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The secret of the ninth.., p.3
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.3

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 1. _Special Delivery--by Guided Missile_

  On the morning that the theft of the solar system's sunlight began, BurlDenning woke up in his sleeping bag in the Andes, feeling again theexhilaration of the keen, rarefied, mountain air. He glanced at thestill sleeping forms of his father and the other members of the Denningexpedition, and sat up, enjoying the first rays of the early morning.

  The llamas were already awake, moving restlessly back and forth on theirpadded feet, waiting for their tender to arise and unleash them. Themules were standing patiently as ever, staring quietly into the distantmisty panorama of the mountains.

  It was, thought Burl, a dim day, but this he supposed was due to theearliness of the morning. As the Sun rose, it would rapidly bring thetemperatures up, and its unshielded rays would force them to cover up asthey climbed along the high mountain passes.

  The sky was cloudless as usual. Burl assumed that the dimness was due tovolcanic dust, or some unseen high cloud far away. And, indeed, as theexpedition came to life, and the day began in earnest, nobody paid anyattention to the fact that the Sun was not quite so warm as it shouldhave been.

  The Denning expedition, questing among the untracked and forgottenbyways of the lost Inca ruins in the vast, jagged mountains of inlandPeru, was not alone in failing to notice the subtle channeling away ofthe Sun's warmth and brilliance. They were, in this respect, one withvirtually the entire population of Earth.

  In New York, in San Francisco, in Philadelphia and Kansas City, peoplegoing about their day's chores simply assumed that there must be cloudssomewhere--the temperature only slightly less than normal for a Julyday. A few men shaded their eyes and looked about, noticing that theheat was not so intense--and thought it a blessing.

  In some places in Europe, there were clouds and a little rain, and thedimness was ascribed to this. It was raining in much of Asia, and therewere scattered afternoon showers throughout Latin America, which werestandard for the season. There was a flurry of snow in Melbourne and acold blow in Santiago de Chile.

  The men in the weather bureaus noted on their day's charts thattemperatures were a few degrees lower than had been predicted, but thatwas nothing unusual. Weather was still not entirely predictable, evenwith the advances of meteorology that were to be expected of the latteryears of the twentieth century.

  The world was reading about other things than the vagaries of theweather. In the United States, baseball occupied the headlines, and thenonathletic-minded could find some speculative interest in thecompletion of another manned space platform racing along in its eternalorbit twelve thousand miles away from Earth's surface. The U.S. MoonBase in the center of the Crater Ptolemaeus had described the appearanceof this platform in an interesting radio dispatch which appeared on thefirst pages of most newspapers. The third prober rocket sent to Venushad been unreported for the tenth day after penetrating the clouds thathid that planet's surface from human eyes. It was, like its twopredecessors, a minimum-sized, unmanned instrument device designed topenetrate the clouds and radio back data on the nature of the Venusianatmosphere and the surface. But after its first report, nothing more hadbeen heard.

  Some discussion was going on in science circles about what had happened.Speculation centered on the possible success of other types of proberrockets, but it was universally agreed that the time had not come when amanned rocket could safely undertake the difficult trip to Venus andreturn.

  The years of space flight since the orbiting of Sputnik I back in 1957had produced many fascinating results, but they had also brought arealization of the many problems that surrounded the use of rockets forspace flight. It was generally believed that no one should risk a mannedflight until absolutely everything possible that could be learned byrobot and radio-controlled missiles had been learned. It now looked asif Venus and Mars trips were still a dozen years away.

  Burl Denning was keenly interested in all of this. As a senior in highschool, the newly expanding frontiers of the universe representedsomething special to his generation. It would be men of his own age whowould eventually man those first full-scale expeditions to neighborworlds. By the time he was out of college, with an engineering degree,he might himself hope to be among those adventurers of space.

  Burl was torn between two interests. Archaeology was both a professionand a hobby in the Denning family. His grandfather had been among thefirst to explore the jungle ruins of Indochina. His father, although abusinessman and industrial engineer, made annual vacation pilgrimages tothe ruins of the old Indian civilizations of the Americas. Burl had beenwith him once before, when they had trekked through the chicle forestsof Guatemala in search of a lost Mayan city. And now they were again ona quest, this time for the long-forgotten treasure of the Incas.

  Burl was thoroughly familiar with the techniques of tracking down theancient records of mankind. He got along well with natives andprimitive people; he knew the arts of wilderness survival; he knew thedelicate techniques of sifting sand and dirt to turn up those pricelessbits of pottery and chipped stone that could supply pages of theforgotten epics of human history.

  However, later in the day it seemed as if their particular camp hadpetered out. There were ruins there--a broken-down wall, a dry well anda bit of eroded bas-relief lying on its side. Burl's father looked athim thoughtfully. The tall, sandy-haired youth was sitting astraddle apile of dust, methodically sifting it through a wide-mesh strainer. Alarge pile of sifted sand gave evidence of the length of his efforts,and one broken bit of clay was the only result he had obtained.

  Two of the Indian guides sat patiently in the shade, watching them. Onewas digging slowly, turning up more dirt to be sifted.

  "I think we've had enough here," said the elder Denning. "Burl, you canknock off. Tomorrow we'll pull up stakes and see what is in the nextvalley. We'll try to follow that old Inca road over the mountains. Idon't believe anyone has ever penetrated there--and the airplane surveysindicated some evidence of human dwellings."

  Burl nodded, and set the sifter down. He'd learned to curb his naturalenergies for the exacting tasks required of serious scientific research."Okay," he said, "I was hoping you'd move on soon, Dad. This looked likea washout from the first. I'd say this place was sacked and ruined evenbefore the Incas fell."

  The older man nodded. "I suppose so. Well, let's wash up and see what'sfor supper."

  They went down to the icy mountain stream to wash the dirt from theirhands. "It's been a nice day," Burl commented. "In spite of the Sunbeing out steadily, it wasn't hot at all. Cooler than yesterday."

  Mark Denning looked up at the sky and the Sun lowering toward thehorizon. "There must have been some volcanic dust in the heavens," hesaid. "The Sun's been a bit dimmed, have you noticed?"

  Burl squinted his eyes against the glare. "Wasn't any eruption aroundhere. Maybe in Ecuador?"

  His father shrugged. "Could have been thousands of miles away," was hisslow reply. "Volcanic dust travels around the world, just as radioactivedust permeated the atmosphere from atomic testings. They say that thedust from the great Krakatoa explosion remained in the atmosphere forthree years before the last of it settled."

  When they had finished supper and the Sun was casting its last red raysover the rapidly purpling landscape, Burl got out the expedition radio,set up its antenna, plugged in its compact atomic battery, and tried toget the news from Lima. All he got was static.

  He fiddled with the dials for a long time, twisting the antenna, rangingthe wavelengths, but there was static everywhere. "Strange," he said tohis father, "something's disturbed reception completely."

  Pedro Gonzales, their official Peruvian guide, leaned over. "Could bethe battery she is broken, eh?"

  Burl shook his head. "Not this battery," he said. "It's a brand-new one,a real keen development. And I already checked the wiring. It's somesort of disturbance that's blocking reception. Maybe we're in a deadzone or something."

  "Wasn't dead yesterday," said his father. "Maybe that eruption wasradioactiv
e."

  Burl looked up sharply. "I'll check the Geiger counters, Dad.Something's blocking reception, something strong and powerful tointerfere with this set." But when he returned, he had to admit he hadfound nothing.

  When the Sun went down, they retired, for the temperature drops swiftlyin the high, thin air of the Andes.

  In the rest of the world people watched their color-vision shows withoutinterruption. Reception was good with the Moon base, the space platformshad no difficulty making reports, and the radio news beamed out asusual. In Lima, there was a little static, and direct transmission withBrazil seemed partially disrupted, but that was all.

  In the following five days, the Denning expedition had managed thedifficult climb over the next range of mountains and had come down inthe high plateau valley between. In this same period, the world began torealize that the dimness of the sky was not a temporary phenomenon.

  * * * * *

  Weather stations noted that the past few days had all been severaldegrees under the average. Reports had come in that farmers werequerying the unusual drop in the temperatures at night. And astronomers,measuring the surface heat of the Sun, came up with strangediscrepancies from previous data.

  One astronomer communicated with another, and a general exchange ofadvice began. In a short while, a communication was laid on the desk ofthe President of the United States, who scanned it and had itimmediately transmitted to the Secretary General of the United Nations.The Secretary General circulated the report among the scientific bureausof all member nations, and this led in turn to a meeting of the SecurityCouncil. This meeting was held in quiet, without benefit of newspaperreporters or audience.

  There was no longer any doubt. The radiation of the Sun reaching theface of the Earth had decreased. The facts were indisputable. Where aday should have registered, in some places, at least 90 deg. in the Sun, areading of only 84 deg. was noted. Measurements definitely showed that theface of the Sun visible to man on Earth had dimmed by just that margin.

  This might not prove serious at first, but as the scientists called inby the Security Council pointed out, it promised terrible things as theyear went on. A difference of five or ten degrees all over the Earthcould mean the ruin of certain crops, it could mean an increase insnowfall and frost that could very rapidly destroy the economies andhabitability of many places on the Earth's teeming surface.

  "But what," asked the Chairman of the Council, "is causing this decreasein solar energy?"

  This the astronomers could not answer. But they pointed to one factor.The reports from the U.S. Moon Base did not agree with the observationsfrom Earth. Moon instruments claimed no decrease whatsoever in theamount of sunlight reaching the arid, airless surface of the Earth'sonly satellite.

  The cause was somewhere on Earth. And the Security Council requested thecareful scanning of the Earth from space platforms and the Moon todetermine the center of the trouble.

  * * * * *

  Burl Denning had not found the next valley of much interest, either.Evidence of an Inca road over the mountain had petered out. There weresigns there had been human dwellings, but they were not Inca--justreminders of the onetime passage of an unknown band of primitives whohad grazed their sheep, built temporary tents, and pulled up stakesperhaps a hundred years before.

  So again at night, Burl, his father, and Gonzales took counsel. Theywere debating which way to proceed next; Mark Denning reasoning thatthey should go further inland, following tales natives had told;Gonzales urging that they retrack their path and proceed northwardtoward the regions where Inca ruins abounded.

  For the past week Burl had not been able to get radio reception. Thestatic had increased as they had gone eastward over the mountain, butnot a word of news or any human voice came through. The Moon was risingon the horizon as Burl sat playing with the antenna. Finally he gave upand switched it off.

  The discussion had died away and the three men were quiet. The Indianguides had retired to their own campfire, and one of them had taken outhis pipes and was blowing a soft, plaintive tune.

  Burl stared at the full Moon in silence, wondering if he would ever havea chance to walk its surface, or if his own future was to lie in probingmankind's past rather than surveying the grounds of his future. As hewatched, he thought he saw a faint light among the brightening starswhere none had been before.

  He squinted, and, sure enough, he saw that one tiny white light wasswinging more and more toward the center of the sky. He pointed it outto his father and Gonzales. "Too fast to be a celestial object," hesaid. "Is it one of the space platforms or a sputnik?"

  The two men gazed at it in curiosity. Suddenly it seemed to growbrighter and sharper and to twist toward them in its path.

  "Look!" gasped Burl, but the others were already on their feet.

  The light plunged down. There was a sudden outburst of yellow flame thatcaused the three to duck instinctively, and brought the Indians to theirfeet with yells. The glare brightened until they could see thatsomething was just above them. The fire vanished as swiftly as it came,but a white spot of light remained.

  "It's a parachute!" Burl shouted. "It's a rocket or something, brakingto a stop above us, and coming down by parachute!"

  In the pale light of the full Moon they saw that something metallic andglistening hung from the white mushroom of a parachute. There was aclanging sound as it hit the rocky earth with a soft, sighing whoosh.The cloth of the parachute settled.

  They ran across the dry stone of the valley floor, but Burl's long,athletic legs outdistanced the others. He reached it first.

  It was a cylinder of metal, about three feet long and a foot indiameter.

  "It's the nose of a message missile--dropped from a guided missile,"Burl announced. "And--look!" He dramatically pointed the beam of hisflashlight upon its side.

  There, written in black, heat-resistant paint, were the words: _To theDenning Andes Expedition, from U.S. Air Force Base, California Region.By Guided Missile Post by Moon Base control, Ptolomaeus Crater.Official. Open Without Delay._

 
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