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Looking for a short story I read in a second-hand book in the 1990s.

Humanity has a faster-than-light drive that is mostly reliable, but occasionally a ship simply vanishes without trace. I think the drive works by jumps, as in, set destination, activate drive, appear at destination.

One ship uses the drive and ends up in something resembling completely empty space - no stars or other reference points, and no way to determine where they are or whether they're moving. Either they can't use the FTL drive or it doesn't make any difference.

The crew realise they're lost and most of them give up hope, but the captain has a strong sense of duty and insists on doing his job as far as possible. This includes filling in the ship's log in minute detail, despite objections from the crew who say it's pointless. He then either enters stasis or dies.

The captain is revived in the far future. He is told that the ships that vanished accidentally jumped to points outside the universe; that they were periodically found as the expanding universe reached them; and that the information in the log had, finally, allowed them to figure out what had been going wrong, so that no more ships would be lost.

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1 Answer 1

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Ultima Thule, a short story by Eric Frank Russell, first published in Astounding Science Fiction, October 1951, available at the Internet Archive. You may have read it in one of these compilations.

"One must do something or go nuts. Besides, it is better to live in hope than die in despair."

"Precisely!" Vanderveen twisted back to his desk, resumed writing, his pen going scratch-scratch. "So I accept to the very last my responsibilities as ship commander. And remote though the chance may be, a full and complete account of what occurred may be useful to somebody some day. If it served to save the skin of only one ignorant savage it would not be in vain."

Log-filling. It may be useful some day, somewhere, somehow. The dull grind of routine when life has dribbled away to a mere three weeks, perhaps less. The multi-million to one hope of providing salvation for some barbarian a thousand generations unborn. An impossible longshot aimed to help one ship, one sailor at a far-distant time when hyperdrives might be hopelessly antiquated and all the multitudinous existences accurately measured, weighed, estimated.

"The least one can do," added Vanderveen, by way of afterthought, "is one's duty to the last—as one deems it."

[.. . .]

Questions formed haltingly in his mind. Where am I? Who are these? How did I get here?

They must have been able to read his thoughts, for they responded, "There can be no deliberate escape from non-space. But Creation expands into it at tremendous rate. Eventually its limits reached your vessel—and life reclaimed its own."

That was far too much for him to absorb at such a moment. He made no attempt to grapple with the concept, but listened as they went on.

"So ships come back now and again, centuries apart, like relics from the dawn of history. Yours proved to be a treasure of value beyond compute, for it contained essential data which will enable us to prevent further disappearances. There will be no more lost vessels, no more, no more."

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  • Good call. It's awesome that he had a "pen" :)
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 24 at 12:51
  • That's the one alright - well spotted! Commented Mar 25 at 10:00

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