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The secret of the ninth.., p.7
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.7

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 5. _Up the Rope of Space_

  Burl's visit home was a curious interlude. Actually, he had been awayonly a few weeks, since the summer vacation had begun, yet this singleday had an air about it different from that of any other homecoming. Hefound himself continually looking at things in a more inquisitive, morethoughtful manner.

  That which had been commonplace was suddenly something valuable, a sightto be treasured. For he had realized, as he sat in the fast planetransporting him home, that the Earth was itself a planet among planets,and that this might possibly prove to be his last visit to the townwhere he had been born. He had pondered, as he had gazed out of theship's windows, just what it could mean to depart from this world andtravel among the uncharted reaches of empty and hostile space ... toset foot upon planets where no human foot had ever touched and to meetunguessable perils.

  So his home, his mother, his friends, the street on which he lived, tookon a novel air. He studied them while enjoying a quiet day at home. Hewatched the cars in the street, so amusingly compact and small, eachdesigned in the fleeting style of the year. The cars of a dozen yearsago had been designed for length and size, but the trend had been theopposite for a decade now. The cars grew smaller and their lines weirderas the manufacturers strove to compete.

  What other planet could boast of such simultaneously astonishingingenuity and wondrous tomfoolery?

  He looked at the people going about their business, the other boys ofhis age intent on their summer jobs and summer fun, and wondered if hewould ever be able to join them again without the cares of a world onhis shoulders?

  People were unaware of the crisis that hung over the solar system. Therehad been news of the dimming of the Sun, but the meaning behind it hadbeen carefully screened, and the expedition was a top secret. It availedthe world nothing to panic about this matter. Now the odd weather quirkshad been forgotten, and the main subjects on people's tongues were thebaseball scores and the latest telemovies.

  When Burl kissed his mother and father good-by, it was with a sense thathe was also kissing good-by to his youth, and entering upon a newperiod of the most desperate responsibility.

  This mood lingered with him back at the base, although his companions ofthe trip to come seemingly did not share it. On the last day, quartershad been assigned in the _Magellan_, and the men moved their belongingsto their tight bunks in the heart of the ship. Clyde had his way, and heand Burl shared a double-decker chamber.

  There was a hustle and bustle in the valley. The supplies seemedunending, and Burl wondered why the variety. "For once, we've gotlifting power to spare," was Russ's comment. "Nobody knows what we'regoing to need on the various planets, so Lockhart is simply pilingaboard everything he can think of. You'd be amazed at the space we havefor storage. And Caton says that the more we stick in there, the betterthe shielding is against the radiation belt surrounding Earth--andprobably the other planets as well."

  "I thought we were already well protected," said Burl. "With the atomicgenerators, we had to be shielded anyway. Haven't we lead lining allaround our inner sphere quarters?"

  Russell Clyde nodded. "Oh, sure, but the more the merrier."

  He and Burl were already in their quarters, stowing their clothes. "Weleave in an hour," said Burl. "Are we going to the launching base atBoothia, where the manned rockets go up?"

  Clyde shook his head. "Lockhart talked it over with us yesterday, and wedecided to take off from right here." By "us," Burl knew the operationalgroup was meant, which consisted of the colonel, the two astronomers,Caton as head of the engineering section, and Haines, "To tell thetruth, nobody knows how easily this ship will handle. We're shieldedwell enough so that a short passage through the radiation belt threehundred miles up and for the next fifteen hundred miles shouldn't haveany effect on us at all. The rockets, which can't be shielded because ofthe weight limitations, have to go up at Boothia because there, at theNorth Magnetic Pole, there's a hole in the radiation."

  Boothia Peninsula was a barren spot far up in the Arctic Zone onCanada's frozen eastern coast. On it was constructed the world's majorspace port--a lonely outpost from which rockets departed for the equallylonely Moon bases. Burl had read about it and had looked forward toseeing it, but realized that the flight of the _Magellan_ marked stillanother change in the fast-altering history of the conquest of space.

  The hour passed quickly. The little valley was cleared of visitors. Thecrew was called to take-off posts--Lockhart at the controls, Clyde andOberfield at the charts, Detmar watching the energy output. The rest ofthe crew had been strapped into their bunks. By special request, Burlwas observing in the control room, seated in a half-reclining positionlike the others, in a well-padded chair, strapped tight.

  Haines had remarked as he had supervised the strapping-in, "Nobody knowswhether this is going to be necessary. But we're taking no chances."He'd gone to his quarters and done the same thing.

  Lockhart watched the registering of the dials in front of him, waitingfor the load to build up. There was a muffled whine from overhead as thegenerators built up current. Detmar called out a cryptic number everyfew seconds and the colonel checked it. The two astronomers were idle,watching their viewers. They'd made their calculations long before.

  "Time," called out the colonel, pressing a button. A gong rangthroughout the quarters. He moved a lever slowly.

  Burl waited for the surge of pressure he had read always occurred attake-off. But there was no such pressure. He lay back in his seat,gripping the arms. Gradually he became aware of a curious sensation. Heseemed to be getting lightheaded, and to tingle with unexpected energy.He felt an impulse to giggle, and he kicked up his foot to find itsurprisingly agile. About him the others were stirring in their seats asif caught by the same impulses.

  Now he felt loose against his bonds and he became a little dizzy. Therewas a pounding in his head as blood surged within him. His heart beganto beat heavily.

  "We're losing weight," muttered Clyde from his chair, and Burl knew theship was tensing to take off.

  The great generators were beginning to push against Earth's gravityand, as their force moved upward to match Earth's, the weight ofeverything in their sway decreased accordingly. Lockhart's first movewas simply that--to reduce the pull of Earth to zero.

  In a few moments that point was accomplished. A state of weightlessnesswas obtained within the _Magellan_. Those watching outside from bunkersin the surrounding mountains saw the huge teardrop shiver and begin torise slowly above its cradle of girders. It floated gently upward,moving slowly off as the force of Earth's centrifugal drive began tomanifest itself against the metal bubble's great mass.

  Everyone on the crew had experienced zero gravity, either in the sametests Burl had undergone or on actual satellite flights, and thus far,no one was too uncomfortable. The entire structure of the ship quivered,and Burl realized that the inner sphere which housed their air space washanging free on its gymbals.

  Lockhart rang a second gong, then turned a new control. The pitch of thegenerators, faintly audible to them, changed, took on a new keening. Theship seemed suddenly to jump as if something had grasped it. The feelingof weightlessness vanished momentarily, then there was a moment ofdizziness and a sudden sensation of being upside down.

  For a shocking instant, Burl felt himself hanging head downward from afloor which had surprisingly turned into a ceiling. He opened his mouthto shout, for he thought he was about to plunge onto the hard metal ofthe ceiling which now hung below him so precipitously.

  Then there was a whirling sensation, a sideways twisting that swung himabout against the straps. As it came, the room seemed to shift. Thecurved base of the control room, which had been so suddenly a floor,became in a moment a wall, lopsided and eerie. Then it shifted again,and, startlingly, Burl sagged back into his cushioned seat as thehemispherical room again resumed its normal aspect.

  Lockhart bent over the controls, cautiously moving a lever bit by bit.Clyde was bent over his viewer, calling
out slight corrections.

  Now, at last, Burl felt the pressure he had expected. His weight grewsteadily greater, back to normal, then increased. He found himselfconcentrating on his breathing, forcing his lungs up against theincreasing weight of his ribs.

  "Hold up," his buzzing eardrums heard someone say--possibly Oberfield."We don't need to accelerate more than one g. Take it easy."

  The weight lessened instantly. Then the pressure was off. Everythingseemed normal. Lockhart sat back and began to unloosen his straps. Theothers followed suit.

  In one viewer, Burl glimpsed the black of outer space, and in another,the wide grayish-green bowl of the Earth spreading out below. In a thirdhe saw the blazing disc of the Sun.

  "Did everything go all right?" he asked quietly of Clyde.

  The redhead looked up at him and smiled. "Better than we might haveexpected for a first flight," he said.

  "We're latching on to the Sun's grip now. We're falling toward the Sun;not just falling, but pulling ourselves faster toward it, so that we cankeep up a normal gravity pressure. We're soon going to be going fasterthan any rocket has ever gone. The living-space sphere rotated itself assoon as we started that. That's what made everything seem upside downthat time and why everything has come back to normal."

  Burl nodded. "But that means that in relation to Earth we are ourselvesupside down right now!"

  "Of course," said Clyde. "But in space, everything is strictly relative.We are no longer on Earth. We are a separate body in space, fallingthrough space toward the Sun."

  "Why the Sun?" asked Burl. "I thought our first objective was to be theplanet Venus?"

  "It was too hard to get a fix on Venus from so near the Earth. Instead,we latched on to the Sun to pull us inward. When we are near to Venus'orbit, we'll reverse and pull in on Venus," was the astronomer's answer.

  "Isn't that rather risky?" asked Burl, remembering some of the quickbriefings he had been given. "That's a departure from your plans."

  Lockhart looked up quickly. "Yes, you're right," he admitted. "But on atrip like this we've got to learn to improvise and do it fast. We madethat decision at take-off."

  For an instant Burl felt a chill. He realized then what all the othermen on the ship had known all along--that in this flight they were allamateurs, that everything they did was to be improvisation in one way oranother, that they must always run the risk of a terrible mistake.

  Had latching on to the Sun been the first such error?

 
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