By OLIVER E. SAARI
THROUGH the three quartz windows showed darkness, far deeper than the black of interstellar space. It made one feel totally alone, forever removed from the familiar things of Earth.
The ship's single room was small and the three men made it crowded. The insistent hum of the engine gave some feeling of reality but one had to keep his eyes away from those windows. For utter emptiness was a thing no man could stand.
Dr. Leslie Chapman was hunched over the controls, guiding the ship on its strange flight. Over his stooped shoulder peered tall dark-haired Ivar Augustus.
And Ivar was watching with something more than interest. Ever since the ship had left familiar space and plunged into this mysterious inter-dimensional continuum Ivar had kept his eyes on the controls.
Behind his saturnine countenance Ivar was thinking dark thoughts which the white-haired doctor and his assistant could not guess. He masked his feelings well.
He knew why the white-haired . man had invited him on this trial flight—to gloat over him, to bask in the success of his supreme invention. It would make Dr. Leslie Chapman the greatest scientist in the world.
Ivar knew he could never surpass this machine. The knowledge of his failing prowess in science had been thrust upon him too often. There was something that made the thought of his failing almost unbearable. It was a boast made long ago, when he and Chapman had been vying for top honors in the same college. He knew he could not fulfill it.
Besides, Dr. Chapman's invention would net him well over a half million dollars in the numerous scientific awards it was sure to bring. Ivar knew of some very good uses for that much money.
He fondled the little smooth-handled object in his pocket—a little invention of his own that might have brought him much. Perhaps it would yet help bring him more. Anything could happen in another universe!
Suddenly Dr. Chapman cried out. "We've done it! Supraluna pulls—"
A SUBTLE force wrenched the ship, twisting the very atoms. It was like a long fall coming to a sudden stop—against nothing. And it had brought them to a new universe.
Ivar had seen the last of Dr. Chapman's manipulations. Now he closed his eyes for a moment, then turned his attention to the view in the ports. A green light appeared in one of the windows.
It was a colossal disc of pale luminescence in a background of starless space—a huge bloated world of purest jade. It must have measured all of ten degrees from edge to edge. Its light was soft and soothing but curiously mottled, an interplay of dark and glowing areas.
"A planet," Dr. Chapman whispered. "A great sunless planet!"
But Dave Manning, the doctor's young assistant, pointed to the control board. "The indicator shows that it has no mass, no gravity. Look! The needle's pointing in the other direction!"
They all turned and saw a disc of light exactly like the other but smaller. "That is a planet." said Dr. Chapman. "A little smaller, than the Earth to judge from our indicators."
"Let us approach this world," said Ivar. "That is, if your machine can propel itself through space."
Dr. Chapman smiled, moved a lever. A slight acceleration tugged at them. The ship was moving through the alien void.
"Rockets." he explained. "I had an inkling we might materialize here in the middle of space so I installed them."
Their objective soon grew into a world of appreciable proportions. It was like a huge ball splotched with radium paint. This strange sunless world furnished its own light.. Dr. Chapman remained at the controls and the dark-haired man still watched. Ivar wanted to learn every operation of this ship. He might have to fly it soon.
Finally a grinding of metal on rock told them the ship had landed. Dr. Chapman's machine had brought them to a planet more remote from Earth than the farthest galaxies!
The ship rested on a level plain that curved away on all sides to a nearby horizon. In the heavens were no stars, no sun. The great disc of green light they had first seen was still visible but a strange thing had happened to it. The ship had gone in a direction away from it but its apparent size hadn't grown smaller with distance. Instead it now seemed many times its former size, covering nearly all the sky with its pale light.
Ivar was the first to notice the phenomenon. "Look," he said, gesturing. "What kind of a universe is this your machine has brought us to?" Dr. Chapman and his assistant were gazing upward, puzzlement showing on their faces.
Like a mammoth lid the light hung over the world, spreading to within a few degrees of the horizon. There it faded away, leaving a narrow band of space to meet the eye.
"I think I'm beginning to understand," said Dr. Chapman. "I've told you the theory on which I based my ship—the idea that there are many three-dimensional universes, having movements and orbits of their own in a four-dimensional space—just like a planetary system.
"They are simply 'planets' or spheres of curved space. Our own universe is a huge three-dimensional space-world. It has its satellites, smaller universes, circling it.
"What we have done is to travel to one of these satellites—this one. I call it Supraluna. But that light in the sky is explained by the fact that this is a smaller universe. Its curve is finite, here, is near at hand. That patch of light in the sky is this same planet on which we stand and which we see around the universe.
"When we neared the planet we decreased the number of possible lines of vision that did not intersect with this world. Therefore the image grew in apparent size. Probably this is the only world in the entire cosmos, for there is room for no other!"
Ivar, who had been listening to the theories with apparent lack of enthusiasm, interrupted the doctor. "These are all very well in the way of abstract explanations. But what are we to do now?"
The gray-haired scientist smiled. "Dave, unpack the space-suits," he said to his assistant, who had just tested a sample of atmosphere.
Dave Manning obediently pulled open a trap door at one side of the floor and took out three bundles.
"Oxygen suits," he explained. "The air here is not very breathable!"
The suits, when unrolled, turned out to be one-piece affairs, made of thick fabric and topped by rigid helmets. Goggles of reenforced glass permitted vision.
In a few minutes the men were attired, ready to emerge. Manning went out first, through a cramped airlock. Soon afterward his bulging figure appeared in one of the ports. Ivar bowed to Dr. Chapman. "After you, Doctor," he said.
WHEN the doctor had climbed through, Ivar picked up the object he had lifted from his pocket. It was a small hollow tube with a metal handle and an enclosed mechanism at one end. He was glad he had brought it along—that athletic looking assistant might prove troublesome.
The terrain was hard beneath their feet and full of little prismatic glitters, as though it were composed of pulverized diamond. But here and there were softer places, where the ground was porous.
All around them were the luminous areas, where the mineral glowed with a vivid green radiance. At close range these could be seen to consist of tiny threads of light pulsing with alien living energy.
"Life!" whispered Dr. Chapman.
The others heard him through ether-wave units in their helmets.
"What do you mean?" asked Ivar.
"Life," repeated the scientist. "The simplicity of this universe forbids more complex forms. Life here is simply a radiation, feeding on pure matter."
"This is a strange planet," said Ivar slowly. "Unbelievably removed, inhospitable. What a place to die!"
He felt the tide of resolution rising within him. Now was his chance. No one on earth knew of this trip. He, Ivar, could go back alone and eventually announce the dimension-rotor as his own discovery.
Dave Manning had caught his cryptic mention of death. "What do you mean—die?" he asked, rising.
Ivar was edging toward the ship. He turned, the tube in his hand.
"This is an act of self-preservation on my part," he said coolly. "I have no other alternative."
Dr. Chapman looked up at him, his bewildered face shining through his goggles. "Why—" he began but Ivar broke in with a laugh.
"My meaning is simple enough," he said. "This dimension-rotor of yours is a wonderful machine—one whieh might add credit to my genius as well as yours." He waved the tube.
"Besides," Ivar went on, "I have long felt that I could follow my scientific pursuits better if Dr. Leslie Chapman were not around to anticipate my discoveries. Do you see? This Supraluna is a wonderful place in which to disappear."
Ivar's icy laugh came through the earphones.
"I'd advise you both not to try to follow me to the ship. This little device in my hand projects a beam of high-frequency radiations, enough to kill any living creature. A little invention of my own, almost as wonderful as yours, Dr. Chapman."
Slowly Ivar stepped backward toward the ship, watching the others.
Dr. Chapman was pale. He seemed overcome.
It was only the assistant, Manning, Ivar had to fear. He could see they were afraid of the tube in his hand and well they might be. Ivar could almost read the thoughts of his victims. He could see Manning preparing for a leap and brought his weapon to bear.
And when Manning; suddenly lurched aside Ivar grimly pulled the trigger. A thin beam of ionization leapt from the weapon's muzzle. It sliced through the space Manning had occupied a split second before. A continuous beam—so much more efficient than a bullet, Ivar reflected with cool pride. He started to flick the ray across the moving man. And that was the last thing he knew.
Ivar Augustus was standing there outlined against the rim of black space. From this blackness, from an infinite distance, a bright beam of light lanced down. Only for a moment did it touch Ivar's broad back.
The weapon went dark. The tall figure swayed, toppled loosely to the ground. Manning rushed ahead and bent over the still form.
"Dead," he said softly.
Later, as the single world of Supraluna diminished beneath their spheroid, the white-haired man said to his assistant, "I am still wondering if we did right to leave the body of Dr. Augustus back there."
"It might have been hard to account for," Manning pointed out.
"You know, of course, how he died?" Dr. Chapman asked.
"Of course. Ivar's weapon projected parallel rays. He forgot, when he fired it, that the rays would follow the curvature of this space, all the way around infinity, and back to the point from which they issued. "When it missed me the ray curved, followed its course around this universe! Only Ivar happened to be in the way of the returning beam. Ivar Augustus died by his own hand!"