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   Chapter 9 No.9

Islands of Space By Jr. John W. Campbell Characters: 17065

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Below the ship lay the unfamiliar panorama of an unknown world that circled, frozen, around a dim, unknown sun, far out in space. Cold and bleak, the low, rolling hills below were black, bare rock, coated in spots with a white sheen of what appeared to be snow, though each of the men realized it must be frozen air. Here and there ran strange rivers of deep blue which poured into great lakes and seas of blue liquid. There were mighty mountains of deep blue crystal looming high, and in the hollows and cracks of these crystal mountains lay silent, motionless seas of deep blue, unruffled by any breeze in this airless world. It was a world that lay frozen under a dim, dead sun.

They continued over the broad sweep of the level, crystalline plain as the bleak rock disappeared behind them. This world was about ten thousand miles in diameter, and its surface gravity about a quarter greater than that of Earth.

On and on they swept, swinging over the planet at an altitude of less than a thousand feet, viewing the unutterably desolate scene of the cold, dead world.

Then, ahead of them loomed a bleak, dark mass of rock again. They had crossed the frozen ocean and were coming to land again-a land no more solid than the sea.

Everywhere lay the deep drifts of snow, and here and there, through valleys, ran the streams of bright blue.

"Look!" cried Morey in sudden surprise. Far ahead and to their left loomed a strange formation of jutting vertical columns, covered with the white burden of snow. Arcot turned a powerful searchlight on it, and it stood out brightly against the vast snowfield. It was a dead, frozen city.

As they looked at it, Arcot turned the ship and headed for it without a word.

It was hard to realize the enormity of the catastrophe that had brought a cold, bleak death to the population of this world-death to an intelligent race.

Arcot finally spoke. "I'll land the ship. I think it will be safe for us all to leave. Get out the suits and make sure all the tanks are charged and the heaters working. It will be colder here than in space. Out there, we were only cooled by radiation, but those streams are probably liquid nitrogen, oxygen, and argon, and there's a slight atmosphere of hydrogen, helium and neon cooled to about fifty degrees Absolute. We'll be cooled by conduction and convection."

As the others got the suits ready, he lowered the ship gently to the snowy ground. It sank into nearly ten feet of snow. He turned on the powerful searchlight, and swept it around the ship. Under the warm beams, the frozen gasses evaporated, and in a few moments he had cleared the area around the ship.

Morey and the others came back with their suits. Arcot donned his, and adjusted his weight to ten pounds with the molecular power unit.

A short time later, they stepped out of the airlock onto the ice field of the frozen world. High above them glowed the dim, blue-white disc of the tiny sun, looking like little more than a bright star.

Adjusting the controls on the suits, the four men lifted into the tenuous air and headed toward the city, moving easily about ten feet above the frozen wastes of the snow field.

"The thing I don't understand," Morey said as they shot toward the city, "is why this planet is here at all. The intense radiation from the sun when it went supernova should have vaporized it!"

Arcot pointed toward a tall, oddly-shaped antenna that rose from the highest building of the city. "There's your answer. That antenna is similar to those we found on the planets of the Black Star; it's a heat screen. They probably had such antennas all over the planet.

"Unfortunately, the screen's efficiency goes up as the fourth power of the temperature. It could keep out the terrific heat of a supernova, but couldn't keep in the heat of the planet after the supernova had died. The planet was too cool to make the screen work efficiently!"

At last they came to the outskirts of the dead city. The vertical walls of the buildings were free of snow, and they could see the blank, staring eyes of the windows, and within, the bleak, empty rooms. They swept on through the frozen streets until they came to one huge building in the center. The doors of bronze had been closed, and through the windows they could see that the room had been piled high with some sort of insulating material, evidently used as a last-ditch attempt to keep out the freezing cold.

"Shall we break in?" asked Arcot.

"We may as well," Morey's voice answered over the radio. "There may be some records we could take back to Earth and have deciphered. In a time like this, I imagine they would leave some records, hoping that some race might come and find them."

They worked with molecular ray pistols for fifteen minutes tearing a way through. It was slow work because they had to use the heat ray pistols to supply the necessary energy for the molecular motion.

When they finally broke through, they found they had entered on the second floor; the deep snow had buried the first. Before them stretched a long, richly decorated hall, painted with great colored murals.

The paintings displayed a people dressed in a suit of some soft, white cloth, with blond hair that reached to their shoulders. They were shorter and more heavily built than Earthmen, perhaps, but there was a grace to them that denied the greater gravity of their planet. The murals portrayed a world of warm sunlight, green plants, and tall trees waving in a breeze-a breeze of air that now lay frozen on the stone floors of their buildings.

Scene after scene they saw-then they came to a great hall. Here they saw hundreds of bodies; people wrapped in heavy cloth blankets. And over the floor of the room lay little crystals of green.

Wade looked at the little crystals for a long time, and then at the people who lay there, perfectly preserved by the utter cold. They seemed only sleeping-men, women, and children, sleeping under a blanket of soft snow that evaporated and disappeared as the energy of the lights fell on it. There was one little group the men looked at before they left the room of death. There were three in it-a young man, a fair, blonde young woman who seemed scarcely more than a girl, and between them, a little child. They were sleeping, arms about each other, warm in the arms of Death, the kindly Reliever of Pain.

Arcot turned and rose, flying swiftly down the long corridor toward the door.

"That was not meant for us," he said. "Let's leave."

The others followed.

"But let's see what records they left," he went on. "It may be that they wanted us to know their tragic story. Let's see what sort of civilization they had."

"Their chemistry was good, at least," said Wade. "Did you notice those green crystals? A quick, painless poison gas to relieve them of the struggle against the cold."

They went down to the first floor level, where there was a single great court. There were no pillars, only a vast, smooth floor.

"They had good architecture," said Morey. "No pillars under all the vast load of that building."

"And the load is even greater under this gravity," remarked Arcot.

In the center of the room was a great, golden bronze globe resting on a platform of marble. It must have been new when this world froze, for there was no sign of corrosion or oxidation. The men flew over to it and stood beside it, looking at the great sphere, nearly fifteen feet in diameter.

"A globe of their world," said Fuller, looking at it with interest.

"Yes," agreed Arcot, "and it was set up after they were sure the cold would come, from the looks of it. Let's take a look at it." He flew up to the top of it and viewed it from above. The whole globe was a carefully chiseled relief map, showing seas, mountains, and continents.

"Arcot-come here a minute," called Morey. Arcot dropped down to where Morey was looking at the globe. On the edge of one of the continents was a small raised globe, and around the globe, a circle had been etched.

"I think this is meant to represent this globe," Morey said. "I'm almost certain it represents this very spot. Now look over here." He pointed to a spot which, according to the scale of the globe, was about five thousand miles away. Projecting from the surface of the bronze globe was a little silver tower.

"They want us to go there," continued Morey. "This was erected only shortly before the catastrophe; they must have put relics there that they want us to get. They

must have guessed that eventually intelligent beings would cross space; I imagine they have other maps like this in every large city.

"I think it's our duty to visit that cairn."

"I quite agree," assented Arcot. "The chance of other men visiting this world is infinitely small."

"Then let's leave this City of the Dead!" said Wade.

It gave them a sense of depression greater than that inspired by the vast loneliness of space. One is never so lonely as when he is with the dead, and the men began to realize that the original Ancient Mariner had been more lonely with strange companions than they had been in the depths of ten million light years of space.

They went back to the ship, floating through the last remnants of this world's atmosphere, back through the chill of the frozen gases to the cheering, warm interior of the ship.

It was a contrast that made each of them appreciate more fully the gift that a hot, blazing sun really is. Perhaps that was what made Fuller ask: "If this happened to a star so much like our sun, why couldn't it happen to Sol?"

"Perhaps it may," said Morey softly. "But the eternal optimism of man keeps us saying: 'It can't happen here.' And besides-" He put a hand on the wall of the ship, "-we don't ever have to worry about anything like that now. Not with ships like this to take us to a new sun-a new planet."

Arcot lifted the ship and flew over the cold, frozen ground beneath them, following the route indicated on the great globe in the dead city. Mile after mile of frozen ice fields flew by as they shot over it at three miles per second.

Suddenly, the bleak bulk of a huge mountain loomed gigantic before them. Arcot reversed the power and brought the ship to a stop. With the powerful searchlight, he swept the area, looking for the tower he knew should be here. At last, he made it out, a pyramid rather than a tower, and coated over with ice. They soon thawed out the frozen gasses by playing the energy of three powerful searchlights upon them, and in a few minutes the glint of gold showed through the melting ice and show.

"It looks," said Wade, "as though they have an outer wall of gold over a strong wall of iron or steel to protect it from corrosion. Certainly gold doesn't have enough tensile strength to hold itself up under this gravity-not in such masses as that."

Arcot brought the ship down beside the tower and the men once more went out through the airlock into the cold of the almost airless world. They flew across to the pyramid and looked for some means of entrance. In several places, they noticed hieroglyphics carved in great, foot-high characters. They searched in vain for a door until they noticed that the pyramid was not perfect, but truncated, leaving a flat area on top. The only joint in the walls seemed to be there, but there was no handle or visible methods of opening the door.

Arcot turned his powerful light on the surface and searched carefully for some opening device. He found a bas-relief engraving of a hand pointing to a corner of the door. He looked more closely and found a small jewel-like lens set in the metal.

Suddenly the men felt a vibration! There was a heavy click, and the door panel began to drop slowly.

"Get on it!" Arcot cried. "We can always break our way out if we're trapped!"

The four men leaped on it and sank slowly with it. The massive walls of the tower were nearly five feet thick, and made of some tough, white metal.

"Pure iron!" diagnosed Wade. "Or perhaps a silicon-iron alloy. Not as strong as steel, but very resistant to corrosion."

When the elevator stopped, they found themselves in a great chamber that was obviously a museum of the lost race. All around the walls were arranged models, books, and diagrams.

"We can never hope to take all this in our ship!" said Arcot, looking at the great collection. "Look-there's an old winged airplane! And a steam engine-and that's an electric motor! And that thing looks like some kind of an electric battery."

"But we can't take all that stuff," objected Fuller.

"No," Morey agreed. "I think our best bet would be to take all the books we can-making sure we get the introductory ones, so we can read the language.

"See-over there-they have marked those shelves with a single vertical mark. The ones next to them have two vertical marks, and next ones three. I suggest we load up with those books and take them to the ship."

The rest agreed, and they began carrying armloads of books, flying out through the top of the pyramid to the ship and back for more.

Instead of flying back to the pyramid for the last load, Arcot announced that he was going to leave a note for anyone who might come here later. While the others went back for the last load, he worked at drawing the "note".

"Let's see your masterpiece," said Morey as the three men returned to the ship with the last of the books.

Arcot had used a piece of tough, heavy plastic which would resist any corrosion the cold, almost airless world might have to offer.

Near the top, he had drawn a representation of their ship, and beneath it a representation of the route they had taken from universe to universe. The galaxy they were in was represented by a cloud of gas, its main identifying feature. Underneath the dotted line of their route through space, he had printed "200,000,000,000, u".

Then followed a little table. The numeral "1" followed by a straight bar, then "2" followed by two bars, and so on up to ten. Ten was represented by ten bars and, in addition, an S-shaped sign. Twenty was next, followed by twenty bars and two S-shaped signs. Thus he had worked up to "100".

The system he used would make it clear to any reasoning creature that he had used a decimal system and that the zeroes meant ten times.

Next below, he had drawn the planetary system of the frozen world, and the distance from the planet they were on to the central sun he labeled "u". Thus, the finders could reason that they had come a distance of two hundred billion units, where a distance of three hundred million miles was taken as the unit; they had, then, come from another galaxy. Certainly any creature with enough intelligence to reach this frozen world would understand this!

"Since the year of this planet is approximately eight times our own," Arcot continued, "I am indicating that we came here approximately five hundred years after the catastrophe." He pointed at several of the other drawings.

They left the message in the tower, and Arcot closed the door, leaving the pyramid exactly as it had been before they had come.

"Say!" Morey commented, "how did you open and close that door, anyway?"

Arcot grinned. "Didn't you notice the jewel at the corner? It was the lens of a photoelectric cell. My flashlight opened the door. I didn't figure it out; it just worked accidentally."

Morey raised an eyebrow. "But if the darned thing is so simple, any creature, intelligent or not, might be able to get in and destroy the records!"

Arcot looked at him. "And where are your savages going to come from? There are none on this planet, and anyone intelligent enough to build a spaceship isn't going to destroy the contents of the tower."

"Oh." Morey looked a little sheepish.

They went into the airlock and took off their suits. Then they began packing the precious books in specimen cases that had been brought for the purpose of preserving such things.

When the last of them was carefully stowed, they returned to the control room. They looked silently out across this strange, dead world, thinking how much it must have been like Earth. It was dead now, and frozen forever. The low hills that stretched out beneath them were dimly lighted by the weak rays of a shrunken sun. Three hundred million miles away, it glowed so weakly that this world received only a little more heat than it might have received from a small coal fire a mile away.

So weakly it flared that in this thin atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, its little corona glowed about it plainly, and even the stars around it shone brilliantly. The men could see one constellation that grouped itself in the outlines of a dragon, with the sun of this system as its cold, baleful eye.

Gradually, Arcot lifted the ship, and, as they headed out into space, they could see the dim frozen plains fall behind. It was as if a load of oppressing loneliness parted from them as they flew out into the vast spaces of the eternal stars.

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