Issue #35 (July 1984)
The journey had been a long one. It had been traveling for many millenia through space-sometimes the light of a distant star illuminated one metallic face. The floating debris of primeval planets had scarred the surface, though they had not significantly affected its path, nor slowed its progress. Then it found itself in the vicinity of a yellowish-orange star, midway through the star's life cycle. The star was circled by several planets, and one, a gaseous giant with many satellites and faint rings, and a huge red spot, deflected it very slightly-but enough that it could no longer escape from the attraction of the star and continue its journey through space. As it happened, the third planet in the star system now lay in its path, and it accelerated to a speed of 33,000 miles per hour and crashed into the desert. Huge sections of the main mass were torn away as it plunged through the atmosphere, but the main mass struck the desert with the force of a small atom bomb, and buried itself deep in the limestone beds beneath the sand. The resulting blast and heat seared the desert for some 10 miles beyond the crater; no living thing, not even the ants, survived. The nearby tribes of Indians who had witnessed the impact from any point more than 20, or less than 500 miles away, were struck with fear, and prayed fervently to whatever gods they worshipped to spare their lives. Then, as successive tribes migrated, or were exterminated by their neighbors, the legend of the failing star died away, and no living creature remembered how the huge crater had formed.
Two hundred and twenty centuries after the initial impact, a young engineer stood on the rim of the crater and pondered its origin. Conventional thought of his time said it was either a volcanic crater, with the rest of the volcano worn away, or a graben--a sunken depression in the earth formed when water dissolved underlying rocks, and the upper layer collapsed and formed a crater. To the young engineer neither explanation was satisfactory; there was no trace of volcanic activity in the area, and neither the underlying stone at the base of the crater nor the layers above it were water soluble. Further, his investigation had uncovered another interesting fact: the crater lay in the exact center of an area of a dense meteorite fail - meteorites from the size of sand grains to those larger than basketballs. Then he discovered another interesting fact: some sandstone boulders had been thrown into the air by the impact of the fallen object, and underneath them there were often small iron meteorites, of the same type as those surrounding the crater. He concluded that the crater had been formed at the same time that the meteorite fall occurred, which led him to the obvious conclusion that the crater was a meteorite crater, and that likely the main mass was buried deep under the floor of the crater. Since he was a mining engineer, and since a mass of nickel iron large enough to blast such a hole in the desert would be worth millions, he had little difficulty getting the capital to begin drilling to locate the main mass. They continued for a dozen years-most drill holes produced no result-but one drill struck something so hard that the drill could not penetrate it, and it broke off in the hole.
By now most geologists and meteoriticists were convinced that the Barringer crater, as it was now called, was indeed a meteorite crater, but calculations seemed to indicate that if the mass of metal recovered from the area around the rim had once been a single mass, then the size of the crater could be accounted for without taking into account any buried mass. Some backers thereupon withdrew, and others lost interest; the drilling was abandoned. A museum was built on the rim for visitors to gaze at some of the meteorites recovered, and look down on the old drilling rigs, and astronauts trained in the crater for practice in walking on terrain like the moon they would soon visit. And the years went by....
Two million years later, all trace of the crater was gone. The ground had eroded from the upper levels to one even lower than the floor of the crater, revealing that the young engineer had been right-there was a great metallic mass buried beneath the crater floor. Now, as it lay exposed to desert sun and occasional torrential rains, its surface, hard as armor plate, turned slowly to a russet-colored dust, and was carried away by the wind.
Several more millenia passed, and then one day the rust that was blown from the surface revealed a shining cobalt-blue surface. When the sun rose that morning it struck the surface, and the electricity generated by the solar cells flowed into the interior. Long dormant mechanisms sprang into life. Another section of the surface was sloughed off like a discarded shell, and a slender tube extended slowly from the object. Suddenly the end seemed to blossom like a flower, and an umbrella of fine aluminum mesh opened up. Another tube extended; at its end, a tiny transmitter came to life. Inside the mass more relays closed, and a power source, long dormant, was activated. As the earth rotated, the transmitter emitted a steady, unvarying signal, beamed in a huge cone to the distant stars.
Xephtha-Das (as nearly as his name can be rendered in English characters) lounged idly in the vast underground room. On all sides of him were great panels of tiny infrared lamps; a few glowed a dull red, but most were dark. Suddenly, behind him, a tiny lamp began blinking steadily, and at the same time an ultrasonic wave came from the emitter behind the panel. At the sound-which no earthly ear could have heard–Xephtha-Das slithered from his couch and headed for the opening in the wall. Another of his probes was transmitting; he judged the distance to be some 12 light years, based on the signal strength. He had many preparations to make for the journey, which he hoped would be a fruitful one. None of his other visits had been to planets with any life forms. Maybe, just maybe, this one would be different. He dared to let himself hope so.