The Truth, by Stanisław Lem
Here I sit writing in a locked room, where the door has no handle and the windows can’t be opened. They’re made of unbreakable glass. I tried. Not out of a wish to escape or out of rabid fury, I just wanted to be sure. I’m writing at a walnut table. I have plenty of paper. I’m allowed to write. Except no one will ever read it. But I’m writing anyway. I don’t want to be alone, and I can’t read. Everything they give me to read is a lie, the letters start to jump before my eyes and I lose patience. None of what’s in them has been of the least concern to me ever since I realized how things really are. They take great care of me. In the morning there’s a bath, warm or tepid, subtly scented. I’ve learned how to tell the days of the week apart: on Tuesdays and Saturdays the water smells of lavender, and on the other days of pine forest. Then there’s breakfast and the doctor’s visit. One of the junior doctors (I can’t remember his name, not that there’s anything wrong with my memory, it’s just that these days I try not to memorize unimportant things) was interested in my story. I told it to him twice, the whole thing, and he tape-recorded it. I guess he wanted me to repeat it so that he could compare the two accounts, to find out what stayed the same. I told him what I thought, and also that the details weren’t essential.
I also asked if he was planning to work up my story as a so-called clinical case study, to attract the attention of the medical world. He was rather embarrassed. Perhaps I just imagined it, but at any rate, since then he has stopped showing interest in me.
But none of that is of any consequence. The point I have reached, partly by accident, and partly thanks to other circumstances, is in a certain (trivial) way of no consequence either.
There are two kinds of fact. Some can be useful, such as the fact that water boils at one hundred degrees and changes into steam, in accordance with the laws of Boyle-Mariotte and Gay-Lussac; as a result, it was possible to build the steam engine. Other facts do not have the same significance, because they affect everything and there’s no escaping them. They know no exceptions or applications, and in this sense they are useless. They can sometimes have unpleasant consequences for someone.
I would be lying if I claimed to be satisfied with my present situation, or that I am entirely indifferent to what is written in my medical record. But as I know that my only illness is my existence, and that as a consequence of this ailment, which always has a fatal ending, I have reached the truth, I do possess a small degree of satisfaction, like anyone who is right against the majority. In my case, against the entire world.
I can talk like this because Maartens and Ganimaldi are dead. The truth that we jointly discovered killed them. Translated into the language of the majority, these words mean no more than that an unfortunate accident occurred. And indeed it did, but much earlier, about four billion years ago, when sheets of fire torn from the Sun started rolling into balls. That was the point of death, and all the rest, including those dark Canadian spruces outside my window, the twittering of the nurses and my scribblings, are just life beyond the grave. Do you know whose? You really don’t?
But you like to stare into the fire. If you don’t, it’s either out of common sense or cussedness. Just you try to sit down in front of a fire and turn your gaze away from it, and at once you’ll see how it attracts you. We can’t put a name to anything that’s happening in the flames (and there’s a great deal going on). We have at least a dozen terms for it that say nothing. Anyway, I had no idea about that, like any of you. And despite my discovery I have not become a worshiper of fire, just as materialists don’t become, or at any rate don’t have to become, worshipers of material.
Anyway, fire . . . It is just an allusion. A hint. So I feel like laughing whenever nice Dr. Merriah tells someone from outside (naturally, it’s a doctor visiting our model institution), that the man over there, the skinny guy sunning himself, is a pyroparanoiac. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? A pyroparanoiac. Which means that my system that’s at odds with reality has fire as its denominator. As if I believed in the “life of fire” (as the most venerable Dr. Merriah puts it). Of course, there’s not a word of truth in it. The fire we like to stare into is just as alive as photographs of our dear departed. You can spend your whole life studying it and get nowhere. As ever, the reality is more complicated, but also less malicious.
I have written a great deal, but there’s not much substance to it. But that’s mainly because I have lots of time. And I know that once I get to the things that matter, once I’ve told the whole story about them, then I really will be able to plunge into despair. Until the moment these notes are destroyed and I can set about writing new ones. I don’t always write the same thing. I’m not a gramophone record.
I’d like the Sun to peep into my room but at this time of year it only drops by before four, and just briefly. I’d like to observe it through a really good device, such as the one Humphrey Field set up at Mount Wilson four years ago, with a complete set of excess energy absorbers, so that a man can spend hours on end calmly examining the furrowed face of our father. I’m wrong to say that, because it’s not a father. A father gives life, but the Sun is dying bit by bit, just like many billions of other suns.
Perhaps it’s time to start your initiation into the truth that I achieved by accident and inquiry. In those days I was a physicist. An expert on high temperatures. That’s a professional whose main concern is fire, just as a gravedigger’s is humankind. The three of us, Maartens, Ganimaldi, and I, were working on the large Boulder plasma torch. In the past, science operated on the far smaller scale of test tubes, retorts, and tripods, and the results were correspondingly small. We took a billion watts of energy from the interstate bulk transmission grid, released it into the belly of an electromagnet, of which one section alone weighed 70 tons, and at the center of the magnetic field we placed a large quartz tube.
The electrical charge went through the tube, from one electrode to the other, and its power was so great that it tore the electron shell from the atoms, leaving just a mass of red-hot nuclei, a degraded nuclear gas, in other words a plasma that would have exploded in one hundred-billionth of a second, turning us, the armor plating, the quartz, the electromagnets and their concrete anchorage, the stone walls of the building, and its shining dome into a mushroom cloud, and all this would have happened far quicker than it takes to imagine the mere possibility of such an event, if not for the magnetic field.
This field constricted the charge moving inside the plasma, and twisted it into a sort of string pulsating with heat, like a thin thread spouting hard radiation, stretched tight from electrode to electrode, vibrating inside the closed vacuum within the quartz; the magnetic field prevented the naked nuclear particles with a temperature of a million degrees from approaching the walls of the vessel, saving us and our experiment. But you will find all this in any old book, stated in the grandiloquent language of popularization, and I am clumsily repeating it for the sake of order, merely because I have to start somewhere, and it’d be hard to accept a door without a handle or a canvas sack with very long sleeves as the beginning of this story. Though I really am starting to exaggerate, because sacks of that kind, those straitjackets, aren’t used anymore. They’re not necessary, now that a sort of drastically effective tranquillizer has been discovered. But never mind about that.
So we were researching plasma, working on problems to do with plasma, as befitted physicists: theoretically, mathematically, hieratically, grandly, and mysteriously—at least in the sense that we were full of disdain for the pressure imposed by our impatient financial guardians, who knew nothing about science; for they demanded results that would lead to specific applications. At the time it was very fashionable to discuss these results, or at least their likelihood. So, though only on paper for the time being, there was going to be a plasma engine for missiles; also deemed essential was a plasma detonator for hydrogen bombs, those “clean” ones; and a hydrogen core or thermonuclear cell based on the principle of plasma string was going to be designed, in theory. In short, they saw the future, if not of the world, then at least of power engineering and transport, in plasma. As I’ve said, plasma was in fashion, being involved in the research was a good thing, and we were young—we wanted to do the most important work, that might bring us fame and fortune, what do I know? Reduced to primary motives, man’s actions are nothing but a heap of vulgarisms; common sense and moderation, as well as the refinement of analysis, rely on a transverse cut and consolidation being performed at the point of maximum complexity, and not at the source—as everyone knows, there’s nothing very impressive about the source of the Mississippi and anyone can jump across it easily. Hence a certain disdain for sources. But in my usual way I’ve gone off the subject.
After some time, the great plans that our research, and the work of hundreds of other plasma physicists, were supposed to realize ran into a range of effects as incomprehensible as they were unpleasant. Up to a certain limit—to the limit of average temperatures (average in the cosmic sense, and thus of the kind prevalent on the surface of a star), the plasma behaved in a compliant and reliable way. If it was tethered by means of adequate bonds, such as that magnetic field, or certain subtle tricks based on the principle of induction, it let itself be harnessed to a treadmill of practical applications, and its energy could apparently be put to use. Apparently, because more energy went into maintaining the plasma string than was gained from it; the difference went into radiant losses, and the growth of entropy. But for now, the balance didn’t matter, because the theory implied that at higher temperatures the costs would automatically fall. So the prototype of a small jet engine was actually produced, and even a generator of very hard gamma rays, but at the same time the plasma did not fulfill many of the hopes that had been placed in it. The little plasma engine worked, but those designed for greater power exploded or refused to do as they were told. It turned out that within a certain range of thermal and electrodynamic stimuli, the plasma did not behave as the theory had predicted; everyone was indignant about it, because from the mathematical point of view the theory was highly sophisticated and entirely new.
But these things happen—what’s more, they’re bound to happen. And so, not dismayed by this rebellious behavior, many of the theoreticians, including the three of us, set about studying plasma wherever it was at its most insubordinate.
Plasma—and this has a certain relevance to my story—looks quite impressive. In the simplest terms, it resembles a small piece of the Sun, taken from the middle zones, rather than the comparatively cooler chromosphere. It is not inferior to the Sun’s brilliance—on the contrary, it can even surpass it. It has nothing in common with the pale gold dance of those recurring, definitive deaths that wood combined with oxygen performs for us in the fireplace, nor with the pale purple, whistling cone that emerges from a burner nozzle when fluorine reacts with oxygen to produce the highest of chemically achieved temperatures, nor with a Voltaic arc, a bent flame between two carbon craters, though with the best will and all due patience, a researcher could find sites hotter than three thousand degrees. The temperatures achieved by pushing about a million amperes into a thinnish electrical conductor, which then changes into a little cloud that’s pretty warm, or the thermal effects of the shock waves that accompany a cumulative explosion are also left far behind by plasma. By comparison with it, reactions like those can be regarded as cold, positively icy, and we think that not purely because of the accident that caused us to arise out of already completely frozen, necrotized bodies, close to absolute zero; our bold existence is separated from it by only about three hundred degrees on the absolute Kelvin scale, while the top of this scale goes up to billions of degrees. And so it really is no exaggeration to speak of these hottest of possibilities that we are capable of producing in laboratory conditions as phenomena of eternal thermal silence.
The first little flames of plasma that germinated in laboratories were not so hot either—in those days, two hundred thousand degrees was regarded as a temperature worthy of respect, and a million was an unusual achievement. Yet mathematics, that primitive, approximate math, arose out of knowledge of the effects of the sphere of cold, and promised to realize the hopes placed in plasma far higher up on the thermometric scale: it required temperatures that were properly high, almost stellar; I am thinking, of course, of the insides of stars. They must be extremely interesting places, though humankind will probably have to wait a while for a personal presence within them.
And so the need was for temperatures in the millions. They were starting to be achieved, and we too were working on it—and here’s what happened.
As the temperature rises, the speed of the transformations, of whatever kind, increases; for the modest possibilities of the liquid droplet that is our eye, combined with the second, larger drop that constitutes our brain, even the flame of an ordinary candle is in the realm of phenomena that are far too fast to be perceived, let alone the quivering fire of plasma! So we needed to apply other methods; photographs were being taken of plasma discharges, and that’s what we did too. Finally, with the help of several friends who were opticians and mechanical engineers, Maartens contrived a movie camera—an absolute marvel, as far as our options were concerned—that took millions of pictures per second. Never mind the details of its construction, which was highly ingenious, laudable testimony to our zeal. Suffice it to say that we damaged several miles of film, but as a result we obtained a few hundred yards worth our attention, which we projected for ourselves at a decelerated speed—first a thousand, and then ten thousand times slower. We didn’t notice anything special, except that certain flashes, which at first we regarded as an elementary phenomenon, turned out to be agglomerations produced by the superimposition of thousands of very rapid transformations, but eventually these too could be mastered by our primitive mathematics.
We only felt surprise when one day, because of an oversight that still cannot be explained, or for some inculpable reason, an explosion occurred. In fact, it wasn’t a real explosion, because we had no experience of it—it was just that for an apocalyptically tiny fraction of a second, the plasma got the better of the invisible magnetic fields constricting it on all sides, and shattered the thick-walled quartz tube in which it was imprisoned.
By a lucky coincidence, the camera filming the experiment and the tape inside it survived. The entire explosion had lasted for just a millionth of a second, leaving nothing but the charred remains of some drops of melted quartz and metal fired in all directions. Those nanoseconds were recorded on our video as a phenomenon that I shan’t forget to my dying day.
Just before the explosion, the string of plasmatic flame, until now almost uniform, had narrowed at identical intervals like a plucked cord, and then, having broken down into a series of round grains, had ceased to exist as a whole. Each of these grains was growing and changing, the borders of these droplets of atomic heat became fluid, and projections began to come out of them, producing the next generation of droplets; then all these droplets converged toward the center and formed a flattened ball, which, contracting and inflating as if it were breathing, was at the same time sending out on reconnaissance something like fiery tentacles with quivering tips; after that came an instantaneous decomposition—this time on our video too—the disappearance of any kind of organization, and all we could see was a flood of fiery splashes, whipping the field of vision until it sank into total chaos.
I won’t be exaggerating if I say that we watched that tape a hundred times. Then—I admit it was my idea—we invited (not to the laboratory, but to Ganimaldi’s apartment) a well-known biologist, a highly respected celebrity, to come and see us. Without telling him anything in advance, and without any warning, we cut out just the middle part of our notorious video and projected it for our esteemed guest, using a normal camera, but with a dark filter covering the lens, which made the flames look faded, and caused them to resemble an object quite strongly illuminated by falling light.
The professor watched our video, and when the lights came on, he politely expressed surprise that we physicists were interested in matters as remote to us as the life of protozoans in aquaria. I asked if he was sure that what he had seen was definitely a colony of protozoans.
I remember his smile as if it were yesterday.
“The pictures weren’t very sharp,” he said, “and, with apologies, I can see they were taken by nonprofessionals, but I can assure you, gentlemen, that it is not an artifact . . .”
“What do you mean by artifact?” I asked.
“Arte factum, something created artificially. In Schwamm’s day they still used to play around with imitating life forms by releasing drops of chloroform into olive oil; the drops perform amoeba-like movements, they crawl around the bottom of the vessel, and even divide with a change of osmotic pressure at the poles, but these are purely external, primitive likenesses, with as much in common with life as a man has with a tailor’s dummy. The deciding factor is the internal configuration, the microstructure. In your picture, although not distinctly, one can see the division of those single-cell organisms taking place; I cannot define the species and I wouldn’t even swear that they’re not simply cells of animal tissue, cultivated for a long time on artificial foods and treated with hyaluronidase to disconnect them, to unstick them, but at any rate they are cells, because they have a chromosomal apparatus, although defective. Was the environment subjected to the action of a carcinogenic agent?”
We didn’t even exchange glances. We were trying not to reply to his ever more numerous questions. Ganimaldi asked our guest if he’d like to watch the video again, but that didn’t happen, I’ve forgotten why not—maybe the professor was in a hurry, or perhaps he thought there was a practical joke hiding behind our reticence. I really can’t remember. Suffice it to say that we were left alone, and only then, when the door had closed behind this great authority, did we look at each other in genuine stupefaction.
“Listen,” I said, before anyone else could get a word in, “I think we should invite another specialist and show him the uncut video. Now that we know what’s at stake, it has to be a top-drawer expert—in the field of single-cell organisms.”
Maartens suggested one of his university friends, who lived nearby. But he was away; it was a week before he returned, at which point he came for a carefully prepared viewing. Ganimaldi couldn’t decide whether to tell him the truth. He simply showed him the entire video, except for the start, because the image of transformation at the point where the string of plasma narrowed into individual, feverishly quivering drops might offer too much food for thought. Whereas this time we projected the end, that final phase in the existence of the plasmatic amoeba, which flew apart like an explosive charge.
This second specialist, also a biologist, was much younger than the other one, and as a result less pleased with himself, and he also seemed better disposed to Maartens.
“Those are deep-water amoebae of some kind,” he said. “They were blown up by internal pressure, at the moment when the external pressure began to fall. It often happens to deep-sea fish. You can’t bring them up alive from the bottom of the ocean—they always explode from the inside and perish. But where did you get these pictures? Did you lower a camera into the depths of the ocean, or what?”
He was looking at us with rising suspicion.
“The pictures aren’t in focus, are they?” noted Maartens modestly.
“No, but they’re still interesting. Apart from that, the process of division doesn’t proceed quite normally, somehow. I didn’t observe the sequence of stages properly. Run the video again, but more slowly . . .”
We ran it as slowly as physically possible, but it wasn’t much help, and the young biologist wasn’t entirely satisfied.
“Can’t it be run more slowly than that?”
“Why didn’t you take sped-up pictures?”
I was sorely tempted to ask him if he didn’t think five million photos per second was fast enough, but I bit my tongue. After all, this was no laughing matter.
“Yes, the division proceeds abnormally,” he said, when he’d watched the video a third time. “Apart from that, it looks as if it were all happening in a denser medium than water . . . and also, most of the daughter cells of the second generation show growing developmental defects, the mitosis is muddled up, and why do they merge together? It’s very strange . . . Was this done with material of protozoans in a radioactive environment?” he suddenly asked.
I understood his thinking. At the time, there was a lot of talk about the fact that the methods applied to neutralize the radioactive ash produced by atomic cores by sending them to the bottom of the ocean in hermetically sealed containers were extremely risky and could lead to the contamination of seawater.
We assured him he was mistaken, and that it had nothing to do with radioactivity; we had some trouble getting rid of him, now frowning, glaring at each of us in turn and posing more and more questions, to which none of us was willing to reply, because we had agreed in advance that we wouldn’t. The whole thing was too remarkable and too great for us to be able to confide in an outsider, even if he was a good friend of Maartens.
“Now, my dear fellows, we must think what on earth to do with this,” said Maartens, once we were left alone after this second consultation.
“What your biologist took to be a fall in pressure that prompted the ‘amoebae’ to explode was in reality a sudden drop in the intensity of the magnetic field,” I told Maartens.
Ganimaldi, who until now had been silent, gave a sensible reply as usual.
“I think we should conduct some more experiments,” he said.
We were aware of the risk we were taking. By now we knew that though relatively “peaceful” and willing to let itself be subdued at temperatures under a million, somewhere above that limit, the plasma changed into a labile state and ended its ephemeral existence with an explosion, like the one that had occurred at our laboratory. Strengthening the magnetic field only introduced a factor of almost incalculably delaying the explosion. Most physicists believed that the value of certain parameters changed in leaps, and that an entirely new theory of “hot nuclear gas” would be necessary. Moreover, there were already plenty of hypotheses aiming to explain this phenomenon.
In any case, it was quite impossible to think of using hot plasma to propel missiles or cores. This path had been recognized as a false one, leading down a blind alley. The researchers, especially those who were interested in specific results, went back to lower temperatures. That is more or less what the situation was like when we set about our next experiments.
Above a million degrees, the plasma became a material that made a cartload of nitroglycerine seem as harmless as a baby’s rattle. But even this danger could not hold us back. By now we were too intrigued by the unusual revelation we had discovered and were ready for anything. It was quite another matter that we could see a whole lot of horrific obstacles in our way. The last vestiges of clarity brought to the fire-belching abyss of plasma by mathematics disappeared at somewhere around a million, or, according to other, less reliable methods, a million and a half. Beyond that, the calculations were utterly disappointing, because nothing but pure nonsense resulted from them.
So we were left with the old method of trial and error—in other words, experimentation—in the dark, at least in the initial phases. But how were we to protect ourselves against the explosions that threatened to occur at any moment? Blocks of reinforced concrete, the thickest steel armor plating, barriers—up against a small pinch of matter heated to millions of degrees—none of that was any better than a sheet of tissue paper.
“Just imagine,” I told them, “that somewhere, in the cosmic vacuum, close to absolute zero, there are creatures nothing like us, let’s say a kind of metallic organism, that are conducting various experiments. Among others they succeed—never mind how—suffice it to say they succeed in synthesizing a living protein cell. A single amoeba. What will become of it? Of course, only just created, it will immediately fall apart, explode, but its remains will freeze, because in a vacuum, the water contained within it will boil and instantly change into steam while the heat of the protein transmutation will immediately irradiate. Our experimenters, filming their cell with a camera just like ours, will be able to see it for a split second . . . but to keep it alive, they would have to create the appropriate environment for it.”
“Do you really think our plasma engendered a ‘live amoeba’?” asked Ganimaldi. “That this is life made out of fire?”
“What is life?” I replied, sounding like Pontius Pilate when he asked: “What is truth?” “I’m not claiming anything. But at any rate, one thing’s for sure: a cosmic vacuum and cosmic cold are far more favorable conditions for the existence of an amoeba than terrestrial conditions are for the existence of plasma. There is only one environment in which, above a million degrees, it would not be bound to undergo annihilation . . .”
“I understand. A star. The inside of a star,” said Ganimaldi. “You want to create that in the laboratory, around a tube full of plasma? Sure, nothing simpler . . . But first we’d have to set fire to all the hydrogen in the oceans . . .”
“That’s not necessary. Let’s try to do something else.”
“It could be done another way,” said Maartens. “Explode a tritium charge and introduce plasma into the bubble of the explosion.”
“It can’t be done, and you know it. First of all, no one will let you carry out a hydrogen explosion, and even if that weren’t the case, there’s no way of introducing plasma into the heart of an explosion. Anyway, the bubble would only exist for as long as we supplied fresh tritium from the outside.”
After this conversation we parted, in rather gloomy moods, because it looked as if the whole affair was hopeless. But then we started our endless discussions again, and finally we found something that looked like a chance, or at least the pale shadow of one. We needed a magnetic field of incredible intensity and a stellar temperature. This would be the “medium” for the plasma. Its “natural” environment. We decided to conduct an experiment within a field of normal intensity, and then increase its power tenfold in a sudden jump. From our calculations it emerged that the apparatus, our magnetic, eight-hundred-ton monster, would fly apart, or at least the insulation would be melted, but before that, at the brief moment of short circuit, we would have the desired field, for two, perhaps even three hundred thousandths of a second. Compared with the speed of the processes occurring within plasma, this was quite a long time. The entire project had an overtly criminal character, and naturally no one would have allowed us to conduct it. But that was of little concern to us. We cared only about registering the phenomena that would occur at the moment of short circuit and the detonation that followed immediately after.
If we destroyed the apparatus without obtaining a single yard of film or a single picture, our entire effort would be nothing but an act of destruction. Fortunately, the building housing the laboratory was located some fifteen miles away from the city, amid some rolling, grassy hills. At the top of one of these hills we set up an observation post, with a movie camera, telephoto lenses, and all sorts of electronic clutter placed behind a sheet of highly transparent bulletproof glass. We took a series of test pictures, using increasingly powerful telephoto lenses, until at last we decided on one that brought things eighty times closer. It had very weak light, but as plasma is brighter than the Sun, that didn’t matter. By now we were working like conspirators rather than researchers. We took advantage of the fact that it was the holidays, so there was no one else at the laboratory, a state of affairs that was to last for another two weeks or so, in which time we had to do our thing. We knew it wouldn’t happen without a fuss, or even greater unpleasantness, because somehow we’d have to explain the catastrophe—we even thought up various fairly probable excuses designed to make us appear innocent. We had no idea if this crazy project would produce any results at all—the only thing we could be sure of was that the entire laboratory would cease to exist after the explosion. That was all we could count on. We removed the windows and their frames from the wall of the building facing the hilltop; we also had to dismantle and remove the protective barriers from the electromagnet room, so that the source of the plasma was fully visible from our outpost.
We did it on August 6, at seven twenty in the morning, under a cloudless sky, in the full heat of the Sun. In the slope just below the top of the hill, a deep ditch had been dug, from which, by means of a small portable console and cables stretching from the building to the hill, Maartens controlled the processes inside the laboratory. Ganimaldi took care of the camera, while next to him, with my head protruding over the parapet, through the armored glass and a powerful pair of binoculars set up on a tripod, I observed the dark square of the extracted window, in readiness for what was going to happen inside.
“Minus 21 . . . minus 20 . . . minus 19 . . .” recited Maartens in a monotone, without a shadow of emotion, sitting just behind me, above a tangle of cables and switches. In my field of vision, I had total blackness, at the center of which the mercurial vein of heated plasma idly twitched and curved. I couldn’t see the sunbathed dunes, or the grass full of yellow and white flowers, or even the August sky above the dome of the building; the lenses had been thoroughly blackened. When the plasma began to swell in the middle, I was afraid it would blow the tube apart before Maartens could intensify the field by short-circuiting it. I opened my mouth to shout, but just at that moment, Maartens said: “Zero!”
No. The earth did not shake, nor did we hear a boom, but the blackness into which I was staring, like deepest night, went pale. The hole in the laboratory wall filled with orange mist, then became a square sun, at the very center of which there was a blinding flash, then everything was engulfed by a vortex of fire; the hole in the wall grew bigger, shooting out cracks that branched in all directions, oozing smoke and flames, and with a long, drawn-out thunderclap audible for miles around, the dome collapsed onto the crumbling walls. At the same time, I stopped seeing anything through the lenses, removed the binoculars from my eyes, and saw a pillar of smoke spurting into the sky. Ganimaldi was moving his lips vigorously, shouting something, but the thunder was still rolling over us, and I couldn’t hear a thing—it was as if my ears were stuffed with cotton wool. Maartens leaped up from his knees and squeezed in between us to look down, because until then he had been busy with the console; the rumbling stopped. At that point we shouted, probably all three of us.
The cloud, thrown out by the force of the blast, had now risen high above the smoking ruins, which were disintegrating more and more slowly in a swirling haze of chalk dust. A dazzling, elongated flame emerged from it, surrounded by a radiating halo, a second Sun, you’d say, flattened into the shape of a worm. For about a second it hung almost immobile above the smoking rubble, still contracting and elongating, and then it flowed down toward the ground. Now there were black and red circles swimming before my eyes, because this creature, this flame, was belching a glow as bright as the Sun’s, but as it descended I also saw how the tall grass disappeared instantly, leaving a trail of smoke as it surged toward us, half-crawling and half-flying; meanwhile, the halo surrounding it grew wider, so now it resembled the heart of a fiery bladder. The heat of its radiance struck through the panes of armored glass, and the fiery worm disappeared from our sight, but from the quivering of the wind above the slope, from the clouds of steam and sheaves of crackling sparks the bushes were becoming, we knew that it was moving toward the top of the hill. Bumping into each other in a sudden fit of panic, we fled as fast as we could. I know I ran straight ahead, my nape and back scorched by the invisible flame that seemed to be chasing me. I couldn’t see Maartens or Ganimaldi; I was like a blind man, racing ahead, until I tripped over a molehill and crashed into the grass, still wet with nocturnal dew, at the bottom of the next little vale. I was breathing heavily, with my eyelids squeezed tight shut, and although my face was in the grass, suddenly my eyeballs were filled with a sort of red glow, like when the Sun shines on your closed eyes. But to tell the truth, I am no longer entirely sure of it.
At this point, there’s a gap in my memory. I don’t know how long I lay there. I woke up, as if from sleep, face down in the long grass. When I tried moving, I felt a terrible, burning pain in the area of my nape and neck; for quite a time, I didn’t dare raise my head. Finally, I did it. I found myself at the bottom of a vale surrounded by low hillocks; all around me the grass was rippling gently in the breeze, and there were still some shining drops of dew on it, rapidly evaporating in the rays of the Sun, which was making its heat felt to the fullest—as I realized when I gingerly touched the back of my neck and felt some burn blisters. Then I stood up, and looked around for the hill where our observation post had been situated. It took me a long time to make up my mind to go there; I was afraid to. In my mind’s eye, I could still see the dreadful crawling of that solar worm.
“Maartens!” I shouted. “Ganimaldi!”
Instinctively I glanced at my watch; it was five past eight. I put it to my ear—it was going. The explosion had occurred at seven twenty; everything that had happened after it took about half a minute. Had I been unconscious for almost three quarters of an hour?
I walked up the incline. About thirty yards from the top, I came upon the first bald patches of charred ground. They were covered in gray-blue ash, almost cold by now, like the remains of a bonfire that someone had lit here. But it must have been a very strange bonfire, because it hadn’t stayed put.
There was a snaking strip of scorched earth running from it, about half a yard wide; the grass at the edges was charred, and beyond that it had simply gone yellow and withered. This strip ended beyond another circle of charred ground. Beside it, face down, with one knee almost pulled up to his chest, lay a man. Without touching him, I knew he was dead. The clothing, apparently intact, had changed color to a silvery gray; the back of his neck was the same, impossible color, and when I leaned over him, it all began to crumble under my breath.
I leaped back with a cry of horror, but by now there was nothing in front of me but a curled-up, blackish shape, only resembling a human body in general outline. I didn’t know if it was Maartens or Ganimaldi, and I hadn’t the courage to touch it, sensing that it no longer had a face. I raced in great bounds to the top of the hill, but I didn’t try calling anymore. I came upon more evidence of the fiery passage, a winding black path burned to cinders amid the grass, broadening here and there into a circle several yards in diameter.
I was expecting to see a second body, but I didn’t find it. I ran down from the top, where our dugout had been; there was nothing left of the shield of armored glass but a flat shell, melted at the edges, like a frozen puddle. Everything else—the apparatus, the cameras, the console, the binoculars—had ceased to exist, and the dugout itself had caved in as if under pressure from above, leaving just a few scraps of melted metal visible among the stones. I turned my gaze toward the laboratory. It looked as if there had been a heavy aerial bombardment. Between the fused remains of the crumpled walls, small flames of the dying conflagration flickered, barely visible in the sunlight. I hardly took it in, as I tried my best to remember in which direction my companions had run when at the same moment we jumped out of the shelter. Maartens had been on my left-hand side, so perhaps it was his body I had found, but what about Ganimaldi?
I started looking for signs of him, but in vain, because beyond the boundary of the scorched circle, the grass was upright again. I ran on, until I found another charred strip and began to walk along it like a downhill path that crunched under the soles of my shoes . . . until I froze. The ashes broadened out; blades of dead grass surrounded a space measuring no more than two yards, of an irregular shape. On one side it was narrower, on the other it widened . . . altogether it resembled a misshapen, flattened cross, covered in a fairly thick layer of blackish dust, as if a wooden figure, thrown on its back with its arms outspread, had taken a long time to burn out here . . . But maybe it was just an illusion? I don’t know.
I had long since seemed to be hearing a shrill wail in the distance, but I took no notice of it. Human voices were reaching me too—but they were of no concern to me either. Suddenly, I saw some tiny figures of people running toward me; my first instinct was to fall to the ground, as if wanting to hide, and I even crawled away from the ashes and jumped aside; as I was running down the other slope they suddenly appeared, coming at me from two directions. I felt my legs refuse to obey me, and anyway, it was all the same to me.
I don’t quite know why I tried to run away—if it was an attempt to escape. I sat down on the grass, and they surrounded me; one of them leaned over me, saying something, but I told him to stop, and to look for Ganimaldi instead, because I was fine. When they tried to pick me up, I defended myself, then someone took me by the arm, and I screamed in pain. Then I felt a prick and lost consciousness. I woke up in the hospital.
My memory was perfectly intact. The only thing I didn’t know was how much time had passed since the catastrophe. My head was still in bandages, and the burns were making their presence known through acute pain that intensified with every movement, so I did my best to remain as calm as possible. Anyway, the experiences I had in the hospital, all the skin grafts they gave me for months on end, are of no significance, nor is any of what happened afterward. Nothing else could have happened anyway. It was many weeks before I read the official version of the accident in the newspapers. A simple explanation had been found, which was self-evident in any case. The laboratory had been destroyed by a plasma explosion; engulfed by flames, three men had tried to escape—Ganimaldi had perished in the building, under the rubble; Maartens had died in his flaming clothing, having run to the top of the hill; and I had come out of the accident burned, in a state of severe shock. Absolutely no attention was paid to the ashen trails amid the grass, as above all, it was the ruins of the laboratory that had been examined. Moreover, someone had claimed that the grass had been set alight by the burning Maartens, who had rolled across it in an effort to put out the flames. And so on.
I considered it my duty to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences, if only out of respect for Ganimaldi and Maartens. I was very gently given to understand that my version of events was the result of shock, so-called secondary delusion; I had not yet recovered my mental equilibrium. When I started to protest vehemently, my agitation was taken to be a symptom confirming the diagnosis. About a week later, the next conversation took place.
This time, I endeavored to argue more dispassionately. I told them about the first video we had made, which was to be found at Maartens’s apartment, but a search brought no result. I guessed Maartens had done something he had once mentioned in passing—he must have put the film in a bank deposit box. As everything he had on him had been totally destroyed, nothing was left of the key or the deposit slip. To this day, the film must be lying in a safe. So here too I lost; but I refused to give up, and thanks to my repeated demands, there was a site inspection. I said I could prove everything on the spot; again, the doctors decided that once I was there, perhaps my memory of “real” events would return. I wanted to show them the cables that we had extended to the top of the hill, to the dugout. But those cables were gone too. I claimed that if they weren’t there, they must have been removed later, maybe by the crew fighting the fire. I was told that I was mistaken—nobody had taken any cables away, because they did not exist beyond my imagination.
It was only then, out there, among the hills, under the bright blue sky, close to the now blackened and as if shrunken ruins of the laboratory, that I realized exactly what had happened. The worm of fire had not killed us. It hadn’t wanted to kill us. It knew nothing about us, we were of no concern to it. Created by the explosion, it had crept out of it, and then picked up the rhythm of the signals that were still pulsating in the cables, because Maartens had not switched off the controls. It was toward its source, toward the source of the electrical impulses, that the fire creature had crawled—not a conscious being, but a solar earthworm, a cylindrical cloud of organized heat . . . that had less than a minute of existence ahead of it. The evidence of this was its growing halo; the temperature that had enabled its existence was falling abruptly—at every instant, it must have been losing gigantic amounts of energy, it was radiating it, but it had nowhere to get more of it from, so it writhed spasmodically along the cables carrying electricity, instantly reducing them to steam, to gas. Maartens and Ganimaldi had found themselves in its path by accident—at any rate, it had definitely not approached them. They had fled; Maartens had been hit by the thermal blow of the passage of fire a few dozen steps from the top, and Ganimaldi, perhaps completely blinded, had lost his sense of direction and run straight into an abyss of blazing agony.
Yes, the fire creature had perished there, at the top of the hill, writhing senselessly, sinuously amid the grass, in a violent and futile search for sources of the energy that was trickling out of it, like blood from veins. It had killed them both without knowing it. Anyway, the grass had grown over the ashen trails.
When I got there with the two doctors, an unfamiliar man who was apparently with the police, and Professor Guilsh, they could no longer be found, although barely three months had passed since the catastrophe. It was all overgrown with grass, including the spot where the shadow of a crucified figure had been. The grass there was particularly lush. Everything seemed to be conspiring against me, because the dugout was in fact still there, but someone had turned it into a garbage dump; there was nothing at the bottom of it but some rusty scrap metal and some empty cans. I insisted that the remains of the armored glass, which had melted there, must be underneath the trash. We dug around in it, but we couldn’t find any glass except for a few splinters, some a bit melted. The people who were with me decided they were from some ordinary bottles that someone had smashed and then melted in a furnace to reduce their volume before throwing them into the trash can. I wanted the glass to be analyzed, but that didn’t happen. I had just one trump card left—the young biologist and the professor, because both of them had seen our video. The professor was in Japan and wouldn’t be back until the spring, and Maartens’s friend admitted that we had indeed shown him that video—but it was of deep-sea amoebae, not nuclear plasma. He confirmed that in his presence, Maartens had categorically denied that it could show anything else.
And that was the truth. Maartens had said that because we’d made an agreement, wishing to keep it all a secret. And so the matter was closed.
But what had happened to the fire worm? Perhaps it had exploded while I was lying unconscious, or perhaps it ended its fleeting existence quietly; the former is just as probable as the latter.
With all this, they would probably have let me go as harmless, but I proved obstinate. The catastrophe that had carried off Maartens and Ganimaldi obliged me to be. During my convalescence I demanded various books. I was given everything I wanted. I studied all the literature on the topic of the Sun, and learned everything that is known about solar prominences and globe lightning. The idea that the fire worm had something in common with this sort of lightning was suggested to me by a certain similarity in their behavior. Ball lightning, a phenomenon that still remains unexplained and is a mystery to the physicists, appears in the environment of powerful electrical charges, during storms. These formations, resembling blazing balls or pearls, are carried freely in the air; sometimes they yield to its currents, drafts, and winds, and sometimes they sail against them. They are attracted by metal objects and electromagnetic waves, especially very short ones—they are drawn to places where the air is ionized. They love to circle around wires carrying electricity. They seem to be trying to drink it up. But they don’t succeed. On the other hand, it is probable—or so at least some of the experts claim—that they are “fed” by decametric waves via a channel of ionized air that is created by the parental linear lightning that produced them.
But the energy that escapes from the balls exceeds the amount they absorb, and so their life only lasts about half a minute. Having lit up the surrounding area with a blue-and-yellow flash, and having revolved within it in a flickering, blue flight, they end by suddenly exploding, or else they dissolve and die out almost noiselessly. They are not living creatures, of course; they have as much in common with life as those drops of chloroform released into olive oil that the professor told us about.
Was the fire worm that we created alive? To anyone who asks me that question, not of course to tease a madman, which I am not, I will give the honest answer: I don’t know. But the mere uncertainty, this ignorance, conceals the possibility of a revolution in our knowledge that has never haunted anyone in their wildest dreams.
There exists—so I am told—only one kind of life: the development of proteins that is familiar to us, divided into the realms of plants and animals. At temperatures removed from absolute zero, in barely three hundred small steps, evolution occurs, and its crowning glory is the human being. Only man and those like him can oppose the tendency prevalent throughout the Universe for chaos to grow. Yes, according to this statement, everything is chaos and disorder—the terrible heat inside stars, the walls of fire of galactic nebulae set alight by mutual penetration, the gas balls of suns; after all—say those sober, rational, and thus undoubtedly correct people—no device, no kind of organization, not even the smallest trace of it can appear in oceans of boiling fire; suns are blind volcanoes that spit out planets, while planets, exceptionally and rarely, sometimes create man—everything else is the lifeless fury of degenerate atomic gases, a swarm of apocalyptic fires shaking their prominences.
I’m smiling as I listen to this self-apologetic lecture, which is the result of blinding megalomania. There exist—so I say—two levels of life. One of them, powerful and immense, has taken control of the entire visible Cosmos. Things that we see as a danger, threatening us with annihilation—stellar heat, giant fields of magnetic potentials, monstrous eruptions of flame—are, for this life-form, a set of conditions that are not just benign and favorable, but more than that, are necessary.
It’s chaos, you say? A seething mass of lifeless fire? So why does the surface of the Sun, as observed by the astronomers, show such a vast multitude of regular, though incomprehensible phenomena? Why are those magnetic whirlpools so astonishingly smooth? Why are there rhythmic cycles in the activity of stars, just as there are cycles in the metabolism of every living system? Man is familiar with a daily and a monthly rhythm; as well as that, within the space of his life, the opposing forces of growth and dying fight within him; the Sun has an eleven-year cycle, and every quarter of a billion years it undergoes a “depression,” its climacteric, which causes terrestrial ice ages. Man is born, grows older, and dies—just like a star.
You may be listening, but you don’t believe me. And you feel like laughing. You’re longing to ask me, just for mockery now, if perhaps I believe in the consciousness of stars? Do I believe that they think? I don’t know that either. But instead of casually condemning my insanity, take a good look at those prominences. Try just once to watch a video made during a solar eclipse, when those flaming worms emerge and move hundreds of thousands, millions of miles away from the matrix, in order finally, in bizarre, incomprehensible evolutions, stretching and contracting into ever new forms, to dissipate and perish in space, or to return to the white-hot ocean that produced them. I am not claiming they are the Sun’s fingers. They could just as well be its parasites.
All right, so be it—you say—for the sake of our discussion, so that this conversation—original, though at risk of being overly absurd—won’t come to a premature end, there’s something else we’d like to know. Why don’t we try to communicate with the Sun? Let’s bombard it with radio waves. Perhaps it will respond? If not, your thesis will be invalidated . . .
I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it? Remember what our first video showed—in a millionth of a second an amoeba of fire metamorphosed into two generations of descendants. The difference in speed also has certain (certain . . .) significance. First communicate with the bacteria in your bodies, with the bushes in your gardens, with the bees and their flowers, and then you’ll be able to consider what methods to use for sharing information with the Sun.
If so—the most good-natured of skeptics will say—it will all turn out to be just . . . a rather original point of view. Your opinions can do nothing to change the existing world, now or in the future. The question of whether or not a star is a creature, whether or not it is “alive” is a matter of mutual agreement, of willingness to accept this term and nothing more. In short, you have told us a fairy tale . . .
No, I reply. You’re wrong. For you think the Earth is a crumb of life within an ocean of nothingness. You think man is solitary, and has the stars, the nebulae, the galaxies as adversaries, as enemies. You think the only knowledge that can be obtained is the kind he has possessed and will continue to possess—man, the only creator of Order, endlessly threatened by a deluge of infinity that radiates distant points of light. But that is not the case. The hierarchy of active endurance is omnipresent. Anyone who so wishes may call it life. On its peaks, at the heights of energy arousal, fiery organisms endure. Just before the limit, at the point of absolute zero, in the land of darkness and of the final, hardening breath, life appears once more, as a weak reflection of that one, as its pale, dying memory—that is us. So look, and learn humility as well as hope, because one day the Sun will become a nova, and will embrace us with the merciful arm of a conflagration, and thus, returning into the eternal whirligig of life, becoming particles of its greatness, we shall achieve more profound knowledge than may fall to the lot of the inhabitants of a glacial zone. You do not believe me. I knew it. Now I shall gather up these written pages in order to destroy them, but tomorrow or the day after, I shall sit down at the empty table again, and start to write the truth.
Stanisław Lem (1921–2006), a writer called “worthy of the Nobel Prize” by the New York Times, was an internationally renowned author of novels, short stories, literary criticism, and philosophical essays. His books have been translated into 44 languages and have sold more than 30 million copies. This story is excerpted from “The Truth and Other Stories.”