Authors: Stanislaw Lem
ALSO BY STANISLAW LEM
TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT
A PERFECT VACUUM
THE CHAIN OF CHANCE
THE STAR DIARIES
FABLES FOR THE CYBERNETIC AGE
THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS
MEMOIRS FOUND IN A BATHTUB
Copyright © 1961 byStanislaw Lem
English translation copyright © 1980 by Stanislaw Lem
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Printed in the United State of America
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Return from the stars.
Translation of Powrót z gwiazd.
“A Helen and Kurt Wolff book.”
PZ4.L537Re [PG7158.L39] 891.8'537 79-3358
B C D E
took nothing with me, not even a coat. Unnecessary, they said. They let me keep my black sweater: it would pass. But the shirt I had to fight for. I said that I would learn to do without things gradually. At the very ramp, beneath the belly of the ship, where we stood, jostled by the crowd, Abs offered me his hand with an understanding smile:
That, too, I remembered. I didn't crush his fingers. I was quite calm. He wanted to say something more. I spared him that, turning away as if I had not noticed anything, and went up the stairs and inside. The stewardess led me between the rows of seats to the very front. I hadn't wanted a private compartment. I wondered if they had told her. My seat unfolded without a sound. She adjusted the back of it, gave me a smile, and left. I sat down. The cushions were engulfingly soft, as everywhere. The back of my seat was so high that I could barely see the other passengers. The bright colors of the women's clothes I had by now learned to accept, but the men I still suspected, irrationally, of affectation, and I had the secret hope that I would come across some dressed normally—a pitiful reflex. People were seated quickly, no one had luggage. Not even a briefcase or a package. The women, too. There seemed to be more of them. In front of me: two mulatto women in parrot-green furs, ruffled like feathers—apparently, that sort of bird style was in fashion. Farther away, a couple with a child. After the garish selenium lights of the platforms and tunnels, after the unbearably shrill incandescent vegetation of the streets, the light from the concave ceiling seemed practically a glow. I did not know what to do with my hands, so I put them on my knees. Everyone was seated now. Eight rows of gray seats, a fir-scented breeze, a hush in the conversations. I expected an announcement about takeoff, signals of some sort, the warning to fasten seat belts, but nothing happened. Across the dull ceiling faint shadows began to move from front to rear, like paper cutouts of birds. What the hell is it with these birds? I wondered, perplexed. Does it mean something? I was numb from the strain of trying not to do anything wrong. This, for four days now. From the very first moment I was invariably behind in everything that went on, and the constant effort to understand the simplest conversation or situation turned that tension into a feeling horribly like despair. I was certain that the others were experiencing the same things, but we did not talk about it, not even when we were alone together. We only joked about our brawn, about that excessive strength that had remained in us, and indeed we had to be on our guard—in the beginning, intending to get up, I would go shooting toward the ceiling, and any object that I held in my hand seemed to be made of paper, empty. But I quickly learned to control my body. In greeting people, I no longer crushed their hands. That was easy. But, unfortunately, the least important.
My neighbor to the left—corpulent, tan, with eyes that shone too much (from contact lenses?)—suddenly disappeared; his seat expanded at the sides, which rose and joined to form a kind of egg-shaped cocoon. A few other people disappeared into such cubicles. Swollen sarcophagi. What did they do in them? But such things I encountered all the time, and tried not to stare, as long as they did not concern me directly. Curiously, the people who gaped at us on learning what we were I treated with indifference. Their dumbfoundedness did not concern me much, although I realized immediately that there was not an iota of admiration in it. What did arouse my antipathy were the ones who looked after us—the staff of Adapt. Dr. Abs most of all, because he treated me the way a doctor would an abnormal patient, pretending, and very well, too, that he was dealing with someone quite ordinary. When that became impossible, he would joke. I had had enough of his direct approach and joviality. If asked about it (or so, at least, I thought), the man on the sheet would say that Olaf or I was similar to himself—we were not so outlandish to him, it was just our past existence that was unusual. Dr. Abs, on the other hand, and all the workers at Adapt, knew better—that we were decidedly different. This differentness was no mark of distinction but only a barrier to communication, to the simplest exchange of words, hell, to the opening of a door, seeing as doorknobs had ceased to exist—what was it?—some fifty or sixty years earlier.
The takeoff came unexpectedly. There was no change at all in gravity, no sound reached the hermetically sealed interior, the shadows swam evenly across the ceiling—it might have been habit established over many years, an old instinct, that told me that at a certain moment we were in space, because it was certainty, not a guess.
But something else was occupying me. I sat half supine, my legs stretched out, motionless. They had let me have my way too easily. Even Oswamm did not oppose my decision too much. The counterarguments that I heard from him and from Abs were unconvincing—I myself could have come up with better. They insisted on one thing only, that each of us fly separately. They did not even hold it against me that I got Olaf to rebel (because if it had not been for me, he definitely would have agreed to stay there longer). That had been odd. I had expected complications, something that would spoil my plan at the last minute, but nothing happened, and now here I was flying. This final journey was to end in fifteen minutes.
Clearly, what I had devised, and the way, too, that I went before them to argue for an earlier departure, did not surprise them. They must have had a reaction of this type catalogued, it was a behavior pattern characteristic of a stalwart such as myself, assigned an appropriate serial number in their psycho-technical tables. They permitted me to fly—why? Because experience had told them that I would not be able to manage on my own? But how could that be, when this whole "independence" escapade involved flying from one terminal to another, where someone from the Earth branch of Adapt would be waiting and all I had to do was to find him at a prearranged location?
Something happened. I heard raised voices. I leaned out of my seat. Several rows in front of me a woman pushed away the stewardess, who, with a slow, automatic motion, as if from the push—though the push had not been all that hard—went backward down the aisle, and the woman repeated, "I won't have it! Don't let that touch me." I did not see the face of the speaker. Her companion pulled at her arm, was saying something to calm her. What was the meaning of this little scene? The other passengers paid no attention to her. For the hundredth time I was possessed by a feeling of incredible alienation. I looked up at the stewardess, who had stopped by my side and was smiling as before. It was not merely an external smile of official politeness, a smile to cover an upsetting incident. She was not pretending to be calm, she truly was calm.
"Something to drink? Prum, extran, morr, cider?"
A melodious voice. I shook my head. I wanted to say something nice to her, but all I could come up with was the stereotyped question:
"When do we land?"
"In six minutes. Would you care for something to eat? There is no need to hurry. You can stay on after we land."
"No, thank you."
She left. In the air, right before my face, against the background of the seat in front of me, a sign that read
lit up, as though written with the glowing end of a cigarette. I bent forward to see where the sign came from, and flinched. The back of my seat moved with my shoulders and clung to them elastically. I knew already that furniture accommodated every change in position, but I kept forgetting. It was not pleasant—as if someone were following my every move. I wanted to return to my former position but apparently overdid it. The seat misunderstood and nearly flattened itself out like a bed. I jumped up. This was idiotic! More control. I sat, finally. The pink letters of
flickered and flowed into others:
. No jolt, no warning, no whistle. Nothing. A distant voice resounded like the horn of a postilion, four oval doors opened at the end of the aisle, and a hollow, all-embracing roar, like that of the sea, rushed in. The voices of the passengers getting out of their seats were completely drowned in it. I remained seated while they exited, a file of silhouettes floating by before the outside lights, green, lilac, purple—a veritable masked ball. Then they were gone. I stood up. Mechanically straightened my sweater. Feeling stupid, somehow, with my hands empty. Through the open door came cooler air. I turned. The stewardess was standing by the partition wall, not touching it with her back. On her face was the same tranquil smile, directed at the empty rows of seats, which now on their own began to roll up, to furl, like fleshy flowers, some faster, some a little more slowly—this was the only movement in the all-embracing, drawn-out roar that flowed in through the oval openings and brought to mind the open sea. "Don't let that touch me!" Suddenly I found something not right in her smile. From the exit I said:
The significance of that reply, so peculiar coming from the lips of a beautiful young woman, I did not immediately grasp, for it reached me when my back was turned, as I was halfway out the door. I went to put my foot on a step, but there was no step. Between the metal hull and the edge of the platform yawned a meter-wide crevice. Caught off balance, unprepared for such a trap, I made a clumsy leap and, in midair, felt an invisible flow of force take hold of me as if from below, so that I floated across the void and was set down softly on a white surface, which yielded elastically. In flight, I must have had a none-too-intelligent expression on my face—I felt a number of amused stares, or so it seemed to me. I quickly turned away and walked along the platform. The rocket on which I had arrived was resting in a deep bay, separated from the edge of the platforms by an unprotected abyss. I drew close to this empty space, as if unintentionally, and for the second time felt an invisible resilience that kept me from crossing the white border. I wanted to locate the source of this peculiar force, but suddenly, as if I were waking up, it occurred to me: I was on Earth.