With the discovery of the hyperdrive, mankind at last possessed the means of going out to the stars. Four expeditions had already gone by the fine the fifth starship left Pluto for Vega. Carrying its complement of scientists and military personnel, they arrived at the solar system of Vega to find one planet sufficiently like Earth to allow them to land. Here, they discovered mystery. The ruins of great cities built on the shattered remains of still earlier fortresses, showing that some great race of conquerors had passed that way sometime in the past thirty thousand years. No life now remained on this planet and speeding to the next sun, they found a civilisation which possessed powers so utterly strange to them that one native almost succeeded in destroying them and taking over the ship. And still the mystery remained, for the legends of the planet spoke of a race of gods who had come down from the stars twenty thousand years before. It was not until they reached the planet of a red giant sun that they ran into a race of creatures so fantastically alien that there was no defence against them, and they learned the real identity of the race which had conquered the stars millennia before...
Release date: December 22, 2014
Print pages: 188
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
For the best part of three hours Elliot had made his way slowly over the yawning crevasses and between the towering peaks of the rising mountains, moving clumsily in his suit, aware of the silence broken only by the continual hiss of oxygen in his helmet. Several times, since leaving the Observatory, he had tried his helmet communicator, but there had been no response. Not even the normal crackle of space static had broken the eternal silence and the suspicion that it had finally broken down on him was now crystallising into fact.
He was not lost. The journey from the outlying Observatory to the Central Plutonian Base was straightforward, the route well-marked in the knee-deep snow. But here, on the outermost planet of the Solar System, the snow consisted of frozen oxygen and ammonia; and not of water as it did on Earth.
Fingers of shadow probed among the rocks. Even through the electrically heated suit, he seemed to feel that terrible, absolute coldness which could exist only so far from the sun. Here, on the rim of the Solar System, Man’s final outpost before the stars, there was a terrible loneliness such as he had never known before. Three years earlier, he had thought the Moon was bad enough, but it had never been anything like this.
Looking towards the sun, there were eight other planets, most of them and their satellites already colonised. Following the discovery of atomics, the advance of technology had been rapid. Man had exploded outwards into space, touched on the planets, thrown up their bubble cities which held the precious oxygen and nitrogen against either the poison methane atmospheres of the giant planets, or the equally poisonous vacuum of space itself.
Now, they lived and died and planned with no roots left on the mother planet. In the beginning, there had been accidents and failures but even these had soon been forgotten and swallowed up in the welter of excitement, the new knowledge, the broader horizons which had suddenly opened out to encompass a million million miles of the black abyss which lay just beyond the fringes of Earth’s atmosphere.
Action was the escape for the spirit which men had sought over the long centuries. It seemed as though the mere act of getting free of Earth had removed the prevailing inhibitions which had been the dominating factor in mankind since the dawn of time.
He stopped finally on the jagged black rock of a ledge that overlooked the inner bowl of the huge crater, chilled a little by the reality of all those endless miles which lay around him in all directions. Slowly, he lifted his head, peered up at the stars which stood out, so close, over him, brighter and nearer than he could ever remember them.
The distant sun was high in the black sky when he finally shuffled along the ledge and began to lower himself down the sharp, needle-shaped rocks. The main base was less than half-a-mile away now, just coming into view as he edged his way around the corner of the ledge.
On the surface little was visible of the base itself. That lay below ground at the end of the long tunnel which was just visible in the base of the central peak. What was easily seen, standing out from the great spread of the crater, was the vast silvery ship which was soon to take them on the long journey to the stars.
In spite of its size when viewed objectively against the grotesque horizon, there was a feel of leashed aliveness about it, a throbbing quiescence which made it stand out so that it dominated the whole foreground. It rested on its launching platform built in the rocky, resisting plain and even from that distance he could see the men who stood in little groups around the bottom of the telescopic escalator which had been lowered from a brilliantly lit airlock some fifty feet above the ground.
As the astronomer on this trip, he knew little of the ship itself, or of the top-secret drive which would take them clear out of the Solar System, out into an endless darkness, the night that had no end and no beginning.
Just what his position would mean once they blasted off from Pluto and headed out into space, he didn’t know. But so far, he was becoming used to being in the background of things. Once they reached their destination and found themselves among alien suns, then he would be needed, but until then, it seemed, the other specialists would be in command and they would care little for his advice anyway, from what he had seen of them so far.
As he drew closer, he saw that Hunter, the physicist, was already there, his strong, well-set body bulking the rubberite suit. He was busy directing the storage of some of the equipment which was among the last of the crates to be stowed on board. In the low gravity, only three-quarters of that of Earth, they were manipulating the bulky crates with an almost incredulous ease.
Slowly, he made his way along the downward-sloping tunnel. There were fluorescent lights arranged along it at intervals, throwing his grotesque shadow in front of him over the smoothly hewn rock. By the time he reached the double airlock, there was a numb weariness in his body.
While he waited for the double doors of the airlock to open, he tried to fight down the little germ of panic which had been building up inside his brain ever since he had arrived on this bleak, terribly cold, black world. The journey from Earth to Pluto had occupied the best part of three weeks, operating at maximum thrust; and that had been bad enough. But it would be nothing compared with the journey out to the stars. The new drive was something completely different. Something which distorted space, although he knew very little about it. Possibly Hunter would be able to tell him something about it.
The tremor of panic worried him. The call to accompany the crew on this trip had been disturbing enough in itself when it had first come from Washington. There had been no details and it had come as a mere summons; and somehow, that hadn’t helped matters.
Most of the past five years had been spent at the Lunar Observatory where, unhampered by any atmosphere, he had been engaged in mapping the universe in the far ultra-violet. It had called for more than average patience and ability; and perhaps that was the reason why he had been chosen for this task.
Vainly, he tried to analyse the panic in his stomach. Partly, it could be ascribed to the urgency of the summons which he had received, partly it was the thought of setting out in that tremendous rocket out there, standing on its launching ramp like some vast bullet poised at the heavens. Still, he reflected, that was merely the beginning of the uneasiness and, while he was still on Pluto, it would probably be easy to suppress.
The outer airlock door opened silently and he stepped inside. Slowly, it closed behind him. A red light winked on the panel in front of him, stared blindly at him for a long moment, flicked to amber as air entered the lock and sound returned, then shone greenly for a second before the inner door opened. For the first time, there was light shining brightly into his eyes.
Instinctively, he glanced at the phone-plate situated close to the airlock. Entirely automatic, it would have picked up his image as he stepped through, relayed it along a nerve-work of wires into the central building, where one of the technicians would have recognised him immediately; and even now, the news that he had arrived back would have been passed to the Controller of the Base. In the beginning, when he had first arrived on the planet, it had always been a matter of surprise to him that they had known of his presence even before he had arrived at the Control Building. Not until Hunter had explained the set-up to him had he realised just how it had been done.
He waited for a few moments in case there was any message for him and was on the point of moving away, when the phone-plate cleared after a brief swirling of colours. Redmond’s face peered intently from it, looking down at him.
“Elliot. Glad you’re back. Come up to the Control Building right away.”
“Sure. Something wrong?”
“Not really. I’m trying to get everybody connected with this trip together so that we can pool our latest information. I want a complete record of the opinions of the scientists before that ship leaves tomorrow. With four other expeditions away, and no information from them so far, it’s essential that we have as much information as possible left back here before each group takes off.”
Elliot nodded. “I’ll be right up,” he said slowly. “Hunter is still out there at the rocket.”
“We’ll get through to him all right. He’ll be along in a few minutes. You’re the last.”
“Give me five minutes and I’ll be with you.”
The other nodded and seconds later, the phone-plate faded to its original grey, featurelessness. Elliot glanced at his watch, then shrugged himself out of his cumbersome suit. The air down here, held in by the airlocks, was cold and sterile. Out there on the surface of the planet, there was vacuum and the utter cold of almost absolute zero. Strangely enough, however, the first expedition had discovered a few species of bacteria still able to exist in the deep valleys and crevasses where there might possibly have been a little air existing in precarious equilibrium with the liquid and solid states close to the surface; and there had been a swift sterilising of his suit by infrared and ultra-violet radiation the moment he had stepped into the airlock.
Deliberately, he chose the slow moving section of the autoway and allowed it to carry him through the separate domes which made up the base. Vast almost beyond comprehension, they seemed to occupy the whole length of the mountain chain which circled the huge crater and it was almost five minutes later before the moving way deposited him in front of the Control Building. He swung himself off the moving strip lightly and stood quite still for a moment, looking about him, before climbing the steps into the building itself.
Most of the others were already present when he arrived, after taking the express elevator to the top floor. He recognised the majority of them at once. Redmond, the Controller of the Military Base; Byrne, the chemist on the project; Malden, engineer; Maurey, the archaeologist, and Eyer, the Semantics expert.
Quietly, he let himself into the room. Redmond was saying slowly: “… we’ve had a tight beam from home for the past twelve hours, but it isn’t going to last. Jupiter is getting in the way at the moment, distorting it quite appreciably; but to add to our difficulties the Earth is almost on the other side of the sun, and once Sol gets in the way, we’ll be lucky to pick up anything, even Morse signals, through all of that static. It’s beginning to take effect already. By tomorrow, I’m afraid we’ll receive nothing.”
Maurey’s voice was anxious as he said thickly: “And that means we’ll have to blast off without getting any final instructions?”
“Possibly.” The Controller nodded. “We’re doing our best to get instructions right now, but whether or not we’ll succeed is another matter, I’m afraid.”
Redmond was a tall, thin, bony man with a darkly angular face, possibly a couple of years older than Elliot himself. His voice was unusually forceful for his appearance and the astronomer had found that he was inclined to lean heavily on the supposedly vaster experience which came with being Controller of a Military Base such as this on Pluto. The fact that it was the outermost base of the whole Solar System made it just that little bit more important than most of the others. If there ever would be invaders from the stars, then in all probability this would be the first base they would attack, the first to be able to give any warning to the other occupied planets.
His train of thought was interrupted by Hunter. The physicist had divested himself of his suit and stood looking about him for a moment, tall and well-muscled, confident and almost ruthlessly efficient.
Redmond glanced round, nodded briefly, then said quietly: “Now that we’re all here, I’ll get down to the reason for this meeting immediately. As you all are aware, the starship leaves tomorrow. Your first destination will be Vega. If there are no inhabitable planets in that system, then you will go on to any other stars in that vicity. Not all of them will have planetary systems, but the shadow telescopes on board the starship will help you in your search.
“This is a tremendous responsibility which is being vested in you. As you probably know, four other starships have left Pluto during the past five years and so far, no message has been received from any of them. Nobody can put forward any reason for this. Maybe they have run into something out there which was too big for them to fight. If that is so, then it’s possible that the same thing may happen to you. I can’t give you any possible guarantee that it won’t. All I can do is to remind you all that the starship represents the ultimate in our science. The weapons on board should be sufficient to meet anything you may run into. The military personnel on board are responsible for your safety. They’ll do their best to protect you.”
Maurey spoke up. “Assuming that we do locate Earth-type planets during this exploratory trip, I presume that without exception, they will probably be inhabited. Do we make any attempt to take over the planets?”
Redmond shook his head emphatically. “I’ll try to put you in the picture as completely as possible,” he said slowly. “Hayward, the pilot, will have his own sealed orders, but I think I ought to make things clear from the beginning for the rest of you. All of this began the best part of ten years ago. Perhaps some of you remember the fate of the first colony on Titan when seven thousand people were wiped out following the collapse of the protective domes. I think that showed us, more than anything else, how difficult it is for mankind to exist on an alien planet. Even then, the only solution was seen to be the discovery of another planet, as similar to Earth as possible, similar surface temperature, atmosphere as alike as possible.”
“But you won’t get a planet like that in the Solar System,” muttered Elliot.
Redmond heard him. He nodded. “Exactly. But we had to wait until we could form this military base on Pluto, before there was any hope of men getting to the stars. Once the FTL drive had been perfected, we still needed a launching base well away from the sun and other planets. The first experiments with the faster-than-light drive carried out from Luna ended in disaster. I think Hunter can tell us the reason for this.”
The physicist looked up surprised, then nodded. “It’s quite simple really. In the beginning we didn’t know the full reaction of the FTL drive. Somehow, it distorts space, drives the ship up into higher continua of space where the light constant no longer holds. Distorting space in the region of a massive body such as the sun has disastrous results as we now know.”
He paused, looked around his audience. Elliot watched him closely. At the back of the room, he could just see the small recorder, registering every word that was said, every inflexion of the voices speaking in that room, the thin metalloid tape moving from one spool to the other, the magic eye lapping and overlapping in response to the tonal frequencies and volume of the sounds.
Hunter drew in a deep breath, then went on: “There’s little more to tell, really. The mathematics behind the drive and in particular, behind the theory of these ultra-C continua is extremel. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...