© Genrikh Altov, Soviet Literature, # 3, 1981. - p. 181 - 186.
It happened a month after leaving Groza in the Fomalhaut system. The plasmatron, which supplied power to the dust protection system, began to play up and then went out of control. Automatically the mad reactor was ejected into space.
"We’ll have to get away into the farthest compartments," said the engineer.
We had no commander, each one did his own job. "Let’s get away into the farthest compartments," the engineer repeated stubbornly, although no one raised any objection. "In the case of emergency even one man is enough to bring the ship in. No movement. Sixfold acceleration. Four months...
I was alone in the observatory. Occasionally I left the shock-absorbing seat to check the electronics and change the cassettes. Actually, it was futile work. We had looked after everything on the way to the Fomalhaut. But checking the instruments broke the oppressive silence of the observatory, gave it a semblance of life. It was all we had. We had left the books, record players and cinema projectors for those who remained behind on Groza. So through those long weeks there was nothing to do but think-and think.
The only flights before ours, if you don’t count test flights, had been to Alpha Centauri and Sirius. We were the first to go to the Fomalhaut. The day when the booster rockets had brought the Danko to the starting zone the expedition had numbered a hundred and ten men. The flight had lasted for more than a year. Our reward had been thirty-two planets circling the blinding fury of the sun. We had looked upon all difficulties as past. But - out of the four groups which had gone to the planets only one had returned - from Groza. So on Groza we landed. We built a rocket launching site and a base, and on our atmospheric coasters examined Groza from pole to pole.
It was a very strange planet. At first, it seemed amazingly quiet, but that was before we experienced its hurricanes. Earth knows nothing like them. They came suddenly, without warning, three minutes of mad chaos - only three- and then quietness again.
Yes, it was a weird kind of planet-probably because it seemed to be completely uninhabited. You look at the forest - surely beyond it there ought to be a town, or a village, or at least some huts. There was the forest with its birds, the river with its fish -everything just the same as on Earth. Yet we had found no town, no village, no human habitation on the whole planet.
It was dawn when the Danko descended, and the first thing we saw was colour spreading over half the sky - solid colour, you felt as though you could cut it... But later we learned to look at it with something like resentment-for it was wasted beauty, with nobody to revel in it. There are deserts on Earth - sandy, icy. But the emptiest desert is that where there is no human life, even if Nature is rich.
The Danko left eighty-four men there in a tiny research station-sixteen huts dug into the rocky soil, two observatories and a hangar; and all round lay the emptiness of oceans, seas, mountains, forests and plains-uninhabited.
We took off with only five people on board.
Day after day, week after week I thought of our people left on Groza. I cannot now remember when it suddenly dawned on me that I should be the first of us to see Earth. But from then on it was difficult to think of anything else.
The optical system of communication was out of order, radio waves could not pierce the interference. But both telescopes were working, and the screen of the rear telescope was here, in the observatory.
I calculated how soon its power would be sufficient to bring Earth on to the screen. Ninety-eight hours. I turned the chair to face the screen. It was pale-grey, a dull, blank, silvery surface - one metre by one.
The Danko was running on a braking course, its reflector facing Earth. So long as the jets were working the rear telescope could not be used. In ninety-eight hours, I thought, the engineer would stop them, everyone would come into the observatory and we would see Earth. But I would see it first because I was there already, three metres from the screen, while the others would need time to arrive.
Occasionally our doctor came to the observatory. Climbed to it, I should say, because now that the Danko had its reflector turned earthwards the observatory was at the top. The lift did not work so the doctor had to crawl up nearly seventy metres along a narrow gallery.
He settled himself comfortably and looked at the silvery screen.
"I wonder what changes we shall find on Earth," he said thoughtfully. "It’s only two years we’ve been away by our time, but by terrestrial time it’s nearly half a century."
"Are you afraid our discoveries will be yesterday’s news?
The doctor did now answer. He was asleep.
No, I thought, my discoveries will not be out of date. Where else could they have gone in these years? Altair, maybe, or Sirius again. Nothing to discover there. Only Deneb, maybe but it’s five hundred and forty light years.
I fell asleep. When I wakened I saw the biologist sitting beside me. During those months he had managed to grow a magnificent red beard, which he was stroking thoughtfully.
"There are rumours that we’re soon going to have a wonderful view of the Earth. The papers are full of it."
"They’re exaggerating as usual," said the doctor. "We’ll see a small bright point and that’s all."
"Don’t lose heart," said the biologist patronizingly. "Like me to tell you how we’ll be welcomed on the Earth when we get there?"
By this time we knew one another very well - well enough for me to guess how long the biologist had been thinking about that very thing.
"I suppose you haven’t forgotten the send-off we had in all the excitements since," he said. "I’ll just refresh your memories, anyway." We were both ready to enjoy it, too. "There was that bearded professor with his moving speech-I thought he was going to weep into his beard; it was every bit as fine as mine is now, only clipped more neatly, of course. And then came that nice old fellow from the committee-you remember, the snub-nosed one -"
"Of course I remember," the doctor interrupted. "He said ’pairsec’ instead of ’parsec’."
"That’s right. And then the girls who worked on the cosmodrome brought us flowers - wild flowers. And then-"
"We remember, we remember it all," the doctor interrupted, "well - and so what?"
"It’s touching that you’ve cherished the memory of those farewell speeches," said the biologist acidly-he did not like being interrupted. "Well, you can call on your memory and mobilize your imagination, and with all of it you’ll never guess what it’ll be like when we return."
That was the physicist who had entered unobserved.
"This. You imagine half a century has passed, and everything on earth is different-the people too, of course. You haven’t a scrap of imagination, not one scrap! We shall land and we shall be met by that same bearded professor who will have an excellent memory of the send-off and will not have changed at all. And the same nice chap with the snub nose from the committee. And the same girls-you see the picture? As though we had just gone for a short trip-an hour or so-and now we were back." He swept us with a conqueror’s look. "All right, I’ll take pity on you. I’ll explain. It’s all a matter of inherited memory. You remember just before we left, they had only the final steps missing. Well, in these fifty years all the difficulties have certainly been ironed out."
"Well, and so what?" asked the physicist. "What’s wrong in an artist’s son becoming an artist-by-inheritance, so to speak.
- Oh, but wait a minute, wait a minute, I see what you’re getting at, you’re thinking of, well, progress - that progress will stop?"
"Inherited specialization," said the doctor thoughtfully, "I suppose on Earth they can see all the quirks of that problem as plainly as we can. Maybe better. On the one hand there’s the tremendous gain in education and training. But on the other-it’s a kind of guild-like specialization."
"I’m going to have a nap, fellows," the biologist announced. "Too much brain work under sixfold overloading." And sleep he did, that very instant.
Within an hour the engineer arrived. We hardly recognized him-pale and haggard, with his clothes hanging on him.
"The robots are just going to switch off the jets," he said. "I came to warn you. Weightlessness."
The last hour or two seemed to have slipped by strangely fast-perhaps because we were together again.
The sense of weight vanished suddenly. The sprung seats suddenly sent us shooting upwards, and in the same moment the stars sprang out on the darkened screen.
I had struck my shoulder painfully on the ceiling. Somebody partially blocked my view of the screen, but I saw the Sun at once. The Sun, and then Venus, Mars, even Mercury.
"Why can’t we see Earth?" asked the biologist irritably. "Damn that telescope! Can the Earth be blanked out by the Sun?"
I pushed my way through to the screen and pointed to the place where Earth ought to be.
"Seems to be nothing there," said the doctor uncertainly. "Maybe there’s some mistake?"
"How can there be?" snorted the physicist. "I checked the calculations twice over-on my own machine. Earth’s got to be there, look more carefully."
But no Earth was visible.
I pushed myself over to the switchboard and put out the observatory light. Reduced the magnification of the telescope. There was a flurry and then Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus appeared. I turned the regulator again. The large planets swam out of the frame and from the darkness once more appeared three bright points: Mercury, Venus and Mars.
"No Earth," said the physicist briefly.
"But look here, I meant to say-how can it-?" stammered the doctor. He turned to the engineer. There was no reply.
I patiently explained that magnification was at the maximum, and the calculations couldn’t be mistaken-after all, we could see all the other planets. The doctor exploded.
"You’re crazy! Are you telling me Earth’s disappeared?" No one answered. "Let’s try and sort it out," he said urgently.
"Look, fellows," said the biologist hoarsely. "What if it’s- war? War-and Earth’s gone. Doesn’t exist any more!"
"Wait a bit, Pavel," the engineer interrupted, and I could see that the same thing had occurred to him. "Don’t let’s go off half-cocked. Nearly fifty years have passed on Earth, all sorts of things could happen. For instance, a change of orbit." "When we left there was disarmament going on," the doctor recalled.
"Well, but that was then," said the biologist. "Plenty of time since then for conflicts to arise."
The doctor shrugged.
"But the whole planet’s gone. And the Moon, too."
"It’s fifty years," said the biologist. "You can never tell what fancy tricks they may have thought up in that time."
Moving mechanically, without conscious thought, I returned to my chair and fastened the straps. My bruised shoulder pained me. I ceased to hear any talk, everything went dark, as in a moment of unbearable overloading. It seemed to last endlessly long. Thought ceased. After some time I recovered a little. I glanced round. The others, too, were in their seats although there was no weight. On the screen three points of light showed near the Sun. Only three.
"I can’t take it in," said the physicist. "All the galaxy’s there, in its place. The Sun, the planets. All but Earth."
Yes, the whole boundless Universe was in its place. Except for one insignificant grain of dust. Earth.
"We ought to report it." I think that was the doctor.
That brought it really home. Nobody answered. To whom could we report that Earth was -gone? Somewhere in the black emptiness of space there were other ships, somewhere on strange and distant stars small research centers were working. But if we were not five but five hundred, or a thousand for that matter-what difference would it make?
Earth was gone.
"I can’t believe it," almost whispered the engineer. "We must go there. Quickly. We can’t go back to Fomalhaut!"
"We’ll have to start afresh," said the biologist hoarsely. "Earth with its insoluble contradictions... piled up one on top of another. From generation to generation everything becoming more confused, more complex.. . It was impossible there to find a solution. But in space-the flower of mankind is spread over space. We’ll start afresh; there are plenty of us-"
The doctor was vainly trying to calm him.
"Why are you afraid to think straight?" the biologist went on in feverish excitement. "The inevitable has happened. Humanity will continue. But without Earth. It will be freed from that tangle of unbearable stresses..."
"The only freedom I do not recognize," said the engineer, "is freedom from my country. We’ll go on to Earth. I can’t believe-people couldn’t let it-"
Yes, I thought, people couldn’t let it happen if they saw Earth from here. Let the stars shine a thousand times more brightly, let them be a countless multitude-nevertheless, without Earth the Universe was empty.
"Yes, we’ll go to Earth," I said. "Everyone agrees-?"
We looked at the biologist. He nodded. "Yes."
I tried to collect my thoughts, I felt that something, something must be done, but my mind was in utter confusion. Then one thought swam up and obscured all the others: people, whoever, wherever they might be, shone with the reflected light of Earth. Behind every human being stood humanity. But no robot, even the cleverest, was backed by "roboty". That, I thought, was the real difference.
For a long time nobody spoke. I was conscious of time, much time sliding past, but how much I neither knew nor thought. Together with Earth, time too had gone.
Then, from somewhere far away came the hesitant voice of the physicist.
"Listen-listen, will you! I’m asking you: can you screen a picture through this set by ultra-violet rays? Look, I’ve got an idea. The terrestrial atmosphere does not swallow all the light that falls on it. Part of the light is dissipated, lost. But if one manages not to lose it-well, say to trap it somehow in the upper layers of the atmosphere and then use it... you understand, because of that we might simply not see Earth!"
The engineer beat me to it by a hair’s breadth. He pushed off from his seat and shot across to the switchboard.
The image on the screen swam into vagueness, then the shaggy Sun grew, Venus became brighter, Mars and Mercury duller.
"No," said the biologist. He stood bent over right against the screen. "I don’t see anything."
Simultaneously we all thought of an infra-red image. If they had learned to trap all the visible and ultra-violet rays falling on Earth, the infra-red heat waves should still be radiating into space, otherwise the heat balance of the planet would be disturbed. The engineer changed the tuning and-We saw Earth!
It was just where we had sought it, very bright, much brighter than Mars and Venus. And the Moon beside it was almost as bright.
"At last!" whispered the biologist.
I tried to calculate how much extra energy was being obtained but gave it up. Anyway, it didn’t matter.
On the clock face I saw that nine minutes-only nine!-had passed since weight had gone and the robots had switched on the telescope. Silently we gazed upon Earth.
People returning to Earth will always find something unexpected. It’s natural, mankind is constantly finding out new things. But they must always have the firm assurance that Earth itself will still be there. Otherwise one couldn’t seek the stars. That is the conclusion we, who had lived without Earth for nine minutes, have come to.
Translated by Eve Manning