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´╗┐Title: Galactic Ghost
Author: Kubilius, Walter
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 "Galactic Ghost" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                            GALACTIC GHOST

                          By WALTER KUBILIUS

             The Flying Dutchman of space was a harbinger
              of death. But Willard wasn't superstitions.
                  He had seen the phantom--and lived.

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                      Planet Stories Winter 1942.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


The only friend in space Willard had ever known was dying. Dobbin's
lips were parched and his breath came spasmodically. The tips of his
fingers that had so many times caressed the control board of the _Mary
Lou_ were now black as meteor dust.

"We'll never see Earth again," he whispered feebly, plucked weakly at
the cover.

"Nonsense!" Willard broke in hurriedly, hoping that the dying man
would not see through the lie. "We've got the sun's gravity helping
us drift back to Earth! We'll be there soon! You'll get well soon and
we'll start to work again on a new idea of mine...." His voice trailed
helplessly away and the words were lost. It was no use.

The sick man did not hear him. Two tears rolled down his cheeks. His
face contorted as he tried to withhold a sob.

"To see Earth again!" he said weakly. "To walk on solid ground once
more!"

"Four years!" Willard echoed faintly. He knew how his space mate felt.
No man can spend four years away from his home planet, and fail to be
anguished. A man could live without friends, without fortune, but no
man could live without Earth. He was like Anteus, for only the feel of
the solid ground under his feet could give him courage to go among the
stars.

Willard also knew what he dared not admit to himself. He, too, like
Dobbin, would never see Earth again. Perhaps, some thousand years from
now, some lonely wanderers would find their battered hulk of a ship in
space and bring them home again.

Dobbin motioned to him and, in answer to a last request, Willard lifted
him so he faced the port window for a final look at the panorama of the
stars.

Dobbin's eyes, dimming and half closed, took in the vast play of the
heavens and in his mind he relived the days when in a frail craft he
first crossed interstellar space. But for Earth-loneliness Dobbin would
die a happy man, knowing that he had lived as much and as deeply as any
man could.

Silently the two men watched. Dobbin's eyes opened suddenly and a
tremor seized his body. He turned painfully and looked at Willard.

"I saw it!" his voice cracked, trembling.

"Saw what?"

"It's true! It's true! It comes whenever a space man dies! It's there!"

"In heaven's name, Dobbin," Willard demanded, "What do you see? What is
it?"

Dobbin lifted his dark bony arm and pointed out into star-studded
space.

"The Ghost Ship!"

Something clicked in Willard's memory. He had heard it spoken of in
whispers by drunken space men and professional tellers of fairy tales.
But he had never put any stock in them. In some forgotten corner of
Dobbin's mind the legend of the Ghost Ship must have lain, to come up
in this time of delirium.

"There's nothing there," he said firmly.

"It's come--for me!" Dobbin cried. He turned his head slowly toward
Willard, tried to say something and then fell back upon the pillow. His
mouth was open and his eyes stared unseeing ahead. Dobbin was now one
with the vanished pioneers of yesterday. Willard was alone.

For two days, reckoned in Earth time, Willard kept vigil over the body
of his friend and space mate. When the time was up he did what was
necessary and nothing remained of Harry Dobbin, the best friend he had
ever had. The atoms of his body were now pure energy stored away in the
useless motors of the _Mary Lou_.

       *       *       *       *       *

The weeks that followed were like a blur in Willard's mind. Though the
ship was utterly incapable of motion, the chance meteor that damaged
it had spared the convertors and assimilators. Through constant care
and attention the frail balance that meant life or death could be kept.
The substance of waste and refuse was torn down and rebuilt as precious
food and air. It was even possible to create more than was needed.

When this was done, Willard immediately regretted it. For it would be
then that the days and the weeks would roll by endlessly. Sometimes
he thought he would go mad when, sitting at the useless control
board, which was his habit, he would stare for hours and hours in
the direction of the Sun where he knew the Earth would be. A great
loneliness would then seize upon him and an agony that no man had ever
known would tear at his heart. He would then turn away, full of despair
and hopeless pain.

Two years after Dobbin's death a strange thing happened. Willard was
sitting at his accustomed place facing the unmoving vista of the stars.
A chance glance at Orion's belt froze him still. A star had flickered!
Distinctly, as if a light veil had been placed over it and then lifted,
it dimmed and turned bright again. What strange phenomena was this? He
watched and then another star faded momentarily in the exact fashion.
And then a third! And a fourth! And a fifth!

Willard's heart gave a leap and the lethargy of two years vanished
instantly. Here, at last, was something to do. It might be only a few
minutes before he would understand what it was, but those few minutes
would help while away the maddening long hours. Perhaps it was a mass
of fine meteorites or a pocket of gas that did not disperse, or even a
moving warp of space-light. Whatever it was, it was a phenomena worth
investigating and Willard seized upon it as a dying man seizes upon the
last flashing seconds of life.

Willard traced its course by the flickering stars and gradually plotted
its semi-circular course. It was not from the solar system but,
instead, headed toward it. A rapid check-up on his calculations caused
his heart to beat in ever quickening excitement. Whatever it was, it
would reach the _Mary Lou_.

Again he looked out the port. Unquestionably the faint mass was nearing
his ship. It was round in shape and almost invisible. The stars,
though dimmed, could still be seen through it. There was something
about its form that reminded him of an old-fashioned rocket ship. It
resembled one of those that had done pioneer service in the lanes forty
years ago or more. Resembled one? It was one! Unquestionably, though
half-invisible and like a piece of glass immersed in water, it was a
rocket ship.

But the instruments on the control board could not lie. The presence of
any material body within a hundred thousand miles would be revealed.
But the needle on the gauge did not quiver. Nothing indicated the
presence of a ship. But the evidence of his eyes was incontestable.

Or was it? Doubt gripped him. Did the loneliness of all these years
in space twist his mind till he was imagining the appearance of faint
ghost-like rocket ships?

The thought shot through his mind like a thunder bolt. Ghost Ship!
Was this the thing that Dobbin had seen before he died? But that was
impossible. Ghost Ships existed nowhere but in legends and tall tales
told by men drunk with the liquors of Mars.

"There is no ship there. There is no ship there," Willard told himself
over and over again as he looked at the vague outline of the ship, now
motionless a few hundred miles away.

Deep within him a faint voice cried, "_It's come--for me!_" but Willard
stilled it. This was no fantasy. There was a scientific reason for it.
There must be! Or should there be? Throughout all Earth history there
had been Ghost Ships sailing the Seven Seas--ships doomed to roam
forever because their crew broke some unbreakable law. If this was true
for the ships of the seas, why not for the ships of empty space?

He looked again at the strange ship. It was motionless. At least it was
not nearing him. Willard could see nothing but its vague outline. A
moment later he could discern a faint motion. It was turning! The Ghost
Ship was turning back! Unconsciously Willard reached out with his hand
as if to hold it back, for when it was gone he would be alone again.

But the Ghost Ship went on. Its outline became smaller and smaller,
fainter and fainter.

Trembling, Willard turned away from the window as he saw the rocket
recede and vanish into the emptiness of space. Once more the dreaded
loneliness of the stars descended upon him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Seven years passed and back on Earth in a small newspaper that Willard
would never see there was published a small item:

"_Arden, Rocketport_--Thirteen years ago the Space Ship _Mary Lou_
under John Willard and Larry Dobbin left the Rocket Port for the
exploration of an alleged planetoid beyond Pluto. The ship has not been
seen or heard from since. J. Willard, II, son of the lost explorer, is
planning the manufacture of a super-size exploration ship to be called
_Mary Lou II_, in memory of his father."

Memories die hard. A man who is alone in space with nothing but the
cold friendship of star-light looks back upon memories as the only
things both dear and precious to him.

Willard, master and lone survivor of the _Mary Lou_, knew this well for
he had tried to rip the memories of Earth out of his heart to ease the
anguish of solitude within him. But it was a thing that could not be
done.

And so it was that each night--for Willard did not give up the
Earth-habit of keeping time--Willard dreamed of the days he had known
on Earth.

In his mind's eye, he saw himself walking the streets of Arden and
feeling the crunch of snow or the soft slap of rainwater under his
feet. He heard again, in his mind, the voices of friends he knew.
How beautiful and perfect was each voice! How filled with warmth and
friendship! There was the voice of his beautiful wife whom he would
never see again. There were the gruff and deep voices of his co-workers
and scientists.

Above all there were the voices of the cities, and the fields and the
shops where he had worked. All these had their individual voices. Odd
that he had never realized it before, but things become clearer to a
man who is alone.

Clearer? Perhaps not. Perhaps they become more clouded. How could he,
for example, explain the phenomena of the Ghost Ship? Was it really
only a product of his imagination? What of all the others who had
seen it? Was it possible for many different men under many different
situations to have the same exact illusion? Reason denied that. But
perhaps space itself denies reason.

Grimly he retraced the legend of the Ghost Ship. A chance phrase here
and a story there put together all that he knew:

Doomed for all eternity to wander in the empty star-lanes, the Ghost
Ship haunts the Solar System that gave it birth. And this is its
tragedy, for it is the home of spacemen who can never go home again.
When your last measure of fuel is burnt and your ship becomes a
lifeless hulk--the Ghost will come--for you!

And this is all there was to the legend. Merely a tale of some fairy
ship told to amuse and to while away the days of a star-voyage.
Bitterly, Willard dismissed it from his mind.

Another year of loneliness passed. And still another. Willard lost
track of the days. It was difficult to keep time for to what purpose
could time be kept. Here in space there was no time, nor was there
reason for clocks and records. Days and months and years became
meaningless words for things that once may have had meaning. About
three years must have passed since his last record in the log book
of the _Mary Lou_. At that time, he remembered, he suffered another
great disappointment. On the port side there suddenly appeared a
full-sized rocket ship. For many minutes Willard was half-mad with
joy thinking that a passing ship was ready to rescue him. But the joy
was short-lived, for the rocket ship abruptly turned away and slowly
disappeared. As Willard watched it go away he saw the light of a
distant star _through_ the space ship. A heart-breaking agony fell upon
him. It was not a ship from Earth. It was the Ghost Ship, mocking him.

Since then Willard did not look out the window of his craft. A vague
fear troubled him that perhaps the Ghost Ship might be here, waiting
and watching, and that he would go mad if he saw it.

How many years passed he could not tell. But this he knew. He was no
longer a young man. Perhaps fifteen years has disappeared into nothing.
Perhaps twenty. He did not know and he did not care.

       *       *       *       *       *

Willard awoke from a deep sleep and prepared his bed. He did it, not
because it was necessary, but because it was a habit that had long been
ingrained in him through the years.

He checked and rechecked every part of the still functioning mechanism
of the ship. The radio, even though there was no one to call, was in
perfect order. The speed-recording dials, even though there was no
speed to record, were in perfect order. And so with every machine. All
was in perfect order. Perfect useless order, he thought bitterly, when
there was no way whatever to get sufficient power to get back to Earth,
long forgotten Earth.

He was leaning back in his chair when a vague uneasiness seized him.
He arose and slowly walked over to the window, his age already being
marked in the ache of his bones. Looking out into the silent theater of
the stars, he suddenly froze.

There was a ship, coming toward him!

For a moment the reason in his mind tottered on a balance. Doubt
assailed him. Was this the Ghost Ship come to torment him again? But no
phantom this! It was a life and blood rocket ship from Earth! Starlight
shone on it and not through it! Its lines, window, vents were all solid
and had none of the ghost-like quality he remembered seeing in the
Ghost Ship in his youth.

For another split second he thought that perhaps he, too, like Dobbin,
had gone mad and that the ship would vanish just as it approached him.

The tapping of the space-telegrapher reassured him.

"CALLING SPACE SHIP MARY LOU," the message rapped out, "CALLING SPACE
SHIP MARY LOU."

With trembling fingers that he could scarcely control, old Willard sent
the answering message.

"SPACE SHIP MARY LOU REPLYING. RECEIVED MESSAGE. THANK GOD!"

He broke off, unable to continue. His heart was ready to burst within
him and the tears of joy were already welling in his eyes. He listened
to the happiest message he had ever heard:

"NOTICE THAT SPACE SHIP MARY LOU IS DISABLED AND NOT SPACE WORTHY. YOU
ARE INVITED TO COME ABOARD. HAVE YOU SPACE SUIT AND--ARE YOU ABLE TO
COME?"

Willard, already sobbing with joy, could send only two words.

"YES! COMING!"

The years of waiting were over. At last he was free of the _Mary Lou_.
In a dream like trance, he dressed in his space suit, pathetically
glad that he had already checked every detail of it a short time ago.
He realized suddenly that everything about the _Mary Lou_ was hateful to
him. It was here that his best friend died, and it was here that twenty
years of his life were wasted completely in solitude and despair.

He took one last look and stepped into the air-lock.

The Earth-ship, he did not see its name, was only a hundred yards away
and a man was already at the air-lock waiting to help him. A rope was
tossed to him. He reached for it and made his way to the ship, leaving
the _Mary Lou_ behind him forever.

Suddenly the world dropped away from him. Willard could neither see nor
say anything. His heart was choked with emotion.

"It's all right," a kindly voice assured him, "You're safe now."

He had the sensation of being carried by several men and then placed in
bed. The quiet of deep sleep descended upon him.

       *       *       *       *       *

He woke many times in the following days, but the privations of the
passing years had drained his strength and his mind, had made him so
much of a hermit that the presence of other men frightened him to the
point of gibbering insanity.

He knew that the food and drink were drugged, for after eating he
never remembered seeing the men enter the room to care for him and to
remove the dirty dishes. But there was enough sanity in his mind to
also realize that, without the gradual reawakening of his senses to the
value of human companionship, he might not be able to stand the mental
shock of moving about among his people back on Earth.

During those passing days, he savored each new impression, comparing
it with what he remembered from that age-long past when he and his
friends had walked on Earth's great plains and ridden on the oceans'
sleek ships or flown with the wings of birds over the mountain ranges.
And each impression was doubly enjoyable, for his memory was hazy and
confused.

Gradually, though, his mind cleared; he remembered the past, and he no
longer was afraid of the men who visited him from time to time. But
there was a strangeness about the men that he could not fathom; they
refused to talk about anything, any subject, other than the actual
running of the great ship. Always, when he asked his eager questions,
they mumbled and drifted away.

And then in his third week on the rescue ship, he went to sleep one
night while peering from the port hole at the blue ball of Earth
swimming in the blackness of space. He slept and he dreamed of the
years he had spent by himself in the drifting, lifeless hulk of the
_Mary Lou_. His dreams were vivid, peopled with men and women he had
once known, and were horrible with the fantasies of terror that years
of solitary brooding had implanted deep in his mind.

       *       *       *       *       *

He awoke with a start and a cry of alarm ran through him as he thought
that perhaps he might still be in the _Mary Lou_. The warm, smiling face
of a man quickly reassured him.

"I'll call the captain," the space man said. "He said to let him know
when you came to."

Willard could only nod in weak and grateful acceptance. It was true! He
pressed his head back against the bed's pillows. How soft! How warm! He
yawned and stretched his arms as a thrill of happiness shot through his
entire body.

He would see Earth again! That single thought ran over and over in his
mind without stopping. He would see Earth again! Perhaps not this year
and perhaps not the next--for the ship might be on some extra-Plutonian
expedition. But even if it would take years before it returned to home
base Willard knew that those years would fly quickly if Earth was at
the end of the trail.

Though he had aged, he still had many years before him. And those
years, he vowed, would be spent on Earth and nowhere else.

The captain, a pleasant old fellow, came into the room as Willard stood
up and tried to walk. The gravity here was a bit different from that of
his ship, but he would manage.

"How do you feel, Space Man Willard?"

"Oh, you know me?" Willard looked at him in surprise, and then smiled,
"Of course, you looked through the log book of the _Mary Lou_."

The captain nodded and Willard noticed with surprise that he was a very
old man.

"You don't know how much I suffered there," Willard said slowly,
measuring each word. "Years in space--all alone! It's a horrible thing!"

"Yes?" the old captain said.

"Many times I thought I would go completely mad. It was only the
thought and hope that some day, somehow, an Earth-ship would find me
and help me get back to Earth. If it was not for that, I would have
died. I could think of nothing but of Earth, of blue green water, of
vast open spaces and the good brown earth. How beautiful it must be
now!"

A note of sadness, matched only by that of Willard's, entered the
captain's eyes.

"I want to walk on Earth just once--then I can die."

Willard stopped. A happy dreamy smile touched his lips.

"When will we go to Earth?" he asked.

The Captain did not answer. Willard waited and a strange memory tugged
at him.

"You don't know," the Captain said. It was not a question or a
statement. The Captain found it hard to say it. His lips moved slowly.

Willard stepped back and before the Captain told him, _he knew_.

"Matter is relative," he said, "the existent under one condition is
non-existent under another. The real here is the non-real there. All
things that wander alone in space are gradually drained of their mass
and energy until nothing is left but mere shells. That is what happened
to the _Mary Lou_. Your ship was real when we passed by twenty years
ago. It is now like ours, a vague outline in space. We cannot feel
the change ourselves, for change is relative. That is why we became
more and more solid to you, as you became more and more faint to any
Earth-ship that might have passed. We are real--to ourselves. But to
some ship from Earth which has not been in space for more than fifteen
years--to that ship, to all intents and purposes, we do not exist.

"Then this ship," Willard said, stunned, "you and I and everything on
it..."

"... are doomed," the Captain said. "We cannot go to Earth for the
simple reason that we would go _through_ it!"

The vision of Earth and green trees faded. He would never see Earth
again. He would never feel the crunch of ground under feet as he
walked. Never would listen to the voices of friends and the songs of
birds. Never. Never. Never....

"Then this is the Ghost Ship and we are the Ghosts!"

"Yes."





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