Title: Vagabonds of Space
Author: Harl Vincent
Summary: From the depths of the Sargasso Sea of Space came the thought-warning, “Turn back!” But Carr and his Martian friend found it was too late!
Word count: 15981
Public Domain Mark (PDM)
Image: Astounding Stories of Super-Science November 1930
Gathered around a long table in a luxuriously furnished director’s room, a group of men listened in astonishment to the rapid and forceful speech of one of their number.
“I tell you I’m through, gentlemen,” averred the speaker. “I’m fed up with the job, that’s all. Since 2317 you’ve had me sitting at the helm of International Airways and I’ve worked my fool head off for you. Now—get someone else!”
“Made plenty of money yourself, didn’t you, Carr?” asked one of the directors, a corpulent man with a self-satisfied countenance.
“Sure I did. That’s not the point. I’ve done all the work. There’s not another executive in the outfit whose job is more than a title, and you know it. I want a change and a rest. Going to take it, too. So, go ahead with your election of officers and leave me out.”
“Your stock?” Courtney Davis, chairman of the board, sensed that Carr Parker meant what he said.
“I’ll hold it. The rest of you can vote it as you choose: divide the proxies pro rata, based on your individual holdings. But I reserve the right to dump it all on the market at the first sign of shady dealings. That suit you?”
The recalcitrant young President of International Airways had risen from the table. The chairman attempted to restrain him.
“Come on now, Carr, let’s reason this out. Perhaps if you just took a leave of absence—”
“Call it anything you want. I’m done right now.”
Carr Parker stalked from the room, leaving eleven perspiring capitalists to argue over his action.
He rushed to the corridor and nervously pressed the call button of the elevators. A minute later he emerged upon the roof of the Airways building, one of the tallest of New York’s mid-town sky-scrapers. The air here, fifteen hundred feet above the hot street, was cool and fresh. He walked across the great flat surface of the landing stage to inspect a tiny helicopter which had just settled to a landing. Angered as he was, he still could not resist the attraction these trim little craft had always held for him. The feeling was in his blood.
His interest, however, was short lived and he strolled to the observation aisle along the edge of the landing stage. He stared moodily into the heavens where thousands of aircraft of all descriptions sped hither and yon. A huge liner of the Martian route was dropping from the skies and drifting toward her cradle on Long Island. He looked out over the city to the north: fifty miles of it he knew stretched along the east shore of the Hudson. Greatest of the cities of the world, it housed a fifth of the population of the United States of North America; a third of the wealth.
Cities! The entire world lived in them! Civilization was too highly developed nowadays. Adventure was a thing of the past. Of course there were the other planets, Mars and Venus, but they were as bad. At least he had found them so on his every business trip. He wished he had lived a couple of centuries ago, when the first space-ships ventured forth from the earth. Those were days of excitement and daring enterprise. Then a man could find ways of getting away from things—next to nature—out into the forests; hunting; fishing. But the forests were gone, the streams enslaved by the power monopolies. There were only the cities—and barren plains. Everything in life was made by man, artificial.
Something drew his eyes upward and he spotted an unusual object in the heavens, a mere speck as yet but drawing swiftly in from the upper air lanes. But this ship, small though it appeared, stood out from amongst its fellows for some reason. Carr rubbed his eyes to clear his vision. Was it? Yes—it was—surrounded by a luminous haze. Notwithstanding the brilliance of the afternoon sun, this haze was clearly visible. A silver shimmering that was not like anything he had seen on Earth. The ship swung in toward the city and was losing altitude rapidly. Its silvery aura deserted it and the vessel was revealed as a sleek, tapered cylinder with no wings, rudders or helicopter screws. Like the giant liners of the Interplanetary Service it displayed no visible means of support or propulsion. This was no ordinary vessel.
Carr watched in extreme interest as it circled the city in a huge spiral, settling lower at each turn. It seemed that the pilot was searching for a definite landing stage. Then suddenly it swooped with a rush. Straight for the stage of the Airways building! The strange aura reappeared and the little vessel halted in mid-air, poised a moment, then dropped gracefully and lightly as a feather to the level surface not a hundred feet from where he stood. He hurried to the spot to examine the strange craft.
“Mado!” he exclaimed in surprise as a husky, bronzed Martian squeezed through the quickly opened manhole and clambered heavily to the platform. Mado of Canax—an old friend!
“Devils of Terra!” gasped the Martian, his knees giving way, “—your murderous gravity! Here, help me. I’ve forgotten the energizing switch.”
Carr laughed as he fumbled with a mechanism that was strapped to the Martian’s back. Mado, who tipped the scales at over two hundred pounds on his own planet, weighed nearly six hundred here. His legs simply couldn’t carry the load!
“There you are, old man.” Parker had located the switch and a musical purr came from the black box between the Martian’s broad shoulders. “Now stand up and tell me what you’re doing here. And what’s the idea of the private ship? Come all the way from home in it?”
His friend struggled to his feet with an effort, for the field emanating from the black box required a few seconds to reach the intensity necessary to counteract two-thirds of the earth’s gravity.
“Thanks Carr,” he grinned. “Yes, I came all the way in that bus. Alone, too—and she’s mine! What do you think of her?”
“A peach, from what I can see. But how come? Not using a private space-flier on your business trips, are you?”
“Not on your life! I’ve retired. Going to play around for a few years. That’s why I bought the Nomad.”
“Retired! Why Mado, I just did the same thing.”
“Great stuff! They’ve worked you to death. What are you figuring on doing with yourself?”
Carr shrugged his shoulders resignedly. “Usual thing, I suppose. Travel aimlessly, and bore myself into old age. Nothing else to do. No kick out of life these days at all, Mado, even in chasing around from planet to planet. They’re all the same.”
The Martian looked keenly at his friend. “Oh, is that so?” he said. “No kick, eh? Well, let me tell you, Carr Parker, you come with me and we’ll find something you’ll get a kick out of. Ever seen the Sargasso Sea of the solar system? Ever been on one of the asteroids? Ever seen the other side of the Moon—Uranus—Neptune—Planet 9, the farthest out from the sun?”
“No-o.” Carr’s eyes brightened somewhat.
“Then you haven’t seen anything or been anywhere. Trouble with you is you’ve been in the rut too long. Thinking there’s nothing left in the universe but the commonplace. Right, too, if you stick to the regular routes of travel. But the Nomad’s different. I’m just a rover when I’m at her controls, a vagabond in space—free as the ether that surrounds her air-tight hull. And, take it from me, there’s something to see and do out there in space. Off the usual lanes, perhaps, but it’s there.”
“You’ve been out—how long?” Carr hesitated.
“Eighty Martian days. Seen plenty too.” He waved his arm in a gesture that seemed to take in the entire universe.
“Why come here, with so much to be seen out there?”
“Came to visit you, old stick-in-the-mud,” grinned Mado, “and to try and persuade you to join me. I find you footloose already. You’re itching for adventure; excitement. Will you come?”
Carr listened spellbound. “Right now?” he asked.
“This very minute. Come on.”
“My bag,” objected Carr, “it must be packed. I’ll need funds too.”
“Bag! What for? Plenty of duds on the Nomad—for any old climate. And money—don’t make me laugh! Vagabonds need money?” He backed toward the open manhole of the Nomad, still grinning.
Carr hesitated, resisting the impulse to take Mado at his word. He looked around. The landing stage had been deserted, but people now were approaching. People not to be tolerated at the moment. He saw Courtney Davis, grim and determined. There’d be more arguments, useless but aggravating. Well, why not go? He’d decided to break away. What better chance? Suddenly he dived for the manhole of Mado’s vessel; wriggled his way to the padded interior of the air-lock. He heard the clang of the circular cover. Mado was clamping it to its gasketed seat.
“Let’s go!” he shouted.
Into the Heavens
The directors of International Airways stared foolishly when they saw Carr Parker and the giant Martian enter the mysterious ship which was a trespasser on their landing stage. They gazed incredulously as the gleaming torpedo-shaped vessel arose majestically from its position. There was no evidence of motive power other than a sudden radiation from its hull plates of faintly crackling streamers of silvery light. They fell back in alarm as it pointed its nose skyward and accelerated with incredible rapidity, the silver energy bathing them in its blinding luminescence. They burst forth in excited recrimination when it vanished into the blue. Courtney Davis shook his fist after the departing vessel and swore mightily.
Carr Parker forgot them entirely when he clambered into the bucket seat beside Mado, who sat at the Nomad’s controls. He was free at last: free to probe the mysteries of outer space, to roam the skies with this Martian he had admired since boyhood.
“Glad you came?” Mado asked his Terrestrial friend.
“You bet. But tell me about yourself. How you’ve been and how come you’ve rebelled, too? I haven’t seen you for a long time, you know. Why, it’s been years!”
“Oh, I’m all right. Guess I got fed up with things about the same way you did. Knew last time I saw you that you were feeling as I did. That’s why I came after you.”
“But this vessel, the Nomad. I didn’t know such a thing was in existence. How does it operate? It seems quite different from the usual ether-liners.”
It’s a mystery ship. Invented and built by Thrygis, a discredited scientist of my country. Spent a fortune on it and then went broke and killed himself. I bought it from the executors for a song. They thought it was a pile of junk. But the plans and notes of the inventor were there and I studied ’em well. The ship is a marvel, Carr. Utilizes gravitational attraction and reversal as a propelling force and can go like the Old Boy himself. I’ve hit two thousand miles a second with her.”
“A second! Why, that’s ten times as fast as the regular liners! Must use a whale of a lot of fuel. And where do you keep it? The fuel, I mean.”
“Make it right on board. I’m telling you Carr, the Nomad has no equal. She’s a corker.”
“I’ll say she is. But what do you mean—make the fuel?”
“Cosmic rays. Everywhere in space you know. Seems they are the result of violent concentrations of energy that cause the birth of atoms. Thrygis doped out a collector of these rays that takes ’em from their paths and concentrates ’em in a retort where there’s a spongy metal catalyst that never deteriorates. Here there is a reaction to the original action out in space and new atoms are born, simple ones of hydrogen. But what could be sweeter for use in one of our regular atomic motors? The energy of disintegration is used to drive the generators of the artificial gravity field, and there you are. Sounds complicated, but really isn’t. And nothing to get out of whack either.”
Beats the rocket motors and bulky fuel of the regular liners a mile, doesn’t it? But since when are you a navigator, Mado?”
“Don’t need to be a navigator with the Nomad. She’s automatic, once the controls are set. Say we wish to visit Venus. The telescope is sighted on that body and the gravity forces adjusted so we’ll be attracted in that direction and repelled in the opposite direction. Then we can go to bed and forget it. The movement of the body in its orbit makes no difference because the force follows wherever it goes. See? The speed increases until the opposing forces are equal, when deceleration commences and we gradually slow down until within ten thousand miles of the body, when the Nomad automatically stops. Doesn’t move either, until we awaken to take the controls. How’s that for simple?”
“Good enough. But suppose a wandering meteor or a tiny asteroid gets in the way? At our speed it wouldn’t have to be as big as your fist to go through us like a shot.”
“All taken care of, my dear Carr. I told you Thrygis was a wiz. Such a happenstance would disturb the delicate balance of the energy compensators and the course of the Nomad would instantly alter to dodge the foreign object. Once passed by, the course would again be resumed.”
“Some ship, the Nomad!” Carr was delighted with the explanations. “I’m sold on her and on the trip. Where are we now and where bound?”
Mado glanced at the instrument board. “Nearly a million miles out and headed for that Sargasso Sea I told you about,” he said. “It isn’t visible in the telescope, but I’ve got it marked by the stars. Out between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, a quarter of a billion miles away. But we’ll average better than a thousand miles a second. Be there in three days of your time.”
“How can there be a sea out there in space?”
“Oh, that’s just my name for it. Most peculiar thing, though. There’s a vast, billowy sort of a cloud. Twists and weaves around as if alive. Looks like seaweed or something; and Carr, I swear there are things floating around in it. Wrecks. Something damn peculiar, anyway. I vow I saw a signal. People marooned there or something. Sorta scared me and I didn’t stay around for long as there was an awful pull from the mass. Had to use full reversal of the gravity force to get away.”
“Now why didn’t you tell me that before? That’s something to think about. Like the ancient days of ocean-going ships on Earth.”
“Tell you? How could I tell you? You’ve been questioning me ever since I first saw you and I’ve been busy every minute answering you.”
Carr laughed and slid from his seat to the floor. He felt curiously light and loose-jointed. A single step carried him to one of the stanchions of the control cabin and he clung to it for a moment to regain his equilibrium.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded. “No internal gravity mechanism on the Nomad?”
“Sure is. But it’s adjusted for Martian gravity. You’ll get along, but it wouldn’t be so easy for me with Earth gravity. I’d have to wear the portable G-ray all the time, and that’s not so comfortable. All right with you?”
“Oh, certainly. I didn’t understand.”
Carr saw that his friend had unstrapped the black box from his shoulders. He didn’t blame him. Glad he wasn’t a Martian. It was mighty inconvenient for them on Venus or Terra. Their bodies, large and of double the specific gravity, were not easily handled where gravity was nearly three times their own. The Venusians and Terrestrials were more fortunate when on Mars, for they could become accustomed to the altered conditions. Only had to be careful they didn’t overdo. He remembered vividly a quick move he had made on his first visit to Mars. Carried him twenty feet to slam against a granite pedestal. Bad cut that gave him, and the exertion in the rarefied atmosphere had him gasping painfully.
He walked to one of the ports and peered through its thick window. Mado was fussing with the controls. The velvety blackness of the heavens; the myriad diamond points of clear brilliance. Cold, too, it looked out there, and awesomely vast. The sun and Earth had been left behind and could not be seen. But Carr didn’t care. The heavens were marvelous when viewed without the obstruction of an atmosphere. But he’d seen them often enough on his many business trips to Mars and Venus.
“Ready for bed?” Mado startled him with a tap on the shoulder.
“Why—if you say so. But you haven’t shown me through the Nomad yet.”
“All the time in the universe for that. Man, don’t you realize you’re free? Come, let’s grab some sleep. Need it out here. The ship’ll be here when we wake up. She’s flying herself right now. Fast, too.”
Carr looked at the velocity indicator. Seven hundred miles a second and still accelerating! He felt suddenly tired and when Mado opened the door of a sleeping cabin its spotless bunk looked very inviting. He turned in without protest.
The days passed quickly, whether measured by the Martian chronometer aboard the Nomad or by Carr’s watch, which he was regulating to match the slightly longer day of the red planet. He was becoming proficient in the operation of all mechanisms of the ship and had developed a fondness for its every appointment.
Behind them the sun was losing much of its blinding magnificence as it receded into the ebon background of the firmament. The Earth was but one of the countless worlds visible through the stern ports, distinguishable by its slightly greenish tinge. They had reached the vicinity of the phenomenon of space Mado had previously discovered. Carr found himself seething with excitement as the Nomad was brought to a drifting speed.
Mado, who had disclaimed all knowledge of navigation, was busy in the turret with a sextant. He made rapid calculations based on its indications and hurried to the controls.
“Find it?” Carr asked.
“Yep. Be there in a half hour.”
The nose of the vessel swung around and Mado adjusted the gravity energy carefully. Carr glued his eye to the telescope.
“See anything?” inquired Mado.
“About a million stars, that’s all.”
“Funny. Should be close by.”
Then: “Yes! Yes! I see it!” Carr exulted. “A milky cloud. Transparent almost. To the right a little more!”
The mysterious cloud rushed to meet them and soon was visible to the naked eye through the forward port. Their speed increased alarmingly and Mado cut off the energy.
“What’s that?” Mado stared white-faced at his friend.
“A voice! You hear it too?”
Amazed, they gazed at each other. It was a voice; yet not a sound came to their ears. The voice was in their own consciousness. A mental message! Yet each heard and understood. There were no words, but clear mental images.
“Beware!” it seemed to warn. “Come not closer, travelers from afar. There is danger in the milky fleece before you!”
Mado pulled frantically at the energy reverse control. The force was now fully repelling. Still the billowing whiteness drew nearer. It boiled and bubbled with the ferocity of one of the hot lava cauldrons of Mercury. Changing shape rapidly, it threw out long streamers that writhed and twisted like the arms of an octopus. Reaching. Searching for victims!
“God!” whispered Carr. “What is it?”
“Take warning,” continued the voice that was not a voice. “A great ship, a royal ship from a world unknown to you, now is caught in the grip of this mighty monster. We can not escape, and death draws quickly near. But we can warn others and ask that our fate be reported to our home body.”
A sudden upheaval of the monstrous mass spewed forth an object that bounced a moment on the rippling surface and then was lost to view. A sphere, glinting golden against the white of its awful captor.
“The space-ship!” gasped Mado. “It’s vanished again!”
They hurtled madly in the direction of this monster of the heavens, their reverse energy useless.
“We’re lost, Mado.” Carr was calm now. This was excitement with a vengeance. He’d wished for it and here it was. But he’d much rather have a chance to fight for his life. Fine ending to his dreams!
“Imps of the canals! The thing’s alive!” Mado hurled himself at the controls as a huge blob of the horrible whiteness broke loose from the main body and wobbled uncertainly toward them. A long feeler reached forth and grasped the errant portion, returning it with a vicious jerk.
“Turn back! Turn back!” came the eery warning from the golden sphere. “All is over for us. Our hull is crushed. The air is pouring from our last compartment. Already we find breathing difficult. Turn back! The third satellite of the fifth planet is our home. Visit it, we beseech you, and report the manner of our going. This vile creature of space has power to draw you to its breast, to crush you as we are crushed.”
The Nomad lurched and shuddered, drawn ever closer to the horrid mass of the thing. A gigantic jellyfish, that’s what it was, a hundred miles across! Carr shivered in disgust as it throbbed anew, sending out those grasping streamers of its mysterious material. As the Nomad plunged to its doom with increasing speed, Mado tried to locate some spot in the universe where an extreme effect could be obtained from the full force of the attracting or repulsive energies. They darted this way and that but always found themselves closer to the milky billows that now were pulsating in seeming eagerness to engulf the new victim.
Once more came the telepathic warning, “Delay no longer. It is high time you turned back. You must escape to warn our people and yours. Even now the awful creature has us in its vitals, its tentacles reaching through our shattered walls, creeping and twining through the passages of our vessel. Crushing floors and walls, its demoniac energies heating our compartment beyond belief. We can hold out no longer. Go! Go quickly. Remember—the third satellite of the fifth planet—to the city of golden domes. Tell of our fate. Our people will understand. You—”
The voice was stilled. Mado groaned as if in pain and Carr saw in that instant that each knob and lever on the control panel glowed with an unearthly brush discharge. Not violet as of high frequency electricity, but red. Cherry red as of heated metal. The emanations of the cosmic monster were at work on the Nomad. A glance through the forward port showed they had but a few miles to go. They’d be in the clutches of the horror in minutes, seconds, at the rate they were traveling. Mado slumped in his seat, his proud head rolling grotesquely on his breast. He slid to the floor, helpless.
Carr went mad with fury. It couldn’t be! This thing of doom was a creature of his imagination! But no—there it was, looming close in his vision. By God, he’d leave the mark of the Nomad on the vicious thing! He remembered the ray with which the vessel was armed. He was in the pilot’s seat, fingering controls that blistered his hands and cramped his arms with an unnameable force. He’d fight the brute! Full energy—head on—that was the way to meet it. Why bother with the reversal? It was no use.
A blood-red veil obscured his vision. He felt for the release of the ray; pulled the gravity energy control to full power forward. In a daze, groping blindly for support, he waited for the shock of impact. The mass of that monstrosity must be terrific, else why had it such a power of attraction for other bodies? Or was it that the thing radiated energies unknown to science? Whatever it was, the thing would know the sting of the Nomad’s ray. Whatever its nature, animate or inanimate, it was matter. The ray destroyed matter. Obliterated it utterly. Tore the atoms asunder, whirling their electrons from their orbits with terrific velocity. There’d be some effect, that was certain! No great use perhaps. But a crater would mark the last resting place of the Nomad; a huge crater. Perhaps the misty whiteness would close in over them later. But there’d be less of the creature’s bulk to menace other travelers in space.
His head ached miserably; his body was shot through and through with cramping agonies. The very blood in his veins was liquid fire, searing his veins and arteries with pulsing awfulness. He staggered from the control cabin; threw himself on his bunk. The covers were electrified and clung to him like tissue to rubbed amber. The wall of the sleeping cabin vibrated with a screeching note. The floors trembled. Madness! That’s all it was! He’d awaken in a moment. Find himself in his own bed at home. He’d dreamed of adventures before now. But never of such as this! It just couldn’t happen! A nightmare—fantasy of an over-tired brain—it was.
There came a violent wrench that must have torn the hull plates from their bracings. The ship seemed to close in on him and crush him. A terrific concussion flattened him to the bunk. Then all was still. Carr Parker’s thoughts broke short abruptly. He had slipped into unconsciousness.
When Carr opened his eyes it was to the normal lighting of his own sleeping cabin. The Nomad was intact, though an odor of scorched varnish permeated the air. They were unharmed—as yet. He turned on his side and saw that Mado was moving about at the side of his couch. Good old Mado! With a basin of water in his hand and a cloth. He’d been bathing his face. Brought him to. He sat up just as Mado turned to apply the cloth anew.
“Good boy, Carr! All right?” smiled the Martian.
“Little dizzy. But I’m okay.” Carr sprang to his feet where he wabbled uncertainly for a moment. “But the Nomad?” he asked. “Is she—are we safe?”
“Never safer. What in the name of Saturn did you do?”
Carr passed his hand across his eyes, trying to remember. “The D-ray,” he said. “I turned it on and dived into the thing with full attraction. Then—I forget. Where is it—the thing, I mean?”
“Look!” Mado drew him to the stern compartment.
Far behind them there shone a misty wreath, a ring of drifting matter that writhed and twisted as if in mortal agony.
“Is that it?”
“What’s left of it. You shot your way through it; through and out of its influence. D-ray must have devitalized the thing as it bored through. Killed its energies—for the time, at least.”
Already, the thing was closing in. Soon there would be a solid mass as before. But the Nomad was saved.
“How about yourself?” asked Carr anxiously. “Last time I saw you you were flat on the floor.”
“Nothing wrong with me now. A bit stiff and sore, that’s all. When I came to I put all the controls in neutral and came looking for you. I was scared, but the thing’s all over now, so let’s go.”
“Don’t you remember? The third satellite of the fifth planet. That’s Europa, third in distance from Jupiter, the fifth planet. It is about the size of Terra’s satellite—your Moon. We’ll find the city of the golden domes.”
Carr’s eyes renewed their sparkle. “Right!” he exclaimed. “I forgot the mental message. Poor devils! All over for them now. But we’ll carry their message. How far is it?”
“Don’t know yet till I determine our position and the position of Jupiter. But it’s quite a way. Jupiter’s 483 million miles from the Sun, you know.”
“We’re more than half way, then.”
“Not necessarily. Perhaps we’re on the opposite side of the sun from Jupiter’s present position. Then we’d have a real trip.”
“Let’s figure it out.” Carr was anxious to be off.
Luck was with them, as they found after some observations from the turret. Jupiter lay off their original course by not more than fifteen degrees. It was but four days’ journey.
Again they were on their way and the two men, Martian and Terrestrial, made good use of the time in renewing their old friendship and in the study of astronomy as they had done during the first leg of their journey. Though of widely differing build and nature, the two found a close bond in their similar inclinations. The library of the Nomad was an excellent one. Thrygis had seen to that, all of the voice-vision reels being recorded in Cos, the interplanetary language, with its standardized units of weight and measurement.
The supplies on board the Nomad were ample. Synthetic foods there were for at least a hundred Martian days. The supply of oxygen and water was inexhaustible, these essential items being produced in automatic retorts where disassembled electrons from their cosmic-ray hydrogen were reassembled in the proper structure to produce atoms of any desired element. Their supply of synthetic food could be replenished in like manner when necessity arose. Thrygis had forgotten nothing.