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The secret of the ninth.., p.8
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.8

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 6. _Sunward Ho!_

  Gradually the ship settled down to routine. There was, as Burldiscovered, nothing very much to do for most of the crew on such a spaceflight. The course was charted in advance, a pattern laid out that wouldcarry the ship falling toward its objective--falling in a narrow curvingorbit. A certain amount of time would pass during which the ship wouldtraverse a specific section of this plotted route at a certain rate ofspeed or acceleration.

  Then, at a specified moment, the speed would be checked, the attractionof the Sun reversed, and the ship would attempt to brake itself and tohalt its fall toward the great Sun. At such a time as its fall came to astop, it should, if the calculations had been correct, be crossing theorbit of the planet Venus in the same place and at about the same momentthat Venus itself would be. In that way, the ship would arrive at theplanet.

  Now all these calculations had been made, and once made, set into motionon the control panels of the ship. The interval of many days betweenactually left little to do, except for making astronomical observations,checking on the performance of the stellarators, setting a watch againstthe damage caused by meteors and micro-meteors, and following theordinary procedures of meals and sleep periods. The men set up anEarth-time schedule of twenty-four hours, divided the crew into threeeight-hour shifts, and conducted themselves accordingly.

  Burl did not find time weighing on his hands. Despite the limited spaceavailable to the ten men, there was always something to learn, andsomething to think about.

  When Russell Clyde was off duty, he spent much time with Burl at thewide-screen viewers that showed the black depths of interplanetary spacesurrounding them. The Earth dwindled to a brilliant green disc, whileahead of them the narrow crescent of approaching Venus could be seengrowing gradually. Ruddy Mars was sharp but tiny, a point of russetbeyond the green of Earth. And the stars--never had Burl seen so manystars--a firmament ablaze with brilliant little points of light--themillions of suns of the galaxy and the galaxies beyond ours.

  On the other side, the side toward which they fell, the Sun was ablinding sphere of white light, its huge coronal flames waveringfearfully around its orb.

  Seen to one side, surprisingly close to the Sun, was a tiny half-moon."That's Mercury," said Russ, pointing it out. "The smallest planet andthe closest to the Sun. After we leave Venus, we'll have to visit it. Weknow there's a Sun-tap station there--and because it's so close to theSun--its orbit ranges between twenty-eight million miles and underforty-four million miles--the station must be a most important and largeone."

  Burl gazed at the point of light that was the innermost planet. "ThoseSun-tap stations ... The more I think about it, the more I wonder whatwe're up against. It seems to me that it ought to be easy for the kindof people who can build such things to catch us and stop us. In fact, Iwonder why they haven't already gone after us for stopping the one onEarth?"

  Russ whistled softly between his teeth. "We've some ideas about that.The military boys worked on it. You know you can figure out a lot ofthings from just a few bits of evidence. We have such evidence from whathappened to you on Earth. You ought to speak to Haines about it."

  Burl turned away from the viewer. "Let's find him now. I don't thinkhe's very busy. He said something about catching up on his reading thisperiod."

  Russ nodded, and the two of them got up from their seat. With a wave toOberfield and Caton on duty at the controls, the two climbed down theladder that led into the middle part of the living space. They lookedinto Haines's quarters but he wasn't there. So they went down the nexthatchway into the lower section.

  Haines and Ferrati were sitting at a table in the cooking quarters,drinking coffee. The two men, both heavy and muscular, used to the openspaces and the feel of the winds, were taking the enforced confinementin the cramped and artificially oxygenated space of the ship with illease. For them, it was like a stretch in jail.

  They greeted the two younger men jovially and invited them to a seat.While Russ poured a cup of coffee for himself, Burl opened the subjectof how much the expedition had worked out about the enemy.

  Haines's pale blue eyes gleamed. "You can know an awful lot about anenemy if you know what he didn't do as well as what he did do. If youfigure out what you yourself should have done under the samecircumstances, and know he didn't do, why, that gives you some valuablehints as to his deficiencies. As we see it, we've got a fighting chanceof spoiling his game. Certainly of spoiling it long enough to allowEarth several more years to get a fleet of ships like this intooperation and give him plenty of trouble."

  Suddenly Burl felt more cheerful. At the back of his mind there had beena carefully concealed point of cold terror--he remembered the cleanefficiency of the Sun-tap station, the evidence of a science far beyondthat of Earth. He pressed the point. "Just what do we really know?"

  Haines leaned back and rubbed his hands together. "There were severalthings that gave their weaknesses away. When we put it all together, wedecided that the enemy represents some sort of limited advanced force orscouting group of a civilization still too far away to count in theimmediate future. We decided that the enemy isn't too aware of ourpresent abilities--that his intelligence service is poor as far asmodern Earth is concerned. We figure he won't be able to act with anyspeed to repair the damages we make."

  "Tell them how we worked that out," said Ferrati, who had begun to growagain the short black beard that Burl remembered he had worn on hisfamous expeditions.

  "Well," said Haines, drawing the word out to build up suspense, "did youknow that the station in the Andes, the one you cracked open, was builtat least thirty years ago? And never put into operation in all thattime?"

  Burl was surprised. "Why ... I hadn't thought of it--but it could havebeen. That valley was so isolated and deserted, probably nobody wouldever have spotted it.

  "Right," Haines added, "and our investigation team studied the remains,the foundations, the layout, and we're sure it's been there at leastthree decades. That's one clue.

  "The second clue was the relative flimsiness of the walls. The buildershadn't expected us to be able to blow them up. They were some sort ofquick construction--a plastic, strong, but not able to hold up againstblasting powder, let alone real heavy bombs or A-bombs.

  "Now why was that? And the third clue, why didn't they have a repairsystem available, or at least some sort of automatic antiaircraftdefense?"

  Burl looked at Ferrati. The latter was watching him shrewdly to see ifhe could figure it out.

  "The builders didn't expect an air attack," said Burl slowly, "becauseof the air disturbances. They did not know we would have a Moon basethat could spot their location. Hence they figured that our civilizationwould remain as it was thirty years ago. We wouldn't have been able tospot the location at that time, because it required outer-spaceobservation. It might have taken us several years of tramping around tolocate it."

  "And the lack of a strong permanent construction? After all, a concreteand steel-enforced embankment, which any military force on Earth couldhave put there, would have balked your dynamite attack," probed Haines.

  "That means they didn't have the time or the means to make such aconstruction. They must have had a single ship with the kind ofequipment that could lay out a quick base in the shortest time!" saidBurl.

  "Right!" snapped Haines. "The Sun-tap must have been built by arelatively small team, which probably came in a single explorer ship.The ship was equipped with automatic factory machinery that could turnout an adequate base for an uninhabited planet, an airless moon, and soon--but they didn't have the stuff for a fortified base--and they didn'thave the manpower to build it."

  "Another indication of that is the thirty-year delay," added Ferrati."Obviously, they arrived in this solar system from somewhere outside it.We figure that way because otherwise they would have been prepared to dothe job on all the planets in the same trip and start operations atonce. They must have made some observations of this solar system from apoint in space at lea
st as far away as another star. That means not lessthan four and a half light-years away--Proxima Centauri being thenearest star after our Sun, and four and a half light-years from us.Their observations were imperfect. They found more planets and problemsthan they had supposed. So they had to make a second trip to get enoughsupplies to finish their Sun-tap base constructions. It took them thirtyyears between the first stations and the ones that completed the job.

  "And that, too, suggests that only one ship was originally involvedhere. Of course, maybe they came back with more the second time, but itstill looks as if the main force hasn't arrived. And won't, until afterthe Sun novas."

  "Then that means," said Burl quickly, "that we are still dealing withjust a small and isolated group?"

  "Maybe," said Haines. "Just what constitutes a small group may be hardto say. I rather think they'd have brought the engineers and at least anadvance working party of settlers with them the second trip in. Butthey are still short of available ships--they're still not aware of whatwe may be going to do."

  "Why is that?" asked Burl.

  Haines looked thoughtful. "This is conjecture. But if they planted anyspies among our Earth people, there's been no contact, because otherwisethey'd have known we could track and crack their base as soon as itstarted. This means that they still haven't had scouting ships to sparefor checking up on what they did the first time. No checkup means nospare personnel to do the checking. They just assumed that we hadn'tcaught on, and started operations by remote control as they hadoriginally planned."

  "And that also may mean that these people are hard up," said Ferrati."Wherever they came from, their civilization has been great, but it'sgone to seed. They plan to seize another solar system, start over again,and they haven't the manpower to do an adequate job--and they haven'tthe abundance of material needed to set up simple check and guardstations, such as any major Earth nation would have the sense to do."

  "Why, that means we've got a fighting chance to lick 'em," said Burljoyfully. "I kept thinking we'd run into more than we could cope with."

  "We've got a fighting chance, all right," said Haines. "We may be ableto rip up their Sun-tap layouts, but what if we meet the main explorership itself? Anybody who can cross interstellar space and warp the powerof the Sun, can probably outshoot, outrun, and outfight us. Let's hopewe don't meet them until we've done our work."

  On this note the little discussion broke up as the gong rang for thenext watch.

  It made sense to Burl. If the _Magellan_ could just operate fast enough,keep on the jump, they'd save the day. But--and he realized that nobodyhad mentioned it aloud--it also followed that the enemy--however smallits group--was still in the solar system somewhere and would certainlybe starting to take action very soon now.

  The time came when the ship was to start slowing, to prepare itself forthe meeting with Venus. Burl saw the hour and minute approach andwatched Lockhart take the controls and set the new readings. The steadyhum of the generators--a vibration that had become a constant feature ofthe ship--altered, and for everyone it was a relief. Their minds hadbecome attuned to the steady pitch. One didn't realize how annoying anuisance it was until it stopped. As the stellar generators let down onthe drag on the Sun, the gravity within the ship lessened. In a fewmoments there was a condition of zero, and those who had forgotten tostrap themselves down found that they were floating about in the air,most of them giddy.

  There was a shift in the pitch, and the generators applied repulsionagainst the pull of the Sun. Those floating in the air crashed suddenlyagainst the ceiling, then slid violently down the walls onto the flooras the inner sphere rotated on its gymbals to meet the new center ofgravitational pull--this time away from the Sun.

  The viewers flickered off and then on again as their connecting surfacesinside and outside the sphere's double layer of walls slid apart andmatched up again. For an instant, as he saw the viewers blank out, Burlthought of what might happen if the sphere didn't rotate all the way.They would find themselves blind.

  Now the ship proceeded on its charted orbit, slowing to meet Venus.Several hours went by, one meal, and Burl had returned to his bunk, hisrest period having arrived. Russ remained at the controls on duty,checking astronomically the new speed and deceleration.

  Burl tossed restlessly, the light out in the little cabin. Something wasbothering him, and after a while he realized that Clyde should have comeoff duty before this. He glanced at the clock and calculated that Russwas two hours overdue. What was wrong?

  He slipped out of his bunk and climbed into his pants. Ascending intothe control room, he saw Lockhart, the two astronomers, and the entireengineering crew gathered over the controls in worried concentration.

  He peered over their shoulders, but the dials meant little to him, sincehe did not know what they should have said. "What's happened?" he askedRuss.

  Russ took him aside. "We're not going to make our connection withVenus," he said. "Our generators didn't operate exactly as we had hoped.We haven't been able to slow down enough, the pull of the Sun isstronger than the power we can raise to stop it at our present speed.We're going to shoot past Venus' orbit way ahead of the planet, andwe're still heading sunward at a faster rate than we figured on."

  "You mean--we're falling into the Sun!" gasped Burl.

  "As things stand right now," said the youthful astrogator, "that's justwhat is happening."

 
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