Another one. Several new sparks in darkness
His thoughts were wandering, too unsorted
to unite themselves. At that moment, a severe command emerged
in his consciousness: 'Don't move!'
Brad shut his eyelids obediently. He recalled
that restraint was drilled into his mind during his long, tiresome
astronautical training, when his instructors had educated him
about everything he might need here.
Here? Of course, here. On the 'Trough'.
Brad Siodmack, a highly trained astronaut
commanding the riskiest enterprise in history, was on the most
up-to-date spaceshipits official name was 'The Messenger'ever
built on Earth. He had been sent to star system K-53, from which
mysterious signals had been arriving at Earth for years. The signals'
modulation and regular structure undoubtedly proved that they
were the product of another intelligent species in space. This
mission was a unique challenge in the history of humanity. So
the best experts had designed the plans for the spaceship Emissarythat
was the official name of the Troughand the largest
companies had built it.
Star system K-53 was so inconceivably distant
that it could be reached only with the invention of so-called
ultrahibernation. Brad Siodmack was chosen to be a guinea
pig for testing it.
A thousand disconnected questions went through
Brad's brain, chasing one another in a circle, but he was still
too weak to do anything. Except, maybe, to recall
the events that had happened several weeks before he'd set out
on his bold voyage.
When he'd hit that dog.
In the middle of the afternoon crowd, the
dog entangled itself between Brad's legs, nearly causing him to
fall. Brad mumbled a few comforting words, tapped the dog on its
head, and continued his walk home.
A few blocks farther Brad noticed that the
dog was following him. Darn it! I shouldn't have patted it.
He swiftly turned around several corners and cast a stealthy glance
over his shoulder. The dog was several yards behind him.
Brad decided that he wouldn't look back,
but he could hear the tired dog gasping. He opened the gate, and
it closed behind him automatically. Okay. The dog had to stay
outside at last. Brad entered the living room and kissed Yunona
on her cheek.
"You seem exhausted," remarked
his wife. "Rest here for a moment. I'll bring you a glass
of cold juice from the kitchen."
Brad slid into the armchair and stretched
his legs. Several moments later, he heard the vivacious voices
of Ina and Saba from the lobby.
He waited for a while, and after time, he
headed to the dining room.
When he entered, he saw the dog, which Saba
and Ina hugged on the valuable carpet that was now scattered with
"Listen everybody," he said, "that
dirty beast has to go out of my house right away."
"No, daddy, no!" Saba and Ina grasped
his knees, sobbing.
"Don't be so selfish," objected
his wife. "You can't chase away the poor animal. It'd die
of starvation for sure."
"Daddy, daddy," both girls cried.
"We'll look after Fido! We'll take it out, mornings and evenings!
We'll throw a stick to Fido and he'll bring it back! We promise!"
"See?" Yunona joined in. "You
won't have any work with the dog. Except signing a check for a
kennel, of course."
Brad stated many rational arguments why the
dog had to go, but nobody listened to him. Finally, they voted
and the dog stayed.
Over the next few weeks, Brad was forced
to get used to many changes. Saba and Ina said that they had too
much to learn at school, so Brad had to walk the dog twice a day.
Their neighbor, a vet, said that the dog was growing too fat and
it needed more exercise.
So Brad had to throw a stick as far as he
could, and the dog brought it back, again and again. The dog never
got tired of that game; it persisted irrespective of its panting.
Why does the darned dog fetch the stick
so persistently? Brad never praised the dog for that. A
need for playing? The dog didn't play with anything but the stick,
There could be only one reason for such behavior.
The dog wanted to find favor in Brad's eyes. The dog needed someone
to whom it could be devoted and subordinated. It needed someone
stronger and wiser than itself.
The dog needed an admirable master who would
not only feed it but also protect it from all that unknown outside.
Brad Siodmack felt pins and needless in his
limbs. Into his dormant consciousness crawled the thought that
he had to arise out of his lethargy. There were so many questions
For how long have I slept in this plastic
sarcophagus? For how long tied with these tubes and cords, connecting
to the high-tech hibernation machine? How much time has passed
by since I said farewell to my beloved Yunona and my tiny, lovely
Brad recoiled from that bitter memory, feeling
tears in the corners of his eyes. He felt so stupid for making
the decision to become the most famous space explorer, and to
leave all that he'd loved in order to accomplish it. However,
now it was too late to regret the events of long ago.
Slowly, Brad began to recognize familiar
things around him. Here were the curved walls and domelike roof
of his spaceship. Here were the large panoramic screen and the
command console. Above that was, of course, Mae.
Mae was here, next to him, as always. Mae
was much more than just the most sophisticated artificial intelligence
gadget ever made. She was, for all that time, everything
to him: his navigator and reliable pilot, his nursemaid and careful
doctor, his partner and devoted friend.
The stand-by indicator next to Mae glowed
in a ruby-red color. That meant the nuclear converter had endured
all that time up to now.
Butwhen is now? What date
ah, what year is now?
Brad slowly turned his head to the left where
was a digital nuclear clock. It had been measuring the standard
time of the spaceship and the time passed on Earth during his
long sleep. When Brad saw the clock his heart emitted two or three
No, no. That couldn't be possible. That
damned clock went crazy. I had to ask Mae.
"Do you hear me, Mae?" Brad hardly
believed that the hoarse croaking was his voice.
"I hear you, commander." Mae was
speaking calmly, in a low voice. "How do you feel?"
For a while Brad racked his brains about
that difficult question. He felt
lousyas if he had
a terrible hangover, or as if he was beaten black and blue.
"I'm okay. Tell me, how long was I so
cold? How long did I sleep?"
Mae told him.
She told him how much of his own time had
passed by on Emissary. Then she reminded him of Lorenz's factor
of time-shortening, valid for every object moving through space
with relative speed near light-speed. And then she told him how
much time had passed on Earth during their voyage.
Brad swallowed hard. Then the clock didn't
go crazy at all. Or, if it went crazy, then Mae went crazy also.
That simply wasn't possible, though. Mae
was million times more reliable than any trained astronaut, Brad
"You can try to get up, now," Mae
said. "But do it easy."
Brad waited until all four sides of his plastic
sarcophagus retracted, and all of the small tubes and cords disappeared
somewhere below. Then he awkwardly leaned on his elbows and inched
his legs towards the edge of his bed. When the first dizziness
passed, he swung his bare feet onto the floor.
It was high time to take command over the
Brad sat on his chair, close to the command
"How the hell is it possible that we
didn't reach our goal long ago?" he asked. "What went
wrong? Have we miscalculated the distance, or was that darned
Trough too slow?"
"None of that, commander," Mae
replied. "All our earlier calculations proved correct, at
least nearly. As you can see, we passed the system K-53 long ago.
We did not stop there because that system did not emit any signals
Brad was puzzled. "You mean to say the
"By no means. The signals are still
coming and they are much stronger than before."
Brad shook his head. "I'm not with you."
"Look. Long ago, when we had been close
to the system K-53, I realized that the real source of the signals
was much farther beyond it. So far away, that the distance
from Earth was only a fragment of the real distance to our goal."
"You claim the signals from the real
source just travel through that damned K-53 to the Earth?"
"Exactly. And so I have let you sleep
until now, commander. Until now, when we have reached the real
source of signals: the system L-678. Look, you can see it yourself."
Brad stared at the display. The sun they
were approaching was a bit smaller than the Earth's, but its brightness
"The system L-678," explained Mae,
"consists of that sun and five planets. On the inner two
planets the environments are quite similar to Earth's, and on
one of them, I found the transmitter of the signals."
Brad noticed Mae had marked that planet with
a tiny circle of light.
"I see. Tell me something about the
environment on the planet. Would I need anti-gravity gear with
"Luckily no, commander," said Mae.
"The gravity is only a bit stronger than on Earth and there
is enough oxygen."
Brad nodded. "All the same I'd hold
off praising the planet until we land there. What's its name,
"For now it has no name, commander.
You have the honor of naming it."
Brad considered for a while. "Well thenlet's
"Yunona is a lovely name, commander.
That was one of goddesses in the ancient Greece, was it not?"
Brad nodded, his voice hoarse. "Yes.
And that is
that was my wife's name."
After he had a short rest, Brad noticed that
Yunona was already covering a good half of the panoramic screen.
"How much time do we have until landing?"
"About two hours and seventeen minutes,
commander," replied Mae.
Brad admired the halo around Yunona, made
by the shielded sun. Suddenly, that reminded him of an eclipse
in bygone times, and of his frequent watching of the moon.
For his fourteenth birthday, his parents
had bought him a good telescope and Brad had spent many sleepless
nights studying the moon. It was his greatest love and he knew
all of its regions by heart. Craters Copernicus, Keppler, and
Aristotle; seas Mare Imbrium and Mare Crisium; mountains Alps
Brad's enthusiasm for the moon was the main
reason he'd decided to study astrophysics.
The rumbling of the plasma engine interrupted
Brad's nostalgic thoughts, and the growing gravity pressed him
in the seat. Finally, he felt a soft shake and realized the Trough
had landed on Yunona.
All around Brad there were
The ThingsBrad couldn't find any better
name for themwere sparsely dispersed at irregular distances
up to the horizon. Brad stood in the dusk, scarcely daring to
breathe. He could hardly believe that he was really on his distant
goal, Yunona. He couldn't see any stars above him so he must be
in a huge closed space.
The Things were of various sizes, forms,
and colors. They were all glowing in their own phosphorescent
light. Some were spherical, others cylindrical, prismatic, or
even in the form of a translucent membrane. Most of the Things
levitated, or moved around at different heights, while some were
lying on the ground. Far away, Brad noticed a huge, black dome.
Brad turned around, and the sight of the
high tower of the Trough consoled him.
"Hey, Mae," he whispered, "do
you read me?"
"Of course I do, commander," replied
Mae. "I can also see you on the screen. And through the camera
on your cap I can also see everything that you see."
Brad swallowed hard. "Okay. Now I'll
move a little forward. These
Things are everywhere around
me, so it seems that it doesn't matter in which direction I go."
"Good luck, commander."
The Things were moving in unpredictable curved
lines without revealing any aim. Brad realized that the Things
didn't pay heed to him at all, so he swiftly had to avoid several
of them colliding with him. He was prepared for various responses
from denizens of an alien planet, from utter hostility to benevolent
hospitality. But there was no response here at all.
What are these Things? Living beings,
or maybe machines?
If they were alive, what strange material
were they made of? If they were machines, where were their creators
hiding, and why? After they had attracted hima representative
of an intelligent civilizationto them, it would be foolish
if they wouldn't show themselves.
Brad repeatedly looked back over his shoulder.
He decided he'd check just a little more of the nearby area, and
then he'd return to the Trough to consult Mae.
The final time that Brad looked back, he
stopped dead, because the Trough had vanished.
Brad rubbed his eyes in disbelief, shuddering.
The several hundred ton spaceship, which had a few moments ago
jutted above the landscape, had disappeared.
No, that couldn't be true. The Trough
shouldn't have taken off again; such a maneuver would last several
minutes, and the thundering plasma engines would resound all around.
Brad started to run towards the place where
the ship had been just a few moments earlier. He came puffing
to three holes, several inches deep: the imprints of the ship's
three steel legs. He fumbled inside the imprints.
Nothing. The spaceship wasn't there any more.
With it, Mae had disappeared, too.
Brad could scarcely restrain himself from
weeping. He was alone, without Mae, his faithful comrade, without
the Trough, even without food and drink. He was stuck on that
alien, indifferent world, where nobody cared about him.
Anger overwhelmed Brad. He wouldn't give
up! Regardless of the cause of that mysterious disappearance,
he had to try to find somebodyor somethingto help
him. He clenched his teeth and began to stride to where the most
Brad moved slowly through the crowd of Things,
trying to attract their attention. He gestured
animatedly, clapped his hands, jumped and shouted with
all his might, but in vain. The Things showed no notice of Brad's
Brad noticed a swiftly spinning wheel when
it was three feet away, so he had to jump backwardsand something
hard bumped into his back. Horrified, he turned around and saw
the Thing he'd collided with. It was a dark red prism that moved
on the ground; at the impact it stopped for a moment, and for
the first time on the alien planet, Brad felt that a Thing had
It noticed him, the only one to do so in
that uncaring crowd of Things! Brad stared at it and felt some
empathy, but the Thing set out on its journey again without paying
further attention to Brad. Instinctively, he began to follow it.
Maybe the Thing would, with time, realize he needed urgent help.
Surely it couldn't just leave him here to die like a dog.
The Thing hastened through the crowd and
Brad took pains to follow it. When the Thing arrived at the huge
black dome he'd seen earlier, a square opening appeared in it,
and the Thing entered. Brad, tired and distressed, summoned up
his remaining courage and rushed into the dome, too. Just for
a second the glittering light dazzled him, and then he fainted.
Brad was lying in a large, empty room on
some sort of soft bed, and he felt comfort and calmness. He'd
just finished his first meal on Yunona, consisting of some brownish
mushy food, a bit like porridge. On the floor beside him was a
jug of agreeably cool water. He still worried about Mae, the Trough,
and his own future, but all of that was somehow in the rear of
his consciousness. For now, he was alive and that was enough.
Instantly, Brad perceived a kind of mental
picture. They were optical sequences, which turned up directly
in his brain. Brad recognized several, some he could understand
by analogies, but many of them were simply behind his comprehension.
It took Brad some time before he realized
that he was watching a 3-D hologram of a brief history of Yunona's
He stared at fascinating and nearly unbelievable
devices and procedures: regulation of weather and climate, mining
of raw materials from unbelievable depths and even other planets
in the system, nuclear transmutation, cold fusion of elements,
local reducing and even nullifying of gravity, telepathy as a
common means of communication, momentary transfer of information
through space with neutrinos
Abruptly, Brad noticed something that stopped
"Mae!" Brad's shout was a reflex
action. Only a moment later, it occurred to him how foolish it
was to talk to a projected image.
"Hello, commander," replied Mae,
and her undisturbed voice persuaded Brad he was in fact talking
to his faithful companion. "I'm sorry you're now separated
from the Messenger and me. Are you all right, commander?"
"What? Oh, Mae, I'm thrilled to see
and hear you again. I was so alone since we were separated. What
did the Things do with you? And why"
"Commander, I am sure we are safe here
and only that counts. Theythe Things wouldn't harm
us; otherwise they wouldn't have done so much to protect us until
"Okay, Mae. But where are youI
mean physically? And do you have any idea where the Trough is?"
"As far as I can judge, the Things put
me and The Messenger in a museum. It seems to me that they consider
both of us to be valuable objects from old times."
"Swell." Brad waved his hand in
resignation. "I'm afraid the Things don't consider us emissaries
from a distant planet."
Mae didn't respond. Brad was afraid that
he was talking to Mae for the last time, but he couldn't find
the proper words to say so. He wanted to tell Mae how he was frightened
on that soulless, alien world. How he regretted the fatal mistake
of setting off on that senseless mission, stupidly leaving behind
everything that counted in his life
It didn't pay off, what he'd done; now he
knew it for sure.
"Commander," said Mae, "do
you think now you made a mistake when you left Earth?"
Brad shook his head. How well Mae knew him;
she asked him the same question as he was thinking. He was sure
that Mae knew his answer, too.
"Goodbye, commander. Take care."
Brad Siodmack was sitting on the floor, unsure
of his future. He could be stuck on this damned Yunona until he
died. Stricken by the thought, he rose to his feet, and immediately
Brad clenched his jaw and strode towards
one of the curved walls. But the wall instantly dissolved, and
he stopped abruptly. He was puzzled, because before him there
were neither Things nor ground. There was nothing. Brad stopped
at the edge of the floor and stared into a dark abyss beyond his
feet. Then he undid his wristwatch, dropped it into the darkness,
and pricked up his ears. He heard absolutely nothing.
He thought of a solution to his dilemma,
painless and definitive. Why vegetate for many years in despair,
suffering, languishing, and slowly dying? He had to make only
one step forward, to where friendly, instant death was waiting
for him. Brad closed his eyes, feeling his cold sweat, and
clenched his fists. He had to do it at once, or he wouldn't have
the strength to do it at all.
Brad made a step forwardbut he didn't
fall. Instead, he was standing on something solid. When he dared
to open his eyes again, he saw that he was in a huge elevator,
and the feeling of gravity told him that the elevator was moving
So. The Things won't even allow me to
choose when and how to die! Why do they keep experimenting with
me as if I was a guinea pig? And where, damn it, are they taking
The door of the lift opened and the fresh
night breeze showed Brad that he was on Yunona's surface. Everything
around him was flooded with a silver light.
Brad raised his gaze and caught sight of
It was the Earth's moon; there was no mistake.
He instantly recognized the silhouettes of Craters Copernicus,
Keppler, and Aristotle; seas Mare Imbrium and Mare Crisium; mountains
Alps and Apennines
Brad felt his legs weaken, so he had
to lean against the wall. How in the universe was that possible?
Then realization flashed through Brad's brain.
There was no Yunona at all, ever. There was
only Earthhis starting point, and his goal. His entire mission
was purposeless. The voyage? Is it possible that the entire
voyage was an illusion, too?
"Calm yourself, Brad." A
suggestive Thing's voicetouch?feeling?arose
in the middle of his brain. "You have traveled all right;
far away and for a long time. You passed the K-53 system, and
after that, we had to turn you around again."
"Turn me around?" Brad wasn't sure
if he'd said that aloud or just thought it.
"Yes, back to Earth. The landing
on Yunona was just an illusion. That was necessary, Brad. The
sudden disappointment after your awakening could have killed you."
"But then you are
you are in fact
Brad couldn't finish his sentence.
"Of course, Brad. We are the successors
of the humankind as you had known it."
Brad shook his head. Although he was sure
the voice was telling him the truth, his consciousness refused
to accept it.
He cleared his throat. "Listen
could I call you Thing?"
"You may call me what you please.
But now it would be better if you rest for a while."
"I don't want to rest, damn it! Tell
me everythingtell me what went wrong."
"Technology on Earth grew much faster
than the biological progress of the human brain." The
Thing's voice was reverberating in Brad's head. "In time,
computers became capable of making other computers, and that production
was akin to organic growth. Before long, the density of microchips
surpassed the density of neurons in the human brain."
Brad leaned against the wall, stared at the
moon, and listened.
"Gradually, the artificial intelligence
surpassed the human brain. In time, we became what you call Things.
And so Man became for us redundant."
Brad nodded, his voice trembling. "And
so you decided that it wouldn't be rational for you to cooperate
with the human race any further."
"That is true, Brad. But we never
wanted to harm the people. We have not enslaved them; we have
even left their primitive computers to them. In general, we have
allowed them to choose the style and speed of their own development.
From that moment in history, we simply began to ignore them."
"Like people ignoring a stray dog on
their way home from work," Brad added bitterly, without realizing
that the Thing couldn't understand the allusion.
"Since then, we made progress increasingly
faster. We have sent one of our ultraspaceships after your Messenger,
caught up with it, and turned it around. Once near Earth, we programmed
your on-board computer in such a way that it made all of the illusion
Brad shook his head. "But why, for Heaven's
For the first time, the Thing took time to
respond. "Because we found out that those signals you
were pursuing were without any purpose."
"Without any purpose?" protested
Brad. "How could you be so sure that the signals wouldn't
have proved important for us, the people? Please, tell me moretell
me everythingabout those signals"
The Thing didn't reply. Brad repeatedly appealed
to it, but in vain. Maybe the Thing thought that Brad couldn't
have understood its explanation. However, it was also possible
that the secret about those signals was too dreadful for Brad,
the last representative of the human race, to know.
"Okay, tell me just one more thing."
Brad was trying to find the proper words. "What happened
to the people after you left them to their own fate? Did they
manage to make progress alone?"
The interval until the Thing's next answer
was longer than before. "At first, yes, for a long time,
by your measurement of time. Then, with time, their problemsespecially
the irrepressible global pollution explosionoverwhelmed
them. Their basic flaw was that they'd chosen the wrong way to
solve their problems."
"War?" Brad hardly dared to whisper.
"Unfortunately, yes. The global war
without any limitsnuclear, chemical, viral, bacteriological,
Every nation had fought against all the
others for the few remaining resources. I am very sorry, Brad."
Brad remained silent for a long time. "But
but the survivors? Surely at some remote, isolated places?"
"Believe me, Brad," said
the Thing, "you do not want to meet them. Can you imagine
the outcome of countless mutations over so many generations?"
Brad slowly slid down on the floor with his
face in his palms.
It seemed to Brad that it was the end of
everything, for all who'd proudly called themselves human, once
upon a time. He was the very last one. He was now a rarity, some
valuable specimen for a museum. He'd rashly left his beloved home,
and during his absence, his foolish compatriots have demolished
it. He had no home anymore. He was a stranger in a strange land.
Brad was half sitting and half lying on the
soft bunk, which adapted itself to his body with each move. That
compartment was only his, and was placed next to the house of
his Thing. There he had everything he needed: food and drink,
a holovision set, and plenty of time for thinking.
He pondered about the strangeness of the
historical development on Earth. The people had more intellect
than any other creature, and considered themselves to be the eternal
masters of the planet.
The intelligencethat divine sparkat
the beginning, upgraded lifeless matter to organic compounds,
increasingly sophisticated, and then to the protoplasm cell. Further
development led to many stages from amoeba, through vertebrates,
mammals, and to humans, who invented so-called artificial intelligence.
Then the intelligence became unsatisfied
with the protoplasm cell. The neurons in the human brain grew
too slowly and awkwardly, so the intelligence discarded them as
impractical. That stage became redundant, and that meant the humans
had become obsolete.
But he, Brad Siodmack, was an exception.
The Things would, probably, preserve him.
It was possible that they might even improve him in many ways,
to ensure that he would stay alive and in good health for a long
time. Most likely, the Things would see him as a valuable rarity,
suitable as a specimen. Perhaps even as a pet.
The door of his compartment opened, and Brad
caught sight of his Thing approaching the house. Brad got up and
went briskly to meet it, as he did every day. He knew what was
going to happen. He remembered the procedure from the bygone times,
when his own pet had greeted him. The only difference was that
Brad couldn't wag his tail.
When his Thing saw him, it conjured from
somewhere an oblong, thin object, and ejected it several dozen
Brad ran after the stick to fetch it.
Brad wanted to find favor in the Thing's
eyes. He needed someone to whom he could be devoted and subordinated.
He needed someone stronger and wiser that he was.
Brad Siodmack, a former member of the ruling
race on Earth, needed an admirable master who wouldn't only feed
him but also protect him from all that unknown outside.