The general's eyes broke to one side. He moved nervously as though physically to dismiss the tactical error of underestimating his opponent.
"Since this is your first planet," the general said, "perhaps you'd like to see something of the operation? Basically, we have nine Richardson Domes here on Miracastle. Two are the living quarters--the other similar to this. Right now domes Seven and Nine are the more important. They contain the air-changing equipment. We are holding tightly to our completion date, and these two--Seven and Nine--will be pulled out in fifteen days. That is to say, they will, barring any serious interruptions in our work. On schedule, I should point out."
The general poured coffee for himself. Mr. Flison politely declined.
"When you've been in the Corps as long as I have," the general resumed, "the schedule becomes a part of you. Everything--" he held his hands before him, fingers spread, palms facing, and drew them together--"converges on that. It's that simple. Other planets are waiting. In a society as complex as ours, a million--and I mean this literally, sir--a million decisions must be reviewed if the schedule falls behind. Delay of a critical item of equipment can necessitate an unbelievably vast reassignment of personnel and supply patterns. A small cause reverberates throughout the whole fabric of the space technology."
"General Shorter, I think perhaps you're being carried away a little. I'm sure we have adequate procedures to accommodate minor variations in equipment delivery dates. If we don't, the Lord help us: we'd have been dead long ago."
The general was in the process of forming an immediate reply, but he reconsidered. When he reached for the coffee, which by now was cool and bitter, his hand was trembling.
The general licked his lips. "More coffee? No? Well, I didn't intend to get off on this. I really wanted to ask if you'd like to inspect our operations." He glanced at his time piece. "I could show you the present shift operation in Dome Nine."
Mr. Flison rose. "No, General, I don't want to be of any bother. I wouldn't want to interfere with your--work."
"City" is not necessarily descriptive: perhaps less so than the application of Euclidean axioms to advanced geometry. Physically, it was this: 1. Three dozen stone arches whose keystones were inverted bowls.
2. A smooth-walled recess in the sheer face of a cliff.
3. A level lip of rock, as precisely flat as though honed, from which the arches seemed to grow.
"Is this all?" Mr. Tucker asked.
"Yes, sir," Captain Meford said.
Mr. Ryan came to the viewing section. "It looks," he said, "as though the cliff were split down to here and then hewn away to leave the structures there and the apron."
"We found no tools, sir. There were no tools here, nor with them."
"Nothing else at all?"
"They left behind some four hundred chips of stone, apparently numbered. We have them in the dome. And there's a two-line inscription on one of the arches. There's nothing else."
High above the men and the ship, the new wind sang in one of the inverted bowls and fluttered lightly over the inscription. It, like the face of the cliff, was oxidizing. Dust filtered down before the recess, alien symbols falling. Life is the recording angel of time. Without life, all ceases.
"Dust," Mr. Tucker said. "Dust ... dust ... more dust. Soon the dust will be over everything. When the wind is gone, it will be there to hold our footprints."
Inside the air-conditioned scout, the men shivered.
"How did you come to find them?" Mr. Ryan asked.
"I saw the constructions from the photos, sir. This had been missed by the mapping party. It's easy enough to see why when you see the pictures."
"This the only one?"
"How can you be sure of that, Captain Meford? It's a large planet."
"I had one of the machines scan the remaining maps for geometrical patterns, sir."
"Isn't that done routinely?" Mr. Tucker asked rather sharply.
"Yes, sir. But you see, we've always expected that if we were ever going to encounter intelligent life on a planet, it would be rather widespread. Accordingly--and this is the routine procedure, sir, used, as far as I know, by all contact parties--we ran through a statistically significant sample of the terrain. There was nothing on Miracastle out of the ordinary. There was the typical, low-order vegetable matter, about what we always find. It was a very typical planet, sir."
The third man from the Earth Committee, Mr. Wallace, seldom spoke. When he did, his voice was mild, and there was a sense of child-like wonder in his tone. "The natives?" he asked.
"They ... had fled when we discovered the city."
"Where did they flee to?" Mr. Wallace asked.
Captain Meford glanced upward. Other eyes followed to end just below the edge of the view screen. Above stood the sheer face of the cliff. Clouds roiled below the summit, obscuring it from view.
"There is a long sloping plateau up there, and a series of natural caves back in the next cliff face," Captain Meford said. This did not seem adequate. He continued: "Most of the air-changing activity starts in the low-lying areas, at first around the dome positions. It advances along an elevation front, gradually drifting up. Little tongues are carried up in advance by the heated currents. The aliens retreated before it. On the plateau you can see the sentries. I guess they posted themselves there, at intervals, between the edge and the new caves, to define the limits of safety. They died there. Six of them. The rest, several hundred, reached the caves. They are dead, too."
"I see," Mr. Wallace said.
"When you first discovered them--?" Mr. Ryan asked after a moment.
Captain Meford hesitated.
Mr. Tucker said: "I believe one of your men killed himself last night--wasn't it? A technician? I was told he felt you could reverse the air-changing equipment in time to save the aliens. I understand that was very much on his mind for the last week or so."
"I'm not too familiar with the man, sir. He was on Captain Arnold's shift, I believe."
"Captain Meford," Mr. Ryan insisted, "when did you say you first discovered the aliens?"
Captain Meford hesitated. The others waited.
"They were then scaling the cliff, sir."
"And General Shorter, was he told of this immediately?" Mr. Ryan asked.
"I don't know when the general was told."
"You discovered them?"
"Yes, sir. I ... you see, at the time the winds completely prohibited air traffic. As you know, the air scouts are not stable enough until ... later. Later, I ... Yes, sir. I discovered them."
"Did you then inform the general?"
"No, sir. I informed the duty officer."
"Did he inform the general?"
"I don't know."
"Why didn't you tell the general?" Mr. Tucker asked.
"I was then in communication with Captain Geiger, and I felt he...." The sentence trailed away.
"Would tell the general?" Mr. Tucker prompted. "Well, did he?"
"I believe he did, sir," Captain Meford said. He let out a long breath.
"May we see the aliens?" Mr. Ryan asked.
"I wouldn't advise it, sir," Captain Meford said. "High flights are still very risky because of the wind velocities."
After the evening meal, General Shorter called Captain Arnold aside. "Mind if I go over to Nine with you?" he asked. "The air around here is--well, the fact of the matter is, I'd like to get away from them for awhile."
"Of course not, sir," Captain Arnold said.
"We'll call it an inspection. Which might be a good idea at that. With these people running around trying to interfere with my schedule. Poking around. Asking questions. Taking men away from their work, basically." He tapped his teeth with his right thumb in reflection. "I'd better check up on all the domes tonight, just to be sure."
"I wouldn't want anything to go wrong because they're here."
In the dressing quarters, they donned surface suits and exited through the locks to Miracastle. In the area immediately beyond the Dome, the solidly positioned connection rails radiated away. The general gestured for the captain to lead.
The wind buffeted them. Inside the surface suits it was quiet.
"David?" the general asked.
"Yes, sir?" Captain Arnold said. He was fastening his safety line in the keyed slot. He fumbled with it for a moment before the wind.
"You on suit communications?"
"Yes, sir." Captain Arnold straightened and moved forward. The general replaced him and dropped his safety line in place with practiced efficiency.
Captain Arnold, surrounded by dust devils, became a distant, indistinct bulk. His motions were ponderous. The general could no longer see his face or his expression.
"I do not entirely understand this, David," the general said conversationally. "The investigation. I thought I had powerful friends in the Corps. Though a man makes enemies." The general lurched awkwardly over the broken surface of Miracastle, drawing the safety line taut. He moved toward the connection rail again. "A general is separated from much of his command. Some of the technical refinements are too involved--and, of course, men hide their feelings." Once again he struggled with the wind, turning slowly at the end of the safety line: held from the devouring anger of the planet only by the slender umbilical cord from the stars. "General Grisley, now. I think he's sixteen star, in headquarters. He was a politician. He came up fast. In fact, he was my adjutant a few years ago. He was always a man to hold a grudge."
Captain Arnold made no reply.
"You know how politics is in the Corps."
Dome Nine rose from the swirling mist before them. The wind seemed to increase in fury. And still, inside the suits, there was the sound only of labored breathing and the general's voice.
"These natives," the general said. "They were very primitive, David." Neither could see the other's face. "I can't think of them as intelligent at all. I feel they were very low on the evolutionary ladder. I wouldn't call it a city, as I've heard it called. Natural formation, more likely. Nature plays strange tricks."
They were at the lock of Dome Nine.
Inside, the general removed his helmet. "David," he said, "I've been meaning to talk to you for some time now. You've got a good career in front of you in the Corps. You're going to move up. With a few breaks, right to the top. I'm just now writing up my evaluation for your files. I plan to give you a very fine recommendation, Captain. Normally, I don't talk about this sort of thing, but I thought you might like to know."
"Thank you, sir," Captain Arnold said uneasily, opening his surface suit.
"Well, let's inspect the area, Captain."
The inspection was perfunctory. As he always did, the general paused at the pile monitor and watched, in the Dante screen, the virtually indescribable reactions being sustained far beneath the surface: molten rock flowing and smoking. Orange, blue and white flames danced as though in agony in the great, expanding cavern, danced and merged and vanished and reappeared in an ever-changing pattern.
Back at the locks, the general bid Captain Arnold good-by and turned to leave. Then, as if an afterthought came forward, he turned back.
"David, oh, David!"
"Perhaps you remember a conversation we had a few weeks ago? I called on you for some technical advice." He held his helmet in his hands.
"When was that, sir?"
"Oh, it was about the technical feasibility of reversing the air-changing equipment, I believe. As you know, I can't be up on all the technical, purely detailed procedure, for all phases of the operation. That's what we have experts for." The last statement was unusually jovial. "I believe you told me, David, that the process was too far along at that time. Perhaps you remember?"
"General Shorter, when was that?"
"I thought you would remember, David. I'm sure it was you. Yes, I'm almost positive it was. But if you say.... Well, David, it wasn't quite so much as exactly a statement like that. But that was the general meaning of it, you know, stripped of all the technical language. You have to take it in the over-all context. That was the meaning I got." He laughed tactfully. "You're like lawyers, all you technicians. You answer everything yes and no at the same time. I hoped you'd remember the conversation. I got that idea from it." The general waited. "Well, David--don't look like that--it's not at all important. Just trying to refresh my own memory. It's not important, really.... Good night, David." He placed the helmet over his head.
"Good night, General."
Methodically the general completed his rounds. He laughed often and joked with the men and seemed in exceptionally good spirits.
Back in his own quarters, he brought out his diary. With a weary sigh, he sat down to it. He glanced at his timepiece. The day extended backward almost beyond memory but it was not yet late.
After thumbing the diary listlessly for several minutes--pausing now and then at a paragraph--he began to write. He put the events of the day down precisely in their logical sequence.
The Committee took over the dining area when the general left for his tour of inspection. While the steward's department was preparing coffee for the interviewees, now assembling in the corridor, the four members of the Committee arranged themselves at the larger of the tables. Notepaper lay before them.
Mr. Tucker lighted a cigar and fingered it. "A rather good meal," he said.
The others nodded.
"I may as well start off, while we're waiting," Mr. Wallace said. "I'll summarize my somewhat contradictory observations.
"Superficially, the cultural level of the natives appeared quite primitive. The absence of tools would normally be indicative. On the other hand, the city was carved from rock in a way so as to suggest a very sophisticated technology. And writing, while apparently not practiced to any considerable extent, was known--or, if not writing as we understand it, some advanced decorative technique. We've found two lines of it, at least.
"Again superficially, the city would suggest a nomadic tradition, but for its craftsmanship. It seems independent of any obvious supply of food and their equivalent of water, if any. Nor were any provisions in evidence for the disposal of waste products. Yet the city had the appearance of age and continual usage. If you notice, the floor of the recess was worn unevenly toward the center by what I should guess to be the traffic of several centuries.