He lit a cigarette, the last one they had, and asked his wife “Want to share it?”
“No. That’s all right.” Diane sat at the viewport of the battered old Gormann ‘87, a small figure of a woman hunched over and watching the parade of asteroids like tiny slow-moving incandescent flashes.
Ralph looked at her and said nothing. He remembered what it was like when she had worked by his side at the mine. It had not been much of a mine. It had been a bust, a first class sure as hell bust, like everything else in their life together. And it had aged her. Had it only been three years? he thought. Three years on asteroid 4712, a speck of cosmic dust drifting on its orbit in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Uranium potential, high--the government had said. So they had leased the asteroid and prospected it and although they had not finished the job, they were finished. They were going home and now there were lines on Diane’s face although she was hardly past twenty-four. And there was a bitterness, a bleakness, in her eyes.
The asteroid had ruined them, had taken something from them and given nothing in return. They were going home and, Ralph Meeker thought, they had left more than their second-hand mining equipment on asteroid 4712. They had left the happy early days of their marriage as a ghost for whomever tried his luck next on 4712. They had never mentioned the word divorce; Diane had merely said she would spend some time with her sister in Marsport instead of going on to Earth...
“We’d be swinging around to sunward on 4712,” Ralph mused.
“Please. That’s over. I don’t want to talk about the mine.”
“Won’t it ever bother you that we never finished?”
“We finished,” Diane said.
He smoked the cigarette halfway and offered it to her. She shook her head and he put the butt out delicately, to save it.
Then a radar bell clanged.
“What is it?” Ralph asked, immediately alert, studying the viewport. You had to be alert on an old tub like the Gormann ‘87. A hundred tonner, it had put in thirty years and a billion and some miles for several owners. Its warning devices and its reflexes--it was funny, Ralph thought, how you ascribed something human like reflexes to a hundred tons of battered metal--were unpredictable.
“I don’t see anything,” Diane said.
He didn’t either. But you never knew in the asteroid belt. It was next to impossible to thread a passage without a radar screen--and completely impossible with a radar screen on the blink and giving you false information. You could shut it off and pray--but the odds would still be a hundred to one against you.
“There!” Diane cried. “On the left! The left, Ralph--”
He saw it too. At first it looked like a jumble of rocks, of dust as the asteroid old-timers called the gravity-held rock swarms which pursued their erratic, dangerous orbits through the asteroid belt.
But it was not dust.
“Will you look at that,” Diane said.
The jumble of rocks--which they were ready to classify as dust--swam up toward them. Ralph waited, expecting the automatic pilot to answer the radar warning and swing them safely around the obstacle. So Ralph watched and saw the dark jumble of rocks--silvery on one side where the distant sunlight hit it--apparently spread out as they approached it. Spread out and assume tiny shapes, shapes in miniature.
“Spaceships,” Diane said. “Spaceships, Ralph. Hundreds of them.”
They gleamed like silver motes in the sun or were black as the space around them. They tumbled slowly, in incredible slow motion, end over end and around and around each other, as if they had been suspended in a slowly boiling liquid instead of the dark emptiness of space.
“That’s the sargasso,” Ralph said.
“But we’re off course. I know it. The radar was probably able to miss things in our way, but failed to compensate afterwards and bring us back to course. Now--”
Suddenly Ralph dived for the controls. The throbbing rockets of the Gormann ‘87 had not responded to the radar warning. They were rocketing on toward the sargasso, rapidly, dangerously.
“Hold on to something!” Ralph hollered, and punched full power in the left rockets and breaking power in the right forward rockets simultaneously, attempting to stand the Gormann ‘87 on its head and fight off the deadly gravitational attraction of the sargasso.
The Gormann ‘87 shuddered like something alive and Ralph felt himself thrust to the left and forward violently. His head struck the radar screen and, as if mocking him the radar bell clanged its warning. He thought he heard Diane scream. Then he was trying to stand, but the gravity of sudden acceleration gripped him with a giant hand and he slumped back slowly, aware of a wetness seeping from his nose, his ears--
All of space opened and swallowed him and he went down, trying to reach for Diane’s hand. But she withdrew it and then the blackness, like some obscene mouth as large as the distance from here to Alpha Centauri, swallowed him.
“Are you all right, Diane?” he asked.
He was on his knees. His head ached and one of his legs felt painfully stiff, but he had crawled over to where Diane was down, flat on her back, behind the pilot chair. He found the water tank unsprung and brought her some and in a few moments she blinked her eyes and looked at him.
“Cold,” she said.
He had not noticed it, but he was still numb and only half conscious, half of his faculties working. It was cold. He felt that now. And he was giddy and growing rapidly more so--as if they did not have sufficient oxygen to breathe.
Then he heard it. A slow steady hissing, probably the sound feared most by spacemen. Air escaping.
Diane looked at him. “For God’s sake, Ralph,” she cried. “Find it.”
He found it and patched it--and was numb with the cold and barely conscious when he had finished. Diane came to him and squeezed his hand and that was the first time they had touched since they had left the asteroid. Then they rested for a few moments and drank some of the achingly cold water from the tank and got up and went to the viewport. They had known it, but confirmation was necessary. They looked outside.
They were within the sargasso.
The battered derelict ships rolled and tumbled and spun out there, slowly, unhurried, in a mutual gravitational field which their own Gormann ‘87 had disturbed. It was a sargasso like the legendary Sargasso Seas of Earth’s early sailing days, becalmed seas, seas without wind, with choking Sargasso weed, seas that snared and entrapped...
“Can we get out?” Diane asked.
He shrugged. “That depends. How strong the pull of gravity is. Whether the Gormann’s rocket drive is still working. If we can repair the radar. We’d never get out without the radar.”
“I’ll get something to eat,” she said practically. “You see about the radar.”
Diane went aft while he remained there in the tiny control cabin. By the time she brought the heated cans back with her, he knew it was hopeless. Diane was not the sort of woman you had to humor about a thing like that. She offered him a can of pork and beans and looked at his face, and when he nodded she said:
“It’s no use?”
“We couldn’t fix it. The scopes just wore out, Diane. Hell, if they haven’t been replaced since this tub rolled off the assembly line, they’re thirty years old. She’s an ‘87.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
He shrugged. “We’re going to try. We’ll check the air and water and see what we have. Then we start looking.”
“Start looking? I don’t understand.”
“For a series eighty Gormann cruiser.”
Diane’s eyes widened. “You mean--out there?”
“I mean out there. If we find a series eighty cruiser--and we might--and if I’m able to transfer the radarscopes after we find out they’re in good shape, then we have a chance.”
Diane nodded slowly. “If there are any other minor repairs to make, I could be making them while you look for a series eighty Gormann.”
But Ralph shook his head. “We’ll probably have only a few hours of air to spare, Diane. If we both look, we’ll cover more ground. I hate to ask you, because it won’t be pretty out there. But it might be our only chance.”
“I’ll go, of course. Ralph?”
“What is this sargasso, anyway?”
He shrugged as he read the meters on the compressed air tanks. Four tanks full, with ten hours of air, for two, in each. One tank half full. Five hours. Five plus forty. Forty-five hours of air.
They would need a minimum of thirty-five hours to reach Mars.
“No one knows for sure about the sargasso,” he said, wanting to talk, wanting to dispel his own fear so he would not communicate it to her as he took the spacesuits down from their rack and began to climb into one. “They don’t think it’s anything but the ships, though. It started with a few ships. Then more. And more. Trapped by mutual gravity. It got bigger and bigger and I think there are almost a thousand derelicts here now. There’s talk of blasting them clear, of salvaging them for metals and so on. But so far the planetary governments haven’t co-operated.”
“But how did the first ships get here?”
“It doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference. One theory is ships only, and maybe a couple of hunks of meteoric debris in the beginning. Another theory says there may be a particularly heavy small asteroid in this maze of wrecks somewhere--you know, superheavy stuff with the atoms stripped of their electrons and the nuclei squeezed together, weighing in the neighborhood of a couple of tons per square inch. That could account for the beginning, but once the thing got started, the wrecked ships account for more wrecked ships and pretty soon you have--a sargasso.”
Diane nodded and said, “You can put my helmet on now.”
“All right. Don’t forget to check the radio with me before we go out. If the radio doesn’t work, then you stay here. Because I want us in constant radio contact if we’re both out there. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir, captain,” she said, and grinned. It was her old grin. He had not seen her grin like that for a long time. He had almost forgotten what that grin was like. It made her face seem younger and prettier, as he had remembered it from what seemed so long ago but was only three years. It was a wonderful grin and he watched it in the split-second which remained before he swung the heavy helmet up and in place over her shoulders.
Then he put on his own helmet awkwardly and fingered the outside radio controls. “Hear me?” he said.
“I can hear you.” Her voice was metallic but very clear through the suit radios.
“Then listen. There shouldn’t be any danger of getting lost. I’ll leave a light on inside the ship and we’ll see it through the ports. It will be the only light, so whatever you do, don’t go out of range. As long as you can always see it, you’ll be O.K. Understand?”
“Right,” she said as they both climbed into the Gormann ‘87’s airlock and waited for the pressure to leave it and the outer door to swing out into space. “Ralph? I’m a little scared, Ralph.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “So am I.”
“What did you mean, it won’t be pretty out there?”
“Because we’ll have to look not just for series eighty Gormanns but for any ships that look as old as ours. There ought to be plenty of them and any one of them could have had a Gormann radarscope, although it’s unlikely. Have to look, though.”
“But what--won’t be pretty?”
“We’ll have to enter those ships. You won’t like what’s inside.”
“Say, how will we get in? We don’t have blasters or weapons of any kind.”
“Your suit rockets,” Ralph said. “You swing around and blast with your suit rockets. A porthole should be better than an airlock if it’s big enough to climb through. You won’t have any trouble.”
“But you still haven’t told me what--”
“Inside the ships. People. They’ll all be dead. If they didn’t lose their air so far, they’ll lose it when we go in. Either way, of course, they’ll be dead. They’ve all been dead for years, with no food. But without air--”
“What are you stopping for?” Diane said. “Please go on.”
“A body, without air. Fifteen pounds of pressure per square inch on the inside, and zero on the outside. It isn’t pretty. It bloats.”
“My God, Ralph.”
“I’m sorry, kid. Maybe you want to stay back here and I’ll look.”
“You said we only have ten hours. I want to help you.”
All at once, the airlock swung out. Space yawned at them, black enormous, the silent ships, the dead sargasso ships, floating slowly by, eternally, unhurried...
“Better make it eight hours,” Ralph said over the suit radio. “We’d better keep a couple of hours leeway in case I figured wrong. Eight hours and remember, don’t get out of sight of the ship’s lights and don’t break radio contact under any circumstances. These suit radios work like miniature radar sets, too. If anything goes wrong, we’ll be able to track each other. It’s directional beam radio.”
“But what can go wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Ralph admitted. “Nothing probably.” He turned on his suit rockets and felt the sudden surge of power drive him clear of the ship. He watched Diane rocketing away from him to the right. He waved his hand in the bulky spacesuit. “Good luck,” he called. “I love you, Diane.”
“Ralph,” she said. Her voice caught. He heard it catch over the suit radio. “Ralph, we agreed never to--oh, forget it. Good luck, Ralph. Good luck, oh good luck. And I--”
“Nothing, Ralph. Good luck.”
“Good luck,” he said, and headed for the first jumble of space wrecks.
It would probably have taken them a month to explore all the derelicts which were old enough to have Gormann series eighty radarscopes. Theoretically, Ralph realized, even a newer ship could have one. But it wasn’t likely, because if someone could afford a newer ship then he could afford a better radarscope. But that, he told himself, was only half the story. The other half was this: with a better radarscope a ship might not have floundered into the sargasso at all...
So it was hardly possible to pass up any ship if their life depended on it--and the going was slow.
He had entered some dozen ships in the first four hours turning, using his shoulder rockets to blast a port hole out and climb in through there. He had not liked what he saw, but there was no preventing it. Without a light it wasn’t so bad, but you needed a light to examine the radarscope...
They were dead. They had been dead for years but of course there would be no decomposition in the airless void of space and very little even if air had remained until he blasted his way in, for the air was sterile canned spaceship air. They were dead, and they were bloated. All impossibly fat men, with white faces like melons and gross bodies like Tweedle Dee’s and limbs like fat sausages.
By the fifth ship he was sick to his stomach, but by the tenth he had achieved the necessary detachment to continue his task. Once--it was the eighth ship--he found a Gormann series eighty radarscope, and his heart pounded when he saw it. But the scope was hopelessly damaged, as bad as their own. Aside from that one, he did not encounter any, damaged or in good shape, which they might convert to their own use.
Four hours, he thought. Four hours and twelve ships. Diane reported every few moments by intercom. In her first four hours she had visited eight ships. Her voice sounded funny. She was fighting it every step of the way he thought. It must have been hell to her, breaking into those wrecks with their dead men with faces like white, bloated melons--
In the thirteenth ship he found a skeleton.