Help via Ko-Fi

Into space he drifted, a tiny mote lost in infinity,
to be snatched from death by a weird ghostly derelict of the void



Cast Adrift

THE forecastle of the Vestric was dim, sombre, in the feeble light of a single thorium bulb. Blind shadows groped their way across the metal walls, obscured the faces of the men lying in the bunks. From the liner's main ballroom on the deck below came the faint tinkle of music, soft, dreamy.

Jan Herrick, staring moodily at the rivet-studded bulkhead of the forecastle, hummed the air in a low, nostalgic baritone.

"Moons over Mars, glittering stars,
Waters whisper in the Main Canal,
Dusty red plain, unknown to rain,

"Bah!" Balt, the leathery, grizzled boatswain, sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bunk. "So it's crooners they're signing these days instead of A. B.'s! You'd sing a different tune, my lad, if you'd seen some of the things I've faced!"

"Space serpents, I suppose," Jan grinned. "Or maybe Flying Dutchmen."

"Aye, laugh!" The old man's voice fell into a hoarse whisper. "Laugh, since you know no better! Space serpents I've seen, once off Jupiter and once on the route to Pluto, great bat-like things with blood red eyes and bodies twice the length of this ship! And aboard the same vessel, the old Philos, I've seen... the Faces!"

"The Faces?" a brawny engineer repeated, "Who... or what...?"

Balt pursed his lips, shot a stream of blue Jovian teel into the sand-box.

"White, pinched little faces," he said soberly, "like... like dead children, only their eyes are old as time. Outside the portholes you'll see them, beggin' piteous-like to be let in." The boatswain shuddered and, with the two remaining fingers of his right hand, wiped sweat from his forehead. All eyes turned automatically toward the glass-ex porthole; only the familiar blue-black sky, stippled with brilliant stars, met their gaze.

A scornful laugh issued from Jan Herrick's bunk. He stretched his long, lean frame, brushed back his dark hair.

"You fellows believe that?" he demanded.

"Waal," one of the ordinaries, a drawling Venusian, shook his head, "you know the first maxim of space—'Anything can happen'. An' Bill Jensen, navigator of the Goshawk, swears he saw the Flyin' Dutchman one night not far from where we are now. Passed right close to it, he said. An old, old ship, battered and worn, doomed to drift forever in space. The crew are damned spirits who know no rest. Mortal bad luck even to lay eyes upon the Dutchman, so they say."

"Aye." Balt nodded ominously, the shadows flickering over his scarred face. "A vessel of death, piloted by dead men! "

"Of all the superstitious dopes," Jan yawned, "you guys..."

A quick shudder shook the Vestric; she staggered, plunged forward once more. The men in the forecastle, half-dressed, were racing along the corridor when the general alarm sounded.

Jan climbed the iron ladder to the boat-deck, took up his station beside life-car number three. The Vestric, her progress unimpeded, seemed to be in no danger. Jan, thinking of his warm berth in the forecastle, swore softly. Ten cold, dragging minutes passed. Ahead, at car number one, he could hear Balt muttering something about "crooners and softies, not a real spacehand in the lot." Jan set his jaw grimly. He'd show that superstitious old fool! If he only had a chance to prove what he could do!

All at once Miles, the first officer, stepped out onto the boat-deck.

"No danger, men," he said crisply. "A small meteorite was somehow missed by our detectors, and buckled a few plates in the hull over the gymnasium. I have isolated the room by closing the air-tight doors. However, Captain Hale does not wish to inconvenience our passengers by depriving them of the use of the gym. If one of you will volunteer to make repairs..."

"I will." Jan stepped forward eagerly.

"Very good." The first officer nodded. "Get your space suit. You'll need a magnetic grapple and welding torch."

"Aye, aye, sir." Jan saluted, made his way toward the supply room.

Five minutes later he was ready. The bulky space suit hung limply over his spare frame, and the magnetic grapple, fastened by a long steel cord to his waist, dangled from his hand, its current as yet not turned on. In the other hand he held a small but powerful welding torch.

Jan was just approaching the air-lock when old Balt stepped up to him, eyes grave.

"Be careful, lad," he warned. "The torch recoil..."

"I know what I'm doing," Jan said coldly, snapping the heavy helmet into place. And as Balt tried to restrain him, he shook off the boatswain's arm, stepped forward into the air-lock.

As soon as the inner door of the lock clanged shut, Ian turned to the outer one, drew it open. The rush of escaping air swept him forward to the entrance, forcing him to hang on tightly for an instant. Then, very carefully, he swung the grapple out and against the ship's hull, switching on the current as he did so. Highly magnetized, it clung tightly to the ship's outer shell.

Jan pulled himself forward, hand over hand, along the thin steel cord. Reaching the grapple, he snapped off the current, threw it ahead once more, and recommenced his progress, inching his way toward the stern.

The Vestric, at an oblique angle, was receiving the sun's rays on her under side. As a result, Jan was in total darkness, forced to use the gleaming searchlight mounted on his helmet. He swung his head slowly from side to side, looking for the broken plate. All at once he saw it, a large dent perhaps two feet square. And in the centre of the depression was the hole through which the air had escaped, a tiny crack only a few inches in length.

Jan nodded, grinning. The repair job promised to be easy. Fingers clumsy in their thick covering, he drew ya short bar of steel from his capacious pocket, held it over the crack. Then, pointing the tip of the torch at the bar, he pressed the release.

Jan was not prepared for what followed. The recoil of the torch shot him away as far as the steel cord would permit, leaving him to dangle aloft like some ancient captive balloon. A sudden, unreasoning panic swept over him; he thrashed about wildly, jerking and twisting in an effort to seize the cord, pull himself back to the ship. All at once a sick feeling gripped Jan's stomach. The Vestric was no longer beneath him!

Frantically he glanced about. Stars, the black void, the great flame-rimmed circle of the sun... and nothing more! He was marooned in the limitless sea of space! A castaway!

A wave of fierce heat, penetrating even the asbestoid space suit, seared Jan's leg. The welding torch... still flaring! Hastily he snapped it off... and as he did so, the explanation of his predicament became suddenly crystal-clear. In thrashing about so excitedly after the torch's recoil had lifted him from the Vestric's hull, the small blue flame had touched the steel cord, melted it like butter, and cast him adrift.

Of course, his speed was still that of the ship, roughly a thousand miles a minute, but the torch's reaction had thrown him off at a tangent, so that he and the Vestric were diverging at a constant speed along opposite legs of a great triangle. Old Balt's warning words crossed his mind. If only he hadn't been so pig-headed as to disregard them!

Jan squared his shoulders. No use worrying himself with regrets. Better to figure up his resources, find out what chance he had. First air... that was the most important item. He glanced at the pressure gauge strapped to his wrist. Four hour's supply... under active working conditions. But here, motionless in space, he might require less. The absence of gravity would help, too, lessen the strain on the heart.

Jan reached up, twisted the valve until it was only half open. For the next few minutes he experienced a choking, strangled sensation, had to fight hard to keep from opening the valve to its full extent once more. Gradually, as his metabolism slowed down to a more sluggish tempo, he fell into a state of dreamy lassitude. It seemed to take hours, mighty efforts, to make the slightest movement, but beyond that he was not greatly inconvenienced.

The air supply adjusted, Jan examined the contents of the space suit's emergency pocket. Tools for repair work, patching equipment for possible tears in the asbestoid, and several big radite flares.

For a moment he considered igniting one of the signal lights, then decided against it. Better to save them in case he sighted a ship. Not that it was likely. His absence from the Vestric would not be discovered for at least a half hour, by which time the liner would be many thousands of miles away. Impossible for them to ?nd him, for he, traveling at a similar speed in some unknown, direction might be anywhere within a sphere of a hundred thousand miles diameter. It was hardly possible that they would even trouble to make a search.

Jan shook his head disconsolately. There seemed little to look forward to. The asteroids, gleaming brightly ahead, could not be reached in eighty hours, let alone the eight he counted on. And even if by a miracle he did reach land of some sort, it would mean only a crashing collision. To fall, unchecked, upon a planet or satellite...! Jan laughed harshly.

Eight hours to live and he would be forced to spend them drifting in space!

For some moments he lay back, stared at the purple sky. Then, drowsy from the reduced oxygen, the warm rays of the sun upon his back, he fell asleep.

The Derelict in Space

IT was the click of the escape valve, loud in the hollow space helmet, that awoke Jan. Nor was his a particularly happy awakening; that sharp click indicated that a stream of used air no longer pushed open the butterfly valve. Which in turn indicated that oxygen was not entering from the tank to force the foul air out.

Jan reached up, opened the intake wide. A few stray wisps of oxygen entered the helmet. He shook his head, grinning. Eight hours to live and he had spent them sleeping! Still, it was the most pleasant way possible, under the circumstances.

Jan glanced about. He was near... near in space reckoning... to one of the little asteroid worlds. Under half a million miles, he figured. Not that it mattered when...

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something that made his heart leap. A long, cylindrical object, gleaming dully in the sunlight. A ship! A ship whose grey hull stood out in sharp relief against the black background of the void!

With a frenzied wrench Jan managed to turn himself around. The ship was extremely close, not more than ten miles away. More, its speed must have been approximately the same as his own, since he was overtaking it slowly. No mirage, no delirium, this ship! It was a real, material object.

His hand trembling, he reached for the ?ares. Then, realizing the futility of using them on this sun side of the ship, he thrust them back in his pocket. As well try to signal with a flashlight on the sun-swept deserts of Mars. Jan frowned. At his present rate of speed he would overtake the ship in about ten minutes, pass it on a parallel route several miles off its port bow. Unless someone aboard were to happen to notice him....

All at once Jan thought of the welding torch floating beside him. Using its recoil he might be able to change his course, approach the ship at an angle. Jan aimed the torch carefully, pressed the release. A jet of blue flame shot from its nozzle and the space ship seemed to veer around to a position more nearly in front of him. Another jet of flame, and another. Now he had only to sit tight for a few minutes until he came alongside of the vessel, then attract attention by pounding on the portholes....

Jan took a deep breath. The air in the space suit was rapidly growing foul. It would last only a few more minutes at the most. Still, that would be time enough to board the ship unless... unless.... His eyes, fixed on the vessel, narrowed.

There was something about her that seemed, well, sort of peculiar. Her design, for instance. Archaic, ungainly, as compared to the sleek modern liners. Ancient single-jet rocket tubes and curiously old-fashioned wind-vanes. The sight of that dingy grey hull against the dark, desolate sky filled Jan with a feeling of awe; indistinct shadows of recollection, dim, age-old memories, crawled through his mind. Suddenly he was thinking of Balt's ominous words: "A vessel of death... piloted by dead men!"

Jan laughed, weakly. Nerves and the lack of oxygen... that was all. Merely some battered old tramp.... Even as he tried to dispel his fears, that feeling of deep, intangible horror clutched with icy fingers at his heart once more! The ship was weird, somehow unclean.

He was near the vessel now, approaching it slowly. Its speed was only a few miles per hour less than his own. Jan could see that the hull was thick with cosmic dust, dented and bent from a thousand meteorite storms.

A cautious blast of the welding torch brought him alongside one of the big round portholes. The cabin inside, lit by pale sunlight, was empty. Jan beat upon the windows with a frenzy of desperation. His lungs were bursting, his heart throbbing frantically. Flying Dutchman or hell-ship, it made no difference. Air... that was the only thing that mattered. He shouted wildly, uselessly, filling the helmet with noise.

Now he was passing the massive outer door of the main air-lock. The crude handle, guarded by a semi-circular wind shield, caught his eye. Jan reached out blindly, tugged at it. The door, unlocked, swung open. Scarcely able to believe his good fortune, Jan climbed into the air-lock, pulled the heavy door shut behind him. Staggering weakly, he snapped on his flashlight, examined the inner door. It was locked, securely. Jan groaned. Was he to die here, within the air-lock of a space ship, separated from air by only a half inch of steel?

Suddenly his gaze fell upon the torch, still clutched automatically in his fingers. Gasping, choking, he lit it, placed the tip against the lock of the door, keeping himself erect by a mighty effort, of will as the flame bit into the steel. At length, just as everything was beginning to blur into unconsciousness, the door, its catch melted, swung open. Jan snapped back the heavy helmet, slumped to the floor.

For perhaps five minutes he lay there, gulping in the cool, clean air. He was still a trifle unsteady as he lurched to his feet, stepped into the corridor. The mustiness of age hung like a pall over the passage. It's rust-flaked walls were black with the grime of years; the sound of his own breathing seemed, to Jan, unaccountably loud. The nameless horror that he had sensed outside the ship was now magnified a thousand times. Frowning uneasily, he started to walk along the companionway, then froze into stiff immobility. Slow, shuffling footsteps, coming nearer and nearer!

Suddenly, Jan was aware of something moving toward him through the gloom of the corridor. Something that crawled slitheringly along the floor, dragging a limp, distorted body. Rooted with horror, Jan could not move.

The Thing crept nearer. He could see a flat embryonic face, vaguely human. Through a tangle of matted hair—tiny red eyes burned, and the crooked mouth, sagging open, revealed sharp, fang-like teeth. Huge, gnarled hands pulled It along; Jan could hear the long nails clicking like the claws of a beast upon the iron floor.

With the swiftness of a striking snake the crawling creature leaped, toppling Jan to the floor. A horror-packed, bubbling scream burst from the spaceman's lips, quickly stifled by the powerful hands that locked about his throat. His efforts to free himself were futile under the weight of numbers. Hot, fetid breath fanned his face; sharp claws tore at his cheeks. He could hear the drip-drip of his own blood upon the floor, then, more horrible still, a greedy gulping sound as one of the grey things lapped it up.

The cruel fingers tightened about his throat; he was just sinking into unconsciousness when he heard the sharp crack of a whip, a woman's voice, ringing sweet and clear along the corridor.

The heavy weight lifted from Jan's chest; there was a scurrying sound, the patter of feet, then silence. Groggily, he climbed to his feet, glanced about. Facing him was a girl, slim, pale, exotic. Ye Her dark hair hung free about her shoulders, a soft background to her vivid cheeks, her scarlet lips. She wore a man's shirt and pants, held a long strip of leather in her hand.

"Who... who are you?" she whispered. "Is there a ship... at last?"

"No." an shook his head "I'm just a castaway. Fell off my own ship, managed to reach this one."

"Oh!" There was sharp disappointment in the girl's eyes. "I had hoped at last to see the outside worlds and..." She broke off, noticing the blood on Jan's face. "You're hurt! Come... I'll bandage it."

Still somewhat dazed, Jan followed the girl along the companionway to a cabin adjoining the control room. Bright, clean, tidy, it offered a marked contrast to the rest of the ship.

"Sit down." The girl motioned to the bunk. "I'll get water, bandages." Quickly, deftly, she dressed the wound.

"Thanks," Jan smiled. "And now maybe you'll tell me who you are and what all this means."

"Me?" the girl muttered. "Why I'm Sandra... Sandra Flane. And this is the Martian freighter Ella B."

"And those... those things outside?"

"They are... or were... the crew." The girl's dark eyes were sad. "They're mad. Insane. Space madness. Cooped up aboard this ship for twenty years..."

"Twenty years!" Jan cried. "Good God! No wonder they've gone crazy! But you..."

"I was raised aboard. Don't remember anything else. This life is natural to me. You see, about twenty years ago the Ella B, a very old vessel even then, was commissioned to take a cargo of supplies to Venus. My father, Captain Flane, was in command, and since my mother had died a short time before, he was forced to take me along, although I was then only about two years old.

"Driven off our course by meteor storms, we approached the asteroid belt. And then, Without warning, the fuel tanks exploded.

"I, of course, can't remember all this, but Dad told me about it afterwards. Only a miracle prevented the ship from being blown to bits. As it was, the engine room was completely wrecked and the hull breached in several places.

"The crew worked like trojans to repair the leaky plates and managed at last to make the ship air-tight but when we tried to radio for help, we discovered that a nearby asteroid, apparently of some radio-active substance, completely blanketed our messages. Our position appeared hopeless. No fuel, no way to call for help, several of the crew killed and many, like poor Hult who attacked you just now, permanently crippled. We still had our forward momentum, of course, but instead of going on into space we fell under the gravitational pull of the radio-active asteroid.

"Months passed without any sign of a rescue ship. Indeed, any vessel sighting us would have no reason to stop, since we had no means of signalling that we were in distress, with our radio blanketed by the electrical disturbance."

"But food!" Jan exclaimed. "What have you done all these years?"

"I'm coming to that," the girl said quietly. "You see, as our position became clear to Dad, he spent his time trying to ?nd some means of prolonging life aboard this ship. So, utilizing the only possible source of energy, he constructed reflectors, solar energy machines, from the remains of our engines. These, while furnishing not a fraction of enough energy to move the ship, were ample to run the air-conditioning unit.

"But with the problem of an air supply overcome, food and drink presented a more serious one. The ship was stocked for six months, but Dad realized that if we were not rescued at the end of that time, we would starve.

"He had always been an excellent chemist and so, with nothing else to do, he tackled a seemingly impossible task... the construction of what he jokingly called 'the mechanical vegetable.' He pointed out that there were aboard all the necessary chemicals, as well as water, and an unlimited supply of sunshine. On the planets, he reasoned, vegetables and fruit utilize these factors to produce an edible substance. It was simply a case of copying the plants and purifying, revitalizing, waste products by means of the sun's energy. None of the chemicals would leave the ship; they would merely be transformed. Dad's apparatus was really quite simple."

"Simple!" Jan repeated. "I don't see..."

"Surely." Sandra Flane nodded. "Take, for instance, the unit attached to the air conditioner. Foul air, consisting of carbon dioxide and water, is passed over a catalyst, and, with the aid of solar energy, broken down into water, oxygen, and sugar or starch, as desired.1 And the other units work similarly to the one on the air conditioner. So by the application of a simple chemical process Dad solved the problem of food and water."

1: This accomplishment of Sandra's father is not at all illogical. For instance, the formula for sugar is Energy + 6C02 + 6H2 = C6H12O6 + 6O2. And similarly, many other things might be synthesized.—Ed.

"Time," Sandra continued, "dragged along. Months, years. Dad taught me all he knew, how to operate the food and water machines. Then, slowly, the men began to go mad. Little eccentricities at first, growing more and more violent as time passed. Even Dad was beginning to show signs of a break-down when, about five years ago, he died. I alone, raised in this environment, was able to retain my reason.

"Now, since I am the only one who can operate the machines, feed them, the men permit me to live... but they are growing worse every day. Sooner or later they will forget that I control their supply of food. And then..." The girl's eyes were dark pools of fear. "If only there were some Way to escape...!"

"Perhaps we can," Jan said thoughtfully, "if we can get beyond the field of these electrical disturbances, use our radio to..."

A patter of feet, a series of animal-like grunts, sounded beyond the door. "The men!" Sandra snatched up her whip. "It's meal time! You'd better stay close to me!"

She opened the door, stepped into the passageway. Grey, gibbering creatures, their insane eyes glittering, cringed fawningly at sight of her, although shooting an occasional sullen glance at Jan. Sandra took his arm, led him down a flight of rusty steps to the huge engine room below. Tittering with shrill senseless laughter, the madmen followed.

The engine room offered mute proof of the explosion which had wrecked the Ella B. Twisted stanchions, blackened walls, and a litter of corroded metal heaped in the corners. The solar energy machines, however, lined up before the large quartz observation ports, gave a note of encouragement to the otherwise desolate scene. Burnished metal reflectors, focusing the sun's rays, supplied heat for a small steam turbine; crude vats, retorts, and distilling apparatus, bubbled and hissed.

Sandra, checking several dials and gauges, pulled a brass lever. A small chute swung down and a stream of blue-grey powder poured into a large cauldron. The girl turned a spigot, and pure, sparkling water jetted into the container.

The grey misshapen creatures moved forward eagerly, licking their lips, drooling. Sandra stirred the mixture into a thick gruel, ladled it out onto dishes. The men wolfed the food ravenously, lapping up spilled portions from the floor, fighting over the remains in the vat. When at last they had finished this savage repast, they slunk away, one or two at a time, to the main deck above.

"Horrible!" Jan shook his head, shuddering.

"Beasts!" the girl murmured. "With beasts' cunning! Always lying in wait, hiding about in strange places! And the Ella B, a peaceful trader, carried no weapons! Soon now they will strike... and we will be helpless! Oh, if only we could get away!"

"Away?" Jan repeated, crossing the room. "Why... look here! The firing chamber and rocket tubes aren't damaged. Now as I see it, this ship is spinning about the little asteroid like a stone being whirled about on the end of a string. The string being, of course, gravitational pull. In such a state of delicate balance one small blast from the rockets would cut the string, send us off at a tangent into space! And once free of the asteroid's field, we can use the radio to call for help!"

"True." Sandra nodded. "But where can we get fuel for the rockets... even enough to produce the small initial blast needed?"

"Here!" Jan pointed to the scraps of rusty iron. "And here!" He waved toward the aluminum partitions. "The old thermite process! Fine aluminum particles, mingled with iron oxide, will unite if ignited by a hot flame! Unite with a terrific heat! Cylinders of water, packed in the oxide-aluminum mixture, would be instantly transformed by the tremendous heat into vapor, explode with enough violence to disturb our state of equilibrium, send us, like a stone from a sling, off into space free of the orbit."

A Desperate Battle for Life

THE weeks that followed were a tremendous cycle of toil for Jan and Sandra. The solar engine, harnessed to a circular saw, yielded a slow but steady stream of aluminum dust; the results of a whole day's work, poured into the huge firing chamber, seemed ridiculously insignificant. Even more difficult was the chipping of iron oxide, rust, from the ship's walls and floor. The radio set to be overhauled, the drums of water to be sealed, packed in the rocket tubes, the food to be prepared... they labored frantically, tirelessly.

And always the mad monsters that had been the crew kept watch upon them, screaming with demonical laughter, whispering hoarsely among themselves, creeping softly about like horrible, grotesque shadows. Life, to Jan, became a feverish nightmare, a nightmare haunted by red, glowing eyes, grotesque inhuman faces, and long sharp nails that scrabbled like claws upon the metal floors.

It was a full month before the rockets were ready. The great firing chamber, filled to the brim with aluminum dust and iron oxide, was securely closed. A half dozen water "bombs" were placed in the rocket tubes, surrounded by the greyish mixture. Jan's hand shook as he turned the big solar reflectors, concentrating their beams on a single small point of the firing chamber. Slowly the spot on the thick outer casing began to glow red. Jan glanced at Sandra, white, hollow-eyed, standing by the ladder. From the deck above came a babble of incoherent conversation, angry growling.

Janis gaze swung once more to the huge firing chamber. At that moment a thunderous roar filled the room! Another and another, six shattering blasts! The ship, caught in the grip of mighty forces, lurched sickeningly, sent him spinning to the floor. Then, abruptly, silence, utter blackness.

Dazedly Jan picked himself up, helped Sandra to her feet.

"Oh!" the girl whispered. "I... I can't see...!"

"It's all right!" Jan's voice was strong with triumph. "The sun is on the other side now! Look!" He pointed toward the big port holes. Below, and a trifle behind them, was the little asteroid, already perceptibly smaller. "We're free, Sandra! Free!"

"Oh... Jan!" she murmured. "Then I'll see all those things that Dad told me about. Green fields, rivers, cities! Thanks to you..."

Jan's arm encircled her shoulders.

"God willing," he said soberly.

Two days passed before they could move the solar engines to the other side of the ship; The crew, deprived of their food, roamed the passageways like lean, hungry wolves, ominous, menacing. As soon as the machines had been connected and the men fed, Jan diverted the power to the small generators that supplied the radio.

Sandra, her eyes eager, hung over his shoulder as he snapped on the switch of the receiving set. Instead of the continous crackle and sputter of interference there was silence, then, very faintly, the voice of a distant operator, giving a routine weather forecast.

"Clear! Clear of the asteroid's blanket!" Jan's voice trembled as he turned on the transmitting unit. "S.O.S.! S.O.S.! Freighter Ella B. calling for immediate assistance! Position 94 degrees, 10 minutes, 32 seconds sidereal lineation, zone 1047, sector 14A! Repeating, 94 degrees..."

"Jan! Think of it!" Sandra exclaimed. "People... sane people... to talk to! Comforts, luxuries, freedom! And medical attention, a good sanatorium for the poor fellows of the crew! Perhaps they..."

A low growl sounded from the companionway outside. Jan glanced up, frowning. Hult dragged his twisted body into the control room; the madman's flaccid lips were flecked with foam, his face distorted with rage. Behind him were the others, wild-eyed, terrible, grey ghouls of hell.

"I heard her!" Hult screamed. "Sanatorium, she said! They want to take us back to Mars, imprison us! Place us behind bars! But we'll kill them before they can get help! Kill! Kill!"

Jan had barely time to leap to his feet before they were upon him, shrieking, howling. Long nails clawed his cheeks, rabid teeth tore at his flesh. He gasped and struck down two frantic creatures who flung themselves upon him, mewling and slobbering. Near the door he could see Sandra, swinging her whip desperately. The raving men were making no effort to avoid the lash, surging forward until they fell, stunned or blinded by her blows.

Jan fought his way toward the girl, striking out with both hands, forcing a path through the tangle of legs, arms, and bodies. Blazing wolfish eyes, broken black teeth, skinny, talon-like hands, swirling about in a human maelstrom. He had covered half the distance to the door when something struck him from behind, bore him to the floor. Then evil-smelling bodies were piling over him, tearing at his clothes, his flesh, battering his face with wild, berserk rage.

Time for one shout to Sandra, he had, before his breath was imprisoned in his chest and dancing lights began to flash before his eyes. An all-enveloping darkness was sweeping over him when he heard the heavy thudding of the whip and the merciless grip upon his windpipe relaxed. "

"Jan! Jan!" It was Sandra's voice, gasping, terror-struck.

Dazedly he staggered to his feet. The madmen, swept back by the girl's fierce attack, crouched on the other side of the room, gathering strength for another effort. Hult, his long arms dangling apishly, his face cut by the lash, was muttering thickly, drunkenly. "Blood... blood! Kill!"

"This way! Quickly!" Sandra clutched Jan's hand, drew him along the corridor.

Feet pounding on the metal floor, they dashed toward the freighter's main salon. Behind them gaunt, skeleton-like figures howled in hot pursuit. By a scant second they beat the maniacs to the big room, slammed and bolted the door.

"Safe... for a while at least." Sandra sank wearily into a chair, swept back her dark hair. "Perhaps they'll lose interest, when they get hungry... allow us to reach the control room, the radio."

"I doubt it." Jan shook his head. "They... listen!" In the corridor outside Hult's hoarse voice screamed orders; a moment later there was the clanging of metal as hammers rang upon the light aluminum door.

"It won't hold up five minutes." Jan turned to face the girl. "Looks like the end, Sandra!"

"No!" She crossed the salon, opened a large locker. It was filled with clumsy, old-fashioned space suits. "I've kept these ready, hoping for the day when we would sight a rescue ship."

"Good girl!" Jan climbed hastily into the bulky suit, opened air-valves of the others in the locker. "They might take it into their crazy heads to follow us," he muttered.

A splintering crash echoed through the room. The door, ripped from its ancient hinges, toppled inward. A mass of frenzied wild-eyed humanity poured across the salon. Seizing Sandra's hand, Jan tore open the small emergency air-lock, slammed it shut, then opened the outer, and sprang into the void.

From that moment on things happened with startling suddenness. The impetus of their leap carried them off at an angle, away from the ship. In a few minutes, diverging from the freighter at constant' speed, they were several miles away. Then, as Jan glanced back, something huge and black shot by them. The Ella B., directly in the path of the meteorite, burst into a thousand fragments.

The collision was a sight which, to Jan, seemed almost unbelievable. No sound, no shock, in the airless void. Moreover, the actual break-up of the freighter was fantastic. Some of the fragments of metal, hurled off on the opposite side, disappeared instantly; others, approaching the castaways at approximately their speed, seemed to come apart with incredible slowness, drift gently toward them. A cloud of wreckage, mangled bodies, and chunks of meteoric stone, floated past. One large section of the Ella B.'s hull, some twenty feet square, passed within a few feet of Jan. Reaching out, he grasped its edge, pulled himself onto it, dragging Sandra with him.

"Easier for any ship to spot a large piece of wreckage," he said.

The girl, reading his lips through the glass-ex front of the helmet, nodded. She was pale, trembling, but her eyes were brave. Jan's hand, encased in the heavy space suit, pressed hers; his gaze swept the desolate black. void about them for some sign of human life. The air tanks of these archaic suits were good for only two hours. Jan shook his head hopelessly. Two hours...

The time passed quickly. It seemed as though only two minutes had elapsed before he heard the warning click of the butterfly valve. He turned to Sandra. Already she was having difficulty in breathing. Her eyes were like cinders... cinders set in dirty snow. Jan glanced about, but the steamy moisture on the inside of the old-fashioned helmet blurred everything. He choked, gasping to fill his bursting lungs. All at once he seemed to be falling, falling into dark nothingness.

The first thing that Jan saw on opening his eyes was Balt' scarred, leathery countenance. And beside him, Miles, others of the Vestric's crew."

"Balt!" Jan muttered. "Then... then it was all a... a dream?"

"Dream?" The old man chuckled. "People don't bring their dreams back with them!" He stepped aside and Jan could see Sandra, on a cot across the sick bay, smiling wanly at him. "Aye," the boatswain went on, "'tis past belief! We lose you on our outgoing trip, find you on our return! An S.O.S. call brought us here at full speed, and we picked up you two off a bit of wreckage. The lass yonder has told us where you've been." Balt wagged his grizzled head. "D'you still think I'm a superstitious old fool, lad, when I speak of Flying Dutchmen?"

Jan gripped the boatswain's gnarled hand.

"I was the fool, Balt. Pig-headed and stupid. I know now you were right when you said anything was possible in space." And his eyes, very tender, turned to Sandra once more.

Old Balt's seamed, weather-beaten face broke into a wide grin.

"Saw a comet pass across our bow last night," he announced. "Sure sign of a wedding!"