- Author: Edmond Hamilton
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By Edmond Hamilton
Helpless, doomed, into the graveyard
of space floats the wrecked
Captain Crain faced his crew calmly. "We may as well face the facts, men," he said. "The ship's fuel-tanks are empty and we are drifting through space toward the dead-area."
The twenty-odd officers and men gathered on the middle-deck of the freighter Pallas made no answer, and Crain continued:
"We left Jupiter with full tanks, more than enough fuel to take us to [Pg 391]Neptune. But the leaks in the starboard tanks lost us half our supply, and we had used the other half before discovering that. Since the ship's rocket-tubes cannot operate without fuel, we are simply drifting. We would drift on to Neptune if the attraction of Uranus were not pulling us to the right. That attraction alters our course so that in three ship-days we shall drift into the dead-area."
Rance Kent, first-officer of the Pallas, asked a question: "Couldn't we, raise Neptune with the radio, sir, and have them send out a fuel-ship in time to reach us?"
"It's impossible, Mr. Kent," Crain answered. "Our main radio is dead without fuel to run its dynamotors, and our auxiliary set hasn't the power to reach Neptune."
"Why not abandon ship in the space-suits," asked Liggett, the second-officer, "and trust to the chance of some ship picking us up?"
The captain shook his head. "It would be quite useless, for we'd simply drift on through space with the ship into the dead-area."
The score of members of the crew, bronzed space-sailors out of every port in the solar system, had listened mutely. Now, one of them, a tall tube-man, stepped forward a little.
"Just what is this dead-area, sir?" he asked. "I've heard of it, but as this is my first outer-planet voyage, I know nothing about it."
"I'll admit I know little more," said Liggett, "save that a good many disabled ships have drifted into it and have never come out."
"The dead area," Crain told them, "is a region of space ninety thousand miles across within Neptune's orbit, in which the ordinary gravitational attractions of the solar system are dead. This is because in that region the pulls of the sun and the outer planets exactly balance each other. Because of that, anything in the dead-area, will stay in there until time ends, unless it has power of its own. Many wrecked space-ships have drifted into it at one time or another, none ever emerging; and it's believed that there is a great mass of wrecks somewhere in the area, drawn and held together by mutual attraction."
"And we're drifting in to join them," Kent said. "Some prospect!"
"Then there's really no chance for us?" asked Liggett keenly.
Captain Crain thought. "As I see it, very little," he admitted. "If our auxiliary radio can reach some nearby ship before the Pallas enters the dead-area, we'll have a chance. But it seems a remote one."
He addressed himself to the men: "I have laid the situation frankly before you because I consider you entitled to the truth. You must remember, however, that while there is life there is hope.
"There will be no change in ship routine, and the customary watches will be kept. Half-rations of food and water will be the rule from now on, though. That is all."
As the men moved silently off, the captain looked after them with something of pride.
"They're taking it like men," he told Kent and Liggett. "It's a pity there's no way out for them and us."
"If the Pallas does enter the dead-area and join the wreck-pack," Liggett said, "how long will we be able to live?"
"Probably for some months on our present condensed air and food supplies," Crain answered. "I would prefer, myself, a quicker end."
"So would I," said Kent. "Well, there's nothing left but to pray for some kind of ship to cross our path in the next day or two."
Kent's prayers were not answered in the next ship-day, nor in the next. For, though one of[Pg 392] the Pallas' radio-operators was constantly at the instruments under Captain Crain's orders, the weak calls of the auxiliary set raised no response.
Had they been on the Venus or Mars run, Kent told himself, there would be some chance, but out here in the vast spaces, between the outer planets, ships were fewer and farther between. The big, cigar-shaped freighter drifted helplessly on in a broad curve toward the dreaded area, the green light-speck of Neptune swinging to their left.
On the third ship-day Kent and Captain Crain stood in the pilot-house behind Liggett, who sat at the now useless rocket-tube controls. Their eyes were on the big glass screen of the gravograph. The black dot on it that represented their ship was crawling steadily toward the bright red circle that stood for the dead-area....
They watched silently until the dot had crawled over the circle's red line, heading toward its center.
"Well, we're in at last," Kent commented. "There seems to be no change in anything, either."
Crain pointed to the instrument-panel. "Look at the gravitometers."
Kent did. "All dead! No gravitational pull from any direction—no, that one shows a slight attraction from ahead!"
"Then gravitational attraction of some sort does exist in the dead-area after all!" Liggett exclaimed.
"You don't understand," said Crain. "That attraction from ahead is the pull of the wreck-pack at the dead-area's center."
"And it's pulling the Pallas toward it?" Kent exclaimed.
Crain nodded. "We'll probably reach the wreck-pack in two more ship-days."
The next two ship-days seemed to Kent drawn out endlessly. A moody silence had grown upon the officers and men of the ship. All seemed oppressed by the strange forces of fate that had seized the ship and were carrying it, smoothly and soundlessly, into this region of irrevocable doom.
The radio-operators' vain calls had ceased. The Pallas drifted on into the dreaded area like some dumb ship laden with damned souls. It drifted on, Kent told himself, as many a wrecked and disabled ship had done before it, with the ordinary activities and life of the solar system forever behind it, and mystery and death ahead.
It was toward the end of the second of those two ship-days that Liggett's voice came down from the pilot-house:
"Wreck-pack in sight ahead!"
"We've arrived, anyway!" Kent cried, as he and Crain hastened up into the pilot house. The crew was running to the deck-windows.
"Right ahead there, about fifteen degrees left," Liggett told Kent and Crain, pointing. "Do you see it?"
Kent stared; nodded. The wreck-pack was a distant, disk-like mass against the star-flecked heavens, a mass that glinted here and there in the feeble sunlight of space. It did not seem large, but, as they drifted steadily closer in the next hours, they saw that in reality the wreck-pack was tremendous, measuring at least fifty miles across.
Its huge mass was a heterogeneous heap, composed mostly of countless cigar-like space-ships in all stages of wreckage. Some appeared smashed almost out of all recognizable shape, while others were, to all appearances unharmed. They floated together in this dense mass in space, crowded against one another by their mutual attraction.
There seemed to be among them every type of ship known in the solar system, from small, swift mail-boats to big freighters. And,[Pg 393] as they drifted nearer, the three in the pilot-house could see that around and between the ships of the wreck-pack floated much other matter—fragments of wreckage, meteors, small and large, and space-debris of every sort.
The Pallas was drifting, not straight toward the wreck-pack, but in a course that promised to take the ship past it.
"We're not heading into the wreck-pack!" Liggett exclaimed. "Maybe we'll drift past it, and on out the dead-area's other side!"
Captain Crain smiled mirthlessly. "You're forgetting your space-mechanics, Liggett. We will drift along the wreck-pack's edge, and then will curve in and go round it in a closing spiral until we reach its edge."
"Lord, who'd have thought there were so many wrecks here!" Kent marvelled. "There must be thousands of them!"
"They've been collecting here ever since the first interplanetary rocket-ships went forth," Crain reminded him. "Not only meteor-wrecked ships, but ships whose mechanisms went wrong—or that ran out of fuel like ours—or that were captured and sacked, and then set adrift by space-pirates."
The Pallas by then was drifting along the wreck-pack's rim at a half-mile distance, and Kent's eyes were running over the mass.
"Some of those ships look entirely undamaged. Why couldn't we find one that has fuel in its tanks, transfer it to our own tanks, and get away?" he asked.
Crain's eyes lit. "Kent, that's a real chance! There must be some ships in that pack with fuel in them, and we can use the space-suits to explore for them!"
"Look, we're beginning to curve in around the pack now!" Liggett exclaimed.
The Pallas, as though loath to pass the wreck-pack, was curving inward to follow its rim. In the next hours it continued to sail slowly around the great pack, approaching closer and closer to its edge.
In those hours Kent and Crain and all in the ship watched with a fascinated interest that even knowledge of their own peril could not kill. They could see swift-lined passenger-ships of the Pluto and Neptune runs shouldering against small space-yachts with the insignia of Mars or Venus on their bows. Wrecked freighters from Saturn or Earth floated beside rotund grain-boats from Jupiter.
The debris among the pack's wrecks was just as varied, holding fragments of metal, dark meteors of differing size—and many human bodies. Among these were some clad in the insulated space-suits, with their transparent glassite helmets. Kent wondered what wreck they had abandoned hastily in those suits, only to be swept with it into the dead-area, to die in their suits.
By the end of that ship-day, the Pallas, having floated almost completely around the wreck-pack, finally struck the wrecks at its edge with a jarring shock; then bobbed for a while and lay still. From pilot-house and deck windows the men looked eagerly forth.
Their ship floated at the wreck-pack's edge. Directly to its right floated a sleek, shining Uranus-Jupiter passenger-ship whose bows had been smashed in by a meteor. On their left bobbed an unmarked freighter of the old type with projecting rocket-tubes, apparently intact. Beyond them in the wreck-pack lay another Uranus craft, a freighter, and, beyond it, stretched the countless other wrecks.
Captain Crain summoned the[Pg 394] crew together again on the middle-deck.
"Men, we've reached the wreck-pack at the dead-area's center, and here we'll stay until the end of time unless we get out under our own power. Mr. Kent has suggested a possible way of doing so, which I consider highly feasible.
"He has suggested that in some of the ships in the wreck-pack may be found enough fuel to enable us to escape from the dead-area, once it is transferred to this ship. I am going to permit him to explore the wreck-pack with a party in space suits, and I am asking for volunteers for this service."
The entire crew stepped quickly forward. Crain smiled. "Twelve of you will be enough," he told them. "The eight tube-men and four of the cargo-men will go, therefore, with Mr. Kent and Mr. Liggett as leaders. Mr. Kent, you may address the men if you wish."
"Get down to the lower airlock and into your space-suits at once, then," Kent told them. "Mr. Liggett, will you supervise that?"
As Liggett and the men trooped down to the airlock, Kent turned back toward his superior.
"There's a very real chance of your becoming lost in this huge wreck-pack, Kent," Crain told him: "so be very careful to keep your bearings at all times. I know I can depend on you."
"I'll do my best," Kent was saying, when Liggett's excited face reappeared suddenly at the stair.
"There are men coming toward the Pallas along the wreck-pack's edge!" he reported—"a half-dozen men in space-suits!"
"You must be mistaken, Liggett!" exclaimed Crain. "They must be some of the bodies in space-suits we saw in the pack."
"No, they're living men!" Liggett cried. "They're coming straight toward us—come down and see!"
Crain and Kent followed Liggett quickly down to the airlock room, where the men who had started donning their space-suits were now peering excitedly from the windows. Crain