It was noon, ship time, when I was ushered into Probe Control and shown my seat, on the far end of the line, second row. I had a standard console—three screens, headset, trackball, and keyboard—and a clear view of the main screens. There were ten consoles in the room, but only eight were occupied. The three people in the first row were concentrating hard, tracking the descent and piloting of the probe. The rest were scattered about and casually watching. I was sitting next to Adrienne Drechal, our IT person. She wasn’t busy at the moment, so she filled me in.
“This planet is remarkably Earth-like. Those are water clouds on the screen and the atmosphere, while a little dense, would be survivable in a pinch.”
She was telling me this while reading raw data direct from the screens. Was she a fast study!
“Wow! You’re doing all this analysis right off the screens?”
Adrienne smiled at me condescendingly. “Not quite. We’ve been studying this world for six years now, as the ship approached. There’s a lot we know.
“We know the world is nitrogen/argon/oxygen-based. And we know that that kind of atmosphere means hydrocarbon-based life of some sort is firmly established. But we won’t know what the surface pressures or surface wind velocities are until the probe lands.
“Five years ago, we knew we’d hit paydirt. But we didn’t know this was going to be the big one—the one with civilization—until we monitored radio traffic just last year.”
Suddenly a voice cut through on the intercom.
“The probe’s landing in two minutes. We’ve just broken the lowest cloud layer.”
Together we watched on the main screen as the streaky gray of the visual screen suddenly cleared to show a long vista of rolling, patchy-green hills under the clouds. At the center of the screen, nestled into the hills, was a city.
It was obviously a city. Even on this alien world, we found a compact grid pattern of roads, surrounded by a loose star of other roads that radiated into it.
The probe circled the city, gathering data as it went.
“This is one of the abandoned cities,” said Adrienne. “Based on what we found scanning from space, there are two kinds of cities, inhabited and abandoned. Curiously, though, even those that are abandoned are actively transmitting messages on radio frequencies.”
“Do we know what they’re saying?”
“Yes. They’re very dull. Gary broke the code a few months ago. It’s all surveillance and maintenance stuff.”
“Even from the abandoned ones?”
“All of them. You couldn’t tell an abandoned city by listening to the broadcasts.”
The probe had been circling lower and lower. Now it was coming in for a landing. It landed on a road about a half mile out of town. So far, we’d seen nothing moving.
The road was overgrown; the surrounding countryside was a peaceful medley of grass and bushes, two to twenty feet high. All were green, but there, their resemblance to Earth plants ended.
At this stage, the data was so new and so different there wasn’t much to say beyond that. The computers were keeping records, so there was little to do but watch.
“Shall we move on?” It was Earl Leonard, the science officer, mission controller for the probe.
“Into town?” That was Mark Lowe, doing the piloting. He was also our planetary survival specialist. He would lead the first party down, if there was one. The odds of that looked very good right now; he was all grins.
“Into town, slowly,” confirmed Earl.
Instantly, the probe started down the road at a fast clip. Earl gasped, then composed himself. Slow was obviously a relative measure that Earl and Mark would have to work out later.
The images of grass and bushes grew on the main screen, then slid past to the two side screens as the probe advanced, and finally appeared in the rear. We seemed to be there with the probe, looking out through the windows of a sedan speeding along a country road. The computer automatically took special note of every new type of plant form, so there was no need for stopping as we went. We saw no animal life.
Ten minutes later, we were looking at the edge of town. Mark brought the probe to a stop.
The town looked more alien than the countryside had. The buildings were all a uniform 30, 60, or 90 meters in height and width. The cubes were unrelieved gray. Some were in ruins.
“This looks like a warehouse, not a city!” It was Mark. “Where to, Chief?”
Earl thought a moment. “Try one of the 30-meter jobs. One in good condition.”
“Omni, you’ve got the movement sensors active?”
“I have, and there hasn’t been any, except for plants blowing in the breeze.” The sweet carefully inflected voice that responded was Omni, the ship’s computer.
“However, the 60-meter building, second on the right, does have a powerful transmitter inside. That seems to be the only distinguishing feature of any of the nearby buildings.”
“Okay, let’s head there.”
Mark was off, but a lot more slowly this time. There was a lot to see, and where there were transmissions, there might be surprises.
The probe drove along the deserted street and up to the building. Decay was everywhere. The pavement was buckled, plants were everywhere, and still no animals of any sort. As a zoologist, I was getting frustrated.
The building had a large opening facing on the street. Its door lay fallen, crumpled and choked in vines.
“Go on in,” said Earl.
Our probe slowly ground its way over the door and went inside.
The interior was cavernous and well-lit. This appeared to be a one-room building. It looked worse on the inside than from the outside. The roof was collapsed and there were many long slits opened in the sides where the building walls had buckled.
Inside there were machines. We’d hit paydirt! Real technology to study! The machines were scattered about; our scanners worked overtime recording all the new data about technology levels, fabrication techniques, and materials used. The probe advanced slowly towards the center of the room.
The entire building was dominated by what lay there: A large tree.
It looked something like a banyan, 50 meters high, with thick spreading branches and supporting roots extending from them to the floor. As the probe advanced, murmurs floated through the Control Room.
“Why a tree in the middle of a building?”
“A leftover from a potted plant?”
“A suitable microclimate?”
“Maybe these were the botanical gardens?”
“Maybe these machines tapped the tree sap?”
Omni interrupted. “That tree, or something near it, is the source of the transmissions.”
Suddenly there was static on all the screens. The probe came to a dead halt.
“What’s up, Omni?” asked Earl.
“The probe has suffered a massive malfunction. I don’t know the cause yet. Perhaps a short circuit of the main power bus. I can’t think of anything else that could stop it so completely.”
“Will it recover?”
“I don’t know. I’m totally out of touch. … Wait, it’s starting to come back. Yes, the repair circuits seem to have corrected the problem. We’re getting signals again.”
The main screen cleared of static once again. And once again, we were staring at the massive tree, gleaming green and succulent in the even, indirect light filtering into the building.
“That was close! Still no sign of movement?”
“None,” replied Omni.
“Then let’s move on and finish exploring this building.”
“A moment, sir. The motor controls still aren’t responding.”
“Any idea what caused the failure?”
“We have motor control again. You may continue.”
The probe circled the building interior, but found nothing new. It went back out, and turned right to continue towards town. It passed two buildings, then was out in the country again.
“What!” cried Earl and Mark together.
We all looked in the rear view. There was the town behind us.
“And you call yourself a navigator. Try again, boy,” Earl chuckled.
Mark was upset. He muttered, “It isn’t right. I turned right! The center of town was to the right. There’s something wrong here!”
I thought he turned right … I mean the right direction. Well … I thought he was right!
Ten minutes later, so did everyone else. No matter which way Mark turned, we always saw either the same part of town we’d already seen, or the same road we came in on. It was as if the rest of the planet didn’t exist.
To make matters worse, Omni reported she couldn’t detect the probe beacon moving at all. She called for a full report from the probe. It reported everything was fine.
After an hour, this got old. We all took a break.
After everyone got their drinks and munchies, Mark got to the point. “Well, Earl, the probe’s in trouble. Shall we fly down and rescue it?”
“Yes, Mark. … Fly down and rescue it, with another probe.”
Mark cringed in mock chagrin. The time wasn’t long before he’d be taking the trip himself.
Two hours later, at the next break, the tone was much more sober.
Mark viciously ripped the top off his drink. The contents foamed out, and proceeded to spray gracefully over half the ceiling. Foaming drinks are quite spectacular in low G. Especially when they’re out of control. Now big drops hung menacingly from the ceiling, and Mark cursed.
“Two probes down, and two gone. We don’t know how, or why. And we still haven’t seen anything move!”
Earl was thinking quietly.