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The secret of the ninth.., p.15
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.15

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 13. _The Pole of Callisto_

  Burl surveyed his position. Judging from the apparent weight of hisbody, Boulton was decelerating the ship at a little less than onegravity. The nylon cord was hooked into a bolt near the center of theship. It would be possible for Burl to climb up it and reach a firmergrip on the outside shell.

  There was no time to be lost. An increase in the ship's speed mightincrease his weight several times over. He began to climb back, reelingin the rope, pulling himself up hand over hand, just as he had done manytimes in the gymnasium of his high school back home.

  Halfway up, Clyde's voice came on his helmet phones. "Will all membersof the crew report their present positions to me? Haines?"

  He called each man's name, beginning with the three outside. Haines andFerrati were clinging to the surface, on the far--now forward--end ofthe ship. The rest of the crew was somewhere in the living sphere.Lockhart was still unconscious. Burl could hear the faint sounds of adiscussion in the control room, and also thumps as Caton and Sheacontinued to try to break open the entry to the generator chambers.

  Then Russ spoke again. "Burl, it looks as if you're elected. You seem tobe the only one in the right place. There's a hatchway into the nose ofthe ship from the outside. It's just below the central circle. Can yousee it? How close are you to it?"

  Burl was almost at the surface now. The circular inset ring that markedthe hatchway entry port was a few feet from where his rope was hooked.He described it to Russ.

  "Can you reach it without losing your grip? If you can, do you think youcan open it?" came the radio voice quickly.

  Burl reached the surface and grasped the hook. He studied the circularpanel carefully. "I can reach it all right. There's a holder hookalongside it. But what will I do when I get there?"

  "Open it," Russ ordered brusquely. "It unscrews from either side.There's a short lock space between the outer shell and the innershielding of the generator chamber. Get inside and seal the door afteryou. From there you can work your way into the emergency nose door tothe engines. Keep your suit on. While the generators are shielded,there's no telling what Boulton may have done. The suit will give yousome protection.

  "After you go through the door, it's up to you. Boulton will be there.You'll have to stop him, somehow. Caton says if you can find the toolkit you may be able to get a wrench to use as a weapon. If you can getthrough without his seeing you and open the trap door to us, we'll dothe rest. But it depends on you."

  Burl bit his lip. "Okay. Here I go." There was no question of argument.Everyone's life was at stake, and he happened to be in the strategicposition.

  He swung over to the panel, hooked his foot under the handgrip andgrasped the lever inset in the surface. He twisted it. After a briefmoment of resistance, the panel turned slowly. There was a sudden puffas the air within escaped, and then the hatchway stood open. Burlclimbed inside.

  He caught at the open plug, pulled it back and screwed it tightly fromthe inside. Now he was in a dark, narrow space. He could feel the flowof air automatically being pumped back in and heard the humming of thegenerators through his suit.

  Working his way along the inner wall in darkness, he finally felt theedge of the metal door that opened into the Zeta-ring chamber itself. Heleaned against it, listening, but there was no sound. He turned thehandle and threw his shoulder against the door.

  It gave, then swung open. He stepped cautiously into the engine room.

  It was large and circular, fitting neatly within the nose of the ship.The wide tubes of the A-G generator ring ran around the outside. Thereactors were heavy blocks of ceiling-high metal, shielded, and showingonly the dials that registered their output. Other machines--the rodstorage units and the condensers--were all carefully hidden behind cleanmetal shielding.

  The panel that controlled the engines was unattended in the center ofthe room. Standing by one of the shielded reactors was Boulton, his backto Burl. He was hammering at the reactor with a bar, evidently trying totear away the shielding to get at the guts.

  Stealthily, the boy made his way to the locker where the tools werekept. Just as he opened it, his hand slipped. The door of the lockerclanged against the wall. The burly Marine captain whirled, saw Burl,and gave a yell of rage.

  Burl grabbed a wrench and swung it threateningly. Boulton drew back. Hisface was pale, with an odd expression on it, as if he did not recognizeBurl or understand what Burl said. Burl tried to reason with him, butthe glaring eyes were those of a total stranger, or, as it seemed then,an alien beast.

  Boulton cried in anger, dropped his bar, and charged Burl with his handsoutstretched.

  Burl swung the wrench, but the strength of the older man tore it fromhis grasp, hurling it away. The boy tried to dodge, and then the twobodies collided.

  The instant the two men touched there was a violent flash of light. Burlfelt a shock that left him stunned and reeling. Boulton collapsed in aheap on the floor.

  Burl steadied himself, keeping a wary eye on the captain. Boulton sat upslowly, putting a hand to his head. "Boy, that was some kickback," hemuttered. He looked at Burl. "Give me a hand up. We've got to get backto the jeep and scram out of here fast. The A-bomb's already set."

  Burl was startled. He realized in a moment, though, that Boultonrecalled nothing of the past few days--his last memory seemed to be ofthe blast in the Martian basement. But now, the captain was apparentlyhimself again.

  Boulton got shakily to his feet. He seemed confused. "How'd I get here,son?" he asked in surprise.

  Burl gave a sigh of relief. "I guess you're all right now. But let's getthe trap door to the control room open. Clyde and Caton have got to getthe ship back on course. There'll be time to explain afterward."

  Half an hour later, when Lockhart had recovered and resumed command, theship was restored to its proper course. Russ filled Boulton in on whathad happened and ventured a guess as to why.

  "You must have been given some sort of charge by that globe in the MarsSun-tap station," Russ said. "It turned you into a sort of robot--ahuman body running on a charge of alien energy that responded to thecommands of the Sun-tap outfit. Apparently, it took a long time beforethe charge had complete control of your body. Obviously, it then couldact only in some general way--telling you to wreck the ship.

  "Now, Burl, your body received a charge a long time ago. Whatever itsnature, it counteracted or shorted Boulton's when you came intocontact."

  Both Boulton and Burl thought that made sense. "But," Burl conjectured,"isn't it possible that the charge in my own body has also beenshorted?"

  Russ shrugged. "Maybe. We'll find out at the next stop. And,incidentally, that's not going to be on Jupiter itself, but on its moonCallisto. We've traced the line of distortions."

  "That's good news," said Burl. "I had the feeling you were worried aboutJupiter. The planet's so huge it would have meant real trouble trying toland. The books say its atmosphere is thick, unbreathable, and moves ingale velocity around it."

  Russ nodded. "With Jupiter almost 89,000 miles in diameter, it wouldhave been a tough problem to maneuver outside this ship ... in fact,impossible, not to mention the fact that the atmosphere, mostly ammoniaand other frigid gases, moves in several independent belts. However,Callisto should be okay."

  "That's something we know about our opponents, anyway," said Burl, "Theymust have physical limitations enough like ours to rule out places wherewe couldn't move, either."

  Boulton showed no further effects from his experience. In time, the_Magellan_ drew near Jupiter. Callisto, its fifth satellite outward,moved about the mighty planet at a distance of 1,170,000 miles. It was alarge satellite as they go, 3,220 miles in diameter, larger, in fact,than Mercury. But, as Russ explained, it was a queer place in its ownfashion.

  For despite its size, Callisto was apparently not a solid body as wethink of it. Its density totaled only a little more than that of water,its mass half that of the Earth's Moon--a notoriously porous body.

  They bore
down on Callisto, matching their speed to its, and swung closeto its surface. It had almost no atmosphere, just a thin layer of theheavier gases. It was a belted world, without clearly defined continentsor surface markings. Its equatorial zone was one vast, featureless beltof darkish-gray. Its temperate zones were white, with patches of yellowhere and there. But its poles were gray again.

  "The satellite's like a huge ball of thin mud that's never hardened,"said Burl as they studied the strange terrain.

  "The equator's the softest--it seems to be a river of muddy water,hundreds of miles wide--only it can't be water. Probably semisolidifiedgases holding dust and grains of matter in suspension," said Russ. "Thetemperate zones are the same stuff, only colder, and therefore morestable. A thin crust of frozen gases over a planet-wide ocean ofsemiliquid substance."

  "The Sun-tap station's on the southern pole," said Burl. "That must besolid."

  It was. The poles of Callisto were actually two continent-sized islandsof shell. Dry, mudlike stuff, hard as rock, floating on the endless seasof the semiliquid planet.

  The station, a ringed setup quite like the one on Earth, stood in thegeographic center of the south pole. The _Magellan_ hovered over itwhile a landing party went down in the four-man rocket plane.

  Clyde, Haines and Burl were the landing party. This time, only Burlentered the station after a hole had been blasted in the outer shell.While the redheaded astronomer took samples and made observations,Haines kept watch. Nobody knew what type of defense awaited them here.

  Burl found the controls easily enough. He was afraid that he might havelost his physical charge, but it was not so. The controls functioned,the Sun-tap station died. The effect was not very noticeable, forCallisto was already far from the Sun and the thin atmosphere could notdiminish the dark sky of outer space. What the great masts caught musthave been only the relay from other stations--or perhaps the invisiblerays of the distant Sun.

  Burl saw no reason to linger, and the three of them gathered up theirequipment. As they started back toward the rocket plane, they heard anominous rumble in the ground.

  A sudden spurt of blazing gas shot up from the center of the station."Duck!" yelled Haines, and they fell flat on the ground. Burl held hishands protectively over his head, as an explosion shook the building.

  There was no rain of rocks. Whatever the blast, Callisto's gravity wastoo weak to attract the debris that flew high above the station.

  "It was an atomic explosion!" Haines shouted into his helmet mike. "Theymined the station. Run for it!"

  They raced for the rocket plane. As they ran, Burl felt the groundquiver beneath him, and huge cracks began to spread, rippling throughthe hard ground.

  They reached the plane and piled in. Russ took off just as the surfacecracked open in a thousand places like an ice sheet breaking in anArctic thaw.

  As they rocketed back to the _Magellan_, the whole polar cap, an areahundreds of miles around the Sun-tap station, split apart. Great spurtsof liquid magma, the liquid gas-dust from the heart of the planet, shotup like fountains. Parts of the shell-like polar continent weredisappearing beneath this new ocean.

  "Their little atomic bomb shattered the thin crust. The whole polarisland will probably sink," said Russ. "It was a clever trap. They knewwhat would happen."

  "Saturn next," said Burl. "What'll they have set up there?"

  They reached the _Magellan_, loaded the rocket plane aboard, and pulledout, setting their course for the ringed planet. But even as they didso, something was coming from Saturn to meet them.

 
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