better view of the faces inside than the strangers’ helmets whose slightly convex fronts revealed nothing of their owners’ features. Yet the Earthmen instinctively felt that the curious eyes examining them were friendly.
When invited to board the Tellur the figures in white gestured their refusal. One of them touched his helmet and then flung his arms outward as if scattering something. Tey understood this to mean that the stranger was afraicf for his helmet in an oxygen atmosphere.
“They obviously have the same idea as we have and want to meet us in the gallery first,” Moot Ang said.
* * *
The two space ships now hung motionless in the infinity of space, joined together by the communication gallery. The Tellur turned on its powerful heating units, which made it possible for the crew to enter the gallery in the close-fitting blue artificial wool overalls they always wore at work on shipboard.
A pale blue light like the crystalline radiance on mountain tops on Earth appeared on the other side of the partition. The difference in the lighting on either side of the transparent wall tinted it aquamarine as if it were made of petrified pure sea-water.
A silence set in broken only by the Earthlings’ quickened breathing. Tey Eron’s elbow touched Afra. He felt the young woman trembling with excitement. He drew her close and she flashed him a quick look of gratitude.
A group of eight from the other ship appeared in the far end of the gallery. A gasp of astonishment escaped the Earthmen. They could hardly believe their eyes. In his heart of hearts each had expected something extraordinary, something supernatural. Because of this, the close resemblance of the strangers to themselves struck them as a miracle. But that was only at first glance, for the closer they examined them the more points of difference they noticed in all that was not concealed by the short loose jackets and long wide trousers the strangers wore, which, incidentally, were very much like the clothes worn on Earth in ancient times.
Suddenly the blue light went out and terrestrial lighting was switched on. The transparent wall in the gallery lost its greenish tint and became colourless. Looking at the people standing behind the almost invisible screen at the far end of the corridor, it was hard to believe that they breathed a gas that was lethal on Earth and that they bathed in hydrofluoric acid! Their physical proportions were normal according to Earth standards, and their height was the same as the average Earthling’s. The strangest thing about them was the colour of their skin — iron grey with a silvery sheen and an inner blood-red glow like that of polished hematite.
The strangers had round heads and pitch-black hair, but their most remarkable feature was their almond-shaped eyes. These were incredibly large, so large that they seemed to take up the whole width of the face, and heavily slanted, with the outer corners rising up to the temples, higher than the eyes of Earth-dwellers. The whites, of a deep turquoise, seemed abnormally long in comparison with the black irises and pupils.
Over the eyes were straight, fine, black eyebrows that ran into the hair high over the temples and almost joined over the narrow bridge of the nose. The hairline on the forehead was sharply defined and in perfect symmetry with the line of the eyebrows, giving the forehead the shape of a horizontally extended diamond. The nose was short and flat, with two nostrils opening downward as in men from Earth. The strangers’ mouths were small, and their parted lilac-coloured lips revealed even rows of teeth of the same pure turquoise as the white of the eyes. Just below the eyes the faces narrowed sharply to a chin with angular lines, which made the top part of the face seem inordinately wide. The structure of their ears remained a mystery, for the headbands of gold braid they wore came down over their temples.
Some of them were evidently women, judging by their long, shapely necks, softer facial lines and fluffy, short-cropped hair. The men were taller and more muscular, and their chins were wider. The differences between them were comparable to the differences between the sexes on Earth.
It seemed to Afra that they had only four fingers in each hand. Besides, the fingers looked as if they had no joints at all, for they bent without forming angles.
What their feet were like was impossible to tell, for they sank deep into the soft carpet on the floor. Their clothing seemed to be dark-red in colour.
The longer the astronauts from Earth gazed at their counterparts from the fluorine planet the less odd their appearance seemed. More than that, they realized they were looking at beings that were endowed with a beauty of their own. The secret of the strangers’ charm lay mainly in their huge eyes which regarded the Earthmen with a warm glow of intelligence and goodwill.
“Look at those eyes!” Afra exclaimed. “It is easier to become human with eyes like those than with ours, though ours are wonderful too.”
“Why do you think so?” Tey asked in a whisper.
“The bigger the eye the more of the world it can take in.”
Tey nodded in agreement.
One of the strangers stepped forward and gestured with his hand. The light to which the Earthmen were accustomed went out on the other side of the partition.
“I should have thought of the lights!” Moot Ang groaned.
“I did,” Kari said, switching off the normal lighting and turning on two powerful lamps fitted with “430” filters.
“But it’ll make us look like corpses,” said Taina. “Humanity doesn’t look its best in this light.”
“You have no cause for worry,” Moot Ang said. “Their range of perfect vision extends far into the violet region, and perhaps even into the ultraviolet. That suggests that they are sensitive to a great many more shades and obtain a softer visual picture than we.”
“We probably look yellower to them than we really are,” Tey said after a moment’s thought.
“That’s better than the bluish colour of a corpse,” Taina said. “Just look around!”
* * *
The Earthmen took several photographs and then passed an osmin-crystal overtone speaker through a small airlock in the screen. The strangers took it and put it on a tripod. Kari directed a narrow beam of radio waves at the disc antenna and the speech and music of Earth could be heard in the fluorine planet’s space ship. A device for analysing the air and measuring the temperature and atmospheric pressure was passed through in the same way. As could have been expected, the temperature inside the white space ship turned out to be much lower — no more than seven degrees. The atmospheric pressure was higher than on Earth, and the force of gravity, almost the same.
“Their body temperature is probably higher,” Afra said. “Ours too is more than the Earth’s normal average of twenty degrees. I would say their body temperature is about fourteen of our degrees.”
The others also passed through some devices enclosed in two mesh containers which made it impossible to judge of their designation.
One of the containers emitted high-pitched intermittent sounds that seemed to vanish into the distance. From this the Earthmen gathered that the others could hear higher notes than they. If the range of their hearing was about the same, they probably could not hear the lower notes in our speech and music.
The strangers switched on terrestrial lighting again and the Earthmen turned off the blue light. Two of the strangers, a man and a woman, approached the transparent wall. They threw off their dark-red clothing and stood naked, hand in hand, before the Earthmen. The bodies of the strangers were even more similar to those of the people of Earth than their faces. The harmonious proportions fully accorded with the earthly concept of beauty. True, the lines were more sharply defined, more angular, producing a sculptured effect that was enhanced by the play of light and shadow on their grey skin.
Their heads sat proudly on their long necks. The man had the broad shoulders and general physique of a worker and fighter, while the wide hips of the woman in no way jarred with intellectual power that emanated from these inhabitants of an unknown planet.
When the strangers stepped back with the now familiar gesture of invitation and the yellow terrestrial lights went out, the Earthmen no longer hesitated.
At the commander’s request, Tey Eron and Afra Devi stepped up hand in hand before the transparent partition. In spite of the unearthly lighting which lent their bodies the cold blue tint of marble, their superb beauty caused a gasp of admiration to escape their comrades. The strangers too, dimly visible in the unlighted gallery, seemed similarly affected; they looked at one another in wonder and exchanged brief gestures.
At last the strangers finished photographing and turned on their own light.
“Now I have no doubt that they know what love is,” said Taina, “true, beautiful human love …since their men and women are so beautiful and so clever.”
“You are quite right, Taina, and that is all the more heartening since it means they will understand us in everything,” Moot Ang replied. “Look at Kari! See you don’t fall in love with that girl from the fluorine planet, Kari. That would be a real tragedy for you.”
The navigator started, and tore his eyes with difficulty away from the inhabitants of the white space ship.
“I could,” he confessed sadly. “I really could in spite of all the differences between us, in spite of the vast distances between our planets.” The young man turned back with a sigh to contemplate the smiling face of the woman from the other planet.
The strangers now moved a green screen up to the par-tion. On it tiny figures mounted a steep incline in a procession, carrying heavy loads. On reaching the flat top each dropped the load and threw himself down flat. Similar to animated cartoons as they were known on Earth, the picture clearly conveyed the idea of fatigue. The strangers were suggesting a break for rest. The Earthmen too were tired, for the many hours of tense anticipation of the encounter in space and the first impressions of the meeting had been exhausting indeed.
The inhabitants of the fluorine planet had obviously expected to meet men from other planets on their travels, and had prepared for such encounters by making pantomime films as a substitute for language. The Tellur had made no such preparations, but a way out was found nevertheless. Yas Tin, the ship’s artist, dashed off a series of sketches on a drawing screen that was moved up. First he drew figures expressive of exhaustion, and then a face with such an obviously questioning expression that there was a stir of animation among the people on the other side of the partition just as there had been when Tey and Afra appeared before them. Finally Yas drew a sketch of the Earth revolving around its axis as it coursed on its orbit around the Sun, divided the complete revolution into twenty-four equal parts and shaded half of the diagram. The others produced a similar diagram. Both sides set metronomes in motion which helped to establish the duration of the units of time. The Earthmen learned that the fluorine planet made one complete revolution around its axis in roughly fourteen terrestrial hours and circled its blue sun every nine hundred days. The break for rest which the strangers suggested was the equivalent of five terrestrial hours.
Still dazed by their experience, the Earthmen left the communication gallery. The lights went out in the gallery and the outside illumination of the ships was extinguished. The two space ships now hung dark and lifeless side by side in the frigid blackness of space.
Inside, however, work went on at full speed. Here the human brain drew on its inexhaustible reserves of ingenuity to devise new means for conveying to other human beings from a distant planet the knowledge accumulated in the course of thousands of years of labour, perils and suffering — knowledge which had freed man first from the power of primordial nature, then from the shackles of savage social orders, disease and premature old age, and finally opened the way to the boundless expanses of the Universe.
The second meeting in the gallery began with a demonstration of stellar maps. Neither the Earthmen nor the inhabitants of the fluorine planet had ever seen the constellations they had passed on respective courses. (Only later, on Earth, was it established that the fluorine planet’s blue sun was located in a minor stellar cluster in the Milky Way not far from Tau Ophiuchi.) The strangers had been heading for a star cluster on the northern edge of Ophiuchus when they came upon the Tellur at the southern bounds of Hercules.
At the strangers’ end of the gallery a screen made of red metal slats about the height of man was set up. Through the chinks between the slats the Earthmen thought they saw something whirling. Then suddenly the slats turned sideways, disappearing from sight, and before the Earthmen’s gaze there now appeared a vast expanse of space with bright blue spheres spinning in the depths. These were the fluorine planet’s satellites. Gradually the planet itself approached. A wide blue belt of solid cloud circled it at the equator. In the polar and subpolar zones there were glimmers of grey and red, and between these and the equatorial belt there were strips of the purest white like the surface of the strangers’ space ship. Here there was less vapour in the atmosphere and one could faintly make out the contours of seas, continents, and mountain ranges. The planet was bigger than Earth. Its fast rotation created a powerful magnetic field around it. A violet glow extended in long tongues from the equator into the blackness of outer space.
Hour after hour the Earthmen sat in breathless silence before the partition watching the startlingly realistic views of the fluorine planet which the mysterious device brought to them. They saw the violet waves of oceans of hydrofluoric acid washing beaches of black sand, red crags, and the slopes of jagged mountains radiating a cold pale-blue glow.
Toward the poles the blue of the atmosphere grew deeper and the blue light of the violet star around which the planet revolved seemed purer. The mountains here were rounded cupolas, smooth ridges or flat-topped bulges with a bright opalescent glow. A dark-blue twilight had settled in the deep valleys extending from the polar mountains to the scalloped belt of equatorial seas. An opalescent pall of blue clouds hovered over the great gulfs. The shores of the seas were fringed with gigantic structures of red metal and what looked like grass-green stone. Similar structures crept up the longitudinal valleys toward the poles. They must have covered great areas to be visible from such a height. Between the built-up areas there were wide tracts of dense bluish-green vegetation or the rounded cupolas of mountains that had an inner glow like opal or moonstone on Earth. The round ice caps of frigid hydrogen fluoride on the poles gleamed like sapphires.
Blue and violet of all shades were the predominant colours. The very air seemed to be shot through with a bluish radiance. This was a cold, impassive world, as pure, distant and illusory as if reflected in a crystal. A world devoid of the caressing warmth of the multitude of red, orange and yellow colours of Earth.
There were chains of cities in both hemispheres in the areas corresponding to the polar and temperate zones of Earth. The mountains grew more and more jagged and sombre toward the equator. Here sharp peaks jutted up from the seas enveloped in clouds of vapour, and the ranges ran latitudinally, along the fringes of the tropical regions.
Dense masses of blue vapour curled over the tropical zone. Under the heat of the blue star the highly volatile hydrofluoric acid saturated the atmosphere with its vapours, which rolled in vast walls of cloud toward the temperate zones to condense there and pour back into the equatorial belt. Giant dams checked the flow of these mighty streams which were enclosed in aqueducts and tunnels and used to run the planet’s power stations.
Fields of huge crystals of quartz dazzled the eye — evidently silicon took the place of our salt in the hydrofluoric seas.
The screen carried the viewers to the fluorine planet’s cities, sharply outlined in the cold blue light. All of the planet with the exception of the mysterious equatorial zone under its blue shroud of vapour, seemed to be inhabited and bore the imprint of man’s labour and intelligence. Indeed, much more so than Earth, where great untouched tracts under natural preserves, ancient ruins and abandoned workings still remained.
The labour of countless generations and thousands of millions of people reigned supreme over the entire planet, triumphing over the elemental forces of Nature — the turbulent floods and the dense atmosphere shot through with the fierce radiation of the blue star and laden with electrical charges of fantastic power.
The Earthmen could not tear their eyes away from the screen, but as they looked, their imagination conjured up visions of their own planet. But theirs was not the limited vision their forebears in ancient times had had of some particular expanse of field or forest, some rocky, melancholy mountains, or the shores of gleaming seas basking in the warmth of the sun, depending on where they were born or brought up. For the astronauts of the Tellur the world was an entity of frigid, temperate and torrid zones, and their mind’s eye ranged over the splendid panorama of silvery steppes where the wind roamed freely, and the mighty forests of firs and cedars and birches and palms and giant eucalyptuses; the mist-wrapped shores of the northern seas with their moss-covered crags and the white coral reefs nestling in the blue radiance of tropical seas; the cold, dazzling brilliance of snow-capped mountain ranges and the desert aquiver with heat under the blazing sun; the great rivers majectically flowing on to the sea and mountain torrents whipping themselves into foam against their rocky beds; the wealth of colour, the multitude of flowers, the blue sky with its flocks of white clouds, the warmth of sunshine and the chill of a rainy day, the endless kaleidoscope of the seasons. And with all this great richness of nature a still greater diversity of people in all their beauty, with their aspirations, exploits, dreams, sorrows and joys, songs and dances, tears and longings…
The same power of intelligent labour with its ingenuity, skill, imagination and artistry was evident in everything — in dwellings, factories, machines and ships alike.
Perhaps the inhabitants of the fluorine planet in their turn saw with their enormous eyes more than the Earth-men did in the cold blue tones of their planet aivd had progressed farther in remaking their more monotonous nature?
We who were the product of an oxygen atmosphere which is hundreds of thousands of times more common in the Universe had found and would still find an enormous number of planets offering conditions favourable to life as we knew it, and would no doubt also find other living beings like us on other heavenly bodies. But would they be able to do likewise — they who were the product of rare fluorine, with their fluoric proteins and bones, their blood with the blue corpuscles that assimilated fluorine as our red corpuscles assimilated oxygen?
These people were confined within the limited space of their planet, and there was little doubt that they had long searched for other human beings like themselves, or at least for planets with a fluorine atmosphere suitable for them. But theirs was a formidable problem: to find such rare planets in the vast expanses of space, to reach them through distances of thousands of light years. One could easily understand their disappointment on meeting, and probably not for the first time, with oxygen-breathing humans.
In the strangers’ end of the gallery the views of the landscape of the fluorine planet were followed by enormous structures. The walls, which leaned inward, reminded one of Tibetan architecture. There were no angles, no horizontal lines. Transitions from the vertical to the horizontal followed helical lines. A dark opening, a twisted oval in shape, appeared in a wall in the distance. As it came closer the lower part of the spiral turned out to be a broad-winding road rising to a huge entrance that led into a building as big as a good-sized town. Over the entrance were series of red-bordered blue signs that had looked like ripples on water from the distance. The entrance came nearer still and the Earthlings gazing at it spellbound caught a glimpse of a great dimly-lit hall inside with walls that glowed like fluorescent fluorite.
* * *
Suddenly the picture vanished. The astronauts of the Tellur, who had felt themselves on the threshold of some tremendous revelation, stood stunned with disappointment. The gallery on the other side of the partition was now lit with the ordinary blue light. Some of the strangers appeared, but this time their movements were jerky and hurried.
A series of figures appeared on the screen in such rapid succession that the Earthlings could hardly follow them. At first a white space ship like the one lying alongside the Tellur was moving through the darkness of space; one clearly saw the whirling central ring casting gleaming rays in all directions. Suddenly the ring stopped and the ship hung motionless not far from a blue dwarf star. Thin pencil-lines of rays shot out from the ship and reached another one like it that appeared in the left corner of the screen suspended in space alongside a space ship which the Earthlings recognized as the Tellur. As soon as the white space ship received the message, it cast loose from the Tellur and disappeared into the black void of space.
Moot Ang sighed so loudly that his colleagues turned round to look at him.
“I’m afraid they’re going soon,” he said. “They are in contact with another of their ships somewhere very far away, although how they communicate over such vast distances is more than I can understand. Now something’s happened to the second ship and it has sent a call for help to our friends here.”
“Perhaps it hasn’t been damaged. Perhaps it’s found something very important,” Taina hardly breathed the words.
“Perhaps. Whatever the reason, they’re leaving. We must hurry up and photograph and record as much as possible before they go. Most important, of course, are the charts, their course and what they have encountered on their voyage. I have no doubt they have run across people who breathe oxygen like us.”
Further exchanges revealed that the strangers could still stay the equivalent of one terrestrial day. The crew of the Tellur, stimulated by special drugs, set to work with frenzied vigour no less than that of the strangers.
Textbooks with illustrations were photographed and recordings were made of each other’s language. Collections of minerals, fluids and gases packed in transparent containers were exchanged. The chemists of both planets pored over the meaning of symbols representing the composition of organic and inorganic substances. Afra, pale with fatigue, stood before diagrams of physiological processes, genetic charts and formulas, and a chart showing the embryonic development of the human organism on the fluorine planet. The endless chains of molecules of fluorine-resistant proteins were astoundingly similar to our protein molecules: there were the same energy filters, the same barriers arising from the battle of living matter with entropy.
Twenty hours later Tey and Kari, staggering with exhaustion, brought in rolls of stellar maps tracing the course of the Tellur from the Sun to the point where the two ships had met. The strangers worked harder still. The photo-magnetic tape of the Earthmen’s memory machines recorded the location of unknown stars with undeciphered designations of distances, and astrophysical data relating to the complex zigzag courses of the two white space ships. All this would have to be deciphered afterwards with the aid of the explanatory tables the strangers had prepared for the purpose.
Finally images were projected that elicited joyous exclamations from the Earthmen. Circles appeared around five of the stars on the screen with planets revolving inside them. At the same time the image of a clumsy-looking space ship with the bulge amidships was replaced by a whole fleet of others of a more elegant design. On the oval platforms let down from their bellies stood creatures in space suits that obviously were human beings. Over the depictions of the planets and space ships stood the sign of the atom with eight electrons — the oxygen atom. But only two of the planets were connected with the space ships. One was located near a red sun, and the other revolved around a bright golden-hued star of the F class. Evidently life on the remaining three planets, though deIvan Yefrernov. The Heart of the Serpent / 83
veloping in an oxygen atmosphere, had not reached a high enough level for space travel, or perhaps thinking beings had not yet had time to appear on them.
The Earthmen were not able to find out all these details, but they were in possession of priceless data on how to reach these inhabited worlds located hundreds of par-sees from the point where they had met the emissaries of the fluorine planet.
* * *
The time for parting had come.
The crews of the two space ships lined up to face each other on the two sides of the partition. The pale-bronze men from Earth and the grey-skinned men of the fluorine planet (the name of which, incidentally, remained unknown) bid farewell to each other with gestures and smiles whose message of friendship and sadness was equally understandable to both.
The crew of the Tellur were conscious of a feeling of sadness more poignant than they had ever experienced before — not even when they left their native Earth knowing they would return only seven centuries later. They could not endure the thought that in a few minutes from now these handsome, gentle though odd-looking people would vanish for ever in cosmic space to continue their lonely and all but hopeless search for other worlds with thinking life similar to their own.
Only now, perhaps, did the astronauts fully realize that the driving force of all their searches, dreams and struggles was the good of Man. The most valuable thing in any civilization, on any star, in any island universe, indeed the Universe as a whole, was Man, his reason, emotions, strength and beauty — his life!
Man’s happiness, preservation and development was the main purport of the future — now that the Heart of the Serpent had been vanquished and there was no mad^ ignorant, malicious waste of vital energy as there had been in human societies at lower stages of their development.
Man was the only force in the Universe that was capable of acting intelligently, of overcoming the most formidable obstacles, and advancing to a rationally organized world — the triumph of all-powerful life and the flowering of human personality…
The captain of the white space ship made a sign with his hand, whereupon the young woman who had demonstrated the physical beauty of the inhabitants of the fluorine planet ran to the partition to face Afra. Throwing herself against the transparent sheet she stretched her arms out wide as if to embrace the woman from Earth. Afra too flung herself at the partition like a bird struggling to break out of a glass cage, her face wet with tears. Then the light went out on the other side and the partition was a black void from which there was no response to the Earth-lings’ surging emotions.
Moot Ang ordered terrestrial lighting to be turned on, but the gallery on the other side was already empty.
“Outside group, get into your space suits to disconnect the gallery,” the captain’s voice broke the anguished silence. “Engine crew, to your stations. Astronavigator, to the control tower. All hands to take-off stations!”
The crew hastened out of the gallery, carrying the instruments and recording devices with them. Only Afra remained behind, standing still in the faint light coming through the door leading into the ship. It was as if she had been frozen by the intense cold of interstellar space.
“Afra, we’re closing the hatch,” shouted Tey Eron from the ship. “We want to see them set off.”
The young woman came to with a start.
“Wait, Tey, wait!” she cried and hurried after the captain. The astounded second-in-command was still standing there nonplussed when Afra came running back with Moot Ang.
“Tey, bring the projector back into the gallery,” the captain said. “Call the technicians and remount the screen!”
The orders were carried out in an instant and the powerful beam of the searchlight flashed on and off in the gallery at the same intervals as the locator of the Tellur when the ships first met. The strangers interrupted whatever they were doing and reappeared in the gallery. The Tellur switched on a blue light, filter “430,” and Afra bent trembling over the drawing board from which her sketches were cast onto the screen. Assuming that the spiral chains of the heredity patterns on the Earth and the fluorine planet were roughly the same, Afra drew them, and then sketched a diagram showing the metabolism of the human organism. With a glance at the immobile grey figures standing on the other side of the partition, she crossed out the symbol of the fluorine atom with its nine electrons that she had drawn and replaced it with a symbol of the oxygen atom.
The strangers started. Then their captain came forward and pressing his face close to the partition examined Afra’s rough sketches with his enormous eyes. Finally he raised his hands with fingers interlocked above his forehead and bowed down low to the woman of Earth.
The people of the fluorine planet had grasped the idea that had been born at the last moment in Afra’s mind under the stress of parting. Afra was thinking of a bold scheme to change the very process of chemical transformations that is the mainspring of the complex organism of the human being, to substitute oxygen for fluorine in the metabolic process through the agency of heredity! To preserve all the peculiarities, all the hereditary characteristics of the fluorine folk while making their bodies derive their energy from another source! The idea was too tremendous to be near realization; indeed it was still so remote that even the seven centuries the Tellur would be away from its native Earth — centuries of unceasing and cumulative scientific progress — would hardly bring it appreciably closer to fruition.
Yet how much could be achieved by the joint efforts of the two planets! Especially if thinking beings from other worlds were to join them. The fluorine planet’s human race need not be doomed to be a mere phantom-like glimmer blotted out in the vastness of the Universe.
When the people of countless planets of innumerable suns and island universes get together, as they inevitably would, the grey-skinned inhabitants of the fluorine planet need not be shut off from the rest by the accident of their physical structure.
Perhaps indeed the feeling of sadness at the finality of the parting which weighed down on the astronauts was unduly exaggerated. For though they were poles apart as regards the structure of their planets and their bodies, the people of Earth and the fluorine planet were alike in life, endowed with similar intellectual powers and knowledge. As Afra gazed into the eyes of the captain of the white space ship, she thought she could read all this in them. Or was it merely a reflection of her own thoughts?
Yet it seemed the strangers had just as much faith in the might of human reason as the people of Earth. No doubt it was because of the spark of hope struck by the biologist of the Tellur that their parting gestures were no longer expressive of separtion for ever, but of new meetings to come.
Slowly the two space ships cast loose and drifted apart cautiously so as not to damage each other by the blasts of their auxiliary engines.
The white ship’s engines went into action first. There was a great blinding flash and it was gone. Nothing but the blackness of space remained.
A minute later the Tellur moved off. After cautiously accelerating, it went into a warp — that bridge that cut across once insurmountable interstellar distances. Safely ensconced inside protective domes, the crew was no longer aware how the light quanta flying toward them were compressed and the distant stars ahead changed gradually from blue to a deeper and deeper violet. The space ship plunged into the impenetrable gloom of zero space beyond which the glowing life of Earth blossomed and awaited its return.