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Title: Brightside Crossing
Author: Nourse, Alan Edward
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                               Brightside
                                Crossing

                           by Alan E. Nourse


JAMES BARON was not pleased to hear that he had had a visitor when he
reached the Red Lion that evening. He had no stomach for mysteries, vast
or trifling, and there were pressing things to think about at this time.
Yet the doorman had flagged him as he came in from the street: “A
thousand pardons, Mr. Baron. The gentleman—he would leave no name. He
said you’d want to see him. He will be back by eight.”

Now Baron drummed his fingers on the table top, staring about the quiet
lounge. Street trade was discouraged at the Red Lion, gently but
persuasively; the patrons were few in number. Across to the right was a
group that Baron knew vaguely—Andean climbers, or at least two of them
were. Over near the door he recognized old Balmer, who had mapped the
first passage to the core of Vulcan Crater on Venus. Baron returned his
smile with a nod. Then he settled back and waited impatiently for the
intruder who demanded his time without justifying it.

Presently a small, grizzled man crossed the room and sat down at Baron’s
table. He was short and wiry. His face held no key to his age—he might
have been thirty or a thousand—but he looked weary and immensely ugly.
His cheeks and forehead were twisted and brown, with scars that were
still healing.

The stranger said, “I’m glad you waited. I’ve heard you’re planning to
attempt the Brightside.”

Baron stared at the man for a moment. “I see you can read telecasts,” he
said coldly. “The news was correct. We are going to make a Brightside
Crossing.”

“At perihelion?”

“Of course. When else?”

The grizzled man searched Baron’s face for a moment without expression.
Then he said slowly, “No, I’m afraid you’re not going to make the
Crossing.”

“Say, who are you, if you don’t mind?” Baron demanded.

“The name is Claney,” said the stranger.

There was a silence. Then: “Claney? _Peter_ Claney?”

“That’s right.”

Baron’s eyes were wide with excitement, all trace of anger gone. “Great
balls of fire, man—_where have you been hiding?_ We’ve been trying to
contact you for months!”

“I know. I was hoping you’d quit looking and chuck the whole idea.”

“Quit looking!” Baron bent forward over the table. “My friend, we’d
given up hope, but we’ve never quit looking. Here, have a drink. There’s
so much you can tell us.” His fingers were trembling.

Peter Claney shook his head. “I can’t tell you anything you want to
hear.”

“But you’ve _got_ to. You’re the only man on Earth who’s attempted a
Brightside Crossing and lived through it! And the story you cleared for
the news—it was nothing. We need _details_. Where did your equipment
fall down? Where did you miscalculate? What were the trouble spots?”
Baron jabbed a finger at Claney’s face. “That, for instance—epithelioma?
Why? What was wrong with your glass? Your filters? We’ve got to know
those things. If you can tell us, we can make it across where your
attempt failed—”

“You want to know why we failed?” asked Claney.

“Of course we want to know. We _have_ to know.”

“It’s simple. We failed because it can’t be done. We couldn’t do it and
neither can you. No human beings will ever cross the Brightside alive,
not if they try for centuries.”

“Nonsense,” Baron declared. “We will.”

Claney shrugged. “I was there. I know what I’m saying. You can blame the
equipment or the men—there were flaws in both quarters—but we just
didn’t know what we were fighting. It was the _planet_ that whipped us,
that and the _Sun_. They’ll whip you, too, if you try it.”

“Never,” said Baron.

“Let me tell you,” Peter Claney said.

                  *       *       *       *       *

I’d been interested in the Brightside for almost as long as I can
remember (Claney said). I guess I was about ten when Wyatt and Carpenter
made the last attempt—that was in 2082, I think. I followed the news
stories like a tri-V serial and then I was heartbroken when they just
disappeared.

I know now that they were a pair of idiots, starting off without proper
equipment, with practically no knowledge of surface conditions, without
any charts—they couldn’t have made a hundred miles—but I didn’t know
that then and it was a terrible tragedy. After that, I followed
Sanderson’s work in the Twilight Lab up there and began to get
Brightside into my blood, sure as death.

But it was Mikuta’s idea to attempt a Crossing. Did you ever know Tom
Mikuta? I don’t suppose you did. No, not Japanese—Polish-American. He
was a major in the Interplanetary Service for some years and hung onto
the title after he gave up his commission.

He was with Armstrong on Mars during his Service days, did a good deal
of the original mapping and surveying for the Colony there. I first met
him on Venus; we spent five years together up there doing some of the
nastiest exploring since the Matto Grasso. Then he made the attempt on
Vulcan Crater that paved the way for Balmer a few years later.

I’d always liked the Major—he was big and quiet and cool, the sort of
guy who always had things figured a little further ahead than anyone
else and always knew what to do in a tight place. Too many men in this
game are all nerve and luck, with no judgment. The Major had both. He
also had the kind of personality that could take a crew of wild men and
make them work like a well-oiled machine across a thousand miles of
Venus jungle. I liked him and I trusted him.

He contacted me in New York and he was very casual at first. We spent an
evening here at the Red Lion, talking about old times; he told me about
the Vulcan business, and how he’d been out to see Sanderson and the
Twilight Lab on Mercury, and how he preferred a hot trek to a cold one
any day of the year—and then he wanted to know what I’d been doing since
Venus and what my plans were.

“No particular plans,” I told him. “Why?”

He looked me over. “How much do you weigh, Peter?”

I told him one-thirty-five.

“That much!” he said. “Well, there can’t be much fat on you, at any
rate. How do you take heat?”

“You should know,” I said. “Venus was no icebox.”

“No, I mean _real_ heat.”

Then I began to get it. “You’re planning a trip.”

“That’s right. A hot trip.” He grinned at me. “Might be dangerous, too.”

“What trip?”

“Brightside of Mercury,” the Major said.

I whistled cautiously. “At aphelion?”

He threw his head back. “Why try a Crossing at aphelion? What have you
done then? Four thousand miles of butcherous heat, just to have some
joker come along, use your data and drum you out of the glory by
crossing at perihelion forty-four days later? No, thanks. I want the
Brightside without any nonsense about it.” He leaned across me eagerly.
“I want to make a Crossing at perihelion and I want to cross on the
surface. If a man can do that, he’s got Mercury. Until then, _nobody’s_
got Mercury. I want Mercury—but I’ll need help getting it.”

I’d thought of it a thousand times and never dared consider it. Nobody
had, since Wyatt and Carpenter disappeared. Mercury turns on its axis in
the same time that it wheels around the Sun, which means that the
Brightside is always facing in. That makes the Brightside of Mercury at
perihelion the hottest place in the Solar System, with one single
exception: the surface of the Sun itself.

It would be a hellish trek. Only a few men had ever learned just _how_
hellish and they never came back to tell about it. It was a real hell’s
Crossing, but someday, I thought, somebody would cross it.

I wanted to be along.

                  *       *       *       *       *

The Twilight Lab, near the northern pole of Mercury, was the obvious
jumping-off place. The setup there wasn’t very extensive—a rocket
landing, the labs and quarters for Sanderson’s crew sunk deep into the
crust, and the tower that housed the Solar ’scope that Sanderson had
built up there ten years before.

Twilight Lab wasn’t particularly interested in the Brightside, of
course—the Sun was Sanderson’s baby and he’d picked Mercury as the
closest chunk of rock to the Sun that could hold his observatory. He’d
chosen a good location, too. On Mercury, the Brightside temperature hits
770° F. at perihelion and the Darkside runs pretty constant at -410° F.
No permanent installation with a human crew could survive at either
extreme. But with Mercury’s wobble, the twilight zone between Brightside
and Darkside offers something closer to survival temperatures.

Sanderson built the Lab up near the pole, where the zone is about five
miles wide, so the temperature only varies 50 to 60 degrees with the
libration. The Solar ’scope could take that much change and they’d get
good clear observation of the Sun for about seventy out of the
eighty-eight days it takes the planet to wheel around.

The Major was counting on Sanderson knowing something about Mercury as
well as the Sun when we camped at the Lab to make final preparations.

Sanderson did. He thought we’d lost our minds and he said so, but he
gave us all the help he could. He spent a week briefing Jack Stone, the
third member of our party, who had arrived with the supplies and
equipment a few days earlier. Poor Jack met us at the rocket landing
almost bawling, Sanderson had given him such a gloomy picture of what
Brightside was like.

Stone was a youngster—hardly twenty-five, I’d say—but he’d been with the
Major at Vulcan and had begged to join this trek. I had a funny feeling
that Jack really didn’t care for exploring too much, but he thought
Mikuta was God, followed him around like a puppy.

It didn’t matter to me as long as he knew what he was getting in for.
You don’t go asking people in this game why they do it—they’re liable to
get awfully uneasy and none of them can ever give you an answer that
makes sense. Anyway, Stone had borrowed three men from the Lab, and had
the supplies and equipment all lined up when we got there, ready to
check and test.

We dug right in. With plenty of funds—tri-V money and some government
cash the Major had talked his way around—our equipment was new and good.
Mikuta had done the designing and testing himself, with a big assist
from Sanderson. We had four Bugs, three of them the light pillow-tire
models, with special lead-cooled cut-in engines when the heat set in,
and one heavy-duty tractor model for pulling the sledges.

The Major went over them like a kid at the circus. Then he said, “Have
you heard anything from McIvers?”

“Who’s he?” Stone wanted to know.

“He’ll be joining us. He’s a good man—got quite a name for climbing,
back home.” The Major turned to me. “You’ve probably heard of him.”

I’d heard plenty of stories about Ted McIvers and I wasn’t too happy to
hear that he was joining us. “Kind of a daredevil, isn’t he?”

“Maybe. He’s lucky and skillful. Where do you draw the line? We’ll need
plenty of both.”

“Have you ever worked with him?” I asked.

“No. Are you worried?”

“Not exactly. But Brightside is no place to count on luck.”

The Major laughed. “I don’t think we need to worry about McIvers. We
understood each other when I talked up the trip to him and we’re going
to need each other too much to do any fooling around.” He turned back to
the supply list. “Meanwhile, let’s get this stuff listed and packed.
We’ll need to cut weight sharply and our time is short. Sanderson says
we should leave in three days.”

Two days later, McIvers hadn’t arrived. The Major didn’t say much about
it. Stone was getting edgy and so was I. We spent the second day
studying charts of the Brightside, such as they were. The best available
were pretty poor, taken from so far out that the detail dissolved into
blurs on blow-up. They showed the biggest ranges of peaks and craters
and faults, and that was all. Still, we could use them to plan a broad
outline of our course.

“This range here,” the Major said as we crowded around the board, “is
largely inactive, according to Sanderson. But these to the south and
west _could_ be active. Seismograph tracings suggest a lot of activity
in that region, getting worse down toward the equator—not only volcanic,
but sub-surface shifting.”

Stone nodded. “Sanderson told me there was probably constant surface
activity.”

The Major shrugged. “Well, it’s treacherous, there’s no doubt of it. But
the only way to avoid it is to travel over the Pole, which would lose us
days and offer us no guarantee of less activity to the west. Now we
might avoid some if we could find a pass through this range and cut
sharp east—”

It seemed that the more we considered the problem, the further we got
from a solution. We knew there were active volcanoes on the
Brightside—even on the Darkside, though surface activity there was
pretty much slowed down and localized.

But there were problems of atmosphere on Brightside, as well. There was
an atmosphere and a constant atmospheric flow from Brightside to
Darkside. Not much—the lighter gases had reached escape velocity and
disappeared from Brightside millennia ago—but there was CO_{2}, and
nitrogen, and traces of other heavier gases. There was also an abundance
of sulfur vapor, as well as carbon disulfide and sulfur dioxide.

The atmospheric tide moved toward the Darkside, where it condensed,
carrying enough volcanic ash with it for Sanderson to estimate the depth
and nature of the surface upheavals on Brightside from his samplings.
The trick was to find a passage that avoided those upheavals as far as
possible. But in the final analysis, we were barely scraping the
surface. The only way we would find out what was happening where was to
be there.

Finally, on the third day, McIvers blew in on a freight rocket from
Venus. He’d missed the ship that the Major and I had taken by a few
hours, and had conned his way to Venus in hopes of getting a hop from
there. He didn’t seem too upset about it, as though this were his usual
way of doing things and he couldn’t see why everyone should get so
excited.

He was a tall, rangy man with long, wavy hair prematurely gray, and the
sort of eyes that looked like a climber’s—half-closed, sleepy, almost
indolent, but capable of abrupt alertness. And he never stood still; he
was always moving, always doing something with his hands, or talking, or
pacing about.

Evidently the Major decided not to press the issue of his arrival. There
was still work to do, and an hour later we were running the final tests
on the pressure suits. That evening, Stone and McIvers were thick as
thieves, and everything was set for an early departure after we got some
rest.

                  *       *       *       *       *

“And that,” said Baron, finishing his drink and signaling the waiter for
another pair, “was your first big mistake.”

Peter Claney raised his eyebrows. “McIvers?”

“Of course.”

Claney shrugged, glanced at the small quiet tables around them. “There
are lots of bizarre personalities around a place like this, and some of
the best wouldn’t seem to be the most reliable at first glance. Anyway,
personality problems weren’t our big problem right then. _Equipment_
worried us first and _route_ next.”

Baron nodded in agreement. “What kind of suits did you have?”

“The best insulating suits ever made,” said Claney. “Each one had an
inner lining of a fiberglass modification, to avoid the clumsiness of
asbestos, and carried the refrigerating unit and oxygen storage which we
recharged from the sledges every eight hours. Outer layer carried a
monomolecular chrome reflecting surface that made us glitter like
Christmas trees. And we had a half-inch dead-air space under positive
pressure between the two layers. Warning thermocouples, of course—at 770
degrees, it wouldn’t take much time to fry us to cinders if the suits
failed somewhere.”

“How about the Bugs?”

“They were insulated, too, but we weren’t counting on them too much for
protection.”

“You weren’t!” Baron exclaimed. “Why not?”

“We’d be in and out of them too much. They gave us mobility and storage,
but we knew we’d have to do a lot of forward work on foot.” Claney
smiled bitterly. “Which meant that we had an inch of fiberglass and a
half-inch of dead air between us and a surface temperature where lead
flowed like water and zinc was almost at melting point and the pools of
sulfur in the shadows were boiling like oatmeal over a campfire.”

Baron licked his lips. His fingers stroked the cool, wet glass as he set
it down on the tablecloth.

“Go on,” he said tautly. “You started on schedule?”

“Oh, yes,” said Claney, “we started on schedule, all right. We just
didn’t quite end on schedule, that was all. But I’m getting to that.”

He settled back in his chair and continued.

                  *       *       *       *       *

We jumped off from Twilight on a course due southeast with thirty days
to make it to the Center of Brightside. If we could cross an average of
seventy miles a day, we could hit Center exactly at perihelion, the
point of Mercury’s closest approach to the Sun—which made Center the
hottest part of the planet at the hottest it ever gets.

The Sun was already huge and yellow over the horizon when we started,
twice the size it appears on Earth. Every day that Sun would grow bigger
and whiter, and every day the surface would get hotter. But once we
reached Center, the job was only half done—we would still have to travel
another two thousand miles to the opposite twilight zone. Sanderson was
to meet us on the other side in the Laboratory’s scout ship,
approximately sixty days from the time we jumped off.

That was the plan, in outline. It was up to us to cross those seventy
miles a day, no matter how hot it became, no matter what terrain we had
to cross. Detours would be dangerous and time-consuming. Delays could
cost us our lives. We all knew that.

The Major briefed us on details an hour before we left. “Peter, you’ll
take the lead Bug, the small one we stripped down for you. Stone and I
will flank you on either side, giving you a hundred-yard lead. McIvers,
you’ll have the job of dragging the sledges, so we’ll have to direct
your course pretty closely. Peter’s job is to pick the passage at any
given point. If there’s any doubt of safe passage, we’ll all explore
ahead on foot before we risk the Bugs. Got that?”

McIvers and Stone exchanged glances. McIvers said: “Jack and I were
planning to change around. We figured he could take the sledges. That
would give me a little more mobility.”

The Major looked up sharply at Stone. “Do you buy that, Jack?”

Stone shrugged. “I don’t mind. Mac wanted—”

McIvers made an impatient gesture with his hands. “It doesn’t matter. I
just feel better when I’m on the move. Does it make any difference?”

“I guess it doesn’t,” said the Major. “Then you’ll flank Peter along
with me. Right?”

“Sure, sure.” McIvers pulled at his lower lip. “Who’s going to do the
advance scouting?”

“It sounds like I am,” I cut in. “We want to keep the lead Bug light as
possible.”

Mikuta nodded. “That’s right. Peter’s Bug is stripped down to the frame
and wheels.”

McIvers shook his head. “No, I mean the _advance_ work. You need
somebody out ahead—four or five miles, at least—to pick up the big flaws
and active surface changes, don’t you?” He stared at the Major. “I mean,
how can we tell what sort of a hole we may be moving into, unless we
have a scout up ahead?”

“That’s what we have the charts for,” the Major said sharply.

“Charts! I’m talking about _detail_ work. We don’t need to worry about
the major topography. It’s the little faults you can’t see on the
pictures that can kill us.” He tossed the charts down excitedly. “Look,
let me take a Bug out ahead and work reconnaissance, keep five, maybe
ten miles ahead of the column. I can stay on good solid ground, of
course, but scan the area closely and radio back to Peter where to avoid
the flaws. Then—”

“No dice,” the Major broke in.

“But why not? We could save ourselves days!”

“I don’t care what we could save. We stay together. When we get to the
Center, I want live men along with me. That means we stay within easy
sight of each other at all times. Any climber knows that everybody is
safer in a party than one man alone—any time, any place.”

McIvers stared at him, his cheeks an angry red. Finally he gave a sullen
nod. “Okay. If you say so.”

“Well, I say so and I mean it. I don’t want any fancy stuff. We’re going
to hit Center together, and finish the Crossing together. Got that?”

McIvers nodded. Mikuta then looked at Stone and me and we nodded, too.

“All right,” he said slowly. “Now that we’ve got it straight, let’s go.”

It was hot. If I forget everything else about that trek, I’ll never
forget that huge yellow Sun glaring down, without a break, hotter and
hotter with every mile. We knew that the first few days would be the
easiest and we were rested and fresh when we started down the long
ragged gorge southeast of the Twilight Lab.

I moved out first; back over my shoulder, I could see the Major and
McIvers crawling out behind me, their pillow tires taking the rugged
floor of the gorge smoothly. Behind them, Stone dragged the sledges.

Even at only 30 per cent Earth gravity they were a strain on the big
tractor, until the ski-blades bit into the fluffy volcanic ash
blanketing the valley. We even had a path to follow for the first twenty
miles.

I kept my eyes pasted to the big polaroid binocs, picking out the track
the early research teams had made out into the edge of Brightside. But
in a couple of hours we rumbled past Sanderson’s little outpost
observatory and the tracks stopped. We were in virgin territory and
already the Sun was beginning to bite.

We didn’t _feel_ the heat so much those first days out. We _saw_ it. The
refrig units kept our skins at a nice comfortable seventy-five degrees
Fahrenheit inside our suits, but our eyes watched that glaring Sun and
the baked yellow rocks going past, and some nerve pathways got twisted
up, somehow. We poured sweat as if we were in a superheated furnace.

We drove eight hours and slept five. When a sleep period came due, we
pulled the Bugs together into a square, threw up a light aluminum
sun-shield and lay out in the dust and rocks. The sun-shield cut the
temperature down sixty or seventy degrees, for whatever help that was.
And then we ate from the forward sledge—sucking through tubes—protein,
carbohydrates, bulk gelatin, vitamins.

The Major measured water out with an iron hand, because we’d have drunk
ourselves into nephritis in a week otherwise. We were constantly,
unceasingly thirsty. Ask the physiologists and psychiatrists why—they
can give you have a dozen interesting reasons—but all we knew, or cared
about, was that it happened to be so.

We didn’t sleep the first few stops, as a consequence. Our eyes burned
in spite of the filters and we had roaring headaches, but we couldn’t
sleep them off. We sat around looking at each other. Then McIvers would
say how good a beer would taste, and off we’d go. We’d have murdered our
grandmothers for one ice-cold bottle of beer.

After a few driving periods, I began to get my bearings at the wheel. We
were moving down into desolation that made Earth’s old Death Valley look
like a Japanese rose garden. Huge sun-baked cracks opened up in the
floor of the gorge, with black cliffs jutting up on either side; the air
was filled with a barely visible yellowish mist of sulfur and sulfurous
gases.

It was a hot, barren hole, no place for any man to go, but the challenge
was so powerful you could almost feel it. No one had ever crossed this
land before and escaped. Those who had tried it had been cruelly
punished, but the land was still there, so it had to be crossed. Not the
easy way. It had to be crossed the hardest way possible: overland,
through anything the land could throw up to us, at the most difficult
time possible.

Yet we knew that even the land might have been conquered before, except
for that Sun. We’d fought absolute cold before and won. We’d never
fought heat like this and won. The only worse heat in the Solar System
was the surface of the Sun itself.

Brightside was worth trying for. We would get it or it would get us.
That was the bargain.

I learned a lot about Mercury those first few driving periods. The gorge
petered out after a hundred miles and we moved onto the slope of a range
of ragged craters that ran south and east. This range had shown no
activity since the first landing on Mercury forty years before, but
beyond it there were active cones. Yellow fumes rose from the craters
constantly; their sides were shrouded with heavy ash.

We couldn’t detect a wind, but we knew there was a hot, sulfurous breeze
sweeping in great continental tides across the face of the planet. Not
enough for erosion, though. The craters rose up out of jagged gorges,
huge towering spears of rock and rubble. Below were the vast yellow
flatlands, smoking and hissing from the gases beneath the crust. Over
everything was gray dust—silicates and salts, pumice and limestone and
granite ash, filling crevices and declivities—offering a soft,
treacherous surface for the Bug’s pillow tires.

I learned to read the ground, to tell a covered fault by the sag of the
dust; I learned to spot a passable crack, and tell it from an impassable
cut. Time after time the Bugs ground to a halt while we explored a
passage on foot, tied together with light copper cable, digging,
advancing, digging some more until we were sure the surface would carry
the machines. It was cruel work; we slept in exhaustion. But it went
smoothly, at first.

Too smoothly, it seemed to me, and the others seemed to think so, too.

McIvers’ restlessness was beginning to grate on our nerves. He talked
too much, while we were resting or while we were driving; wisecracks,
witticisms, unfunny jokes that wore thin with repetition. He took to
making side trips from the route now and then, never far, but a little
further each time.

Jack Stone reacted quite the opposite; he grew quieter with each stop,
more reserved and apprehensive. I didn’t like it, but I figured that it
would pass off after a while. I was apprehensive enough myself; I just
managed to hide it better.

And every mile the Sun got bigger and whiter and higher in the sky and
hotter. Without our ultra-violet screens and glare filters we would have
been blinded; as it was our eyes ached constantly and the skin on our
faces itched and tingled at the end of an eight-hour trek.

But it took one of those side trips of McIvers’ to deliver the
penultimate blow to our already fraying nerves. He had driven down a
side-branch of a long canyon running off west of our route and was
almost out of sight in a cloud of ash when we heard a sharp cry through
our earphones.

I wheeled my Bug around with my heart in my throat and spotted him
through the binocs, waving frantically from the top of his machine. The
Major and I took off, lumbering down the gulch after him as fast as the
Bugs could go, with a thousand horrible pictures racing through our
minds....

We found him standing stock-still, pointing down the gorge and, for
once, he didn’t have anything to say. It was the wreck of a Bug; an
old-fashioned half-track model of the sort that hadn’t been in use for
years. It was wedged tight in a cut in the rock, an axle broken, its
casing split wide open up the middle, half-buried in a rock slide. A
dozen feet away were two insulated suits with white bones gleaming
through the fiberglass helmets.

This was as far as Wyatt and Carpenter had gotten on _their_ Brightside
Crossing.

                  *       *       *       *       *

On the fifth driving period out, the terrain began to change. It looked
the same, but every now and then it _felt_ different. On two occasions I
felt my wheels spin, with a howl of protest from my engine. Then, quite
suddenly, the Bug gave a lurch; I gunned my motor and nothing happened.

I could see the dull gray stuff seeping up around the hubs, thick and
tenacious, splattering around in steaming gobs as the wheels spun. I
knew what had happened the moment the wheels gave and, a few minutes
later, they chained me to the tractor and dragged me back out of the
mire. It looked for all the world like thick gray mud, but it was a pit
of molten lead, steaming under a soft layer of concealing ash.

I picked my way more cautiously then. We were getting into an area of
recent surface activity; the surface was really treacherous. I caught
myself wishing that the Major had okayed McIvers’ scheme for an advanced
scout; more dangerous for the individual, maybe, but I was driving blind
now and I didn’t like it.

One error in judgment could sink us all, but I wasn’t thinking much
about the others. I was worried about _me_, plenty worried. I kept
thinking, better McIvers should go than me. It wasn’t healthy thinking
and I knew it, but I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind.

It was a grueling eight hours and we slept poorly. Back in the Bug
again, we moved still more slowly—edging out on a broad flat plateau,
dodging a network of gaping surface cracks—winding back and forth in an
effort to keep the machines on solid rock. I couldn’t see far ahead,
because of the yellow haze rising from the cracks, so I was almost on
top of it when I saw a sharp cut ahead where the surface dropped six
feet beyond a deep crack.

I let out a shout to halt the others; then I edged my Bug forward,
peering at the cleft. It was deep and wide. I moved fifty yards to the
left, then back to the right.

There was only one place that looked like a possible crossing; a long,
narrow ledge of gray stuff that lay down across a section of the fault
like a ramp. Even as I watched it, I could feel the surface crust under
the Bug trembling and saw the ledge shift over a few feet.

The Major’s voice sounded in my ears. “How about it, Peter?”

“I don’t know. This crust is on roller skates,” I called back.

“How about that ledge?”

I hesitated. “I’m scared of it, Major. Let’s backtrack and try to find a
way around.”

There was a roar of disgust in my earphones and McIvers’ Bug suddenly
lurched forward. It rolled down past me, picked up speed, with McIvers
hunched behind the wheel like a race driver. He was heading past me
straight for the gray ledge.

My shout caught in my throat; I heard the Major take a huge breath and
roar: “Mac! _stop that thing_, you fool!” and then McIvers’ Bug was out
on the ledge, lumbering across like a juggernaut.

The ledge jolted as the tires struck it; for a horrible moment, it
seemed to be sliding out from under the machine. And then the Bug was
across in a cloud of dust, and I heard McIvers’ voice in my ears,
shouting in glee. “Come on, you slowpokes. It’ll hold you!”

Something unprintable came through the earphones as the Major drew up
alongside me and moved his Bug out on the ledge slowly and over to the
other side. Then he said, “Take it slow, Peter. Then give Jack a hand
with the sledges.” His voice sounded tight as a wire.

Ten minutes later, we were on the other side of the cleft. The Major
checked the whole column; then he turned on McIvers angrily. “One more
trick like that,” he said, “and I’ll strap you to a rock and leave you.
Do you understand me? _One more time_—”

McIvers’ voice was heavy with protest. “Good Lord, if we leave it up to
Claney, he’ll have us out here forever! Any blind fool could see that
that ledge would hold.”

“_I_ saw it moving,” I shot back at him.

“All right, all right, so you’ve got good eyes. Why all the fuss? We got
across, didn’t we? But I say we’ve got to have a little nerve and use it
once in a while if we’re ever going to get across this lousy hotbox.”

“We need to use a little judgment, too,” the Major snapped. “All right,
let’s roll. But if you think I was joking, you just try me out once.” He
let it soak in for a minute. Then he geared his Bug on around to my
flank again.

At the stopover, the incident wasn’t mentioned again, but the Major drew
me aside just as I was settling down for sleep. “Peter, I’m worried,” he
said slowly.

“McIvers? Don’t worry. He’s not as reckless as he seems—just impatient.
We are over a hundred miles behind schedule and we’re moving awfully
slow. We only made forty miles this last drive.”

The Major shook his head. “I don’t mean McIvers. I mean the kid.”

“Jack? What about him?”

“Take a look.”

Stone was shaking. He was over near the tractor—away from the rest of
us—and he was lying on his back, but he wasn’t asleep. His whole body
was shaking, convulsively. I saw him grip an outcropping of rock hard.

I walked over and sat down beside him. “Get your water all right?” I
said.

He didn’t answer. He just kept on shaking.

“Hey, boy,” I said. “What’s the trouble?”

“It’s hot,” he said, choking out the words.

“Sure it’s hot, but don’t let it throw you. We’re in really good shape.”

“_We’re not_,” he snapped. “We’re in rotten shape, if you ask me. _We’re
not going to make it_, do you know that? That crazy fool’s going to kill
us for sure—” All of a sudden, he was bawling like a baby. “I’m scared—I
shouldn’t be here—I’m _scared_. What am I trying to prove by coming out
here, for God’s sake? I’m some kind of hero or something? I tell you I’m
scared—”

“Look,” I said. “Mikuta’s scared, _I’m_ scared. So what? We’ll make it,
don’t worry. And nobody’s trying to be a hero.”

“Nobody but Hero Stone,” he said bitterly. He shook himself and gave a
tight little laugh. “Some hero, eh?”

“We’ll make it,” I said.

“Sure,” he said finally. “Sorry. I’ll be okay.”

I rolled over, but waited until he was good and quiet. Then I tried to
sleep, but I didn’t sleep too well. I kept thinking about that ledge.
I’d known from the look of it what it was; a zinc slough of the sort
Sanderson had warned us about, a wide sheet of almost pure zinc that had
been thrown up white-hot from below, quite recently, just waiting for
oxygen or sulfur to rot it through.

I knew enough about zinc to know that at these temperatures it gets
brittle as glass. Take a chance like McIvers had taken and the whole
sheet could snap like a dry pine board. And it wasn’t McIvers’ fault
that it hadn’t.

Five hours later, we were back at the wheel. We were hardly moving at
all. The ragged surface was almost impassable—great jutting rocks
peppered the plateau; ledges crumbled the moment my tires touched them;
long, open canyons turned into lead-mires or sulfur pits.

A dozen times I climbed out of the Bug to prod out an uncertain area
with my boots and pikestaff. Whenever I did, McIvers piled out behind
me, running ahead like a schoolboy at the fair, then climbing back again
red-faced and panting, while we moved the machines ahead another mile or
two.

Time was pressing us now and McIvers wouldn’t let me forget it. We had
made only about three hundred twenty miles in six driving periods, so we
were about a hundred miles or even more behind schedule.

“We’re not going to make it,” McIvers would complain angrily. “That
Sun’s going to be out to aphelion by the time we hit the Center—”

“Sorry, but I can’t take it any faster,” I told him. I was getting good
and mad. I knew what he wanted, but didn’t dare let him have it. I was
scared enough pushing the Bug out on those ledges, even knowing that at
least _I_ was making the decisions. Put him in the lead and we wouldn’t
last for eight hours. Our nerves wouldn’t take it, at any rate, even if
the machines would.

Jack Stone looked up from the aluminum chart sheets. “Another hundred
miles and we should hit a good stretch,” he said. “Maybe we can make up
distance there for a couple of days.”

The Major agreed, but McIvers couldn’t hold his impatience. He kept
staring up at the Sun as if he had a personal grudge against it and
stamped back and forth under the sunshield. “That’ll be just fine,” he
said. “_If_ we ever get that far, that is.”

We dropped it there, but the Major stopped me as we climbed aboard for
the next run. “That guy’s going to blow wide open if we don’t move
faster, Peter. I don’t want him in the lead, no matter what happens.
He’s right though, about the need to make better time. Keep your head,
but crowd your luck a little, okay?”

“I’ll try,” I said. It was asking the impossible and Mikuta knew it. We
were on a long downward slope that shifted and buckled all around us, as
though there were a molten underlay beneath the crust; the slope was
broken by huge crevasses, partly covered with dust and zinc sheeting,
like a vast glacier of stone and metal. The outside temperature
registered 547° F. and getting hotter. It was no place to start rushing
ahead.

I tried it anyway. I took half a dozen shaky passages, edging slowly out
on flat zinc ledges, then toppling over and across. It seemed easy for a
while and we made progress. We hit an even stretch and raced ahead. And
then I quickly jumped on my brakes and jerked the Bug to a halt in a
cloud of dust.

I’d gone too far. We were out on a wide, flat sheet of gray stuff,
apparently solid—until I’d suddenly caught sight of the crevasse beneath
in the corner of my eye. It was an overhanging shell that trembled under
me as I stopped.

McIvers’ voice was in my ear. “What’s the trouble now, Claney?”

“Move back!” I shouted. “It can’t hold us!”

“Looks solid enough from here.”

“You want to argue about it? It’s too thin, it’ll snap. Move back!”

I started edging back down the ledge. I heard McIvers swear; then I saw
his Bug start to creep _outward_ on the shelf. Not fast or reckless,
this time, but slowly, churning up dust in a gentle cloud behind him.

I just stared and felt the blood rush to my head. It seemed so hot I
could hardly breathe as he edged out beyond me, further and further—

I think I felt it snap before I saw it. My own machine gave a sickening
lurch and a long black crack appeared across the shelf—and widened. Then
the ledge began to upend. I heard a scream as McIvers’ Bug rose up and
up and then crashed down into the crevasse in a thundering slide of rock
and shattered metal.

I just stared for a full minute, I think. I couldn’t move until I heard
Jack Stone groan and the Major shouting, “Claney! I couldn’t see—what
_happened_?”

“It snapped on him, that’s what happened,” I roared. I gunned my motor,
edged forward toward the fresh broken edge of the shelf. The crevasse
gaped; I couldn’t see any sign of the machine. Dust was still billowing
up blindingly from below.

We stood staring down, the three of us. I caught a glimpse of Jack
Stone’s face through his helmet. It wasn’t pretty.

“Well,” said the Major heavily, “that’s that.”

“I guess so.” I felt the way Stone looked.

“Wait,” said Stone. “I heard something.”

He had. It was a cry in the earphones—faint, but unmistakable.

“Mac!” The Major called. “Mac, can you hear me?”

“Yeah, yeah. I can hear you.” The voice was very weak.

“Are you all right?”

“I don’t know. Broken leg, I think. It’s—hot.” There was a long pause.
Then: “I think my cooler’s gone out.”

The Major shot me a glance, then turned to Stone. “Get a cable from the
second sledge fast. He’ll fry alive if we don’t get him out of there.
Peter, I need you to lower me. Use the tractor winch.”

I lowered him; he stayed down only a few moments. When I hauled him up,
his face was drawn. “Still alive,” he panted. “He won’t be very long,
though.” He hesitated for just an instant. “We’ve got to make a try.”

“I don’t like this ledge,” I said. “It’s moved twice since I got out.
Why not back off and lower him a cable?”

“No good. The Bug is smashed and he’s inside it. We’ll need torches and
I’ll need one of you to help.” He looked at me and then gave Stone a
long look. “Peter, you’d better come.”

“Wait,” said Stone. His face was very white. “Let me go down with you.”

“Peter is lighter.”

“I’m not so heavy. Let me go down.”

“Okay, if that’s the way you want it.” The Major tossed him a torch.
“Peter, check these hitches and lower us slowly. If you see any kind of
trouble, _anything_, cast yourself free and back off this thing, do you
understand? This whole ledge may go.”

I nodded. “Good luck.”

They went over the ledge. I let the cable down bit by bit until it hit
two hundred feet and slacked off.

“How does it look?” I shouted.

“Bad,” said the Major. “We’ll have to work fast. This whole side of the
crevasse is ready to crumble. Down a little more.”

Minutes passed without a sound. I tried to relax, but I couldn’t. Then I
felt the ground shift, and the tractor lurched to the side.

The Major shouted, “_It’s going, Peter—pull back!_” and I threw the
tractor into reverse, jerked the controls as the tractor rumbled off the
shelf. The cable snapped, coiled up in front like a broken clockspring.
The whole surface under me was shaking wildly now; ash rose in huge gray
clouds. Then, with a roar, the whole shelf lurched and slid sideways. It
teetered on the edge for seconds before it crashed into the crevasse,
tearing the side wall down with it in a mammoth slide. I jerked the
tractor to a halt as the dust and flame billowed up.

They were gone—all three of them, McIvers and the Major and Jack
Stone—buried under a thousand tons of rock and zinc and molten lead.
There wasn’t any danger of anybody ever finding their bones.

                  *       *       *       *       *

Peter Claney leaned back, finishing his drink, rubbing his scarred face
as he looked across at Baron.

Slowly, Baron’s grip relaxed on the chair arm. “_You_ got back,” he
said.

Claney nodded. “I got back, sure. I had the tractor and the sledges. I
had seven days to drive back under that yellow Sun. I had plenty of time
to think.”

“You took the wrong man along,” Baron said. “That was your mistake.
Without him you would have made it.”

“Never.” Claney shook his head. “That’s what I was thinking the first
day or so—that it was _McIvers’_ fault, that _he_ was to blame. But that
isn’t true. He was wild, reckless and had lots of nerve.”

“But his judgment was bad!”

“It couldn’t have been sounder. We had to keep to our schedule even if
it killed us, because it would positively kill us if we didn’t.”

“But a man like that—”

“A man like McIvers was necessary. Can’t you see that? It was the Sun
that beat us, that surface. Perhaps we were licked the very day we
started.” Claney leaned across the table, his eyes pleading. “We didn’t
realize that, but it was _true_. There are places that men can’t go,
conditions men can’t tolerate. The others had to die to learn that. I
was lucky, I came back. But I’m trying to tell you what I found out—that
_nobody_ will ever make a Brightside Crossing.”

“We will,” said Baron. “It won’t be a picnic, but we’ll make it.”

“But suppose you do,” said Claney, suddenly. “Suppose I’m all wrong,
suppose you _do_ make it. Then what? _What comes next?_”

“The Sun,” said Baron.

Claney nodded slowly. “Yes. That would be it, wouldn’t it?” He laughed.
“Good-by, Baron. Jolly talk and all that. Thanks for listening.”

Baron caught his wrist as he started to rise. “Just one question more,
Claney. Why did you come here?”

“To try to talk you out of killing yourself,” said Claney.

“You’re a liar,” said Baron.

Claney stared down at him for a long moment. Then he crumpled in the
chair. There was defeat in his pale blue eyes and something else.

“Well?”

Peter Claney spread his hands, a helpless gesture. “When do you leave,
Baron? I want you to take me along.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                           Transcriber’s Note


This e-text was produced from “Tiger by the Tail and Other Science
Fiction Stories by Alan E. Nourse” and was first published in Galaxy,
January 1956. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

Punctuation and capitalization have been normalized. Variations in
hyphenation have been retained as they were in the original publication.

The original text has been modified to include the author’s name after
the title as follows:

                           by Alan E. Nourse

Italicized words and phrases are presented by surrounding the text with
_underscores_.

Curly braces surrounding characters, as here, CO_{2} are used to
represent subscripts.





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