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The secret of the ninth.., p.18
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.18

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 16. _In Orbit Around Pluto_

  There was a mad rush to action stations. Detmar, Ferrati and Oberfield,who had been in their bunks, dashed to their posts while others tried topass them in both directions. Haines and Burl hastily climbed into theirspace suits, while Ferrati and Boulton manned the inner defensivecontrols.

  Burl pulled the tight-fitting harness of his insulated space suit overhim. The shape of the Sun-tapper ship came into focus on the tiny screenof the air lock viewer. It was approaching them at a frighteningly rapidpace. He could see the broken framework of one of its two globes--theone on which they had scored their hit. The other globe and theconnecting passages were strikingly clear. Tiny circles of windows werevisible in the passage section, which undoubtedly housed the operatorsof the vessel. For a fleeting instant he realized that as yet none ofthe Earthlings had any inkling of what these creatures looked like.

  While he knew that the scene was telescopic, the ship was undoubtedlyapproaching them fast; or rather, they were catching up to it at aperilous pace! Whether the wrecked enemy had slowed down more than theyhad, as it approached its Plutonian base, or whether some other surpriselay ahead, they had no idea.

  Burl felt the jarring impact as Lockhart cut the _Magellan's_ drive.There was an instant of weightlessness, and then their weight reversedas the A-G drive strove to slow down the ship. Within the air lock theywere outside the living space of the sphere, suspended beneath the drivechamber. Burl could see the walls of the inner sphere whirl past him, afoot away, as the living quarters rotated to shift with thegravitational change. And at that very moment, while all those insidewere temporarily helpless, disaster struck.

  Burl had just finished adjusting his airtight helmet, and Haines wasalready on his way forward to the outer shell port and the rocket guns,when there was a flash of lightning from the crippled enemy spaceship.The foe was still capable of fighting--and it had firedfirst--alarmingly close.

  Within what seemed a split second after Burl's eyes had registered theflash on the little viewplate, the _Magellan_ received the full force ofthe mighty electronic discharge. To Burl it seemed as if a thunderclaphad sounded in his ears, and as if he had been plunged into a bath ofwhite flames. The walls of the passage sparked brilliantly, blindinglight filled the air, and Burl's body vibrated as it would to anelectric shock.

  He reeled wildly, catching at the walls and almost falling. In a fewseconds his senses recovered, although his body was still humming fromthe blow and his ears were ringing. The viewplate had gone black, thelights in the air lock corridor were dark, and when he tried to gain hisfeet he realized that the ship now had no gravity; it was falling freewithout power.

  Haines was slumped in the end of the corridor, with the port nearlyopened. Burl pushed his way over to him and helped the groggy explorerto his feet. There was no sound, and Burl suddenly remembered that hehadn't taken time to switch on his helmet phone. He did so and wasrelieved to hear Harness voice asking if he was all right.

  "I'm okay," Burl called. "Let's get this port open. Maybe we can hitback at least once."

  Together, they turned the bolts and pushed the thick outer shell dooropen. Without the aid of telescopic sights they could see the shape ofthe Sun-tapper vessel plainly, outlined against the curtain of distantstars. Struggling not to think of what might be going on within the_Magellan_--their earphones registered nothing except each other--theyunlimbered the long tube of the rocket launcher and aimed point-blank atthe foe. Haines reached into the ammunition locker vault alongside thepassageway and selected the biggest and wickedest of the availableshells. He twisted the dial in the warhead and, while Burl held the aim,shoved in the rocket shell. With a press of the button, the missileroared out of the tube, racing in an arc of fire directly toward thefaint vision of the other ship.

  They watched with bated breath, counting the seconds, hoping not to seeanother blast of electrical fire. But apparently the foe had exhaustedits limited resources, for the thin spidery line of rocket sparksreached out, farther and farther, until it seemed to touch the surfaceof the golden globe.

  There was a great flare in the sky now, an outpouring of fire and hotmetal. When it cleared away, the sky was empty.

  Haines wearily drew the outer port shut. "Now, let's see if we'regoners, too," he said quietly. They sealed the outer shell and madetheir way along the dark passage.

  Even as they were unlocking the toggles of the inner hatch, the corridorlights started to flicker. They would light up dimly, and then flickerout, light up again, flare for an instant, then die down. Someone wasalive within the ship.

  They got the hatch open. In the central section of the living sphere,the lights were also dim and in a few places they were completely out.They emerged and closed the hatch behind them. Only after Haines hadtested the inner atmosphere and found it still pressurized, did theyopen their helmets and climb stiffly out of the space suits, wincing atbruises they had sustained but had not noticed until then.

  The air pressure was all right, but there was a smell of burned rubberand insulation in the air. Now that their helmets were off, they couldhear voices somewhere above. They found Oberfield lying unconscious,thrown to the floor by the sudden shift of the ship. They climbed intothe control room. Lockhart was floating in the air near the openhatchway leading to the engine room overhead. He was calling out ordersto someone who was within.

  Russ was working over the navigation desk, a bandage around his head,trying to figure out where they would be and where they were heading,without having access to the still dark viewplates.

  Lockhart twisted in the weightless air when he saw them. He seemed bothrelieved and distressed. "I'm glad you're okay, but I had hoped you'd beable to put in a blow for us."

  Burl realized that inside the ship they had no way of knowing thatvengeance had been served. Hastily, he explained. His words cheeredeveryone. Russ and Lockhart shouted joyously. Detmar poked his head downthe hatch and called the news back to his two fellows who werestruggling to get the A-G generators functioning.

  The bolt of energy, whatever it may have been designed to do to a shipof the Sun-tapper build, did not have the totally disastrous effect onthe _Magellan_ that it was intended to have. It had knocked out theirelectrical system temporarily, burned out some of its parts and causedthe A-G system to fail, although the atomic piles were impervious tosuch currents. Oberfield, Ferrati and Shea were badly hurt.

  There now followed an anxious period during which more and more of theelectrical system began to function as the men labored to rig upemergency wires, and to replace burned out bulbs and lines. There was ageneral cheer when the viewplates flickered into life again, though notall functioned. They again had access to the sky about them--even thoughnot all sectors were covered.

  The humming in the engine room started up, rose and fell uneasily acouple of times, and then they felt a surge of force. Lockhart fellgently to the floor as the ship began to drive ahead, and then in a fewminutes the A-G drive was back on, and the _Magellan_ was again undercontrol.

  "We took what they had to give, and it wasn't enough," exulted Haines."Now wait till we reach their main works. We'll show them!"

  Lockhart shook his head wearily as he and Russ worked over the controls."Let's hope we don't have to show them soon. Our ship is running onemergency rigging. Caton says he's going to have to rest the ship andrewire a good part of the system. Meanwhile, we will be able to reachPluto safely enough."

  Pluto was visible in the forward viewplates. They could see lighter anddarker patches on it, almost like the markings of continents and oceans,but there was no evidence of an atmosphere, nor had they expected any.

  Readings showed that the average surface temperature was about 200 deg.Fahrenheit below zero, even lower in many places. They searched thesurface for signs of their foe.

  They found what they wanted on the north polar depression, a basin inthe oblate sphere of Pluto. There was no ringed station. There rose avast pile of dark masonry--a mig
hty structure covering at least a squaremile, a fortress building whose roofs bristled with an array of mastsand reflectors. And hanging on patrol over this polar basin were twomore of the dumbbell ships.

  "We're in no position to come to grips with them," said Lockhart. "I'mgoing to take the _Magellan_ into a low orbit around Pluto's equator.We'll be out of their sight, yet near enough to do some probing andexploring while we're making repairs."

  This they proceeded to do, swinging the ship down to within a fewhundred miles of the Plutonian surface, setting on a fixed orbit aroundthe equator, exactly as the sputniks of years past had first circled thebulk of the Earth. Staying far enough up to maintain orbit, they wereclose enough to be below the planet's radiation belt.

  Taking stock of the ship's condition showed that they dearly needed thisdelay. Repairs would not be completed for several days. Practicallyeveryone had been bruised or shaken up; Oberfield had a fractured skulland was in serious condition; Ferrati had broken his leg and pelvis;Shea had a couple of cracked ribs. The men were given emergency medicaltreatment and confined to quarters.

  The _Magellan_ quietly circled Pluto once every hour and a half and theship tried to resume its normal life. Russ studied the surface beneaththem, Haines and Burl at his elbow. Then, after conferring, the threeapproached Lockhart.

  "We want permission to make a landing," Russ said. "If we take thefour-man rocket plane we can make the ground safely. We've got toreconnoiter before we can figure out how to put this master Sun-tapstation out of business."

  Lockhart agreed. "I was planning as much. Now that we're here, we can'tdelay just because we're injured. Go ahead."

  The three got ready quickly. They donned their space suits, loaded thelarger rocket plane with equipment, arms, and plenty of extra fuel. Justbefore they left, Lockhart gave them a word of caution. "Do not attemptto communicate with the _Magellan_ by radio. If Pluto is theSun-tappers' home world, you may find yourselves surrounded by enemies,and overheard. Don't reveal our existence or position. If you have totalk to us, do not expect a reply unless it's an absolute emergency."

  Burl strapped himself into his seat within the rocket plane and glancedthrough the thick window. Below them was a world the size of Earth--aworld which, if it had air and warmth, could most nearly be Earth's twinof all the planets in the system. This rocket plane had touched on thehot surface of Mercury, the first planet, In a little while it would setdown on the frigid surface of the last planet. They had come a longway.

 
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