EARTH was so far away that it wasn’t visible. Even the sun was only a twinkle. But this vast distance did not mean that isolation could endure forever. Instruments within the ship intercepted radio broadcasts and, within the hour, early TV signals. Machines compiled dictionaries and grammars and began translating the major languages. The history of the planet was tabulated as facts became available.
The course of the ship changed slightly; it was not much out of the way to swing nearer Earth. For days the two within the ship listened and watched with little comment. They had to decide soon.
The ship, for reasons that had to do with the politics of appropriations, was named Senator Joseph L. Holloway, but the press and the public called her Big Joe. Her captain, six-star Admiral Heselton, thought of her as Great Big Joe, and never fully got over being awestruck at the size of his command.
“She’s a mighty big ship, Rogers,” he said proudly to the navigator, ignoring the latter’s rather vacant stare and fixed smile. “More than a mile long, and wider than hell.” He waved his hands expansively. “She’s never touched down on Earth, you know. Never will. Too big for that. They built her on the moon. The cost? Well…”
Swiveling his chair around, Heselton slowly surveyed the ship’s control room with a small, satisfied smile. The two pilots sitting far forward, almost hidden by their banks of instruments, the radar operators idly watching their scopes, the three flight engineers sitting intently at their enormous control consoles, and, just behind, the radio shack—its closed door undoubtedly hiding a game of cards. For weeks now, as Big Joe moved across the galaxy’s uncharted fringe, the radio bands had been completely dead, except, of course, for the usual star static hissing and burbling in the background.
Legend had it, that many thousands of years ago, right after the Great Horror, the whole continent of the west had slowly sunk beneath the West Water, and that once every century it arose during a full moon. Still, Captain Hinrik clung to the hope that the legend would not be borne out by truth. Perhaps the west continent still existed; perhaps, dare he hope, with civilization. The crew of the Semilunis thought him quite mad. After all, hadn’t the east and south continents been completely annihilated from the great sky fires; and wasn’t it said that they had suffered but a fraction of what the west continent had endured?
The Semilunis anchored at the mouth of a great river. The months of fear and doubt were at end. Here, at last, was the west continent. A small party of scouts was sent ashore with many cautions to be alert for luminescent areas which meant certain death for those who remained too long in its vicinity. Armed with bow and arrow, the party made its way slowly up the great river. Nowhere was to be seen the color green, only dull browns and greys. And no sign of life, save for an occasional patch of lichen on a rock.
After several days of rowing, the food and water supply was almost half depleted and still no evidence of either past or present habitation. It was time to turn back, to travel all the weary months across the West Water, the journey all in vain. What a small reward for such an arduous trip … just proof of the existence of a barren land mass, ugly and useless.
On the second day of the return to the Semilunis, the scouting party decided to stop and investigate a huge opening in the rocky mountainside. How suspiciously regular and even it looked, particularly in comparison to the rest of the countryside which was jagged and chaotic.
They entered the cave apprehensively, torches aflare and weapons in hand. But all was darkness and quiet. Still, the regularity of the cave walls led them on. Some creature, man or otherwise, must have planned and built this … but to what end? Now the cave divided into three forks. The torches gave only a hint of the immensity of the chambers that lay at the end of each. They selected the center chamber, approaching cautiously, breath caught in awe and excitement. The torches reflected on a dull black surface which was divided into many, many little squares. The sameness of them stretched for uncountable yards in all directions. What were these ungodly looking edifices? The black surface was cold and smooth to the touch and quite regular except for a strange little hole at the bottom of each square and a curious row of pictures along the top.
They would copy these strange pictures. Perhaps back home there would be a scholar who would understand the meaning behind these last remains of the people of the west continent. The leader took out his slate and painstakingly copied:
Safeguard your valuables at ALLEGHANY MOUNTAIN VAULTS Box #4544356782
Therese Windser’s short story, “Longevity”, was first published in the May 1960 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories.