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The secret of the ninth.., p.6
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.6

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 4. _The Hidden Skyport_

  Around the table there was a concerted sigh. Burl, his ears stillthrobbing from his sudden excitement, realized each of them had beenholding his breath. General Shrove smiled and glanced at the elderDenning, who sat expressionless. It is not an easy thing for him, Burlthought.

  At that moment, Burl knew that he had come of age. This moment ofdecision, coming truly and literally like a bolt out of the blue, hadthrust him into man's estate before his time. He would show that he wasable to carry this burden.

  Shrove now spoke to Lockhart. "Colonel, we are holding you to yourschedule. According to it, you can take off in five more days. Will youneed any more time because of this addition to your crew?"

  The stocky air veteran shook his head. "Not at all. We'll be loaded andready on the hour I set. I'll take Denning in hand and brief him on whathe may need to know. Actually, we may even be able to get him ahome-leave. After all, his duties won't begin until actual planetfallsare made."

  They rose from their seats. Burl stood up, uncertain as to procedure,but Lockhart came over to him and took his arm. "Burl, we're going tohave to give you a rundown on the ship and the plans. We've no time towaste if you want to get a chance to say good-by to your folks lateron."

  "I understand," said Burl. He turned and waved to his father, who was inconversation with the general. "I'll see you at home in a few days,Dad," he called, then followed Lockhart out.

  Outside the building they were joined by several other members of theconference and immediately ringed about by a squad of Air Force menwearing sidearms. Burl realized that they were to be thus guardedeverywhere they went. Obviously, the possibility that the builders ofthe Sun-traps might have agents operating on Earth had occurred to theofficers.

  Russell Clyde, the young astronomer, was among their group. He walkedover to Burl and shoved out a hand. "Glad to have you with us, Burl.This is going to be quite a trip!"

  Clyde was about Burl's size. He had an engagingly boyish air about him,and Burl took a liking to him. Burl had heard of him before. For theyoung man, while still a college student, had formulated a remarkablenew theory of the composition of galactic formations which had instantlyfocused the attention of the scientific world upon him. This theory hadbeen taken up by the gray-beards of the scientific world and hadsurvived the test of their debates. Now associated with the great MountPalomar Observatory, Russell Clyde had continued to build a reputationin astronomical circles.

  "You're one of the expedition, then?" asked Burl, shaking his hand.

  The redhead nodded. "Yep. They're taking me as their chief astrogator.And don't think it's because I'm any great shakes at it, either! It'sjust that I'm still young enough to take the kind of shoving aroundthese high brass figure we're going to get. Boy, have they got itfigured!"

  Burl chuckled. "Ah, you're kidding, Dr. Clyde. You've probably been inon this from the beginning."

  The other shook his head vigorously. "Nope. It was going to beMerckmann's baby, but when they realize they have a fight on theirhands, they always look for young blood. And, say, cut out this 'Doctor'stuff. Call me Russ. We're going to share quarters, you know."

  "How do you know that?" asked a tall, rather sharp-featured man who hadoverheard them. "The colonel will assign quarters."

  "I say he will ... and you can bet on that," snapped Russell Clyde. Hewaved a hand in introduction. "This is Harvey Caton, one of ourelectronics wizards."

  Caton nodded, but before he could continue the discussion, Lockhartrounded them all up, packed them into a couple of station wagons, guardsand all, and they were off.

  * * * * *

  The next days were hectic ones. By car and plane the group wastransferred to the large, closely guarded base in Wyoming where thesecret anti-gravity ship was waiting. Burl did not see this ship rightaway. First, he was introduced to all the other members of the crew, andgiven a mass of papers to study which outlined the basic means of thenew space drive, and which detailed the opinions and suggestions ofvarious experts as to methods of procedure and courses of action. He wassubjected to various space medical tests to determine his reactionsunder differing pressures and gravities. Although it proved a strenuousand exhausting routine, he emerged from the tests with flying colors.

  The expedition was commanded, as he had known, by Colonel Lockhart whowould also act as chief pilot. The famous military flier proved to be aforceful personality with a great skill at handling people. He knew howto get the most out of each man.

  Russell Clyde was the chief astrogator and astronomical expert.Assisting him was the rather pedantic and sober Samuel Oberfield, amathematical wizard and astrophysicist, on leave from an assistantprofessorship at one of the great universities. Clyde and Oberfieldwould also act as copilots relieving Lockhart.

  Harvey Caton, blond Jurgen Detmar, and the jovial Frank Shea were thethree-man engineering crew. Completing the members of the expedition wasanother trio chosen to act as general crew, medical and commissary menwhile in flight, and as a trained explorer-fighter unit while onplanetside. Roy Haines, of whose exploits in Africa and the jungles ofSouth America Burl Denning had heard, was the first of these, a rugged,weather-beaten, but astonishingly alert explorer. Captain Edgar Boulton,on leave from the United States Marines, was the second--a man who hadmade an impressive record in various combat actions in his country'sservice. The Antarctic explorer, Leon Ferrati, completed the listing.Ferrati was an expert on getting along in conditions of extremefrigidity and hostile climates. Of these men, only Lockhart, Clyde,Detmar and Ferrati had had space experience in the platforms and inMoon-rocketry.

  It was still, thought Burl, a large crew for a spaceship. No rocketbuilt to date had ever been able to carry such a load. But by then hehad realized that the strict weight limitation imposed by rocket fuelsno longer applied to this new method of space flight. Burl found himselfmore and more anxious to see this wonderful craft.

  It was not until the morning of the second day that Burl's chance came.He had fallen asleep on the stiff army cot in the hastily improvisedbase on the Wyoming prairie where the final work was being done. Theday had been a confused jumble of impressions, with little time to catchhis breath. Now he had slept the sleep of exhaustion, only to beawakened at dawn by Lockhart.

  "Up and dress," the colonel greeted him. "We're taking you out to lookthe ship over. Detmar will come along and explain the drive."

  Burl threw his clothes on, gulped down breakfast in the company of theothers at the messhall, and soon was speeding along a wide, new roadthat ran up to the mountains edging the wide western plain. As theyneared the mountains, he saw a high wooden wall blocking the road andview; this was the barrier that concealed the ship nestled in the valleybeyond.

  They passed the guards' scrutiny and emerged into the valley. The A-G 17loomed suddenly above them, and Burl's first impression was of aglistening metal fountain roaring up from the ground, gathering itselfhigh in the sky, as if to plunge down again in a rain of shining steel.

  The ship was like a huge, gleaming raindrop. It stood two hundred feethigh, the wide, rounded, blunt bulk of it high in the air, as if aboutto fall upward instead of downward. It tapered down to a thin, perfectlystreamlined point which touched the ground. It was held upright by agreat cradle of girders and beams. At various points the polished steelwas broken by indentations or inset round dots that were thick portholesor indications of entry ports. Around its equator, girding the widestsection was a ring of portholes, and there were scattered rings ofsimilar portholes below this.

  As the three men drew near the tail, the great bulk loomed overhead, andBurl felt as if its weight were bearing down on him as they walkedbeneath.

  Two men were suspended from the scaffolding above. Burl twisted his neckand saw that the designation A-G 17 and the white-star insignia of theUnited States had been lettered along the sides. But what was it the menwere painting now?

  "It will read _Magellan_," said Lockh
art, following Burl's eyes. "Wedecided that that would be the appropriate name for it. For what we aregoing to have to do with it is not just to make a simple trip to exploreanother planet, but to circumnavigate the entire solar system."

  Burl found his eyes dazzled by the vessel, hanging like a giant bulbousmushroom over them. Around him, he began to realize that a number ofother activities were going on. There were spidery scaffolds leading upto open ports in the metallic sides. Workmen were raising loads ofmaterial into these ports, and for an instant Burl caught sight ofHaines, in rough work clothes, shouting orders from one of the openingsas to exactly where to stow something.

  At last he took his eyes away from the startling sight. The littlevalley around him had a number of low storage shacks. A road led in fromanother pass through the mountains. Two loaded trucks came down thispass now in low gear. Lockhart, watching, remarked, "We are having ourequipment and supplies flown up to a town twenty miles away and thentrucked in."

  "Why didn't you leave this ship where it was built--in your plant inIndiana--and load it from there?" Burl asked.

  "It would have been easier," said the colonel, "but security thought itbetter to transfer the craft to its launching sight up here in thesedeserted hills. We are going to make our take-off from here because weare still too experimental to know what might happen if something kickedup or if the engines failed. We'd hate to splatter all over a highlypopulated industrial area. Besides, you must know, if you looked overthose papers yesterday, that there's a lot of radioactive stuff here."

  Burl nodded. Detmar cut in. "Why don't we get aboard and show him overthe ship? It will be easier to make it clear that way."

  Suiting action to the word, the three went over to one of the loadingplatforms, climbed on the wiry little elevator, and were hoisted upfifty feet to the port in the side of the ship. They entered well belowthe vast, overhanging equatorial bulge which marked the wide end of theteardrop-shaped vessel.

  They walked through a narrow plastic-walled passage, broken in severalplaces by tight, round doors bearing storage vault numbers. At the endof the passage they came to a double-walled metal air lock. They steppedthrough and found themselves in what was evidently the living quartersof the spaceship.

  The _Magellan_ was an entirely revolutionary design as far as spacevehicles were concerned. Its odd shape was no mere whimsy, but apractical model. If a better design were to be invented, it would onlycome out of the practical experiences of this first great flight.

  It had long been known, ever since Einstein's early equations, thatthere was a kinship between electricity, magnetism, and gravitation. Inelectricity and magnetism there were both negative and positive fieldsmanifesting themselves in the form of attraction and repulsion. Theseopposing characteristics were the basis for man's mastery of electricalmachinery.

  But for gravitation, there had seemed at first no means of manipulatingit. As it was to develop, this was due to two factors. First, the Earthitself possessed a gravitational phenomenon in this force outside ofthat intense, all-pervading field. Second, to overcome this primal forcerequired the application of energy on such scales as could not be foundoutside of the mastery of nuclear energy.

  There was a simple parallel, Burl had been told the day before by SamOberfield, in the history of aviation. A practical, propeller-drivenflying machine could not be constructed until a motor had been inventedthat was compact, light and powerful enough to operate it. So allefforts to make such machines prior to the development of the internalcombustion engine in the first days of the twentieth century were doomedto failure. Likewise, in this new instance, a machine to utilizegravitation could not be built until a source of power was developedhaving the capacity to run it. Such power was found only in thesuccessful harnessing of the hydrogen disintegration explosion--theH-bomb force. The first success at channeling this nuclear power in anonbomb device had been accomplished in England in 1958. The Zeta-ringgenerator had been perfected in the next decade.

  Only this source of harnessed atomic power could supply the forcenecessary to drive an A-G ship.

  The nose of the _Magellan_ housed an H-power stellar generator. Withinthe bulk of the top third of the ship was this massive power source, itsatomic components, its uranium-hydrogen fuel, and the beam thatchanneled the gravitational drive.

  "Negating gravity is not a simple matter like inventing a magic sheet ofmetal that cuts off the pull of the Earth, such as H. G. Wells wroteabout," Oberfield had explained. "That is impossible because it ignoresall the other laws of nature; it forgets the power of inertia, it deniesthe facts of mass and density. It takes just as much energy to lift ananti-gravity ship as to lift a rocketship. The difference is only in thepracticality of the power source. A rocketship must burn its fuel bychemical explosion in order to push its cargo load upward. Its fuel islimited by its own weight and by the awkwardness of its handling. ThisA-G ship also must supply energy, foot-pound for foot-pound, for everyfoot it raises the vehicle. But due to the amount of energy supplied bythis new nuclear generator, such power is at last available in onecompact form and in such concentration that this ship could propelitself for hundreds of years."

  He went on to explain that what then happened was that the vessel,exerting a tremendous counter-gravitational force, literally pusheditself up against Earth's drive. At the same time, this force could beused to intensify the gravitational pull of some other celestial body.The vessel would begin to fall toward that other body, and be repelledfrom the first body--Earth in this case.

  As every star, planet, and satellite in the universe was exerting a pullon every other one, the anti-gravity spaceship literally reached out,grasped hold of the desired gravitational "rope" hanging down from thesky, and pulled itself up it. It would seem to fall upward into the sky.It could increase or decrease the effect of its fall. It could fall freetoward some other world, or it could force an acceleration in its fallby adding repulsion from the world it was leaving.

  In flight, therefore, the wide nose was the front. It would fall throughspace, pulled by the power beam generated from this front. The rear ofthe spaceship was the tapering, small end.

  As Burl was shown over the living quarters it became plain to him thatthe actual living spaces in the _Magellan_ were inside a metal spherehanging on gymbals below the equatorial bulge that housed the powerdrive. The bulk of this sphere was always well within the outer walls ofthe teardrop, and thus protected from radiation. Being suspended ongymbals, the sphere would rotate so that the floor of the livingquarters was always downward to wherever the greatest pull of gravitymight happen to be.

  Burl and the others explored the three floors that divided the innersphere, all oriented toward Earth. The central floor, housing thesleeping quarters and living quarters, was compact but roomier thanmight have been expected. There were five bunkrooms, each shared by twomen. There was a main living and dining room. On the lowermost floor wasthe cookroom, a small dispensary, and immediate supplies. On the upperfloor was the control room, with its charts and television viewplateswhich allowed vision in all directions from sending plates fixed on thesurface in various areas.

  In the spaces between the inner sphere and the outer shell were thebasic storage areas. Here supplies and equipment were being stockedagainst all possible emergencies. In the tapering space of the tailbelow the sphere was a rocket-launching tube. Stored in the outer shellswere various vehicles for planetary exploration.

  Haines came into the control room where the three were standing. He waswiping his hands on a piece of cloth, and looked tired. "Finally got thespecial, sealed-engine jeep stowed away," he said. "I was afraid weweren't going to get it in time. The Moon-base people had ordered it,and they're going to holler bloody murder when they find out weappropriated it."

  Lockhart shrugged. "Let 'em yell. It'll be too late when they find out.How much longer will we need before you finish the loading?"

  Haines drew a chair up to the chart table and sat down. "I expect to getsome more stuff t
omorrow, and then the two-man rocket plane the nextday. We already have the four-man rocket aboard. That'll do it. The restof your men ready?"

  Lockhart nodded. "We're just about set. Denning here can take a quicktrip home tomorrow, and we'll be ready the day after."

  Burl looked about him quickly. One day, two days, maybe a third--andthen, the plunge into the unknown. Detmar reached upward and drew down ametal ladder hanging in the curved ceiling of the chamber. "I'm going totake a look in the engine room," he said. "Want to come along?" he askedBurl.

  Before the young man could say yes, Lockhart shook his head. "No, Idon't want him to. I don't want anyone going up there who doesn't haveto. That stuff is shielded, but you can never be sure."

  Burl was disappointed, for he had wanted to see the nuclear generators.But Detmar shook his head, smiled, and pushed aside a round trap door inthe ceiling. Burl could see that it connected with a similar door a foothigher. Detmar pushed it open and ascended into the forbidden sphere ofthe Zeta-rings. Burl got a glimpse of subdued, bluish light, and thenthe trap door shut after the engineer.

  Later as they drove out through the valley, Burl looked back at the hugeship, and now, instead of appearing like an overhanging metal waterfall,he saw it as a wide-nosed bullet, aiming at the sky, surging against itsbonds--a bullet for humanity's sake.

 
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