They looked. For a long time they stared, none of them speaking, and then they turned to Hugh, many of them accusingly, as if he himself had rearranged the stars.
"How long have we been gone?" Carhill's voice broke.
Hugh shook his head. The star patterns were too unfamiliar for even a guess. There was no way of knowing, yet, how long their fifty-three years had really been.
Carhill shook his head, slowly. He turned back to the screen and stared at the still featureless dot that was the Earth. "We can't be the only ones left," he said.
No one answered him. They were still stunned. They couldn't even accept, yet, the strange constellations on the screen.
End of the voyage. Fifty-three years of searching for worlds with life. And now Earth, under an unfamiliar sky, and quite possibly no life at all, anywhere, except on the ship.
"We might as well land," McCann said.
The ship curved away from the night side of the Earth and crossed again into the day. They were near enough so that the planetary features stood out sharply now, even through the dense clouds that rose off the oceans. But although the continental land masses and the islands were clearly defined, they were as unrecognizable as the star constellations had been.
"That must be North America," Amos Carhill said dully. "It's smaller than the continent on the night side...."
"It might be anywhere," Hugh McCann said. "We can't tell. The oceans look bigger too. There's less land surface."
He stared down at the topography thousands of miles below them. Mountains rose jaggedly. There were great plains, and crevasses, and a rocky, lifeless look everywhere. No soil. No erosion, except from the wind and the rains.
"There's no chlorophyll in the spectrum," Haines said. "It seems to rule out even plant life."
"I don't understand." Martha Carhill turned away from the screen. "Everything's so different. But the moon looked just exactly like it always did."
"That's because it has no atmosphere," Hugh said. "So there's no erosion. And no oceans to sweep in over the land. But I imagine that if we explored it we'd find changes. New craters. Maybe even new mountains by now."
"How long has it been?" Carhill whispered. "And even if it's been millions of years, what happened? Why aren't there any plants? Won't we find anything?"
"Maybe there was an atomic war," the pilot said.
"Maybe." Carhill had thought of that too. Probably all of them had. "Or maybe the sun novaed."
No one answered him. The concept of a nova and then of its dying down, until now the sun was just as it had been when they left, was too much.
"The sun looks hotter," Carhill added.
The ship dropped lower, its preliminary circle of the planet completed. It settled in for a landing, just as it had done thousands of times before. And the world below could have been any of a thousand others.
They dropped quickly, braking through the atmosphere, riding it down. The topography came up to meet them and the general features blurred, leaving details standing out sharply, increasing in sharpness as if the valleys and mountains below were tiny microscopic crystals under a rapidly increasing magnification.
The pilot picked their landing place without difficulty. It was a typical choice, a spot on the broad shelving plain at the edge of the ocean. The type of base from which all tests on a planet could be run quickly, and a report written up, and the files of another world closed and tagged with a number and entered in one of the great storage encyclopedias.
Even to Hugh there was an air of unreality about the landing, as if this planet wasn't really Earth at all, despite its orbit around the sun, despite its familiar moon. It looked too much like too many others.
The actual landing was over quickly. The ship quivered, jarred slightly, and then was still, resting on the gravelled plain that had obviously once been part of the ocean bed. The ocean itself lay only a few hundred yards away.
Hugh McCann looked out through the viewscreen, turned to direct vision now. He stared at the waves swelling against the shore and his sense of unreality deepened. Even though this was what he had more than half expected, he couldn't quite accept it, yet.
"We might as well go out and look around," he said.
"Air pressure, Earth-norm." Haines began checking off the control panel by rote. "Composition: oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor--"
"There's certainly nothing out there that could hurt us," Martha Carhill snapped. "What could there be?"
"We might check for radioactivity," Hugh said quietly.
She turned and stared at him. Her mouth opened and then snapped shut again.
"No," Haines said. "There's no radioactivity either. Everything's clear. We won't need space suits."
He pressed the button that opened the inner locks.
Carhill glanced over at him and then switched on the communicator, and the noises from the rest of the ship flooded into the control room. Everywhere people were milling about. Snatches of talk drifted in, caught up in the background as various duty officers, reported clearance on the landing. Most of the background voices were young, talking too loudly and with too much forced cheerfulness about what lay outside the ship.
Hugh sighed, as aware of all the people as if he were out in the corridors with them. It was the space-born ones who were doing most of the talking. The children, the young people, the people no longer young but still born since the voyage started, still looking upon Earth more as a wonderful legend than as their own place of origin.
The old ones, those who had left the Earth in their own youth, had the least of all to say. They knew what was missing outside. The younger ones couldn't really know. Even the best of the books and the pictures and the three dimensional movies can give only a superficial idea of what a living world is like.
"Hugh." Carhill clutched his arm.
"There must be people, somewhere. There have to be. Our race can't be dead."
Hugh McCann looked past him, out at the sky and the clouds of water vapor that swirled up to obscure the sun. The stars, of course, were completely hidden in the daylight.
"If there are any others, Amos, we can be pretty certain they're not on Earth."
"They may have left. They may have gone somewhere else."
"No!" Martha Carhill's face twisted and then went rigid. "There's no one anywhere. There can't be. It's been too long. You saw the stars, Amos--the stars--all wrong, every one of them!"
Her hands came up to her face and she started to cry. Amos crossed over to her and put his arms around her.
Hugh McCann watched them for a moment and then he turned and left them and went out through the locks after the young people. He didn't know what to think. He wished that they had never turned back to Earth at all, that they had kept going, circling around the rim of the galaxy forever.
He went through the outer lock and then down the ramp to the ground.
He stood on the Earth again, for the first time since his early youth. And it was not the same. There was bare rock under his feet and bare rock all around him, gravel and boulders and even fine grained sand. But no dust. No dirt. No trace of anything organic or even ever touched by anything organic.
He had walked too many worlds like this. Too many bare gray worlds with bare gray oceans and clouds of vapor swirling up into the warm air. Too many worlds where there was wind and sound and surf; where there should have been life, but wasn't.
This was just another of those worlds. This wasn't Earth. This was just a lifeless memory of the Earth he had known and loved. For fifty-three years they had clung to the thought of home, of people waiting for them, welcoming them back someday. Fifty-three years, and for how many of those ship-years had Earth lain lifeless like this?
He looked up at the sky and at all the stars that he couldn't see and he cursed them all and cursed time itself and then, bitterly, his own fatuous stupidity.
The people came out of the ship and walked about on the graveled plain, alone or in small groups. They had stopped talking. They seemed too numbed by what they had found to even think, for a while.
Shock, Hugh McCann thought grimly. First hysteria and tears and loud unbelief, and now shock. Anything could come next.
He stood with the warm wind blowing in his face and watched the people. In the bitter mood that gripped him he was amused by their reactions. Some of them walked around aimlessly, but most, those who were active in the various departments, soon started about the routine business of running tests on planetary conditions. They seemed to work without thinking, by force of habit, their faces dazed and uncaring.
Conditioning, Hugh thought. Starting their reports. The reports that they know perfectly well no one will ever read.
He wandered over to where several of the young men were sending up an atmosphere balloon and jotting down the atmospheric constituents as recorded by the instruments.
"How's it going?" he said.
"Earth-norm. Naturally--" The young man flushed.
"Temperature's up though. Ninety-three. And a seventy-seven percent humidity."
He left them and walked down across the rocks to the ocean's edge. Two young girls were down there before him, sampling the water, running both chemical and biological probing tests.
"Hello, Mr. McCann," the taller girl said dully. "Want our report?"
"Found anything?" He knew already that there was nothing to find. If there were life the instruments would have recorded its presence.
"No. Water temperature eighty-six. Sodium chloride four-fifths Earth normal." She looked up, surprised. "Why so low?"
"More water in the ocean, maybe. Or maybe we've had a nova since we were here last."
It was getting late, almost sunset. Soon it would be time for the photographic star-charts to be made. Hugh brought himself up short and smiled bitterly. He too was in the grip of habit. Still, why not? Perhaps they could estimate, somehow, how many millions of years had passed.
Why? What good would it do them to find out?
After a while the sun set and a little later the full moon rose, hazy and indistinct behind the clouds of water vapor. Hugh stared at it, watched it rise higher until it cleared the horizon, a great bloated bulk. Then he sighed and shook his head to clear it and started to work. The clouds were thick. He had to move the screening adjustment almost to its last notch before the vapor patterns blocked out and the stars were bright and unwavering and ready to be photographed. He inserted the first plate and snapped the picture of the stars whose names he knew but whose patterns were wrong, some subtly, some blatantly.
There was something he was overlooking. Some other factor, not taken into account. He developed the first plates and compared them with the star charts of Earth as it had been before they left it, and he shook his head. Whatever the factor was, it eluded him. He went back to work.
"Oh, here you are, Hugh."
He jumped at the sound of Carhill's voice. He had been working almost completely by habit, slowly swinging the telescope across the sky and snapping the plates. And trying to think.
"Why waste time on that?" Carhill added bitterly. "Who's ever going to see our records now?"
Behind Carhill, several of the other old ones nodded. Hugh was surprised that they had managed to come back to the ship without his hearing them. But of course they had come back in at sundown, as usual on a routine check, and now they were gathering to compile their reports. Hugh looked from face to face, wondering if he too was as numb and dazed and haggard appearing as they were. He probably was.
"What do you suggest, Amos?" he said.
"I say there's no use going on," Carhill said flatly. "You've all run your tests. And what have you found? No fossils. Not even a single-celled life form in the ocean. No way even to tell how many millions of years it's been."
"Maybe it hasn't been so long," Haines said. "Maybe something happened here fairly recently, and the people all went to some other system--to one of the Centauri planets, maybe."
Amos Carhill laughed bitterly. "You can say that in the face of the evidence? We know that millions of years have passed. Nothing's the same. Even the tides are three times what they were. It's obvious what happened. The sun novaed. Novaed and cooled. Do you really believe that our race has lasted that long, on some nearby system?"
His voice rose. He glared about at the others. He threw back his head suddenly and laughed, and the laughter echoed and re-echoed off the steel walls.
"I say let's die now!" Carhill cried. "There's no use going on. Hugh was right, as usual. We shouldn't have tried to come back. We've been fools, all these years, thinking we had a world to come home to."
The people muttered, crowded closer. They pushed into the observation room, shoved nearer to it in the outside corridor. They muttered in a rising note of panic as the numbing shock that gripped them gave way.
"Why not die here?" Martha Carhill's voice rose shrill above the sound of her husband's laughter. "We should have died here millions of years ago!"
Hugh McCann looked at her and at Amos and at all the others. He sighed. Why not? Why go on? There was no answer. Even a pragmatist gave up eventually, when the facts were all against him.
He glanced down at the reports on the table. All the routine reports, gathered together into routine form, written up in routine terminology. Reports on an Earth-type planet that just happened to be the Earth itself.
And then, quite suddenly, the obvious, satisfactory answer came to him. The factors clicked into place, and he wondered why he hadn't thought of them long ago. He looked up from the reports, at the people on the verge of panic, and he knew what to say to quiet them. He had the factors now.
"No!" he cried. "You're wrong. There's no reason at all to assume that our race is dead!"
Amos Carhill stopped laughing and stared at him and the others stared also and none of them believed him at all.
"It's simple!" he cried. "Why has so much time passed outside the ship while to us only fifty-three years have gone by?"
"Because we traveled too fast," Carhill said flatly. "That's why."
"Yes," Hugh said softly. "But there's one thing we've been forgetting. What we did, others could do also. Probably lots of expeditions started out after we left, all trying for the speed of light."
They stared at him. Slowly the dazed look died out of their eyes as they realized what he meant, and what the concept might mean to them. The concept of other ships, following them out into time. The concept of other men, also millions of years from the Earth they had left.
"You mean," Carhill said slowly, "that you believe other people got caught in the same trap we did--that there may be others in this time also?"
Hugh nodded. "Why not? Maybe they colonized some of those Earth-type planets we checked on. Anyway, we can look for them."
"No." Carhill shook his head. "If any of them had started after us we would have crossed their paths already. We never have. We never found a trace of any other expedition. Even if there is another, even if there are colonies somewhere, we could spend another fifty years looking."
"Well," Martha Carhill whispered. "Why not? It would give us something to look for."
Hugh McCann glanced around the circle of faces and saw the new hope that came into them, the new belief that sprang into existence so quickly because they wanted to believe. He smiled, somewhat sadly, and picked up the pile of reports and the photographs he had just developed. Then he slipped out of the room, through the crowd outside, away from them and the rising hum of their voices. He didn't need to say anything more. The ship would go on.
"Hugh, is that you?"
She was waiting for him in the corridor. She came up to him and smiled and slipped her arm through his. They walked on together, down the hall past the last of the people.