Arcot looked speculatively at the star field in the great broad window before him. "We'll want to find another G-0 sun, naturally, but I don't think we ought to go directly from here. If we did, we'd have to do a lot of backtracking to get back to this dead star. I suggest we go back to the edge of this galaxy, taking pictures on the way out, so that any future investigators can come in directly. It'll only take a few hours."
"I think you're right," agreed Morey. "Besides, that will give us a wider choice of stars to pick our next G-0 from. Let's get going."
Arcot moved the red switch, and the ship shot away at half speed. They watched the green image of the white dwarf fade and then suddenly flare up and become bright again as they outraced the light that had left it five centuries before.
They stopped and took more photographs so that the path could be marked. They stopped every light century until they reached a point where the star was merely a dim point, almost lost in the myriad of stars around it.
Then out to the edge of the galaxy they went, out toward their own universe.
"Arcot," Morey called, "let's go out, say one million light years into space, at an angle to this galaxy, and see if we can get both galaxies on one plate. It will make navigation between them easier."
"Good idea. We can get out and back in one day—and this 'time' won't count back on Earth, anyway." Since they would travel in the space-strain all the time, it would not count as Earth time.
Arcot pushed the red control all the way forward, and the ship began to move at its top velocity of twenty-four light years per second. The hours dragged heavily, as they had when they were coming in, and Arcot remained alone on watch while the others went to their rooms for some sleep, strapping their weightless bodies securely in the bunks.
It was hours later when Morey awoke with a sudden premonition of trouble. He looked at the chronometer on the wall—he had slept twelve hours! They had gone beyond the million light year mark! It didn't matter, except it showed that something had happened to Arcot.
Something had. Arcot was sound asleep in the middle of the library—exactly in the middle, floating in the room ten feet from each wall.
Morey called out to him, and Arcot awoke with a guilty start. "A fine sentry you make," said Morey caustically. "Can't even keep awake when all you have to do is sit here and see that we don't run into anything. We've gone more than our million light years already, and we're still going strong. Come on—snap out of it!"
"I'm sorry—I apologize—I know I shouldn't have slept, but it was so perfectly quiet here except for your deep-toned, musical snores that I couldn't help it," grinned Arcot. "Get me down from here and we'll stop."
"Get you down, nothing!" Morey snapped. "You stay right there while I call the others and we decide what's to be done with a sleeping sentry."
Morey turned and left to wake the others.
He had awakened Wade and told him what had happened, and they were on their way to wake up Fuller, when suddenly the air of the ship crackled around them! The space was changing! They were coming out of hyperspace!
In amazement, Morey and Wade looked at each other. They knew that Arcot was still floating helplessly in the middle of the room, but—
"Hold on, you brainless apes! We're turning around!" came Arcot's voice, full of suppressed mirth.
Suddenly they were both plastered against the wall of the ship under four gravities of acceleration! Unable to walk, they could only crawl laboriously toward the control room, calling to Arcot to shut off the power.
When Morey had left him stranded in the library, Arcot had decided it was high time he got to the floor. Quickly, he looked around for a means of doing so. Near him, floating in the air, was the book he had been reading, but it was out of reach. He had taken off his boots when he started to read, so the Fuller rocket method was out. It seemed hopeless.
Then, suddenly, came the inspiration! Quickly, he slipped off his shirt and began waving it violently in the air. He developed a velocity of about two inches a second—not very fast, but fast enough. By the time he had put his shirt back on, he had reached the wall.
After that, it was easy to shoot himself over to the door, out into the corridor and into the control room without being seen by Morey, who was in Wade's room.
Just as Wade and Morey reached the doorway to the control room, Arcot decided it was time to shut the power off. Both of the men, laboring under more than eight hundred pounds of weight, were suddenly weightless. All the strength of their powerful muscles were expended in hurling them against the far wall.
The complaints were loud, but they finally simmered down to an earnest demand to know how in the devil Arcot had managed to get off dead center.
"Why, that was easy," he said airily. "I just turned on a little power; I fell under the influence of the weight and then it was easy to get to the control room."
"Come on," Wade demanded. "The truth! How did you get here?"
"Why, I just pushed myself here."
"Yes; no doubt. But how did you get hold of anything to push?"
"I just took a handful of air and threw it away and reached the wall."
"Oh, of course—and how did you hold the air?"
"I just took some air and threw it away and reached the wall."
Which was all they could learn. Arcot was going to keep his system secret, it seemed.
"At any rate," Arcot continued, "I am back in the control room, where I belong, and you are not in the observatory where you belong. Now get out of my territory!"
Morey pushed himself back to the observatory, and after a few minutes, his voice came over the intercom. "Let's move on a bit more, Arcot. We still can't get both galaxies on the same plate. Let's go on for another hour and take our pictures from that point."
Fuller had awakened and come in in the meantime, and he wanted to know why they didn't take some pictures from this spot.
"No point in it," said Morey. "We have the ones we took coming in; what we want is a wide-angle shot."
Arcot threw on the space-strain drive once more, and they headed on at top speed.
They were all in the control room, watching the instruments and joking—principally the latter—when it happened. One instant they were moving smoothly, weightlessly along. The next instant, the ship rocked as though it had been struck violently! The air was a snapping inferno of shooting sparks, and there came the sharp crash of the suddenly volatilized silver bar that was their main power fuse. Simultaneously, they were hurled forward with terrific force; the straps that held them in place creaked with the sudden strain, and the men felt weak and faint.
Consciousness nearly left them; they had been burned in a dozen places by the leaping sparks.
Then it was over. Except that the ghost ships no longer followed them, the Ancient Mariner seemed unchanged. Around them, they could see the dim glowing of the galaxies.
"Brother! We came near something!" Arcot cried. "It may be a wandering star! Take a look around, quick!"
But the dark of space seemed utterly empty around them as they coasted weightless through space. Then Arcot snapped off the lights of the control room, and in a moment his eyes had become accustomed to the dim lights.
It was dead ahead of them. It was a dull red glow, so dim it was scarcely visible. Arcot realized it was a dead star.
"There it is, Morey!" he said. "A dead star, directly ahead of us! Good God, how close are we?"
They were falling straight toward the dim red bulk.
"How far are we from it?" Fuller asked.
"At least several million—" Morey began. Then he looked at the distance recorded on the meteor detector. "ARCOT! FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE DO SOMETHING! THAT THING IS ONLY A FEW HUNDRED MILES AWAY!"
"There's only one thing to do," Arcot said tightly. "We can never hope to avoid that thing; we haven't got the power. I'm going to try for an orbit around it. We'll fall toward it and give the ship all the acceleration she'll take. There's no time to calculate—I'll just pile on the speed until we don't fall into it."
The others, strapped into the control chairs, prepared themselves for the acceleration to come.
If the Ancient Mariner had dropped toward the star from an infinite distance, Arcot could have applied enough power to put the ship in a hyperbolic orbit which would have carried them past the star. But they had come in on the space drive, and had gotten fairly close before the gravitational field had drained the power from the main coil, and it was not until the space field had broken that they had started to accelerate toward the star. Their velocity would not be great enough to form an escape orbit.
Even now, they would fall far short of enough velocity to get into an elliptical orbit unless they used the molecular drive.
Arcot headed toward one edge of the star, and poured power into the molecular drive. The ship shot forward under an additional five and a half gravities of acceleration. Their velocity had been five thousand miles per second when they entered hyperspace, and they were swiftly adding to their original velocity.
They did not, of course, feel the pull of the sun, since they were in free fall in its field; they could only feel the five and a half gravities of the molecular drive. Had they been able to experience the pull of the star, they would have been crushed by their own weight.
Their speed was mounting as they drew nearer to the star, and Arcot was forcing the ship on with all the additional power he could get. But he knew that the only hope they had was to get the ship in a closed ellipse around the star, and a closed ellipse meant that they would be forever bound to the star as a planet! Helpless, for not even the titanic power of the Ancient Mariner could enable them to escape!
As the dull red of the dead sun ballooned toward them, Arcot said: "I think we'll make an orbit, all right, but we're going to be awfully close to the surface of that thing!"
The others were quiet; they merely watched Arcot and the star as Arcot made swift movements with the controls, doing all he could to establish them in an orbit that would be fairly safe.
It seemed like an eternity—five and a half gravities of acceleration held the men in their chairs almost as well as the straps of the antiacceleration units that bound them. When a man weighs better than half a ton, he doesn't feel like moving much.
Fuller whispered to Morey out of the corner of his sagging mouth. "What on Earth—I mean, what in Space is that thing? We're within only a few hundred miles, you said, so it must be pretty small. How could it pull us around like this?"
"It's a dead white dwarf—a 'black dwarf', you might say," Morey replied. "As the density of such matter increases, the volume of the star depends less and less on its temperature. In a dwarf with the mass of the sun, the temperature effect is negligible; it's the action of the forces within the electron-nucleon gas which makes up the star that reigns supreme.
"It's been shown that if a white dwarf—or a black one—is increased in mass, it begins to decrease sharply in volume after a certain point is reached. In fact, no cold star can exist with a volume greater than about one and a half times the mass of the sun—as the mass increases and the pressure goes up, the star shrinks in volume because of the degenerate matter in it. At a little better than 1.4 times the mass of the sun—our sun, I mean: Old Sol—the star would theoretically collapse to a point.
"That has almost happened in this case. The actual limit is when the star has reached the density of a neutron, and this star hasn't collapsed that far by a long shot.
"But that star is only forty kilometers—or less than twenty-five miles in diameter!"
It took nearly two hours of careful juggling to get an orbit which Arcot considered reasonably circular.
And when they finally did, Wade looked at the sky above them and shouted: "Say, look! What are all those streaks?"
Arcing up from the surface of the dull red plain below them and going over the ship, were several dim streaks of light across the sky. One of them was brighter than the rest, a bright white streak. The streaks didn't move; they seemed to have been painted on the sky overhead, glowing bands of unwavering light.
"Those," said Arcot, "are the nebulae. That wide streak is the one we just left. The bright streak must be a nearby star.
"They look like streaks because we're moving so fast in so small an orbit." He pointed to the red star beneath them. "We're less than twenty miles from the center of that thing! We're almost exactly thirty kilometers from its center, or about ten kilometers from its surface! But, because of it's great mass, our orbital velocity is something terrific!
"We're going around that thing better than three hundred times every second; our 'year' is three milliseconds long! Our orbital velocity is seven hundred thousand kilometers per second!
"We're moving along at about a fifth of the speed of light!"
"Are we safe in this orbit?" Fuller asked.
"Safe enough," said Arcot bitterly. "So damned safe that I don't see how we'll ever break free. We can't pull away with all the power on this ship. We're trapped!
"Well, I'm worn out from working under all that gravity; let's eat and get some sleep."
"I don't feel like sleeping," said Fuller. "You may call this safe, but it would only take an instant to fall down to the surface of that thing there." He looked down at their inert, but titanically powerful enemy whose baleful glow seemed even now to be burning their funeral pyre.
"Well," said Arcot, "falling into it and flying off into space are two things you don't have to worry about. If we started toward it, we'd be falling, and our velocity would increase; as a result, we'd bounce right back out again. The magnitude of the force required to make us fall into that sun is appalling! The gravitational pull on us now amounts to about five billion tons, which is equalized by the centrifugal force of our orbital velocity. Any tendency to change it would be like trying to bend a spring with that much resistance.
"We'd require a tremendous force to make us either fall into that star—or get away from it.
"To escape, we have to lift this ship out against gravity. That means we'd have to lift about five million tons of mass. As we get farther out, our weight will decrease as the gravitational attraction drops off, but we would need such vast amounts of energy that they are beyond human conception.
"We have burned up two tons of matter recharging the coils, and are now using another two tons to recharge them again. We need at least four tons to spare, and we only started out with twenty. We simply haven't got fuel enough to break loose from this star's gravitational hold, vast as the energy of matter is. Let's eat, and then we can sleep on the problem."
Wade cooked a meal for them, and they ate in silence, trying to think of some way out of their dilemma. Then they tried to sleep on the problem, as Arcot had suggested, but it was difficult to relax. They were physically tired; they had gone through such great strains, even in the short time that they had been maneuvering, that they were very tired.
Under a pull five times greater than normal gravity, they had tired in one-fifth the time they would have at one gravity, but their brains were still wide awake, trying to think of some way—any way—to get away from the dark sun.
But at last sleep came.