"What's the matter?" asked Fuller anxiously.
Arcot pointed out the window at a red star that blazed in the distance. "We got too near the field of gravity of that young giant and he threw us for a loss. We drained out three-fourths of the energy from our coils and lost our bearings in the bargain. The attraction turned the gyroscopes and threw the ship out of line, so we no longer know where the sun is.
"Well, come on, Morey; all we can do is start a search. At this distance, we'd best go by Sirius; it's brighter and nearer." He looked at the instrument panel. "I was using the next lowest power and I still couldn't avoid that monster. This ship is just a little too hot to handle."
Their position was anything but pleasant. They must pick out from the vast star field behind them the one star that was home, not knowing exactly where it was. But they had one tremendous help—the photographs of the star field around Sol that they had taken at the last stop. All they had to do was search for an area that matched their photographs.
They found the sun at last, after they had spotted Sirius, but they had had to rotate the ship through nearly twenty-five degrees to do it. After establishing their bearings, they took new photographs for their files.
Meanwhile, Wade had been recharging the coils. When he was finished, he reported the fact to Arcot.
"Fine," Arcot said. "And from now on, I'm going to use the least possible amount of power. It certainly isn't safe to use more."
They started for the control room, much relieved. Arcot dived first, with Wade directly behind him. Wade decided suddenly to go into his room and stopped himself by grabbing a handhold. Morey, following close behind, bumped into him and was brought to rest, while Wade was pushed into his room.
But Fuller, coming last, slammed into Morey, who moved forward with new velocity toward the control room, leaving Fuller hanging at rest in the middle of the corridor.
"Hey, Morey!" he laughed. "Send me a skyhook! I'm caught!" Isolated as he was in the middle of the corridor, he couldn't push on anything and remained stranded.
"Go to sleep!" advised Morey. "It's the most comfortable bed you'll find!"
Wade looked out of his room just then. "Well, if it isn't old Weakmuscles Fuller! Weighs absolutely nothing and is still so weak he can't push himself around."
"Come on, though, Morey—give me a hand—I got you off dead center." Fuller flailed his hand helplessly.
"Use your brains, if you have any," said Morey, "and see what you can do. Come on, Wade—we're going."
Since they were going to use the space control, they would remain in free fall, and Fuller would remain helplessly suspended in mid-air.
The air of the ship suddenly seemed supercharged with energy as the space around them became gray; then the stars were all before them. The ship was moving forward again.
"Well, old pals," said Fuller, "at least I have traffic blocked fairly well if I feel like it, so eventually you'd have to help me. However—" He floundered clumsily as he removed one of his foam-rubber space-boots, "—my brains tell me that action is equal and opposite to reaction!" And he threw the boot with all possible velocity toward Morey!
The reaction of the motion brought him slowly but surely to a handhold in the wall.
In the meantime, the flying boot caught Morey in the chest with a pronounced smack! as he struggled vainly to avoid it. Handicapped by the lack of friction, his arms were not quite powerful enough to move his mass as quickly as his legs might have done, for his inertia was as great as ever, so he didn't succeed in ducking.
"Round one!" called Arcot, laughing. "Won by Kid Fuller on a TKO! It appears he has brains and knows how to use them!"
"You win," laughed Morey. "I concede the battle!"
Arcot had cut off the space-strain drive by the time Fuller reached the control room, and the men set about making more observations. They took additional photographs and turned on the drive again.
Time passed monotonously after they had examined a few stars. There was little difference; each was but a scene of flaming matter. There was little interest in this work, and, as Fuller remarked, this was supposed to be a trip of exploration, not observation. They weren't astronomers; they were on a vacation. Why all the hard work? They couldn't do as good a job as an experienced astronomer, so they decided to limit their observations to those necessary to retrace their path to Earth.
"But we want to investigate for planets to land on, don't we?" asked Morey.
"Sure," agreed Fuller. "But do we have to hunt at random for them? Can't we look for stars like our own sun? Won't they be more apt to have planets like Sol's?"
"It's an idea," replied Morey.
"Well, why not try it then?" Fuller continued logically. "Let's pick out a G-0 type sun and head for it."
They were now well out toward the edge of the Galaxy, some thirty thousand light years from home. Since they had originally headed out along the narrow diameter of the lens-shaped mass of stars that forms our Island Universe, they would reach the edge soon.
"We won't have much chance of finding a G-0 this far out," Arcot pointed out. "We're about out of stars. We've left most of the Galaxy behind us."
"Then let's go on to another of the galactic nebulae," said Morey, looking out into the almost unbroken night of intergalactic space. Only here and there could they see a star, separated from its nearest neighbor by thousands of light years of empty space.
"You know," said Wade slowly, "I've been wondering about the progress along scientific lines that a race out here might make. I mean, suppose that one of those lonely stars had planets, and suppose intelligent life evolved on one of those planets. I think their progress would be much slower."
"I see what you mean," Arcot said. "To us, of Earth, the stars are gigantic furnaces a few light years away. They're titanic tests tubes of nature, with automatic reading devices attached, hung in the sky for us to watch. We have learned more about space from the stars than all the experiments of the physicists of Earth ever secured for us. It was in the atoms of the suns that we first counted the rate of revolutions of the electrons about their nuclei."
"Couldn't they have watched their own sun?" Fuller asked.
"Sure, but what could they compare it with? They couldn't see a white dwarf from here. They couldn't measure the parallax to the nearest star, so they would have no idea of stellar distances. They wouldn't know how bright S Doradus was. Or how dim Van Maanen's star was."
"Then," Fuller said speculatively, "they'd have to wait until one of their scientists invented the telectroscope."
Arcot shook his head. "Without a knowledge of nuclear physics, the invention of the telectroscope is impossible. The lack of opportunity to watch the stars that might teach them something would delay their knowledge of atomic structure. They might learn a great deal about chemistry and Newtonian physics, and go quite a ways with math, but even there they would be handicapped. Morey, for instance, would never have developed the autointegral calculus, to say nothing of tensor and spinor calculus, which were developed two hundred years ago, without the knowledge of the problems of space to develop the need. I'm afraid such a race would be quite a bit behind us in science.
"Suppose, on the other hand, we visit a race that's far ahead of us. We'd better not stay there long; think what they might do to us. They might decide our ship was too threatening and simply wipe us out. Or they might even be so far advanced that we would mean nothing to them at all—like ants or little squalling babies." Arcot laughed at the thought.
"That isn't a very complimentary picture," objected Fuller. "With the wonderful advances we've made, there just isn't that much left to be able to say we're so little."
"Fuller, I'm surprised at you!" Arcot said. "Today, we are only opening our eyes on the world of science. Our race has only a few thousand years behind it and hundreds of millions yet to come. How can any man of today, with his freshly-opened eyes of science, take in the mighty pyramid of knowledge that will be built up in those long, long years of the future? It's too gigantic to grasp; we can't imagine the things that the ever-expanding mind of man will discover."
Arcot's voice slowed, and a far-off look came in his eyes.
"You might say there can be no greater energy than that of matter annihilation. I doubt that. I have seen hints of something new—an energy so vast—so transcendently tremendous—that it frightens me. The energies of all the mighty suns of all the galaxies—of the whole cosmos—in the hand of man! The energy of a billion billion billion suns! And every sun pouring out its energy at the rate of quintillions of horsepower every instant!
"But it's too great for man to have—I am going to forget it, lest man be destroyed by his own might."
Arcot's halting speech told of his intense thought—of a dream of such awful energies as man had never before conceived. His eyes looked unseeing at the black velvet of space with its few, scattered stars.
"But we're here to decide which way to go," he added with a sudden briskness as he straightened his shoulders. "Every now and then, I get a new idea and I—I sort of dream. That's when I'm most likely to see the solution. I think I know the solution now, but unless the need arises, I'm never going to use it. It's too dangerous a toy."
There was silence for a moment, then Morey said, quietly:
"I've got a course plotted for us. We'll leave this Galaxy at a steep angle—about forty-five degrees from the Galactic plane—to give us a good view of our own Galaxy. And we can head for one of the nebulae in that general area. What do you say?"
"I say," remarked Fuller, "that some of the great void without seems to have leaked into my own poor self. It's been thirty thousand years since I am going to have a meal this morning—whatever it is I mean—and I want another." He looked meaningfully at Wade, the official cook of the expedition.
Arcot suddenly burst out laughing. "So that's what I've been wanting!" It had been ten chronometer hours since they had eaten, but since they had been outracing light, they were now thirty thousand years in Earth's past.
The weightlessness of free fall makes it difficult to recognize normally familiar sensations, and the feeling of hunger is one of them. There was little enough work to be done, so there was no great need for nourishment, but the ordinary sensation of hunger is not caused by lack of nourishment, but an empty stomach.
Sleep was another problem. A restless body will not permit a tired brain to sleep, and though they had done a great deal of hard mental work, the lack of physical fatigue made sleep difficult. The usual "day" in space was forty hours, with thirty-hour waking periods and ten hours of sleep.
"Let's eat, then," Arcot decided. "Afterwards, we'll take a few photographs and then throw this ship into high and really make time."
Two hours later, they were again seated at the control board. Arcot reached out and threw the red switch. "I'm going to give her half power for ten seconds." The air about them seemed suddenly snapping with unprecedented power—then it was gone as the coil became fully charged.
"Lucky we shielded those relays," Arcot muttered. The tremendous surge of current set up a magnetic field that turned knives and forks and, as Wade found to his intense disgust, stopped watches that were not magnetically shielded.
Space was utterly black about them now; there wasn't the slightest hint of light. The ten seconds that Arcot had allowed dragged slowly. Then at last came the heavy crashing of the huge relays; the current flowed back into the storage coils, and space became normal again. They were alone in the blackness.
Morey dove swiftly for the observatory. Before them, there was little to see; the dim glow of nebulae millions of light years away was scarcely visible to the naked eye, despite the clarity of space.
Behind them, like a shining horizon, they saw the mass of the Galaxy for the first time as free observers.
Morey began to make swift calculations of the distance they had come by measuring the apparent change in diameter of the Galaxy.
Arcot floated into the room after him and watched as Morey made his observations and began to work swiftly with pencil and paper. "What do you make?" Arcot asked.
"Mmmmm. Let's see." Morey worked a moment with his slide rule. "We made good time! Twenty-nine light years in ten seconds! You had it on at half power—the velocity goes up as the cube of the power—doubling the power, then, gives us eight times the velocity—Hmmmmmm." He readjusted the slide rule and slid the hairline over a bit. "We can make ten million light years in a little less than five days at full power.
"But I suggest we make another stop in six hours. That will put us about five radii, or half a million light years from the Galaxy. We'll need to take some more photographs to help us retrace our steps to Earth."
"All right, Morey," Arcot agreed. "It's up to you. Get your photos here and we'll go on. By the way, I think you ought to watch the instruments in the power room; this will be our first test at full power. We figured we'd make twenty light years per second, and it looks as if it's going to be closer to twenty-four."
A few minutes later, Arcot seated himself at the control board and flipped on the intercom to the power room. "All ready, Morey? I just happened to think—it might be a good idea to pick out our galaxy now and start toward it."
"Let's wait," cautioned Morey. "We can't make a very careful choice at this distance, anyway; we're beyond the enlarging power range of the telectroscope here. In another half million light years, we'll have a much better view, and that comparatively short distance won't take us much out of our way."
"Wait a minute," said Fuller. "You say we're beyond the magnification range of the telectroscope. Then why would half a million light years out of ten million make that much difference?"
"Because of the limit of amplification in the tubes," Arcot replied. "You can only have so many stages of amplification; after that, you're amplifying noise. The whole principle of the vacuum tube depends on electronic emission; if you get too much amplification, you can hear every single electron striking the plate of the first tube by the time the thing reaches the last amplifying stage! In other words, if your incoming signal is weaker than the minimum noise level on the first amplifying stage, no amount of amplification will give you anything but more noise.
"The same is true of the telectroscope image. At this distance, the light signal from those galaxies is weaker than the noise level. We'd only get a flickering, blurred image. But if we go on another half million light years, the light signal from the nearer nebulae will be stronger than the base noise level, and full amplification will give us a good image on the screen."
Fuller nodded. "Okay, then let's go that additional half million light years. I want to take a look at another galaxy."
"Right." Arcot turned to the intercom. "Ready, Morey?"
"Anytime you are."
"Here goes!" said Arcot. He pushed over the little red control.
At full power, the air filled with the strain of flowing energy and actually broke down in spots with the terrific electrical energy of the charge. There were little snapping sparks in the air, which, though harmless electrically, were hot enough to give slight burns, as Wade found to his sorrow.
"Yike! Say, why didn't you tell us to bring lightning rods?" he asked indignantly as a small spark snapped its way over his hand.
"Sorry," grinned Arcot, "but most people know enough to stay out of the way of those things. Seriously, though, I didn't think the electrostatic curvature would be so slow to adjust. You see, when we build up our light-rate distortion field, other curvatures are affected. We get some gravity, some magnetic, and some electrostatic field distortion, too. You can see what happens when they don't leak their energy back into the coil.
"But we're busy with the instruments; leave the motorman alone!"
Morey was calling loudly for tests. Although the ship seemed to be behaving perfectly, he wanted check tests to make sure the relays were not being burned, which would keep them from responding properly. By rerouting the current around each relay, Arcot checked them one by one.
It was just as they had finished testing the last one that Fuller yelled.
"Hey! Look!" He pointed out the broad viewport in the side of the ship.
Far off to their left and far to their right, they saw two shining ships paralleling their course. They were shining, sleek ships, their long, longitudinal windows glowing with white light. They seemed to be moving at exactly the same speed, holding grimly to the course of the Ancient Mariner. They bracketed the ship like an official guard, despite the terrific velocity of the Earthmen's ship.
Arcot stared in amazement, his face suddenly clouded in wonder. Morey, who had come up from the power room, stared in equal wonder.
Quickly, Wade and Fuller slid into the ray control seats. Their long practice with the rays had made them dead shots, and they had been chosen long before as the ship's official ray operators.
"Lord," muttered Morey as he looked at the ships, "where can they have come from?"