Murray Leinster (1945)
Tommy Dort went into the captains room with his last pair of stereophotos and said:
Im through, sir. These are the last two pictures I can take.
He handed over the photographs and looked with professional interest at the visiplates which showed all space outside the ship. Subdued, deep-red lighting indicated the controls and such instruments as the quartermaster on duty needed for navigation of the ship Llanvabon. There was a deeply cushioned control chair. There was the little gadget of oddly angled mirrors remote descendant of the back-view mirrors of twentieth century motorists which allowed a view of all the visiplates without turning the head. And there were the huge plates which were so much more satisfactory for a direct view of space.
The Llanvabon was a long way from home. The plates, which showed every star of visual magnitude and could be stepped up to any desired magnification, portrayed stars of every imaginable degree of brilliance, in the startlingly different colors they show outside of atmosphere. But every one was unfamiliar. Only two constellations could be recognized as seen from Earth, and they were shrunken and distorted. The Milky Way seemed vaguely out of place. But even such oddities were minor compared to a sight in the forward plates.
There was a vast, vast mistiness ahead. A luminous mist. It seemed motionless. It took a long time for any appreciable nearing to appear in the vision plates, though the spaceships velocity indicator showed an incredible speed. The mist was the Crab Nebula, six light-years long, three and a half light-years thick, with outward-reaching members that in the telescopes of Earth gave it some resemblance to the creature for which it was named. It was a cloud of gas, infinitely tenuous, reaching half again as far as from Sol to its nearest neighbor-sun. Deep within it burned two stars; a double star; one component the familiar yellow of the sun of Earth, the other an unholy white.
Tommy Dort said meditatively:
Were heading into a deep, sir?
The skipper studied the last two plates of Tommys taking, and put them aside. He went back to his uneasy contemplation of the vision plates ahead. The Llanvabon was decelerating at full force. She was a bare half light-year from the nebula. Tommys work was guiding the ships course, now, but the work was done. During all the stay of the exploring ship in the nebula, Tommy Dort would loaf. But hed more than paid his way so far.
He had just completed a quite unique first a complete photographic record of the movement of a nebula during a period of four thousand years, taken by one individual with the same apparatus and with control exposures to detect and record any systematic errors. It was an achievement in itself worth the journey from Earth. But in addition, he had also recorded four thousand years of the history of a double star, and four thousand years of the history of a star in the act of degenerating into a white dwarf.
It was not that Tommy Dort was four thousand years old. He was, actually, in his twenties. But the Crab Nebula is four thousand light-years from Earth, and the last two pictures had been taken by light which would not reach Earth until the sixth millennium A.D. On the way here at speeds incredible multiples of the speed of light Tommy Dort had recorded each aspect of the nebula by the light which had left it from forty centuries since to a bare six months ago.