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The secret of the ninth.., p.11
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.11

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 9. _The Ocean Primeval_

  The _Magellan_ hung in the air while the men studied the surface of thisworld that had so long been a mystery. The air was not the clear air ofEarth; rather, it was the kind that precedes the coming of a fog, thick,heavy with moisture, the horizons fading into gray. Below them lay amottled expanse of water, reflecting the gray sky, and verging almost toa deep brown. The water was still, occasionally stirred by a slightwave. "No tides have ever moved these waters," commented Russ quietly toBurl. "There is no moon to pull and sway them. The motion of this world,so slow in the passage of its day, hardly disturbs the water."

  "It looks shallow to me," said Burl. "The darker sections look as if thebottom must be close."

  "I imagine it is. We'll take soundings," Russ answered. "I have afeeling the whole world may be like this ... one vast, shallow, swampysea. See the scum floating on it?"

  "See it? Now that you mention it, there's hardly a part that hasn'tsomething on it," was Burl's reply. "There're patches of muck all overit, like floating oil, or even drifting masses of weeds."

  It was true. The water showed on its surface a strange filth unlikeanything one would expect on the surface of a Terrestrial sea. Therewere wide areas of brownish-gray slime and little floating blobs ofgreen. Shining flecks of yellow, like bright oil drops, seemed to flowthrough and between the masses of scum.

  At the radar, Haines began to call out figures. As Russ had guessed, itwas a shallow sea. In places, the bottom was only a dozen feet beneath.For a while, all the men of the crew were quiet, watching the silentwaters beneath them.

  "Unclean, the whole place looks unclean," Lockhart said finally. "We'vegot work to do. Let's find the Sun-tap station."

  The rest of the crew came to action. The spaceship began to move slowly,while Oberfield and Caton probed for the lines of force which would leadto the station.

  Now a long, low bank appeared, a ridge of mud protruding above thewater. Here and there stretched other low mud bars, and once a ridge ofrock.

  "I've seen no animals or birds," said Burl. "Do you suppose there areany?"

  Russ pursed his lips. "I don't think so. From the look of this world,life probably isn't developed that far. You won't find animals untilthere is dry land--and I'd guess now that there's no place on all Venuswhere there is much dry land. There may be fish or fish life, but eventhat's questionable. Consider--the long, long day, the absence ofviolent, unshielded Sun rays, the steady damp warmth, the quiet, barelymoving waters, the heavy amounts of carbon dioxide in the air...."

  He paused and went over to Lockhart's chart table to pick up a paper."Oberfield worked out the atmosphere. It is very heavy in carbondioxide, very low in free oxygen. There's water vapor down here, but theclouds have kept it below; it didn't show up in the outer atmosphere atall."

  "There's the Sun-tap base," said Burl, and added as an afterthought, "Ithink."

  This one did not look at all like the other stations he had seen. Therewas indeed a ringed wall station, but the wall was low and slantedoutward. It stood on the end of a wide mudbank, and near it veins ofrock glistened as if wet.

  The interior machinery was a neat, compact mass of crystalline globesand levers. But the masts and shining discs which had characterized thestations on Mercury and Earth were missing. Instead, there floated uponthe surface of the water, for a mile around, great shining bowls, likehuge saucers gently rocking in the faint wavelets. Thin, flexible,shining lines of metal connected this surface layout with the station.

  "With no direct Sun to aim at, this station seems to be directed towarda nonfocused system of light diversion," Lockhart announced. "Thewrecking crew please get under way!"

  "I'm going down with you," Russ joined in. "I've gotten permission totake some observations from the surface."

  "Good," said Burl, and hurried with him down to the central floor.

  They disembarked in two parties. Haines and Ferrati used the two-manrocket plane and would make a wide encirclement of the vicinity, mappingand finally blowing up the accumulator discs floating on the surface.Burl, Russ, and Boulton took a helicopter.

  The helicopter, under the control of the Marine captain, dropped out ofthe cargo port of the _Magellan_. Steadied by the regular whirl of itsgreat blades and driven by tiny rocket jets in the tip of each wing, thewhirlybird swung down like a huge mosquito hovering over a swamp patch.

  It moved over the water and finally hung directly over the mudbank.Maneuvering so that the helicopter was directly in the protected circleof the walls, Burl and Russ dropped a rope ladder and swung down handover hand to be the first human beings to set foot on Venus.

  They were lightly dressed, for the temperature was hot, around 110 deg., andit was humid. No breezes blew here. They wore shorts and shirts andhigh-laced leather boots. Each carried two small tanks of oxygen on hisback. A leather mouth nozzle strapped across the shoulders guaranteed asteady flow of breathable air. In their belts were strapped knives andarmy pistols. Russ carried recording equipment, and Burl a hatchet.

  They dropped off the swaying ladder inside the station. The ground washard-packed as if the builders had beaten it down and smoothed it off.The globes were familiar to Burl--he had studied the pictures of the twohe had already visited and he realized that they followed the samegeneral system. Where the mast towers would have been, there were leadsrunning through the plastic walls out across the sea. He wonderedbriefly why the walls were curved outward.

  As the helicopter moved away, the metal weight on the end of thedangling ladder brushed the top of the wall. There was a cracklingnoise, and a spark jumped between them.

  "The wall is electrically charged," said Burl. "I wonder why?"

  Russ shook his head. "From the looks of it, to keep off something.Perhaps some kind of native life. But what? I'm sure there's nothing ofa highly organized physical structure here."

  Burl found the controls of the station, but before touching them, heremembered the alarm on Mercury. "I'd better try to smash the alarmfirst," he called out to Russ.

  Finally, Burl located an isolated globe perched on a post, whichresembled the one he had briefly glimpsed on Mercury. He ran his handsover it, feeling a mild vibration within. Then, at its base, he foundthe levers. He moved them and the vibration died out. "I think I'veturned it off," he announced. "But stand by with a gun, just in case."

  Russ drew his pistol, and Burl switched off the main controls of theSun-tap. A globe or two burst; there was a sort of settling down in thestation. Abruptly they felt the heat intensify and knew that the sky wasshining more brilliantly than before. The diversion of the Sun was overfor Venus.

  The alarm globe remained quiet, but Burl took his hatchet and smashedit. Russ was carefully photographing the station, measuring thedistances, and tracing the lines. Overhead, the wide blades of thehelicopter flapped around and around, accompanied by little hissingpuffs of rocket smoke. They could see Boulton looking down at them fromthe tiny cabin.

  Russ was scooping up bits of soil to bring back for analysis when he sawwhat seemed to be a wet patch on top of the wall. As he watched, itspread until it reached the bottom. In a remarkably short time a wholesection of wall was gleaming wet. A patch of damp oiliness spread overthe floor.

  "This I've got to get a sample of," said the rusty-haired astronomer. Hereached for a sampling bottle in his pocket, and at the same time thepatch of wetness spread to his shoes.

  As Russ stepped forward, there was a sucking sound, and he lifted athick gummy mass that was stuck to his sole. He shook his foot, set itdown, and lifted the other, but it, too, was imbedded in thick slime.The stuff now was running up his ankle.

  "Hey!" he called out, and swung one foot vigorously to free it. Moreswiftly than he could move, the whole patch slid down the wall and sweptaround him. It was moving up his legs, as if trying to envelop him.

  "It's alive!" he shouted, and grabbed for the knife in his belt. In vainhe tried to slash out. "It's like a giant amoeba that engulfs it
s food!Get it off me!"

  But the knife was ineffective. He fired his pistol, but the thing wasjust a vast wide puddle of slime, without brain, heart or organ thatcould be harmed. The soles of Russ's boots were already half eaten awayand his socks were going fast. Some of it was touching the skin of hisknees.

  He screamed as the stuff burned him.

  Burl had joined the attack with his knife, but leaped back when thatproved useless. His mind raced for a way to help. Above them, Boultonwas swinging the helicopter down so Russ could hoist himself out ofharm's way, but time would not permit it. In another instant the masswould have Russ.

  Burl grabbed at the straps crossing his shoulder and swung the twooxygen tanks from his back. He snatched one from its leather holster,and pointed its nozzle at the mass of slime. He turned the stream ofoxygen on, and then, taking his pistol, held its muzzle in the jet ofoxygen and fired it.

  The roar of the gun was matched by the roar of a stream of fire thatshot from the tank. Wherever the burning jet of oxygen touched, the massshriveled and blackened. Yards and yards of amoeba seemed to writhe,hump upward in agony, and pull away.

  There was a ring of burned white along the ground, a sickening smell inthe air, but the thing was dead.

  Russell Clyde grabbed the ladder as it swung toward him, and climbed up.The soles of his boots were gone and the sides were strings of raw,half-eaten leather. His legs and knees bore ugly patches of red wherethe slime had touched.

  "Well done!" called Boulton to Burl from the cabin. "Come on up beforesomething else comes along!"

  Burl grabbed the ladder. He took two steps on the swaying, swinging ropeas the helicopter started to climb and suddenly he felt himself losingstrength. He became dizzy and tried to hold on, but began to loseconsciousness. Dimly he heard Boulton yell at him, "The oxygen, theother tank, turn it on!"

  The second tank was still dangling from his chest.

  Fighting for consciousness, Burl twisted the nozzle. There was a hissand he felt air blow against him. Miraculously, his senses cleared, andholding the oxygen tank tight against him, he climbed up the ladder andinto the safety of the helicopter.

 
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