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   Chapter 11 No.11

Islands of Space By Jr. John W. Campbell Characters: 11827

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Morey thought he was the first to waken when, seven hours later, he dressed and dove lightly, noiselessly, out into the library. Suddenly, he noticed that the telectroscope was in operation-he heard the low hum of its smoothly working director motors.

He turned and headed back toward the observatory. Arcot was busy with the telectroscope.

"What's up, Arcot?" he demanded.

Arcot looked up at him and dusted off his hands. "I've just been gimmicking up the telectroscope. We're going around this dead dwarf once every three milliseconds, which makes it awfully hard to see the stars around us. So I put in a cutoff which will shut the telectroscope off most of the time; it only looks at the sky once every three milliseconds. As a result, we can get a picture of what's going on around us very easily. It won't be a steady picture, but since we're getting a still picture three hundred times a second, it will be better than any moving picture film ever projected as far as accuracy is concerned.

"I did it because I want to take a look at that bright streak in the sky. I think it'll be the means to our salvation-if there is any."

Morey nodded. "I see what you mean; if that's another white dwarf-which it most likely is-we can use it to escape. I think I see what you're driving at."

"If it doesn't work," Arcot said coolly, "we can profit by the example of the people we left back there. Suicide is preferable to dying of cold."

Morey nodded. "The question is: How helpless are we?"

"Depends entirely on that star; let's see if we can get a focus on it."

At the orbital velocity of the ship, focussing on the star was indeed a difficult thing to do. It took them well over an hour to get the image centered in the screen without its drifting off toward one edge; it took even longer to get the focus close enough to a sphere to give them a definite reading on the instruments. The image had started out as a streak, but by taking smaller and smaller sections of the streak at the proper times, they managed to get a good, solid image. But to get it bright enough was another problem; they were only picking up a fraction of the light, and it had to be amplified greatly to make a visible image.

When they finally got what they were looking for, Morey gazed steadily at the image. "Now the job is to figure the distance. And we haven't got much parallax to work with."

"If we compute in the timing in our blinker system at opposite sides of the orbit, I think we can do it," Arcot said.

They went to work on the problem. When Fuller and Wade showed up, they were given work to do-Morey gave them equations to solve without telling them to what the figures applied.

Finally Arcot said: "Their period about the common center of gravity is thirty-nine hours, as I figure it."

Morey nodded. "Check. And that gives us a distance of two million miles apart."

"Just what are you two up to?" asked Fuller. "What good is another star? The one we're interested in is this freak underneath us."

"No," Arcot corrected, "we're interested in getting away from the one beneath us, which is an entirely different matter. If we were midway between this star and that one, the gravitational effects of the two would be cancelled out, since we would be pulled as hard in one direction as the other. Then we'd be free of both pulls and could escape!

"If we could get into that neutral area long enough to turn on our space strain drive, we could get away between them fast. Of course, a lot of our energy would be eaten up, but we'd get away.

"That's our only hope," Arcot concluded.

"Yes, and what a whale of a hope it is," Wade snorted sarcastically. "How are you going to get out to a point halfway between these two stars when you don't have enough power to lift this ship a few miles?"

"If Mahomet can not go to the mountain," misquoted Arcot, "then the mountain must come to Mahomet."

"What are you going to do?" Wade asked in exasperation. "Beat Joshua? He made the sun stand still, but this is a job of throwing them around!"

"It is," agreed Arcot quietly, "and I intend to throw that star in such a way that we can escape between the twin fields! We can escape between the hammer and the anvil as millions of millions of millions of tons of matter crash into each other."

"And you intend to swing that?" asked Wade in awe as he thought of the spectacle there would be when two suns fell into each other. "Well, I don't want to be around."

"You haven't any choice," Arcot grinned. Then his face grew serious. "What I want to do is simple. We have the molecular ray. Those stars are hot. They don't fall into each other because they are rotating about each other. Suppose that rotation were stopped-stopped suddenly and completely? The molecular ray acts catalytically; we won't supply the power to stop that star, the star itself will. All we have to do is cause the molecules to move in a direction opposite to the rotation. We'll supply the impulse, and the star will supply the energy!

"Our job will be to break away when the stars get close enough; we are really going to hitch our wagon to a star!

"The mechanics of the job are simple. We will have to calculate when and how long to use the power, and when and how quickly to escape. We'll have to use the main power board to generate the ray and project it instead of the little ray units. With luck, we ought to be free of this star in three days!"

Work was started at once. They had a chance of life in sight, and they had every intention of taking advantage of it! The calculating machines they had brought would certainly prove worth their mass in this one use. The observations were extremely difficult because the ship was rocketing around the star in such a rapid orbit. The calculations of the mass and distance and orbital motion of the other star were therefore very difficul

t, but the final results looked good.

The other star and this one formed a binary, the two being of only slightly different mass and rotating about each other at a distance of roughly two million miles.

The next problem was to calculate the time of fall from that point, assuming that it would stop instantaneously, which would be approximately true.

The actual fall would take only seven hours under the tremendous acceleration of the two masses! Since the stars would fall toward each other, the ship would be drawn toward the falling mass, and since their orbit around the star took only a fraction of a second to complete, they had to make sure they were in the right position at the halfway point just before collision occurred. Also, their orbit would be greatly perturbed as the star approached, and it was necessary to calculate that in, too.

Arcot calculated that in twenty-two hours, forty-six minutes, they would be in the most favorable position to start the fall. They could have started sooner, but there were some changes that had to be made in the wiring of the ship before they could start using the molecular ray at full power.

"Well," said Wade as he finally finished the laborious computations, "I hope we don't make a mistake and get caught between the two! And what happens if we find we haven't stopped the star after all?"

"If we don't hit it exactly the first time," Morley replied, "we'll have to juggle the ray until we do."

They set to work at once, installing the heavy leads to the ray projectors, which were on the outside of the hull in countersunk recesses. Morey and Wade had to go outside the ship to help attach the cables.

Out in space, floating about the ship, they were still weightless, for they, too, were supported by centrifugal force.

The work of readjusting the projectors for greater power was completed in an hour and a quarter, which still left over twenty hours before they could use them. During the next ten hours, they charged the great storage coils to capacity, leaving the circuits to them open, controlled by the relays only. That would keep the coils charged, ready to start.

Finally, Wade dusted off his hands and said: "We're all ready to go mechanically, and I think it would be wise if we were ready physically, too. I know we're not very tired, but if we sit around in suspense we'll be as nervous as cats when the time comes. I suggest we take a couple of sleeping tablets and turn in. If we use a mild shock to awaken us, we won't oversleep."

The others agreed to the plan and prepared for their wait.

Awakened two hours before the actual moment of action, Wade prepared breakfast, and Morey took observations. He knew just where the star should be according to their calculations, and looked for it there. He breathed a sigh of relief-it was exactly in place! Their mathematics they had been sure of, but on such a rapidly moving machine, it was exceedingly difficult to make good observations.

The two hours seemed to drag interminably, but at last Arcot signalled for the full power of the molecular rays. They waited, breathlessly, for some response. Nearly twenty seconds later, the other sun went out.

"We did it!" said Wade in a hushed voice. It was almost a shock to realize that this ship had power enough to extinguish a sun!

Arcot and Morey weren't awed; they didn't have time. There were other things to do and do fast.

They had checked the time required for them to see that the white dwarf had gone out. Half of this gave them the distance from the star in light seconds.

The screen had already been rigged to flash the information into a computer, which in turn gave a time signal to the robot pilot that would turn on the drive at precisely the right instant. There was no time for human error here; the velocities were too great and the time for error too small.

Then they waited. They had to wait for seven hours spinning dizzily around an improbably tiny star with an equally improbably titanic gravitational field. A star only a couple of dozens of miles across, and yet so dense that it weighed half a million times as much as the Earth! And they had to wait while another star like it, chilled now to absolute zero, fell toward them!

"I wish we could stay around to see the splash," Arcot said. "It's going to be something to see. All the kinetic energy of those two masses slamming into each other is going to be a blaze of light that will really be something!"

Wade was looking nervously at the telectroscope plate. "I wish we could see that other sun. I don't like the idea of a thing that big creeping up on us in the dark."

"Calm down," Morey said quietly. "It's out of our hands now; we took a chance, and it was a chance we had to take. If you want to watch something, watch Junior down there. It's going to start doing some pretty interesting tricks."

As the dense black sun approached them, Junior, as Morey had called it, did begin to do tricks. At first they seemed to be optical effects, as though the eye itself were playing tricks. The red, glowing ball beneath them began to grow transparent around its surface, leaving an opaque red core which seemed to be shrinking slowly.

"What's happening?" Fuller asked.

"Our orbit around the star is becoming more and more elliptical," Arcot replied. "As the other sun pulls us, the star beneath us grows smaller with the distance; then, as we begin to fall back toward it, it grows larger again. Since this is taking place many hundreds of times per second, the visual pictures all seem to blend in together."

"Watch the clock," Morey said suddenly, pointing.

The men watched tensely as the hand moved slowly around.

"Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-ZERO!"

A relay slammed home, and almost instantaneously, everyone on the ship was slammed into unconsciousness.

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