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The secret of the ninth.., p.21
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.21

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 19. _The Museum of Galactic Life_

  There were a number of structures laid out on the plain under the blueglow of Neptune. Burl saw that only one of them was a true building inthe design he had come to know was that of an ancient Plutonian templeexcept that it was far, far larger than any of the ruined shells he hadseen on Pluto.

  The other structures turned out to be walls and pillars arranged aroundthe central building, evidently in relation to their religioussignificance. This main building, ornately decorated, was windowless,and the several closed doors represented metallic and forbiddingbarriers. It must have covered thirty acres, rising about thirty feetfrom the ground.

  As Burl frantically examined it, the leaders of the Neptunians moveddiscreetly with him. They gestured at the doors, indicating their owninability to open them. Apparently they thought that Burl might succeedwhere they had failed.

  Burl wasn't sure he could. He supposed there might be controls similarto those that released him from the dome, but he thought first he hadbetter determine a plan of action. Somewhere within, Russ was sealedup--an exhibit among the living dead of many planets.

  He managed to convey this thought to the three stick-men. There was anunmistakable nod of assent from one of them, and a twiglike armindicated that Burl should follow him. They rapidly crossed the area tothe outlying fringes of a frigi-plasmic forest.

  Here towering crystalline masses pushed up from the dark ground. Itseemed to be a weird jumble of broken glass--broken glass ten andfifteen feet high! The Neptunians led Burl into this amazing landscapethrough a narrow path. He walked behind them, feeling thick and heavy incomparison with their fragile bodies. But, in spite of appearances, theywere not fragile, nor were the growths that made up the fantasticNeptune-transplanted vegetation of Triton.

  They came to a clearing amid the forest of blue and green and orangecrystals, and there were the rest of the Neptunian survivors. Burlcounted about forty, rooted in pools of liquid gas, absorbing renewedenergy while waiting for commands. As he entered the clearing, most ofthem lifted their root tentacles and crowded around him. He was asstrange a being to them--helmeted and bundled in plastic and rubber andmetal--as they seemed to him.

  Burl noticed that many of them must have been wounded--there were signsof missing arms or of burned roots, and a few had odd poultices smearedover their round, blue heads.

  The Neptunian commander pointed out their store of arms. They had longspears of some glistening translucent substance, a projector which fireddarts of the same material, and a number of the Plutonian globe-and-rodinstruments--obviously captured from the enemy.

  He examined some of the spears and darts, and a suspicion he had held onfirst seeing them was confirmed. These were made of ice! On Neptune, icewas easily obtained--and hard enough to be worked like metal. Itsmelting point being far, far above any heat likely outside of aNeptunian laboratory, it was as permanent as iron for their needs!

  Burl studied the captured Plutonian hand weapons, and was pleased tohave one of the Neptunian soldiers pick up one and demonstrate how itwas fired. It had apparently simpler controls than most Plutonianproducts, for it easily blazed forth a bolt of electronic fire thatblasted a tall, crystalline tree to shards.

  The Neptunian leader began to gesture again, and conveyed to Burl thatthey wanted to attack as soon as possible. He gathered that conditionson Triton were not the best for these people--that their ability to holdout was limited and that they desired to make their final assaultwithout delay. They wanted to know now what Burl could contribute.

  Burl realized that as far as he was concerned, he was not in any bettershape than his allies. His oxygen tanks were slowly but surely emptying.He examined his gauges and was startled to see he had only two morehours before suffocation would set in. The suit was warmed by batterieswhich would last several days longer, but by that time it would be toolate.

  Somewhere inside his suit he had a pocket knife, but he could not get atit in the frigid near-airlessness of the outer surface. His holsterstill hung at his side, but it was empty.

  There was nothing to do then but to join the Neptunian assault. He wouldtry to open the door by the electronic charge that still remained in hisbody. If he did, they could break in and do what they could. If he couldnot, who knew what would happen?

  Burl picked up one of the Plutonian weapons and gestured to the rest toprepare to attack. Immediately, they fell into orderly ranks. They were,indeed, soldiers, Burl thought--the cream of their planet'sarmies--whatever that meant in Terrestrial terms.

  Then, following the lead of the Neptunian captain, they marched out ofthe forest. As they crossed the open plain, Burl knew that they wereprobably in sight of the defenders. But he realized quickly that thathad been true when he was released and nothing had happened. So perhapshe was wrong. Perhaps the Plutonians were limited--perhaps they had notbothered to keep a watch.

  That left only the Plutonian spaceships to worry about. Burl hastilysearched the sky and located two glowing spots--four really--undoubtedlytwo of the double-sphere ships. The Neptunians behind bumped into him,then the whole column came to a halt.

  Burl pointed to the ships. The commander waved his arms helplessly. Theyhad been there all along, Burl gathered, and what could he do about it?More gestures. Yes, the ships were dangerous. In fact, they had been theones that had defeated the main Neptunian attack, blasted them from thesky and destroyed the ship in which the stick-man army had arrived. TheNeptunians were going to attack, regardless.

  Again, Burl realized the essentially suicidal mood that moved thesebeings. They were attacking against odds before which they were utterlyhelpless.

  Even as Burl stared at the far-off lights of the Plutonian ships, henoticed them swing away, moving off toward the horizon. As he watched,he thought for an instant that something else had blinked like a star,far in the distance.

  Struck by a sudden thought, he activated his helmet radio. "Burl Denningcalling the _Magellan_! He spoke at maximum power into his throat mike.Calling the _Magellan_! If you can hear me, reply!"

  Then, to his joy, a faint, far-away voice answered, "Burl Denning! Thisis Lockhart. Give us your location."

  "Lockhart! There are two Pluto ships approaching you from the directionin which you can hear my voice. Be careful!"

  The voice came faintly again, "We see them. We'll take care of them.Haines made it back to the ship. The Pluto base is destroyed. There areonly those two ships left. We followed them here as fast as we could.Can you hold out until we draw them out and crack them? We will need alittle time."

  Burl called, "Don't worry about me. Go to it. Russ may be alive in theirbuilding here. Don't bomb it. I'm going to try to get in."

  "Okay," called Lockhart's voice, already growing weak as the _Magellan_and the two pursuing foes drew away.

  Burl turned to the Neptunian captain. He drew his hand across the sky toshow that the ships had gone, drawn away from their protection of thetemple. He pointed at the walls of the building with a "let's go"gesture.

  Burl noticed that though the Neptunians were apparently featureless, hecould sense a distinct tightening up in their actions. They were tensed,ready for the final battle.

  They marched up to the main door of the temple. The captain loosed abolt of electronic fire at it, but it left no mark.

  There was no sound from within. Evidently the Plutonians were eitherbusy about their own business, or did not regard the Neptunians as worththeir attention.

  In a covered panel right next to the door, Burl found the typicalSun-tap controls. He tried to work them, but they would not functionthrough his gloves.

  He hesitated, knowing that removing his glove this time might prove veryrisky. Then he hastily drew off his left gauntlet and the thin nylonglove that was the inner protection of his suit. He placed his hand onthe control. The icy cold bit into it. He twisted, the control worked,and he tore his hand away, replacing the gloves.

  The door slid open. Burl ran inside, foll
owed by half a dozenNeptunians. They were in a small antechamber, evidently an air lock.

  The Neptunians, leaping with excitement, did not bother to activate theinner door, which would have meant closing the outer door. Instead, theyattacked it with heavy ice axes. The strange tools, chilled to ahardness unthinkable on Earth, bit into the fragile plastic.

  After a few hard blows, the plastic split, and there was a smallexplosion as the air within the temple burst through. A gale of escapinggases roared through the little chamber, ripping the rest of the door toshards and hurling the Neptunians right and left. Outside, the flowbegan to congeal, and a thin snow of liquid air began to fall.

  When the blast subsided after several minutes, the Neptunians jumped up,shook off the new gas-snow, and charged through the doorway into thetemple itself.

  Burl held his Plutonian flashgun at the ready. Inside, they found chaosand disaster. In the great rooms and halls Plutonians writhed on thefloors, in the last throes of suffocation and freezing, now that the airhad been ripped from their stronghold.

  The walls bore brilliant paintings and sharply defined sculptures.Advancing with the ranks of stick-men, Burl caught glimpses of strangescenes on distant planets, of landscapes that must have been Pluto atone time, beneath a double sun that probably was its original parent.

  Burl became faintly aware of a distant clanging. Not all the air wasgone, he thought; it must be pouring out in slower volume as thepressure diminished. Somewhere an alarm was ringing.

  The Neptunians fell behind; he saw now that the floor and walls of thetemple were still too hot for them. They began to withdraw, regrouping,blazing away with ice darts and spears at Plutonians who had appeared inhastily-donned space garments.

  Burl fired, then plunged on. He had to get to the hall where Russ wasimprisoned.

  Finally he was out of sight and sound of the Neptunians and theiradversaries. Behind him a door swung down. He was nearing the heart ofthe building now. The remaining Plutonians were sealing it off, rallyingfor their final defense.

  He was now cut off from support. But he still counted on confusion andsurprise to aid him. He ran down a long hall to a vast central chamberand arrived a split second before the door slammed shut after him. Themuseum of galactic life!

  It was a huge hall, oval in shape. In its center was a block that mightbe an altar. Lining the walls on each side, ranging from the great dooron the far end to the equally ornate one through which Burl had come,were floor-to-ceiling niches with gently curved, transparent fronts. Hecould see dark shapes standing motionless within each of theseexhibition cases.

  There were also about two dozen Plutonians in the hall, most of themgrouped around the central altar. They wore gaudy harnesses and carriedsharp, swordlike wands.

  Two of them started for Burl, and he leveled his weapon and fired. Therewas a flash of light and one of the creatures dropped senseless. Theother turned and scuttled away, uttering barking cries.

  Burl glanced hastily around. The rest of the Plutonians--priests orcurators or executioners, whatever they were--advanced slowly on Burl.He couldn't get them all, but he'd try. He fired it again.

  This time the weapon failed to go off. Its charge was used up. ThePlutonians yelped with delight and pressed forward, flourishing theirswords.

  Burl desperately hurled a globe-and-rod at them, meanwhile lookingaround for a new weapon, But he saw only the shining glass fronts of theexhibits. In the nearest case was a manlike being, dark purple in color,a thing with a fixed but intelligent stare in its slanted yellow eyes.It had two tall ears, a wide chest, and a curling tail, and was wearinga belt with pouches and a short kilt that only about half covered histwo long, hairy legs.

  Burl spun on his heel, swooped upon the gleaming swordlike wand that hadfallen from the dead Plutonian, and racing back to the exhibit, broughtit up with all his might against the transparent surface.

  The glassy stuff cracked. Another blow with all the strength of anEarth-muscled body on a light gravity world, and the front shatteredopen.

  There was a puff of a greenish gas. The creature inside suddenly blinkedand moved a hand. Then, without waiting, Burl dashed to the next exhibitand swung his metal sword again.

  The barking calls of the Plutonians increased in frenzy, and theycharged him, screaming. As the second exhibit crashed open, Burl turnedto fend off his attackers, swinging his sword. It clashed against thesword of the nearest curator-priest, who slipped and went bowling overagainst his fellows. Burl reached the third exhibit and smashed it.

  He turned to meet a renewed attack, and this time, out of the corner ofhis eye, he saw that a purple humanoid was in action beside him. Thepurple one had picked up a Plutonian, apparently with great ease, andwas using its body as a bludgeon.

  Something furry and green leaped high in the air and came down in themiddle of the Plutonians. There was a wild, unearthly screech as itlanded, and exhibit number two, from heaven knew what starry world, wasin the fray.

  Now Burl found himself momentarily unhampered, and rapidly he openedexhibit after exhibit. The battle became wilder and fiercer, asstar-being after star-being joined in.

  The Plutonians swung away in all directions with their wands. Theirbarking voices were drowned out by a rising chorus of sounds--roaring,inhuman voices, calling curses in languages of worlds that lay manylight-years distant--wild, birdlike calls from a winged being whoseintelligent eyes and wide brow belied the ferocity of its beaked andtaloned attack. There was a clanking, ringing sound, as a thing of halfjointed shining metal, half soft, velvety-white flesh, whirred among thefoe, doing damage with a razor-edged arm that shot out from the metallicpart of its body.

  There was something like a cloud of insects--a mad thing which seemed tobe a single hive of tiny winged cells that moved and bit and stood itsground like a single united being.

  There was a Martian that had at first stood stupidly, as if unaware ofwhat was going on, and then had gone berserk at the first sight of aPlutonian running past him.

  And in the next case was Russ, still space-suited, staring out throughthe glass. With a joyous crash, Burl smashed the front of the niche.

  Russ moved, his eyes opening wide as he saw Burl. He reached downquickly and picked up the helmet which had been taken from his head. Assoon as he had it in place, he activated the phones. "Wow!" his voicecame in Burl's earphones loud and clear, "Let's go!"

  He jumped down and grabbed Burl. Together, the two danced a wild jig ofjoy. Then they both remembered the Plutonians and turned, realizing thatthey had momentarily left themselves wide open to attack.

  But there was nothing to be afraid of. The Plutonians were all torn,beaten, lifeless. Moving among them were their former victims--theexhibits gathered from worlds undreamed of by human astronomers. Whathopes of vengeance had been stored in those inhuman hearts when each hadbeen torn from his native world, had been caught in helpless paralysisand carried trillions of miles across trackless space as livingtrophies!

  Although their forms were many and strange, there seemed to be no fearof one another among the survivors. What they had been through hadunited them forever. One by one, they began to gather around Burl andRuss, recognizing in them their saviors, grateful for their delivery.

  Burl's helmet radio spoke up. "The _Magellan_ calling Burl Denning! Wehave eliminated the last two enemy ships. Give us your location. Weintend to A-bomb the installations on Triton as soon as we can pick youup!"

  Burl spoke into the phone. "Hold up the explosions, colonel. We've takenthe place intact. You can land the _Magellan_ outside the main templeand come and see. We've got allies, lots of them."

  "Yes," said Russ into his phone, "we've got the secret of Pluto, we'vegot a friendly, fellow world on Neptune, and we have a whole crowd ofthe strangest refugees you'll ever hope to see. Bring extra space suitswith you. We have the makings here of friendship and trade with dozensof distant star planets--a treasure in itself worth a dozen trips aroundthe solar system."

  Burl l
ooked around him, thoughtful at these words. Visions of themarvels that future A-G ships would find, as, manned by Earthly crewsand carrying each star-being back to its galactic world, they opened upon each planet new vistas of achievement, science, and artistic marvel.

  He found himself staring into the yellow eyes of the big, purplehumanoid. His hand was grasped by the other's strangely shaped handwhile a yellow, powdery creature like a human moth tried to touch Burlin fondness.

  Burl smiled widely and began to grasp the proffered tentacles, pincersand grippers.

  "Welcome," he said to them all. "Welcome to the solar system. We've gota lot to talk about."

 
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