Out Around Rigel - Cover

Out Around Rigel

by Robert H. Wilson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: An astounding chronicle of two Lunarians' conquest of time and interstellar space.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The sun had dropped behind the Grimaldi plateau, although for a day twilight would linger over the Oceanus Procellarum. The sky was a hazy blue, and out over the deeper tinted waves the full Earth swung. All the long half-month it had hung there above the horizon, its light dimmed by the sunshine, growing from a thin crescent to its full disk three times as broad as that of the sun at setting. Now in the dusk it was a great silver lamp hanging over Nardos, the Beautiful, the City Built on the Water. The light glimmered over the tall white towers, over the white ten-mile-long adamantine bridge running from Nardos to the shore, and lit up the beach where we were standing, with a brightness that seemed almost that of day.

“Once more, Garth,” I said. “I’ll get that trick yet.”

The skin of my bare chest still smarted from the blow of his wooden fencing sword. If it had been the real two-handed Lunarian dueling sword, with its terrible mass behind a curved razor edge, the blow would have produced a cut deep into the bone. It was always the same, ever since Garth and I had fenced as boys with crooked laths. Back to back, we could beat the whole school, but I never had a chance against him. Perhaps one time in ten--

“On guard!”

The silvered swords whirled in the Earth-light. I nicked him on one wrist, and had to duck to escape his wild swing at my head. The wooden blades were now locked by the hilts above our heads. When he stepped back to get free, I lunged and twisted his weapon. In a beautiful parabola, Garth’s sword sailed out into the water, and he dropped to the sand to nurse his right wrist.

“Confound your wrestling, Dunal. If you’ve broken my arm on the eve of my flight--”

“It’s not even a sprain. Your wrists are weak. And I supposed you’ve always been considerate of me? Three broken ribs!”

“For half a cent--”

He was on his feet, and then Kelvar came up and laid her hand on his shoulder. Until a few minutes before she had been swimming in the surf, watching us. The Earth-light shimmered over her white skin, still faintly moist, and blazed out in blue sparkles from the jewels of the breastplates and trunks she had put on.

When she touched Garth, and he smiled, I wanted to smash in his dark face and then take the beating I would deserve. Yet, if she preferred him-- [TN-1]And the two of us had been friends before she was born. I put out my hand.

“Whatever happens, Garth, we’ll still be friends?”

“Whatever happens.”

We clasped hands.

“Garth,” Kelvar said, “it’s getting dark. Show us your ship before you go.”

“All right.” He had always been like that--one minute in a black rage, the next perfectly agreeable. He now led the way up to a cliff hanging over the sea.

“There,” said Garth, “is the Comet. Our greatest step in conquering distance. After I’ve tried it out, we can go in a year to the end of the universe. But, for a starter, how about a thousand light-years around Rigel in six months?” His eyes were afire. Then he calmed down. “Anything I can show you?”

[Note: Editor’s Note: The manuscript, of which a translation is here presented, was discovered by the rocket-ship expedition to the moon three years ago. It was found in its box by the last crumbling ruins of the great bridge mentioned in the narrative. Its final translation is a tribute at once to the philological skill of the Earth and to the marvelous dictionary provided by Dunal, the Lunarian. Stars and lunar localities will be given their traditional Earth names; and measures of time, weight, and distance have been reduced, in round numbers, to terrestrial equivalents. Of the space ship described, the Comet, no trace has been found. It must be buried under the rim of one of the hundreds of nearby Lunar craters--the result, as some astronomers have long suspected and as Dunal’s story verifies, of a great swarm of meteors striking the unprotected, airless moon.]

I had seen the Comet before, but never so close. With a hull of shining helio-beryllium--the new light, inactive alloy of a metal and a gas--the ship was a cylinder about twenty feet long, by fifteen in diameter, while a pointed nose stretched five feet farther at each end. Fixed in each point was a telescopic lens, while there were windows along the sides and at the top--all made, Garth informed us, of another form of the alloy almost as strong as the opaque variety. Running half-way out each end were four “fins” which served to apply the power driving the craft. A light inside showed the interior to be a single room, ten feet high at the center of its cylindrical ceiling, with a level floor.

“How do you know this will be the bottom?” I asked, giving the vessel a shove to roll it over. But it would not budge. Garth laughed.

“Five hundred pounds of mercury and the disintegrators are under that floor, while out in space I have an auxiliary gravity engine to keep my feet there.”

“You see, since your mathematical friends derived their identical formulas for gravity and electromagnetism, my job was pretty easy. As you know, a falling body follows the line of least resistance in a field of distortion of space caused by mass. I bend space into another such field by electromagnetic means, and the Comet flies down the track. Working the mercury disintegrators at full power, I can get an acceleration of two hundred miles per second, which will build up the speed at the midpoint of my trip to almost four thousand times that of light. Then I’ll have to start slowing down, but at the average speed the journey will take only six months or so.”

“But can anyone stand that acceleration?” Kelvar asked.

“I’ve had it on and felt nothing. With a rocket exhaust shoving the ship, it couldn’t be done, but my gravitational field attracts the occupant of the Comet just as much as the vessel itself.”

“You’re sure,” I interrupted, “that you have enough power to keep up the acceleration?”

“Easily. There’s a two-thirds margin of safety.”

“And you haven’t considered that it may get harder to push? You know the increase of mass with velocity. You can’t take one-half of the relativity theory without the other. And they’ve actually measured the increase of weight in an electron.”

“The electron never knew it; it’s all a matter of reference points. I can’t follow the math, but I know that from the electron’s standards it stayed exactly the same weight. Anything else is nonsense.”

“Well, there may be a flaw in the reasoning, but as they’ve worked it out, nothing can go faster than light. As you approach that velocity, the mass keeps increasing, and with it the amount of energy required for a new increase in speed. At the speed of light, the mass would be infinite, and hence no finite energy could get you any further.”

“Maybe so. It won’t take long to find out.”

A few of the brightest stars had begun to appear. We could just see the parallelogram of Orion, with red Betelguese at one corner, and across from it Rigel, scintillant like a blue diamond.

“See,” Garth said, pointing at it. “Three months from now, that’s where I’ll be. The first man who dared to sail among the stars.”

“Only because you don’t let anyone else share the glory and the danger.”

“Why should I? But you wouldn’t go, anyway.”

“Will you let me?”

I had him there.

“On your head be it. The Comet could hold three or four in a pinch, and I have plenty of provisions. If you really want to take the chance--”

“It won’t be the first we’ve taken together.”

“All right. We’ll start in ten minutes.” He went inside the ship.

“Don’t go,” Kelvar whispered, coming into the Comet’s shadow. “Tell him anything, but don’t go.”

“I’ve got to. I can’t go back on my word. He’d think I was afraid.”

“Haven’t you a right to be?”

“Garth is my friend and I’m going with him.”

“All right. But I wish you wouldn’t.”

From inside came the throb of engines.

“Kelvar,” I said, “you didn’t worry when only Garth was going.”


“And there’s less danger with two to keep watch.”

“I know, but still...”

“You are afraid for me?”

“I am afraid for you.”

My arm slipped around her, there in the shadow.

“And when I come back, Kelvar, we’ll be married?”

In answer, she kissed me. Then Garth was standing in the doorway of the Comet.

“Dunal, where are you?”

We separated and came out of the shadow. I went up the plank to the door, kicking it out behind me. Kelvar waved, and I called something or other to her. Then the door clanged shut. Seated before the control board at the front of the room, Garth held the switch for the two projectors.

“Both turned up,” he yelled over the roar of the generators. His hands swung over and the noise died down, but nothing else seemed to have happened. I turned back again to look out the little window fixed in the door.

Down far below, I could see for a moment the city of Nardos with its great white bridge, and a spot that might be Kelvar. Then there was only the ocean, sparkling in the Earth-light, growing smaller, smaller. And then we had shot out of the atmosphere into the glare of the sun and a thousand stars.

On and up we went, until the moon was a crescent with stars around it. Then Garth threw the power forward.

“Might as well turn in,” he told me. “There’ll be nothing interesting until we get out of the solar system and I can put on real speed. I’ll take the first trick.”

“How long watches shall we stand?”

“Eighteen hours ought to match the way we have been living. If you have another preference--”

“No, that will be all right. And I suppose I might as well get in some sleep now.”

I was not really sleepy, but only dazed a little by the adventure. I fixed some things on the floor by one of the windows and lay down, switching out the light. Through a top window the sunlight slanted down to fall around Garth, at his instrument board, in a bright glory. From my window I could see the Earth and the gleaming stars.

The Earth was smaller than I had ever seen it before. It seemed to be moving backward a little[TN-2], and even more, to be changing phase. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, sleepily, the bright area was perceptibly smaller. If I could stay awake long enough, there would be only a crescent again. If I could stay awake--But I could not...

Only the rattling of dishes as Garth prepared breakfast brought me back to consciousness. I got to my feet sheepishly.

“How long have I slept?”

“Twenty hours straight. You looked as if you might have gone on forever. It’s the lack of disturbance to indicate time. I got in a little myself, once we were out of the solar system.”

A sandwich in one hand, I wandered over the vessel. It was reassuringly solid and concrete. And yet there was something lacking.

“Garth,” I asked, “what’s become of the sun?”

“I thought you’d want to know that.” He led me to the rear telescope.

“But I don’t see anything.”

“You haven’t caught on yet. See that bright yellowish star on the edge of the constellation Scorpio. That’s it.”

Involuntarily, I gasped. “Then--how far away are we?”

“I put on full acceleration fifteen hours ago, when we passed Neptune, and we have covered thirty billion miles--three hundred times as far as from the moon to the sun, but only one half of one per cent of a light-year.”

I was speechless, and Garth led me back to the control board. He pointed out the acceleration control, now turned up to its last notch forward; he also showed me the dials which were used to change our direction.

“Just keep that star on the cross hairs. It’s Pi Orionis, a little out of our course, but a good target since it is only twenty-five light-years away. Half the light is deflected on this screen, with a delicate photo-electric cell at its center. The instant the light of the star slips off it, a relay is started which lights a red lamp here, and in a minute sounds a warning bell. That indicator over there shows our approach to any body. It works by the interaction of the object’s gravitational field with that of my projector, and we can spot anything sizable an hour away. Sure you’ve got everything?”

It all seemed clear. Then I noticed at the top three clock-like dials; one to read days, another to record the speeds of light, and the third to mark light-years traveled.

“These can’t really work?” I said. “We have no way to check our speed with outer space.”

“Not directly. This is geared with clockwork to represent an estimate based on the acceleration. If your theory is right, then the dials are all wrong.”

“And how long do you expect to go ahead without knowing the truth?”

“Until we ought to be at Pi Orionis. At two weeks and twenty-five light-years by the dials, if we aren’t there we’ll start back. By your figuring, we shouldn’t be yet one light-year on the way. Anything more?”

“No, I think I can manage it.”

“Wake me if anything’s wrong. And look out for dark stars.” Then he had left me there at the controls. In five minutes he was asleep and the whole ship was in my hands.

For hours nothing happened. Without any control of mine, the ship went straight ahead. I could get up and walk about, with a weather eye on the board, and never was there the flash of a danger light. But I was unable to feel confident, and went back to look out through the glass.

The stars were incredibly bright and clear. Right ahead were Betelguese and Rigel, and the great nebula of Orion still beyond. There was no twinkling, but each star a bright, steady point of light. And if Garth’s indicators were correct, we were moving toward them at a speed now seventy-five times that of light itself. If they were correct ... How could one know, before the long two weeks were over?

But before I could begin to think of any plan, my eye was caught by the red lamp flashing on the panel. I pressed the attention button before the alarm could ring, then started looking for the body we were in danger of striking. The position indicators pointed straight ahead, but I could see nothing. For ten minutes I peered through the telescope, and still no sign. The dials put the thing off a degree or so to the right now, but that was too close. In five more minutes I would swing straight up and give whatever it was a wide berth.

I looked out again. In the angle between the cross hairs, wasn’t there a slight haze? In a moment it was clear. A comet, apparently, the two of us racing toward each other. Bigger it grew and bigger, hurtling forward. Would we hit?

The dials put it up a little and far off to the right, but it was still frightening. The other light had come on, too, and I saw that we had been pulled off our course by the comet’s attraction. I threw the nose over, past on the other side for leeway, then straightened up as the side-distance dial gave a big jump away. Though the gaseous globe, tailless of course away from the sun, showed as big as the full Earth, the danger was past.

As I watched, the comet vanished from the field of the telescope. Five minutes, perhaps, with the red danger light flickering all the time. Then, with a ghastly flare through the right hand windows, it had passed us.

Garth sat straight up. “What happened?” he yelled.

“Just a comet. I got by all right.”

He settled back, having been scarcely awake, and I turned to the board again. The danger light had gone out, but the direction indicator was burning. The near approach of the comet had thrown us off our course by several degrees. I straightened the ship up easily, and had only a little more difficulty in stopping a rocking motion. Then again the empty hours of watching, gazing into the stars.

Precisely at the end of eighteen hours, Garth awakened, as if the consummation of a certain number of internal processes had set off a little alarm clock in his brain. We were forty-one hours out, with a speed, according to the indicator, of one hundred and twenty-eight times that of light, and a total distance covered of slightly over one quarter of a light-year. A rather small stretch, compared to the 466 light-years we had to go. But when I went back for a look out of the rear telescope, the familiar stars seemed to have moved the least bit closer together, and the sun was no brighter than a great number of them.

I slept like a log, but awakened a little before my trick was due.

Exactly on schedule, fourteen days and some hours after we had started off, we passed Pi Orionis. For long there had been no doubt in my mind that, whatever the explanation, our acceleration was holding steady. In the last few hours the star swept up to the brilliance of the sun, then faded again until it was no brighter than Venus. Venus! Our sun itself had been a mere dot in the rear telescope until the change in our course threw it out of the field of vision.

At sixty-five light-years, twenty-three days out, Beta Eridani was almost directly in our path for Rigel. Slightly less than a third of the distance to the midpoint, in over half the time. But our speed was still increasing 200 miles a second every second, almost four times the speed of light in an hour. Our watches went on with a not altogether disagreeable monotony.

There was no star to mark the middle of our journey. Only, toward the close of one of my watches, a blue light which I had never noticed came on beside the indicator dials, and I saw that we had covered 233 light-years, half the estimated distance to Rigel. The speed marker indicated 3975 times the speed of light. I wakened Garth.

“You could have done it yourself,” he complained, sleepily, “but I suppose it’s just as well.”

He went over to the board and started warming up the rear gravity projector.

“We’ll turn one off as the other goes on. Each take one control, and go a notch at a time.” He began counting, “One, two, three...”

On the twentieth count, my dial was down to zero, his up to maximum deceleration, and I pulled out my switch. Garth snapped sideways a lever on the indicators. Though nothing seemed to happen, I knew that the speed dial would creep backward, and the distance dial progress at a slower and slower rate. While I was trying to see the motion, Garth had gone back to bed. I turned again to the glass and looked out at Rigel, on the cross hairs, and Kappa Orionis, over to the left, and the great nebula reaching over a quarter of the view with its faint gaseous streamers.

And so we swept on through space, with Rigel a great blue glory ahead, and new stars, invisible at greater distances, flaring up in front of us and then fading into the background as we passed. For a long time we had been able to see that Rigel, as inferred from spectroscopic evidence, was a double star--a fainter, greener blue companion revolving with it around their common center of gravity. Beyond Kappa Orionis, three hundred light-years from the sun, the space between the two was quite evident. Beyond four hundred light-years, the brilliance of the vast star was so great that it dimmed all the other stars by comparison, and made the nebula seem a mere faint gauze. And yet even with this gradual change, our arrival was a surprise.

When he relieved me at my watch, Garth seemed dissatisfied with our progress. “It must be farther than they’ve figured. I’ll stick at twenty-five times light speed, and slow down after we get there by taking an orbit.”

“I’d have said it was nearer than the estimate,” I tried to argue, but was too sleepy to remember my reasons. Propped up on one elbow, I looked around and out at the stars. There was a bright splash of light, I noticed, where the telescope concentrated the radiation of Rigel at one spot on the screen. I slept, and then Garth was shouting in my ear:

“We’re there!”

I opened my eyes, blinked, and shut them again in the glare.

“I’ve gone around three or four times trying to slow down. We’re there, and there’s a planet to land on.”

At last I could see. Out the window opposite me, Rigel was a blue-white disk half the size of the sun, but brighter, with the companion star a sort of faint reflection five or ten degrees to the side. And still beyond, as I shaded my eyes, I could see swimming in the black a speck with the unmistakable glow of reflected light.

With both gravity projectors in readiness, we pulled out of our orbit and straight across toward the planet, letting the attraction of Rigel fight against our still tremendous speed. For a while, the pull of the big star was almost overpowering. Then we got past, and into the gravitational field of the planet. We spiralled down around it, looking for a landing place and trying to match our speed with its rotational velocity.

From rather unreliable observations, the planet seemed a good deal smaller than the moon, and yet so dense as to have a greater gravitational attraction. The atmosphere was cloudless, and the surface a forbidding expanse of sand. The globe whirled at a rate that must give it a day of approximately five hours. We angled down, picking a spot just within the lighted area.

A landing was quite feasible. As we broke through the atmosphere, we could see that the sand, although blotched with dark patches here and there, was comparatively smooth. At one place there was a level outcropping of rock, and over this we hung. It was hard work, watching through the single small port in the floor as we settled down. Finally the view was too small to be of any use. I ran to the side window, only to find my eyes blinded by Rigel’s blaze. Then we had landed, and almost at the same moment Rigel set. Half overlapped by the greater star, the faint companion had been hidden in its glare. Now, in the dusk, a corner of it hung ghostlike on the horizon, and then too had disappeared.

I flashed on our lights, while Garth cut out the projector and the floor gravity machine. The increase in weight was apparent, but not particularly unpleasant. After a few minutes of walking up and down I got used to it.

Through a stop-cock in the wall, Garth had drawn in a tube of gas from the atmosphere outside, and was analyzing it with a spectroscope.

“We can go out,” he said. “It’s unbreathable, but we’ll be able to use the space suits. Mostly fluorine. It would eat your lungs out like that!”

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