Out of the parsec abyss came little more than the twenty-one centimeter whisper of hydrogen, God's favorite element. To the listeners, mechanical and human, it amounted to dead silence.
Alae Waunter entered the translucent blister of the Ear, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She put the equipment through several reference tests. Everything checked out. She frowned and replaced a short strand of reddish-brown hair.
A parsec away and over three years ago, the noise of an entire civilization had stopped. She tuned the Ear up and down the spectrum, passing the harsh whikker of the star, the cold murmurs of the outer gas giants in the solar system, the song of radiation trapped in ballooning magnetic fields. Then she focused, limiting her reception to the tiny point of the Perfidisian planet. There was nothing but cosmic background. They had been on station, listening through the Ear, for twenty-six years and nothing like this had ever happened before.
She flipped the switch which cut the Ear out of the circuits and altered reception to non-radiative communications. From the murmur of spaces below the Planck-Wheeler length came an even more profound silence.
Somehow, the Perfidisians had managed to blanket the most subtle signs of their presence. Or ...
She froze. If something drastic had happened, they could be out of a contract, out of the work they had pursued for more than a quarter of a century.
Oomalo Waunter walked into the Ear naked, drying himself with a towel after a swim in the seatanks. He was the same height as his wife, with thin brown hair and pale skin. Despite his constant exercising, his body was smooth and faintly chubby. "What's up?" he asked.
Alae didn't answer. She took out special attachments and plugged them in one by one. The Ear expanded to thirty thousand times its usual size. The station's power sources whined faintly.
"I don't hear anything," she said.
"Let me give it a try." He repeated the tests she had made, then tried a few more. He checked the strain on their power sources and pulled the Ear in several thousand kilometers. "Sounds like an empty hunk of rock," he said. For all the time they had been on line, the Perfidisian planet -- otherwise known only by a long serial number -- had presented an image of heavy overbuilding, industry, mining, a general air of frantic if mysterious busyness.
The Perfidisians were unpredictable, prone to erratic migrations which no one had yet made any sense out of. Though the distant world had been their base of operations for over five thousand years, it wasn't inconceivable that they could have packed up and stolen away, even in so short a time as a day. Very little was known about them; the Waunters had never found out anything significant, nor, so far as they knew, had any of the other listeners spaced at even greater distances.
Alae moistened her lips and looked through the Ear's misty walls at the fog of stars. "If they're gone --" she began, her voice trembling.
"Shh. No." Oomalo put his hand on her shoulder. For weeks at a time they didn't touch each other, or see each other. The station was huge and they had worked out a routine over the years, leaving each other alone much of the time. But they had not grown apart. Oomalo sensed her distress and it made his stomach twist. "There may be more here," he continued. "I mean, it may be an opportunity."
They had relayed all they had heard for twenty-six years, so that their employers could feel that the puzzle of the Perfidisians was being solved, -- how slowly. They had never known precisely who their employers were -- the contract had been confirmed only on their end, with assurance in the form of credits formally registered and accepted by proxy twice yearly on Myriadne, Tau Ceti II.
"What kind of an opportunity?" she asked.
"Maybe they've left ... that's possible. But if so, we're the first to know about it. There could be an entire planet down there, waiting for us, complete with artifacts."
Alae nodded. "I see that. What if they haven't left?"
"We take a risk."
Perfidisians had been known to go to great lengths to maintain their privacy. They were notorious for ruses, double blinds, and subtle violence -- the kind of mishaps which couldn't be blamed on any particular party.
Alae didn't regret the decades spent on line. She felt no resentment -- there had been no hardships. The work, in fact, had been ideally suited for them, bringing the peace they had never had working on other jobs. Before they had bought into the station -- an old, reconditioned Aighor starship -- they had spent the first five years of their marriage in miserable uncertainty, going after opportunities which had collapsed under them, twice declaring bankruptcy, with their equipment seized ... All because they had taken chances, faced risks, and not been very lucky or smart. On line, whatever weaknesses had brought them to ruin so often were not in evidence. They had done their work well.
But still, hidden away was a yearning she would never rid herself of -- thoughts of all the things they could have done, could have been.
It would be days before the next line of listeners noticed the change.
Alae slapped a test module on the panel and pushed her way past Oomalo, walking down the oval corridor to the ship's old Aighor command center. Her footfalls were the only noise. She wanted to put her hands over her ears to hide from the silence. A quarter century of routine had made decisions agonizingly difficult. Oomalo followed. They sat in the twilight of the half-awake control consoles, smelling the dust and the cool electronic odors. Human-form chairs had been welded to the floor plates when the station had been re-outfitted thirty years ago.
Most of the pathways and living quarters had been tailored for human occupation, but the command center was much as it had been for the past ten thousand years. The light on its consoles glowed with the same spectrum chosen by the last Aighors to crew the ship. Alien displays indicated that the dormant engines were still in working order.
They could be brought to life by touching three spots on a metal panel. The station could revert to a functioning starship in less than a minute. They could be in the Perfidisian system within a day. Within a day they could be dead, or they could count themselves among the wealthiest and most influential humans in the galaxy.
Alae glanced at her husband. "None of our risks were like this," she said. "Stakes were never so high."
He turned to the ancient position charts around the perimeter of the direct-view dome. "We've been here a long time," he said. "Perhaps long enough. If you think it's worth the risk."
Alae looked at the alien consoles with silver-flecked gray eyes, lips tight, one fist gripping and ungripping the fabric of her pants. "Let's start before the others learn."
Oomalo leaned forward and pulled a plastic cloth away from the console. An amber metal plate with sixty symbols glinted in the red light of the slumbering monitors. He touched two of the symbols. The console brightened. A human computer had been interfaced with the old Aighor machine. "We're going to enter the Perfidisian system," Oomalo told the computer. He consulted more up-to-date charts on his tapas, a small personal computer, then gave the tag-numbers and geodesics to follow. The computer translated. The old ship made hollow, resentful noises, but it complied. Their view of the stars in the direct-view dome was cut off.
Before pressing the third symbol, Oomalo broadcast a formal message to their employers, severing the listening contract.
There was an old, established law. The first beings to set foot on a world not inhabited (or likely to be inhabited) by other intelligent beings could claim the world for themselves, or for the interests they represented. Nothing in their contract held them to represent their employers.
The Perfidisians were among the most powerful, and certainly the most mysterious, species in the Galaxy. Information about them would command enormous prices. And the Waunters would command the information.
The old ship went above space-time as smoothly as a leviathan through arctic seas. For three hours there was nothing around them; the ship was their universe. It was at least ten thousand years old, from the third-stage Aighor civilization, and a sizable three kilometers from bow to stern. They had purchased it at auction from Crocerian free merchants. Oomalo sat in the human-form chair, watching the dreams higher spaces always coaxed from his mind. Matter behaved with subtle differences when removed from the reassurance of its natural realm. In grossly tuned bodies like a ship's hull, the effect was minimal, but computers had to be adjusted to override dangerous errors and misconceptions. The human brain and the nerves of the body were self-adjusting over periods of several minutes, but vague distortions and fancies washed over a person and made concentration difficult. Some experienced ecstasies, others nightmares.
Alae Waunter gripped her chair arms tightly, face rigid, eyes pressed shut. Her pupils twitched behind closed lids. She was lost in a quandary of choices. After so many years, she could hardly imagine having power over other people, having influence. Perhaps it would be the same as never being ignored, never being bothered for petty reasons, never disdained. When she spoke, others would listen. She had never been influential before coming on line. She had never had much of anything before the partnership and marriage, before the ship. Together they had earned a good living, but there was something more ...
Blue skies. Beautiful places to live, human places. Spacious houses without ship noises. Sometimes she felt she was becoming an Aighor, surrounded by so much that was non-human. But making choices had always bothered her. So much to lose. So often, they had lost. For a time she had believed something powerful and invisible had been appointed to punish them, discourage them, because they had not been daring enough. Now they were daring. Now they would fly right into the realm of the Perfidisians, and they would possibly die -- or worse -- would discover that the Perfidisians, or some power like them, had been the appointed discouragers all along. She tensed. A small back portion of her mind pursued the idea, flinging out vision after vision of a Perfidisian hell, cages with sticks being poked incessantly, escape opportunities turning into more chances for failure, orchestrated failure and disappointment. Her arm muscles knotted. Until now, at least they had had peace. How foolish to risk peace for the chance of cages and sticks, mud on their faces as they crawled away and were captured. How foolish even in the face of influence, beating the odds, blue skies and fine places to live. She should have thought it out more carefully, but it was too late now. The decision had been made.
Oomalo unstrapped himself and made his way carefully to relief facilities. There he defecated, washed, and ordered a meal. He didn't bother to ask if Alae needed anything. Warping was a brief visit to her own private hell, and it was impolite to disturb someone so involved.
He felt mildly drunk. He leaned against the wall outside the relief center and ate a piece of bread, eyes almost closed. He wondered what it would be like to have trillions of words of desired information to sell. But his fancies were vaguely boring. He had never disliked life aboard the station. It was comfortable, secure, and interesting. He could spend many more decades exploring the old ship, adding to his picture of the civilization that had built it. Being rich probably wouldn't give him problems any more interesting than the ones he already had.
But he respected Alae's decisions. She had decided to contract-purchase the old ship and offer it as a listening station so close to the Perfidisian system. Her offer had been snatched up quickly by their employers, and the ship had been paid off and signed over to the Waunters for a thirty-year contract, with reversion after twenty-five years. The ship was technically theirs now. And it was due to her that his life was as interesting as it was. He knew exactly what he offered her in return: a means to give her plans solidity.
The period ended none too soon for Alae. The ship fell from strangeness, and the direct-view bubble cleared. Stars and clouds of stars, perspectives almost unchanged, waited as always. She pressed her temples and nodded as if to sort her tumbling memories back into place. Then the hell passed and she stood to go with Oomalo to the Ear.
Silence still. They put the ship into a long, cautious orbit, down to the tiny pinprick that was the Perfidisian planet.
From a thousand kilometers the surface was gray and blue, splotched with rust-red and bands of ochre. It was covered with a cross-thatch of what may have been roads at one time. No natural landscape remained, and no prominent artificial structures. Everything had been scoured away, leaving the surface reasonably smooth, with no irregularities greater than four to five meters. Alae shot the sunlit crescent during one orbit, and swept microwave and other sensors from pole to pole. There was mild weather but no oceans; updrafts but no mountains; oxygen but no plant life. No life at all.
"They made sure we wouldn't find anything obvious," Oomalo said.
Alae cleared her throat and put the instruments on deep-crust scan. "Either that, or they're masking it," she said. "It's hard to believe they'd take the time to wipe a world clean."
"Hard to believe they'd run away from a world in the first place," Oomalo said. "But they have."
The horizon scanner chirruped, and Alae aimed the display projector at her retina. "There's one thing left," she aid. "A dome structure, about as large as our ship."
"Standing alone on a smooth plain."
"That's where we land," Oomalo said. Alae agreed with a nod, and they prepared a tiny probe for the first surface venture. While Alae fueled the device, Oomalo went to get the lander ready. They dropped the ship into a tighter orbit and released the probe into the atmosphere. The probe's cameras recorded the area around the dome during its descent. The pictures were monotone and conveyed little more information than was obtained in scans from high orbit. The dome was featureless, three thousand five hundred and sixty-one meters in diameter, surrounded by a plain of concretelike material.
Alae took a deep breath to subdue her spookiness. Everything was going too smoothly. She wasn't apprehensive about being trapped -- they'd already come too close to worry about that. But a third alternative was becoming depressingly clear.
There might not be anything left to bother with.
The probe set down without incident. It scanned the featureless hemisphere in three sweeps, two vertical and one horizontal. The dome's perfect outline was distorted slightly by internal supports -- a deviation of one or two centimeters where they touched the interior.
"Structure is sound," the computer announced. "It isn't designed with much flair or efficiency."
"What's it made of?" Alae asked.
The probe shot a tiny charge of superheated gas into the dome and analyzed the spectrum from the resulting flash of light. "Structure is largely glass, with filaments of boron laced through it. There are traces of lead and molybdenum."
The probe's signal faded as they slipped into the planet's shadow. There were no belts of trapped particles, no way to analyze the atmospheric effluent of the vanished Perfidisians. The air was very weak but pure. The planet was cold and asleep. There were only slight gravitational anomalies associated with plate tectonics and the building of mountain chains -- but there were no mountains. Alae guessed they had been condensed, not scraped or blown away but simply pressed into conformity with a desired reference level.
The swaths of red and ochre were due to impurities of iron and copper in the artificial surface, probably caused by percolation of groundwater through the porous material.
Monotonous. Empty. Alae's face was tight, and she pressed her teeth together grimly. It might be their world now, but it was no treasure trove. She released some tension in a ragged sigh. Her neck muscles were tightening. She abhorred the idea of letting the medical units calm her down, but if she got any more wound up she'd have to. She almost wished everything were back to normal. Wanting something so badly and not being sure it even existed was more distressing than anything she'd felt for decades. The routine of the station had seeped into her body and thoughts, and she had no defenses against overreacting.
"Med unit," she said softly.
"This device will summon," the computer replied. The smooth jade-green ceiling had been equipped with tracks. Two medical units, cubes hanging from slender chrome poles, beeped behind her.
"Bring me down to relaxed and alert," she said. "No impairment of CNS." She stood and held an arm out to the nearest cube. The second cube advanced and flashed lights in her eyes. She felt a prick in the skin above her bicep. Her neck muscles loosened, and she was calm.
"Med unit suggests a brief training regimen to establish complete CNS control of emotional responses," the computer said.
"Noted. How's he doing with the lander?"
"It's ready," Oomalo said behind her.
"Then let's go down."
From outside, a view they hadn't seen since being positioned for listening, the old Aighor ship looked like an asteroid carved from malachite. It was flattened, twice as long as it was wide, and featureless except for the bumps and gouges covering its surface. It had been through at least a dozen major battles in its prime, with countless wounds inflicted by unknown weapons, some large enough to have required rebuilding the ship in deep space. The repaired sections were detectable only where they obviously deviated from the original design of the ship.
The lander turned its thrust nodes against the orbital path and let loose a steady wash of rainbow light. The vessel shuddered and G-forces increased. They began to spiral in.
Pearls and dust, everything leached of color. Ice-crystal clouds formed a thin haze at thirty kilometers. The lander punched through them and thrust again. It touched down half a kilometer from the dome. The surface under its engines cooled immediately. A quarter kilometer away, a few patches of snow liquefied, then turned to glassy ice.
They put on full suits before opening the hatch. A ramp flowed from the outer wall and they walked down to the plain. Their radios whistled, and the voice of the station computer announced that two other ships had entered orbits around the planet.
"Nothing we can do about it now," Oomalo said. "Send a record of our prior landing to Centrum Archive. To our employers send a note that we are accepting bids for data mining on this world. We are sole owners."
They approached the dome. From this side there was no visible entrance. They marched around it. Oomalo kept his suit recorders on throughout the walk. On the dome's north side they came across a door. It was round and three meters high. A black spiral in the middle wound to a red depression that was obviously meant to be touched. Oomalo pushed it with a gloved hand. The door vanished.
"It's fast," Alae said. "I barely saw it flash aside." They entered. It was warmer inside, and the air was thicker, richer in oxygen and nitrogen. The door was closed behind them when they turned to look.
They were in a peristyle. Five meters above them a roof jutted from the inside of the dome. To either side it extended around the curve, making a circuit. They stepped from the roof's shadow and stood under the nighttime sky, with stars and the outlines of clouds. Directly before them was a grassy hill dotted with broad, dark trees. Beyond the hill was a tower, multistoried and ornate, like several houses stacked atop each other. Climbing the hill, they came to a path, beside which stood a stone lantern with a cap which resembled the roof of the tower. A body lay on the path, pushed against the base of the lantern.
"It looks human," Oomalo said, turning it face up with the toe of his boot. A few seconds after he touched it, it crumbled into white powder. Only its clothing and armor remained. The armor was made of shiny black metal and beautifully decorated, like the carapace of an insect.
Alae bent to pick up a sword she'd stepped on. She held it out for Oomalo to examine. "These are human artifacts," she said. She shined her suit lamp into the dark at the top of the hill. Something moved. "They're not all dead," she said. Oomalo nodded behind his faceplate, and they walked to the top.
From that vantage they could see that the dome was a terrarium, designed to mimic a terrestrial landscape. On the other side of the hill was a village, with buildings made of wood and a thin, translucent material, illuminated by spots of straw-colored light. Everything was silent and still.
Alae had never been to Earth, but she'd experienced enough tapes to know it like a native. "It's summer here," she said.
"Dead summer," Oomalo added, coming across another body. He didn't touch this one but bent over and shined his suit lamp into the face. "These were never alive. They must have been simulacra." The hair had been pulled back on the scalp to form a short topknot. The clothing was voluminous and comfortable-looking. The eyes were closed and the face was peacefully composed, but the back of the head had already begun to powder from the body's weight.
They walked around a stone wall until they came to a gate, which stood open. They entered the compound and approached the tower. A square doorway beckoned at the base of the imposing wooden structure. Oomalo stepped up to look inside.
A shadow jumped into the doorway with sword raised. Oomalo held up his arm and stepped back. They stood two paces apart. The figure wore a fierce metal mask. Oomalo stepped back again, and it advanced aggressively.
"Dare ni aitain desu ka?" it said.
"What?" Alae asked.
Oomalo held out one hand and reached up to draw aside his face plate. "We're like you," he said. He heard the voice of the station computer in Alae's helmet, and hints of her whispered reply. Then she slid aside her own faceplate and held her hands out, palms up.
"Nippongo wa yoku dekimasen," she said. "We don't speak Japanese."
The figure sagged and lowered its sword. In a flash it sheathed the blade, opened its helmet from the front, and removed it. "Forgive me," the man said, bowing quickly. "I have been here a long time. Forgive me very much."
Copyright © 1980 by Gregg Bear