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The secret of the ninth.., p.12
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.12

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 10. _The Dying Planet_

  Russell Clyde was confined to his bunk during the next four days, hisfeet wrapped in bandages and ointment. Fortunately the digestive juicesof the Venusian amoeba had only just begun their attack upon the skinafter eating through the footgear. Except for some painful blisters andrawness, his condition was not serious.

  The little stateroom was cramped, containing as it did two bunks, oneabove the other, like the cabin of a liner. What with a couple ofbuilt-in lockers for clothes, and a bolted-down chair and a readinglamp, it was not a place to spend any more time than necessary. The lackof a window added to the inhospitality of the room. But Burl hadaccepted long ago the fact that a spaceship could not yet be considereda luxury liner. In time, the A-G drive would permit such things, but the_Magellan_ was an experimental vessel turned by emergency into awarship.

  During those four days, Burl spent most of his time with Russ, gettingto know him better, and talking about the trip. The young astronomer wasnot at all chagrined by his misadventure. In fact, the whole experiencehad him quite buoyed up.

  "What a wonderful place for biologists to study! Venus will be a Meccafor scientific learning!"

  "But not for anything else, I don't think," said Burl. "Anyway, we're infor another experience now. Mars is our next goal. What's it like?"

  Russ put his hands behind his head and looked up at the bottom of thebunk above him. "We can see Mars well enough; there's no cloud blanketand the atmosphere is thin but clear. You've seen the photos and thecolored sketches?"

  "I've seen it from our viewplates, but so far it's just a tiny, reddisc. We're about at Earth's orbit now, even though Earth is manymillions of miles away from us. Mars is still about fifty million milesfurther, but we're gaining speed quite rapidly and Lockhart thinks we'llmake it soon enough." Burl picked up one of the books from the ship'slibrary and started to thumb through it to locate a color chart of theplanet.

  Russ waved a hand. "You don't have to show me. I've studied Mars bytelescope so often I know it by heart. It's mostly a sort of light,reddish-tan, a kind of pale russet. We think that's desert. There aresome fairly large sections that are bluish-green--at least in theMartian summers. In their winters these sections fade very greatly."

  "That's vegetation," Burl broke in. "It must be! Everybody agrees itacts like it. And there are the white polar caps, too."

  "You can tell which season is which by the size of the polar ice caps.When one is big, the other is almost gone. Then there's the problem ofthe canals...."

  "Do you believe in them?" asked Burl. "The books disagree. Some thinkthey're real--even say they look as if they had been built byintelligent beings as irrigation channels to take the melting waters ofthe poles down to the fertile lands. But other astronomers claim theycan't see them--or that they're illusions, series of cracks, or lines ofdark dust blown by winds."

  "Personally, I've come to believe in them," Russ argued. "They've beenphotographed--something is there. They're very faint, spidery lines, butthey certainly are straight and regular. We'll find out soon enough."

  Find out they did. Russ was up and about and the normal life of the shipresumed. During their passage of Earth's orbit, they had managed toraise the United States on the ship's radio. For three days they wereable to converse with their home base. They exchanged news and data,transmitted back all they had learned and eagerly asked for news.

  The men of the crew had the chance to send messages home, and Burl eventalked briefly with his father. There had been an important discoverymade on Earth.

  The lines of force had finally been traced. The distortions visible onMars, as well as the one from Mercury before its cutoff, had been workedout directionally. There was no doubt that a line of force had beenchanneled outward to a point in space that now proved to be that of aplanet. The planet was Pluto.

  "Pluto!" That was the shocked word uttered by everyone within hearingdistance when the radio voice said it.

  "Pluto! Why, that's the end of the line! The most distant planet," saidOberfield, shocked. "We'll have to go there--all the way!"

  That fact sobered everyone. It meant the trip must last many timeslonger than anyone had expected. But they were a band of men who hadachieved great things--they had managed so far to work together inharmony, and they felt that since they had conquered two planets--whatwere a few more?

  Mars gradually grew larger on their telescopic viewers as the _Magellan_fell onward through space, riding the beam of gravity that was like apulling rope to them. The slow down and reverse was made in goodorder--the sphere swinging around, readjusting, and the great, drivingZeta-ring generators now pushing and braking.

  Then one wake period, Russ and Burl went to the telescope and trained itagain on the oncoming planet. The now large disc of the ruddy worldswung onto the screen. It looked strange, not at all like the drawings.

  Burl had never seen it through Terrestrial telescopes, but he sensedsomething was wrong. He realized suddenly, "Both poles are enlarged!It's winter on _both_ hemispheres! And that's impossible!"

  Yet it was so. Both the Martian ice caps were present and both extendeddown the northern and southern hemispheres of the world. The men staredin silence.

  Slowly Russ tried to figure it out, "The greenish-blue areas canscarcely be seen. Where they should be, there're darker patches ofbrown, against the yellowish-red that now seems to be the desert areas.It seems to be winter on both sides and it looks bad. It looks to me asif Mars were a fast-dying world."

  Burl squinted his eyes. "Yet I see the canals. The straight lines arestill visible--see?"

  Russ nodded. "They're real. But what's happened?"

  Indeed, the planet seemed blighted. "It's the Sun-tap," Burl decided."We should have realized what it would do."

  "Remember Earth the week it was working? The temperature fell severaldegrees, began to damage crops? Remember how it snowed in places wheresnow had never fallen in July? Remember the predictions of disaster forcrops, of danger from winter snows if the drop continued?"

  Russ went on in his careful, explanatory way. "And for Mars it hascontinued. Mars was always colder than Earth; life there must have beenfar more precariously balanced. During the day, on the Martian equatorin midsummer, the highest temperature is not likely to be more than 70 deg.or 80 deg.; and at night, even then, it would fall below freezing.Vegetation on Mars must have been hardy in the best of times, and lifecarried on under great difficulties.

  "Now the margin of warmth and light has been cut. It has been justenough to keep both polar caps frozen, to prevent water from reachingthe fertile regions, and the cold has advanced enough to bar the growthand regeneration of plant life. If the Sun-tapping on Mars is notstopped, all life there will die out, and it will be a permanently deadworld forever."

  The news spread throughout the crew and there was a feeling of anger andurgency. Nobody knew what lived on Mars, yet the subject of Mars andMartians had always intrigued the imaginations of people on Earth. Now,to hear that the unknown enemy had nearly slain a neighboring worldbrought home vividly just what would also have been the fate of Earth.

  The day finally came when the big spaceship slid into an orbit about theruddy planet. It circled just outside the atmospheric level while themen aboard studied the surface for its secrets.

  Mars was indeed inhabited. This fact was borne home by the canals andthe very evident artificial nature of their construction. They could seeclearly through their telescopes that there was an intricate globalnetwork of pipelines, pumping stations, and irrigation viaducts frompole to pole. They also saw that at the intersections of the canals weredark sections crisscrossed with thin blobs of gray and black whichproved under the telescopes to be clusters of buildings. There werecities on Mars, linked by the waterways.

  They saw no aircraft. They detected no railroad lines or roadways beyondthe canalways themselves. The many regions of darker, better ground,intersected by the canals which no longer fulfilled their purposes, werecover
ed with thick vegetation--forests of dying, wintery stalks. Only aflicker of dark green here and there showed where some faint irrigationstill got through.

  They saw also that there were lines of white, which had not been visiblebefore. Snow was gathering in low spots, and the planet was freezing up.

  The lines of solar distortion were strong, and they traced them to theirpoint of concentration. The point was not some isolated spot far in adesert, away from Martian investigation. To the amazement of the men,the location of the Sun-tap station was actually within a Martian city!

  "Do you suppose," Lockhart queried the others, "that the Martiansthemselves are the builders of this setup--that this is theirproject--that they are the criminals and not the victims?"

  There was no answer. The evidence was apparent, but it made no sense. Ifthe Martians had created this thing, it was destroying them. And yet, ifthey had not created it, why did they--so clearly a race that hadattained a high level of engineering ability--tolerate its continualexistence?

  As the ship descended, they saw the city emerge. It consisted ofhundreds of gray mounds--buildings laid out in the form of neathemispherical structures, like skyscraper igloos, with rows of circularwindows. Each building was like the next, and they fitted together in aseries of great circles, radiating outward from the meeting spot of thecanals.

  The explorer crew waited at the ship's rocket launchers for an attack.The tail of the teardrop housed the built-in armament--the rocket tubeswhich could send forth destruction to an enemy. But though Haines satwith his finger on the launcher button, no aircraft rose to meet themfrom the city below. No guns barked at them. No panic started in thestreets.

  They could see tiny dots of living beings moving about, but no sign ofalarm, no evidence that they had been noticed.

  Even here, at the equator, there were streaks of white snow in thestreets and rings of rime along the bases of the buildings.

  Directly below them lay the Sun-tap station. The lines converged here,and the rings of distortion could be seen in the atmosphere, causing thecity to flicker as if from the presence of invisible waves.

  Then they saw the masts and their shining accumulators projecting abouta cleared spot near the outskirts of the city. The customary walledring and the open machinery were not visible.

  "The Sun-tap station is under the city!" said Lockhart, shocked. "It'sbeen built beneath the streets somewhere, and the Martians walk aroundabove it and let the masts alone! They must be the builders!"

  "If so, why are they killing themselves?" Burl couldn't see the sense ofit. "And if they have reasons, then why don't they defend it? They werealerted while we were on Mercury. They must have spaceships if they arethe enemy. Where are they?"

  The ground was now but a few hundred feet below them, and still no onepaid the strange ship hanging in the sky any attention. While the crewstood with bated breath, Lockhart brought the ship down and down, untilit came to rest barely fifty feet above an intersection. There it hung,nearly touching the roofs, and was ignored.

  The shining masts of the Sun-tap station continued to gleam, followingthe tiny bright Sun in its course through the dark blue of the sky. Oneof the two small Martian moons was climbing upward along the horizon.The canals beyond were dark lines of conduit, through which nolife-giving waters flowed. And the Martians did nothing.

 
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