The ship flew slowly above the city that stretched almost from horizon to horizon.
It was the largest collection of intelligence-built structures ever encountered by Earth men. It covered an area almost the size of Asia. It consisted of billions of buildings set along narrow winding metal streets. Many of the buildings were tall as mountains back on Earth. Light from the local star reflected from those buildings in myriad colors and textures. The city seemed built of steel and glass, though the ship’s instruments suggested the materials were completely alien so far as Earthmen were concerned.
The ship’s crew, studying the place carefully through the most advanced instruments available, were unable to identify the various materials that made up the ship. Their instruments could scan them, they could break down their elements and components, but they could not identify them. They could tell the shapes of the various parts that constructed the building, but they could not figure out how they were joined together or, in many cases, what the purpose of those components were.
It was an alien city, alien in the fullest sense. Alien in its gigantic size, its appearance, its construction, and even how it was constructed.
Most alien of all was the question not of what it was made of, however, but of whom – or what – it had been constructed.
The world they were exploring was no more than seventeen light years from Earth. Interstellar exploration had been going on for thirty-two years now, and though well over two hundred planets had been explored, mapped, and studied by various exploration ships sent out from Earth, this was the first indication of intelligent life.
Captain Carlisle, who commanded the ship, was a cautious man, and a dedicated one. His ship carried a contingent of over one thousand people, the majority of them scientists and technicians covering every field of knowledge it could be imagined that the mission would need in order to understand anything that it was believed that they were likely to encounter. Well over two million people had labored for years back on Earth to insure that this ship would have every thing that could possibly be needed to understand, or at least begin the process of understanding anything they encountered.
It was intended that if this ship should actually come across, as everyone knew must inevitably happen, proof of an alien civilization, it could record almost everything about it.
This ship had recording equipment that could reach down past the cellular, and even the atomic level, to store information capable of opening up new and entirely alien areas of knowledge. Not all at once, of course. The information would have to be transmitted back to Earth, of course, where the scientists of every nation and every field of science would be available to work on it.
Contact between alien civilizations might require centuries to reach a point where the cultures could even communicate with one another beyond the most fundamental level. It might take decades to simply establish a route of simple communication between such cultures and the culture of Earth.
And now they had found such a culture – or at least proof of such a culture, for although they had found what was obviously a city, there was no proof of any living thing existing in it.
After several days flying above the city, Captain Carlisle made a decision. He called a meeting of his highest ranking officers and senior scientific advisors and explained his decision to them.
It was certainly no surprise. The advisors and technicians had been waiting for him to make that very decision and, to a member, they welcomed it.
The great exploration ship of Earth would land, and exploration and survey parties would be sent out, not only to explore the city, but to map as much of the planet as possible. Both humans and machines would be very busy from now on.
The ship was bigger than any structure in the city. Luckily, there was a great field of hard, granite like rock adjacent to the city. Great scorched patches on the rock’s surface suggested that the field had for years been used as a landing area for some kind of technological devices that probably used reaction drives of some sort. There was no machinery or equipment visible on the field, however.
Most of the scientists believed any such equipment would be found under the ground, once they landed. A general theory had evolved that it might be possible that years ago the alien people who had built this place might have been forced by some long-past cataclysm to seek protection in underground facilities.
Perhaps the aliens were still there, and there would be actual contact after all. Perhaps they were long dead. But if the latter were the case, there would still be plenty of evidence to study of what these people were like.
The captain carefully prepared a report on their discovery to be sent back to Earth via a small unmanned vessel capable of travel at speed above that of light. In addition to his own observations, there was included a preliminary report from the head of every department on the ship as well as reports on various experiments, studies and discoveries that had been made in the routine operation of the various departments aboard the ship. Thousands of pieces of personal mail that had been accumulating aboard the ship for some time were sent back as well.
Finally, the great spaceship from Earth fired its landing rockets and slowly, slowly, settled to the ground.
Captain Carlisle was not the only cautious man involved in this great project. Every scientist, official and bureaucrat involved in this project from its inception right up until the present moment, was cautious as well. Before any personnel was sent outside for any purpose, a huge number of studies and observations that had been decided upon back on Earth, were carried out. Bacteria in the air was examined and careful precautions decided upon to prevent anyone from contacting alien disease. The environment was carefully studied though tests that had already been made several times before and after the ship had entered the planet’s atmosphere. New tests were decided upon and conducted as well.
Nothing was left to chance.
After several weeks sitting on the surface of the planet, so near to the tantalizing city, the ship’s airlocks were opened and the first exploration parties were sent into the city.
Almost thirty separate parties of several people each, went into various areas of the city. The rule of caution continued to be the primary principle by which the explorers acted. The exploration continued for weeks.
At last Carlisle made a decision.
The ship needed a lot of work. Nothing serious, of course, all of it routine in that it had been anticipated that such work would have to be carried out before the ship’s return voyage. Much of the work of exploring and studying the planet would have to be conducted aboard the ship, but Carlisle decided there was no reason for the crew not to move into the city itself. There were several buildings that apparently had functioned as the alien equivalent of apartments and hotels, so there were plenty of places for the ship’s personnel to move to.
And the crewmembers certainly appreciated the opportunity. Who wanted to stay aboard a spaceship they would have to live in for months on the return voyage, when there were so many wonderful alien structures at hand to explore.
Despite the fact that so many people had been sent into the city to explore it, most of the crew had not yet left the ship. The captain gave it careful thought. He had so many reports from those who had explored the city that even though he could not read them all, he knew that there was general agreement that the environment was not generally hostile. With the aid of a few medical and technological precautions, Earthmen could (and would) live comfortably on this planet.
There was no reason whatsoever that he could not move his entire crew out of the ship and into the city if he wanted to.
If. But the captain and his chief officers were not fools, and caution was still the rule by which survival was assured. A contingent capable of operating the ship, and of lifting it off into space, remained behind. The others left and went into the city to live.
There were a few who did not regard this as entirely wise, but the majority of the officers felt after being on the planet for so many weeks, they were absolutely safe. They had taken precautions. They had considered everything – including the possibility that something totally unimaginable might happen. But they found themselves living a day to day existence that was undeniably monotonous.
For morale purposes alone, Carlisle decided it was necessary to let as many of his people as he could, experience the wonderment, the thrill, of living for at least a short time, in a safe but totally alien environment.
He called a meeting, discussed it with his chief officers and the heads of the various scientific departments aboard the ship. Within the limits of reasonable caution, everyone agreed it was probably the right thing to do.
Carlisle did not sleep well that night. He lay awake in his cot going over every aspect of the voyage and the mission, considering every possible way his actions could go wrong. After three or four hours he got out of bed and again scanned the environmental reports.
They were certainly encouraging. So far this voyage so far from the home planet had encountered fewer problems than the early and successful sea voyages that had opened up the exploration of planet Earth. Captain Carlisle, highly trained and as careful as his office and rank required, knew from long experience that anything could happen.
But what stood out to him was the certainly that whatever might happen, it would be nothing he and his crew could not deal with.
It was the middle of the night when he lay back down, and he had lost several hours sleep, but he fell into a restful and refreshing slumber, almost at once.
The next morning all but a skeleton crew left the ship, They marched to the alien city and into it and gathered finally at a great open area.
In a few words Carlisle said what he had to. He was well aware that everyone already knew what was going on. They were moving into an alien city, would, in fact, be the first human beings to experience an alien environment to the degree it would be explored here. What they did here and now and over the next few days, would be one of the most important things ever done by human beings. In this place, at this time, they could profoundly move science and human destiny ahead.
Carlisle watched as his people moved off in various directions. He felt uneasy and couldn’t say why.
He was still standing there when he began to hear the screams. At first they came from people in other streets nearby. Then the people around him began screaming.
They were screams of sheer terror. And they were accompanied by a crunching sound, not too loud, but loud enough.
Something was wrong. Badly wrong. Carlyle had no idea what the problem was.
But then the ground opened up under him.
And then it closed. #
Back at the ship, the screams and other sounds from the city were unheard. It was quickly discovered that all communication from the city was cut off.
The acting commander aboard the starship was at least as cautious as Carlisle. He sent no men into the city, but he did send several small fliers to fly over and see what happened.
They saw nothing. No threat, no crewmembers, no remains, nothing. Not even blood. Just the empty streets as they had been before.
The last thing the acting commander wanted to do was to send troops into the city. But he had no choice.
They were careful to maintain open communication between the troops who went into the city, and the ones who stayed aboard the ship. It was the acting commander who led the troops. They found no trace of the men who had vanished.
The acting commander looked around at the vast space and saw nothing that gave him any idea of what had happened.
And then, suddenly, there was a noise, a loud, raucous noise that seemed to come from all around him. The ground shook.
And then it opened up.
The screams did not last very long.
After a while, there were no humans left on this far, new world. It was as if they had never been there at all.
Yet the humans had come. And the world ate them.