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An Empty Bottle by Mari Wolf

[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--"


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