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The secret of the ninth.., p.4
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.4

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 2. _The Valley of Stolen Sunlight_

  For a moment all three were silent with amazement. "From California--andMoon Base--for _us_?" gasped Burl, finally. "But why? What can they wantof us?"

  His father frowned. "Only way to find out is to open it and see." Hesquatted down to study the cylinder closer. Burl pointed a finger at thenose.

  "Looks like a crack there. Maybe it unscrews. Let's lift it."

  It was not as heavy as it had appeared, for, like all rocket missiles,it was made of the light but tough alloys that were necessary toconserve weight-lift costs and fuel reserves. They stood it upright andtried to turn the top. After a little resistance, it unscrewed slowly.Inside, they found a rolled document bearing the seal of the UnitedStates Air Force.

  Burl took it out, and unfolded it with unsteady hands. His father readover his shoulder.

  Gonzales poked at the empty cylinder, impatiently. Finally, he burstout, "What does it say? What do they want?"

  Burl turned to him. "It's unbelievable! It's--it's just so darnedsurprising! The dimness of the days, the drop in temperature--it wasn'tjust around here! It was all over the world!"

  Quickly, he went on to tell the Peruvian what they had just learned. Thecommunication was from the U.S. Space Commission and it had beendirected on its flight from California by the Moon Base, because onlyfrom the satellite could the exact location of the Dennings be spotted.It seemed that the Dennings were the only scientifically trainedpersonnel close to the point on Earth where the disturbance originated.This also accounted for the blanketing of radio waves in their vicinity.Several airplanes had tried to locate them, but strange disturbances inthe ether and atmosphere had made it impossible to establish contact.Also, the back reaches of the Andes were poorly mapped and treacherousin air currents, even in normal times.

  "During the last week, a certain fraction of the Sun's light and energyreaching the Earth has been diverted. It has been bent or focused inmuch the same way that a lens bends light rays--and the point to whichit has been directed is a spot only seven miles from here! Over thatlast mountain range," said Burl, pointing.

  Gonzales followed his finger. "Just over the mountains lies the sourceof the trouble," said Burl excitedly. "And we're the nearest to it. Theywant us to go over there, see what it is, stop it, or report back. Ittook the telescopes in Moon Base to locate us and to track the center ofthe trouble!"

  Mark Denning pursed his lips. "We'll have to start tomorrow, and we'llhave to go fast. A loss of light and heat, however slight, could havevery serious effects on life if continued too long. We can make it bytomorrow night, if we start early and leave the Indians and pack animalsbehind."

  The other two nodded. Mark looked at them in the half-light of the Moon."You'll have to stay with the equipment, Pedro, otherwise the Indiansmight abandon it. Burl and I will start out at dawn."

  Gonzales agreed and the three made their way back to the camp. At thefirst sign of light breaking in the morning horizon, Burl and his fatherstarted off. They carried only enough equipment for survival, plus theadditional items that might be needed for the emergency ahead.

  The trek over the mountains was a hard one, the path narrow, steep,sometimes nonexistent. There were few signs of Indians or animals, andit was plain that few ever traveled over this range. The air was coldand thin, vegetation sparse and hardy. All around them was the coldblue of the sky--a shade darker than usual--and the gaunt peaks ofancient mountains. The Inca kings may have claimed the land here, buteven their hardy legions had never conquered these lonely and hostilesky domains.

  Panting and weary with hours of climbing, Burl and his father made aquick lunch in a sheltered jumble of rock near the top. Then,shouldering their packs again, they trudged on. At last they reached apoint where the view of the other side spread out before them--abreathtakingly clear vision of the little valley below.

  As they looked down, the air seemed to shimmer and vibrate. Burl rubbedhis eyes. "It hurts," he said.

  His father squinted. "There's a powerful vibrational effect. It may be avery dangerous concentration of the invisible rays of the Sun as well asof light."

  Once Burl had gotten used to the odd visual effect, which was likegazing into the twisting heat rays rising from an overheated oven, hesaw that there was a small flat region between the mountains. And in thecenter of this valley was a large black structure of some sort. Thetwisting effect of the light around it made it impossible to tell more.

  "That's it," said Burl. His father nodded, shifted the pack to ease hisshoulders, unstrapped the hunting rifle slung over his back, andcarefully checked its loads.

  Burl saw what his father was doing and suddenly understood the danger.What could be doing a thing like this? What but something not of thisEarth? Something of distant space, of a science beyond that of man--and_unfriendly_ besides. Now, for the first time, Burl realized what he hadnot had time to before--this was an enemy he and his father werefacing--an enemy of all mankind--and utterly unknown.

  He gulped, gripped his rifle, and followed his father down the slidingrocky trail.

  As they drew nearer the base of the mountain, the effects of the strangevibrations grew more pronounced. Burl avoided looking directly ahead,keeping his eyes on the ground before his feet, yet even so, he couldnot help noticing how the stones around them seemed to shimmer in theinvisible waves. From the base of the valley the sky now seemed streakedwith black and gray rings, as if they were reaching the center of someatmospheric whirlpool. Out of the mountains, after hours of arduousscrambling, they started across the barren rocky plain.

  Before them rose a vast circular structure several stories high,ominously black and without any sign of windows or doors. Above thebuilding protruded two great projections ending in huge, shining discs.One of the monstrous cuplike discs was facing the Sun, the other pointedin the opposite direction.

  As the two men came nearer and nearer, the strangeness in the airincreased. They felt they were being penetrated through and through withinvisible lances, with tiny prickles of heat. "Radiation?" queried Burlsoftly, afraid of the answer. His father trudged grimly on for amoment, and then put down his pack. He took out a Geiger counter andactivated it.

  He shook his head. "No radioactivity," he said. "Whatever this is, itisn't that."

  They reached the wall of the building. Oddly, here they seemed shelteredfrom the unusual vibrations. Burl realized that the source was abovethem, probably the two mighty discs raised high in the sky.

  The Dennings surveyed the building, but found no entrance. It must havebeen a quarter of a mile around its walls, but there was no sign of adoor or entry. The wall was of a rocklike substance, but it was not likeany rock or plastic Burl had ever seen.

  "We've got to get in," said Burl as they returned to the starting point,"but how?"

  His father smiled. "This way." He opened his pack and took two cans ofblasting powder from it. "I thought these would come in handy. Lucky wehad some left over from the blasting we did last week."

  He set both cans at the base of the high wall, wired them together, andran the wire as far as it reached. When the two men were a safe distanceaway, Mark sparked off the explosive.

  There was a thunderous roar: rocks and dirt showered around them, andbits of black powdery stuff. When the smoke cleared, Burl and his fatherleaped to their feet, rifles in hand.

  There was a crack in the side of the wall where the explosive had goneoff. And the rip was large enough to get through!

  Without a word, they charged across the ground, still smoking from theconcussion, and squeezed through the mysterious walls of the enigmaticbuilding.

  The walls were thin, thin but hard, as befit masters of atomicengineering. Inside, they found a roomless building--one single chamberwithin the frame of the outer walls.

  A dim, bluish light emanated from the curving ceiling. On the unclearedrocky ground which was the floor of the building were a number of hugemachines.

  They were spherical
glassy inventions, many times the height of a man,connected by strings of thick metal bars and rows of smaller globes,none of which was familiar. There was a steady humming noise, and above,the two giant, metal masts penetrating the ceiling rotated slowly.Doubtless, the great Sun-trapping discs were affixed to the top of thesemasts.

  There was no living thing in sight.

  Burl and his father stood silently, half crouched, with rifles at theready, but nothing moved to challenge them. There was only the hummingof the Sun transmitters.

  Burl called out, but there was no answer. They advanced cautiously,fearing a trap. The place did not have the look of living things aboutit. "An automatic station," said Mark under his breath. "I think it'sstrictly automatic."

  It gradually became evident that Mark was right. Everything wasautomatic. Whoever had built this structure to divert the rays of theSun had simply set it down, put it in motion, and left. There was noevidence of any provisions for a garrison or a director.

  They studied the machines but could make nothing of them. They foundwhat looked like controls, but although they pushed and pulled thelevers and knobs, the humming did not cease. It seemed as if thecontrols were either dummies or had to be specially motivated.

  "What do we do now?" asked Burl, after they had tried pulling all thelevers on one particular switchboard without any results. "Do you haveenough powder left to blow up the machinery?"

  His father shook his head. "I had only those two cans with me. We couldtry shooting into the machinery." Leveling his rifle, he fired at aglassy globe perched upon the central sphere. The bullet pinged off it,and they saw that it had failed even to dent the glistening surface.

  "It won't work," said the elder Denning, after several more shots hadproduced the same result and the concussion reverberating from theenclosed walls had nearly deafened them.

  They continued to hunt for a clue, but found none. Dejected, Burl kickeda loose pebble and watched it rattle against a column near the maincontrol board. A small metallic ball rested on top of the column,apparently unattached. A replacement part, he thought to himself,wandering over to it. It was about the level of his head.

  With the thought that if he examined it he might learn something of thenature of the working machines, he reached out with both hands to pickit up.

  As his hands touched the metallic ball, there was a sudden terribleflash of power. He felt himself grasped by forces beyond his control,paralyzed momentarily like one who has laid hold of an electricallycharged wire. He opened his mouth to scream in agony, but he could saynothing. A great force surged through his body, radiating, chargingevery cell and atom of his being. He felt as if he were being liftedfrom the floor. Then the globe seemed to dissolve in his hands. Itbecame a glare of light, grew misty, and then vanished.

  For a moment he stood there on tiptoe, arced with the potent violence ofthe force, glowing from within with energies, and then he felt as if thesupercharge were dissolving itself, slipping into him, sliding into theground, then disappearing.

  He stood before the column, swaying, but still conscious and alive. Hishands were still raised, but there was no ball between them, neither ofmetal nor of power.

  He let them fall to his side and took a step. He was whole, he wassound, he was unharmed. He heard his father's footsteps running to him,and murmured weakly, "I'm all right."

  And he was. He could see no sign of damage. "I must have absorbed anawful lot of that energy--or whatever it was," he said.

  After resting a moment, he decided to try the useless controls again.Going over to one small board, he idly shoved a lever. This time he feltresistance. The lever was activated. There was a slight change in theradiance of one globe.

  "Dad!" Burl shouted. "It works! It works for me now!"

  Mark Denning watched as Burl turned dials and levers and got responses."You must have been charged in a special way," he said excitedly."That's how they lock their devices. They will only respond to a personcarrying that special energy charge, whatever it was. Come on, let's getto the main control, before the effect goes away--if it does."

  The two dashed to the panel which, they guessed, activated the main Suntransmitter. Burl grabbed the instruments and threw them back to whatseemed to be the zero positions.

  The humming rose in intensity, then quieted down and finally stopped.There was a series of clicks, and one by one, the various globes,condensers and glowing machines died out. Above them came a whirringnoise, and Burl looked up to see the masts withdrawing into thebuilding, their discs presumably left flat and directionless.

  It felt different. Suddenly they knew that the vibrations which had beenso heavy in the air about them were gone. There was silence everywhere,the natural silence of an empty, lifeless building in an uninhabitedvalley.

  Burl and his father made their way to the break in the wall and climbedthrough it.

  Outside, the Sun shone down brighter than it had before. The sky wasthe calm serene blue of a cloudless day. Burl knew that at that samemoment, all over the world, the sky was clearer and the Sun warmer.

  But for how long? Behind them the building still stood--and itsinventors were still to be found.

 
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