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• Mr. Stangland's story gives us an insight into the great dramas that will take place in the vastness of interstellar space after its first conquest. This story pictures puny man against a background of strange almost devilish forces. Like microbes in an infinite world we see our space-men struggling to preserve man's right of space conquest.

We must admit that what we know of the forces operating in interstellar space is insignificant. We believe, true enough, that space is an almost perfect vacuum. But is it? And if it is not what dangers, impossible for us on earth to envision, may confront the first men to dare the unknown.

We must await the first Columbus of space for the answer. But Mr. Stangland gives us one unusual view of it.



• A quick, impatient knock sounded on the door.


Captain Heath, in command of the new fueling "island," 88-X, located between Neptune and Pluto at the beginning of their forty years of approximate conjunction, sat before a table poring over stellar charts. A single, shaded desk lamp, the only illumination in the room, lighted up his strong masculine features in relief against the dark background beyond the light. He glanced up from a thick volume of tables, narrowing his shrewd grey eyes to squint into the darkness.

There was an air of excitement about the bronzed man coming into the room, a something that was not lost on the calm-faced captain.

"Captain, there's something wrong!" blurted Reynolds, without even acknowledging the greeting. "For the last several hours I've been trying to raise Capostran to send your message through. The ether is dead!"

Heath took his elbows off the table, and sat up straight in his chair, a slight frown of puzzlement crossing his face.

"Perhaps there's something wrong with our equipment," he began, though he knew it was almost superfluous to mention that. Reynolds could not be accused of half measures.

"No sir, I've checked over everything right up to the parabolic wave projector; and there's plenty of pep in the voice channel—the needle kicks over like the back thrust of a rocket. It's not the transmitter, sir. I tell you— there's something wrong with space!" Reynolds young blue eyes were snapping with suppressed emotion, as he looked down at the commander from his lanky height. Such a strange phenomenon put one in awesome apprehension of the mysteries of space.

But the inertia of Captain Heath's practical mind would not let him jump to fantastic conclusions too soon.

"When did you last contact anybody?" he asked.

"Thirty hours ago I spoke the Plutonian making for her home planet, sir. That was the last call, according to my automatic recorder. Mason and I have been repairing a motor since."

Heath was silent for a moment. Older men had held his job before him, but regardless of his comparative youth he had won his place among brilliant experts of cosmonautics through sheer ability. What he lacked in years he made up for in a wealth of experience.

"If you can't communicate with anybody, then what do you suppose has happened to the pilot-beams?" posed the captain. But Reynolds was quick to sense the growing concern in the captain's strong lean face in spite of his casual tone. Heath turned to a desk phone, pressing a button.

"Hello, that you, Rawlins?... Say, when did you check readings on the pilot-beams last?... Forty hours ago!... That's too long an interval... Yes, I know it's a reliable machine, but you should take a reading every thirty hours or so instead. Take a sight now on both beams—they'll be in vertical azimuth you know..." he turned to Reynolds."

"Wonder if that collier has left Capostran yet?" he pondered. "We need fuel now for our own rocket tubes, as well as for the service supply. Too bad you couldn't raise Neptune..." He broke off, turning to the phone. "Hello, Rawlins?..."

A peculiar premonition coursed through Reynolds' mind as he watched an unaccustomed paleness supplant the healthy glow in the captain's face. He heard the faint voice of Rawlins, the navigator, raised to an excited pitch. Heath replaced the phone deliberately, turning to the young engineer. "We're drifting off our dynamic position—10 degrees on the Pluto beam and 15 degrees on the Neptune beam. Reynolds, you're right—there's something wrong in space! Come on, we're going topside, and check Rawlins. I want you with me." And without even grabbing for his commander's cap, the captain left the cabin in a rush, followed by Reynolds.

Together they took the steps two at a time. The fueling "island," built in the shape of a huge disc with a solid block on top, was popularly known among spacemen as the "Pie Pan." A shelf flanked two sides of it, permitting the landing of ships to refuel on the direct run between Pluto and Neptune. Great airlocks swallowed them as they disappeared within. And above all protruded a small but massive quartzite cylindrical knob, giving an unobstructed view of the heavens.

Heath and Reynolds stepped out into the transparent cage that was filled with an intricate yet orderly mass of instruments, chief of which was a bright machined steelite cross much like an interferometer in the center of the room. Rawlins was peering into a small telescope on one of the arms of the cross.

"Well, what do you make of it?" asked Heath, stooping to look through the eyepiece that the navigator had relinquished. He focussed it on a tiny disc that was Neptune.

"I don't know what to think, sir, but I do know we're a million miles out of position, and still drifting—God knows where!" answered Rawlins gravely, his face a grim mask of tense lines.

Heath stood up and read the angle. Just as surely as if she had slipped some huge steel cables holding her midway between the two planets, the 88-X was roaming farther out afield with each spurt of her giant backthrust rocket tubes. The radio pilot-beams from Pluto and Neptune automatically guiding her in space, were dead, no longer actuating the delicate tynes of the electric control slider that set off the rocket tubes to keep position.

• "For at least the last thirty hours this firing pattern has been maintained on the electric tynes, Rawlins, driving us off our point. You'll have to operate this typon by hand, and get the island back on position." Heath released the robot steersman from its locked position so that it swung free. He faced the two men, a sober expression in his grey eyes.

"I don't doubt that you two are quite aware of the fact that we are in great danger right now. If that collier doesn't arrive in several more days, we'll be out of fuel, and that means we'll start drifting around the sun in our own natural orbit. So, keep this to yourselves—no use in frightening the crew, and especially the Plutonian gang in the service shops; they're liable to lose their heads. There's hope the collier may find us by 'static conjecture,' after all, if we can _get back on position."

Motioning Reynolds to follow him, Heath turned smartly on his heel, and left Rawlins, already setting up by hand a combination on the rocket firing control panel. Descending to the lower deck, the captain quizzed the engineer again.

"What do you suppose is causing this, Reynolds? Stellar radiation?"

For a moment Heath waited, watching the engineer's face. An odd look seemed to grow on it.

"Great rockets! Yes, captain, that's it, at least part...

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