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The secret of the ninth.., p.19
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.19

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 17. _Stronghold of the Lost Planet_

  With a jolt that shoved the three men back in their seats, the rocketplane pushed out the cargo hatch, and slid into the dark of space on itsown power. Behind them, the metallic surface of the _Magellan_ gleamedbriefly, and then swung away on its orbit. Riding the red fire of theirrockets, they headed on a long low dive for the mysterious surfacebelow.

  Pluto was a vast hemisphere, half lighted in the faint, dim glow of thetiny Sun, half in the total darkness of outer space. Here and therewound a silent, frozen river of glistening white. They passed over agulf of some frigid sea of liquid gases, from which islands of subzerorock projected, and moved inland over a continent of lifeless grays andblacks. Haines gently drew the ship lower and lower, and at last therocket plane bumped to the ground.

  It rolled a few yards and stopped. The three men crowded to the door,tightened their face plates, and forced open the exit. There was a rushof air as the ship exhausted its atmosphere. Then, one by one, theystepped onto the bleak surface of the Sun's farthest planet.

  "I feel peculiar," whispered Burl. "This planet reminds me ofsomething."

  "I have the feeling I've been here before," Russ said slowly.

  Burl felt an odd chill. "Yes, that's it!"

  Haines grumbled. "I know what you mean. I can make a guess. We've neverreally been the right weight since we left Earth. Even underacceleration there were differences one way or the other. But I feel nowexactly as I did on Earth. That's what gives you the odd sensation ofreturn."

  The two younger men realized Haines was right. For the first time sincethey had left their home world, they were on a planet whose gravity wasnormal to them. It felt good and yet it felt--in these fearfulsurroundings--disconcerting.

  Above them was the familiar black, unyielding sky of outer space. Nobreath of air moved. Yet somehow the scene resembled Earth. "It's like ablack-and-white photo of a Terrestrial landscape," said Burl.

  There was a field, some hills, a tiny frozen creek and the dark shapesof rounded mountains in the distance. All without color except for thecold, faint glow of the star that was the Sun.

  A thin layer of cosmic dust lay over the surface, such as would be foundon any airless world. Russ scooped beneath it and came up with a hardchip.

  He squeezed it between his gauntleted fingers. It cracked and broke intopowder. He whistled softly. "You know what this feels and looks like?"he said as they came close to the frozen creek on the little hillside."It feels like dirt--common, Earthly dirt. Like soil. And you knowwhat ... I can already tell you one of Pluto's secrets."

  They stopped at the creek. It was a layer of frozen crystalline gases.Haines pushed the alpenstock he was carrying into it and scraped awaythe gas crystals. "I think I can guess," he said, "and I'll bet there isice under this gas."

  "Pluto was once a warm world with a thick atmosphere," saidRuss. "Notice the rounded hills and the worn away peaks of themountains. Those are old mountains--weather-beaten. This hill isround--weather-beaten. This creek, those rivers of frozen gas--theyfollow beds that could only be made by real rivers of warm water. Thesoil that lies beneath this dust--it could only happen on a world thatknew night and day, warmth and light, and rain and wind. Pluto was oncea living world, a place we'd have called homelike."

  Burl shivered a bit. "Out here? So far from the Sun? How and when?"

  Russ shrugged. "We'll find that out. But the evidence is unmistakable."They walked on.

  There was a low, cracked wall on the other side of the hill, and beyondthe wall stood the roofless ruins of a stone house, silent and gray inthe airless scene.

  They waited with surprise and uncertainty. Haines drew his compressedair pistol, but there was no movement. The scene remained dead andstill--the windows of the house were dark.

  They advanced on it and flashed a light inside. It was an empty shell.There was no glass within the unusually wide and low window openings,and no door.

  "They went in and out the windows," commented Burl, ducking through oneof the openings. "And they weren't built like us."

  "No," said Russ, "there's no reason to suppose the inhabitants wouldhave been built like human beings."

  Inside there was nothing to see, and they left. Beyond, they found astraight depression in the ground filled with flat swirls of cosmicdust. "This looks like a road," said Haines.

  They returned to the rocket plane in order to follow the dead roadwaymore easily. Passing between the low, dark cliffs of rocky mountains,they came to a plain marked by thousands of columns of rock, pieces ofcrumbling walls, and many straight depressions that must have beenstreets. It was the remains of a world that had died.

  They found, as they traveled northward and made intermittent landings,that there had been many cities. Now all lay in ruins. There had beengreat roadways, now covered with the debris of outer space. There hadbeen mighty forests, now miles of petrified black stumps. It was agloomy sight.

  In their landings, they had found inscriptions on walls and bas-reliefscarved on mountains. They knew from these what the Plutonians had lookedlike, and they had a suspicion of what had happened.

  The Plutonians had been vaguely like men and vaguely like spiders. Theyhad stood upright on four thin, wide-spread legs and had two short arms.Their bodies were wide and squat, and they seemed to have been mammalianand probably warm-blooded. They breathed air out of flat, thin nostrilsand their heads joined their bodies without necks. Two oval eyes wereset below a jutting bald brow. They had worn clothes, they had drivenvehicles, they had flown planes.

  Their vehicles had globe-shaped power plants. Their airplanes had globeswhere wings should have been. Their cities and their engines--whichexisted now only on wall pictures that were probably onceadvertisements--were built along globe-and-rod principles.

  "There's no doubt," said Russ, "that the Sun-tapper culture and thePlutonian culture are the same. It's the descendants of the Plutoniansthat we are fighting."

  "But how could they have survived?" Burl asked. "This world was neverpart of the solar system when it was warm."

  "We'll soon know," said Russ. "Tomorrow we're going to see how far wecan get into their polar redoubt. Somehow we've got to blow up that laststation."

  "And I think we three are going to do it," said Haines. "The _Magellan_will never take the place from the sky. We'll have to do it from theground."

  Now they were reminded of Earth again. For the first time since they haddeparted from the United States, night fell. They had not been on anyother planet long enough for such an experience. But the effect here onPluto was mild.

  Day was like a bright, moonlight night. Night then meant that the dimSun had set and, in effect, it merely made the landscape slightlydarker.

  They compared notes late into the night in the rocket plane. By dawn,when again the dim glow shone, they had come to some very definiteconclusions about the planet.

  A number of the drawings on the walls seemed to have some religioussignificance. They focused on the phases of a moon. There were symbolicrepresentations of this moon, passing through its phases; presumablyPlutonian religious and social practices were related to it.

  "But where is this moon?" Burl had asked.

  "I think," Russ answered, "that what some astronomers had suspectedabout Pluto was right. It did not originate in the solar system, but wascaptured from outer space. Originally it revolved around another sun,some star which was light-years away. How it tore loose from that starwe'll probably never know--the star might have simply become too dim,their planet might have been on a shaky orbit, an experiment of theirsmight have jarred it loose, many things could have happened.

  "Once beyond the gravitational grip of its parent sun, the planetwandered through the darkness of interstellar space until it came withinthe influence of our own Sun. How long this took would again be a guess.Possibly not more than a few thousand years, I'd say, since somehow aremnant of the population managed to survive. This suggests that theyhad some warning.
Enough time passed for them to build the big structurewe noticed at the north pole, probably to store food, build undergroundgreenhouses and make sealed homes for a few families. Inside this giantbuilding the last of the Plutonian people kept going.

  "Then came the moment when their planet fell into an orbit around ourSun. I'd guess they emerged to find that the new Sun was too far awayever to heat up Pluto again, or to permit the rebuilding of anatmosphere. So they worked out a new scheme. This was to blow up the Suninto a nova--make it a giant and thereby bring its heat all the way outto Pluto--warming this world again, lighting it again, unfreezing itsgases and waters. So they set up the Sun-tap stations."

  "That also accounts," added Haines, "for their limited number ofspaceships and their need for secret operations."

  "Yes," said Burl, "but there are two things that don't fit in. Whathappened to their moon--surely it would have gone along with Pluto sinceit revolved around it? And second, why the thirty-year delay between thefirst Sun-tap stations and the completion and operation of them?"

  There was no answer to these questions yet. The three began themorning's expedition.

  As they neared the pole, they stayed close to the surface, for, anymoment, they expected to see the dumbbell ships that patrolled the skyabove it.

  At last they set down the rocket plane on the edge of the polar plateauand got out. Not more than a mile away, the black ramparts of thebuilding--a wall running miles across the horizon--rose hundreds of feetinto the sky.

  Above it, they caught a flicker from the forest of masts and the glintfrom a dumbbell ship. They moved silently forward, carrying the rocketlauncher on their backs and a small load of shells and several handbombs. These made heavy baggage, but the distance was not far, and thepurpose great.

  Burl felt like an ant about to creep into a human house. But hereflected that no ant ever had such dangerous intentions. An ant entersa house to steal a crumb of food. But if an ant had intelligence andevil intentions, it could cripple such a house.

  Such was the situation for the three of them as they neared theprecipitous walls. On arrival, they found that entry would be easierthan they expected.

  The Plutonian refuge had not been built to offset attack from thesurface of the planet itself. It was no thick rampart of unbrokenplastic as the walls of the other Sun-tap stations had been. Close up,it proved to have many doorless entryways, ramps running up to higherfloors, even wiry monorail scaffolding, probably left behind by thebuilders.

  They entered an opening in the base. Once inside, dim lights set in theceiling lighted the path before them. They walked down this culvert likerats in a giant sewer until they came to a wall studded with severaldoors.

  The doors were shut, but a tiny globe set on the surface of each onereacted to Burl's charged touch. Two opened upon dark airless passages.The third resisted a moment, and when it did open, there was a whoosh ofair which raised a momentary cloud of dust on the stone floor of theculvert. This was obviously the entrance to the inhabited portion of therefuge.

  The men closed the door behind them. They were in a small chamber. Adoor on the other side was opening automatically. "An air lock system,"muttered Russ as they went through.

  They were now inside the vast building itself. There was air, and, aftertesting it, they opened their helmets. The air was almost as thick asthat of Earth, and they experienced no difficulty in breathing. It wasstale and somewhat metallic in flavor, probably because it had beenenclosed and used over and over for thousands of years.

  They saw no living beings, which seemed strange. "Apparently thesepeople really are at their last gasp," remarked Russ as they passedthrough an area that had obviously once been a large dormitory. Theyheard distant humming sounds somewhere in the floors above, but all thatwas visible on the lower level seemed to be maintenance machinery.

  They walked through great storerooms which were piled high with sealeddrums. They saw factories lying silent--curious lofts of odd machinespowered by globes that were idle. They skirted an unlighted reservoir ofwater in a circular chamber far in the interior. And here and there inthe gloom, they spotted huge ramps leading spirally upward.

  Finally they turned their steps up a sloping ramp, mounting one floorand then another, and another. They were tired, but curiouslyexhilarated. They felt that they were about to strike at the heart ofthe foe, and that his days were numbered at last.

  They emerged on a higher level, lighted more brightly than the others.Here they saw globes that glowed with the same intensity as those inthe Sun-tap stations had. They moved carefully now, keeping out ofsight, and several times they saw shadows in the distance or heard thethump of something moving.

  They worked their way by instinct to what they guessed was the center ofoperations. They peered, at last, through a low, wide doorway into alarge chamber. Here was a mass of mighty globes and rods, some revolvingas they circled the metal masts that came through the room from theceiling above.

  "It must be the base of the Sun-tap receiver line," whispered Haines."This should be a good enough place to set up our time bomb."

  They stole over to a cluster of globes and unpacked the powerful littleatomic bomb they had carried with them. They carefully put it together,inserted the explosive fuse, and set the timer. "I'm giving it fourhours," said Haines. "Time for us to get out of here and radio the_Magellan_ to get into action. That should take care of this station."

  They moved carefully out again, scarcely breathing for fear of somePlutonian entering and discovering them. They made their exit safelyenough and started to retrace their steps.

  Back down through corridors and strange chambers they moved, stoppingevery little while as something that sounded like footsteps passed overthem. "Where," Burl whispered, suddenly troubled, "is the stolen heatand power of the Sun going? It isn't heating up Pluto. Surely they can'tsimply store it."

  "Something we haven't solved," Russ replied hurriedly. "From what Iremember of the masts, it looked as if they were relaying it somewhereelse again."

  "Can't imagine where," said Haines. "Not back into space, surely?"

  They fell silent, concentrating all their energies on not losing theway. "Are you sure we came through here?" Burl asked nervously. "I don'tremember this at all."

  "I don't, either," said Russ. "It looks queer. Are you sure we're on theright path?" He turned to Haines.

  The explorer shook his head. "We must have made a wrong turn. I thinkwe've lost our direction."

  They hastily conferred, and decided the best thing to do was to maketheir way to the lowest level and then outward--but suddenly theyrealized they could not tell which way was outward. There were nowindows, and the wall markings and direction signs were unintelligible.

  To make matters worse, they heard new noises, and, just as they dodgedinto a corner, five Plutonians shambled through.

  These creatures were as the ancient wall sculptures had depicted them,though a bit smaller than their ancestors. They were pale, almost whitein skin color, and their eyes were tiny sparks of red. They wore lightharnesses around their bodies, and two of them were carrying tools. Theyspoke together in clacking bass voices. They shuffled loosely over theground on their four thin legs. Burl thought of them as ugly caricaturesof semi-humans.

  When the creatures had passed, the three explorers darted out to where aramp spiraled to the lower levels. They started down in single file, butit was too late.

  Staring directly at them were two Plutonians who had come up from below.The men pushed past, but not before a barking voice had cracked out anorder.

  The Earthmen started to run down, followed by the scrabbling sounds oftheir pursuers. The barking calls increased in volume.

  From somewhere a booming sound began, repeated over and over. As the menemerged on the floor below, they heard it repeated on every level. "Thealarm's out for us," called Haines, making no effort to keep his voicedown. "We've got to run for it!"

  Laden with the remaining weapons and equipment, the thr
ee human beingshurried on, but it soon became clear that four legs were better thantwo, for the creatures were gaining on them.

  They had forgotten they were lost. Now they sought only to get out ofsight and hide. They dropped their equipment as they ran, down halls,through tunnels, skittering along sloping ramps, heading for what theyhoped would prove to be an exit.

  Behind them an increasing crowd of Plutonians had collected, andseveral times a spark of electronic power crackled and blazed againstthe wall over their heads. The pursuers were armed.

  Burl's lungs began to ache painfully. Close on the heels of hiscompanions he dashed into one room only to find a group of Plutonianscoming at him from the other side. His ears were deafened by the barkingnoises and alarm boomings. He jumped to one side to avoid a Plutonianstanding directly in his path, and ran into a narrow tunnel. There wasan excited barking as the creatures followed him.

  With a sinking heart, he realized that he was now alone. Haines and Russmust have been cut off. He gasped for breath. Running in a tight spacesuit, carrying his oxygen tanks, was hot and hard work. He did not daredrop the tanks, for his only chance was to escape outside.

  He ran wildly on, hoping to reach an outer door. But he seemed now to bein a maze, for nothing was familiar to him. He could no longer rememberhow many times he had run into groups of Plutonians, nor could he guesshow many followed on his heels.

  Then he stumbled into a small, round chamber out of which led threetunnels. As he looked around quickly to select his next means of escape,barking Plutonians erupted from each opening. Burl backed up against thewall, knowing that this time he was trapped.

  A blaze of sparks broke over his head as a blast banged across theroom. The red-eyed, scrabbling figures charged, their chinless mouthsopening to emit barking calls of bestial anger. One aimed a rodlikecontrivance at him, and there was another flare of light.

  The room dissolved around him in a glare of brilliant green. As heslipped helplessly to the floor, he lost consciousness.

 
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