The Best Of Isaac Asimov
Copyright (c) 1973 Contents
Marooned Off Vesta
The Martian Way
The Fun They Had
The Last Question
The Dead Past
The Dying Night
The Billiard Ball
Mirror Image Introduction
I must admit the title of this book gives me pause. Who says the enclosed stories are my `best'? Do I? Does
the editor? Or some critic? Some reader? A general vote among the entire population of the world?
And whoever says it--can it be so? Can the word `best' mean anything at all, except to some
particular person in some particular mood? Perhaps not--so if we allow the word to stand as an absolute,
you, or you, or perhaps you, may be appalled at omissions or inclusions or, never having read me before,
may even be impelled to cry out, `Good heavens, are those
So I'll be honest with all of you. What is included here in this book are a dozen stories chosen in
such a way as to span a third of a century of writing, with two early samples, two late samples, and eight
from the gold decade (for me) of the Fifties. Those presented are as nearly representative as is consistent
with the careful selection of good stories (i.e. those the editor and I like), and as nearly the best of my
stories as is consistent with making them representative.
I suppose we ought really call the book, `The Pretty Good and Pretty Representative Stories of
Isaac Asimov', but who would then buy it? So `best' it is.
As to the individual stories--
(1) `Marooned Off Vesta' was the very first story I ever published, so its inclusion is virtually a
necessity. It wasn't the first I ever wrote with the hope of publication. Actually, it was the third. The first
was never sold and no longer exists; the second was sold a couple of years after it was written, but is not
Far be it from me to crave indulgence, but I think it is important to understand that at the time I
wrote and sold the story (in 1938) I was eighteen years old and had spent all the years I could remember in
a city-slum. My vision of strong adventurers bravely facing danger in distant vastnesses was just that--
(2) `Nightfall', written two and a half years later, was the thirty-second story I had written (what
else did I have to do in those days except work in my father's candy store and study for my college
degrees) and perhaps the fourteenth story published.
Yet within less than three years of the start of my career it turned out that I had
written the best of
Asimov. At least, `Nightfall' has been frequently reprinted, is commonly referred to as a `classic', and when
some magazine, or fan organization, conducts a vote on short stories, it frequently ends up on the top of the
list--not only of my stories but of anybody's. One of its advantages is that it has a unique plot. There was
nothing resembling it ever published before (as far as I know) and of course, it is now so well known that
nothing like it can be published again. It's nice to have one
story like that, anyway.
Yet I was only twenty-one when I wrote it and was still feeling my way. It isn't my
on, I'll tell you what my favorite is and you can then judge for yourself.
(3) `C-Chute' comes after a ten-year hiatus, as far as the stories included in this book are
concerned. I hadn't quit writing of course, don't think that. To be sure, I had slowed down a bit, what with
the war and the time-consuming effort toward the doctorate, but the real reason for the gap is that I spent
most of the Forties writing the stories collected in my books I, Robot
and The Foundation Trilogy.
seemed inadvisable to amputate portions of either for this collection.
`C-Chute' comes near the beginning of my `mature' period (or whatever you want to call it). I had
my Ph.D.; I was an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine; I had
published my first three books, and I was full of self-confidence. What's more I had broken away from
exclusive dependence on Astounding Science Fiction.
New magazines had arisen to challenge its
leadership, notably Galaxy,
and also Fantasy and Science Fiction.
`C-Chute' appeared in Galaxy.
So did the
next two stories in the collection.
(4) `The Martian Way' represents my reaction to the McCarthy era, a time, in the early fifties,
when Americans seemed to abandon their own history and become, in some cases, witch-hunters; in some
cases, victims; and in most cases, cowards. (Brave men remained, fortunately, which is why we pulled out
of it.) `The Martian Way', written and published at the height of the McCarthy era, was my own personal
statement of position. I felt very brave at the time and was disappointed that no one ever as much as
frowned at me in consequence. I must have been too subtle--or too unimportant.
A second point about the story is that I managed to foresee something accurately, Science fiction
writers are often assumed to be keen-eyed peerers-into-the-future who see things others don't. Actually, few
writers have much of a record in this respect and mine, at best, can only be said to attain the abysmally-low
average. Just the same, in `The Martian Way', I described the euphoric effects of the spacewalk fifteen
years before anyone had space-walked--and then, when they did, euphoria is apparently what they
(5) `The Deep' is the sleeper of the collection. Every once in a while I wrote a story which, though
good in my opinion (and I don't like all
my stories), seems to stir up no reaction. This is one of them.
Perhaps it's because I deliberately chose to describe a society in which mother-love was a crime and the
world wasn't ready for that
(6) `The Fun They Had' is probably the biggest surprise of my literary career. A personal friend
asked me to write a little science fiction story for a syndicated boys-and-girls newspaper page he edited and
I agreed for friendship's sake. I expected it would appear in a few newspapers for one day and would then
However, Fantasy and Science Fiction
picked it up and, to my surprise, the reprint requests began
to come in. It has been reprinted at least thirty times, and there has been no time in perhaps fifteen years
(including right now) when new reprints haven't been pending.
Why? I don't know why. If I had the critic's mentality (which I emphatically don't) I would sit
down and try to analyze my stories, work out the factors that make some more successful than others,
cultivate those factors, and simply explode with excellence.
But the devil with that. I won't buy success at the price of self-consciousness. I don't have the
temperament for it. f11 write as I please. and let the critics do the analyzing. (Yesterday, someone said to
me that a critic was like a eunuch in a harem. He could observe, study, and analyze--but he couldn't do it
(7) `The Last Question' is my personal favorite, the one story I made sure would not be omitted
from this collection.
Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and
I wrote it in whiteheat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer.
Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I
can write them the name of a story, which they think
I may have written, and tell them where to find it.
They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably `The Last Question'. This
has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who
began, `Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember--' at which point I
interrupted to tell him it was `The Last Question' and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the
story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.
No other story I have written has anything like this effect on my readers--producing at once an
unshakeable memory of the plot and an unshakeable forgettery of the title and even author. I think it may be
that the story fills them so frighteningly full, that they can retain none of the side-issues.
(8) `The Dead Past' was written after I had been teaching for seven years. I was as saturated as
could be with the world of scientific research.
Naturally, anyone who writes is going to reveal the world in which he is immersed, whether he
wants to or desperately wants not to. I've never tried to avoid letting my personal background creep into
my stories, but I must admit it has rarely crept in quite as thickly as it did in this one.
As an example of how my stories work out, consider this--
I had my protagonist interested in Carthage because I myself am a great admirer of Hannibal and
have never quite gotten over the Battle of Zama. I introduced Carthage, idly, without any intention of
weaving it into the plot. But it got woven in just the same.
That happens to me over and over. Some writers work out the stories in meticulous detail before
starting, and stick to the outline. P. G. Wodehouse does it, I understand, and I worship his books. But just
the same I don't. I work out my ending, decide on a beginning and then proceed, letting everything in-
between work itself out as I come to it.
(9) `The Dying Night' is an example of a mystery as well as a science fiction story, I have been a
mystery reader as long as I have been a science fiction reader and, on the whole, I think I enjoy mysteries
I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps it was that after I became an established science fiction writer I
was no longer able to relax with science fiction stories. I read every story keenly aware that it might be
worse than mine, in which case I had no patience with it, or that it might be better, in which case I felt
Mysteries, especially the intellectual puzzle variety (ah, good old Hercule Poirot), offered me no
such stumbling blocks. Sooner or later, then, I was bound to try my hand at science fiction mysteries and
`The Dying Night' is one of these.
(10), Anniversary' was written to fulfill a request--that I write a story for the March, 1959, issue of Amazing Stories
as a way of celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the March, 1939, issue, which had
contained my first published story, `Marooned Off Vesta', So (inevitably) I wrote a story dealing with the
characters of `Marooned Off Vesta' twenty years later. The magazine then ran both stories together, and I
was sure someone would send me a letter saying that my writing was better in the first story, but no one
did. (Perhaps a reader of this book will decide it would be humorous to do so, but if so, please restrain
(11) `The Billiard Ball' comes, in this collection, after an eight-year hiatus and is an example of
my `late' style. (That is, if there is such a thing. Some critics say that it is a flaw in my literary nature that I
haven't grown; that my late stories have the same style and aura of my early stories. Maybe you'll think so,
too, and scorn me in consequence--but then, I've already told you what some people think of critics.)
The reason for the hiatus is that in 1958 I quit the academic life to become a full-time writer. I at
once proceeded to write everything under the sun (straight science, straight mystery, children's books,
histories, literary annotations, etymology, humor, etc., etc.) except
science fiction. I never entirely
abandoned it, of course--witness `The Billiard Ball'.
(12) `Mirror Image' is a particularly recent science fiction short story I've written for the
magazines and, unlike the first eleven stories, has not yet had time to be reprinted.
One of the reasons for writing it was to appease those readers who were forever asking me for
sequels; for one more book involving characters who have appeared in previous books. One of the most
frequent requests was that I write a third novel to succeed The Caves of Steel
and The Naked Sun,
which dealt with the adventures of the detective, Elijah Baley, and his robot-assistant, R. Daneel Olivaw.
Unable to find the time to do so, I wrote a short story about them--'Mirror-Image'.
Alas, all I got as a result were a spate of letters saying, `Thanks, but we mean a novel.'
Anyway, there you are. Turn the page and you can begin a representative, and possibly a more or
less `best', 115,000 words or so out of the roughly 2,000,000 words of science fiction I have written so far.
I hope it amuses you. And if it doesn't, remember that I have also written about 7,500,000 words of non-
science-fiction, and you are at least spared any of that.
ISAAC ASIMOV Marooned Off Vesta
"Will you please stop walking up and down like that?" said Warren Moore from the couch. "It won't do
any of us any good. Think of our blessings; we're airtight, aren't we?"
Mark Brandon whirled and ground his teeth at him. "I'm glad you feel happy about that," he spat
out viciously. "Of course, you don't know that our air supply will last only three days." He resumed his
interrupted stride with a defiant air.
Moore yawned and stretched, assumed a more comfortable position, and replied. "Expending all
that energy will only use it up faster. Why don't you take a hint from Mike here? He's taking it easy."
"Mike" was Michael Shea, late a member of the crew of the Silver Queen.
His short, squat body
was resting on the only chair in the room and `his feet were on the only table. He looked up as his name
was mentioned, his mouth widening in a twisted grin.
"You've got to expect things like this to happen sometimes," he said. "Bucking the asteroids is
risky business. We should've taken the hop. It takes longer, but it's the only safe way. But no, the captain
wanted to make the schedule; he would
go through"--Mike spat disgustedly--"and here we are."
"What's the `hop'?" asked Brandon.
"Oh, I take it that friend Mike means that we. should have avoided the asteroid belt by plotting a
course outside the plane of the ecliptic," answered Moore. "That's it, isn't it, Mike?"
Mike hesitated and then replied cautiously, "Yeah--I guess that's it."
Moore smiled blandly and continued, "Well, I wouldn't blame Captain Crane too much. The
repulsion screen must have failed five minutes before that chunk of granite barged into us. That's not his
fault, though of course we ought to have steered clear instead of relying on the screen." He shook his head
meditatively. "The Silver Queen
just went to pieces. It's really miraculously lucky that this part of the ship
remained intact, and what's more, airtight."
"You've got a funny idea of luck, Warren," said Brandon. "Always have, for as long as I've known
you. Here we are in a tenth part of a spaceship, comprising only three whole
rooms, with air for three days,
and no prospect of being alive after that, and you have the infernal gall to prate about luck."
"Compared to the others who died instantly when the asteroid struck, yes," was Moore's answer.
"You think so, eh? Well, let me tell you that instant death isn't so bad compared with what we're
going to have to go through. Suffocation is a damned unpleasant way of dying."
"We may find a way out," Moore suggested hopefully.
"Why not face facts!" Brandon's face was flushed and his voice trembled. "We're done, I tell you!
Mike glanced from one to the other doubtfully and then coughed to attract their attention. "Well,
gents, seeing that we're all in the same fix, I guess there's no use hogging things." He drew a small bottle
out of his pocket that was filled with a greenish liquid. "Grade A Jabra this is. I ain't too proud to share and
Brandon exhibited the first signs of pleasure for over a day. "Martian Jabra water. Why didn't you
say so before?"
But as he reached for it, a firm hand clamped down upon his wrist. He looked up into the calm
blue eyes of Warren Moore.
"Don't be a fool," said Moore, "there isn't enough to keep us drunk for three days. What do you
want to do? Go on a tear now and then die cold sober? Let's save this for the last six hours when the air
gets stuffy and breathing hurts--then we'll finish the bottle among us and never know
when the end comes,
Brandon's hand fell away reluctantly. "Damn it, Warren, you'd bleed ice if you were cut. How can
you think straight at a time like this?" He motioned to Mike and the bottle was once more stowed away.
Brandon walked to the porthole and gazed out.
Moore approached and placed a kindly arm over the shoulders of the younger man. "Why take it
so hard, man?" he asked. "You can't last at this rate. Inside of twenty-four hours you'll be a madman if you
keep this up."
There was no answer. Brandon stared bitterly at the globe that filled almost the entire porthole, so
Moore continued, "Watching Vesta won't do you any good either."
Mike Shea lumbered up to the porthole. "We'd be safe if we were only down there on Vesta.
There're people there. How far away are we?"
"Not more than three or four hundred miles judging from its apparent size," answered Moore.
"You must remember that it is only two hundred miles in diameter."
"Three hundred miles from salvation,'~ murmured Brandon, "and we might as well be a million.
If there were only a way to get ourselves out of the orbit this rotten fragment adopted. You know, manage to
give ourselves a push so as to start falling. There'd be no danger of crashing if we did, because that midget
hasn't got enough gravity to crush a cream puff."
"It has enough to keep us in the orbit, " retorted Brandon. "It must have picked us up while we
were lying unconscious after the crash. Wish it had come closer; we might have been able to land on it."
"Funny place, Vesta," observed Mike Shea. "I was down there two-three times. What a dump! It's
all covered with some stuff like snow, only it ain't snow. I forget what they call it."
dioxide?" prompted Moore.
"Yeah, dry ice, that carbon stuff, that's it. They say that's what makes Vesta so shiny."
"Of course! That would give it a high albedo."
Mike cocked a suspicious eye at Moore and decided to let it pass. "It's hard to see anything down
there on account of the snow, but if you look close"--he pointed--"you can see a sort of gray smudge. I
think that's Bennett's dome. That's where they keep the observatory. And there is Calorn's dome up there.
That's a fuel station, that is. There's plenty more, too, only I don't see them."
He hesitated and then turned to Moore. "Listen, boss, I've been thinking. Wouldn't they be
looking for us as soon as they hear about the crash? And wouldn't we be easy to find from Vesta, seeing
we're so closer'
Moore shook his head, "No, Mike, they won't be looking for us. No one's going to find out about
the crash until the Silver Queen
fails to turn up on schedule. You see, when the asteroid hit, we didn't have
time to send out an SOS"--he sighed--"and they won't find us down there at Vesta, either. We're so small
that even at our distance they couldn't see us unless they knew what they were looking for, and exactly
where to look."
"Hmm." Mike's forehead was corrugated in deep thought. "Then we've got to get to Vesta before
three days are up."
"You've got the gist of the matter, Mike. Now, if we only knew how to go about it, eh?"
Brandon suddenly exploded, "Will you two stop this infernal chitter-chatter and do something?
For God's sake, do something."
Moore shrugged his shoulders and without answer returned to the couch. He lounged at ease,
apparently carefree, but there was the tiniest crease between his eyes which bespoke concentration.
There was no doubt about it; they were
in a bad spot. He reviewed the events of the preceding day
for perhaps the twentieth time.
After the asteroid had struck, tearing the ship apart, he'd gone out like a light; for how long he
didn't know, his own watch being broken and no other timepiece available. When he came to, he found
himself, along with Mark Brandon, who shared his room, and Mike Shea, a member of the crew, sole
occupants of all that was left of the Silver Queen.
This remnant was now careening in an orbit about Vesta. At present things were fairly
comfortable. There was a food supply that would last a week. Likewise there was a regional Gravitator
under the room that kept them at normal weight and would continue to do so for an indefinite time,
certainly for longer than the air would last. The lighting system was less satisfactory but had held on so far.
There was no doubt, however, where the joker in the pack lay. Three days' air! Not that there
weren't other disheartening features. There was no heating system--though it would take a long time for the
ship to radiate enough heat into the vacuum of space to render them too uncomfortable. Far more important
was the fact that their part of the ship had neither a means of communication nor a propulsive mechanism.
Moore sighed. One fuel jet in working order would fix everything, for one blast in the right direction would
send them safely to Vesta.
The crease between his eyes deepened. What was to be done? They had but one spacesuit among
them, one heat ray, and one detonator. That was the sum total of space appliances after a thorough search of
the accessible parts of the ship. A pretty hopeless mess, that.
Moore shrugged, rose, and drew himself a glass of water. He swallowed it mechanically, still deep
in thought, when an idea struck him. He glanced curiously at the empty cup in his hand.
"Say, Mike," he said, "what kind of water supply have we? Funny that I never thought of that
Mike's eyes opened to their fullest extent in an expression of ludicrous surprise. "Didn't you
asked Moore impatiently.
"We've got all the water there was." He waved his hand in an all-inclusive gesture. He paused, but
as Moore's expression showed nothing but total mystification, he elaborated, "Don't you see? We've got
the main tank, the place where all the water for the whole ship was stored." He pointed to one of the walls.
"Do you mean to say that there's a tank full of water adjoining us?"
Mike nodded vigorously, "Yep' Cubic vat a hundred feet each way. And she's three-quarters full."
Moore was astonished. "Seven hundred and fifty thousand cubic feet of water." Then suddenly:
"Why hasn't it run out through the broken pipes?"
"It only has one main outlet, which runs down the corridor just outside this room. I was fixing that
main when the asteroid hit and had to shut it off. After I came to I opened the pipe leading to our faucet, but
that's the only outlet open now."
"Oh." Moore had a curious feeling way down deep inside. An idea had half-formed in his brain,
but for the life of him he could not drag it into the light of day. He knew only that there was something in
what he had just heard that had some important meaning but he just could not place his finger on it.
Brandon, meanwhile, had been listening to Shea in silence, and now he emitted a short, humorless
laugh. "Fate seems to be having its fill of fun with us, I see. First, it puts us within arm's reach of a place of
safety and then sees to it that we have no way of getting there.
"Then she provides us with a week's food, three days' air, and a year's supply of water.
supply, do you hear me? Enough water to drink and to gargle and to wash and to take baths in and--and to
do anything else we want. Water--damn the water!"
"Oh, take a less serious view, Mark," said Moore in an attempt to break the younger man's
melancholy. "Pretend we're a satellite of Vesta--which we are. We have our own period of revolution and of
rotation. We have an equator and an axis. Our `north pole' is located somewhere toward the top of the
porthole, pointing toward Vesta, and our `south' sticks out away from Vesta through the water tank
somewhere. Well, as a satellite, we have an atmosphere, and now, you see, we have a newly discovered
"And seriously, we're not so badly off. For the three days our atmosphere will last, we can eat
double rations and drink ourselves soggy. Hell, we have water enough to throw away--"
The idea which had been half-formed before suddenly sprang to maturity and was nailed. The
careless gesture with which he had accompanied the last remark was frozen in mid-air. His mouth closed
with a snap and his head came up with a jerk.
But Brandon, immersed in his own thoughts, noticed nothing of Moore's strange actions. "Why
don't you complete the analogy to a satellite," he sneered, "or do you, as a Professional Optimist, ignore
any and all disagreeable facts? If I were you, I'd continue this way." Here he imitated Moore's voice: "The
satellite is at present habitable and inhabited but, due to the approaching depletion of its atmosphere in
three days, is expected to become a dead world.
"Well, why don't you answer? Why do you persist in making a joke out of this? Can't you see--What's the matter?"
The last was a surprised exclamation and certainly Moore's actions did merit surprise. He had
risen suddenly and, after giving himself a smart rap on the forehead, remained stiff and silent, staring into
the far distance with gradually narrowing eyelids. Brandon and Mike Shea watched him in speechless
Suddenly Moore burst out, "Hal I've got it. Why didn't I think of it before?" His exclamation
degenerated into the unintelligible.
Mike drew out the Jabra bottle with a significant look, but Moore waved it away impatiently.
Whereupon Brandon, without any warning, lashed out with his right, catching the surprised Moore flush on
the jaw and toppling him.
Moore groaned and rubbed his chin. Somewhat indignant, he asked, "What was the reason for
"Stand up and I'll do it again," shouted Brandon, "I can't stand it anymore. I'm sick and tired of
being preached at, and having to listen to your Pollyanna talk. You're
the one that's going daffy."
"Daffy, nothing! Just a little overexcited, that's all. Listen, for God's sake. I think I know a way--"
Brandon glared at him balefully. "Oh, you do, do you? Raise our hopes with some silly scheme
and then find it doesn't work. I won't take it, do you hear? I'll find a real use for the water--drown you--and
save some of the air besides."
Moore lost his temper. "Listen, Mark, you're out of this. I'm going through alone. I don't need
your help and I don't want it If you're that sure of dying and that afraid, why not have the agony over?
We've got one heat ray and one detonator, both reliable weapons. Take your choice and kill yourself. Shea
and I won't interfere." Brandon's lips curled in a last weak gesture of defiance and then suddenly he
capitulated, completely and abjectly. "All right, Warren, I'm with you. I--I guess I didn't quite know what I
was doing. I don't feel well, Warren. I--I--"
"Aw, that's all right, boy." Moore was genuinely sorry for him. "Take it easy. I know how you feel.
It's got me too. But you mustn't give in to it. Fight it, or you'll go stark, raving mad. Now you just try and
get some sleep and leave everything to me. Things will turn out right yet."
Brandon, pressing a hand to an aching forehead, stumbled to the couch and tumbled down. Silent
sobs shook his frame while Moore and Shea remained in embarrassed silence nearby.
At last Moore nudged Mike. "Come on," he whispered, "let's get busy. We're going places.
Airlock five is at the end of the corridor, isn't it?" Shea nodded and Moore continued, "Is it airtight?"
"Well," said Shea after some thought, "the inner door is, of course, but I' don't know anything
about the outer one. For all I know it may be a sieve. You see, when I tested the wall for airtightness, I
didn't dare open the inner door, because if there was anything wrong with the outer one--blooey!" The
accompanying gesture was very expressive.
"Then it's up to us to find out about that outer door right now. I've got to get outside some way
and we'll just have to take chances. Where's the spacesuit?"
He grabbed the lone suit from its place in the cupboard, threw it over his shoulder and led the way
into the long corridor that ran down the side of the room. He passed closed doors behind whose airtight
barriers were what once had been passenger quarters but which were now merely cavities, open to space. At
the end of the corridor was the tight-fitting door of Airlock 5.
Moore stopped and surveyed it appraisingly. "Looks all right," he observed, "but of course you
can't tell what's outside. God, I hope it'll work." He frowned. "Of course we could use the entire corridor
as an airlock, with the door to our room as the inner door and this as the outer door, but that would mean
the loss of half our air supply. We can't afford that--yet."
He turned to Shea. " All right, now. The indicator shows that the lock was last used for entrance,
so it should be full of air. Open the door the tiniest crack, and if there's a hissing noise, shut it quick."
"Here goes," and the lever moved one notch. The mechanism had been severely shaken up during
the shock of the crash and its former noiseless workings had given way to a harsh, rasping sound, but it was
still in commission. A thin black line appeared on the left-hand side of the lock, marking where the door
had slid a fraction of an inch on the runners.
There was no hiss! Moore's look of anxiety faded somewhat. He took a small pasteboard from his
pocket and held it against the crack. If air were leaking, that card should have held there, pushed by the
escaping gas. It fell to the floor.
Mike Shea stuck a forefinger in his mouth and then put it against the crack. "Thank the Lord," he
breathed, "not a sign of a draft."
"Good, good. Open it wider. Go ahead."
Another notch and the crack opened farther. And still no draft. Slowly, ever so slowly, notch by
notch, it creaked its way wider and wider. The two men held their breaths, afraid that while not actually
punctured, the outer door might have been so weakened as to give way any moment. But it held! Moore
was jubilant as he wormed into the spacesuit.
"Things are going fine so far, Mike," he said. "You sit down right here and wait for me. I don't
know how long I'll take, but I'll be back. Where's the heat ray? Have you got it?"
Shea held out the ray and asked, "But what are you going to do? I'd sort of like to know."
Moore paused as he was about to buckle on the helmet. "Did you hear me say inside that we had
water enough to throwaway? Well, I've been thinking it over and that's not such a bad idea. I'm going to
throw it away." With no other explanation, he stepped into the lock, leaving behind him a very puzzled
It was with a pounding heart that Moore waited for the outer door to open. His plan was an
extraordinarily simple one, but it might not be easy to carry out.
There was a sound of creaking gears and scraping ratchets. Air sighed away to nothingness. The
door before him slid open a few inches and stuck. Moore's heart sank as for a moment he thought it would
not open at all, but after a few preliminary jerks and rattles the barrier slid the rest of the way.
He clicked on the magnetic grapple and very cautiously put a foot out into space. Clumsily he
groped his way out to the side of the ship. He had never been outside a ship in open space before and a vast
dread overtook him as he clung there, flylike, to his precarious perch. For a moment dizziness overcame
He closed his eyes and for five minutes hung there, clutching the smooth sides of what had once
been the Silver Queen.
The magnetic grapple held him firm and when he opened his eyes once more he
found his self-confidence in a measure returned.
He gazed about him. For the first time since the crash he saw the stars instead of the vision of
Vesta which their porthole afforded. Eagerly he searched the skies for the little blue-white speck that was
Earth. It had often amused him that Earth should always be the first object sought by space travelers when
stargazing, but the humor of the situation did not strike him now. However, his search was in vain. From
where he lay, Earth was invisible. It, as well as the Sun, must be hidden behind Vesta.
Still, there was much else that he could not help but note. Jupiter was off to the left, a brilliant
globe the size of a small pea to the naked eye. Moore observed two of its attendant satellites. Saturn was
visible too, as a brilliant planet of some negative magnitude, rivaling Venus as seen from Earth.
Moore had expected that a goodly number of asteroids would be visible--marooned as they were
in the asteroid belt--but space seemed surprisingly empty. Once he thought he could see a hurtling body
pass within a few miles, but so fast had the impression come and gone that he could not swear that it was
And then, of course, there was Vesta. Almost directly below him it loomed like a balloon filling a
quarter of the sky. It floated steadily, snowy white, and Moore gazed at it with earnest longing. A good hard
kick against the side of the ship, he thought, might start him falling toward Vesta. He might
land safely and
get help for the others. But the chance was too great that he would merely take on a new orbit about Vesta.
No, it would have to be better than that.
This reminded him that he had no time to lose. He scanned the side of the ship, looking for the
water tank, but all he could see was a jungle of jutting walls, jagged, crumbling, and pointed. He hesitated.
Evidently the only thing to do was to make for the lighted porthole to their room and proceed to the tank
Carefully he dragged himself along the wall of the ship. Not five yards from the lock the
smoothness stopped abruptly. There was a yawning cavity which Moore recognized as having once been
the room adjoining the corridor at the far end. He shuddered. Suppose he were to come across a bloated
dead body in one of those rooms. He had known most of the passengers, many of them personally. But he
overcame his squeamishness and forced himself to continue his precarious journey toward its goal.
And here he encountered his first practical difficulty. The room itself was made of non-ferrous
material in many parts. The magnetic grapple was intended for use only on outer hulls and was useless
throughout much of the ship's interior. Moore had forgotten this when suddenly he found himself floating
down an incline, his grapple out of use. He grasped and clutched at a nearby projection. Slowly he pulled
himself back to safety..
He lay for a moment, almost breathless. Theoretically he should be weightless out here in space--
Vesta's influence being negligible--but the regional Gravitator under his room was working. Without the
balance of the other Gravitators, it tended to place him under variable and suddenly shifting stresses as he
kept changing his position. For his magnetic grapple to let go suddenly might mean being jerked away from
the ship altogether. And then what?
Evidently this was going to be even more difficult than he had thought.
He inched forward in a crawl, testing each spot to see if the grapple would hold. Sometimes he had
to make long, circuitous journeys to gain a few feet's headway and at other times he was forced to scramble
and slip across small patches of non-ferrous material. And always there was that tiring pull of the
Gravitator, continually changing directions as he progressed, setting horizontal floors and vertical walls at
queer and almost haphazard angles.
Carefully he investigated all objects that he came across. But it was a barren search. Loose
articles, chairs, tables had been jerked away at the first shock, probably, and now were independent bodies
of the Solar System. He did manage, however, to pick up a small field glass and fountain pen. These he
placed in his pocket. They were valueless under present conditions, but somehow they seemed to make
more real this macabre trip across the sides of a dead ship.
For fifteen minutes, twenty, half an hour, he labored slowly toward where he thought the porthole
should be. Sweat poured down into his eyes and rendered his hair a matted mass. His muscles were
beginning to ache under the unaccustomed strain. His mind, already strained by the ordeal of the previous
day, was beginning to waver, to play him tricks.
The crawl began to seem eternal, something that had always existed and would exist forever. The
object of the journey, that for which he was striving, seemed unimportant; he only knew that it was
necessary to move. The time, one hour back, when he had been with Brandon and Shea, seemed hazy and
lo~ in the far past. That more normal time, two days' age, wholly forgotten.
Only the jagged walls before him, only the vital necessity of getting at some uncertain destination
existed in his spinning brain. Grasping, straining, pulling. Feeling for the iron alloy. Up and into gaping
holes that were rooms and then out again. Feel and pull--feel and pull--and--a light.
Moore stopped. Had he not been glued to the wall he would have fallen. Somehow that light
seemed to clear things. It was the porthole; not the many dark, staring ones he had passed, but alive and
alight. Behind it was Brandon. A deep breath and he felt better, his mind cleared.
And now his way lay plain before him. Toward that spark of life he crept. Nearer, and nearer; and
nearer until he could touch it. He was there!
His eyes drank in the familiar room. God knows that it hadn't--any happy associations in his mind,
but it was something real, something almost natural. Brandon slept on the couch. His face was worn and
lined but a smile passed over it now and then.
Moore raised his fist to knock. He felt the urgent desire to talk with someone, if only by sign
language, yet at the last instant he refrained. Perhaps the kid was dreaming of home. He was young and
sensitive and had suffered much. Let him sleep. Time enough to wake him when--and if--his idea had been
He located the wall within the room behind which lay the water tank and then tried to spot it from
the outside. Now it was not difficult; its rear wall stood out prominently. Moore marveled, for it seemed a
miracle that it had escaped puncture. Perhaps the Fates had not been so ironic after all.
Passage to it was easy though it was on the other side of the fragment. What was once a corridor
led almost directly to it. Once when the Silver Queen
had been whole, that corridor had been level and
horizontal, but now, under the unbalanced pull of the regional Gravitator, it seemed more of a steep incline
than anything else. And yet it made the path simple. Since it was of uniform beryl-steel, Moore found no
trouble holding on as he wormed up the twenty-odd feet to the water supply.
And now the crisis--the last stage--had been reached. He felt that he ought to rest first, but his
excitement grew rapidly in intensity. It was either now or bust. He pulled himself out to the bottom-center
of the tank. There, resting on the small ledge formed by the floor of the corridor that had once extended on
that side of the tank, he began operations.
"It's a pity that the main pipe is pointing in the wrong direction," he muttered. "It would have
saved me a lot of trouble had it been right. As it is..." He sighed and bent to his work. The heat ray was
adjusted to maximum concentration and the invisible emanations focused at a spot perhaps a foot above the
floor of the tank.
Gradually the effect of the excitatory beam upon the molecules of the wall became noticeable. A
spot the size of a dime began shining faintly at the point of focus of the ray gun. It wavered uncertainly,
now dimming, now brightening, as Moore strove to steady his tired arm. He propped it on the ledge and
achieved better results as the tiny circle of radiation brightened.
Slowly the color ascended the spectrum. The dark, angry red that had first appeared lightened to a
cherry color. As the heat continued pouring in, the brightness seemed to ripple out in widening areas, like a
target made of successively deepening tints of red. The wall for a distance of some feet from the focal point
was becoming uncomfortably hot even though it did not glow and Moore found it necessary to refrain from
touching it with the metal of his suit.
Moore cursed steadily, for the ledge itself was also growing hot. It seemed that only imprecations
could soothe him. And as the melting wall began to radiate heat in its own right, the chief object of his
maledictions were the spacesuit manufacturers. Why didn't they build a suit that could keep heat out
well as keep it in?
But what Brandon called Professional Optimism crept up. With the salt tang of perspiration in his
mouth, he kept consoling himself, "It could be worse, I suppose. At least, the two inches of wall here don't
present too much of a barrier. Suppose the tank had been built flush against the outer hull. Whew! Imagine
trying to melt through a foot of this." He gritted his teeth and kept on.
The spot of brightness was now flickering into the orange-yellow and Moore knew that the
melting point of the beryl-steel alloy would soon be reached. He found himself forced to watch the spot
only at widely spaced intervals and then only for fleeting moments.
Evidently it would have to be done quickly if it were to be done at all. The heat ray had not been
fully loaded in the first place, and, pouring out energy at maximum as it had been doing for almost ten
minutes now, must be approaching exhaustion. Yet the wall was just barely passing the plastic stage. In a
fever of impatience, Moore jammed the muzzle of the gun directly at the center of the spot, drawing it back
A deep depression formed in the soft metal, but a puncture had not been formed. However, Moore
was satisfied. He was almost there now. Had there been air between himself and the wall, he would
undoubtedly have heard the gurgling and the hissing of the steaming water within. The pressure was
building up. How long would the weakened wall endure?
Then so suddenly that Moore did not realize it for a few moments, he was through. A tiny fissure
formed at the bottom of that little pit made by the ray gun and in less time than it takes to imagine, the
churning water within had its way.
The soft, liquid metal at that spot puffed out, sticking out raggedly around a pea-sized hole. And
from that hole there came a hissing and a roaring. A cloud of steam emerged and enveloped Moore.
Through the mist he could see the steam condense almost immediately to ice droplets and saw
these icy pellets shrink rapidly into nothingness.
For fifteen minutes he watched the steam shoot out.
Then he became aware of gentle pressure pushing him away from the ship. A savage joy welled up
within him as he realized that this was the effect of acceleration on the ship's part. His own inertia was
holding him back.
That meant his work had been finished--and successfully. That stream of water was substituting
for the rocket blast.
He started back.
If the horrors and dangers of the journey to the tank had been great, those of the way back should
have been greater. He was infinitely more tired, his aching eyes were all but blind, and added to the crazy
pull of the Gravitator was the force induced by the varying acceleration of the ship. But whatever his labors
to return, they did not bother him. In later time, he never even remembered the heartbreaking trip.
How he managed to negotiate the distance in safety he did not know. Most of the time he was lost
in a haze of happiness, scarcely realizing the actualities of the situation. His mind was filled with one
thought only--to get back quickly, to tell the happy news of their escape.
Suddenly he found himself before the airlock. He hardly grasped the fact that it was
He almost did not understand why he pressed the signal button. Some instinct told him it was the thing to
Mike Shea was waiting. There was a creak and a rumble and the outer door started opening,
caught, and stopped at the same place as before, but once again it managed to slide the rest of the way. It
closed behind Moore, then the inner door opened and he stumbled into Shea's arms.
As in a dream he felt himself half-pulled, half-carried down the corridor to the room. His suit was
ripped off. A hot, burning liquid stung his throat. Moore gagged, swallowed, and felt better. Shea pocketed
the Jabra bottle once more.
The blurred, shifting images of Brandon and Shea before him steadied and became solid. Moore
wiped the perspiration from his face with a trembling hand and essayed a weak smile.
"Wait," protested Brandon, "don't say anything. You look half-dead. Rest, will you!"
But Moore shook his head. In a hoarse, cracked voice he narrated as well as he could the events of
the past two hours. The tale was incoherent, scarcely intelligible but marvelously impressive. The two
listeners scarcely breathed during the recital.
"You mean," stammered Brandon, "that the water spout is pushing us toward Vesta, like a rocket
"Exactly--same thing as--rocket exhaust," panted Moore. " Action and reaction. Is located--on side
opposite Vesta--hence pushing us toward Vesta."