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Planet Stories, November 1953

BEYOND THE X ECLIPTIC

By FOX B. HOLDEN

Earthman was dying of boredom; Hope had become folly. Work merely
a means to avoid insanity. And death was the great reward . . . until
Cragin, step-son of darkest space, dared the Barrier; dared to soar
beyond the X Ecliptic—to the machine planet—where The Owners
grimly governed all the fading galaxies.
.

EARTH'S eyes still blinked in the bright sunlight in which they suddenly gloried again; Earth's throats, no longer fevered and parched, still wondered at the cool feel of fresh water, which had not trickled down them for more than five centuries. Earth's minds were still ignorant of the answer; they knew only that this was Life, although they had failed by themselves in cheating Death, and had already calculated the dimensions for their graves.

The small calendar on the podium said Sunday, June 9, 3024. Cragin placed a small black notebook beside it. Neither his carriage nor mien were those of the gaunt-faced, tall-browed men of science who sat, ill-at-ease, mute, in the broadly-aisled tiers of the echo-whispering auditorium. For Cragin was not one of them. He was young-old, something of slate and steel; gray, something almost of legend and of the mystery of Deep Space itself. He had the quiet voice of all men who had lived their lives within arm's length of the Barrier.

"Gentlemen," he began, "I doubt if I have many of the scientific answers you want. In calculated, scientific terms, I am not able to tell you why there is water once mote in the river beds, clean air to breathe again, snow once more in winter and rain again in springtime. I know little more than the simple facts that the grass is once more green; that the hell-deserts have vanished. I have come here with few heretofore unknown scientific phenomena which I know you seek to explain the rekindling of the Sun and the replacement of Earth in its old path around it.

"The President told me that all I say is to be recorded so that you can pick it apart with the proverbial fine-tooth comb when I'm finished to see if I've dropped some new hint on which you can go to work. He told me personally that I'm your last hope for a solution to the riddle of the Change, because I'm the only living man who ever took a ship further than a light-year beyond the Barrier; because I've flown more parsecs of Deep Space than anybody else; because I know more about what's out there, and what is not, than you do.

"Add what I have to tell you to the many theories you've already amassed but for which you can find no scientific proof in knowledge as you know it, and you still may not have the kind of answer for which you're looking. Not unless, gentlemen, the Change has taken place in men as well as in the solar system in which their graves were once already dug.

"If, somehow, the little I know is sufficient to give you your answer; an answer which satisfies you completely, then the Change has been to yourselves as well as the ground upon which you walk. If it is not, then perhaps you may never have one.

"A little more than ten years ago, this is how it was . . ."

He opened the notebook.

"I DON'T think it's a runner, sir. Not unless they've found a new place in Deep Space to bootleg their water. But we're hearing English all right."

The communications lieutenant tried for a new track on the corn-beam and gambled that there were a few minutes of overload time left in the amptubes. The stacatto whisper faded altogether for a moment, then came back a trifle stronger.

"Blow 'em out if you have to! Mister Grimes, stand by with auxiliary communications." The Stellar Patrol captain readjusted his own headset and waited. It was all there was to do. The drive had been cut; the ship was vibrationless, soundless, and the crew's breath was shallow. Grimes hunched over the auxiliary unit as though waiting for the main amplifier to blow up in the lieutenant's face.

Then it came; weak, but distinct.

Griffin calling . . . this is Griffin calling —SFBB-3. Lost . . . Fouler Griffin dead. This is SFBB-3 can you hear me . . .

"Good Lord, sir—"

"Mister Cragin! Can you estimate her position? Grimes, contact the nearest base in this sector. Get a relay from Earth on the flight plan of Special Flight Beyond Barrier Three. Mister Kramer, I want a running plot of the track every three minutes. Cragin!"

The Captain punched the red FSA driveroom button and the Patrol ship slid from her drift into a white-hot mushroom of speed. The tower deck vibrated beneath Cragin's feet.

"She's further out than I've ever been, sir. I can give you an approximate trajectory, but where she is it's suicide—"

"For how far out beyond the Barrier do you have exact knowledge of critical warp speeds, Cragin?"

"A light-year maybe, sir. No more. Beyond that nothing makes sense; beyond that the variables will shoot any comptometer on this type ship to hell. Beyond the Barrier it's like tight-rope walking between the dimensions and after you get just so far—"

"I know all that. How far out is she?"

"Fifty light-years anyway. Maybe two hundred. I can't tell. I think she's holding for dear life to a critical. If she loses it, we lose her for good."

"You think she'll make it to this side?"

"If she's lost, no, sir. She'll just keep on out there until—"

"Until?"

"Until her comptometers break down, until her drive is exhausted, until she makes a mistake. Until eternity."

"Sir," Kramer broke in. "Three minutes since pick-up. Her trajectory's whacky. She's sort of side-slipping in, but at the speed she's making, she's going to miss Barrier just by the width of her skin. She'll tangent off sure." Kramer thrust a hastily prepared three dimensional plot-check forward.

"To bring her in we've got to go out and pick her up, sir," Cragin said.

"Grimes!"

"Here, sir." Grimes came up with a similar plot-check, described on a regulation ship's form. The senior Patrol officer compared the two, the flight plan and the running trajectory laid out by Kramer, and Cragin's teeth glinted through his lips as they went slack in amaxement.

"God, sir, that's impossible. It ends at the square of light-speed!"

"Fowler Griffin is—was—one of Earth's topmost scientists. His work is beyond question, Mister Cragin. More so, perhaps, than that of any other. Your irreverance is out of order."

"Unintentional of course, sir."

"Plot the difference between Griffin's planned return and the trajectory Kramer just tracked. Drive room!"

The sleek Patrol ship quivered with the added thrust of her auxiliaries; her nc-cdletip nose swung a half-minute to her own three-quarter starboard axis.

"Can we pick her up, Cragin?"

"We'll have to go the limit."

"Then take over the panel, Mister Cragin. Kramer! Attempt return communication!"

"As she sails, sir."

Cragin's thin, sensitive fingers flicked over the flight control panel with a dexterity and familiarity that is born only of a million light years of intimate, sometimes desperate familiarity, and the Patrol ship's complex, high-strung nervous system responded as though it were a part of the man who held its throbbing life in harness.

TO RANDOLPH CRAGIN, born under a dying sun and of a mother dead from desert-parch even as her labor ceased, there had never been life worth the living anywhere but in the cold, clean loneliness of Deep Space.

He had bought odd second-hand parts from a junk dealer to build the first craft he had ever flown; he had made the moon with it before its jets blew and left him with the gray scar that ran from his left temple to the point of his square chin. He had been sixteen then, and too old to scare, too young to deter. From then on, there had been work in a lunar mine to pay for his next ship; then prospecting the asteroids to pay for a better, faster one. There were five years of hauling black muck from Venus and water crystal from the low ridges of Mars before he had the money he needed to build the ship that would take him into Deep Space for the first time, and a couple of years after that doing routine commission jobs of surveying outlying planetoid belts for the government to earn enough to keep his drive alive, and when he thought of it, his body.

In between jobs, when he flew until he was broken again, Cragin found out more about Deep Space and about the Barrier, beyond which only one other beside himself had ventured, than any other man who lived. His predecessor had not. To Cragin it was sort of a challenge—sometimes more than a daring wanderlust, sometimes a little less, when he picked new directions from sheer boredom. But beneath it all, there was something that rebelled; that bordered on resentment, and at the same- time on awe. He had never known which was the cause of which, only that the men of Earth (and they were the only men in this lonely system of planets) were dying, and had long since ceased to be awed by anything, or to be stirred beyond the narrow limits of their own complacency. They had achieved all there was to achieve; death was to be their reward. Hope had become folly; work a means to avoid insanity; science the only comfort and pleasure, because it had been thoroughly mastered.

Except, perhaps, for the Barrier itself. Beyond it, Earth science had little hold, its concepts little validity. It was therefore a worthless waste, for it did not adhere to the facts that men said were true. And Cragin had found it difficult to decide why it was that he had chosen to let himself get swallowed up in it. Maybe for the sheer pleas* ure of laughing because it was so easy (the comptometers did all the work of plotting the warp paths and keeping the ship at the right critical speeds so it wouldn't leave them and go plunging off into dimensions from which there would be no return) maybe because he hadn't been as positive as he was supposed to be that what was beyond the Barrier was such a waste after all.

To keep himself occupied he remembered what there had been to learn; to recam the comptometers in anticipation of the ever increasing speed of warp shifts; how to change direction and yet keep a bearing on home; how to fly some of it by himself, juggling equations in his head while the comptometers cooled off.

Then two years ago he had joined the Patrol. Chasing water bootleggers who stole from government reserves and sold at fantastic prices was something he hadn't as yet had a hand in. That he had become an officer in a year and a half instead of the usual six hadn't surprised him much; if he weren't a captain in another year and a half he'd resign. And dig the asteroids again maybe. It didn't matter.

"At Barrier in four minutes, sir. Grimes, stand by comptometer One with her coordinates..."

Comptometer One rose from a deep hum below the range of hearing into audibility. "Now, Mister Grimes!" Comptometer Two checked in and the hum rose steadily to a high pitched whine. Three came in.

"I've got her on the radar track, sir! There she is—good Lord!"

"Signal her to cut her drive before we lose her altogether. Grimes—" But Grimes was too slow at resetting comptometer cams. Cragin plotted a trajectory in his head and kept alert for the least change in volume of the comps. Deliberately he brought the nose of the hurtling Patrol craft swinging about under the grazing touch of his fingertips and sought to keep the big ship on her warp while he estimated an intersection point.

"Sir," Kramer was howling, "I can't raise—yes, there! She's cut her drive. But she's not bow jetting a squirt!"

"Just get the M-fields ready. I'll tell you when," Cragin said. If there had been any excitement in his voice before, it had disappeared. He knew they'd catch her now. He was on the Patrol ship's back and he knew he could ride it down.

"You've got maybe a dozen seconds, Cragin," the captain told him. "At a drift her critical will be shot to blazes—"

"M-fields!"

The Patrol ship jolted, and Comptometer Five checked in and rose to a scream as the struggle to maintain critical speed with the suddenly increased load was fought. And won.

Cragin manually checked in Six just to make sure, and kicked both ships into the trajectory that would fall them through the Barrier.

Then it was all over, and a tiny, bullet-shaped, explorer-type craft...

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