Bordman did not answer. The caterwheel car went on. It came to a patch of sand--tawny sand, heavily mineralized. There was a dune here. Not a big one for Xosa II. It was no more than a hundred feet high. But they went up its leeward, steeply slanting side. All the planet seemed to tilt insanely as the caterwheels spun. They reached the dune's crest, where it tended to curl over and break like a water-comber, and here the wheels struggled with sand precariously ready to fall, and Bordman had a sudden perception of the sands of Xosa II as the oceans that they really were. The dunes were waves which moved with infinite slowness, but the irresistible force of storm-seas. Nothing could resist them. Nothing!
They traveled over similar dunes for two miles. Then they began to climb the approaches to the mountains. And Bordman saw for the second time--the first had been through the ports of the landing-boat--where there was a notch in the mountain wall and sand had flowed out of it like a waterfall, making a beautifully symmetrical cone-shaped heap against the lower cliffs. There were many such falls. There was one place where there was a sand-cascade. Sand had poured over a series of rocky steps, piling up on each in turn to its very edge, and then spilling again to the next.
They went up a crazily slanting spur of stone, whose sides were too steep for sand to lodge on, and whose narrow crest had a bare thin coating of powder.
The landscape looked like a nightmare. As the car went on, wabbling and lurching and dipping on its way, the heights on either side made Bordman tend to dizziness. The coloring was impossible. The aridness, the desiccation, the lifelessness of everything about was somehow shocking. Bordman found himself straining his eyes for the merest, scrubbiest of bushes and for however stunted and isolated a wisp of grass.
The journey went on for an hour. Then there came a straining climb up a now-windswept ridge of eroded rock, and the attainment of its highest point. The ground car went onward for a hundred yards and stopped.
They had reached the top of the mountain range, and there was doubtlessly another range beyond. But they could not see it. Here, at the place to which they had climbed so effortfully, there were no more rocks. There was no valley. There was no descending slope. There was sand. This was one of the sand plateaus which were a unique feature of Xosa II. And Bordman knew, now, that the disputed explanation was the true one.
Winds, blowing over the mountains, carried sand as on other worlds they carried moisture and pollen and seeds and rain. Where two mountain ranges ran across the course of long-blowing winds, the winds eddied above the valley between. They dropped sand into it. The equivalent of trade winds, Bordman considered, in time would fill a valley to the mountain tops, just as trade winds provide moisture in equal quantity on other worlds, and civilizations have been built upon it. But---- * * * * *
"Well?" said Bordman challengingly.
"This is the site of the landing grid," said Redfeather.
"Here," said the Indian dryly. "A few months ago there was a valley here. The landing grid had eighteen hundred feet of height built. There was to be four hundred feet more--the lighter top construction justifies my figure of eighty per cent completion. Then there was a storm."
It was hot. Horribly, terribly hot, even here on a plateau at mountaintop height. Dr. Chuka looked at Bordman's face and bent down in the vehicle. He turned a stopcock on one of the air tanks brought for Bordman's necessity. Immediately Bordman felt cooler. His skin was dry, of course. The circulated air dried sweat as fast as it appeared. But he had the dazed, feverish feeling of a man in an artificial-fever box. He'd been fighting it for some time. Now the coolness of the expanded air was almost deliriously refreshing.
Dr. Chuka produced a canteen. Bordman drank thirstily. The water was slightly salted to replace salt lost in sweat.
"A storm, eh?" asked Bordman, after a time of contemplation of his inner sensations as well as the scene of disaster before him. There'd be some hundreds of millions of tons of sand in even a section of this plateau. It was unthinkable that it could be removed except by a long-time sweep of changed trade winds along the length of the valley. "But what has a storm to do----"
"It was a sandstorm," said Redfeather coldly. "Probably there was a sunspot flare-up. We don't know. But the pre-colonization survey spoke of sandstorms. The survey team even made estimates of sandfall in various places as so many inches per year. Here all storms drop sand instead of rain. But there must have been a sunspot flare because this storm blew for"--his voice went flat and deliberate because it was stating the unbelievable--"for two months. We did not see the sun in all that time. And we couldn't work, naturally. The sand would flay a man's skin off his body in minutes. So we waited it out.
"When it ended, there was this sand plateau where the survey had ordered the landing grid to be built. The grid was under it. It is under it. The top of eighteen hundred feet of steel is still buried two hundred feet down in the sand you see. Our unfabricated building-steel is piled ready for erection--under two thousand feet of sand. Without anything but stored power it is hardly practical"--Redfeather's tone was sardonic--"for us to try to dig it out. There are hundreds of millions of tons of stuff to be moved. If we could get the sand away, we could finish the grid. If we could finish the grid, we'd have power enough to get the sand away--in a few years, and if we could replace the machinery that wore out handling it. And if there wasn't another sandstorm."
He paused. Bordman took deep breaths of the cooler air. He could think more clearly.
"If you will accept photographs," said Redfeather politely, "you can check that we actually did the work."
Bordman saw the implications. The colony had been formed of Amerinds for the steel work and Africans for the labor the Amerinds were congenitally averse to--the handling of complex mining-machinery underground and the control of modern high-speed smelting operations. Both races could endure this climate and work in it--provided that they had cooled sleeping quarters. But they had to have power. Power not only to work with, but to live by. The air-cooling machinery that made sleep possible also condensed from the cooled air the minute trace of water vapor it contained and that they needed for drink. But without power they would thirst. Without the landing grid and the power it took from the ionosphere, they could not receive supplies from the rest of the universe. So they would starve.
And the Warlock, now in orbit somewhere overhead, was well within the planet's gravitational field and could not use its Lawlor drive to escape with news of their predicament. In the normal course of events it would be years before a colony ship capable of landing or blasting out of a planetary gravitational field by rocket-power was dispatched to find out why there was no news from Xosa II. There was no such thing as interstellar signaling, of course. Ships themselves travel faster than any signal that could be sent, and distances were so great that mere communication took enormous lengths of time. A letter sent to Earth from the Rim even now took ten years to make the journey, and another ten for a reply. Even the much shorter distances involved in Xosa II's predicament still ruled out all hope. The colony was strictly on its own.
Bordman said heavily: "I'll accept the photographs. I even accept the statement that the colony will die. I will prepare my report for the cache Aletha tells me you're preparing. And I apologize for any affront I may have offered you."
Dr. Chuka nodded approvingly. He regarded Bordman with benign warmth. Ralph Redfeather said cordially enough: "That's perfectly all right. No harm done."
"And now," said Bordman shortly, "since I have authority to give any orders needed for my work, I want to survey the steps you've taken to carry out those parts of your instructions dealing with emergencies. I want to see right away what you've done to beat this state of things. I know they can't be beaten, but I intend to leave a report on what you've tried!"
The Warlock swung in emptiness around the planet Xosa II. It was barely five thousand miles above the surface, so the mottled terrain of the dry world flowed swiftly and perpetually beneath it. It did not seem beneath, of course. It simply seemed out--away--removed from the ship. And in the ship's hull there was artificial gravity, and light, and there were the humming sounds of fans which kept the air in motion and flowing through the air apparatus. Also there was food, and adequate water, and the temperature was admirably controlled. But nothing happened. Moreover, nothing could be expected to happen. There were eight men in the crew, and they were accustomed to space-voyages which lasted from one month to three. But they had traveled a good two months from their last port. They had exhausted the visireels, playing them over and over until they were intolerable. They had read and reread all the bookreels they could bear. On previous voyages they had played chess and similar games until it was completely predictable who would beat whom in every possible contest.
Now they viewed the future with bitterness. The ship could not land, because there was no landing grid in operation on the planet below them. They could not depart, because the Lawlor drive simply does not work within five diameters of an Earth-gravity planet. Space is warped only infinitesimally by so thin a field, but a Lawlor drive needs almost perfectly unstressed emptiness if it is to take hold. They did not have fuel enough to blast out the necessary thirty-odd thousand miles against gravity. The same consideration made their lifeboats useless. They could not escape by rocket-power and their Lawlor drives, also, were ineffective.
The crew of the Warlock was bored. The worst of the boredom was that it promised to last without limit. They had food and water and physical comfort, but they were exactly in the situation of men sentenced to prison for an unknown but enormous length of time. There was no escape. There could be no alleviation. The prospect invited frenzy by anticipation.
A fist fight broke out in the crew's quarters within two hours after the Warlock had established its orbit--as a first reaction to their catastrophe. The skipper went through the ship and painstakingly confiscated every weapon. He locked them up. He, himself, already felt the nagging effect of jangling nerves. There was nothing to do. He didn't know when there would ever be anything to do. It was a condition to produce hysteria.
There was night. Outside and above the colony there were uncountable myriads of stars. They were not the stars of Earth, of course, but Bordman had never been on Earth. He was used to unfamiliar constellations. He stared out a port at the sky, and noted that there were no moons. He remembered, when he thought, that Xosa II had no moons. There was a rustling of paper behind him. Aletha Redfeather turned a page in a loose-leaf volume and painstakingly made a note. The wall behind her held many more such books. From them could be extracted the detailed history of every bit of work that had been done by the colony-preparation crews. Separate, tersely-phrased items could be assembled to make a record of individual men.
There had been incredible hardships, at first. There were heroic feats. There had been an attempt to ferry water supplies down from the pole by aircraft. It was not practical, even to build up a reserve of fluid. Winds carried sand particles here as on other worlds they carried moisture. Aircraft were abraded as they flew. The last working flier made a forced landing five hundred miles from the colony. A caterwheel expedition went out and brought the crew in. The caterwheel trucks were armored with silicone plastic, resistant to abrasion, but when they got back they had to be scrapped. There had been men lost in sudden sand-squalls, and heroic searches for them, and once or twice rescues. There had been cave-ins in the mines. There had been accidents. There had been magnificent feats of endurance and achievement.
Bordman went to the door of the hull which was Ralph Redfeather's Project Engineer office. He opened it. He stepped outside.
It was like stepping into an oven. The sand was still hot from the sunshine just ended. The air was so utterly dry that Bordman instantly felt it sucking at the moisture of his nasal passages. In ten seconds his feet--clad in indoor footwear--were uncomfortably hot. In twenty the soles of his feet felt as if they were blistering. He would die of the heat at night, here! Perhaps he could endure the outside near dawn, but he raged a little. Here where Amerinds and Africans lived and throve, he could live unprotected for no more than an hour or two--and that at one special time of the planet's rotation!
He went back in, ashamed of the discomfort of his feet and angrily letting them feel scorched rather than admit to it.
Aletha turned another page.
"Look, here!" said Bordman angrily. "No matter what you say, you're going to go back on the Warlock before----"
She raised her eyes.
"We'll worry about that when the time comes. But I think not. I'd rather stay here."
"For the present, perhaps," snapped Bordman. "But before things get too bad you go back to the ship! They've rocket fuel enough for half a dozen landings of the landing boat. They can lift you out of here!"
"Why leave here to board a derelict? The Warlock's practically that. What's your honest estimate of the time before a ship equipped to help us gets here?"
Bordman would not answer. He'd done some figuring. It had been a two-month journey from Trent--the nearest Survey base--to here. The Warlock had been expected to remain aground until the smelter it brought could load it with pig metal. Which could be as little as two weeks, but would surprise nobody if it was two months instead. So the ship would not be considered due back on Trent for four months. It would not be considered overdue for at least two more. It would be six months before anybody seriously wondered why it wasn't back with its cargo. There'd be a wait for lifeboats to come in, should there have been a mishap in space. There'd eventually be a report of noncommunication to the Colony Survey headquarters on Canna III. But it would take three months for that report to be received, and six more for a confirmation--even if ships made the voyages exactly at the most favorable intervals--and then there should at least be a complaint from the colony. There were lifeboats aground on Xosa II, for emergency communication, and if a lifeboat didn't bring news of a planetary crisis, no crisis would be considered to exist. Nobody could imagine a landing grid failing!
Maybe in a year somebody would think that maybe somebody ought to ask around about Xosa II. It would be much longer before somebody put a note on somebody else's desk that would suggest that when, or if, a suitable ship passed near Xosa II, or if one should be available for the inquiry, it might be worth while to have the noncommunication from the planet looked into. Actually, to guess at three years before another ship arrived would be the most optimistic of estimates.
"You're a civilian," said Bordman shortly. "When the food and water run low, you go back to the ship. You'll at least be alive when somebody does come to see what's the matter here!"
Aletha said mildly: "Maybe I'd rather not be alive. Will you go back to the ship?"
Bordman flushed. He wouldn't. But he said doggedly; "I can order you sent on board, and your cousin will carry out the order!"
"I doubt it very much," said Aletha pleasantly.
She returned to her task.
There were crunching footsteps outside the hulk. Bordman winced a little. With insulated sandals, it was normal for these colonists to move from one part of the colony to another in the open, even by daylight. He, Bordman, couldn't take out-of-doors at night! His lips twisted bitterly.
Men came in. There were dark men with rippling muscles under glistening skin, and bronze Amerinds with coarse straight hair. Ralph Redfeather was with them. Dr. Chuka came in last of all.
"Here we are," said Redfeather. "These are our foremen. Among us, I think we can answer any questions you want to ask."
He made introductions. Bordman didn't try to remember the names. Abeokuta and Northwind and Sutata and Tallgrass and T'ckka and Spottedhorse and Lewanika---- They were names which in combination would only be found in a very raw, new colony. But the men who crowded into the office were wholly at ease, in their own minds as well as in the presence of a senior Colonial Survey officer. They nodded as they were named, and the nearest shook hands. Bordman knew that he'd have liked their looks under other circumstances. But he was humiliated by the conditions on this planet. They were not. They were apparently only sentenced to death by them.
"I have to leave a report," said Bordman curtly--and he was somehow astonished to know that he did expect to leave a report rather than make one; he accepted the hopelessness of the colony's future--"on the degree-of-completion of the work here. But since there's an emergency, I have also to leave a report on the measures taken to meet it."
The report would be futile, of course. As futile as the coup-records Aletha was compiling, which would be read only after everybody on the planet was dead. But Bordman knew he'd write it. It was unthinkable that he shouldn't.
"Redfeather tells me," he added, again curtly, "that the power in storage can be used to cool the colony buildings--and therefore condense drinking water from the air--for just about six months. There is food for about six months. If one lets the buildings warm up a little, to stretch the fuel, there won't be enough water to drink. Go on half rations to stretch the food, and there won't be enough water to last and the power will give out anyhow. No profit there!"
There were nods. The matter had been thrashed out long before.
"There's food in the Warlock overhead," Bordman went on coldly, "but they can't use the landing boat more than a few times. It can't use ship fuel. No refrigeration to hold it stable. They couldn't land more than a ton of supplies all told. There are five hundred of us here. No help there!"
He looked from one to another.
"So we live comfortably," he told them with irony, "until our food and water and minimum night-comfort run out together. Anything we do to try to stretch anything is useless because of what happens to something else. Redfeather tells me you accept the situation. What are you doing--since you accept it?"
Dr. Chuka said amiably: "We've picked a storage place for our records, and our miners are blasting out space in which to put away the record of our actions to the last possible moment. It will be sandproof. Our mechanics are building a broadcast unit we'll spare a tiny bit of fuel for. It will run twenty-odd years, broadcasting directions so it can be found regardless of how the terrain is changed by drifting sand."
"And," said Bordman, "the fact that nobody will be here to give directions."
Chuka added benignly: "We're doing a great deal of singing, too. My people are ... ah ... religious. When we are ... ah ... no longer here ... there have been boastings that there'll be a well-practiced choir ready to go to work in the next world."
White teeth showed in grins. Bordman was almost envious of men who could grin at such a thought. But he went on grimly: "And I understand that athletics have also been much practiced."
Redfeather said: "There's been time for it. Climbing teams have counted coup on all the worst mountains within three hundred miles. There's been a new record set for the javelin, adjusted for gravity constant, and Johnny Cornstalk did a hundred yards in eight point four seconds. Aletha has the records and has certified them."
"Very useful!" said Bordman sardonically. Then he disliked himself for saying it even before the bronze-skinned men's faces grew studiedly impassive.
Chuka waved his hand.
"Wait, Ralph! Lewanika's nephew will beat that within a week!"
Bordman was ashamed again because Chuka had spoken to cover up his own ill-nature.
"I take it back!" he said irritably. "What I said was uncalled for. I shouldn't have said it! But I came here to do a completion survey and what you've been giving me is material for an estimate of morale! It's not my line! I'm a technician, first and foremost! We're faced with a technical problem!"
Aletha spoke suddenly from behind him.
"But these are men, first and foremost, Mr. Bordman. And they're faced with a very human problem--how to die well. They seem to be rather good at it, so far."
Bordman ground his teeth. He was again humiliated. In his own fashion he was attempting the same thing. But just as he was genetically not qualified to endure the climate of this planet, he was not prepared for a fatalistic or pious acceptance of disaster. Amerind and African, alike, these men instinctively held to their own ideas of what the dignity of a man called upon him to do when he could not do anything but die. But Bordman's idea of his human dignity required him to be still fighting: still scratching at the eyes of fate or destiny when he was slain. It was in his blood or genes or the result of training. He simply could not, with self-respect, accept any physical situation as hopeless even when his mind assured him that it was.
"I agree," he said coldly, "but still I have to think in technical terms. You might say that we are going to die because we cannot land the Warlock with food and equipment. We cannot land the Warlock because we have no landing grid. We have no landing grid because it and all the material to complete it is buried under millions of tons of sand. We cannot make a new light-supply-ship type of landing grid because we have no smelter to make beams, nor power to run it if we had, yet if we had the beams we could get the power to run the smelter we haven't got to make the beams. And we have no smelter, hence no beams, no power, no prospect of food or help because we can't land the Warlock. It is strictly a circular problem. Break it at any point and all of it is solved."
One of the dark men muttered something under his breath to those near him. There were chuckles.
"Like Mr. Woodchuck," explained the man, when Bordman's eyes fell on him. "When I was a little boy there was a story like that."
Bordman said icily: "The problem of coolness and water and food is the same sort of problem. In six months we could raise food--if we had power to condense moisture. We've chemicals for hydroponics--if we could keep the plants from roasting as they grew. Refrigeration and water and food are practically another circular problem."
Aletha said tentatively: "Mr. Bordman----"
He turned, annoyed. Aletha said almost apologetically: "On Chagan there was a--you might call it a woman's coup given to a woman I know. Her husband raises horses. He's mad about them. And they live in a sort of home on caterwheels out on the plains--the llanos. Sometimes they're months away from a settlement. And she loves ice cream and refrigeration isn't too simple. But she has a Doctorate in Human History. So she had her husband make an insulated tray on the roof of their trailer and she makes her ice cream there."
Men looked at her. Her cousin said amusedly: "That should rate some sort of technical-coup feather!"
"The Council gave her a brass pot--official," said Aletha. "Domestic science achievement." To Bordman she explained: "Her husband put a tray on the roof of their house, insulated from the heat of the house below. During the day there's an insulated cover on top of it, insulating it from the heat of the sun. At night she takes off the top cover and pours her custard, thin, in the tray. Then she goes to bed. She has to get up before daybreak to scrape it up, but by then the ice cream is frozen. Even on a warm night." She looked from one to another. "I don't know why. She said it was done in a place called Babylonia on Earth, many thousands of years ago."
Bordman blinked. Then he said decisively: "Damn! Who knows how much the ground-temperature drops here before dawn?"
"I do," said Aletha's cousin, mildly. "The top-sand temperature falls forty-odd degrees. Warmer underneath, of course. But the air here is almost cool when the sun rises. Why?"
"Nights are cooler on all planets," said Bordman, "because every night the dark side radiates heat to empty space. There'd be frost everywhere every morning if the ground didn't store up heat during the day. If we prevent daytime heat-storage--cover a patch of ground before dawn and leave it covered all day--and uncover it all night while shielding it from warm winds---- We've got refrigeration! The night sky is empty space itself! Two hundred and eighty below zero!"
There was a murmur. Then argument. The foremen of the Xosa II colony-preparation crew were strictly practical men, but they had the habit of knowing why some things were practical. One does not do modern steel construction in contempt of theory, nor handle modern mining tools without knowing why as well as how they work. This proposal sounded like something that was based on reason--that should work to some degree. But how well? Anybody could guess that it should cool something at least twice as much as the normal night temperature-drop. But somebody produced a slipstick and began to juggle it expertly. He astonishedly announced his results. Others questioned, and then verified it. Nobody paid much attention to Bordman. But there was a hum of absorbed discussion, in which Redfeather and Chuka were immediately included. By calculation, it astoundingly appeared that if the air on Xosa II was really as clear as the bright stars and deep day-sky color indicated, every second night a total drop of one hundred and eighty degrees temperature could be secured by radiation to interstellar space--if there were no convection-currents, and they could be prevented by---- It was the convection-current problem which broke the assembly into groups with different solutions. But it was Dr. Chuka who boomed at all of them to try all three solutions and have them ready before daybreak, so the assembly left the hulk, still disputing enthusiastically. But somebody had recalled that there were dewponds in the one arid area on Timbuk, and somebody else remembered that irrigation on Delmos III was accomplished that same way. And they recalled how it was done---- Voices went away in the ovenlike night outside. Bordman grimaced, and again said: "Damn! Why didn't I think of that myself?"
"Because," said Aletha, smiling, "you aren't a Doctor of Human History with a horse-raising husband and a fondness for ice cream. Even so, a technician was needed to break down the problem here into really simple terms." Then she said, "I think Bob Running Antelope might approve of you, Mr. Bordman."
Bordman fumed to himself.
"Who's he? Just what does that whole comment mean?"
"I'll tell you," said Aletha, "when you've solved one or two more problems."
Her cousin came back into the room. He said with gratification: "Chuka can turn out silicone-wool insulation, he says. Plenty of material, and he'll use a solar mirror to get the heat he needs. Plenty of temperature to make silicones! How much area will we need to pull in four thousand gallons of water a night?"
"How do I know?" demanded Bordman. "What's the moisture-content of the air here, anyhow?" Then he said vexedly, "Tell me! Are you using heat-exchangers to help cool the air you pump into the buildings, before you use power to refrigerate it? It would save some power----"
The Indian project engineer said absorbedly: "Let's get to work on this! I'm a steel man myself, but----"
They settled down. Aletha turned a page.
The Warlock spun around the planet. The members of its crew withdrew into themselves. In even two months of routine tedious voyaging to this planet, there had been the beginnings of irritation with the mannerisms of other men. Now there would be years of it. At the beginning, every man tended to become a hermit so that he could postpone as long as possible the time when he would hate his shipmates. Monotony was already so familiar that its continuance was a foreknown evil. The crew of the Warlock already knew how intolerable they would presently be to each other, and the foreknowledge tended to make them intolerable now.
Within two days of its establishment in orbit, the Warlock was manned by men already morbidly resentful of fate; with the psychology of prisoners doomed to close confinement for an indeterminate but ghastly period. On the third day there was a second fist fight. A bitter one.
Fist fights are not healthy symptoms in a spaceship which cannot hope to make port for a matter of years.