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Transcriber's Note:

This etext was produced from If Worlds of Science Fiction September
1952. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed.


[Illustration]


_They wanted to go home - back to the planet they'd known.
But even the stars had changed. Did the fate of all creation
hinge upon an - _


AN

EMPTY

BOTTLE


By Mari Wolf

* * * * *




Hugh McCann took the last of the photographic plates out of the
developer and laid them on the table beside the others. Then he picked
up the old star charts - Volume 1, Number 1 - maps of space from various
planetary systems within a hundred light years of Sol. He looked
around the observation room at the others.

"We might as well start checking."

The men and women around the table nodded. None of them said anything.
Even the muffled conversation from the corridor beyond the observation
room ceased as the people stopped to listen.

McCann set the charts down and opened them at the first sheet - the
composite map of the stars as seen from Earth. "Don't be too
disappointed if we're wrong," he said.

Amos Carhill's fists clenched. He leaned across the table. "You still
don't believe we're near Sol, do you? You're getting senile, Hugh! You
know the mathematics of our position as well as anybody."

"I know the math," Hugh said quietly. "But remember, a lot of our
basics have already proved themselves false this trip. We can't be
sure of anything. Besides, I think I'd remember this planet we're on
if we'd ever been here before. We visited every planetary system
within a hundred light years of Sol the first year."

Carhill laughed. "What's there to remember about this hunk of rock?
Tiny, airless, mountainless - the most monotonous piece of matter we've
landed on in years."

Hugh shrugged and turned to the next chart. The others clustered
around him, checking, comparing the chart with the photographic plates
of their position, finding nothing familiar in the star pattern.

"I still think we would have remembered this planet," Hugh said. "Just
because it _is_ so monotonous. After all, what have we been looking
for, all these years? Life. Other worlds with living forms, other
types of evolution, types adapted to different environments. This
particular planet is less capable of supporting life than our own
Moon."

Martha Carhill looked up from the charts. Her face was as tense and
strained as her husband's, and the lines about her mouth deeply
etched. "We've got to be near Earth. We've just got to. We've got to
find people again." Her voice broke. "We've been looking for so
long - "

Hugh McCann sighed. The worry that had been growing in him ever since
they first left the rim of the galaxy and turned homeward deepened
into a nagging fear. He didn't know why he was afraid. He too hoped
that they were near Earth. He almost believed that they would soon be
home. But the others, their reactions - He shook his head.

They no longer merely hoped. With them, especially with the older,
ones, it was faith, a blind, unreasoning, fanatic faith that their
journey was almost over and they would be on Earth again and pick up
the lives they had left behind fifty-three years before.

"Look," Amos Carhill said. "Here are our reference points. Here's
Andromeda Galaxy, and the dark nebula, and the arch of our own Milky
Way." He pointed to the places he had named on the plates. "Now we can
check some of these high magnitude reference stars with the charts."

Hugh let him take the charts and go through them, checking, rejecting.
Carhill was probably right. He'd find Sol soon enough.

It had been too long for one shipful of people to follow a quest,
especially a hopeless one. For fifty-three years they had scouted the
galaxy, looking for other worlds with life forms. A check on diverging
evolutions, they had called it - uncounted thousands of suns without
planets, bypassed. Thousands of planetary systems, explored, or merely
looked at and rejected. Heavy, cold worlds with methane atmospheres
and lifeless rocks without atmospheres and even earth-sized,
earth-type planets, with oceans and oxygen and warmth. But no life. No
life anywhere.

That was one of the basics they had lost, years ago - their belief that
life would arise on any planet capable of supporting it.

"We could take a spectrographic analysis of some of those high
magnitude stars," Carhill said. Then abruptly he straightened, eyes
alight, his hand on the last chart. "We don't need it after all.
Look! There's Sirius, and here it is on the plates. That means Alpha
Centauri must be - "

He paused. He frowned and ran his hand over the plate to where the
first magnitude star was photographed. "It must be. Alpha Centauri. It
has to be!"

"Except that it's over five degrees out of position." Hugh looked at
the plate, and then at the chart, and then back at the plate again.
And then he knew what it was that he had feared subconsciously all
along.

"You're right, Amos," he said slowly. "There's Alpha Centauri - about
twenty light years away. And there's Sirius, and Arcturus and
Betelgeuse and all the others." He pointed them out, one by one, in
their unfamiliar locations on the plates. "But they're all out of
position, in reference to each other."

* * * * *

He stopped. The others stared back at him, not saying anything. Little
by little the faith began to drain out of their eyes.

"What does it mean?" Martha Carhill's voice was only a whisper.

"It means that we discarded one basic too many," Hugh McCann said.
"Relativity. The theory that our subjective time, here on the ship,
would differ from objective time outside."

"No," Amos Carhill said slowly. "No, it's a mistake. That's all. We
haven't gone into the future. We can't have. It isn't possible that
more time has elapsed outside the ship than - "

"Why not?" Hugh said softly. "Why not millions of years? We've
exceeded the speed of light, many times."

"Which disproves that space-time theory in itself!" Carhill shouted.

"Does it?" Hugh said. "Or does it just mean we never really understood
space-time at all?" He didn't wait for them to answer. He pointed at
the small, far from brilliant, star that lay beyond Alpha Centauri on
the plates. "That's probably Sol. If it is, we can find out the truth
soon enough."

He looked at their faces and wondered what their reactions would be,
if the truth was what he feared.

* * * * *

The ship throbbed softly, pulsating in the typical vibrations of low
speed drive. In the forward viewscreens the star grew larger. The
people didn't look at it very often. They moved about the corridors of
the ship, much as they usually moved, but quietly. They seemed to be
trying to ignore the star.

"You can't be sure, Hugh." Nora McCann laid her hand on her husband's
arm.

"No, of course I can't be sure."

The door from their quarters into the corridor was open. Several more
people came in - young people who had been born on the ship. They were
talking and laughing.

"Would it be so hard on the young ones, Hugh? They've never seen the
Earth. They're used to finding nothing but lifeless worlds
everywhere."

One of the young boys in the hall looked up at the corridor viewscreen
and pointed at the star and then shrugged. The others turned away, not
saying anything, and after a minute they left and the boy followed
them.

"There's your answer," Hugh McCann said dully. "Earth's a symbol to
them. It's home. It's the place where there are millions more like us.
Sometimes I think it's the only thing that has kept us sane all these
years - the knowledge that there is a world full of people, somewhere,
that we're not alone."

Her hand found his and he gripped it, almost absently, and then he
looked up at their own small viewscreen. The star was much bigger now.
It was already a definite circle of yellow light.

A yellow G-type sun, like a thousand others they had approached and
orbited around and left behind them. A yellow sun that could have been
anywhere in the galaxy.

"Hugh," she said after a moment, "do you really believe that thousands
of years have gone by, outside?"

"I don't know what to believe. I only know what the plates show."

"That may not even be Sol, up ahead," she said doubtfully. "We may be
in some other part of space altogether, and that's why the charts are
different."

"Perhaps. But either way we're lost. Lost in space or in time or in
both. What does it matter?"

"If we're just lost in space it's not so - so irrevocable. We could
still find our way back to Earth, maybe."

He didn't answer. He looked up at the screen and the circle of light
and his lips tightened. Whatever the truth was, they didn't have long
to wait. They'd be within gravitational range in less than an hour.

He wondered why he was reacting so differently from the others. He was
just as afraid as they were. He knew that. But he wasn't fighting the
thought that perhaps they had really traveled out of their own time.
He wondered what it was that made him different from the other old
ones, the ones like Carhill who refused even to face the possibility,
who insisted on clinging to their illusions in the face of the
photographic evidence.

* * * * *

He didn't think that he was a pessimist. And yet, after only three
years of their trip, after only fifty Earthlike but lifeless worlds,
he had been the first to consider the possibility that life was unique
to Earth and that their old theories concerning its spontaneous
emergence from a favorable environment might be wrong.

Only Nora had agreed with him then. Only Nora could face this
possibility with him now. The two of them were very much alike in
their outlooks. They were both pragmatists.

But this time there would be no long years during which the others
could slowly shift their opinions, slowly relinquish their old beliefs
and turn to new ones. The yellow sun was too large and urgent in the
screen.

"Hugh!"

He turned to the door and saw Amos Carhill standing there, bracing
himself against the corridor wall. There was no color at all in
Carhill's face.

"Come on up to the control room with me, Hugh. We're going to start
decelerating any minute now."

Hugh frowned. He would prefer to stay and watch their approach on the
screen, with Nora at his side. He had no duties in the control room.
He was too old to have any part in the actual handling of the ship.
Amos was old, too. But they would be there, all the old ones, looking
through the high powered screens for the first clear glimpse of the
third planet from the sun.

"All right, Amos." Hugh got up and started for the door.

"I'll wait here for you, Hugh," Nora said.

He smiled at her and then followed Carhill out into the crowded
corridor. No one spoke to them. Most of the people they passed were
neither talking, nor paying any attention to anything except the
corridor screens, which they could no longer ignore. The few who were
talking spoke about Earth and how wonderful it would be to get home
again.

"You're wrong, Hugh," Amos said suddenly.

"I hope I am."

The crowd thinned out as they passed into the forward bulkheads. The
only men they saw now were the few young ones on duty. Except for
their set, anxious faces they might have been handling any routine
landing in any routine system.

The ship quivered for just a second as it shifted over into
deceleration. There was an instant of vertigo and then it was gone and
the ship's gravity felt as normal as ever. Hugh didn't even break
stride at the shift.

He followed Carhill to the control room doorway and pushed his way in,
taking a place among the others who already clustered about the great
forward screen. The pilot ignored them and worked his controls. The
screen cleared as the ship's deceleration increased. The pilot didn't
look at it. He was a young man. He had never seen the Earth.

"Look!" Amos Carhill cried triumphantly.

The screen focused. The selector swung away from the yellow sun and
swept its orbits. The dots that were planets came into focus and out
again. Hugh McCann didn't even need to count them, nor to calculate
their distance from the sun. He knew the system too well to have any
trouble recognizing it.

The sun was Sol. The third planet was the double dot of Earth and
moon. He realized suddenly that he had more than half expected to see
an empty orbit.

"It's the Earth all right," Carhill said. "We're home!"

They were all staring at the double dot, where the selector focused
sharply now. Hugh McCann alone looked past it, at the background of
stars that were strewn in totally unfamiliar patterns across the sky.
He sighed.

"Look beyond the system," he said.

They looked. For a long time they stared, none of them speaking, and
then they turned to Hugh, many of them accusingly, as if he himself
had rearranged the stars.

"How long have we been gone?" Carhill's voice broke.

Hugh shook his head. The star patterns were too unfamiliar for even a
guess. There was no way of knowing, yet, how long their fifty-three
years had really been.

* * * * *

Carhill shook his head, slowly. He turned back to the screen and
stared at the still featureless dot that was the Earth. "We can't be
the only ones left," he said.

No one answered him. They were still stunned. They couldn't even
accept, yet, the strange constellations on the screen.

End of the voyage. Fifty-three years of searching for worlds with
life. And now Earth, under an unfamiliar sky, and quite possibly no
life at all, anywhere, except on the ship.

"We might as well land," McCann said.

The ship curved away from the night side of the Earth and crossed
again into the day. They were near enough so that the planetary
features stood out sharply now, even through the dense clouds that
rose off the oceans. But although the continental land masses and the
islands were clearly defined, they were as unrecognizable as the star
constellations had been.

"That must be North America," Amos Carhill said dully. "It's smaller
than the continent on the night side...."

"It might be anywhere," Hugh McCann said. "We can't tell. The oceans
look bigger too. There's less land surface."

He stared down at the topography thousands of miles below them.
Mountains rose jaggedly. There were great plains, and crevasses, and a
rocky, lifeless look everywhere. No soil. No erosion, except from the
wind and the rains.

"There's no chlorophyll in the spectrum," Haines said. "It seems to
rule out even plant life."

"I don't understand." Martha Carhill turned away from the screen.
"Everything's so different. But the moon looked just exactly like it
always did."

"That's because it has no atmosphere," Hugh said. "So there's no
erosion. And no oceans to sweep in over the land. But I imagine that
if we explored it we'd find changes. New craters. Maybe even new
mountains by now."

"How long has it been?" Carhill whispered. "And even if it's been
millions of years, what happened? Why aren't there any plants? Won't
we find anything?"

"Maybe there was an atomic war," the pilot said.

"Maybe." Carhill had thought of that too. Probably all of them had.
"Or maybe the sun novaed."

No one answered him. The concept of a nova and then of its dying down,
until now the sun was just as it had been when they left, was too
much.

"The sun looks hotter," Carhill added.

The ship dropped lower, its preliminary circle of the planet
completed. It settled in for a landing, just as it had done thousands
of times before. And the world below could have been any of a thousand
others.

They dropped quickly, braking through the atmosphere, riding it down.
The topography came up to meet them and the general features blurred,
leaving details standing out sharply, increasing in sharpness as if
the valleys and mountains below were tiny microscopic crystals under a
rapidly increasing magnification.

The pilot picked their landing place without difficulty. It was a
typical choice, a spot on the broad shelving plain at the edge of the
ocean. The type of base from which all tests on a planet could be run
quickly, and a report written up, and the files of another world
closed and tagged with a number and entered in one of the great
storage encyclopedias.

Even to Hugh there was an air of unreality about the landing, as if
this planet wasn't really Earth at all, despite its orbit around the
sun, despite its familiar moon. It looked too much like too many
others.

The actual landing was over quickly. The ship quivered, jarred
slightly, and then was still, resting on the gravelled plain that had
obviously once been part of the ocean bed. The ocean itself lay only a
few hundred yards away.

Hugh McCann looked out through the viewscreen, turned to direct vision
now. He stared at the waves swelling against the shore and his sense
of unreality deepened. Even though this was what he had more than half
expected, he couldn't quite accept it, yet.

"We might as well go out and look around," he said.

"Air pressure, Earth-norm." Haines began checking off the control
panel by rote. "Composition: oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor - "

"There's certainly nothing out there that could hurt us," Martha
Carhill snapped. "What could there be?"

"We might check for radioactivity," Hugh said quietly.

She turned and stared at him. Her mouth opened and then snapped shut
again.

"No," Haines said. "There's no radioactivity either. Everything's
clear. We won't need space suits."

He pressed the button that opened the inner locks.

* * * * *

Carhill glanced over at him and then switched on the communicator, and
the noises from the rest of the ship flooded into the control room.
Everywhere people were milling about. Snatches of talk drifted in,
caught up in the background as various duty officers, reported
clearance on the landing. Most of the background voices were young,
talking too loudly and with too much forced cheerfulness about what
lay outside the ship.

Hugh sighed, as aware of all the people as if he were out in the
corridors with them. It was the space-born ones who were doing most of
the talking. The children, the young people, the people no longer
young but still born since the voyage started, still looking upon
Earth more as a wonderful legend than as their own place of origin.

The old ones, those who had left the Earth in their own youth, had the
least of all to say. They knew what was missing outside. The younger
ones couldn't really know. Even the best of the books and the pictures
and the three dimensional movies can give only a superficial idea of
what a living world is like.

"Hugh." Carhill clutched his arm.

"Yes, Amos."

"There must be people, somewhere. There have to be. Our race can't be
dead."

Hugh McCann looked past him, out at the sky and the clouds of water
vapor that swirled up to obscure the sun. The stars, of course, were
completely hidden in the daylight.

"If there are any others, Amos, we can be pretty certain they're not
on Earth."

"They may have left. They may have gone somewhere else."

"No!" Martha Carhill's face twisted and then went rigid. "There's no
one anywhere. There can't be. It's been too long. You saw the stars,
Amos - the stars - all wrong, every one of them!"

Her hands came up to her face and she started to cry. Amos crossed
over to her and put his arms around her.

Hugh McCann watched them for a moment and then he turned and left them
and went out through the locks after the young people. He didn't know
what to think. He wished that they had never turned back to Earth at
all, that they had kept going, circling around the rim of the galaxy
forever.

He went through the outer lock and then down the ramp to the ground.

He stood on the Earth again, for the first time since his early youth.
And it was not the same. There was bare rock under his feet and bare
rock all around him, gravel and boulders and even fine grained sand.
But no dust. No dirt. No trace of anything organic or even ever
touched by anything organic.

He had walked too many worlds like this. Too many bare gray worlds
with bare gray oceans and clouds of vapor swirling up into the warm
air. Too many worlds where there was wind and sound and surf; where
there should have been life, but wasn't.

This was just another of those worlds. This wasn't Earth. This was
just a lifeless memory of the Earth he had known and loved. For
fifty-three years they had clung to the thought of home, of people
waiting for them, welcoming them back someday. Fifty-three years, and
for how many of those ship-years had Earth lain lifeless like this?

He looked up at the sky and at all the stars that he couldn't see and
he cursed them all and cursed time itself and then, bitterly, his own
fatuous stupidity.

The people came out of the ship and walked about on the graveled
plain, alone or in small groups. They had stopped talking. They seemed
too numbed by what they had found to even think, for a while.

Shock, Hugh McCann thought grimly. First hysteria and tears and loud
unbelief, and now shock. Anything could come next.

* * * * *

He stood with the warm wind blowing in his face and watched the
people. In the bitter mood that gripped him he was amused by their
reactions. Some of them walked around aimlessly, but most, those who
were active in the various departments, soon started about the routine
business of running tests on planetary conditions. They seemed to
work without thinking, by force of habit, their faces dazed and
uncaring.

Conditioning, Hugh thought. Starting their reports. The reports that
they know perfectly well no one will ever read.

He wandered over to where several of the young men were sending up an
atmosphere balloon and jotting down the atmospheric constituents as
recorded by the instruments.

"How's it going?" he said.

"Earth-norm. Naturally - " The young man flushed.

"Temperature's up though. Ninety-three. And a seventy-seven percent
humidity."

He left them and walked down across the rocks to the ocean's edge. Two
young girls were down there before him, sampling the water, running
both chemical and biological probing tests.

"Hello, Mr. McCann," the taller girl said dully. "Want our report?"

"Found anything?" He knew already that there was nothing to find. If
there were life the instruments would have recorded its presence.

"No. Water temperature eighty-six. Sodium chloride four-fifths Earth
normal." She looked up, surprised. "Why so low?"

"More water in the ocean, maybe. Or maybe we've had a nova since we
were here last."

It was getting late, almost sunset. Soon it would be time for the
photographic star-charts to be made. Hugh brought himself up short and
smiled bitterly. He too was in the grip of habit. Still, why not?
Perhaps they could estimate, somehow, how many millions of years had
passed.

Why? What good would it do them to find out?

After a while the sun set and a little later the full moon rose, hazy
and indistinct behind the clouds of water vapor. Hugh stared at it,
watched it rise higher until it cleared the horizon, a great bloated
bulk. Then he sighed and shook his head to clear it and started to
work. The clouds were thick. He had to move the screening adjustment
almost to its last notch before the vapor patterns blocked out and the
stars were bright and unwavering and ready to be photographed. He
inserted the first plate and snapped the picture of the stars whose
names he knew but whose patterns were wrong, some subtly, some
blatantly.

There was something he was overlooking. Some other factor, not taken
into account. He developed the first plates and compared them with the
star charts of Earth as it had been before they left it, and he shook
his head. Whatever the factor was, it eluded him. He went back to
work.

"Oh, here you are, Hugh."

He jumped at the sound of Carhill's voice. He had been working almost
completely by habit, slowly swinging the telescope across the sky and
snapping the plates. And trying to think.


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