A six-man crew crash-lands on Eden, fourth planet from another sun. The men find a strange world that grows ever stranger, and everywhere there are images of death. The crew's attempt to communicate with this civilization leads to violence and to a cruel truth-cruel precisely because it is so human. Translated by Marc E. Heine. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book
About the Author
Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) was the most widely translated and best known science fiction author writing outside of the English language. Winner of the Kafka Prize, he was a contributor to many magazines, including the New Yorker, and the author of numerous works, including Solaris.
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Because of a miscalculation, the craft dipped too low and hit the atmosphere with an earsplitting scream. Lying flat in their bunks, the men could hear the dampers being crushed. The front screens showed flame and went black; the cushion of incandescent gas at the bow was too much for the outside cameras. The control room filled with the stench of hot rubber. Under the force of the deceleration, the men temporarily lost their vision, their hearing. This was the end.
No one could think. No one had the strength, even, to inhale. Breathing was done for them by the oxypulsators, forcing air into them as into straining balloons. Then the roar abated. The emergency lights went on, six on either side. The crew stirred. Above the cracked instrument panel, the warning signal showed red. Pieces of insulation and Plexiglas rustled across the floor. There was no roar now, only a dull whistle.
"What —" croaked the Doctor after spitting out his rubber mouthpiece.
"Stay down!" warned the Captain, who was watching the one undamaged screen.
The ship somersaulted, as if hit by a battering ram. The nylon netting that enfolded them twanged like the string of a musical instrument. For a moment everything was poised upside down, and then the engine began to rumble.
Muscles that had tensed in anticipation of the final blow relaxed. The ship, atop a vertical column of exhaust flame, slowly descended; the nozzles throbbed reassuringly. This lasted several minutes. Then the walls throbbed; the vibration increased — the turbine bearings must have worked loose. The men looked at one another. They knew that everything depended now on whether or not the vanes would hold.
The control room suddenly shook, as though a steel hammer were striking it furiously from the outside. The last screen became covered with a cluster of circles; the convex phosphorescent shield darkened. The faint light of the emergency lamps cast enlarged shadows of the men on the sloping walls. Now the engine howled. Beneath them there was a grating, a breaking; then something split with a shrill sound. Jolted repeatedly, the hull was like a blind and lifeless thing. They held their breath in the darkness. Their bodies suddenly were flung against the nylon cords, but did not strike the shattered panels, which would have torn the mesh. The men swayed like pendulums. ...
The ship seemed to move in an avalanche. There were distant, dull reverberations. Lumps of earth that had been thrown up slid along the outer hull with a feeble sound.
All motion stopped. Beneath the men, something gurgled. The gurgling became louder, more rapid — the sound of water leaking — and there was a repeated, penetrating hiss, as though drops were falling, one by one, on heated metal.
"We're alive," said the Chemist. In total darkness, he could not see a thing. He was hanging in his nylon bag fastened on four sides by cords. The ship had to be lying on its side: otherwise the berth would have been horizontal. There was a crackle, and the pale glimmer of the Doctor's old lighter.
"Roll call," said the Captain. A cord on his bag snapped, causing him to rotate slowly, helplessly. He reached out through the nylon netting and tried unsuccessfully to grab a knob on the wall.
"Here," said the Engineer.
"Here," said the Physicist.
"Here," said the Chemist.
"I'm here," said the Cyberneticist, holding his head.
"And here, that's six," said the Doctor.
"All present and accounted for. Congratulations." The Captain's voice was calm. "And the robots?" There was no reply.
Silence. The lighter burned the Doctor's fingers; he put it out. "I always said we were made of better stuff."
"Anyone have a knife?"
"I do. Should I cut the cords?"
"It would be better if someone could crawl out without cutting them. I can't."
Struggling, heavy breathing, then a pounding, and a grinding of glass.
"I'm at the bottom. On the wall, that is," said the Chemist. "Doctor, throw a little light here, so I can help you."
"Hurry up. The thing's almost out of fluid." The lighterbrightened again. The Chemist went to the Captain's cocoon but could reach no farther than the legs. At last he managed to open a side zipper, and the Captain dropped to his feet with a thud. The two of them together could work faster. Soon everyone was standing on the slanted wall of the control room, which had a semielastic covering.
"Where do we begin?" asked the Doctor, applying a band-aid to the cut on the Cyberneticist's forehead. The Doctor always carried odds and ends in his pockets.
"We see if we can get out," replied the Captain. "First we need light. Doctor, shine it over here — there may still be current in the panel, or at least in the alarm system."
This time, the lighter produced only a spark. The Doctor thumbed the flint over and over again above the Captain and the Engineer as they rummaged through fragments of metal on their knees.
"Found anything yet?" asked the Chemist, behind them.
"Nothing yet. Anyone have a match?"
"The last time I saw matches was three years ago. In a museum," the Engineer muttered indistinctly. He was attempting to strip the end of a wire with his teeth. Suddenly a small blue glow filled the Captain's cupped hands.
"Here's current," he said. "Now for a bulb."
They found an undamaged bulb in an emergency display above a side panel. A sharp electric light illuminated the control room, giving it the look of a tunnel with curved walls. High above them was the door.
"More than twenty feet," said the Chemist gloomily. "How are we going to get up there?"
"I once saw, in a circus, five men standing on top of one another," said the Doctor.
"We're not acrobats. We can climb up the floor," the Captain said. He took the Chemist's knife and began making cuts in the spongy floor covering.
"Why is the Cyberneticist so quiet?" asked the Engineer. He was sitting on the shattered instrument panel, applying a voltmeter to some protruding cables.
"The man feels orphaned," replied the Doctor with a smile. "What's a cyberneticist without his robots?"
"I'll fix them," said the Cyberneticist. He was looking at the screens. Their yellow glow grew dimmer.
"The accumulator, too," muttered the Physicist. The Engineer got to his feet.
"So it would appear."
A quarter of an hour later, the six-man expedition was working its way toward the front of the ship. First they entered the corridor; from there they went to their separate quarters. In the Doctor's cabin they found an old flashlight. (The Doctor liked to collect things.) They took it with them. There was devastation everywhere. The furniture, bolted to the floor, had not been damaged, but the instruments, tools, vehicles, and supplies made a sea of junk through which they waded.
"Now let's try to get out," said the Captain when they were back in the corridor.
"What about suits?"
"They're in the air lock. They should be all right. But we won't need suits. Eden has a breathable atmosphere."
"Has anyone ever been here before?"
"There was a cosmic probe twelve years ago, when Altain disappeared with his ship. Remember?"
"But no men landed?"
The inner hatch was overhead, at an angle. Their feeling of unfamiliarity — because the walls were floors and the ceilings walls — gradually passed.
"Here we will need a living ladder," declared the Captain. He began a careful inspection of the inner hatch with the Doctor's flashlight. The hermetic seal was intact.
"Looks good," said the Cyberneticist, craning his neck.
"Yes," agreed the Engineer. He had feared that the terrific force that bent the girders and crushed the main instrument panel between them might also have jammed the inner hatch — but he had kept the thought to himself. The Captain asked the Chemist to stand by the wall and bend over.
"Legs apart, hands on your knees — it'll be more comfortable for you that way."
"I always wanted to be in the circus!" the Chemist said, crouching. The Captain placed a foot on his shoulder, climbed up, and, pressing against the wall, caught hold of the nickel-plated lever with his fingertips.
He tugged at it, then hung from it. With a grating sound, as though the lock mechanism were full of crushed glass, it made a quarter-turn and stopped.
"Are you pulling in the right direction?" asked the Doctor, who was shining the flashlight from below. "The ship is on its side."
"I've taken that into account."
"You can't pull it a little harder?" The Captain said nothing. Hanging from the lever with one hand, he tried bringing the other hand up as well. This was difficult because of his position, but he finally managed it. He drew up his knees to avoid kicking the Chemist beneath him and gave the lever several jerks — by pulling himself up and then dropping with the full weight of his body. He grunted when his torso hit the wall.
On the third or fourth drop, the lever moved a little more. There were still about two inches to go. The Captain braced himself and did one more drop. The lever engaged the catch with an awful squeak: the bolt had been pulled.
"Perfect, perfect," said the Physicist, delighted.
The Engineer said nothing, his mind elsewhere.
Now they worked at opening the inner hatch — a more difficult task. The Engineer tried the handle of the chamber door, but knew it was hopeless: the pipes had burst in a number of places and all the fluid had leaked out. In the light of the Doctor's flashlight, the wheel gleamed above them like a halo, too high for their gymnastic abilities: more than twelve feet.
They gathered broken equipment, cushions, books. The library proved particularly useful, with its thick celestial atlases. Under the Engineer's direction, after a few false starts, the men built a pyramid of these, like bricks. It took them almost an hour to make a six-foot pile.
"I hate physical work," wheezed the Doctor. The flashlight, wedged into an aperture in an air-conditioning unit, lit their way as they hurried to the library and returned, their arms filled with books. "I would never have believed that such makeshift measures could be taken — on stellar voyages." He was the only one talking now. At last the Captain, helped by his colleagues, gingerly climbed the pyramid and touched the wheel with his fingers.
"Not quite," he said. "Two inches short. If I jump, the whole thing will come down."
"I happen to have here The Theory of Tachyons," said the Doctor, hefting a volume in his hand. "That should do the trick."
The Captain clung to the wheel; as the flashlight moved, his shadow leaped across the white plastic that covered what was now the ceiling. Suddenly the mountain of books shifted.
"Careful," said the Physicist.
"There's nothing to push against," complained the Captain in a muffled voice. "Damn!" The wheel slipped from his hands. He swayed for a moment, then regained his balance. No one looked up now; the men linked arms and pressed the unstable structure from all sides to keep it from separating. The Captain caught hold of the wheel again. Suddenly there was a scraping sound, and the books tumbled. He hung in midair — but the wheel had made a complete turn.
"Eleven more times," he said, dropping onto the pile of books.
Two hours later, the problem of the inner hatch had been solved. When it began to open, the entire crew cheered.
Suspended halfway up the corridor, the open hatch formed a kind of platform from which the chamber could be entered without much difficulty. The suits turned out to be undamaged. The lockers that contained them were now horizontal. The men walked across the locker doors.
"Do we all leave?" asked the Chemist.
"First let's see if we can open the outer hatch. ..."
But the thing would not budge, as if the levers had fused with the main body. All six pushed together with their shoulders; then they tried turning the screws in different ways, but the screws would not turn.
"Arriving is easy — the hard thing is to disembark," concluded the Doctor.
"Very clever," muttered the Engineer. The sweat was burning his eyes. They sat down on the locker doors.
"I'm starved," the Cyberneticist said in the general silence.
"We'd better get something to eat," said the Physicist. He offered to go to the storeroom.
"The kitchen would be better. There's food in the freezer. ..."
"I can't do it by myself. There's a ton of junk in the way. Any volunteers?"
The Doctor agreed to go; then the Chemist reluctantly stood up. When their heads disappeared over the edge of the half-open inner hatch, and the last gleam of the flashlight, which they took with them, was gone, the Captain said in a hushed voice:
"I didn't want to say anything. You understand the situation?"
"Yes," said the Engineer. In the darkness, he touched the Captain's shoe and kept his hand on it. He needed the contact.
"You think we can cut through the outer hatch?"
"With what?" asked the Engineer.
"We have a blowtorch."
"Did you ever hear of a blowtorch that could cut through a foot and a half of ceramite?"
They fell silent. From the depths of the ship came a hollow noise, as if from a vault.
"What's that?" asked the Cyberneticist nervously. He got up.
"Sit down," said the Captain gently but firmly.
"Do you think the door ... fused with the hull?"
"I don't know," the Engineer replied.
"Do you have any idea what happened?"
"We ran into atmosphere at cosmic velocity, where atmosphere should not have been. Yet the autopilot could not have made an error."
"The autopilot didn't make the error, we did," said the Captain. "We forgot to correct for the tail."
"The gas that extends behind every planet with anatmosphere, in the direction opposite to its motion. You didn't know that?"
"Yes, of course. So we fell into such a tail? But it must be extremely attenuated."
"Ten to the minus six," said the Captain. "Or on that order. But we were traveling at more than forty-five miles a second, my friend. It stopped us like a wall. That was the first impact, remember?"
"Yes," said the Engineer, "and when we entered the stratosphere, we were still doing six or seven. We really ought to have smashed to pieces. It's strange that the ship withstood it."
"She's designed for a load factor of twenty, and before the screen blew, I saw with my own eyes how the arrow jumped off the scale. The scale goes up to thirty."
"And how about us?"
"What do you mean?"
"How were we able to withstand a constant deceleration of thirty g's?"
"Not constant. At the maximum, yes. After all, the retarders gave their all. That's what started the pulsation."
"But the autopilot equalized. It was the air compressors ..." said the Cyberneticist with annoyance in his voice. In the depths of the ship something began rolling. It sounded like iron wheels on sheet metal. Then it stopped.
"Don't blame the air compressors," said the Engineer. "If we went to the engine room, I could show you that they did five times more than they were supposed to do. Remember, they're only auxiliary units. First of all, their bearings were loosened, and when the pulsation began —"
"You think there was resonance?"
"Resonance is a different matter. The fact is, we should have been smeared across several miles of space, like that freighter on Neptune — remember? You'll believe me when you see the engine room. I can tell you now what's there."
"I'm in no hurry to see the engine room. What's taking them so long? I can't see a thing."
"We'll have light, don't worry," said the Engineer, unaware that he still had his fingertips on the shoe of the Captain, who remained silent and did not move.
"Let's go to the engine room, then. It'll kill time. What else can we do?"
"You really think we won't get out of here?"
"I was just joking. I always joke."
"Enough of that," said the Captain, coming alive. "Anyway, in a pinch, there's the emergency hatch."
"Which happens to be underneath us. The ship must have cut one hell of a trench, and I'm not even sure the outer hatch is above ground."
"We have tools. We can dig a tunnel."
"And the loading bay?" asked the Cyberneticist.
"Submerged," the Engineer said. "I looked into the shaft. One of the main tanks must have burst. There's at least six feet of water there. And probably radioactive."
"How do you know?"
"The reactor cooling system always gives out first — you didn't know that? Forget the loading bay. We'll have to get out this way, unless —"
"Unless we dig a tunnel," the Captain said softly.
"Yes, that is possible," the Engineer agreed, and fell silent. There was the sound of footsteps; sudden light in the corridor beneath them made them blink.
Excerpted from "Eden"
Copyright © 2013 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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