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The secret of the ninth.., p.20
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.20

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 18. _Sacrifice on the Sacred Moon_

  "Burl Denning! Can you hear me, Burl Denning?" A thin, tinny voicesomewhere was calling him. But the darkness was all around, and Burlfelt a great sleepiness and a desire only to sink deeper into thecottony nothing in which he seemed to be cradled.

  "Burl Denning! If you can hear me, speak up!" Again the faint, scratchyvoice nagged at Burl's mind. He really ought to answer. He tried to openhis mouth. Something hard and cold was pressing against his back. Hetossed and squirmed.

  Once more the voice called, and this time he decided that he must beasleep. He struggled to open his eyes, then finally blinked them wide inan effort to adjust himself to his surroundings.

  He was apparently out in the open, and it was night. The sky was dark,not black, but almost so--a deep, blue-black. There was a pale bluesaucer hanging in the sky. It blotted out most of the view. Gradually,he became aware of a shiny barrier between him and that sky--he was notout of doors. Something like a glass dome seemed to be overhead.

  Burl raised his head. There was no one in sight. He felt dizzy andconfused. He lifted a hand to his brow, and felt the cold glass of hisspace helmet. He was still wearing his space suit then. The voice--itmust be in his helmet phone.

  "Hello," he ventured weakly. "Who's calling?"

  Quickly the faint voice replied, growing stronger. "Burl, are you allright? Where are you?"

  Burl looked around. He was sitting on the floor of an isolated enclosurewith a transparent dome. There were no walls, just the rounded dome likea fishbowl turned upside down on him. The flooring beneath his feet wasplastic.

  "I'm all right, I think," said Burl. "Is that you, Russ? Sounds a littlelike you, but you must be far away."

  "Yes, it's me, Russell Clyde," confirmed the voice. "You're coming inweak, too. Where are you?"

  Burl described his surroundings. There was a silence for a moment, thenRuss's voice again. "I kind of suspected it, but what you say confirmsit. We must be on the only planet we haven't visited ... or rather, noton it, but near it. I mean Neptune. I knew from the gravity I wasn't onPluto any more. Judging from our weight, and your description of thebluish planet in the sky, we must be on Triton, Neptune's bigger moon."

  Burl found that his dizziness was disappearing. "I feel light," hecommented, as he got to his feet. "Should Neptune look sort of likeUranus, only more bluish in color?" he asked.

  "That's it," said Russ. "Neptune is pretty much of a twin for Uranus,only it's denser, a little bit smaller, and perhaps more substantialthan the other giant worlds in our system. It should have a second moon,smaller and way out."

  Burl walked around the little enclosed space. "I guess I'm a prisonerhere," he said. "This dome is on the surface. Most of the area is just asort of rocky plain with patches of liquid gases, but there are a coupleof big buildings nearby. Funny sort of structures--they have fancy topswith symbols on them that look like the phases of the moon."

  "I think I'm inside one of those buildings," Russ guessed. "I'm in a bighall with a lot of exhibits in glass cases. And they've got thestrangest creatures I've ever seen in them. There are lunar markingshere, too--they remind me of the ones we saw on Pluto. You know what Isuspect?"

  Burl paced around, regaining his senses as he walked. It was obviousthat, after he'd been knocked out by the Plutonians, he had been takenby them to this moon of Neptune. For what purpose?

  Russ continued to murmur his thoughts, his voice ringing tinnily inBurl's earphones. "I think that Triton was originally Pluto's moon. WhenPluto wandered into the solar system, it crossed Neptune's orbit and washeld. Its moon came closer to Neptune and was captured completely. ButPluto, having a greater mass, didn't stick. It established an eccentricorbit of its own which took it far out from Neptune for hundreds ofyears at a stretch and brought it back only rarely. Pluto lost its moon.And that moon was the spiritual home of the Sun-tappers' religion."

  Burl glanced across the landscape. There were some funny things growingnearby. They looked a little like thin, glassy trees with big, bluecoconuts on top.

  "What happened to you and Haines after we got separated?" he asked,still talking through his helmet phone.

  "I don't know what happened to Haines," said Russ. "I hope he got away.But they trapped me. I was taken aboard one of their dumbbell ships, andbrought here. The trip took days. I guess you were unconscious for allthat time. If it's any comfort to you, the Pluto building was destroyed.Our atomic bomb went off. I saw the flare from a window in the ship. Ithink this moon is the last stronghold of the Sun-tappers, and I thinkit is our final objective."

  The strange crystalline vegetation seemed to be moving closer to Burl.He watched it carefully. It _was_ moving! There were living beings outthere!

  They glided oddly over the ground, and he saw that their bases were amass of crystalline fringes, moving feelers which crawled over thesurface bearing the upper structures with them. They had thin, trunklikebodies with two long, pencil-like branches that were used as arms. Andthe coconut objects were heads!

  They circled the dome now, and Burl could see that each round blue knobhad a central black spot that apparently served as an eye. There was nosign of nostrils or mouth. Burl stared at the creatures in wonder.

  The beings were clearly gesturing to him, trying to signal with theirodd arms. He waved back, wondering how he could establish communication.As he did so, he described the creatures to Russ.

  Russ's voice was excited. "Say! I think I've figured out what sort ofplace I'm in. This is a museum of galactic life! Each of these glasscases contains a specimen of the highest form of life of its particularworld. In one of the cases, opposite me, there's one of the Martiancreatures--a big, antlike fellow. He's standing there, looking perfectlyalive, but absolutely motionless. Next to him is something else thatlooks like an intelligent form. It's sort of a man, covered with shortred hair. Around its waist it's got a belt, and there are pouches on it,and something like a short sword. It must be a humanoid type from someworld out among the stars. Some of the others look like intelligentforms, too, because they are wearing clothing.

  "I think that collecting these specimens and setting them up here ispart of the religion of the Sun-tappers."

  While Russ was talking, Burl thought of a way he might communicate withthe stick-men. He wanted to draw a diagram of the solar system on thefloor of his enclosure. He gestured futilely with his hand, but therewas nothing with which to make a marking. The stick-men outside watchedhis hand, then one of them reached around to something hanging acrossits back and withdrew a thin tablet and a wedge of red. Holding thetablet up so that Burl could see, the creature quickly sketched arecognizable map of the Sun and its planets!

  Burl realized then that he was dealing with highly intelligentbeings--no savages, these, but the products of a high civilization. Heindicated the third world as his own. The stick-man drew back as ifsurprised, then pointed upward.

  They came from Neptune!

  During the next few hours, a most curious three-way discussion wenton--Burl signaling to the Neptunians outside and describing hisdiscoveries to Russ over the phone of his space suit; Russ suggestinganswers to some of the more difficult diagrams. It was a curiousexperience. Gradually, by means of simple drawings and gestures, andeven charadelike playlets acted out by the weird vegetable-crystalbeings, there emerged the general story of the Neptunians and theinvaders from Pluto.

  On Neptune there had been a great civilization covering the entireworld, a hard surface lying deep beneath its thick methane atmosphere.There were forests and there were animals and intelligent beings. Theydid not breathe, but absorbed both their food and liquid gas throughrootlike feelers on which they stood and moved.

  Then one day, about thirty years ago, they had been invaded by creaturesthat came in dumbbell-shaped spaceships, and which had destroyed theircities, and attempted to conquer the planet. They learned that theseships had come from Triton, the strange new moon that Neptune hadacquired about a thousa
nd years earlier, and from the new planet, Pluto,their astronomers had observed at that time.

  For thirty years the Neptunians had fought against the invaders. For awhile they almost succeeded, but then something new had developed. Theirworld grew hotter. Great structures had been erected on the poles, theareas first conquered by the Plutonians and still held by them. Fromthese spots, vast amounts of heat surged over the planet and changed it.

  Heat meant death and doom to every living frigi-plasmic thing onNeptune. Desperately, they increased their warfare, but the heat sappedtheir strength, destroying them, until now they knew it was but a matterof time before the Neptunians, beast and vegetable alike, would vanishtotally.

  "So that's it," breathed Burl. "That's where the Sun-tap energy isgoing. The Plutonians want Neptune because it's near their old moon, andthey have to warm it up to live on it. Of course! And Neptune's too farfrom the Sun to explode when it novas, it will just get comfortable forthe Plutonians!"

  The Neptunians continued their strange tale. They had built a crudespaceship and manned it with a suicide battalion of the most desperatewarriors of their race. They had journeyed to Triton in hopes of seizingit and destroying the foe from there. The stick-men had attacked and hadbeen beaten back.

  Now there were only a few dozen of them left--the last soldiers of theirinvasion and ignored by the enemy. And here they were, explaining thisto Burl whom they recognized as an ally.

  Russ's voice suddenly broke into Burl's thoughts, "There's some sort ofceremony beginning here. There's a procession of Plutonians dressed ingolden robes marching down the center of the hall, carrying staffs withmoon pictures on them.... They're chanting in unison, though it soundslike barking. Can you hear it?"

  Burl could. It sounded faintly in his earphones like the noises in a dogpound.

  "Now they're circling around. They're opening one of the cases. Theglass slides back.... Say! The exhibits aren't dead. I see somethingmoving.... It's a man!"

  Russ's voice stopped suddenly. Faintly, Burl could hear the barking andthen Russ's terrified voice. "It is a man, Burl. He's dark-skinned andwearing white cotton pants and a homespun shirt. He looks like anIndian, maybe a South American Indian. When they lifted the glass, hejust walked out and stood as if he were all mixed up. Then he got scaredand started to run."

  The voice was silent a moment. "They grabbed him, Burl. They_sacrificed_ him! And now they're coming for me."

  "Stop them!" Burl yelled wildly. "Do something!"

  "I can't stop them." Russ was resigned. "They're taking me to the emptyglass case. I guess I'm elected to be the next exhibit. They're shovingme in!"

  Outside Burl's enclosure the stick-men sensed something unusual in hisstrained attitude. They stared in at him, while he remained tense,listening.

  Now Russ's voice came again. "They're going to take off my helmet andthrow in the suspended animation gas, Burl. Good-by. I can see themstill. Oh ... oh, I feel strange, I feel stiff, faint ... here ... I ...go...."

  His voice faded out, thin and weak. Then there was only silence.

  Burl threw himself against the restraining transparent wall of his domeprison and hammered on it with his fists. The dome would not give way.

  He looked around desperately, determined to escape, wondering whatsurprise the Plutonians were holding him for--suspecting he would be thenext victim. They would be coming for him soon, he knew.

  He searched the enclosure for some way of leaving. He looked at thestick-men and wondered if they knew. One of them, the one who seemed tobe the leader, gestured to him. His arm pointed to a spot in the floor.

  Sure enough, there was a crack there, an outline like a small trapcover. He worked at it with his fingers and, finding a dent, he pushed.A lid came off. Below was a cleared space, a few inches deep, in whichwere set the levers of a typical Plutonian control board.

  Burl wondered if he were still carrying the charge that attuned him tosuch controls. The shock he had received on Pluto could have blanked itout.

  He pushed at the levers with his gloved hands. They did not obey him.Desperately, he removed the glove from one of his hands. It was bittercold in the little enclosure, but there was some atmosphere. The leveralmost froze to his fingers, but he turned it again.

  This time it worked. The top of the dome that entrapped him suddenlyopened, and the sides slid back. Burl replaced his glove on his hand anddashed outside to the freedom of the frigid surface of Triton.

  Then he was among the Neptunian stick-men, and they were actuallypatting him on the back, waving toward the building, hurrying him on.

  They were prepared to die in one last desperate assault on the foe.Could Burl do less?

 
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