His “planet” was the smallest in the solar system, and the loneliest, Thad Allen was thinking, as he straightened wearily in the huge, bulging, inflated fabric of his Osprey space armor. Walking awkwardly in the magnetic boots that held him to the black mass of meteoric iron, he mounted a projection and stood motionless, staring moodily away through the vision panels of his bulky helmet into the dark mystery of the void.
His welding arc dangled at his belt, the electrode still glowing red. He had just finished securing to this slowly-accumulated mass of iron his most recent find, a meteorite the size of his head.
Five perilous weeks he had labored, to collect this rugged lump of metal--a jagged mass, some ten feet in diameter, composed of hundreds of fragments, that he had captured and welded together. His luck had not been good. His findings had been heart-breakingly small; the spectro-flash analysis had revealed that the content of the precious metals was disappointingly minute.
[Footnote 1: The meteor or asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, is “mined” by such adventurers as Thad Allen for the platinum, iridium and osmium that all meteoric irons contain in small quantities. The meteor swarms are supposed by some astronomers to be fragments of a disrupted planet, which, according to Bode’s Law, should occupy this space.]
On the other side of this tiny sphere of hard-won treasure, his Millen atomic rocket was sputtering, spurts of hot blue flame jetting from its exhaust. A simple mechanism, bolted to the first sizable fragment he had captured, it drove the iron ball through space like a ship.
Through the magnetic soles of his insulated boots, Thad could feel the vibration of the iron mass, beneath the rocket’s regular thrust. The magazine of uranite fuel capsules was nearly empty, now, he reflected. He would soon have to turn back toward Mars.
Turn back. But how could he, with so slender a reward for his efforts? Meteor mining is expensive. There was his bill at Millen and Helion, Mars, for uranite and supplies. And the unpaid last instalment on his Osprey suit. How could he outfit himself again, if he returned with no more metal than this? There were men who averaged a thousand tons of iron a month. Why couldn’t fortune smile on him?
He knew men who had made fabulous strikes, who had captured whole planetoids of rich metal, and he knew weary, white-haired men who had braved the perils of vacuum and absolute cold and bullet-swift meteors for hard years, who still hoped.
But sometime fortune had to smile, and then...
The picture came to him. A tower of white metal, among the low red hills near Helion. A slim, graceful tower of argent, rising in a fragrant garden of flowering Martian shrubs, purple and saffron. And a girl waiting, at the silver door--a trim, slender girl in white, with blue eyes and hair richly brown.
Thad had seen the white tower many times, on his holiday tramps through the hills about Helion. He had even dared to ask if it could be bought, to find that its price was an amount that he might not amass in many years at his perilous profession. But the girl in white was yet only a glorious dream...
Gigantic claws seemed to reach out of empty air.
The strangeness of interplanetary space, and the somber mystery of it, pressed upon him like an illimitable and deserted ocean. The sun was a tiny white disk on his right, hanging between rosy coronal wings; his native Earth, a bright greenish point suspended in the dark gulf below it; Mars, nearer, smaller, a little ocher speck above the shrunken sun. Above him, below him, in all directions was vastness, blackness, emptiness. Ebon infinity, sprinkled with far, cold stars.
Thad was alone. Utterly alone. No man was visible, in all the supernal vastness of space. And no work of man--save the few tools of his daring trade, and the glittering little rocket bolted to the black iron behind him. It was terrible to think that the nearest human being must be tens of millions of miles away.
On his first trips, the loneliness had been terrible, unendurable. Now he was becoming accustomed to it. At least, he no longer feared that he was going mad. But sometimes...
Thad shook himself and spoke aloud, his voice ringing hollow in his huge metal helmet:
“Brace up, old top. In good company, when you’re by yourself, as Dad used to say. Be back in Helion in a week or so, anyhow. Look up Dan and ‘Chuck’ and the rest of the crowd again, at Comet’s place. What price a friendly boxing match with Mason, or an evening at the teleview theater?
“Fresh air instead of this stale synthetic stuff! Real food, in place of these tasteless concentrates! A hot bath, instead of greasing yourself!
“Too dull out here. Life--” He broke off, set his jaw.
No use thinking about such things. Only made it worse. Besides, how did he know that a whirring meteor wasn’t going to flash him out before he got back?
He drew his right arm out of the bulging sleeve of the suit, into its ample interior, found a cigarette in an inside pocket, and lighted it. The smoke swirled about in the helmet, drawn swiftly into the air filters.
“Darn clever, these suits,” he murmured. “Food, smokes, water generator, all where you can reach them. And darned expensive, too. I’d better be looking for pay metal!”
He clambered to a better position; stood peering out into space, searching for the tiny gleam of sunlight on a meteoric fragment that might be worth capturing for its content of precious metals. For an hour he scanned the black, star-strewn gulf, as the sputtering rocket continued to drive him forward.
“There she glows!” he cried suddenly, and grinned.
Before him was a tiny, glowing fleck, that moved among the unchanging stars. He stared at it intensely, breathing faster in the helmet.
Always he thrilled to see such a moving gleam. What treasure it promised! At first sight, it was impossible to determine size or distance or rate of motion. It might be ten thousand tons of rich metal. A fortune! It would more probably prove to be a tiny, stony mass, not worth capturing. It might even be large and valuable, but moving so rapidly that he could not overtake it with the power of the diminutive Millen rocket.
He studied the tiny speck intently, with practised eye, as the minutes passed--an untrained eye would never have seen it at all, among the flaming hosts of stars. Skilfully he judged, from its apparent rate of motion and its slow increase in brilliance, its size and distance from him.
“Must be--must be fair size,” he spoke aloud, at length. “A hundred tons, I’ll bet my helmet! But scooting along pretty fast. Stretch the little old rocket to run it down.”
He clambered back to the rocket, changed the angle of the flaming exhaust, to drive him directly across the path of the object ahead, filled the magazine again with the little pellets of uranite, which were fed automatically into the combustion chamber, and increased the firing rate.
The trailing blue flame reached farther backward from the incandescent orifice of the exhaust. The vibration of the metal sphere increased. Thad left the sputtering rocket and went back where he could see the object before him.
It was nearer now, rushing obliquely across his path. Would he be in time to capture it as it passed, or would it hurtle by ahead of him, and vanish in the limitless darkness of space before his feeble rocket could check the momentum of his ball of metal?
He peered at it, as it drew closer.
Its surface seemed oddly bright, silvery. Not the dull black of meteoric iron. And it was larger, more distant, than he had thought at first. In form, too, it seemed curiously regular, ellipsoid. It was no jagged mass of metal.
His hopes sank, rose again immediately. Even if it were not the mass of rich metal for which he had prayed, it might be something as valuable--and more interesting.
He returned to the rocket, adjusted the angle of the nozzle again, and advanced the firing time slightly, even at the risk of a ruinous explosion.
When he returned to where he could see the hurtling object before him, he saw that it was a ship. A tapering silver-green rocket-flier.
Once more his dreams were dashed. The officers of interplanetary liners lose no love upon the meteor miners, claiming that their collected masses of metal, almost helpless, always underpowered, are menaces to navigation. Thad could expect nothing from the ship save a heliographed warning to keep clear.
But how came a rocket-flier here, in the perilous swarms of the meteor belt? Many a vessel had been destroyed by collision with an asteroid, in the days before charted lanes were cleared of drifting metal.
The lanes more frequently used, between Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury, were of course far inside the orbits of the asteroids. And the few ships running to Jupiter’s moons avoided them by crossing millions of miles above their plane.
Could it be that legendary green ship, said once to have mysteriously appeared, sliced up and drawn within her hull several of the primitive ships of that day, and then disappeared forever after in the remote wastes of space? Absurd, of course: he dismissed the idle fancy and examined the ship still more closely.
.... There is more of this story ...