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The secret of the ninth.., p.17
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.17

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 15. _Ice Cold on Oberon_

  Nevertheless, from that point on, a different spirit seemed to animateeveryone aboard the _Magellan_. There was the feeling that they hadclosed with the enemy and found themselves not wanting. There was thefeeling that they possessed powers not inferior to those of theirunknown enemies. The thought had been haunting them all along that theywere in the position of a backward people facing an advancedinvader--something like the problem of the Aztecs when faced with thegunpowder and armor of the conquistadors.

  Now they knew that though the Sun-tappers' weapons were different andindeed advanced beyond Earthly technology, they themselves were notwithout resources equally deadly to the foe.

  After the memory of the H-bomb's powers had been finally absorbed, thecrew's activities began to indicate that the ship was coming into thecrucial phase of its journey. Haines and Boulton were going over thelist of military supplies with sharp, calculating eyes and slight grinsat the thought of retribution to come. Ferrati was overhauling therocket planes and land traveling devices, making them shipshape.

  Russell Clyde and Burl surveyed the sky, anxious to be the first to spotwhat they hoped would be the limping body of the battered and fleeingdumbbell ship, a little atingle at the hope of spotting another suchship--feeling now almost like the hunting dog that has finally spottedthe fox.

  Lockhart himself reflected this mood of growing excitement. He prowledthe ship, examining the mighty purring engines, querying Caton, Shea andDetmar as to how it could better its performance, how fast it could bemade to shift speed and directions. He studied the orbits and locationsof the remaining planets.

  "Uranus is not too far off our path to Pluto," he announced one day."We'll make it in time to wipe out their plant there. But Neptune, whoseorbit is between those of Uranus and Pluto, is away off our track, athird of the way around the Sun. We're going to skip it, hit directlyfor Pluto and their main base--the end of their line. I don't want togive them too much time to make repairs or to get any reinforcements. Ithink they're limited in numbers--and we ought to slam them while theystill are."

  There was no dissent at this. And as the days rolled past, the men ofthe _Magellan_ began to chafe in their repressed desire to finish thematter. At last Uranus came into sight--a large globe, very much likeSaturn and Jupiter in that it was of low density and great dimensions.Roughly, sixty-four times the size of Earth, its density was barelyabove that of water and it probably had no solid surface to speak of. Aninhospitable mass of unbreathable gases, at temperatures fantasticallylower than the freezing point of water.

  As they drew close to the planet, they could see that it also wasbanded, pale green bands alternating with lighter ones--indicating thatsome sections of its atmospheric belt moved faster than others. It hadfive moons which rotated in the opposite direction from those of anyother satellite system.

  It was on the farthest moon, Oberon, a sphere six hundred miles indiameter, that the Sun-tap station revealed itself. They swung down toobserve it and to place their bomb. Not an H-bomb though--theyrecognized that they had erred in thinking they needed such a powerfulexplosive.

  Oberon was without an atmosphere, a rocky world with streaks of frozengases, and here and there the sheen of a lake of ice--ice that wouldnever melt--that on this world would be a permanent, hard-as-metalmaterial. There was, nonetheless, something about the surface thatseemed to bother Russ.

  "Do you notice what seems to be a sort of shifting movement?" he askedBurl. Burl looked, and sure enough, he saw that in places there seemed aflickering of lights.

  "Yes," he said, "I see it. What do you suppose it is?"

  "I don't know," said Russ, "But I'm going to ask Lockhart to put theship down and let me take a look."

  Lockhart at first demurred, but finally decided that they could affordthe brief halt. The _Magellan_ approached the surface, safely distantfrom the Sun-tap station.

  Burl and Russ descended in the two-man rocket plane, while theteardrop-shaped ship hung half a mile above them. They landed on anarrow plain, bordered by low ridges of mountains shining with streaksof frozen hydrogen. A layer of cosmic dust hung over the rocks.

  Wearing insulated space suits, they left the rocket plane. It was Burlwho made the first discovery. He pointed dramatically at the ground."Look, Russ. This dust is full of streaks and marks. It hasn't beenlying here undisturbed. Something has crossed over it!"

  Russ kneeled in order to look more carefully. The layer of dust, theconsequences of an airless world exposed without protection to theendless fall of cosmic particles, was indeed not the level, undisturbedsurface it should have been. Here and there were light, low depressions,as if something had moved across it--like a small snake crawling on itsbelly. In one place lay a series of depressions, like the footprints ofsome light-bodied creature.

  "Impossible," muttered Russ. "Life can't exist here."

  But they trudged on, across the barren flat to a ridge of rock. Herethey found what they had thought to be impossible. Clustered along theside of the ridge, in the faint light of the distant and tiny Sun, was aseries of thin, blue stalks, about half a foot in height. On each stalkwas a flat scalloped top like a little umbrella. It was sometimes brightblue, and sometimes violet. As they drew nearer, these little stalksbegan to sway, and turned their tops toward them.

  "They look like plants," said Burl. "Plants made of something glassy andplastic."

  As Russ studied the strange growths, something moved across the dustytract behind them. It was long and thin and wiggly, with a ridge of tinycrystalline hairs along its back. It was like a snake perhaps, but onemade of some unbelievably delicate glasswork.

  It slid among the plants and wrapped itself around one. The growthsnapped suddenly, and then was absorbed by the creature.

  Russ shook his head in amazement. "This is a great discovery," he saidincredulously. "This is life! It's life of a chemical type utterlydifferent from the protoplasm of Earth and Mars and Venus. It's lifedesigned to exist among liquid gases and frozen air--life which can'thave anything in common with protoplasm. Apparently it couldn't existeven on Saturn's moons--they were too _hot_ for it!"

  Russ was carried away with the possibilities. "This hints at greatthings, Burl. Out near Pluto, where the system is even colder, there maybe other forms of this frigi-plasmic life, if I may coin a word. Thismeans a whole new science!"

  They returned to the ship with their astonishing news. The _Magellan_slowly skimmed over the surface of Oberon. They found whole forests ofthis glassy frigid vegetation, but not much evidence of any animal lifelarger than the creature the two explorers had seen.

  Over the Sun-tap station--a ringed layout like the others, whose clusterof masts caught the emanations of the distant Sun on the one hand anddirected them outward to the still unseen planet Pluto on the other--theship halted. It drew up fifty miles, pointed its tail and blasted fortha rocket-driven, tactical atomic bomb.

  The blast on Oberon was tiny compared to the one which had devastatedIapetus, but it still left a deep indentation in the surface for futurespace fliers to see.

  They left it and the Uranian orbit behind them and headed outward onceagain. Behind them now lay the worlds of the Sun's family, while far offto one side lay the tiny light of Neptune. Ahead, between them and thevast gulf of interstellar space, lay only the dark, mysterious ninthplanet, the enigmatic world named after the lord of the underworld,Pluto.

  The _Magellan_ plunged on, in constant acceleration, moving outward tothe farthest limit of the solar system. They had traveled almost onebillion, eight hundred million miles from the Sun--and yet they stillhad two billion miles more to go. This was the longest stretch--andduring it, they would reach speeds greater than any they had touchedbefore. They shot outward, faster and faster, eating up the infiniteemptiness of space, driving the vast stretch that divided Pluto from itsneighbors.

  The Sun, already small, dwindled steadily. It was still the brighteststar in their sky--of all the stars, it alone
retained a disclike shape,and the faint flicker of its coronal flames could occasionally be madeout--but it no longer dominated the heavens. To find the Sun, they nowhad to look for it as they would for any other star.

  As for Earth, it could not be seen. So close to the tiny Sun it lay thatonly their sharpest telescopes could bring it out. Even Jupiter showedup only as a thin, tiny crescent near the solar point of light.

  "Pluto's a mysterious world," said Burl as he and Russ scanned theheavens for a first glimpse of it. "The accounts in your astronomy booksgive very little real information on it--but what they give is strange.They say it's the only planet beyond Mars that is a small solid worldlike the inner ones. It seems to be the same size as Earth--not at alllike the big outer worlds. And they say it seems to be the same mass asEarth--a solid world whose surface gravity would be the same as our ownplanet's."

  Russ nodded. "It's an odd one, all right. There's now even some beliefthat it's not a true planet, but one that was once a satellite ofNeptune. Its orbit is peculiar; it apparently may cut into that ofNeptune. In fact, everything hints at Pluto not being a true child ofour Sun. It may be a world captured from afar--a lonely wanderer castoff from some other star, captured by the Sun after millions of years ofdrifting lightless through space."

  Beyond them, in their vision, lay only the stars of outer space, thevoid that did not belong to our system. And then, finally, they foundPluto--a tiny point of light shining among the blazing stars. They sawthe disc, dimly reflected in the light of the far-away Sun.

  Even as they were taking their first long look at the dark planet, thegeneral alarm rang. They had caught up with the fleeing wreck of theSun-tapper's scout cruiser.

 
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