The Towers of Titan and Other Stories
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by Ben Bova
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Five extraordinary stories by one of Science Fiction's most revered writers. THE TOWERS OF TITAN--Across the frozen cliffs they loomed--the unbelievably ancient towers with the unimaginable engines deep inside them still pouring out their endless power. Dr. Sidney Lee, back from living death, vowed to find the secret of the Towers of Titan! THE NEXT LOGICAL STEP--Ordinarily the military least wants to have the others know the final details of their war plans. But, logically, there would be times--ANSWER, PLEASE ANSWER-- Astronomer Bova draws upon the facts of his field to weave a story that will grip your emotions and tantalize your mind--long after you have finished reading it. THE DUELING MACHINE--The trouble with great ideas is that someone is sure to expend enormous effort and ingenuity figuring out how to louse them up. A LONG WAY BACK-- He held the future of the world in his numbed hands. And from 22,500 miles out, he made the gamble.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: February 2010
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [214 KB]
Reading time: 127-178 min.
THE TOWERS OF TITAN (First published in Amazing Stories, Jan. 1962) * * * *
The landing port at Titan had not changed much in five years.
The ship settled down on the scarred blast shield, beside the same trio of squat square buildings, and quickly disgorged its scanty quota of cargo and a lone passenger into the flexible tube that linked the loading hatch with the main building.
As soon as the tube was disconnected, the ship screamed off through the murky atmosphere, seemingly glad to get away from Titan and head back to the more comfortable and settled parts of the Solar System.
The passenger, Dr. Sidney Lee, stood by the window-wall of the main building and watched the ship disappear into the dark sky. He was tall and lean, seemingly all bone and tendon, with graying dark air and faintly haunted eyes set deep into a rough-hewn, weather-worn face. When the ship was nothing more than another star overhead, he turned and looked at the place.
Five years hasn't made any difference, he thought. The single room of the main port building was unchanged: a little grimier, perhaps, and a little more worn. But essentially unchanged. There were the same turnstiles and inspection machines, the same processing and handling gadgets for your papers and baggage, the same (it couldn't be, but they looked the same) two bored/techs sitting at the far end of the room, unwilling to lift an eyebrow unless specifically commanded to do so.
Lee walked over to the papers processor and pushed his credentials into its slot. After a few wheezes and clanks its green light flickered on and the papers fell into the "return" bin properly stamped and approved. At the same time, his lone bag slid along a conveyor belt and onto the pickup table.
With his credentials back inside his jacket and the bag in hand, Lee looked toward the two clerks. They were studiously avoiding his eyes, searching intently through some schedules that they kept on hand for just such emergencies.
He turned at the sound of her voice.
"I'm sorry to be late," she said, hurrying across the big empty room, "but we never know when the Ancient Mariner is going to arrive. It's not a matter of whether it'll be on schedule or not ... just a question of guessing how late it's going to be."
He smiled at her. "Hello, Elaine. It's good to see you again."
She hadn't changed either, and this time he was glad of it. She was still slim and young, her hair a reddish gold, her eyes gray-green. She was dressed with typical casualness: comfortable boots, dark slacks and sweater that outlined her trim figure, and a light green scarf for a touch of color. Outwardly, at least, she seemed cheerful.
"Come on," she said, "I've got a buggy in the parking area. I wanted to get a few more of the old gang to come out and meet you, but there's not many of them left, and they're all pretty busy ... " Her voice trailed off.
"I didn't expect a brass band and a key to the city," Lee said. Then he added, "You're pretty gay for a female scientist," he said.
"I'm always gay when I meet old friends again."
He said nothing.
"I wish you'd cheer up, " Elaine coaxed.
"I will; give me time."
They entered the parking building and got into a bubble-top car. Elaine gunned it to life, and they slid out of the near-empty parking area, through the pressure doors, and into Titan's unbreathable atmosphere.
"Have you been here straight through since I left?" he asked.
"No. I spent about eighteen months on Venus, slushing through the swamps in search of ruins that couldn't possibly have survived a century in that climate."
"That's it," she said, shrugging. "Something ventured but nothing found. So I asked to be returned here."
"It's got you, too, hasn't it?"
Her face became serious for the first time. "Certainly it's got me. It's got all of us. Do you think we'd stay out here otherwise?"
"Anything new turned up?"
Elaine shook her head. "Nothing you haven't seen in the reports. Which means nothing, really."
He lapsed into silence and watched the frozen landscape slide by as the car raced along Titan's only highway. They crossed a bleak, frozen plain, bluish-white in the dim twilight from the distant Sun. The stars twinkling in the dark sky overhead made the barren scene look even colder. The road climbed across a row of hills, and as they made a turn around the highest bluff, Saturn came into view.
No matter how many times Lee had seen the planet, it had always thrilled him. Now, five years later, it was still an experience. Three times larger than the full moon as seen from Earth, daubed with brilliant yellow, red and orange stripes, and circled about its middle by the impossible-looking rings, Saturn hung fat and low on the horizon, casting shadows stronger than the Sun's.
"It's a compensation, isn't it?" Elaine said.
Soon they were down on the plain again, but now it was a shattered, broken expanse of jagged rock and ice. A greenish methane cloud drifted over the face of Saturn, and Lee finally turned his eyes away.
"You can see the towers from here," Elaine reminded him.
"I know," he said. He could not make out any detail, but there they were, just as they had been for--how long? Ten thousand years? A hundred thousand? Five towers jutting straight up from the bleak plain, clustered around a central, taller tower.
"Is the machinery still running?" he asked, pointlessly. "Of course."
"There was some talk a year or so back about trying to stop it."
She shook her head. "They wouldn't dare."
The machine had been discovered more than ten years earlier, when the first Earthmen landed on Titan. Saturn's largest satellite was devoid of life, a world of dark and cold, of hydrogen atmosphere and methane clouds, of ammonia seas and ice mountains.
And there in the midst of it all stood the machine: a brazenly unconcealed cluster of mammoth buildings, with its five stately towers surmounted by the soaring central sixth. And within, row upon row of unexplained machinery, fully automated, operating continuously in perfect order.
The discoverors soon concluded that the machine was unbelievably old, older than the Egyptian pyramids, perhaps even older than the Martian canals. And it was running smoothly. For untold centuries, for uncounted millenia, it had continued to operate efficiently, tended only by automatic machines.
A clear challenge to the space-rovers from Earth. Who made this machine? How does it work? Why is it here? What is it doing?
As soon as its discovery was made known, the machine was visited by a steady stream of Earthmen--physicists, archeologists, engineers of a thousand different specialties, and soldiers, politicians, men who were now forced to believe the inevitable. The machine was photographed, x-rayed, blueprinted, analyzed spectroscopically, philosophically, even theologically.
Who built it? How does it work? Why is it here?
Dr. Sidney Lee, an anthropologist who had made a name for himself by unraveling the history of the ruins on Mars, arrived on Titan full of optimism and enthusiasm. Twenty months later he was taken from Titan to a psychomedical center on Earth--completely irrational and suffering from man's oldest dread: the unknown.
Returning to the underground center that had grown over the years near the machine, to house the living and working quarters of the tiny scientific community on Titan, was something like returning home for Dr. Lee. Someone had seen to it that he got his old quarters back again. Most of the people he had known from five years ago had gone elsewhere, but a few remained.
Lee spent his first few days renewing acquaintances and meeting the new men and women. He was surprised at their youth, until he tried to recall how he must have looked and acted when he first arrived on Titan.
"Makes you realize how time takes its toll, regardless of geriatrics," he said to Dr. Kimball Bennett. Official director of the center, Bennett had called Lee into his office for a chat.
"Come on now," Bennett scoffed, "you're talking like a man of ninety. Why, you won't need geriatrics for at least another month."
They both laughed. Bennett was a shy-looking, slender astrophysicist who spoke softly, never seemed to exert himself, and yet commanded the unabashed admiration of every member of the center.
"All right," Lee said. "You didn't call me to discuss my failing years. What's on your mind?"
"Oh, I just thought it's about time you got to work. You've been loafing around for a week now. We can't afford to feed you free forever, you know."
"No, I guess you can't," Lee agreed, smiling.
Bennett leaned back in his chair and studied Lee for a long moment. "I won't ask you why you wanted to come back. But I was delighted when I saw the paperwork with your name on it. Want to know why?"
"Now I am curious."
"I want to leave Titan. I've been heading this operation for too many years, now. I want out. And I really can't leave until I have a top-notch man to run this little show. You're my replacement."
"Not me," Lee said, shaking his head. "I couldn't."
""Why? Hell, Kim, you saw them carry me out of here five years ago. How do you know the same thing won't happen again? How do I know it?"
A trace of a smile flickered across Bennett's face. "Look, the fact that you returned to Titan--to this center and to that infernal machine out there--well, that's proof enough to me that you've licked whatever it was that caused your breakdown."
"Maybe you're satisfied," Lee countered, "but how about the rest of the staff? How will they feel about having a reconditioned neurotic heading the show?"
Bennett's smile broke into an open grin. "Self-pity is a terrible thing. Do you know what those kids think of you? You're Dr. Sidney Lee, the foremost xeno-anthropologist of the human race. You're the man who deciphered the Martian Script, who uncovered the ruins on Tau Ceti, who did the definitive studies on the cave man cultures on Sirius and Vega. Your troubles here on Titan are just a six-month incident in the middle of a dazzling career. Haven't you noticed the deference with which they've been treating you? You're a big man on this campus."
"I don't know ... "
"It won't be a lifetime job," Bennett coaxed. "In a couple of years some of the young squirts around here will have acquired enough poise and self-control to run the show. Then you can go on to something else."
Lee got up from his chair and paced slowly to the bookshelf that lined one wall of the office. "Why don't you stay on for another year or so, and then turn it over to one of the youngsters?"
Bennett wordlessly extended his arms over the desk. His hands were trembling, almost imperceptibly, but trembling.
Lee stared at the hands. "You too?"
Bennett placed his hands palms down on the desk. "Do you think you're the only one who worries about an alien race who can build a machine that we can't understand after ten years of investigation and study?"
The official transfer took place the following day, shortly after breakfast. Bennett called a meeting of the six department heads and announced that he would leave Titan on the next ship. It came as no surprise.
"From here on, I'm just an interested observer," he said. "Dr. Lee is in charge." He paused for a moment, then went on, "I thought this would be a good time to review what's been going on most recently, and where we stand."
Lee took an old pipe out of his jacket pocket and filled it while he watched them try to decide who would talk first. The six department heads all looked young and eager, he thought. Elaine was among them, of course, as head of the archeology group.
After a bit of finger-pointing and head-shaking, Dr. Richards took the floor. Head of the physics section, he had one of those open, clear-eyed, crew-cut faces that would look young even after his hair turned gray.
"It just so happens," he began, "that we finished a study yesterday that may be of some slight significance." From the size of his grin, Lee judged that the physicist was making a weak attempt to underplay his speech.
Richards walked to the view-screen at the far end of the room and turned a dial. The screen flickered for a moment, then showed a chart.
"You remember from our last meeting," he said, "that our group finally succeeded in reaching the generating unit that powers all the machinery out there. Uh, Dr. Lee, this is something we've been working on for more than a year. The power unit is buried in the sublevel of the main building out there, and it's damned difficult to get to it without tearing out other machines. We finally wormed a man down there about a month ago."
RICHARDS turned back to the rest of the group. "This chart shows what we've been able to learn about the power unit. Which isn't much. There's no input to it. No batteries, no solar cells, nothing. There's a fuel tank--at least, we think it's a fuel tank--that's sunk inside a cryogenic magnetic coil."
Elaine spoke up. "You told us that last time. Have you been able to get into the tank?"
Richards shook his head. "Not unless we break up the coil, which we don't dare try. It would probably mean destroying the power unit and stopping all the machinery. And we can't do that until we're certain of what the machinery's doing."
"We all know that," said Dr. Kulaki, a wiry Polynesian who headed the electronics group.
"Yes. Well, we did make a very elegant experiment," Richards continued, "a variation of Cavendish's experiment to obtain the gravitational constant, in the Eighteenth Century ... "
"Spare the history," Dr. Kurtzman said, half-smiling.
"Okay, okay," Richards said. "We determined the mass of the fuel tank, and therefore of the fuel in it. The tank contains a degenerate gas ... "
"A degenerate gas," Richards repeated. "The stuff must weigh several tons per spoonful."
Dr. Petchkovich, the astronomer, frowned puzzledly. "Wait a minute. Degenerate gases are found only in the cores of certain types of stars ... are you saying that this magnetic field they've put around the fuel tank is strong enough to create a pressure similar to the weight of a star?"
"Take a look at the chart," Richards said, pointing to the viewscreen. "If you know of any other type of substance with a density like that, I'll eat it.
There was a brief conversation, then Dr. Bennett said, "All right, Pat, Is that all?"
"Hell no," Richards said, his cat-like grin returning. "There's more."
He tapped a button on the viewscreen control panel, and another chart came up on the screen.
We know the power output of the generator. That was simply obtained, since the one unit powers all the machinery in the buildings out there. So we calculated all the known methods for obtaining power from a degenerate gas, and checked them against the amount of fuel the system has used up so far ... "
Lee interrupted. "How do you know how much fuel has been used if you can't get into the tank?"
Richards' grin broadened. "Oh, that's easy, Dr. Lee. We know how much a degenerate gas should weigh, per unit volume. We know the size of the tank, and therefore how much it can hold, when full. So we can estimate how full the tank is simply by measuring its mass and comparing it to the mass it would have if it were full."
"Doesn't the chemical composition of the gas have any effect on the Mass? Wouldn't uranium be heavier than hydrogen?"
"Yes, but not much. A factor of a hundred. You'll see in a minute that it's not enough to matter at this stage of the game."
Lee nodded and the physicist went on. "Well, anyway, you can check out our math in the report we'll issue later this month. But it turns out that the only possible energy source for this gadget is total annihilation of the gas particles into energy."
"Total annihilation? How?"
"That's a good question. I don't think we'll be able to answer it until we can start taking the damned machine apart." He flicked a new graph on the screen, "But, we can calculate how long the thing has been running, on the basis of the fuel it's used up, and the energy rates we've assumed ... "
A slow wave of astonishment crept through the small room as, one by one, they grasped the significance of the curving lines on the graph.
"That's right," Richards said. "Unless our rough calculations are completely off the beam, which I doubt, the damned thing has been operating continuously for something like ten-to-the-fifth or ten-to-the-sixth Earth years."
A hundred thousand to a million years.
The rest of the meeting was quiet and orderly. They were all subdued by Richards' report. It's been running continuously for a million year, Lee kept thinking. A million years.
He listened automatically as the other department heads made their reports.
Ray Kurtzman was first. His report was actually a combined discussion of the work that his engineering group, and Dr. Kulaki's electronics people, had been jointly undertaking. They had tried to determine (for the nth time) just what sort of power was being beamed by the antennas atop the machine's towers. No luck. The machinery was using power, the antennas were broadcasting something, but whatever it was could not be detected by any instrument the Kurtzman and Kulaki had applied to the problem.
Elaine gave a routine report on the latest digging expeditions that had been sent out. No artifacts, no foundations, no remains of any sort. Blank.
Dr. Childe, a short, sharp-voiced mathematician, gave his report on his department's analysis of the wave patterns that were being sent out by the antennas. The patterns had been deduced from the fluctuations in energy consumption by the antenna equipment. Childe reported another blank. The patterns were completely random.
"It's foolish to call them patterns at all," Childe complained. "They look more like the ramblings of an idiot than anything produced by intelligence."
Finally, Petchkovich reported on the latest astronomical studies. The antennas were tracking an empty section of space between the Sun and the planet Mercury. Careful observations had shown no noticeable effect in the widespread area where the antennas were focused.
"It is my belief," he concluded, "that the antennas were originally focused on one of the planets, but have since become disoriented in some way, and are now well off-target."
Kurtzman huffed. "Not very likely. If they--whoever they are --could make this whole damned set of buildings full of machinery to operate continuously for a million years, do you think they'd slip up on where the antennas are pointing?"
"If it's a million years we're talking about," Petchkovich answered slowly, "then the chances for errors are simply that much greater."
Lee decided it was time for him to step in. "Have there been any other attempts to date the buildings or the machines? Radioactive decay rates, or something like that?"
Elaine nodded. "It's been tried at least once or twice a year, every year. Nothing conclusive has ever been established. The buildings are obviously very old ... but a million years ... "
They all lapsed into silence.
Lee took a deep breath and began once more. "This million-year-business throws a new light on the whole subject. Up to now, I think, we've all been looking at this machine on a day-to-day basis. I mean, we've been examining what it's doing now. It might be worth our while to sit back a little and try to extrapolate the behavior we've observed back over a million years."
"Could you be a bit more explicit?" Richards asked.
"I'll try. It's mostly a matter of viewpoint, I think. Let's start looking at this machine as something that's been in operation for a million years. Let's admit to ourselves that what we see today is only a very small slice of the whole picture. Dr. Petchkovich, you're an astronomer; you're accustomed to studying a star for a few months and coming up with a story that covers perhaps billions of years. Right?"
"Yes, but this is entirely different ..."
"I know. I know," Lee said. "But the line of attack isn't so different. For instance: Dr. Childe, suppose you send your wave patterns to the Orbital Computation Center at Earth and have the Big Brain work them over. Do you think it might come up with something useful?"
Childe shrugged elaborately. "Maybe. If we try to extrapolate the sample patterns we have now over a million years, maybe something will show up."
"It'll take months to get the Big Brain's time," Elaine said. "They're waiting in line all the way back to Mars for it."
"What are months compared. to the time we've already spent?" Bennett countered.
"Or to a million years?" Lee added.
Kulaki suddenly started to bob up and down in his chair. "Say, we might be on the track of something here," he said. "If those circuits have been in continuous operation for a million years ... we could learn an awful lot about reliability ... "
Lee nodded in agreement. "We have a lot to learn, that's true enough." He cleared his throat nervously. "There's one more thing, I am about to publish a paper ... it's a sort of a general paper, but it has some bearing on the work going on here. I wonder if you'd be good enough to be a tryout audience for me?"
They sat back to listen.