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The secret of the ninth.., p.16
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.16

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 14. _Rockets Away!_

  The next lap of their journey was uneventful. Saturn, the next outwardplanet from the Sun, and the second largest, would present the sameproblem as Jupiter. This world, famous for its mysterious rings, wasabout 71,000 miles in diameter and had a large family ofsatellites--nine in all. The Sun-tap station would be on one of these,Burl thought.

  Saturn was also almost as far out from Jupiter as Jupiter itself hadbeen from the Sun. This meant that the trip would be as long for the_Magellan_ as the distance they had already traveled to get to Jupiter.Fortunately the A-G drive was a remarkable thing--it was possible toaccelerate to fantastic speeds--in theory, probably right up to thespeed of light. And so, where great distances were concerned, the shipsimply rushed its fall through on Saturn's line of gravitation.

  Boulton had fully recovered and showed no lingering signs of the strangeelectronic charge. Because of the limited size of the crew, Lockhart putthe Marine captain back on full duty--he would participate in futurelandings as if nothing had ever happened.

  At the same time, Lockhart cautioned Haines, Burl and Ferrati to keeptheir eyes on him. It was always possible that the foe's weapon had madesome more lasting mark.

  Haines had his group make a new inventory of their weapons. Burl,working with them in a space suit, in the partially protected region ofthe cargo hull, was surprised at the variety. There was a second rocketplane, a two-man outfit. In addition, they had a large store ofoffensive weapons, including a small but formidable supply of atomicexplosives.

  Haines gave Burl and Ferrati--who were new to military weapons--briefintroductory lectures on their use. Burl saw just what a hand-sized,tactical atomic shell looked like and how it worked. He learned how tooperate the heavy-caliber rocket gun which hurled this tiniest of atomicbombs.

  And so the time passed, and the amazing disc of Saturn began to grow intheir viewplates. It was banded, much like Jupiter, and its brilliantrings surrounded it with a mystic halo that set it apart from all theother worlds of the Sun's family.

  Burl was watching Saturn through the largest of the nose viewplates whenhe thought that he saw a black dot crossing its face. He had located theknown moons of Saturn and this was not one of them. Excited, he calledRussell Clyde. "Could it be a tenth satellite?" he asked, pointing outthe tiny dot.

  Russ squinted his eyes; then, calculating mentally, he shook his head,"I don't think so. It looks to me more like something that's in spacebetween us and Saturn. In fact--it must be fairly close to us for us tosee it at all." He turned to Lockhart who was at the control panel withOberfield.

  "You'd better have a look. Could be a giant meteor coming in ourdirection."

  "We're moving mighty fast," commented Oberfield. "It should have passedus already if it were a meteor. Instead, it seems to be maintaining thesame distance--neither growing larger nor smaller. Acts very odd for anatural body."

  "Uh, uh," said Lockhart. "This calls for caution." He quickly went backto the controls, pressed the general alarm button, then called into theintercom. "All hands to emergency stations. Haines and party, pleaseprepare defensive positions."

  "This means me," gulped Burl, and scooted down the central hatch, almostcolliding with Caton and Shea on their way to the engine room. He metHaines, and, with neat dispatch, all four slipped into space suits. Thenout through the cargo hold to posts by escape hatches.

  Burl and Haines, at the main entry port, unlimbered the long rocketlauncher that had been set up in the passageway. Haines placed threeshells of differing strength in position.

  They heard through their helmet phones that the mysterious dot wasdrawing closer. Haines set up one of the launching racks, which wasequipped with a telescopic sighter, and peered through the eyepiece.Apparently he caught it, for he grunted, then motioned to Burl to take alook.

  It was no natural object. It was the shape of a dumbbell--two spheresjoined together by a short middle bar. One sphere was a deep, goldencolor, the other a bluish-silver, the connecting rod a coppery metal.

  "The pattern of spheres certainly suggests the Sun-tappers to me," saidBurl. Haines murmured his agreement.

  Lockhart's voice came on the phones. "We've decided it's one of theSun-tapper ships. We're not going to wait to make sure. Before we leftEarth, I can now inform you, I received a directive from the Presidentto regard the builders of these Sun-tap stations as active enemies. Myorders are that we are not to attempt to undertake peaceful contact, butare to treat them on sight as armed foes in the field. To do otherwiseis to risk Earth's last active defense--this ship.

  "I think I don't have to argue this further, considering our recentexperiences." His voice hesitated, then rang out firmly, "Haines, youcan commence firing at will!"

  Haines clicked his tongue and reached for one of the shells. "Okay,Burl, aim at her direct. This one's got a proximity nose that'll beam ather and drive itself where ever she ducks."

  He slid the rocket shell into the launcher, Burl sighted, and thenHaines pressed the trigger. There was a whoosh of fire and a flare fromthe launcher's nose. A minute spark winged into the darkness toward thespot, still many miles away, where the strange ship hung.

  They watched with bated breath. Suddenly there was a flash of light fromthe other ship--a vivid lightning bolt which leaped out and flared upbriefly in space. Then darkness again.

  "They fired a burst of energy at us. It hit the rocket shell instead,"said Haines. "Well, now we know. They use bolts of pureenergy--something like the one they fired at Boulton."

  He fitted another shell into the launcher, and fired again. Again aspark winged its way, and the bolt of energy burst out to detonate theshell. Burl whistled. "How did they spot it so fast?" he asked.

  "I don't think they did. They're firing at us--the rocket shell onlyhappened to be between," snapped Haines.

  "Ferrati," he called into his mike, "fire a shrapnel shell at them whenI say the word. Advise me when ready!"

  Ferrati's voice snapped back. "Right you are, sir. Here it is now, oneminute--okay, on target!"

  While Ferrati and Boulton were readying their shot from the lower cargoport near the tail of the ship, Haines and Burl had been fitting thelargest of their shells into their own launcher. They aimed itcarefully at the front-most sphere of the enemy.

  "Ferrati, fire!" cried Haines, and then slowly counted to five andpressed the stud of his own launcher.

  There was a momentary flicker as Ferrati's rocket shell raced forthbelow. Then, after a definite time lapse, the exhaust of Haines' heavyshell appeared.

  "The shrapnel shell is segmented and doesn't have a proximity guide,"Haines explained. "As soon as it's on its way, the nose comes apart intoa dozen small shells, each with a standard explosive charge. The shellwe used has an atomic bomb warhead and is on proximity guide. It'llchase that ship to the ends of the system if they don't blast it first."

  He paused. There was another bolt of raw energy from the dumbbell-shapedcraft, and this time a series of flares in the space between--theshrapnel charges had been touched off. Burl held his breath.

  "I figure it takes them a while to recharge their gun," said Haines."Our own blockbuster should get there before they fire again."

  Then suddenly there came a sharper flare of brilliant light. For aninstant Burl was blinded by the glare. When he recovered, he peeredavidly through the telescopic sighter. He saw the ship, but where therehad been a golden sphere there was now only a shattered fragment oftwisted metal.

  The enemy ship changed before his eyes. The remaining silvery sphereglowed brighter, and took on a golden hue. Then it seemed as if theship were growing smaller. He realized finally that it was retreating.

  Burl gave an involuntary shout, and in his earphones he heard the sameshouts of triumph from every voice on the ship.

  Although it might have been possible to pursue the battered enemy ship,the _Magellan_ did not try. They were still on course for Saturn andwere not going to deviate.

  They reached S
aturn after several more days. Matching their great speedwith that of the ringed world in its orbit took time, and then theybegan their survey.

  As they had suspected, the Sun-tap station was on one of the moons. Themoon was called Iapetus, the third largest of Saturn's family. It wasabout eight hundred miles in diameter and the next to the farthestsatellite from Saturn. Russ was disappointed that they hadn't pickedTitan, the biggest moon of all. Titan was over two thousand miles wideand appeared to have an atmosphere of methane.

  The view of Saturn was awesome, even from Iapetus' orbit two millionmiles away. Burl knew it would be a sight unparalleled in the system.The great broad rings, composed of innumerable tiny particles of metal,stone, and possibly ice, encircled it as if held there by an invisiblehand. They were, he knew, the particles of a moon that had either cometoo close to Saturn's great gravitational pull to hold its shape, orelse had never escaped far enough to congeal as one solid mass.

  Iapetus was a solid world, though. A rocky body, it had a dull gleam,and was streaked here and there with layers of white and yellow, whereveins of frozen gases lay forever upon the frigid surface. No atmosphereveiled the surface nor softened the harsh, jagged mountains and cleftsof this forbidding little subplanet.

  The Sun-tap station stood in plain sight on a high plateau near a polarregion. The _Magellan_ hovered over it while Lockhart held a council ofwar.

  "I don't see what's to be gained by attempting a landing party," hesaid. "We've taken all the readings and pictures of the otherstations--and we've had a couple of narrow escapes. They've probablymined this one, and they have had plenty of time to prepare a trap. I'min favor of simply dropping an H-bomb on it and leaving."

  After a brief discussion, with only perfunctory objections from Clydeand Oberfield who, as astronomers, wanted to land to take otherreadings, the decision was carried.

  The _Magellan_ swung up a couple of hundred miles above the Sun-tappers'plateau. Haines and his crew loaded the bulky H-bomb into the mainlauncher in the tail of the ship. Then the _Magellan_ aimed itself atthe target, and the rocket-driven bomb roared out.

  Down it sped, zeroing in on the wall of the station. There was ablinding flash, a glare as brilliant as that of the Sun itself, as ithit square on the mark. This time Burl watched through carefullyshielded viewscreens. The scene was obscured by a wide-flung cloud ofwhite--tens of thousands of cubic feet of satellite rock turnedinstantaneously into dust particles. After the dust cleared away, theysaw only a gaping crater where the plateau had been--a volcanic hole,miles wide and glowing red, from which spread vast, deep cracksthroughout the entire visible hemisphere of the moon.

  The men on the _Magellan_ were awed and silent. The thought occurred toeach of them, beyond his capacity to deny it: what if this had happenedon Earth?

  "Of course," said Ferrati slowly, "the low gravity of Iapetus accountsfor the greater extent of the disaster. If this had been Bikini or...."But under the glares of the rest of the crew, his sentence trailed offweakly.

  Lockhart turned away from the viewer. "Mr. Oberfield," he said,unexpectedly formal and official, "you may chart our course for Uranus."

  "Aye, aye, sir," said that usually dour personage, with alacrity.

  With forced smiles, the rest of the crew drifted away to their duties.The _Magellan_ pulled away from Saturn, heading out again toward thelimits of the solar system, but it was several days before everyone hadquite managed to dismiss the vision of the H-bomb from his mind.

 
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