Karlsson lay in his cabin and dreamed of Katwin, his girlfriend on Earth, whom he had not seen for weeks, for this patrol flight which he and Lindgren were on seemed as if it would never end. The reason was that after the conclusion of their actual mission in space cube Alpha-507 they had stumbled into one of the most violent storms they had ever experienced in all of their numerous voyages. Not only had several of the large antennas attached outside the ship broken off during the storm, but a severe shock, penetrating the great protective screen almost effortlessly had also affected the main radio apparatus, so that they lost almost all orientation in the near-complete darkness which reigned on all sides.
At some point a raging energy current had picked up them and the KATWIN, carrying them far beyond the safe roads and main shipping routes of the galaxy. In order to capture at least a sign of life from outside, Lindgren had climbed outside to do some makeshift repairs on the main antenna. In this he had succeeded to some extent, but in the attempt to reach one of the emergency locks he had fallen into the boiling sea of energy, which was as hard as steel here, and broken both ribs over the diaphragm. Karlsson was hard put to pull his comrade back on board the ship and tend to him.
And now this storm, which seemed endless, held them in its talons. And yet everything had begun so well, on Tau-Ceti, in the lead catacombs of Ursa Minor and on the Baldracch Planets. Again and again metal parts of shattered spaceships and space stations which, like the KATWIN, had had to pass the narrowest and most violent parts of the storms, and which danced in the radio beam like white phantoms, drifted past.
Oh yes. Karlsson sighed. He laid aside the grapes which had been grown in the ship's own greenhouse in palettes, and which he had been about to eat. It was already a calamity, and he nearly felt sick. Yet they still had good cards, for nowadays, after a series of setbacks, only ships as solid as the KATWIN, which, despite everything, had stood up to the storm in all crucial points, were being built. These were the ships of the new Sigma series, which were tested in an energy channel under unimaginably severe conditions.
All the driving systems which, at some point, were supposed to bring them out of the fury of the energy masses, were in order. The life-maintaining systems regarding light, air and energy, which, like the driving systems, were constructed with three-fold security anyway, had held as well, and the protective screen ran too, aside from a few holes which the storm had torn in it; in this weather it ran especially well, for it drew its energy almost directly from outside. With these and similar thoughts Karlsson had fallen asleep, and the magazine which he had held on his knees fell to the ground.
He woke as the warning signal sounded. It was three o'clock in the morning, board time, as shown by a sleepy look at the chronometer thickly packed in cotton. Karlsson was still dizzy and reeling, an exhausted man under whom the ship rocked on a rough sea as the warning signal sounded again, harsh, demanding, unmistakable.
It came from Lindgren, who was keeping the watch at this time, for under no circumstances did they want to do without it. Too dangerous was the raging of the elements around them, the roaring of the storms, the heavy seas which washed over the hull of the ship with tremendous breakers and which sometimes even broke through its inner protective belt.
At first Karlsson himself did not recognize his heavy voice, and his head buzzed, the warning signal piercing it again like an angry hornet sting.
"Come on, get a move on, old man, are you going to sleep forever?" said Lindgren, unable to avoid an undertone of concern.
Karlsson struggled first with his undershirt, which, he gathered, had been distorted by a space entanglement which must have had its effect on board as well, then with the trousers of his uniform, which he thought he should put on and in which he ended up with the wrong leg two or three times. Finally, still slightly drunk from his brief slumber, he tried to put on his necktie, but then let it be, for it too was strangely twisted.
His room was in chaos, as he noticed now for the first time. His socks lay strewn across the floor. The shirts unfurled from the ventilation valves like white flags. The shaving lotion had spilled in the adjoining room and formed a fragrant rivulet on the floor, while the soaps all lay in the same place on the threshold, where a powerful energy over-pressure must have sent them.
"Well, come already," said Lindgren.
"I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying," growled Karlsson.
And now all at once he could hear it, that other signal which did not come from their own ship and which, high, shrill and overpowering everything, rose and sank like the tone from a whistle as used earlier on board the old windjammers. No natural object in space sounded like that. No sun in the interstice vibrated that way, although they could very well produce signals which could become audible. This was a tone, strange and frightening, which rose high again as if it wanted to sink unforgettably into all memories which registered it.
Now Karlsson was suddenly in a hurry. The last remnants of sleep had fallen away from him. He hurried down the short corridor, past signs of the damage which the storm had caused here as well, and burst into the control center, which lay there in the weak green twilight of the work lights. Lindgren, fatigued and with red eyes, sitting in front of the main screen, waved him impatiently to his seat, where Karlsson had barely strapped himself in when the push which suddenly came nearly swept him to the floor.
The KATWIN lurched, tottered, screeched, while powerful forces tore at it. The picture on the screen had disappeared for a moment with the push, and with it the enormous, nearly round object which it had shown and which spun toward them out of the interstice as if on a spiral path. Then the picture was back, and with it a dull light which fell from the broad glass surface under which there was a green glow, although closer details could not be made out.
"More drive," said Lindgren to the computer.
"More drive is not possible."
"I need more drive," said Lindgren between clenched teeth, and seemed to forget the nature of his interlocutor.
"I am not permitted to give more drive," answered the computer, "otherwise the time-forces of the spacecraft will tear."
"Manual control. I will take over," Lindgren said grimly.
"Aye, Skipper," the computer confirmed.
Five minutes later, enveloped in the smoke and flames which burst from the console, they were on the formation below, around them a bursting, a shattering and a cracking. Glass seemed to melt around them. The stinging smell of mangled wires and cables was in their noses. It went dark. Metal scraped, then a hissing as if compressed air were flowing out of the KATWIN, then a tremendous jolt which pressed Lindgren and Karlsson deep into their seats, then there was stillness, in which water dripped in hollow consonance.
On the screen hung great red clouds which revolved in a pure oxygen atmosphere. The detectors reported metal even before the two dazed men were able to see anything in the glare of the floodlights. The computer was unharmed, with it most of the instruments. The KATWIN would be able to start, but where were they?
The radio beam which flashed around them fell upon shafts, corridors, halls which seemed gigantic and which were layered above one another in several levels. It seemed that they were in a gigantic labyrinth in whose walls fine silicon fibers were woven and on most parts of which green vegetation pulsed, like that which they knew from the Earth and other planets. In the center of the labyrinth was a shadow which blinded the radio beam and made the small screen on which the signals ran go black.
Below them, above them, from all the walls around them came a rattling, and now, very slowly, the red dust, in which the light from outside cut bright paths, sank to the ground. From the red swaths towers emerged, from which high-up, bright lights shone, everywhere there was the dull gleam of metal in which the oxygen had eaten big holes, through which the green grass grew.
High above them rusted chains sank from the ceiling, barely missing their spacecraft and crashing to the ground like sacks full of rags, disintegrating there to dust. Then mighty jaws seemed to grind, as the walls turned before coming to a dead stop with rusted joints, everywhere the red lightning of age and decay was in the air, through which the photographic cells, whose surfaces had grown dull, stared over at the ship.
"What do you say to that, old man?" Lindgren wanted to know.
"Not much seems to be functioning here," Karlsson rumbled.
"At any rate, we sure landed hard."
"Yes," said Karlsson, pointing to the monitor, which showed the picture from above.
There a hole had appeared, through which the interstice gleamed down. The storm was now far in the distance, raging hollowly in the upper part of the shaft. Again an express seemed to stop in this room, while compressed air hissed in the corridors. Very quietly machines pounded in the distance.
"How were you thinking of getting out of here again?" Lindgren wanted to know.
"Without magnetic support. Through the shaft up there," said Karlsson, pointing upward with his thumb. "How are you doing, anyway, old man?"
"I can pull my weight at any rate, if that's what you mean," Lindgren remarked.
"Then get yourself ready," said Lindgren. "We need fire-arms, portable measuring instruments, energy and supplies for several days. You don't mind living and sleeping in the space suit for a few days, do you?"
"Oh, no," returned Lindgren. "I'm positively crazy about the idea."
Once outside, they turned on the echo sounders, for the radio beam kept coming back blind under the force of the concentrated energy which reigned all around. They were enclosed like knights in their armor, in which they could hardly move, and breathed their earthly atmosphere, for the air out there was saturated with bacteria and spores, of which the latter drifted through all the rooms, borne by the air current of a mighty generator. They had established a radio bridge to the computer of the KATWIN, which was to supply them with important information.
Thus they were well-prepared as they left the room in which they had landed and entered the enormous adjoining chambers in which violent lightning-flashes flickered over a gigantic primeval forest and in which artificial rain fell upon the leaves of the trees and plants, apparently binding valuable nutrients and minerals which were constantly emitted into the air from fine jets. The diversity of species in the forest was considerable, as Lindgren, who had once actually wanted to become a farmer, noticed at once. Here the imitation of a tropical rain forest had succeeded better than in any station of Earth, based more on the air circulation than on the thin layer of humus. Samples which Lindgren could not resist taking, despite Karlsson's urging, directed the curiosity of the two researchers toward several lower forms of animal life which they took from the thin humus layer of the forest.
Soon they also found the machine which produced the humus from the stone of the planetoid. It was an obvious next step to investigate this process, which unfolded similarly to that on earthly stations, in somewhat greater detail, for here too it was regulated by means of a computer whose switchboard lay open, thus offering welcome access to its supply of symbols. Of course they were not able to master it completely, but Lindgren's expertise permitted him at least to establish several search paths which they transferred to the KATWIN's computer, with the result that they were soon able to direct the humus-producing machine to a certain degree, while several of its doubly-encrypted symbols were able to be deciphered.
Everywhere they found the traces of decay, devastation and destruction. The station which had been built into and around the planetoid must have been very old, and it was a miracle that the majority of its systems still functioned. But the planetarium, of all things, which they found on the second day, came to a standstill when they entered, for it had apparently been carrying out its projections for centuries, and left on the artificial sky the rapidly-fading impression of stellar systems which were unfamiliar to both the researchers.
Approaching the center of the station the compartments grew denser and more diverse. Here all the material and logistics required by the people who made port at this station was stored. There were crew's quarters made for beings which were not entirely like humans. Enormous reference libraries had fallen to dust, and what might be taken for beds were now no more than narrow strips and thin sheets and were made of plastic.
It was inconceivable that those beings had not made love in the artificial light, in an artificial gravity. Thus mini-furnishings were present in all of the rooms, leading to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the station must have held out for years here together with their progeny. Among them there were even small, quite well-preserved computers which surely had served for the children's games rather than the work of the adults.
The walls were often open under the erosion of the rust, and behind them virtually endless cable ducts poured down into the center of the station and to the outer regions, giving the immediate impression of a high degree of interlinkage and wiring. Crystal and silicon, which the two researchers found almost everywhere, equally indicated a high degree of density because of their special structures. The central processing unit had to be in the immediate vicinity of the center, where the light channels ran in great numbers.
On the morning of the third day, as the station gradually awoke to a certain sleepy activity, Lindgren and Karlsson found the power station which supplied the nearby, quietly-humming machines with energy. It was a sphere enclosed in a large crystal shell, a sphere which seemed no larger than an ideal point, but from which such an inconceivable energy radiated, in the visible spectrum as well, that neither of the researchers wanted to stare into this hellfire a moment longer than necessary. The hand of their potentiometer turned in circles, and even the radio contact was interrupted while they were in the room where the sphere floated between strong magnets which it itself supplied with energy.
Now the ground trembled beneath Lindgren's and Karlsson's feet, after they had closed the lock tightly behind them. Metal fell like red ash from the walls. In the distance there was a roaring, as if winds had risen and rushed violently through the corridors. Small, fine cracks, running apart in starlike shapes, appeared in the floor. The energy concentration which floated about the two researchers like an electron cloud had increased. "Here it is," said Karlsson. He swung the detector in his hands almost like a divining rod, and its pointer twitched as the light diodes kept rising unerringly in the same direction. There, hidden behind wild grapes, palm branches and ivy runners, blocked by a massive metal bulkhead fused into something as if in steel concrete, the nearly white impression of a medium-sized room in which rectangular structures floated, as if in a bright radiation, appeared on the monitor.
First it was the wrong door which Lindgren and Karlsson took. Back through this door, where orchids hung from the walls. On the metal was a fine drawing which the rust had smoothed away and in which the contours of the correct lock were traced. The door refused to budge, and the two men, the distant rumbling in their ears, burned down unhesitatingly with the light-thrower. Yet another lock received them, which they had not expected and which they overcame just as quickly.
Then they stood in a chamber which seemed tiny in comparison with the halls which they had traversed so far. Everywhere light and radiation fell blindingly into their eyes. Water dripped from the walls, where the ends of cables ran in tangles as if to cool a machine which was severely overheated.
In the middle of the room, held by magnets, hung a structure which looked like a much-distorted cube which rolled and rotated around an imaginary axis. On its external sides, but within it as well, in the magnification which had drawn the researchers, a confusion of printed switches, whose size was surely on an atomic scale, could be seen. A weak light emanated from the cube, pulsing unnoticeably, as if the cube had not yet decided what frequency it wanted to emit. The gallery which ran about the cube and the magnets also seemed distorted.
Lindgren and Karlsson took a few steps on it, and it seemed to them as though, despite the level surface lying before them which showed no rises of any kind, that they had set out to climb an awning of energy which dipped and rolled under the influence of gravity. To go up to the rail and grasp it in order to see better into the depths, to see the cube, made them dizzy.
In the corner was a console which looked as if someone who had no idea about computers had taken it apart and reassembled it wildly. The buttons and switches were on the side, or the bottom. Water beaded on a liquid screen which gleamed dull and black, and flowed down to the chassis in little rivulets.
Karlsson touched the chassis as if seeking support. Under his hand lights woke, melding with the metal surface. Silently chains of lights rose, dispersing and diffusing, streamed here and there, formed geometric patterns and curves and scattered them again, as if the machine which produced them did not know what it wanted.
"There's an outlet to the peripherals," said Karlsson, staggering behind the chassis as if drunk.
"Stay where you are, old man," remarked Lindgren.
"You'd better calm down," said Karlsson; it seemed to him that Lindgren shrank suddenly.
"Your hands are trembling," said Lindgren, "you'll never make the connection like that."
Karlsson laughed, but there was a rumbling in the distance, and now the floor rocked here as well, as if a severe seaquake were approaching. Karlsson held a radio bridge detector in his hands, placing it first here, then further away in the output slit. Still he was not satisfied and searched further, constantly changing in size, as it seemed. At last he found a switching bridge which appeared to suit him.
As they left the chamber both of them felt sick, and their faces were as pale as those of ghosts, and there was a green tinge in the paleness. But outside it was tolerable. Since they had left some radio markings on the way there, just in case, it was not very difficult to find their way back to the KATWIN, which they reached about half an hour later, with the help of this Ariadne's clue. Within the station there was now a terrible hissing and a roaring, and the floor trembled and rocked without cease, while mighty, dark clouds billowed out from the shafts and ventilation slits.
Hurriedly they broke the seal with which they had secured the KATWIN and passed the light and radiation lock which especially kept microbeings from reaching the inside of the spacecraft. The start preparations which they had initiated by radio were completed by the time they lay in their seats, and the KATWIN rose up on a chemical bell of fire, avoiding the magnetic radiation of the station, below it an inferno of melted metal parts, cranes, disks.
They had already gone far into the interstice when behind them, visible even to the naked eye because of the storm, they saw a new sun, such as had never existed in the interstice before, establish itself for a few brief moments. But it took long weeks before they were able even to begin to interpret the scanty information which they had sent from the central computer of the planetoid to the computer of the KATWIN.
Of course, as they had immediately assumed, this was a station which had served above all as port of call for victims of shipwrecks who were stranded far from the usual shipping routes. Intact and autonomous, the station was able to support itself. Its computer was resilient and flexible. It ran by means of complex programs which were able to start themselves and subordinated themselves to other programs, among them one known on Earth in a similar form, known there for ages as Autoexec.BAT, thus a staple data file which functioned as main steering instrument.
Everything had gone perfectly until the storm reached the station, distorting the paths of the interstice, foreshortened and crooked as it was, still more, and thus also distorting the dimensions of every object which the violence of the storm had swept over. It had hurled the station out of ordinary space into the interstice. Based on the corrosion which Lindgren and Karlsson had found all over it, the storm must have been raging for many years in the part of the universe where the station came from. But even if it had only affected the time dimension - which would have been a completely new phenomenon in the interstice - it would almost certainly have changed the structures of the board computer. That explained the strong signal which actually served to orient victims of space-wrecks, and which had been intended to attract Lindgren and Karlsson, and perhaps others as well, in the course of the years, and which had nearly ended their journey prematurely.
Among the files which Lindgren and Karlsson had viewed there was also a program* containing the circumstances under which the station was to destroy itself. Among these were alien who do irreparable damage to the station or would misuse it, which did not mean, however, that stranded members of alien races would simply have been turned away. This led to the further conclusion that Lindgren and Karlsson, although they could not have known it, bore a kind of partial responsibility for the flash of lightning in which the station had blazed. There was no indication of its origin. The fleeting constellations from the projection machine were confused and impossible to interpret.
After eight more weeks, in which Lindgren and Karlsson hung between hope and fear, the fury of the storm finally died down, and the interstice appeared in a quite unusually bright radiance. The most commonly-used frequencies were immediately overloaded, for the ether suddenly hummed with bad news and cries for help, which Lindgren and Karlsson also pursued, to rescue and salvage what there was to be rescued. At last there was also a first, if choppy first contact down on the Earth, where their women had known the great storm, which had raged unimaginably, mainly from the catastrophe bulletins which had at first reported the two patrol men as missing, presumed dead.