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The secret of the ninth.., p.10
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.10

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 8. _The Veil of Venus_

  In an artificially constructed chamber somewhere in the solar system, anintelligent being sat before a bank of instruments that was designed tobring to his attention various factors concerning the things thatmattered to his species. This being had been on duty for the averagelength of time such a duty entailed and had been paying little consciousattention to the routine--for there had been nothing to report for sometime.

  The drop in channeling from Planet III that had occurred some time agohad thus far not caused too much concern. It was assumed by the otherintelligent beings involved that the matter was possibly a weathercondition, a volcanic discharge or quite simply that the planet was inunfavorable orbit. Not all the stations ever worked simultaneously.There were always some behind the Sun, or blocked in some other manner.But the main channels were at work, and the different lines and shiftscontinued to build up satisfactorily.

  But now something occurred that focused the attention of the watchermore closely on his instruments. A facet of his panel had flashed acolor at the lowest end of his visible spectrum. How the beingregistered that color cannot be said; the inhabitants of Planet IIIwould have termed it red.

  With trained reaction, the watcher activated the full signal. Instantlythere appeared before his eyes a vision of a scene. There was theinterior of the major station on Planet I. It was non-functioning, andthere were two strange creatures turning now to look directly at him.They were bipeds with two armlike extensions, lumpy objects, clad inbulky white folds. They wore cumbersome helmets and he could see twoeyes shielded beneath thick transparencies over the face.

  One of these creatures raised his arm and there was a puff of steam.Then the vision flashed off, but not before the trained watcher hadactivated the crash mechanism.

  If the watcher had been closer in space to the station, the destructionwould have come quicker. Unfortunately for him, the speed of light andradio impulses is limited, so that it was several minutes before thedestruction impulse reached Planet I.

  A short while later, after the guiding beings had digested the news,preparations were made for a vessel to go sunward to investigate--andremove--the interference.

  * * * * *

  Burl twisted on his heel sharply as he whirled around to look at theflash of red. Boulton drew his hand weapon, aimed and fired.

  There was a jet of steam as the compressed air blasted the dart from thegun. The glowing globe was pierced, there was a small explosion, andthen the globe and its pedestal vanished.

  "What was that?" cried Burl.

  Boulton holstered his gun. "A signal of some kind--a warning probably.My guess is that it was an alarm tipping off the remote control mastersof this place that it was out of commission. Help me with the photostuff; I think we'd better get out of here quick!"

  Without wasting more time, the two men snapped the scene as fast as theshutters would click. Then they picked up the cameras, grabbed theirumbrellas and ran for the break in the wall.

  Just as they made their first flying leaps toward the shielded rocketplane, the globes within the Sun-tap station started to go off. Oneafter another, like a chain reaction, they blew up, and within secondsthe interior of the walled station was a turmoil of falling metals,beams, wires, and sharp transparent shards.

  Haines and Ferrati were ready for take-off and puffs of smoke werecoming from the exhaust. Without bothering to take down the plasticSun-shield, Burl and Boulton tumbled into the cabin. Before the doorwas even closed, Haines lifted the ship and headed for the dark depthsof the canyon.

  The inside of the plane was perilously hot. The shield had been atemporary protection, but even the ground radiated heat like an oven.They had to seek the cold of the sunless canyon to allow some of theheat to escape. To have flown directly to the _Magellan_ without coolingthe plane would have been disastrous.

  The _Magellan_ emerged from the cold side to meet them. From the heightsof space, they saw that they would not need to bomb the mountain relayermasts--for the same alarm that had triggered the station had shatteredthem.

  After the _Magellan_ had scuttled back to the cold side, there was acouncil of war in the control room. Burl and Boulton described verycarefully what had happened.

  "This must have been their primary station," said Russ thoughtfully. "Nomatter what they seek to channel from the Sun on other planets, it isfrom here that the first and strongest diversion of solar energy musthave been coming. This station may have been the last constructed--thefinal link put into place. And for that reason, they installed analarm."

  "Ah," said Lockhart, "even if they did, would it necessarily havedestroyed the station? After all, they would normally have figured onrepairing whatever went wrong."

  "It seems to me," said Burl, "that the red flash itself didn't start thedestruction. There was a delay--must have been several minutes--beforeit started. Could it be, that what was alerted was a watcher?"

  "Where?" said Boulton. "There was no place for a watcher to be in thatstation. We saw no sign of it."

  "Maybe deep underground?" suggested the engineer, Caton. "They mighthave living quarters a few miles underneath."

  "Highly unlikely," said Russ Clyde. "It would still be too hot, and,remember, these people plan to incinerate Mercury and the inner planets.They must be from the edge of the system. The delay may be a valuableclue to that. It would take time for a remote control station on anotherplanet to see what was happening and take steps. If you can figure outexactly how many minutes and seconds elapsed between the flashing of thered bulb and the blowup, we could work out the approximate distance."

  But, unfortunately, the time could not be judged that accurately.Neither Burl nor Boulton had had time to look at his watch.

  They hung over the cold side of Mercury for several hours more while thetwo astronomers figured their next move. When the orbits had beendetermined, the _Magellan_ turned its massive wide nose away from theSun toward a gleaming white disc that dominated the dark skies of outerspace. With full power on, they pushed away from the littlest planetand began the long fall toward the Sun's second planet, that which somehad considered to be Earth's veiled twin, Venus.

  There was a matter of thirty million miles to cross, and the crossingwould be made fighting the pull of the Sun all the way.

  Caton and his men had spent the wait on Mercury working on the greatgenerators in the powerhouse nose. They recalibrated the output andcorrected it from the records kept during the flight inward. Now theywere confident of its ability to drive the ship away from the Sun.Coming in, they had not been sure what their A-G drive would do andcould do. Going outward they knew just what to expect.

  They did not travel blindly outward, for that would have been both acrude waste of power and inaccurate. Instead, the ship drove at a longslant from the Sun, moving in a gently curving orbit that would bring itonto Venus at the same time that Venus itself was moving along in itsorbit. This is what they had tried to do before, but without success.Venus travels around the Sun at a speed of about 32 miles per second,and takes about 224.5 days to complete the circuit. From where the_Magellan_ took off, it would approach and overtake Venus at a speed alittle greater than the 32 miles per second.

  The days passed swiftly enough. They had developed the pictures taken inthe Mercury station, and the engineers and astronomers spent long hoursdebating their features, matching up what they had seen with what wasknown about the Andes station.

  The shining face of Venus grew larger. It was a mysterious planet, themost mysterious in the system, even though it was the closest of theplanets to Earth. Venus was a world whose atmosphere--of Earthlydepth--was a solid mass of clouds. Never had the clouds lifted to revealthe surface. The clouds reflected the sunlight brilliantly, yet as Burlcould now see with the naked eye, parts of it were hazy, as if mightystorms were raising dark particles from below.

  "We've had a couple of prober rockets shot into its surface," said Russ,as they watched the onc
oming planet. "They didn't prove much--faded outfast, but we think they established its length of day. Nobody knew howmany hours it took Venus to rotate on its axis. Some even thought italways presented one face to the Sun as does Mercury. Others thought ithad a quick day, shorter than Earth's. Others gave it a day almost amonth long.

  "Our prober rockets, carrying unmanned instruments, rather definitelyindicate that the planet has a day about twenty Earth-days long. Eventhough it's shielded by the clouds, it must be miserably hot near thesurface."

  "We'll soon find out." Burl grinned. "After Mercury, it couldn't be sobad. Maybe it rains all the time."

  Russ shrugged. "Who knows?" he said.

  Venus was a vast sea of swirling white and gray clouds beneath them whenthe _Magellan_ reached it. They hung above the cloud level, whilestretching below them lay the circular bowl of veiled mystery that wasthe fabled evening star of poem and song.

  Oberfield was probing the surface with the radiation counters for theSun-tap distortion. None had been detected from Earth, but observationof the sunny face of Venus had always been difficult from the thirdplanetary orbit. But quickly the dour astronomer proved the fact. Acalculation of the planet's albedo--its rate of reflectedsunlight--showed that in one large central section there was a dimmingout. Somewhere in that spot, the light was being diverted.

  Lockhart brought the _Magellan_ down gradually, closer, closer, andfinally sank it into the soupy atmosphere of Venus. Now, from everyviewplate, nothing reflected but a glare of white mist. But the ship wasnot operating blind. Radar pierced the clouds, and from the wide screensthe crew could see that they had not yet touched the surface.

  "Watch out for mountains," whispered Russ, hanging over Lockhart'sshoulder.

  Their progress was slow but steady. The cloud bank around them did notclear, but still glowed gray. After a descent of nearly two hours, therewas a flicker on the radar. It registered no features, no mountains,nothing but a seemingly flat plain.

  Above and around them the white clouds still blanketed everything. Butnow Burl thought he saw a pale glow. Gradually the white faded away intowisps and shreds, and in a flash the ship broke out of the clouds.

  They hung beneath a grayish-white sky. Below them, scarcely a half mileof visibility in misty, thin air, they saw the surface of Venus. Theywere over water. An ocean stretched below them as far as the eye couldsee, with neither a rock nor an island. Venus was a water world!

 
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