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The secret of the ninth.., p.9
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.9

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 7. _Hot Spot on Mercury_

  It seemed strange to Burl at that moment that there wasn't moreexcitement on board the _Magellan_. To learn so early in the game thatall were doomed should have brought more reaction. It should haveexcited some sort of frenzy, or efforts to abandon ship, or something.But the men in the cabin, though keyed up, were anything but panicky.

  Instead, there seemed to be grim concentration on their faces, anearnestness that spoke of a plan. Through a viewer which had beenshielded so that the light would not blind the eyes, Burl could see thewide disc of the Sun now. A few spots were visible on its blazingsurface, and great tongues of burning gases encircled it for hundreds ofthousands of miles. Were they really destined to end a mere cinder--aninstantaneous flicker of fire in one of those prominences?

  Clyde was working with Oberfield at the calculators. Burl watched themin silence, trying to determine what it was they were getting at.Finally they pulled a figure from one of their machines and took it overto Lockhart and the engineers. There was a brief conference, andsomething seemed to be agreed upon.

  Clyde's face, which had been tense, was now more relaxed. "I think we'vegot the problem licked," came the good word.

  "What's up?" asked Burl. "If we shoot past Venus, we should still beable to come to a stop, fall away from the Sun and maybe catch up withVenus again. It would take longer, but...."

  "We're altering our plans," interrupted Russ. "Of course, we couldbrake--that much we found out for sure. The trouble lay in our lack ofeffective tests for the _Magellan's_ drive. We thought we knew just whatit would do, but after all, the problems of space are intricate. Itturned out that it did not act so effectively against the Sun as hadbeen calculated. Either that, or the Sun's pull was stronger at thisproximity than registered on our instruments. Chasing after Venus, aftercoming back to its orbit, could be done, but it would provetime-consuming and difficult to plan. What we are doing instead isaltering our schedule."

  "But then there's no other place to go from here but Mercury. Is thatwhat the new plan is?" Burl asked him.

  Russ nodded. "Mercury is coming around this side of the Sun. By the timewe have braked, we will be closer to its orbit than to that of Venus. Sowe shall proceed inward toward it and make our first planetfall there."

  Mercury, the smallest and hottest planet in the system. Burl rememberedthat it was one of the two worlds that they knew for sure had a Sun-tapstation on it. He went down the hatch to carry the news to the landingcrew.

  Haines, Burl discovered, had already heard the new plan on the intercomfrom Lockhart. As soon as Burl joined them, the four men, includingFerrati and Boulton, went into a planning session.

  The problem of Mercury was a hard one. As Ferrati remarked, "It wouldhave been better to tackle this one last instead of taking it on first."

  "Yes, but on the other hand," was Haines's comment, "Mercury's stationis probably one of the most important--located as it is, so close to theSun. With ideal conditions for steady, undiverted concentration of solarpower, it must be the primary station in the system."

  "The problem boils down--and I do mean 'boils'--to heat," Boultonlaughed. "Mercury rotates on its axis only once a year--its year beingonly eighty-eight of our days long. This means that just as the Moonpresents only one side to the Earth, Mercury always presents the samehemisphere to the Sun. On the Sun side, therefore, there is always day.The Sun appears to be fixed in the sky. Naturally, we assume the Sun-tapstation will be on that sunny side. And the heat must be terrific."

  "Matter of fact," said Haines dryly, "the records show the heat in thecenter of the Sun side reaches 770 deg. Fahrenheit. Enough to keep tin andlead molten."

  "The problem is how to reach the station over such a boiling landscape,"summed up Burl. "It seems to me that the absence of an atmosphere couldanswer part of the problem."

  Haines nodded. "Let's get to work on a plan of action, men. We've got afew days to get our equipment laid out."

  Those few days passed quickly enough. When several possible schemes hadbeen outlined, the men made lists of the types of equipment that mightbe used with each. Then, putting on pressurized space suits and carryingair tanks, they left the inner sphere and worked through the cargo spacesurrounding it within the outer frame of the spaceship. There hadoriginally been air here, but now they found most of it was gone,thinned out from infinitely tiny leaks in the outer shell caused by theconstant bombardment of microscopic bits of meteoric dust.

  They located each piece of equipment and moved it into position for easyhandling.

  The ship came to its halting point, where the repulsion against the Sunfinally braked it against the gravitational pull of the Sun. Then, byincreasing the selective pull of the approaching planet Mercury, theymoved off in that direction.

  Mercury was changing in appearance. As they neared it from the outerside, its lighted half swung away from their view, and what they saw wasa constantly narrowing crescent, growing larger even as it narrowed.Finally the hour came when they swung up close, coming in on theeternally sunless, night side of the little planet.

  They swooped low over the dark surface, taking observations andmeasurements. "It's not as cold as we might suppose," said Oberfieldafter his first readings. "There's a certain amount of heat all alongthe rim of the dark side. Radiation, I suppose, as well as the fact thatthere's a certain amount of wobbling done by the planet."

  Burl was studying the surface. "Seems to me that much of the dark sidehas a gleam to it. Something reflects the stars; I see little glints oflight, shifting and blinking."

  "I can guess what that is," said Russ. "It must be covered, at least inthe central portions, with a sea of frozen gases. What atmosphereMercury had long ago must have congealed there."

  The ship moved along toward the twilight edge, then began circling theplanet along that intermediate belt, where the Sun could be seen peekingover the horizon in eternal dawn. There was a cluster of men at theradiation counter, looking for evidence of the Sun-tap station.Finally, after passing over a chain of darkened mountains, eerilylighted at the peaks by the Sun, there came a yell. Distortion had beendetected.

  Once on it, they swung the ship outward into space again and moved alongfurther over the sunlit side. Burl stared into the telescopic viewers asthey probed the surface.

  He saw an ugly and terrifying world. The planet, which had a diameter ofonly 3,100 miles, compared to Earth's 7,900, was virtually without anatmosphere. Its surface was baked hard, brilliantly white, covered withlong, deep cracks that cut hundreds of miles into the shriveled andburned surface. There were areas of dark mountain ranges, bare andjagged, whose metallic surfaces imparted a darker shade to the pervadingglare. And there were patches here and there on the surface that gleamedbalefully--probably spots of molten material.

  Haines, standing next to him, was muttering, "It can't be too far in, itcan't. How could they build it?"

  Then Burl found what they were looking for.

  A huge canyon tore raggedly across a plain. There was a jumble ofmountains, a chain edging in from the twilight zone. And in a corner,about two hundred miles out into the hot side, at a narrow ledge wherethe mountains came down and the canyon came together, there was acircular structure.

  They could see, as soon as the telescopic sight had been adjusted, thatit was a large station. It was encircled by a featureless wall. It hadno roof. Rising on masts above it was a whole forest of gleaming discspointing at the Sun low in the sky.

  On the tops of the mountain peaks, a half mile from the station, wasanother series of masts. These were aimed away from the Sun into thedark airless sky and toward the other planets.

  "The accumulators and the transmitters," said Burl. "We'll have to getthem both."

  "Getting the transmitters will be easy," said Haines. "After we shut offthe station, we'll just bomb the mountain masts out of action."

  Burl choked. "Why, it never occurred to me, but why can't we bomb thestation from the air? One atomic bomb s
hould finish it off." He almostadded, And you wouldn't have needed me after all, but squashed thethought. He wouldn't have given up coming along for anything, he nowrealized.

  "There's a distortion, as there was at the Andes station, that wouldmake it hard to hit. But I imagine we could do it if we tried hardenough. But that isn't what we want at first. It's important, veryimportant, that we get pictures and details of this station from inside.We can't just break up the enemy installations--we've got to learn fromthem, we must find out how they do it and how we can use it." This wasLockhart speaking. "You'd better start the job," he added to Haines."Are you ready?"

  Haines nodded reluctantly. "Yep," and turning to the three who wouldaccompany him, he ordered, "let's go."

  The four explorers gathered near the exit port. They had put on spacesuits and strapped on various items of equipment, weapons and worktools. They passed through the airlock into the cargo section of theship. Communicating through the helmet radios, Haines directed each whatto do, and also directed Lockhart where to bring the ship for thelanding.

  Burl heard Lockhart's voice warn them that he did not want to hold theship too long over the sunny hot side. "We've already noticed a buildupof heat from the solar radiation on the skin. And the heat radiatingfrom Mercury is accumulating too fast. We can't get rid of it if _both_sides of this ship are going to be heated up. As soon as you make yourlanding, I'm taking the ship back to the cold side."

  "Uh huh," came Haines's voice. "We don't want to hang around here anytoo long, either."

  Then the four, as prearranged, unlimbered the work rocket they hadpicked. There were several sizes of small exploration craft. They had atfirst thought of the tractor--an enclosed, airtight truck on tractorwheels which could crawl up to the station while the men inside it wereprotected by air conditioning. But a quick survey showed that it wouldoverheat too fast and might easily bog down in one of the many softspots. So they took the four-man, rocket-propelled cargo plane instead.

  The ship was airtight and pressurized. They had taken every precaution.The four piled in with their supplies. Then, as the _Magellan_ swoopedmomentarily lower, the escape hatch opened and, with Ferrati at thecontrols, the rocket plane shot out with a roar of its exhausts.

  They raced low over the burning landscape, and before them the wide,dark, forbidding canyon cut its way through the plain. It was into thiscanyon that the rocket plunged.

  The precipitous rocky sides rose above them, and suddenly they were indarkness. Immediately, the plane's cooling system became more effectiveas Ferrati guided the rocket through the shadowy depths away from theblazing sunbeams. Burl saw, by means of the radar, that the bottom ofthe heat crack was many miles down.

  They raced along the crevice until they reached the mountain chain.Here, Ferrati abruptly raised the nose of the plane and they shotupward, popping out of the shadow into the sunlight.

  Before them loomed the hard unbroken walls of the Sun-tap station. Therocket plane came to a stop a hundred feet away.

  As soon as it had halted, Burl and Ferrati leaped out, with white sheetsthrown over their suits to afford some extra protection from the Sun'srays. Between them they carried a long, awkward affair of poles andplastic.

  Burl's feet touched the ground; through the cushioned leather of histhick boots he felt the heat just as if he had stepped on a hot stove.He moved quickly, and as they had rehearsed, he and the explorer slappedthe rig together and set up a gleaming plastic skin sunbreak to shieldthe rocket plane. The plastic sheets reflected the Sun's heat and cutoff a fair portion of the direct radiation which would otherwise haverendered the rocket plane inoperable and uninhabitable in short order.

  While they were assembling the sunbreak, Haines and Boulton unloaded aportable antitank rocket launcher. With no wasted motion, Boulton aimedthe launcher at the wall, and Haines thrust a long, wicked-lookingrocket projectile into the tube. There was a flash of soundless fire anda line of dissipating white smoke. Nothing could be heard in theairlessness.

  Burl felt the shock through the ground as the shell hit. A chunk of thewall ripped apart and collapsed.

  As quickly as he saw it, Burl acted. Haines's voice rang in his ear, butalready Burl was in action. Back into the rocket plane, out againwith--an umbrella!

  He made a flying leap toward the Sun-tap station. He felt terrificallystrong in the slight gravity, and the leap carried him thirty feetforward. As he slid through the space above the surface, he opened theumbrella. Its outer side had been painted white, and partly shielded himfrom the direct heat. He made the station in five leaps and climbedthrough the broken wall. Boulton followed him with another umbrella anda pack under his arm.

  Inside the station it was cool--the walls had been high enough to createshade within. It was like the station in the Andes, but bigger, muchbigger.

  Boulton joined him, folded his umbrella calmly, and yanked anair-compression pistol from his belt. "See anyone?" he asked.

  "No."

  Burl remembered then that there could possibly be a living guard at thisstation. They searched carefully, but there was no sign of life. Boultonwas doing a soldier's job, that was all.

  While Boulton set up his photographic equipment, Burl made his wayaround the shining globes and strange tubes that were the nerve centerof the station. He finally found the same type of control panel that hehad found in the Andes station.

  He hesitated before it, wondering if, after all, this, the originalcharge, would work. He hoped that there might be another charger globeavailable, but saw none. It would be up to him.

  He put a gloved hand on the control. Perhaps, he worried, the chargewould not conduct through the insulated, cooled material of his suit. Hepushed the levers, and knew then that it did.

  The pulsing of the spheres halted. There was a sharp dip in the faintvibration he had been feeling in his feet. He shoved the levers all theway, and suddenly the station went dead. Above him, one of the greatdiscs atop its mast snapped and burst apart under what must have becomean impossible concentration of power without a channel for outlet.

  "Sun-tap Station Mercury is dead," Burl said quietly into his helmetphone.

  At that very instant a distant globe, perched on a pedestal against thewall away from the rest of the equipment, flared a brilliant red.

 
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