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The secret of the ninth.., p.5
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.5

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 3. _The Secret of A-G 17_

  The Dennings did not have much time to speculate on the mystery of theSun-stealers. For just as they were discussing what should be their nextcourse of action, the problem was solved for them. There was a roaringin the air, then a humming, and in a matter of a few more seconds, sixrocket helicopters popped into sight, hovered over the valley onstreaming jets, and settled down.

  "They're U.S. planes!" gasped Burl, jumping to his feet and going tomeet them. "It must mean that they know we stopped the machines."

  "Obviously," said his father, striding with him to greet the helmetedman who was now stepping out of the lead machine. By this time the lastof the squad had landed, and the khaki-clad soldiers in them werealready disembarking. "I imagine that all over the world the sky turneda little brighter. It must have been apparent at once."

  The leader of the 'copter men reached them. He was a tall, bronzed man,wearing the service coveralls and markings of a captain of the AirForce. He stretched out his hand. "You must be the Dennings. I'm CaptainSaunders. I've been asked to bring you back with me right away so thatwe can get a complete report on this affair. How fast can you getready?"

  "Why," said Burl, "we're ready right now. As soon as we can dump ourpacks aboard. But, gee, you mean go back--where?"

  Saunders smiled grimly. "To California. We just left there. I have beengiven urgent orders to waste no time. So will you oblige?"

  The two Dennings looked at each other. This was important, all right.They realized that these planes had flown on fast rockets the instantthe sky had cleared. Possibly there was still a crisis--one they had notheard of.

  They did not pause to ask further questions. Mark Denning asked thecaptain to dispatch one of his 'copters to the camp beyond the mountainsto tell Gonzales to load up and start back for Lima. This order given,the two Dennings climbed into the rocket 'copter, and Saunders took thecontrols.

  With a whoosh, the squat craft lifted on its rockets, its jet-driven fancarried it up, folded, and the rocket engine took over. On upward intothe stratosphere they hurtled, across the Western Hemisphere, acrossthe face of jungle and isthmus, across the barren mountains of Mexico,and in a matter of less than half an hour, settled down in the widegreen field of a U.S. Air Force base in southern California. It was allso swift, so sudden, that to Burl it seemed like a dream. There had beenso many days in the field, in the peace and quiet of the high mountainsof the Andes. There had been the slow hunting around age-worn ruins; thecareful, deliberate sifting of tons of soil and sand for tiny shards;then this: the urgent message, the trek, the weird building, thestrange, body-filling shock, and the control over the Sun-theft globes,followed by the swift transition over thousands of miles.

  Here he was in his home country--weeks sooner than he had expected--butnot to return to his home and school. No, for he felt that somehow anadventure was beginning that could lead anywhere. Perhaps his adventurehad actually ended, but he saw now that he would be questioned, probed,and asked to recount his story over and over.

  Burl and his father were met at the port by a group of officers andescorted rapidly to a room in a large building. Here there were half adozen men in civilian clothes. One by one, these men were introduced,and as each one was named, Burl wondered more about what was to come.

  There was a general from Army Intelligence. There was a high member ofthe State Department. There were three noted astronomers--among them thesurprisingly young Russell Clyde and the elderly and famous Dr.Merckmann. There was an aircraft manufacturer whose name graced athousand planes, and an engineer who had contributed to the conquest ofthe Moon.

  The general, Walton Shrove, asked them to sit down. He was in charge ofthe affair. It turned out to be a careful questioning of their story. Itwas not a hounding of questions as in a police quizzing, or a baitingfrom newspapermen eager to get a scoop. Rather, their questions weredeliberate and intelligent. They drew out the full account of what Burland his father had seen in that valley, and of what the Sun-theft globesappeared to be like in operation. They concentrated deeply on thecurious experience which had placed in Burl the charge that enabled himto control the machines.

  "Would you mind," the general asked Burl, "if we subject you to a seriesof medical and electronic tests to determine whether this charge isstill with you?"

  Burl shook his head. "I'll go along with anything you say."

  "Very well," the general smiled. "We'll make our purposes clear to youafterward. But we want to get this over as soon as we can."

  Burl left the room in company with three technicians who had come in.They took him to the medical office at the base and there he was given acomplete check. At the electronics lab, electrodes were attached to himand careful readings were made of the natural electrical resistance ofhis body, and of his apparent physical charge. After an hour of tests,Burl was brought back to the main council room.

  As he entered, he sensed he had interrupted something important. Hisfather looked at him, and Burl detected in his face a certain curiousmingling of pride and parental concern. What, the young man wondered,were they all up to?

  When he was seated, the company grew silent. The general pursed hislips, looked directly at Burl, and said, "I think the time has come toacquaint you with the problem our world is facing. We may ask you tomake a very personal decision, and we think you ought to know what mayhang on it."

  He stopped. Every face at the table was grim. Mark Denning, too, wassober, though Burl detected that he also did not quite know what was tocome.

  "It is apparent that some race of beings, some species from outer space,unknown to us, has begun a process of tapping the power and light of theSun for transmission elsewhere. The station on Earth, which you shutdown, was an important one. But ... it was not the only one. There areothers, operating in this solar system." He nodded to Merckmann.

  The old astronomer took the cue. "The observatories of the Earth, aidedby the lunar observers, have definitely determined that there is still acertain amount of light being shifted from the faces of other planetsand diverted. We have detected by telescopic and telethermicmeasurements that there are areas of Sun-disturbances on the surfaces ofthe planets Mercury and Mars. We suspect the existence of one on Venus.We believe that this may prove to be true on other planets as well, butwe have no doubt of the first two.

  "Measurements of the amount of Sun power being piped away, and of theeffect of the magnetic disturbances used to create and maintain thesestations, have shown that they will have a definite effect on thestructure of the Sun itself. We have not yet completed all ourcalculations, but preliminary studies indicate that if this type ofsolar interference is not stopped, it may cause our Sun to nova insomewhere between two and three years time."

  He stopped, but the thirty-year-old prodigy, Russell Clyde, took up thestory. "By nova, we mean that the Sun will literally explode. It willflame up, burst to many times its present size. Such an explosion willburn Earth to cinders, render all the planets inside the orbit ofJupiter uninhabitable, scorch their atmospheres, dissolve their watersinto steam, and make them lifeless flaming deserts. We have seen otherstars turn nova. We have measured their explosions. We know just aboutwhat age and stability inside a sun is necessary to cause this. And wefear that the danger of our own Sun doing so is great--if theSun-tapping is not stopped."

  Everyone at the table was silent. Burl was stunned. Finally he caughthis breath. "But how can we stop it? We can't get to all the planets intime. Our rockets are not ready--and rocketships would be too slow. Whyit would take two years for rocketships to reach Mars, if the expeditionwere ready now ... and I understand that it will be another ten yearsbefore Operation Mars is even attempted."

  General Shrove nodded. "That is correct. Our rocket engineering is notyet advanced enough to allow us to take such emergency action. We arestill only just over the doorstep of interplanetary flight--and ourenemies, whoever they may be, are obviously far advanced. But, as youwill see, we are not entirely w
ithout hope. Colonel Lockhart, will youtell them about Project A-G?"

  All eyes turned to Lockhart, who was a short, stocky man in civilianclothes. Burl realized that this man had been a colonel at one time, butremembered now that he had taken a post with one of the largest aviationcompanies after leaving the service. Lockhart turned cold gray eyesdirectly to Burl.

  "We have in my company's experimental grounds one virtually untestedvessel which may be able to make a flight to Mars, or any other planet,in the time allowed. This is the craft we refer to as A-G 17, theseventeenth such experiment, and the first to succeed. It is powered byan entirely new method of flight, the force of anti-gravity."

  Burl hung breathlessly on his next words. "You probably know that workon the scientific negation of gravity has been going on since the early1950's. It was known shortly after experiments had been conducted onatomic and subatomic particles that grounds had at last been found bymeans of which a counteraction to gravity might be set up. Earlysubatomic studies showed that such a force was not only theoreticallypossible, but that certain subparticles actually displayed suchtendencies. On the basis of these first discoveries, work has been goingon in the development of negative gravitational drive for at leasttwenty years. As early as 1956, there were not less than fourteen suchprojects under way in virtually all the leading aircraft industries ofthe United States, not to mention the rest of the world. In the last fewyears, at the direction of the Air Force, these projects have beenconsolidated, placed under one main roof, and brought to its presentstatus, which is, we believe, the one of final triumph."

  He glanced at General Shrove, who returned the glance unsmilingly."After the successful testing of several models, a full-sized craft hasbeen built which utilizes the new method of space drive. One such crafthas been built, and only one. This ship, if it works, is at this timethe only means by which humanity can hope to make the trips to the otherplaces in the solar system from which the Sun-stealers are working. Itis with this one vessel only that we can put their Sun-tap stations outof commission.

  "But I emphasize again the experimental nature of this ship. What itscapacities are and how well it will work is still a matter ofplanning-book conjecture. We can prepare the ship to take off in oneweek's time. I do not think, judging from what Merckmann and Clyde havesaid, that we can afford to wait any longer. Another such ship cannot bebuilt in less than a year."

  General Shrove spoke then. "It is already arranged that this A-G 17spaceship is going to go. A volunteer crew has been selected; several ofthem are in this room." He nodded briefly to Clyde and to Lockhart. "Butalthough these volunteers are among the best men in their fields, thereisn't one of them who couldn't be replaced by someone equally skilled inthe same field. But there is one person on Earth right now who may justpossibly be unique. This person may hold, by virtue of an experience notshared by any other human being, a special key that will render easierthe task that this spaceship must fulfill."

  He turned to Burl, who sat tingling with suspense. "You, Burl Denning,are apparently still carrying some sort of electronic or subelectroniccharge which is attuned to the controls of the Sun-tap station. We feelthat you should be along on this expedition. It will be long anddangerous, it will involve landings on worlds no man has ever visited orexpected to visit for hundreds of years. There is an enemy in the skywho will certainly try to stop our single ship. To be bluntly honest,the voyagers on this ship face such dangers as explorers have not facedsince the days of Magellan and Cook. Its chances of return are probablyremote. But with the permission of your father, which he has alreadygiven, I would like to ask that you volunteer to join its crew."

  Burl felt dizzy, his heart thumping painfully within his chest. He tooka deep breath, and then carefully, trying to keep his voice fromquivering, he said, "Yes, I'll go."

 
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