Over the long years, ships of the Interplanetary Confederation had scoured the empty wastes surrounding Sol, searching desperately for a sister planet; a companion for the isolated worlds of the Solar System. Of the ships that were sent out, many returned. But always the answer was the same. There were no planets! The worlds of Sol were alone in the Great Dark that swirled across the boundless heavens. It was not until Steve Rane and Nick Brodine, in the Exploratory Ship Vega, reached across the yawning gulf of light years to Sirius, that they found the strange planet that rotated in its complicated orbit around the twin sun. It was an event transcending all others. A discovery that plunged the planets of Sol into the greatest race of all time. For whoever controlled the alien planet, controlled the Solar System. And away from the watchful eye of the IPC it would be possible to build the greatest space armada in history and attack the Interplanetary Confederation without warning. To Steve Rane, the order came from Earth Central. Zero Point has been set for three months hence. The ship of Jupiter must not reach the new planet first.
Release date: March 31, 2015
Print pages: 96
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With an audible sigh, Space-Commander Steve Rane settled his broad shoulders more comfortably against the anti-acceleration cushions lining his chair. He felt suddenly tensed and alive. The pure exhilaration of the situation, the sheer inescapable challenge, struck through him like a searing flame.
For weeks now, the Terran Exploratory Ship Vega had thundered her way through the void, straining across the awful gulf that separated Sol from the nearer Suns. She was a new ship, the last of her class, and embodied all that was new in the Terran sciences.
Over the long years, ships had been sent out from the Solar System, searching the endless wastes for other planets. Several had returned. And always the news had been the same. There were many suns within a radius of ten light-years, but without exception, they were sterile. Now the Vega had reached out farther than ever before. Less than half a light-year away, lay Sirius. Already it blazed like a distant furnace way over on the starboard bow and about forty degrees above their line of flight.
For a brief moment, Steve twiddled idly with the viewing controls, watching the star-clouds streaming across the plate. Deep inside him, was a yearning so powerful, so urgent, that it almost hurt. Surely, somewhere, he thought, there must be a warm, friendly environment that had produced a planet. A companion in the great stretch of loneliness surrounding the solitary life-bearing system in the Universe.
He shrugged and turned the whole of his attention to the visiplate. As always the scene was the same. Everywhere, the black night. The endless night of space that swarmed around the ship, crushing it in the grip of its mighty coils.
Cold flecks of light, swarming patches of frozen mist, foamed across a gulf of a million light-years. They seemed small, insignificant blotches on the face of the dark immensity. But each of them, he knew, was a whirling star-city, maybe vaster than his own, shrunk to immobility by the far distance.
He shook his head once or twice as if to clear it. That was the trouble with the Universe. There were many things, important things, that were too big to be grasped fully. They got crowded out by the vast multitude of little, everyday happenings.
Almost angrily, he dismissed the thought and thrust it into the far background of his mind. With a swift, automatic movement, he turned in the padded, inclined seat as the steel door slid smoothly open.
Nick Brodine, co-pilot and astronavigator, his sole companion on the exploratory run, scrambled into the control cabin. The door clicked shut behind him.
There was the slightest suspicion of a frown spread over his long, thin features. The fine lines around the corners of his mouth seemed to deepen as he eyed the visiplate. He grinned quizzically as he felt Rane’s gaze upon him.
“Any idea how long the return journey is likely to take?” he asked. His voice, though loud, seemed oddly hushed in the room of vast machines and instruments.
“About two weeks—maybe three.”
“As long as that.” His deep tone held a touch of vague alarm. “Hmm. I didn’t realise it would take all that time. I’ve just checked our fuel supply. We’re running pretty low.”
There was silence for a moment. Mechanically, Steve slipped the controls into automatic. When he finally turned, his grey eyes were narrowed. He said with an odd edge to his voice: “Have we enough to complete the mission? A complete survey of the Sirius system and still get back to Earth?”
“Frankly,” Brodine confessed; “I doubt it.”
He lowered his tall, lanky frame into the co-pilot’s chair and launched into a brief account of the fuel consumption necessary for the return orbit.
“You realise of course,” he explained; “that we can’t go back along a straight-line course. Several suns prevent such an orbit. For the most part, they’re dark stars. Suns that have reached their final flicker of life. But not even this ship could survive a direct flight through the outer fringes of a sun. It would be sheer suicide.”
Rane leaned back still farther and pursed his thin lips the lowermost bank of the instrument board. His voice had a little snap as he said: “I can quite see your point Nick, but it would be foolishness to turn back now. You’re quite sure about your readings?”
The other nodded. “There’s no doubt about the seriousness of the situation,” he replied sombrely.
Rane leaned back still further and pursed his thin lips thoughtfully.
“There’s one way we can do it,” he said finally, slowly, “at the moment we’re not on true course—but it will only take a few minutes to adjust that. Once that’s done, we push up the acceleration to the utmost limit for ten minutes or so. Then cut the motors completely. That will conserve our fuel reserve and at the same time, we’ll have enough acceleration to reach our destination.” He looked up from under dark brows. “How does that suit you?”
Brodine thought deeply for a few seconds. “It sounds feasible,” he admitted, almost reluctantly. “Though we’ll have to start right away. The sooner we reach peak acceleration, the better.”
Rane nodded wordlessly in agreement. The harsh actinic light, flooding down from above the control panel, heightened the hard contours of his lean, brown face and threw them into half shadow.
But it was his eyes that dominated his features. Grey they were; and shot with a brilliant, icy fire, matched only by the remote glitter of the stars outside. The eyes of a man who had faced the hidden deaths that howled on the alien planets of the Solar System. And looked beyond the empty veil of time and space to behold things that were not fit for man to see.
Now they were taking in every detail of the imposing glitter and array of the instrument board. A towering, tiered arrangement that occupied the area of an entire wall. With the green and red flashing lights that winked monotonously along the indicators above the rows of buttons.
For a moment, he fixed his undivided attention on the spinning dials in front of him. Then he flicked down the switch that activated the small forward viewing plate.
The illusion of sitting motionless on the brink of space snapped out as he spun the directional gyro. Moving in a wide arc, the Vega tore a flaming hole in the eternal darkness as she lifted, and headed towards the flaring hell of Sirius. The long minutes dragged as the strain pulled at their muscles.
On the rectangular black patch of the visiplate, the great star-clouds drifted across in fiery trails. New constellations appeared to replace the old, then, they too, vanished in turn off the bottom edge. Finally, they steadied; became discrete points again, as the Vega came on course.
Brodine leaned over, struggling against the lightness of the turn. He peered over Steve’s shoulder.
“Sol has almost dropped below the limit of visibility,” he said. “Which is Sirius?”
Steve pointed. “There—near the middle of the plate.”
The other squinted along the aiming device, then gave a short grunt. He studied the brilliant blue-white star for several moments without speaking. When he finally looked up there was an expression of grim determination on his face. Some of the sheer, exhilarating excitement that coursed through Rane seemed to have communicated itself to him also. When he spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper.
“We’ve got to reach it,” he muttered, half savagely. “We’ve got to.”
“Don’t worry,” said Steve. “We will. If there’s a planetary system there, we’ll find it somehow.”
As he spoke, he reached down and buckled his protective webbing tightly across his chest and shoulders. He gave the harness a few experimental tugs with his left hand. Then, apparently satisfied, reached out with his other hand and grasped the small red lever, used only in emergency, that would initiate the automatic accelerative sequence. He turned and eyed his companion.
“Better strap yourself securely into your seat,” he said casually. “This is where we start!”
He waited until the other gave a brief nod. Then pushed the lever home.
Silence! The preliminary atomic motors cut at the instant the lever slipped into position. There was no sound, nothing.
Then the full-throated roar of the main motors started up. Smoothly, power was fed to the engines. The low roar surged upwards and rose to a vigorous cannonade. The note of wild, ecstatic life brought a vague sense of relief. An abrupt end to the taut tenseness that had built up over the long weeks.
There was a shudder that vibrated through every plate of the ship as though she had been smashed by a giant fist. Steve felt his stomach come up in protest. Acceleration slammed him back into his seat.
But outside, beyond the curving, transparent dome, nothing was altered. Stupendous and beyond all comprehension as their terrible velocity was, it could make no perceptible impression on the far distances of space.
Brodine turned from his brief examination of the instrument board. His voice reached Steve above the throbbing din. He was shouting: “We’re in. We’ve already reached the limit. She won’t take any more. Keep her at that for about fifteen minutes.” There was a tired elation in his tone. “Better adjust her now so that she’s dead on course. It won’t be so easy to turn at this speed.”
Steve’s slim, sensitive fingers flashed over the numerous studs and switches with a familiar ease. Slowly, the image of the blue sun moved across to the intersection of the luminous hair lines. Only then did he sit back in his chair and force his aching body to relax under the terrible strain.
Over the long minutes that followed, the great ship slid through the blackness along her destined course. Sirius grew from a remote speck to a glowing ball that exhibited an appreciable disc.
Five minutes passed. Then ten. And still the massive engines thundered, sending the Vega surging onward at unthinkable speeds. Swiftly the velocity soared.
The impassive faces of the meters shimmered and blurred before Steve’s swimming eyes. Unconsciousness threatened to overwhelm him. It flickered like a dark shadow just beyond his range of vision, far out of focus. Soon, the pressure threatened to go beyond the limit of human endurance. The anti-acceleration cushions helped, but they had never been designed for such an extreme velocity. Metal grated and creaked from the torture of the acceleration.
Then abruptly, it was all over. Somewhere, deep down inside the automatic mechanism, a lever clicked into place with a sharp snap. The shrill, ear-splitting whine died to a low moan that dropped to the brink of silence, trembled there for a moment, then ceased altogether.
With an effort, Steve focused his aching eyes on t. . .
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