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The secret of the ninth.., p.14
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.14

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 12. _At Rope's End_

  With Boulton lying across the back seat, the four men actedsimultaneously. Thinking only of self-defense, they drew their pistolsand fired point-blank into the monsters attacking them. As the menemptied their guns, the Martians in front stumbled, fell, rolled over,or began to run aimlessly as the heavy slugs tore through them.

  They were not easy to kill--which was to be expected of creatureswithout much of a central consciousness--but on the other hand, oncestruck or injured, they seemed to lose contact with their fellows and toact wholly without direction. They plunged wildly into each other, andbefore the men in the jeep had finished their barrage, the clearing wasa milling, confused mob. Body clashed against body, legs scrambledunder legs, and the angry buzz was now lost amid the clattering andbanging of shell against shell.

  Haines slid into the front seat behind the steering wheel, stepped onthe gas, and drove toward a momentary gap in the mob. The jeep torethrough, raced around the corner, and headed down an empty street.Crouching in the back, Burl, Russ, and Ferrati hastily reloaded.

  "We can't let ourselves get stopped, or even hole up. That A-bomb'sgoing to go off in about twenty minutes, and we'd better be back at theship before then," cried Russ.

  As they bumped along, they noticed that the Martians who came withinfifty feet of their jeep suddenly stopped whatever they were doing andturned toward them, hostile. They were like a stick drawn along amongbees--as they traveled they left fury in their wake.

  "It must be Boulton," Russ yelled to Burl above the roar of theirpassage. "He must be charged with the irritating vibration."

  Burl nodded as he looked back. The Martians had started after them onfoot, and could lope fast when they wanted to. "They've got some sort oforganized action going," he called to Haines. "I think it's steamcarts!"

  "The mass mind caught on fast," said Russ. "And look! They're warned inadvance now!"

  They were nearing the edge of the city, and looming before them,blocking their right-of-way, were two steam carts--big ones carrying alarge number of Martians. They were holding metallic rods andinstruments in their hand-members.

  Ferrati opened a chest built against the back of the seat and took out alight machine gun. Climbing into the front, next to Haines, he kneeleddown behind the windshield, raised the gun, and blazed away.

  The steam carts suddenly swerved, one after the other, ran wildly intothe side of a building, and turned over. The jeep roared past them,raced across the last hundred feet of city paving and out onto thedesert. Haines had to slow down to navigate safely the uneven layers ofbarren soil, rock and sand. Burl holstered his gun and reached acrossfor one of the abandoned walkie-talkies.

  In the excitement of their exit, none had noticed the change in theMartian scenery. But now it occurred to Burl that the day was distinctlylighter, and he fancied the Sun--small though it was--felt warmer. TheSun-tap demolished, this was to be expected, and by the same token,radio communication should now be practical.

  Sure enough, he got Lockhart's voice at once. Hastily, he warned thecommander of what had happened.

  As they drew nearer the _Magellan_, the great spaceship lowered towardthe ground and let down its grapples and ladders. Burl saw that therewas no time to be lost. A stream of Martians and steam carts was pouringout of the city on their trail.

  They reached the spaceship and slammed to a halt. The men leaped out.Burl and Russ lifted Boulton's unconscious body from the jeep and,between them, managed to hoist him awkwardly up the dangling ropeladder.

  The others hooked grapples onto the jeep, and when it was secure, leapedfor safety themselves.

  As the first of the Martian steam carts was almost on them, the_Magellan_ lifted into the air. It rose high above the surface and swungoff into the desert. The Martians drew to a halt. Burl, looking downfrom the doorway of the cargo hatch, could see them milling aimlesslyaround. None, he noticed, ever glanced up. Air flight, apparently, wasan inconceivable phenomenon to them.

  After the jeep had been pulled into the cargo hold and secured, theouter ports were sealed. When everyone was safely in the inner sphere,the _Magellan_ drew away from Mars and started on the next lap of itslong mission.

  Boulton was carefully examined. Nothing could be made of his condition.He seemed to bear no physical hurt, although he slept on. He was placedin his bunk, and there he rested, breathing slowly, temperature normal,dormant.

  The life of the spaceship resumed, for the time being, without him. Thenext port of call was Jupiter, and that presented problems of its own.Between Mars and Jupiter was the great asteroid belt, a region of manythousands of tiny planetoids, ranging in size from worldlets of two orthree hundred miles in diameter down to rocks the size of footballs."The debris of an exploded planet," was the comment Russ made to Burl."That's the most likely explanation. Anyway," he added, "there seems tobe no Sun-tap station on any of them. The next one is beyond theasteroids, in Jupiter's orbit."

  During the next few days, Lockhart and the two astrogators were busyworking out a rather complex maneuver, which consisted of having theship jump over the asteroid belt rather than travel directly through it.While the orbits of thousands of the larger asteroids had been charted,there were thousands more that consisted of just chunks of rock toosmall to notice. They could not chance a collision with one ofthese--yet to work out the whereabouts of all of them was impossiblytime-consuming.

  What the _Magellan_ did was to depart from the plane of the ecliptic,that level around the Sun to which all the planets generally adhere, andto draw outward so as to avoid the path of the asteroids, then to comeback in onto the orbit and plane of Jupiter. This involved some trickywork with the various gravitational lines, using Mars and the Sun forrepulsion and certain stars for attraction.

  There were quite a number of gravity shifts, and during this period noone could be quite sure what his weight would be from one moment toanother. There were several periods of zero gravity, when the crewmembers would float and face the complex annoyances of a steady feelingof free fall. Burl, after a couple of such sessions, got the hang of itrather comfortably.

  Lockhart looked at him oddly and smiled. "Glad to know it. I may have atask for you soon, then."

  Others found the weightless conditions not so bearable. One of theengineering crew, Detmar, had to be hospitalized. What he had resembledsevere seasickness. Oberfield also experienced moments of acute upset.

  Boulton's condition did not change. Once or twice he stirred slightly inhis sleep, and seemed to murmur something, but then he would lapse backinto his coma. Fortunately he did not resist food, and did swallowliquids forced into his mouth.

  Except for one or two rare intervals, communication with Earth hadceased. Besides, the mother world was now moving away from them andwould pass behind the Sun. Efforts to obtain medical advice for Boultonproved futile.

  After they had passed the orbital line of the asteroids and hadrearranged their drive so that they were falling freely toward Jupiter,Lockhart called the exploring crew together. "I've got a job for youmen," he announced.

  Haines, Ferrati, and Burl gathered about the control board to listen.They were restless for something to do--plans for the Jupiter landingcould not be made until they knew what the situation was going to be,for it would be one thing if the station were located on that giantplanet itself, another if on one of its satellites.

  The colonel wasted no time. "While you were on Mars and we were waitingfor you, I took the opportunity to examine the outer shell of thisship. You know, of course, that we are constantly being bombarded bycosmic dust, the micrometeorites that always prove troublesome to theEarth satellites and space platforms. The ship has been fortunate inthat it has not been struck by any meteoric matter of size, but we havebeen peppered heavily by dust particles. As a result, the outer shell ofour ship is pitted in some spots, and in several places worn perhapsdangerously thin. I don't mean to imply that there are going to be anyholes very soon, but I think that there are
some parts which we shouldreinforce or patch."

  When he stopped for breath, Burl broke in. "You mean you want us to workon the outer shell?"

  Lockhart nodded. "Someone has to do it, and during flights you men arethe deck crew. So it's going to be your baby. I am going to keep theship on free fall for the next several periods and this should make itsimpler for you to go outside, in space suits, and do the job."

  The next hour saw all three hard at work. Dressed in heavy, sealed,warmed outer-space outfits, wearing metal bowl-like helmets with sealedglass fronts, and drawing oxygen from tanks strapped on their backs, thethree men left the inner sphere and emerged on the outer surface of the_Magellan_.

  Burl found it a weird and awesome experience. There was no gravitationaldrag, so that even as he stepped through the exit port, the sceneshifted until he seemed to be standing on metal ground, looking upwardat thousands and tens of thousands of silent white stars. Nothingmoved--except, of course, the space-suited bodies of the two men alreadyhalf out of sight and looking not quite human. There was no sound savethat of his own breath and the faint hum of the radio phone tucked inhis helmet.

  He was firmly attached to the ship by a long nylon rope which he hookedto rings set on the outer shell. He made his way toward the wide roundednose of the ship. In one hand he carried a bucket of a liquid plasticresembling tar in thickness and consistency. With a brush in the otherhand he would stop--held to the surface by magnetic soles--and smear theplastic protective surfacing over the little pits and pockmarks that nowmarred the surface of the once spotless ship. The work was not hard, andshortly became a routine which he found did not require muchconcentration.

  It was dip and smear, in a steady rhythmic motion. Haines was workingout of sight on a more complex repair job which involved welding a sheetof metal over a badly beaten and sprung section. Ferrati was on theopposite side of the ship.

  As he worked, Burl watched the stars, and every now and then wasrewarded by the sight of a moving spark of light--an asteroid or meteor.He could see mighty Jupiter ahead--a wide disc of white and yellow,faintly belted with gray and pale blue bands. The famous red spot wasnot visible. Four of the planet's twelve attendant satellites strung outalongside it, and he recognized them as the big ones discovered byGalileo with his first telescope: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.The other eight were tiny, and probably would not be visible until theywere right on top of Jupiter, though he supposed that Russell Clydecould probably pick them out now by telescopic sightings.

  Burl could hear in his radio the sound of someone whistling softly, andsupposed it was Ferrati. There was a short cut-in as Lockhart called atime-shift on the general intercom. A brief exchange followed betweenCaton in the Zeta-ring chamber of the ship's nose and the colonel, withthe information that Caton was coming down into the living section.

  Then, after a brief period of silence, Burl heard a series of odd noiseson his phones, something went bump, and the sound faded. He was now onthe nose of the ship itself, the wide mushrooming surface beneath hisfeet, and Jupiter high over his head. Bending over, about to smear a dabof plastic on a tiny pitted mark, he suddenly felt himself gripped andpulled.

  Caught by surprise, he jerked upward, the brush flying from his hand andsailing into the sky. His shoes clung momentarily to the surface, buttheir magnetic grip was too weak, and they loosened. He kicked outwildly, falling away into the emptiness of outer space--a space whichhad a moment ago been a sky and had suddenly turned into a bottomlesspit.

  He fell backward, seized momentarily by terror. He was brought up shortby his rope. It held, and he grabbed it and hung on.

  Something had changed. Somebody had altered the ship's drive. The shipwas no longer on free fall; it was on gravity drive--and going backward!Not driving toward Jupiter under added acceleration, but fighting toreduce its fall, to stop its drive, to fly away from Jupiter!

  In his earphones there was a jumble of sounds. He heard Ferrati yellingand realized that he, too, must be falling away from the ship, savedonly by a rope. And the voice of Haines--plastered flat against thesurface, the ship driving upward against him.

  Vague noises emanated from the control room. Evidently no one was at thecommander's mike. He called into it, adding his voice to those of hiscomrades.

  After several agonizing minutes, a voice came over the radio. It wasRussell Clyde's and it was excited and angry. "Hold on out there as longas you can! Lockhart's been knocked unconscious! We're trying to getinto the engine room and take back control!"

  Perplexed, Burl shouted, "Who's in the engine room? Take control fromwhom?"

  There was another pause as he heard sounds of pounding, as if someonewere trying to hammer open a metal panel. Then Russ's voice came onagain. "Its Boulton! He came to suddenly, sneaked up here, knocked outthe commander, and climbed up into the Zeta-ring chamber! Caton was downbelow--and Boulton's locked the trap door and is running the drive. He'sreversed our route, away from Jupiter, and into outer space! Boulton'sapparently gone crazy! And we can't get in to stop him!"

  Burl, suspended over an abyss, clung to the end of the taut, thin nylonline, as the ship pulled him helplessly along into the uncharted depthsof infinity, with a mad-man at the controls.

 
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