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 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 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, 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 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 and Kent looked where Liggett pointed, along the wreck-pack’s edge to the ship’s right.
Six floating shapes, men in space-suits, were approaching along the pack’s border. They floated smoothly through space, reaching the wrecked passenger-ship beside the Pallas. They braced their feet against its side and propelled themselves on through the void like swimmers under water, toward the Pallas.
“They must be survivors from some wreck that drifted in here as we did!”
Kent exclaimed. “Maybe they’ve lived here for months!”
“It’s evident that they saw the Pallas drift into the pack, and have come to investigate,” Crain estimated. “Open the airlock for them, men, for they’ll want to come inside.”
Two of the men spun the wheels that slid aside the airlock’s outer door.
In a moment the half-dozen men outside had reached the ship’s side, and had pulled themselves down inside the airlock.
When all were in, the outer door was closed, and air hissed in to fill the lock. The airlock’s inner door then slid open and the newcomers stepped into the ship’s interior, unscrewing their transparent helmets as they did so. For a few moments the visitors silently surveyed their new surroundings.
Their leader was a swarthy individual with sardonic black eyes who, on noticing Crain’s captain-insignia, came toward him with outstretched hand. His followers seemed to be cargo-men or deck-men, looking hardly intelligent enough to Kent’s eyes to be tube-men.
“Welcome to our city!” their leader exclaimed as he shook Crain’s hand.
“We saw your ship drift in, but hardly expected to find anyone living in it.”
“I’ll confess that we’re surprised ourselves to find any life here,”
Crain told him. “You’re living on one of the wrecks?”
The other nodded. “Yes, on the Martian Queen, a quarter-mile along the pack’s edge. It was a Saturn-Neptune passenger ship, and about a month ago we were at this cursed dead-area’s edge, when half our rocket-tubes exploded. Eighteen of us escaped the explosion, the ship’s walls still being tight; and we drifted into the pack here, and have been living here ever since.”
“My name’s Krell,” he added, “and I was a tube-man on the ship. I and another of the tube-men, named Jandron, were the highest in rank left, all the officers and other tube-men having been killed, so we took charge and have been keeping order.”
“What about your passengers?” Liggett asked.
“All killed but one,” Krell answered. “When the tubes let go they smashed up the whole lower two decks.”
Crain briefly explained to him the Pallas’ predicament. “Mr. Kent and Mr. Liggett were on the point of starting a search of the wreck-pack for fuel when you arrived,” he said, “With enough fuel we can get clear of the dead-area.”
Krell’s eyes lit up. “That would mean a getaway for all of us! It surely ought to be possible!”
“Do you know whether there are any ships in the pack with fuel in their tanks?” Kent asked. Krell shook his head.
“We’ve searched through the wreck-pack a good bit, but never bothered about fuel, it being no good to us. But there ought to be some, at least: there’s enough wrecks in this cursed place to make it possible to find almost anything.
“You’d better not start exploring, though,” he added, “without some of us along as guides, for I’m here to tell you that you can lose yourself in this wreck-pack without knowing it. If you wait until to-morrow, I’ll come over myself and go with you.”
“I think that would be wise,” Crain said to Kent. “There is plenty of time.”
“Time is the one thing there’s plenty of in this damned place,” Krell agreed. “We’ll be getting back to the Martian Queen now and give the good news to Jandron and the rest.”
“Wouldn’t mind if Liggett and I came along, would you?” Kent asked. “I’d like to see how your ship’s fixed--that is, if it’s all right with you, sir,” he added to his superior.
Crain nodded. “All right if you don’t stay long,” he said. But, to Kent’s surprise Krell seemed reluctant to endorse his proposal.
“I guess it’ll be all right,” he said slowly, “though there’s nothing much on the Martian Queen to see.”
Krell and his followers replaced their helmets and returned into the airlock. Liggett followed them, and, as Kent struggled hastily into a space-suit, he found Captain Crain at his side.
“Kent, look sharp when you get over on that ship,” Crain told him. “I don’t like the look of this Krell, and his story about all the officers being killed in the explosion sounds fishy to me.”
“To me, too,” Kent agreed. “But Liggett and I will have the suit-phones in our space-suits and can call you from there in case of need.”
Crain nodded, and Kent with space-suit on and transparent helmet screwed tight, stepped into the airlock with the rest. The airlock’s inner door closed, the outer one opened, and as the air puffed out into space, Kent and Krell and Liggett leapt out into the void, the others following.
It was no novelty to Kent to float in a space-suit in the empty void. He and the others now floated as smoothly as though under water toward a wrecked liner at the Pallas’ right. They reached it, pulled themselves around it, and, with feet braced against its side, propelled themselves on through space along the border of the wreck-pack.
They passed a half-dozen wrecks thus, before coming to the _Martian Queen_. It was a silvery, glistening ship whose stern and lower walls were bulging and strained, but not cracked. Kent told himself that Krell had spoken truth about the exploding rocket-tubes, at least.
They struck the Martian Queen’s side and entered the upper-airlock open for them. Once through the airlock they found themselves on the ship’s upper-deck. And when Kent and Liggett removed their helmets with the others they found a full dozen men confronting them, a brutal-faced group who exhibited some surprise at sight of them.
Foremost among them stood a tall, heavy individual who regarded Kent and Liggett with the cold, suspicious eyes of an animal.
“My comrade and fellow-ruler here, Wald Jandron,” said Krell. To Jandron he explained rapidly. “The whole crew of the Pallas is alive, and they say if they can find fuel in the wreck-pack their ship can get out of here.”
“Good,” grunted Jandron. “The sooner they can do it, the better it will be for us.”
Kent saw Liggett flush angrily, but he ignored Jandron and spoke to Krell. “You said one of your passengers had escaped the explosion?”
To Kent’s amazement a girl stepped from behind the group of men, a slim girl with pale face and steady, dark eyes. “I’m the passenger,” she told him. “My name’s Marta Mallen.”
Kent and Liggett stared, astounded. “Good Lord!” Kent exclaimed. “A girl like you on this ship!”
“Miss Mallen happened to be on the upper-deck at the time of the explosion and, so, escaped when the other passengers were killed,” Krell explained smoothly. “Isn’t that so, Miss Mallen?”
The girl’s eyes had not left Kent’s, but at Krell’s words she nodded.
“Yes, that is so,” she said mechanically.
Kent collected his whirling thoughts. “But wouldn’t you rather go back to the Pallas with us?” he asked. “I’m sure you’d be more comfortable there.”
“She doesn’t go,” grunted Jandron. Kent turned in quick wrath toward him, but Krell intervened.
“Jandron only means that Miss Mallen is much more comfortable on this passenger-ship than she’d be in your freighter.” He shot a glance at the girl as he spoke, and Kent saw her wince.
“I’m afraid that’s so,” she said; “but I thank you for the offer, Mr.
Kent could have sworn that there was an appeal in her eyes, and he stood for a moment, indecisive, Jandron’s stare upon him. After a moment’s thought he turned to Krell.
“You were going to show me the damage the exploding tubes did,” he said, and Krell nodded quickly.
“Of course; you can see from the head of the stair back in the after-deck.”
He led the way along a corridor, Jandron and the girl and two of the men coming with them. Kent’s thoughts were still chaotic as he walked between Krell and Liggett. What was this girl doing amid the men of the Martian Queen? What had her eyes tried to tell him?
Liggett nudged his side in the dim corridor, and Kent, looking down, saw dark splotches on its metal floor. Blood-stains! His suspicions strengthened. They might be from the bleeding of those wounded in the tube-explosions. But were they?
They reached the after-deck whose stair’s head gave a view of the wrecked tube-rooms beneath. The lower decks had been smashed by terrific forces. Kent’s practiced eyes ran rapidly over the shattered rocket-tubes.
“They’ve back-blasted from being fired too fast,” he said. “Who was controlling the ship when this happened?”
“Galling, our second-officer,” answered Krell. “He had found us routed too close to the dead-area’s edge and was trying to get away from it in a hurry, when he used the tubes too fast, and half of them back-blasted.”
“If Galling was at the controls in the pilot-house, how did the explosion kill him?” asked Liggett skeptically. Krell turned quickly.
“The shock threw him against the pilot-house wall and fractured his skull--he died in an hour,” he said. Liggett was silent.
“Well, this ship will never move again,” Kent said. “It’s too bad that the explosion blew out your tanks, but we ought to find fuel somewhere in the wreck-pack for the Pallas. And now we’d best get back.”
As they returned up the dim corridor Kent managed to walk beside Marta Mallen, and, without being seen, he contrived to detach his suit-phone--the compact little radiophone case inside his space-suit’s neck--and slip it into the girl’s grasp. He dared utter no word of explanation, but apparently she understood, for she had concealed the suit-phone by the time they reached the upper-deck.
Kent and Liggett prepared to don their space-helmets, and before entering the airlock, Kent turned to Krell.
“We’ll expect you at the Pallas first hour to-morrow, and we’ll start searching the wreck-pack with a dozen of our men,” he said.
He then extended his hand to the girl. “Good-by, Miss Mallen. I hope we can have a talk soon.”
He had said the words with double meaning, and saw understanding in her eyes. “I hope we can, too,” she said.
Kent’s nod to Jandron went unanswered, and he and Liggett adjusted their helmets and entered the airlock.
Once out of it, they kicked rapidly away from the Martian Queen, floating along with the wreck-pack’s huge mass to their right, and only the star-flecked emptiness of infinity to their left. In a few minutes they reached the airlock of the Pallas.
They found Captain Crain awaiting them anxiously. Briefly Kent reported everything.
“I’m certain there has been foul play aboard the Martian Queen,” he said. “Krell you saw for yourself, Jandron is pure brute, and their men seem capable of anything.
“I gave the suit-phone to the girl, however, and if she can call us with it, we can get the truth from her. She dared not tell me anything there in the presence of Krell and Jandron.”
Crain nodded, his face grave. “We’ll see whether or not she calls,” he said.
Kent took a suit-phone from one of their space-suits and rapidly, tuned it to match the one he had left with Marta Mallen. Almost at once they heard her voice from it, and Kent answered rapidly.
“I’m so glad I got you!” she exclaimed. “Mr. Kent, I dared not tell you the truth about this ship when you were here, or Krell and the rest would have killed you at once.”
“I thought that was it, and that’s why I left the suit-phone for you,”
Kent said. “Just what is the truth?”
“Krell and Jandron and these men of theirs are the ones who killed the officers and passengers of the Martian Queen! What they told you about the explosion was true enough, for the explosion did happen that way, and because of it, the ship drifted into the dead-area. But the only ones killed by it were some of the tube-men and three passengers.
“Then, while the ship was drifting into the dead-area, Krell told the men that the fewer aboard, the longer they could live on the ship’s food and air. Krell and Jandron led the men in a surprise attack and killed all the officers and passengers, and threw their bodies out into space.
I was the only passenger they spared, because both Krell and Jandron--want me!”
There was a silence, and Kent felt a red anger rising in him. “Have they dared harm you?” he asked after a moment.
“No, for Krell and Jandron are too jealous of each other to permit the other to touch me. But it’s been terrible living with them in this awful place.”
“Ask her if she knows what their plans are in regard to us,” Crain told Kent.
Marta had apparently overheard the question. “I don’t know that, for they shut me in my cabin as soon as you left,” she said. “I’ve heard them talking and arguing excitedly, though. I know that if you do find fuel, they’ll try to kill you all and escape from here in your ship.”
“Pleasant prospect,” Kent commented. “Do you think they plan an attack on us now?”
“No; I think that they’ll wait until you’ve refueled your ship, if you are able to do that, and then try treachery.”
“Well, they’ll find us ready. Miss Mallen, you have the suit-phone: keep it hidden in your cabin and I’ll call you first thing to-morrow. We’re going to get you out of there, but we don’t want to break with Krell until we’re ready. Will you be all right until then?”
“Of course I will,” she answered. “There’s another thing, though. My name isn’t Miss Mallen--it’s Marta.”
“Mine’s Rance,” said Kent, smiling. “Good-by until to-morrow, then, Marta.”
Kent rose from the instrument with the smile still in his eyes, but with his lips compressed. “Damn it, there’s the bravest and finest girl in the solar system!” he exclaimed. “Over there with those brutes!”
“We’ll have her out, never fear,” Crain reassured him. “The main thing is to determine our course toward Krell and Jandron.”
Kent thought. “As I see it, Krell can help us immeasurably in our search through the wreck-pack for fuel,” he said. “I think it would be best to keep on good terms with him until we’ve found fuel and have it in our tanks. Then we can turn the tables on them before they can do anything.”
Crain nodded thoughtfully. “I think you’re right. Then you and Liggett and Krell can head our search-party to-morrow.”
Crain established watches on a new schedule, and Kent and Liggett and the dozen men chosen for the exploring party of the next day ate a scanty meal and turned in for some sleep.
When Kent woke and glimpsed the massed wrecks through the window he was for the moment amazed, but rapidly remembered. He and Liggett were finishing their morning ration when Crain pointed to a window.
“There comes Krell now,” he said, indicating the single space-suited figure approaching along the wreck-pack’s edge.
“I’ll call Marta before he gets here,” said Kent hastily.
The girl answered on the suit-phone immediately, and it occurred to Kent that she must have spent the night without sleeping. “Krell left a few minutes ago,” she said.
“Yes, he’s coming now. You heard nothing of their plans?”
“No; they’ve kept me shut in my cabin. However, I did hear Krell giving Jandron and the rest directions. I’m sure they’re plotting something.”
“We’re prepared for them,” Kent assured her. “If all goes well, before you realize it, you’ll be sailing out of here with us in the Pallas.”
“I hope so,” she said. “Rance, be careful with Krell in the wreck-pack.
“I’ll be watching him,” he promised. “Good-by, Marta.”
Kent reached the lower-deck just as Krell entered from the airlock, his swarthy face smiling as he removed his helmet. He carried a pointed steel bar. Liggett and the others were donning their suits.
“All ready to go, Kent?” Krell asked.
Kent nodded. “All ready,” he said shortly. Since hearing Marta’s story he found it hard to dissimulate with Krell.
“You’ll want bars like mine,” Krell continued, “for they’re damned handy when you get jammed between wreckage masses. Exploring this wreck-pack is no soft job: I can tell you from experience.”
Liggett and the rest had their suits adjusted, and with bars in their grasp, followed Krell into the airlock. Kent hung back for a last word with Crain, who, with his half-dozen remaining men, was watching.