Arcot, at the controls of the Ancient Mariner, increased the acceleration as the ship speared up toward interplanetary space. Soon, the deep blue of the sky had given way to an intense violet, and this faded to the utter black of space as the ship drew away from the planet that was its home.

“That lump of dust there is going to look mighty little when we get back,” said Wade softly.

“But,” Arcot reminded him, “that little lump of dust is going to pull us across a distance that our imaginations can’t conceive of. And we’ll be darned happy to see that pale globe swinging in space when we get back⁠—provided, of course, that we do get back.”

The ship was straining forward now under the pull of its molecular motion power units, accelerating at a steady rate, rapidly increasing the distance between the ship and Earth.

The cosmic ray power generators were still charging the coils, preventing the use of the space strain drive. Indeed, it would be a good many hours before they would be far enough from the sun to throw the ship into hyperspace.

In the meantime, Morey was methodically checking every control as Arcot called out the readings on the control panel. Everything was working to perfection. Their every calculation had checked out in practice so far. But the real test was yet to come.

They were well beyond the orbit of Pluto when they decided they would be safe in using the space strain drive and throwing the ship into hyperspace.

Morey was in the hyperspace control room, watching the instruments there. They were ready!

“Hold on!” called Arcot. “Here we go⁠—if at all!” He reached out to the control panel before him and touched the green switch that controlled the molecular motion machines. The big power tubes cut off, and their acceleration ceased. His fingers pushed a brilliant red switch⁠—there was a dull, muffled thud as a huge relay snapped shut.

Suddenly, a strange tingling feeling of power ran through them⁠—space around them was suddenly black. The lights dimmed for an instant as the titanic current that flowed through the gigantic conductors set up a terrific magnetic field, reacting with the absorption plates. The power seemed to climb rapidly to a maximum⁠—then, quite suddenly, it was gone.

The ship was quiet. No one spoke. The meters, which had flashed over to their limits, had dropped back to zero once more, except those which indicated the power stored in the giant coil. The stars that had shone brilliantly around them in a myriad of colors were gone. The space around them glowed strangely, and there was a vast cloud of strange, violet or pale green stars before them. Directly ahead was one green star that glowed big and brilliant, then it faded rapidly and shrank to a tiny dot⁠—a distant star. There was a strange tenseness about the men; they seemed held in an odd, compelled silence.

Arcot reached forward again. “Cutting off power, Morey!” The red tumbler snapped back. Again space seemed to be charged with a vast surplus of energy that rushed in from all around, coursing through their bodies, producing a tingling feeling. Then space rocked in a gray cloud about them; the stars leaped out at them in blazing glory again.

“Well, it worked once!” breathed Arcot with a sigh of relief. “Lord, I made some errors in calculation, though! I hope I didn’t make any more! Morey⁠—how was it? I only used one-sixteenth power.”

“Well, don’t use any more, then,” said Morey. “We sure traveled! The things worked perfectly. By the way, it’s a good thing we had all the relays magnetically shielded; the magnetic field down here was so strong that my pocket kit tried to start running circles around it.

“According to your magnetic drag meter, the conductors were carrying over fifty billion amperes. The small coils worked perfectly. They’re charged again; the power went back into them from the big coil with only a five percent loss of power⁠—about twenty thousand megawatts.”

“Hey, Arcot,” Wade said. “I thought you said we wouldn’t be able to see the stars.”

Arcot spread his hands. “I did say that, and all my apologies for it. But we’re not seeing them by light. The stars all have projections⁠—shadows⁠—in this space because of their intense gravitational fields. There are probably slight fluctuations in the field, perhaps one every minute or so. Since we were approaching them at twenty thousand times the speed of light, the Doppler effect gives us what looks like violet light.

“We saw the stars in front of us as violet points. The green ones were actually behind us, and the green light was tremendously reduced in frequency. It certainly can’t be anything less than gamma rays and probably even of greater frequency.

“Did you notice there were no stars off to the side? We weren’t approaching them, so they didn’t give either effect.”

“How did you know which was which?” asked Fuller skeptically.

“Did you see that green star directly ahead of us?” Arcot asked. “The one that dwindled so rapidly? That could only have been the sun, since the sun was the only star close enough to show up as a disc. Since it was green and I knew it was behind us, I decided that all the green ones were behind us. It isn’t proof, but it’s a good indication.”

“You win, as usual,” admitted Fuller.

“Well, where are we?” asked Wade. “I think that’s more important.”

“I haven’t the least idea,” confessed Arcot. “Let’s see if we can find out. I’ve got the robot pilot on, so we can leave the ship to itself. Let’s take a look at Old Sol from a distance that no man ever reached before!”

They started for the observatory. Morey joined them and Arcot put the view of Sol and his family on the telectroscope screen. He increased the magnification to maximum, and the four men looked eagerly at the system. The sun glowed brilliantly, and the planets showed plainly.

“Now, if we wanted to take the trouble, we could calculate when the planets were in that position and determine the distance we have come. However, I notice that Pluto is still in place, so that means we are seeing the Solar System as it was before the passing of the Black Star. We’re at least two light years away.”

“More than that,” said Morey. He pointed at the screen. “See here, how Mars is placed in relation to Venus and Earth? The planets were in that configuration seven years ago. We’re seven light years from Earth.”

“Good enough!” Arcot grinned. “That means we’re within two light years of Sirius, since we were headed in that direction. Let’s turn the ship so we can take a look at it with the telectroscope.”

Since the power had been cut off, the ship was in free fall, and the men were weightless. Arcot didn’t try to walk toward the control room; he simply pushed against the wall with his feet and made a long, slow dive for his destination.

The others reached for the handgrips in the walls while Arcot swung the ship gently around so that its stern was pointed toward Sirius. Because of its brilliance and relative proximity to Sol, Sirius is the brightest star in the heavens, as seen from Earth. At this much lesser distance, it shone as a brilliant point of light that blazed wonderfully. They turned the telectroscope toward it, but there was little they could see that was not visible from the big observatory on the Moon.

“I think we may as well go nearer,” suggested Morey, “and see what we find on close range observation. Meanwhile, turn the ship back around and I’ll take some pictures of the sun and its surrounding star field from this distance. Our only way of getting back is going to be this series of pictures, so I think we had best make it complete. For the first light century, we ought to take a picture every ten light years, and after that one each light century until we reach a point where we are only getting diminishing pictures of the local star cluster. After that, we can wait until we reach the edge of the Galaxy.”

“Sounds all right to me,” agreed Arcot. “After all, you’re the astronomer, I’m not. To tell you the truth, I’d have to search a while to find Old Sol again. I can’t see just where he is. Of course, I could locate him by means of the gyroscope settings, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t find him so easily visually.”

“Say! You sure are a fine one to pilot an expedition in space!” cried Wade in mock horror. “I think we ought to demote him for that! Imagine! He plans a trip of a thousand million light years, and then gets us out seven light years and says he doesn’t know where he is! Doesn’t even know where home is! I’m glad we have a cautious man like Morey along.” He shook his head sadly.

They took a series of six plates of the sun, using different magnifications.

“These plates will help prove our story, too,” said Morey as he looked at the finished plates. “We might have gone only a little way into space, up from the plane of the ecliptic and taken plates through a wide angle camera. But we’d have had to go at least seven years into the past to get a picture like this.”

The new self-developing short-exposure plates, while not in perfect color balance, were more desirable for this work, since they took less time on exposure.

Morey and the others joined Arcot in the control room and strapped themselves into the cushioned seats. Since the space strain mechanism had proved itself in the first test, they felt they needed no more observations than they could make from the control room meters.

Arcot gazed out at the spot that was their immediate goal and said slowly: “How much bigger than Sol is that star, Morey?”

“It all depends on how you measure size,” Morey replied. “It is two and a half times as heavy, has four times the volume, and radiates twenty-five times as much light. In other words, one hundred million tons of matter disappear each second in that star.

“That’s for Sirius A, of course. Sirius B, its companion, is a different matter; it’s a white dwarf. It has only one one-hundred-twenty-five-thousandths the volume of Sirius A, but it weighs one third as much. It radiates more per square inch than our sun, but, due to its tiny size, it is very faint. That star, though almost as massive as the sun, is only about the size of Earth.”

“You sure have those statistics down pat!” said Fuller, laughing. “But I must say they’re interesting. What’s that star made of, anyway? Solid lux metal?”

“Hardly!” Morey replied. “Lux metal has a density of around 103, while this star has a density so high that one cubic inch of its matter would weigh a ton on Earth.”

“Wow!” Wade ejaculated. “I’d hate to drop a baseball on my toe on that star!”

“It wouldn’t hurt you,” Arcot said, smiling. “If you could lift the darned thing, you ought to be tough enough to stand dropping it on your toe. Remember, it would weigh about two hundred tons! Think you could handle it?”

“At any rate, here we go. When we get there, you can get out and try it.”

Again came the shock of the start. The heavens seemed to reel about them; the bright spot of Sirius was a brilliant violet point that swelled like an expanding balloon, spreading out until it filled a large angle.

Then again the heavens reeled, and they were still. The control room was filled with a dazzling splendor of brilliant blue-white light, and an intense heat beat in upon them.

“Brother! Feel that heat,” said Arcot in awe. “We’d better watch ourselves; that thing is giving off plenty of ultraviolet. We could end up with third-degree sunburns if we’re not careful.” Suddenly he stopped and looked around in surprise. “Hey! Morey! I thought you said this was a double star! Look over there! That’s no white dwarf⁠—it’s a planet!”

“Ridiculous!” snapped Morey. “It’s impossible for a planet to be in equilibrium about a double star! But⁠—” He paused, bewildered. “But it is a planet! But⁠—but it can’t be! We’ve made too many measurements on this star to make it possible!”

“I don’t give a hang whether it can or not,” Wade said coolly, “the fact remains that it is. Looks as if that shoots a whole flock of holes in that bedtime story you were telling us about a superdense star.”

“I make a motion we look more closely first,” said Fuller, quite logically.

But at first the telectroscope only served to confuse them more. It was most certainly a planet, and they had a strange, vague feeling of having seen it before.

Arcot mentioned this, and Wade launched into a long, pedantic discussion of how the left and right hemispheres of the brain get out of step at times, causing a sensation of having seen a thing before when it was impossible to have seen it previously.

Arcot gave Wade a long, withering stare and then pushed himself into the library without saying a word. A moment later, he was back with a large volume entitled: The Astronomy of the Nigran Invasion by D. K. Harkness. He opened the volume to a full-page photograph of the third planet of the Black Star as taken from a space cruiser circling the planet. Silently, he pointed to it and to the image swimming on the screen of the telectroscope.

“Good Lord!” said Wade in astonished surprise. “It’s impossible! We came here faster than light, and that planet got here first!”

“As you so brilliantly remarked a moment ago,” Arcot pointed out, “I don’t give a hang whether it can or not⁠—it is. How they did it, I don’t know, but it does clear up a number of things. According to the records we found, the ancient Nigrans had a force ray that could move planets from their orbits. I wonder if it couldn’t be used to break up a double star? Also, we know their scientists were looking for a method of moving faster than light; if we can do it, so could they. They just moved their whole system of planets over here after getting rid of the upsetting influence of the white dwarf.”

“Perfect!” exclaimed Morey enthusiastically. “It explains everything.”

“Except that we saw that companion star when we stopped back there, half an hour ago,” said Fuller.

“Not half an hour ago,” Arcot contradicted. “Two years ago. We saw the light that left the companion before it was moved. It’s rather like traveling in time.”

“If that’s so,” asked Fuller, suddenly worried, “what is our time in relation to Earth?”

“If we moved by the space-strain drive at all times,” Arcot explained, “we would return at exactly the same time we left. Time is passing normally on Earth as it is with us right now, but whenever we use the space-strain, we move instantaneously from one point to another as far as Earth and the rest of the universe is concerned. It seems to take time to us because we are within the influence of the field.

“Suppose we were to take a trip that required a week. In other words, three days traveling in space-strain, a day to look at the destination, and three more days coming back. When we returned to Earth, they would insist we had only been gone one day, the time we spent out of the drive. See?”

“I catch,” said Fuller. “By the way, shouldn’t we take some photographs of this system? Otherwise, Earth won’t get the news for several years yet.”

“Right,” agreed Morey. “And we might as well look for the other planets of the Black Star, too.”

They made several plates, continuing their observations until all the planets had been located, even old Pluto, where crews of Nigran technicians were obviously at work, building giant structures of lux metal. The great cities of the Nigrans were beginning to bloom on the once bleak plains of the planet. The mighty blaze of Sirius had warmed Pluto, vaporizing its atmosphere and thawing its seas. The planet that the Black Star had stolen from the Solar System was warmer than it had been for two billion years.

“Well, that’s it,” said Arcot when they had finished taking the necessary photographs. “We can prove we went faster than light easily, now. The astronomers can take up the work of classifying the planets and getting details of the orbits when we get back.

“Since the Nigrans now have a sun of their own, there should be no reason for hostility between our race and theirs. Perhaps we can start commercial trade with them. Imagine! Commerce over quintillions of miles of space!”

“And,” interrupted Wade, “they can make the trip to this system in less time than it takes to get to Venus!”

“Meanwhile,” said Morey, “let’s get on with our own exploration.”

They strapped themselves into the control seats once more and Arcot threw in the molecular drive to take them away from the sun toward which they had been falling.

When the great, hot disc of Sirius had once more diminished to a tiny white pinhead of light, Arcot turned the ship until old Sol once more showed plainly on the cross-hairs of the aiming telescope in the rear of the vessel.

“Hold on,” Arcot cautioned, “here we go again!”

Again he threw the little red tumbler that threw a flood of energy into the coils. The space about them seemed to shiver and grow dim.

Arcot had thrown more power into the coils this time, so the stars ahead of them instead of appearing violet were almost invisible; they were radiating in the ultraviolet now. And the stars behind them, instead of appearing to be green, had subsided to a dull red glow.

Arcot watched the dull red spark of Sirius become increasingly dimmer. Then, quite suddenly, a pale violet disc in front of them ballooned out of nowhere and slid off to one side.

The spaceship reeled, perking the men around in the control seats. Heavy safety relays thudded dully; the instruments flickered under a suddenly rising surge of power⁠—then they were calm again. Arcot had snapped over the power switch.

“That,” he said quietly, “is not so good.”

“Threw the gyroscopes, didn’t it?” asked Morey, his voice equally as quiet.

“It did⁠—and I have no idea how far. We’re off course and we don’t know which direction we’re headed.”