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´╗┐Title: Out Around Rigel
Author: Wilson, Robert H.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Out Around Rigel" ***

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Transcriber's notes are indicated in the text by [TN-#].


[Illustration: _I caught his hand and pulled him to safety._]



Out Around Rigel

By Robert H. Wilson


[Note: An astounding chronicle of two Lunarians' conquest of time and
interstellar space.]

The sun had dropped behind the Grimaldi plateau, although for a day
twilight would linger over the Oceanus Procellarum. The sky was a hazy
blue, and out over the deeper tinted waves the full Earth swung. All the
long half-month it had hung there above the horizon, its light dimmed by
the sunshine, growing from a thin crescent to its full disk three times
as broad as that of the sun at setting. Now in the dusk it was a great
silver lamp hanging over Nardos, the Beautiful, the City Built on the
Water. The light glimmered over the tall white towers, over the white
ten-mile-long adamantine bridge running from Nardos to the shore, and
lit up the beach where we were standing, with a brightness that seemed
almost that of day.

"Once more, Garth," I said. "I'll get that trick yet."

The skin of my bare chest still smarted from the blow of his wooden
fencing sword. If it had been the real two-handed Lunarian dueling
sword, with its terrible mass behind a curved razor edge, the blow would
have produced a cut deep into the bone. It was always the same, ever
since Garth and I had fenced as boys with crooked laths. Back to back,
we could beat the whole school, but I never had a chance against him.
Perhaps one time in ten--

"On guard!"

The silvered swords whirled in the Earth-light. I nicked him on one
wrist, and had to duck to escape his wild swing at my head. The wooden
blades were now locked by the hilts above our heads. When he stepped
back to get free, I lunged and twisted his weapon. In a beautiful
parabola, Garth's sword sailed out into the water, and he dropped to the
sand to nurse his right wrist.

"Confound your wrestling, Dunal. If you've broken my arm on the eve of
my flight--"

"It's not even a sprain. Your wrists are weak. And I supposed you've
always been considerate of me? Three broken ribs!"

"For half a cent--"

       *       *       *       *       *

He was on his feet, and then Kelvar came up and laid her hand on his
shoulder. Until a few minutes before she had been swimming in the surf,
watching us. The Earth-light shimmered over her white skin, still
faintly moist, and blazed out in blue sparkles from the jewels of the
breastplates and trunks she had put on.

When she touched Garth, and he smiled, I wanted to smash in his dark
face and then take the beating I would deserve. Yet, if she preferred
him-- [TN-1]And the two of us had been friends before she was born. I
put out my hand.

"Whatever happens, Garth, we'll still be friends?"

"Whatever happens."

We clasped hands.

"Garth," Kelvar said, "it's getting dark. Show us your ship before you
go."

"All right." He had always been like that--one minute in a black rage,
the next perfectly agreeable. He now led the way up to a cliff hanging
over the sea.

"There," said Garth, "is the _Comet_. Our greatest step in conquering
distance. After I've tried it out, we can go in a year to the end of the
universe. But, for a starter, how about a thousand light-years around
Rigel in six months?" His eyes were afire. Then he calmed down.
"Anything I can show you?"

[Note: Editor's Note: The manuscript, of which a translation is here
presented, was discovered by the rocket-ship expedition to the moon
three years ago. It was found in its box by the last crumbling ruins of
the great bridge mentioned in the narrative. Its final translation is a
tribute at once to the philological skill of the Earth and to the
marvelous dictionary provided by Dunal, the Lunarian. Stars and lunar
localities will be given their traditional Earth names; and measures of
time, weight, and distance have been reduced, in round numbers, to
terrestrial equivalents. Of the space ship described, the _Comet_, no
trace has been found. It must be buried under the rim of one of the
hundreds of nearby Lunar craters--the result, as some astronomers have
long suspected and as Dunal's story verifies, of a great swarm of
meteors striking the unprotected, airless moon.]

       *       *       *       *       *

I had seen the _Comet_ before, but never so close. With a hull of
shining helio-beryllium--the new light, inactive alloy of a metal and a
gas--the ship was a cylinder about twenty feet long, by fifteen in
diameter, while a pointed nose stretched five feet farther at each end.
Fixed in each point was a telescopic lens, while there were windows
along the sides and at the top--all made, Garth informed us, of another
form of the alloy almost as strong as the opaque variety. Running
half-way out each end were four "fins" which served to apply the power
driving the craft. A light inside showed the interior to be a single
room, ten feet high at the center of its cylindrical ceiling, with a
level floor.

"How do you know this will be the bottom?" I asked, giving the vessel a
shove to roll it over. But it would not budge. Garth laughed.

"Five hundred pounds of mercury and the disintegrators are under that
floor, while out in space I have an auxiliary gravity engine to keep my
feet there."

"You see, since your mathematical friends derived their identical
formulas for gravity and electromagnetism, my job was pretty easy. As
you know, a falling body follows the line of least resistance in a field
of distortion of space caused by mass. I bend space into another such
field by electromagnetic means, and the _Comet_ flies down the track.
Working the mercury disintegrators at full power, I can get an
acceleration of two hundred miles per second, which will build up the
speed at the midpoint of my trip to almost four thousand times that of
light. Then I'll have to start slowing down, but at the average speed
the journey will take only six months or so."

       *       *       *       *       *

"But can anyone stand that acceleration?" Kelvar asked.

"I've had it on and felt nothing. With a rocket exhaust shoving the
ship, it couldn't be done, but my gravitational field attracts the
occupant of the _Comet_ just as much as the vessel itself."

"You're sure," I interrupted, "that you have enough power to keep up the
acceleration?"

"Easily. There's a two-thirds margin of safety."

"And you haven't considered that it may get harder to push? You know the
increase of mass with velocity. You can't take one-half of the
relativity theory without the other. And they've actually measured the
increase of weight in an electron."

"The electron never knew it; it's all a matter of reference points. I
can't follow the math, but I know that from the electron's standards it
stayed exactly the same weight. Anything else is nonsense."

"Well, there may be a flaw in the reasoning, but as they've worked it
out, nothing can go faster than light. As you approach that velocity,
the mass keeps increasing, and with it the amount of energy required for
a new increase in speed. At the speed of light, the mass would be
infinite, and hence no finite energy could get you any further."

"Maybe so. It won't take long to find out."

A few of the brightest stars had begun to appear. We could just see the
parallelogram of Orion, with red Betelguese at one corner, and across
from it Rigel, scintillant like a blue diamond.

"See," Garth said, pointing at it. "Three months from now, that's where
I'll be. The first man who dared to sail among the stars."

"Only because you don't let anyone else share the glory and the danger."

"Why should I? But you wouldn't go, anyway."

"Will you let me?"

I had him there.

"On your head be it. The _Comet_ could hold three or four in a pinch,
and I have plenty of provisions. If you really want to take the
chance--"

"It won't be the first we've taken together."

"All right. We'll start in ten minutes." He went inside the ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Don't go," Kelvar whispered, coming into the _Comet's_ shadow. "Tell
him anything, but don't go."

"I've got to. I can't go back on my word. He'd think I was afraid."

"Haven't you a right to be?"

"Garth is my friend and I'm going with him."

"All right. But I wish you wouldn't."

From inside came the throb of engines.

"Kelvar," I said, "you didn't worry when only Garth was going."

"No."

"And there's less danger with two to keep watch."

"I know, but still...."

"You are afraid for _me_?"

"I am afraid for you."

My arm slipped around her, there in the shadow.

"And when I come back, Kelvar, we'll be married?"

In answer, she kissed me. Then Garth was standing in the doorway of the
_Comet_.

"Dunal, where are you?"

We separated and came out of the shadow. I went up the plank to the
door, kicking it out behind me. Kelvar waved, and I called something or
other to her. Then the door clanged shut. Seated before the control
board at the front of the room, Garth held the switch for the two
projectors.

"Both turned up," he yelled over the roar of the generators. His hands
swung over and the noise died down, but nothing else seemed to have
happened. I turned back again to look out the little window fixed in the
door.

       *       *       *       *       *

Down far below, I could see for a moment the city of Nardos with its
great white bridge, and a spot that might be Kelvar. Then there was only
the ocean, sparkling in the Earth-light, growing smaller, smaller. And
then we had shot out of the atmosphere into the glare of the sun and a
thousand stars.

On and up we went, until the moon was a crescent with stars around it.
Then Garth threw the power forward.

"Might as well turn in," he told me. "There'll be nothing interesting
until we get out of the solar system and I can put on real speed. I'll
take the first trick."

"How long watches shall we stand?"

"Eighteen hours ought to match the way we have been living. If you have
another preference--"

"No, that will be all right. And I suppose I might as well get in some
sleep now."

I was not really sleepy, but only dazed a little by the adventure. I
fixed some things on the floor by one of the windows and lay down,
switching out the light. Through a top window the sunlight slanted down
to fall around Garth, at his instrument board, in a bright glory. From
my window I could see the Earth and the gleaming stars.

The Earth was smaller than I had ever seen it before. It seemed to be
moving backward a little[TN-2], and even more, to be changing phase. I
closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, sleepily, the bright area
was perceptibly smaller. If I could stay awake long enough, there would
be only a crescent again. If I could stay awake--But I could not....

       *       *       *       *       *

Only the rattling of dishes as Garth prepared breakfast brought me back
to consciousness. I got to my feet sheepishly.

"How long have I slept?"

"Twenty hours straight. You looked as if you might have gone on forever.
It's the lack of disturbance to indicate time. I got in a little myself,
once we were out of the solar system."

A sandwich in one hand, I wandered over the vessel. It was reassuringly
solid and concrete. And yet there was something lacking.

"Garth," I asked, "what's become of the sun?"

"I thought you'd want to know that." He led me to the rear telescope.

"But I don't see anything."

"You haven't caught on yet. See that bright yellowish star on the edge
of the constellation Scorpio. That's it."

Involuntarily, I gasped. "Then--how far away are we?"

"I put on full acceleration fifteen hours ago, when we passed Neptune,
and we have covered thirty billion miles--three hundred times as far as
from the moon to the sun, but only one half of one per cent of a
light-year."

I was speechless, and Garth led me back to the control board. He pointed
out the acceleration control, now turned up to its last notch forward;
he also showed me the dials which were used to change our direction.

"Just keep that star on the cross hairs. It's Pi Orionis, a little out
of our course, but a good target since it is only twenty-five
light-years away. Half the light is deflected on this screen, with a
delicate photo-electric cell at its center. The instant the light of the
star slips off it, a relay is started which lights a red lamp here, and
in a minute sounds a warning bell. That indicator over there shows our
approach to any body. It works by the interaction of the object's
gravitational field with that of my projector, and we can spot anything
sizable an hour away. Sure you've got everything?"

       *       *       *       *       *

It all seemed clear. Then I noticed at the top three clock-like dials;
one to read days, another to record the speeds of light, and the third
to mark light-years traveled.

"These can't really work?" I said. "We have no way to check our speed
with outer space."

"Not directly. This is geared with clockwork to represent an estimate
based on the acceleration. If your theory is right, then the dials are
all wrong."

"And how long do you expect to go ahead without knowing the truth?"

"Until we ought to be at Pi Orionis. At two weeks and twenty-five
light-years by the dials, if we aren't there we'll start back. By your
figuring, we shouldn't be yet one light-year on the way. Anything more?"

"No, I think I can manage it."

"Wake me if anything's wrong. And look out for dark stars." Then he had
left me there at the controls. In five minutes he was asleep and the
whole ship was in my hands.

       *       *       *       *       *

For hours nothing happened. Without any control of mine, the ship went
straight ahead. I could get up and walk about, with a weather eye on the
board, and never was there the flash of a danger light. But I was unable
to feel confident, and went back to look out through the glass.

The stars were incredibly bright and clear. Right ahead were Betelguese
and Rigel, and the great nebula of Orion still beyond. There was no
twinkling, but each star a bright, steady point of light. And if Garth's
indicators were correct, we were moving toward them at a speed now
seventy-five times that of light itself. If they were correct.... How
could one know, before the long two weeks were over?

But before I could begin to think of any plan, my eye was caught by the
red lamp flashing on the panel. I pressed the attention button before
the alarm could ring, then started looking for the body we were in
danger of striking. The position indicators pointed straight ahead, but
I could see nothing. For ten minutes I peered through the telescope, and
still no sign. The dials put the thing off a degree or so to the right
now, but that was too close. In five more minutes I would swing straight
up and give whatever it was a wide berth.

I looked out again. In the angle between the cross hairs, wasn't there a
slight haze? In a moment it was clear. A comet, apparently, the two of
us racing toward each other. Bigger it grew and bigger, hurtling
forward. Would we hit?

The dials put it up a little and far off to the right, but it was still
frightening. The other light had come on, too, and I saw that we had
been pulled off our course by the comet's attraction. I threw the nose
over, past on the other side for leeway, then straightened up as the
side-distance dial gave a big jump away. Though the gaseous globe,
tailless of course away from the sun, showed as big as the full Earth,
the danger was past.

       *       *       *       *       *

As I watched, the comet vanished from the field of the telescope. Five
minutes, perhaps, with the red danger light flickering all the time.
Then, with a ghastly flare through the right hand windows, it had passed
us.

Garth sat straight up. "What happened?" he yelled.

"Just a comet. I got by all right."

He settled back, having been scarcely awake, and I turned to the board
again. The danger light had gone out, but the direction indicator was
burning. The near approach of the comet had thrown us off our course by
several degrees. I straightened the ship up easily, and had only a
little more difficulty in stopping a rocking motion. Then again the
empty hours of watching, gazing into the stars.

Precisely at the end of eighteen hours, Garth awakened, as if the
consummation of a certain number of internal processes had set off a
little alarm clock in his brain. We were forty-one hours out, with a
speed, according to the indicator, of one hundred and twenty-eight times
that of light, and a total distance covered of slightly over one quarter
of a light-year. A rather small stretch, compared to the 466 light-years
we had to go. But when I went back for a look out of the rear telescope,
the familiar stars seemed to have moved the least bit closer together,
and the sun was no brighter than a great number of them.

I slept like a log, but awakened a little before my trick was due.

       *       *       *       *       *

Exactly on schedule, fourteen days and some hours after we had started
off, we passed Pi Orionis. For long there had been no doubt in my mind
that, whatever the explanation, our acceleration was holding steady. In
the last few hours the star swept up to the brilliance of the sun, then
faded again until it was no brighter than Venus. Venus! Our sun itself
had been a mere dot in the rear telescope until the change in our course
threw it out of the field of vision.

At sixty-five light-years, twenty-three days out, Beta Eridani was
almost directly in our path for Rigel. Slightly less than a third of the
distance to the midpoint, in over half the time. But our speed was still
increasing 200 miles a second every second, almost four times the speed
of light in an hour. Our watches went on with a not altogether
disagreeable monotony.

There was no star to mark the middle of our journey. Only, toward the
close of one of my watches, a blue light which I had never noticed came
on beside the indicator dials, and I saw that we had covered 233
light-years, half the estimated distance to Rigel. The speed marker
indicated 3975 times the speed of light. I wakened Garth.

"You could have done it yourself," he complained, sleepily, "but I
suppose it's just as well."

He went over to the board and started warming up the rear gravity
projector.

"We'll turn one off as the other goes on. Each take one control, and go
a notch at a time." He began counting, "One, two, three ..."

On the twentieth count, my dial was down to zero, his up to maximum
deceleration, and I pulled out my switch. Garth snapped sideways a lever
on the indicators. Though nothing seemed to happen, I knew that the
speed dial would creep backward, and the distance dial progress at a
slower and slower rate. While I was trying to see the motion, Garth had
gone back to bed. I turned again to the glass and looked out at Rigel,
on the cross hairs, and Kappa Orionis, over to the left, and the great
nebula reaching over a quarter of the view with its faint gaseous
streamers.

       *       *       *       *       *

And so we swept on through space, with Rigel a great blue glory ahead,
and new stars, invisible at greater distances, flaring up in front of us
and then fading into the background as we passed. For a long time we had
been able to see that Rigel, as inferred from spectroscopic evidence,
was a double star--a fainter, greener blue companion revolving with it
around their common center of gravity. Beyond Kappa Orionis, three
hundred light-years from the sun, the space between the two was quite
evident. Beyond four hundred light-years, the brilliance of the vast
star was so great that it dimmed all the other stars by comparison, and
made the nebula seem a mere faint gauze. And yet even with this gradual
change, our arrival was a surprise.

When he relieved me at my watch, Garth seemed dissatisfied with our
progress. "It must be farther than they've figured. I'll stick at
twenty-five times light speed, and slow down after we get there by
taking an orbit."

"I'd have said it was nearer than the estimate," I tried to argue, but
was too sleepy to remember my reasons. Propped up on one elbow, I looked
around and out at the stars. There was a bright splash of light, I
noticed, where the telescope concentrated the radiation of Rigel at one
spot on the screen. I slept, and then Garth was shouting in my ear:

"We're there!"

I opened my eyes, blinked, and shut them again in the glare.

"I've gone around three or four times trying to slow down. We're there,
and there's a planet to land on."

       *       *       *       *       *

At last I could see. Out the window opposite me, Rigel was a blue-white
disk half the size of the sun, but brighter, with the companion star a
sort of faint reflection five or ten degrees to the side. And still
beyond, as I shaded my eyes, I could see swimming in the black a speck
with the unmistakable glow of reflected light.

With both gravity projectors in readiness, we pulled out of our orbit
and straight across toward the planet, letting the attraction of Rigel
fight against our still tremendous speed. For a while, the pull of the
big star was almost overpowering. Then we got past, and into the
gravitational field of the planet. We spiralled down around it, looking
for a landing place and trying to match our speed with its rotational
velocity.

From rather unreliable observations, the planet seemed a good deal
smaller than the moon, and yet so dense as to have a greater
gravitational attraction. The atmosphere was cloudless, and the surface
a forbidding expanse of sand. The globe whirled at a rate that must give
it a day of approximately five hours. We angled down, picking a spot
just within the lighted area.

A landing was quite feasible. As we broke through the atmosphere, we
could see that the sand, although blotched with dark patches here and
there, was comparatively smooth. At one place there was a level
outcropping of rock, and over this we hung. It was hard work, watching
through the single small port in the floor as we settled down. Finally
the view was too small to be of any use. I ran to the side window, only
to find my eyes blinded by Rigel's blaze. Then we had landed, and almost
at the same moment Rigel set. Half overlapped by the greater star, the
faint companion had been hidden in its glare. Now, in the dusk, a corner
of it hung ghostlike on the horizon, and then too had disappeared.

       *       *       *       *       *

I flashed on our lights, while Garth cut out the projector and the floor
gravity machine. The increase in weight was apparent, but not
particularly unpleasant. After a few minutes of walking up and down I
got used to it.

Through a stop-cock in the wall, Garth had drawn in a tube of gas from
the atmosphere outside, and was analyzing it with a spectroscope.

"We can go out," he said. "It's unbreathable, but we'll be able to use
the space suits. Mostly fluorine. It would eat your lungs out like
that!"

"And the suits?"

"Fortunately, they've been covered with helio-beryllium paint, and the
helmet glass is the same stuff. Not even that atmosphere can touch it. I
suppose there can be no life on the place. With all this sand, it would
have to be based on silicon instead of carbon--and it would have to
breathe fluorine!"

He got out the suits--rather like a diver's with the body of
metal-painted cloth, and the helmet of the metal itself. On the
shoulders was an air supply cylinder. The helmets were fixed with radio,
so we could have talked to each other even in airless space. We said
almost anything to try it out.

"Glad you brought two, and we don't have to explore in shifts."

"Yes, I was prepared for emergencies."

"Shall we wait for daylight to go out?"

"I can't see why. And these outfits will probably feel better in the
cool. Let's see."

       *       *       *       *       *

We shot a searchlight beam out the window. There was a slight drop down
from the rock where we rested, then the sandy plain stretching out. Only
far off were those dark patches that looked like old seaweed on a
dried-up ocean bed, and might prove dangerous footing. The rest seemed
hard packed.

My heart was pounding as we went into the air-lock and fastened the
inner door behind us.

"We go straight out now," Garth explained. "Coming back, it will be
necessary to press this button and let the pump get rid of the
poisonous, air before going in."

I opened the outer door and started to step out, then realized that
there was a five-foot drop to the ground.

"Go ahead and jump," Garth said. "There's a ladder inside I should have
brought, but it would be too much trouble to go back through the lock
for it. Either of us can jump eight feet at home, and we'll get back up
somehow."

I jumped, failing to allow for the slightly greater gravity, and fell
sprawling. Garth got down more successfully, in spite of a long package
of some sort he carried in his hand.

Scrambling down from the cliff and walking out on the sand, I tried to
get used to the combination of greater weight and the awkward suit. If I
stepped very deliberately it was all right, but an attempt to run sank
my feet in the sand and brought me up staggering. There was no trouble
seeing through the glass of my helmet over wide angles. Standing on the
elevation by the _Comet_, his space-suit shining in the light from the
windows, Garth looked like a metallic monster, some creature of this
strange world. And I must have presented to him much the same
appearance, silhouetted dark and forbidding against the stars.

       *       *       *       *       *

The stars! I looked up, and beheld the most marvelous sight of the whole
trip--the Great Nebula of Orion seen from a distance of less than one
hundred and fifty light-years its own width.

A great luminous curtain, fifty degrees across, I could just take it all
in with my eye. The central brilliancy as big as the sun, a smaller one
above it, and then the whole mass of gas stretching over the sky. The
whole thing aglow with the green light of nebulium and blazing with the
stars behind it. It was stupendous, beyond words.

I started to call Garth, then saw that he was looking up as well. For
almost half an hour I watched, as the edge of the nebula sank below the
horizon. Then its light began to dim. Turning, I saw that the sky
opposite was already gray. The dawn!

Why, the sun had just set. Then I realized. It was over an hour since we
had landed, and a full night would be scarcely two hours and a half. If
we were in a summer latitude, the shorter period of darkness was natural
enough. And yet it was still hard to believe as, within ten minutes, it
was as bright as Earth-light on the moon. Still clearer and clearer grew
the light. The stars were almost gone, the center of the nebula only a
faint wisp. There were no clouds to give the colors of sunrise, but a
bluish-white radiance seemed to be trembling on the eastern horizon.

And then, like a shot, Rigel came up into the sky. The light and heat
struck me like something solid, and I turned away. Even with my suit
reflecting most of the light away, I felt noticeably warm. The _Comet_
shone like a blinding mirror, so that it was almost impossible to see
Garth on the plain below it. Stumbling, and shielding my eyes with my
hand, I made my way toward him.

He was standing erect, in his hands two old Lunarian dueling swords.
There was hate in his voice as the radio brought it in my ears.

"Dunal, only one of us is going back to the moon."

       *       *       *       *       *

I stared. Was the heat getting him? "Hadn't we better go inside," I said
quietly and somewhat soothingly.

He made no reply, but only held out one of the hilts. I took it dumbly.
In that instant he could have struck my head from my body, if he wished.

"But, Garth, old friend--"

"No friend to you. You shall win Kelvar now, or I. I'm giving you a
sporting chance. One of your light cuts letting the fluorine inside will
be as deadly as anything I can do. The one who goes back will tell of an
accident, making repairs out in space. Damn you, if you don't want me to
kill you where you stand, come on and fight."

"Garth, you've gone mad."

"I've been waiting ever since I got you to leave the moon. On guard!"

With a rush of anger I was upon him. He tried to step back, stumbled,
had one knee on the ground, then hurled himself forward with a thrust at
my waist that I dodged only by an inch. I had to cover, and in spite of
myself, with the cool work of parrying, my animosity began to disappear.

And so began one of the strangest battles that the Universe has seen.
Lumbering with our suits and the extra gravity, we circled each other
under the blazing sky. The blue-white of Rigel shimmered off our suits
and the arcs of our blades as we cut and guarded--each wary now,
realizing that a touch meant death. As that terrible sun climbed upward
in the sky, its heat was almost overpowering. The sweat poured off every
inch of my body, and I gasped for breath. And still we fought on, two
glittering metal monsters under the big blue star sweeping up to its
noon.

       *       *       *       *       *

I knew now that I could never kill Garth. I could not go back to Kelvar
with his blood. Yet if I simply defended, sooner or later he would wear
me down. There was just one chance. If I could disarm him, I could
wrestle him into submission. Then he might be reasonable, or I could
take him home bound.

I began leading for the opening I wanted, but with no result. He seemed
resolved to tire me out. Either I must carry the fight to him, or I
would be beaten down. I made a wide opening, counting on dodging his
slow stroke. I did, but he recovered too soon. Again on the other side,
with no better result. Still again, just getting in for a light tap on
Garth's helmet. Then I stepped back, with guard low, and this time he
came on. His sword rose in a gleaming arc and hung high for a moment. I
had him. There were sparks of clashing, locked steel.

"Damn you, Dunal!" He took a great step back, narrowly keeping his
balance on the sand. On another chance, I would trip him. My ears were
almost deafened by his roar, "Come on and _fight_."

I took a step in and to the side, and had him in the sun. He swung
blindly, trying to cover himself with his whirling point but I had half
a dozen openings to rip his suit. When he moved to try to see, I would
lock with him again. I watched his feet.

And as I watched, I saw an incredible thing. Near one of Garth's feet
the sand was moving. It was not a slide caused by his weight;
rather--why, it was being pushed up from below. There was a little hump,
and suddenly it had burst open, and a stringy mass like seaweed was
crawling toward his leg.

"Look out, Garth," I yelled.

       *       *       *       *       *

How he could see through that terrible sun I do not know, but Garth
swung through my forgotten guard with a blow square across my helmet
glass. The force threw me to the ground, and I looked up, dazed. The
beryllium glass had not broken to let in the fluorine-filled air, but
Garth was standing over me.

"That's your last trick, Dunal." His blade rose for the kill.

I was unable even to get up, but with one hand I pointed to the ground.

"Look!" I shouted again, and on the instant the thing wound itself
around Garth's foot.

He swung down, hacking it loose. I had got to my feet. "Run for the
ship," I cried, and started off.

"Not that way."

I looked back, and saw that I had run in the wrong direction. But it
made no difference. Over a whole circle around us the sand was rising,
and directly between us and the _Comet_ there was a great green-brown
mass. We were surrounded.

We stood staring at the creatures. Spread out to full dimensions, each
one made a sphere about four feet in diameter. In the center, a solid
mass whose outlines were difficult to discern; and spreading out from
this a hundred long, thin, many-jointed arms or legs or branches or
whatever one could call them.

The things were not yet definitely hostile--only their circle, of
perhaps fifty yards radius, grew continually thicker and more
impenetrable. Within the enclosed area, the only ripples we could see in
the sand were heading outward. There was to be no surprise attack from
below, at least; only one in mass. What, I wondered, might be a sign of
friendship, to persuade them to let us go.

       *       *       *       *       *

And then the circle began to close in. The things rolled over and over
on themselves, like gigantic tumbleweeds. At one point, to the right of
the direct route to the _Comet_, the line seemed thinner. I pointed the
place out to Garth.

"Break through there, and make a run for it."

We charged into the midst of them with swinging blades. The very
suddenness of our rush carried us half-way through their midst. Then
something had my legs from behind. I almost fell, but succeeded in
turning and cutting myself free. The creatures from the other side of
the circle must have made the hundred yards in four or five seconds. And
the rest had now covered the breach in front. It was hopeless.

And so we stood back to back, hewing out a circle of protection against
our enemies. They seemed to have no fear, and in spite of the
destruction our blades worked among them, they almost overcame us by
sheer numbers and weight. It was a case of whirling our swords back and
forth interminably in the midst of their tentacles. Against the light,
the long arms were a half-transparent brown. Our swords broke them in
bright shivers. Formed from the predominant silicon of the planet, the
creatures were living glass!

For perhaps a quarter of an hour we were in the thick of them, hewing
until I thought my arms must fall, slashing and tearing at the ones that
had got underfoot and were clamping their tentacles around our legs.
Only for the space-suits, we should have, by this time, been overpowered
and torn into bits--and yet these garments could not be expected to hold
indefinitely.

       *       *       *       *       *

But at last there was a breathing space. The crippled front ranks
dragged themselves away, and there was left around us a brief area of
sand, covered with coruscating splinters of glass. Garth got the breath
to say something or other encouraging. It was like old days at school.

Only this time the odds were all against us. We were still a good
hundred yards from the _Comet_, and in our path stood a solid wall of
the creatures. Even if we got free, they could outrace us to the goal.
And with our limited strength, we could not hope to kill them all. In a
minute or two, they would attack us again.

Somehow we must fight our way as long as we lasted. Perhaps they might
be frightened. We threw ourselves at the side next our goal. The line
gave perhaps a yard, then stiffened, and we found ourselves swallowed up
in a thick cloud of brown smoke.

Poison gas! It must be shot out of their bodies, at a cost so great that
it was kept as a last resort. Through the rolling vapor it was just
possible to see our opponents, but they made no forward move. They were
waiting for us to be overcome. Suppose their compound could eat through
even our helio-beryllium? But it did not. We were safe.

"Stand still, Garth," I whispered, counting on the radio to carry my
voice. "Let them think we're dead, and then give them a surprise."

"All right."

Long, long minutes.... If only they did not know that it was the
customary thing for a dead man to fall.... Slowly they began to move in.

Then Garth and I were upon them. They halted as if stupefied. We had
hacked our way half through their mass. The rest fled, and we began
running toward the _Comet_, praying that we might reach the ship before
they could get organized again. How we floundered through the sand in
wild and desperate haste.

       *       *       *       *       *

Before we had covered half the distance, the pursuit began. There was no
attempt to drag us down directly, but the two wings raced past to cut us
off in front. At the base of the little cliff where the _Comet_ lay, the
circle closed.

"Jump," I called, and threw myself up over them toward the stone. Garth
would have fallen back, but I caught his hand and pulled him to safety.
We had won.

But had we? Joined by reinforcements from somewhere, the creatures were
packed all around the base of the cliff and had begun to climb its
walls, to cut us off from the ship. We rushed separately toward the two
sides, and they backed away. But those in front were now established on
the top. We stepped backward, and the whole line came on. But now we
turned and ran for the _Comet_.

We were just able to turn again and clear them away with our swords. In
a moment others would be climbing up from behind over the ship. And the
door to safety was on a level with our heads.

There was just one chance. Stamping threateningly, we cleared the things
out for ten feet in front of us. But once we turned our backs for a
running start they were at us again.

"Boost you up, Dunal," said Garth pantingly.

"No, you first."

But in the midst of my words, he almost threw me into the doorway. I
turned to pull him up after me. They were around his legs, and one had
jumped down upon his helmet. And he must have known it would happen.

"Go back to her," he cried, and slammed shut the door.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was no time to help him, to interfere with the way of expiation he
had chosen. I tried to look away, but a sort of fascination kept me
watching him through the glass. He had been dragged to his knees. Then
he was up again, whirling to keep them away on all sides in a mad,
gallant fight. But the creatures knew it was the kill. Now they were
around his knees, now up to his waist in their overpowering mass. It was
only a matter of minutes.

Garth took a staggering step backward, dragging them all with him. He
was facing me, and swung up his sword in the old Lunar salute. "Good
luck, Dunal." The words, coming clearly over the radio, had a note of
exaltation.

Then flashing his blade over his head, he hurled it into the midst of
the accursed things. With a tremendous effort, Garth tore the protecting
helmet from his head, and plunged backward over the cliff....

There was nothing to do but get in out of the lock and start for home,
and little on the trip is worthy of recounting. Without unsurpassable
difficulty, I was able to operate the machinery and steer, first for
Betelguese, then for the sun. Counting on the warning bells to arouse
me, I managed to get in snatches of sleep at odd intervals. At times the
strain of the long watches was almost maddening.

By the time the midpoint had been passed, I was living in a sort of
waking dream; or rather, a state of somnambulism. I ate; my hands moved
the controls. And yet all the while my mind was wandering elsewhere--out
to Garth's body under the blazing light of Rigel, back to the moon and
Kelvar, or else in an unreal, shadowy world of dreams and vague
memories.

       *       *       *       *       *

With perfect mechanical accuracy I entered the solar system and adjusted
the projectors for the sun's attraction. Running slower and slower, I
watched Venus glide by. And then, gradually, everything faded, and I was
walking along the great Nardos bridge with Kelvar. The ocean was so
still that we could see mirrored in it the reflection of each white
column, and our own faces peering down, and beyond that the stars.

"I shall bring you a handful for your hair," I told her, and leaned over
farther, farther, reaching out.... Then I was falling, with Kelvar's
face growing fainter, and in my ears a horrible ringing like the world
coming to an end.

Just before I could strike the water, I wakened to find the alarm bell
jangling and the object-indicator light flashing away. Through the
telescope, the moon was large in the sky.

It was an hour, perhaps two, before I approached the sunlit surface and
hovered over the shore by Nardos. Try as I would, my sleep-drugged body
could not handle the controls delicately enough to get the _Comet_ quite
in step with the moon's rotation. Always a little too fast or too slow.
I slid down until I was only ten or fifteen feet off the ground that
seemed to be moving out from under me. In another minute I should be
above the water. I let everything go, and the _Comet_ fell. There was a
thud, a sound of scraping over the sand, a list to one side. I thought
for an instant that the vessel was going to turn over, but with the
weight of the reserve mercury in the fuel tanks it managed to right
itself on a slope of ten or fifteen degrees.

From the angle, I could barely see out the windows, and everything
looked strange. The water under the bridge seemed too low. The half-full
Earth had greenish-black spots on it. And the sky?

       *       *       *       *       *

So dead with sleep that I could scarcely move, I managed to crane my
neck around to see better. There was no sky, only a faint gray haze
through which the stars shone. And yet the sun must be shining. I
stretched still further. There the sun burned, and around it was an
unmistakable corona. It was like airless space.

Was I dreaming again?

With a jerk, I got to my feet and climbed up the sloping floor to the
atmosphere tester. My fingers slipped off the stop-cock, then turned it.
And the air-pressure needle scarcely moved. It was true. Somehow, as the
scientists had always told us would be the case eventually, the air of
the moon, with so little gravity to hold it back, had evaporated into
space.

But in six months? It was unthinkable. Surely someone had survived the
catastrophe. Some people must have been able to keep themselves alive in
caves where the last of the atmosphere would linger. Kelvar _must_ be
still alive. I could find her and bring her to the _Comet_. We would go
to some other world.

Frantically, I pulled on my space-suit and clambered through the
air-lock. I ran, until the cumbersome suit slowed me down to a
staggering walk through the sand beside the Oceanus Procellarum.

Leaden and dull, the great sea lay undisturbed by the thin atmosphere
still remaining. It had shrunk by evaporation far away from its banks,
and where the water once had been there was a dark incrustation of
impurities. On the land side, all was a great white plain of glittering
alkali without a sign of vegetation. I went on toward Nardos the
Beautiful.

       *       *       *       *       *

Even from afar off, I could see that it was desolate. Visible now that
the water had gone down, the pillars supporting it rose gaunt and
skeletal. Towers had fallen in, and the gleaming white was dimmed. It
was a city of the dead, under an Earth leprous-looking with black spots
where the clouds apparently had parted.

I came nearer to Nardos and the bridge, nearer to the spot where I had
last seen Kelvar. Below the old water level, the columns showed a
greenish stain, and half-way out the whole structure had fallen in a
great gap. I reached the land terminus of the span, still glorious and
almost beautiful in its ruins. Whole blocks of stone had fallen to the
sand, and the adamantine pillars were cracked and crumbling with the
erosion of ages.

Then I knew.

In our argument as to the possible speed of the _Comet_, Garth and I had
both been right. In our reference frame, the vessel had put on an
incredible velocity, and covered the nine-hundred-odd light-years around
Rigel in six months. But from the viewpoint of the moon, it had been
unable to attain a velocity greater than that of light. As the
accelerating energy pressed the vessel's speed closer and closer toward
that limiting velocity, the mass of the ship and of its contents had
increased toward infinity. And trying to move laboriously with such vast
mass, our clocks and bodies had been slowed down until to our leaden
minds a year of moon time became equivalent to several hours.

The _Comet_ had attained an average velocity of perhaps 175,000 miles
per second, and the voyage that seemed to me six months had taken a
thousand years. A thousand years! The words went ringing through my
brain. Kelvar had been dead for a thousand years. I was alone in a world
uninhabited for centuries.

I threw myself down and battered my head in the sand.

       *       *       *       *       *

More to achieve, somehow, my own peace of mind, than in any hope of its
being discovered, I have written this narrative. There are two copies,
this to be placed in a helio-beryllium box at the terminus of the
bridge, the other within the comet[TN-3]. One at least should thus be
able to escape the meteors which, unimpeded by the thin atmosphere, have
begun to strike everywhere, tearing up great craters in the explosion
that follows as a result of the impact.

My time is nearly up. Air is still plentiful on the _Comet_, but my
provisions will soon run short. It is now slightly over a month since I
collapsed on the sands into merciful sleep, and I possess food and water
for perhaps another. But why go on in my terrible loneliness?

Sometimes I waken from a dream in which they are all so near--Kelvar,
Garth, all my old companions--and for a moment I cannot realize how far
away they are. Beyond years and years. And I, trampling back and forth
over the dust of our old life, staring across the waste, waiting--for
what?

No, I shall wait only until the dark. When the sun drops over the
Grimaldi plateau, I shall put my manuscripts in their safe places, then
tear off my helmet and join the other two.

An hour ago, the bottom edge of the sun touched the horizon.

  Transcriber's notes:
    TN-1 Spaced em dash is found in the original.
    TN-2 Corrected from litle to little.
    TN-3 Not Capitalised or italicised in the original, but should
         probably read _Comet_
    TN-4 This etext was produced from "Astounding Stories" December
         1931. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.





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