The Captain peered into the eyepiece of the telescope. He adjusted the focus quickly.
“It was an atomic fission we saw, all right,” he said presently. He sighed and pushed the eyepiece away. “Any of you who wants to look may do so. But it’s not a pretty sight.”
“Let me look,” Tance the archeologist said. He bent down to look, squinting. “Good Lord!” He leaped violently back, knocking against Dorle, the Chief Navigator.
“Why did we come all this way, then?” Dorle asked, looking around at the other men. “There’s no point even in landing. Let’s go back at once.”
“Perhaps he’s right,” the biologist murmured. “But I’d like to look for myself, if I may.” He pushed past Tance and peered into the sight.
He saw a vast expanse, an endless surface of gray, stretching to the edge of the planet. At first he thought it was water but after a moment he realized that it was slag, pitted, fused slag, broken only by hills of rock jutting up at intervals. Nothing moved or stirred. Everything was silent, dead.
“I see,” Fomar said, backing away from the eyepiece. “Well, I won’t find any legumes there.” He tried to smile, but his lips stayed unmoved. He stepped away and stood by himself, staring past the others.
“I wonder what the atmospheric sample will show,” Tance said.
“I think I can guess,” the Captain answered. “Most of the atmosphere is poisoned. But didn’t we expect all this? I don’t see why we’re so surprised. A fission visible as far away as our system must be a terrible thing.”
He strode off down the corridor, dignified and expressionless. They watched him disappear into the control room.
As the Captain closed the door the young woman turned. “What did the telescope show? Good or bad?”
“Bad. No life could possibly exist. Atmosphere poisoned, water vaporized, all the land fused.”
“Could they have gone underground?”
The Captain slid back the port window so that the surface of the planet under them was visible. The two of them stared down, silent and disturbed. Mile after mile of unbroken ruin stretched out, blackened slag, pitted and scarred, and occasional heaps of rock.
Suddenly Nasha jumped. “Look! Over there, at the edge. Do you see it?”
They stared. Something rose up, not rock, not an accidental formation. It was round, a circle of dots, white pellets on the dead skin of the planet. A city? Buildings of some kind?
“Please turn the ship,” Nasha said excitedly. She pushed her dark hair from her face. “Turn the ship and let’s see what it is!”
The ship turned, changing its course. As they came over the white dots the Captain lowered the ship, dropping it down as much as he dared. “Piers,” he said. “Piers of some sort of stone. Perhaps poured artificial stone. The remains of a city.”
“Oh, dear,” Nasha murmured. “How awful.” She watched the ruins disappear behind them. In a half-circle the white squares jutted from the slag, chipped and cracked, like broken teeth.
“There’s nothing alive,” the Captain said at last. “I think we’ll go right back; I know most of the crew want to. Get the Government Receiving Station on the sender and tell them what we found, and that we--”
The first atomic shell had struck the ship, spinning it around. The Captain fell to the floor, crashing into the control table. Papers and instruments rained down on him. As he started to his feet the second shell struck. The ceiling cracked open, struts and girders twisted and bent. The ship shuddered, falling suddenly down, then righting itself as automatic controls took over.
The Captain lay on the floor by the smashed control board. In the corner Nasha struggled to free herself from the debris.
Outside the men were already sealing the gaping leaks in the side of the ship, through which the precious air was rushing, dissipating into the void beyond. “Help me!” Dorle was shouting. “Fire over here, wiring ignited.” Two men came running. Tance watched helplessly, his eyeglasses broken and bent.
“So there is life here, after all,” he said, half to himself. “But how could--”
“Give us a hand,” Fomar said, hurrying past. “Give us a hand, we’ve got to land the ship!”
It was night. A few stars glinted above them, winking through the drifting silt that blew across the surface of the planet.
Dorle peered out, frowning. “What a place to be stuck in.” He resumed his work, hammering the bent metal hull of the ship back into place. He was wearing a pressure suit; there were still many small leaks, and radioactive particles from the atmosphere had already found their way into the ship.
Nasha and Fomar were sitting at the table in the control room, pale and solemn, studying the inventory lists.
“Low on carbohydrates,” Fomar said. “We can break down the stored fats if we want to, but--”
“I wonder if we could find anything outside.” Nasha went to the window. “How uninviting it looks.” She paced back and forth, very slender and small, her face dark with fatigue. “What do you suppose an exploring party would find?”
Fomar shrugged. “Not much. Maybe a few weeds growing in cracks here and there. Nothing we could use. Anything that would adapt to this environment would be toxic, lethal.”
Nasha paused, rubbing her cheek. There was a deep scratch there, still red and swollen. “Then how do you explain--it? According to your theory the inhabitants must have died in their skins, fried like yams. But who fired on us? Somebody detected us, made a decision, aimed a gun.”
“And gauged distance,” the Captain said feebly from the cot in the corner. He turned toward them. “That’s the part that worries me. The first shell put us out of commission, the second almost destroyed us. They were well aimed, perfectly aimed. We’re not such an easy target.”
“True.” Fomar nodded. “Well, perhaps we’ll know the answer before we leave here. What a strange situation! All our reasoning tells us that no life could exist; the whole planet burned dry, the atmosphere itself gone, completely poisoned.”
“The gun that fired the projectiles survived,” Nasha said. “Why not people?”
“It’s not the same. Metal doesn’t need air to breathe. Metal doesn’t get leukemia from radioactive particles. Metal doesn’t need food and water.”
There was silence.
“A paradox,” Nasha said. “Anyhow, in the morning I think we should send out a search party. And meanwhile we should keep on trying to get the ship in condition for the trip back.”
“It’ll be days before we can take off,” Fomar said. “We should keep every man working here. We can’t afford to send out a party.”
Nasha smiled a little. “We’ll send you in the first party. Maybe you can discover--what was it you were so interested in?”
“Legumes. Edible legumes.”
“Maybe you can find some of them. Only--”
“Only watch out. They fired on us once without even knowing who we were or what we came for. Do you suppose that they fought with each other? Perhaps they couldn’t imagine anyone being friendly, under any circumstances. What a strange evolutionary trait, inter-species warfare. Fighting within the race!”
“We’ll know in the morning,” Fomar said. “Let’s get some sleep.”
The sun came up chill and austere. The three people, two men and a woman, stepped through the port, dropping down on the hard ground below.
“What a day,” Dorle said grumpily. “I said how glad I’d be to walk on firm ground again, but--”
“Come on,” Nasha said. “Up beside me. I want to say something to you. Will you excuse us, Tance?”
Tance nodded gloomily. Dorle caught up with Nasha. They walked together, their metal shoes crunching the ground underfoot. Nasha glanced at him.
“Listen. The Captain is dying. No one knows except the two of us. By the end of the day-period of this planet he’ll be dead. The shock did something to his heart. He was almost sixty, you know.”
Dorle nodded. “That’s bad. I have a great deal of respect for him. You will be captain in his place, of course. Since you’re vice-captain now--”
“No. I prefer to see someone else lead, perhaps you or Fomar. I’ve been thinking over the situation and it seems to me that I should declare myself mated to one of you, whichever of you wants to be captain. Then I could devolve the responsibility.”
“Well, I don’t want to be captain. Let Fomar do it.”
Nasha studied him, tall and blond, striding along beside her in his pressure suit. “I’m rather partial to you,” she said. “We might try it for a time, at least. But do as you like. Look, we’re coming to something.”
They stopped walking, letting Tance catch up. In front of them was some sort of a ruined building. Dorle stared around thoughtfully.
“Do you see? This whole place is a natural bowl, a huge valley. See how the rock formations rise up on all sides, protecting the floor. Maybe some of the great blast was deflected here.”
They wandered around the ruins, picking up rocks and fragments. “I think this was a farm,” Tance said, examining a piece of wood. “This was part of a tower windmill.”
“Really?” Nasha took the stick and turned it over. “Interesting. But let’s go; we don’t have much time.”
“Look,” Dorle said suddenly. “Off there, a long way off. Isn’t that something?” He pointed.
Nasha sucked in her breath. “The white stones.”
Nasha looked up at Dorle. “The white stones, the great broken teeth. We saw them, the Captain and I, from the control room.” She touched Dorle’s arm gently. “That’s where they fired from. I didn’t think we had landed so close.”
“What is it?” Tance said, coming up to them. “I’m almost blind without my glasses. What do you see?”
“The city. Where they fired from.”
“Oh.” All three of them stood together. “Well, let’s go,” Tance said. “There’s no telling what we’ll find there.” Dorle frowned at him.
“Wait. We don’t know what we would be getting into. They must have patrols. They probably have seen us already, for that matter.”
“They probably have seen the ship itself,” Tance said. “They probably know right now where they can find it, where they can blow it up. So what difference does it make whether we go closer or not?”
“That’s true,” Nasha said. “If they really want to get us we haven’t a chance. We have no armaments at all; you know that.”
“I have a hand weapon.” Dorle nodded. “Well, let’s go on, then. I suppose you’re right, Tance.”
“But let’s stay together,” Tance said nervously. “Nasha, you’re going too fast.”
Nasha looked back. She laughed. “If we expect to get there by nightfall we must go fast.”
They reached the outskirts of the city at about the middle of the afternoon. The sun, cold and yellow, hung above them in the colorless sky. Dorle stopped at the top of a ridge overlooking the city.
“Well, there it is. What’s left of it.”
There was not much left. The huge concrete piers which they had noticed were not piers at all, but the ruined foundations of buildings. They had been baked by the searing heat, baked and charred almost to the ground. Nothing else remained, only this irregular circle of white squares, perhaps four miles in diameter.
Dorle spat in disgust. “More wasted time. A dead skeleton of a city, that’s all.”
“But it was from here that the firing came,” Tance murmured. “Don’t forget that.”
“And by someone with a good eye and a great deal of experience,” Nasha added. “Let’s go.”
They walked into the city between the ruined buildings. No one spoke. They walked in silence, listening to the echo of their footsteps.
“It’s macabre,” Dorle muttered. “I’ve seen ruined cities before but they died of old age, old age and fatigue. This was killed, seared to death. This city didn’t die--it was murdered.”
“I wonder what the city was called,” Nasha said. She turned aside, going up the remains of a stairway from one of the foundations. “Do you think we might find a signpost? Some kind of plaque?”
She peered into the ruins.
“There’s nothing there,” Dorle said impatiently. “Come on.”
“Wait.” Nasha bent down, touching a concrete stone. “There’s something inscribed on this.”
“What is it?” Tance hurried up. He squatted in the dust, running his gloved fingers over the surface of the stone. “Letters, all right.” He took a writing stick from the pocket of his pressure suit and copied the inscription on a bit of paper. Dorle glanced over his shoulder. The inscription was:
“That’s this city,” Nasha said softly. “That was its name.”
Tance put the paper in his pocket and they went on. After a time Dorle said, “Nasha, you know, I think we’re being watched. But don’t look around.”
The woman stiffened. “Oh? Why do you say that? Did you see something?”
“No. I can feel it, though. Don’t you?”
Nasha smiled a little. “I feel nothing, but perhaps I’m more used to being stared at.” She turned her head slightly. “Oh!”
Dorle reached for his hand weapon. “What is it? What do you see?” Tance had stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth half open.
“The gun,” Nasha said. “It’s the gun.”
“Look at the size of it. The size of the thing.” Dorle unfastened his hand weapon slowly. “That’s it, all right.”
The gun was huge. Stark and immense it pointed up at the sky, a mass of steel and glass, set in a huge slab of concrete. Even as they watched the gun moved on its swivel base, whirring underneath. A slim vane turned with the wind, a network of rods atop a high pole.
“It’s alive,” Nasha whispered. “It’s listening to us, watching us.”
The gun moved again, this time clockwise. It was mounted so that it could make a full circle. The barrel lowered a trifle, then resumed its original position.