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´╗┐Title: Hot Planet
Author: Clement, Hal
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Hot Planet" ***

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                              HOT PLANET

                            By HAL CLEMENT

                         Illustrated by FINLAY

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                     Galaxy Magazine August 1963.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



               Mercury had no atmosphere--everyone knew
                 that. Why was it developing one now?


I

The wind which had nearly turned the _Albireo's_ landing into a
disaster instead of a mathematical exercise was still playing tunes
about the fins and landing legs as Schlossberg made his way down to
Deck Five.

The noise didn't bother him particularly, though the endless seismic
tremors made him dislike the ladders. But just now he was able to
ignore both. He was curious--though not hopeful.

"Is there anything at all obvious on the last sets of tapes, Joe?"

Mardikian, the geophysicist, shrugged. "Just what you'd expect ... on
a planet which has at least one quake in each fifty-mile-square area
every five minutes. You know yourself we had a nice seismic program set
up, but when we touched down we found we couldn't carry it out. We've
done our best with the natural tremors--incidentally stealing most of
the record tapes the other projects would have used. We have a lot of
nice information for the computers back home; but it will take all of
them to make any sense out of it."

Schlossberg nodded; the words had not been necessary. His astronomical
program had been one of those sabotaged by the transfer of tapes to the
seismic survey.

"I just hoped," he said. "We each have an idea why Mercury developed
an atmosphere during the last few decades, but I guess the high school
kids on Earth will know whether it's right before we do. I'm resigned
to living in a chess-type universe--few and simple rules, but infinite
combinations of them. But it would be nice to know an answer sometime."

"So it would. As a matter of fact, I need to know a couple right now.
From you. How close to finished are the other programs--or what's left
of them?"

"I'm all set," replied Schlossberg. "I have a couple of instruments
still monitoring the sun just in case, but everything in the revised
program is on tape."

"Good. Tom, any use asking you?"

The biologist grimaced. "I've been shown two hundred and sixteen
different samples of rock and dust. I have examined in detail twelve
crystal growths which looked vaguely like vegetation. Nothing was alive
or contained living things by any standards I could conscientiously
set."

Mardikian's gesture might have meant sympathy.

"Camille?"

"I may as well stop now as any time. I'll never be through. Tape didn't
make much difference to me, but I wish I knew what weight of specimens
I could take home."

"Eileen?" Mardikian's glance at the stratigrapher took the place of the
actual question.

"Cam speaks for me, except that I could have used any more tape you
could have spared. What I have is gone."

"All right, that leaves me, the tape-thief. The last spools are in the
seismographs now, and will start running out in seventeen hours. The
tractors will start out on their last rounds in sixteen, and should be
back in roughly a week. Will, does that give you enough to figure the
weights we rockhounds can have on the return trip?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The _Albireo's_ captain nodded. "Close enough. There really hasn't been
much question since it became evident we'd find nothing for the mass
tanks here. I'll have a really precise check in an hour, but I can
tell right now that you have about one and a half metric tons to split
up among the three of you.

"Ideal departure time is three hundred ten hours away, as you all know.
We can stay here until then, or go into a parking-and-survey orbit at
almost any time before then. You have all the survey you need, I should
think, from the other time. But suit yourselves."

"I'd just as soon be space-sick as seasick," remarked Camille Burkett.
"I still hate to think that the entire planet is as shivery as the spot
we picked."

Willard Rowson smiled. "You researchers told me where to land after ten
days in orbit mapping this rockball. I set you just where you asked. If
you'd found even five tons of juice we could use in the reaction tanks
I could still take you to another one--if you could agree which one. I
hate to say 'Don't blame me,' but I can't think of anything else that
fits."

"So we sit until the last of the tractors is back with the precious
seismo tapes, playing battleship while our back teeth are being
shaken out by earthquakes--excuse the word. What a thrill! Glorious
adventure!" Zaino, the communications specialist who had been out of a
job almost constantly since the landing, spoke sourly. The captain was
the only one who saw fit to answer.

"If you want adventure, you made a mistake exploring space. The only
space adventures I've heard of are second-hand stories built on
guesswork; the people who really had them weren't around to tell about
it. Unless Dr. Marini discovers a set of Mercurian monsters at the last
minute and they invade the ship or cut off one of the tractors, I'm
afraid you'll have to do without adventures." Zaino grimaced.

"That sounds funny coming from a spaceman, Captain. I didn't really
mean adventure, though; all I want is something to do besides betting
whether the next quake will come in one minute or five. I haven't even
had to fix a suit-radio since we touched down. How about my going out
with one of the tractors on this last trip, at least?"

"It's all right with me," replied Rowson, "but Dr. Mardikian runs the
professional part of this operation. I require that Spurr, Trackman,
Hargedon and Aiello go as drivers, since without them even a minor
mechanical problem would be more than an adventure. As I recall it, Dr.
Harmon, Dr. Schlossberg, Dr. Marini and Dr. Mardikian are scheduled to
go; but if any one of them is willing to let you take his or her place,
I certainly don't mind."

The radioman looked around hopefully. The geologists and the biologist
shook their heads negatively, firmly and unanimously; but the
astronomer pondered for a moment. Zaino watched tensely.

"It may be all right," Schlossberg said at last. "What I want to get
is a set of wind, gas pressure, gas temperature and gas composition
measures around the route. I didn't expect to be more meteorologist
than astronomer when we left Earth, and didn't have exactly the right
equipment. Hargedon and Aiello helped me improvise some, and this is
the first chance to use it on Darkside. If you can learn what has to be
done with it before starting time, though, you are welcome to my place."

       *       *       *       *       *

The communicator got to his feet fast enough to leave the deck in
Mercury's feeble gravity.

"Lead me to it, Doc. I guess I can learn to read a home-made
weathervane!"

"Is that merely bragging, or a challenge?" drawled a voice which had
not previously joined the discussion. Zaino flushed a bit.

"Sorry, Luigi," he said hastily. "I didn't mean it just that way. But I
still think I can run the stuff."

"Likely enough," Aiello replied. "Remember though, it wasn't made just
for talking into." Schlossberg, now on his feet, cut in quickly.

"Come on, Arnie. We'll have to suit up to see the equipment; it's
outside."

He shepherded the radioman to the hatch at one side of the deck and
shooed him down toward the engine and air lock levels. Both were silent
for some moments; but safely out of earshot of Deck Five the younger
man looked up and spoke.

"You needn't push, Doc. I wasn't going to make anything of it. Luigi
was right, and I asked for it." The astronomer slowed a bit in his
descent.

"I wasn't really worried," he replied, "but we have several months yet
before we can get away from each other, and I don't like talk that
could set up grudges. Matter of fact, I'm even a little uneasy about
having the girls along, though I'm no misogynist."

"Girls? They're not--"

"There goes your foot again. Even Harmon is about ten years older than
you, I suppose. But they're girls to me. What's more important, they no
doubt think of themselves as girls."

"Even Dr. Burkett? That is--I mean--"

"Even Dr. Burkett. Here, get into your suit. And maybe you'd better
take out the mike. It'll be enough if you can listen for the next
hour or two." Zaino made no answer, suspecting with some justice that
anything he said would be wrong.

Each made final checks on the other's suit; then they descended
one more level to the airlock. This occupied part of the same deck
as the fusion plants, below the wings and reaction mass tanks but
above the main engine. Its outer door was just barely big enough to
admit a spacesuited person. Even with the low air pressure carried
by spaceships, a large door area meant large total force on jamb,
hinges and locks. It opened onto a small balcony from which a ladder
led to the ground. The two men paused on the balcony to look over the
landscape.

This hadn't changed noticeably since the last time either had been out,
though there might have been some small difference in the volcanic
cones a couple of miles away to the northeast. The furrows down the
sides of these, which looked as though they had been cut by water but
were actually bone-dry ash slides, were always undergoing alteration as
gas from below kept blowing fresh scoria fragments out of the craters.

       *       *       *       *       *

The spines--steep, jagged fragments of rock which thrust upward from
the plain beyond and to both sides of the cones--seemed dead as ever.

The level surface between the _Albireo_ and the cones was more
interesting. Mardikian and Schlossberg believed it to be a lava sheet
dating from early in Mercury's history, when more volatile substances
still existed in the surface rocks to cut down their viscosity when
molten. They supposed that much--perhaps most--of the surface around
the "twilight" belt had been flooded by this very liquid lava, which
had cooled to a smoother surface than most Earthly lava flows.

How long it had stayed cool they didn't guess. But both men felt sure
that Mercury must have periodic upheavals as heat accumulated inside
it--heat coming not from radioactivity but from tidal energy. Mercury's
orbit is highly eccentric. At perihelion, tidal force tries to pull it
apart along the planet-to-sun line, while at aphelion the tidal force
is less and the little world's own gravity tries to bring it back to
a spherical shape. The real change in form is not great, but a large
force working through even a small amount of distance can mean a good
deal of energy.

If the energy can't leak out--and Mercury's rocks conduct heat no
better than those of Earth--the temperature must rise.

Sooner or later, the men argued, deeply buried rock must fuse to magma.
Its liquefaction would let the bulk of the planet give farther under
tidal stress, so heat would be generated even faster. Eventually a
girdle of magma would have to form far below the crust all around the
twilight strip, where the tidal strain would be greatest. Sooner or
later this would melt its way to the surface, giving the zone a period
of intense volcanic activity and, incidentally, giving the planet a
temporary atmosphere.

The idea was reasonable. It had, the astronomer admitted, been
suggested long before to account for supposed vulcanism on the moon.
It justified the careful examination that Schlossberg and Zaino gave
the plain before they descended the ladder; for it made reasonable
the occasional changes which were observed to occur in the pattern of
cracks weaving over its surface.

No one was certain just how permanent the local surface was--though
no one could really justify feeling safer on board the _Albireo_ than
outside on the lava. If anything really drastic happened, the ship
would be no protection.

The sun, hanging just above the horizon slightly to the watcher's
right, cast long shadows which made the cracks stand out clearly;
as far as either man could see, nothing had changed recently. They
descended the ladder carefully--even the best designed spacesuits are
somewhat vulnerable--and made their way to the spot where the tractors
were parked.

A sheet-metal fence a dozen feet high and four times as long provided
shade, which was more than a luxury this close to the sun. The
tractors were parked in this shadow, and beside and between them were
piles of equipment and specimens. The apparatus Schlossberg had devised
was beside the tractor at the north end of the line, just inside the
shaded area.

It was still just inside the shade when they finished, four hours
later. Hargedon had joined them during the final hour and helped
pack the equipment in the tractor he was to drive. Zaino had had no
trouble in learning to make the observations Schlossberg wanted, and
the youngster was almost unbearably cocky. Schlossberg hoped, as they
returned to the _Albireo_, that no one would murder the communications
expert in the next twelve hours. There would be nothing to worry about
after the trip started; Hargedon was quite able to keep anyone in his
place without being nasty about it. If Zaino had been going with Aiello
or Harmon--but he wasn't, and it was pointless to dream up trouble.

And no trouble developed all by itself.


II

Zaino was not only still alive but still reasonably popular when
the first of the tractors set out, carrying Eileen Harmon and Eric
Trackman, the _Albireo's_ nuclear engineer.

It started more than an hour before the others, since the
stratigrapher's drilling program, "done" or not, took extra time. The
tractor hummed off to the south, since both Darkside routes required a
long detour to pass the chasm to the west. Routes had been worked out
from the stereo-photos taken during the orbital survey. Even Darkside
had been covered fairly well with Uniquantum film under Venus light.

The Harmon-Trackman vehicle was well out of sight when Mardikian and
Aiello started out on one of the Brightside routes, and a few minutes
later Marini set out on the other with the spacesuit technician, Mary
Spurr, driving.

Both vehicles disappeared quickly into a valley to the northeast,
between the ash cones and a thousand-foot spine which rose just south
of them. All the tractors were in good radio contact; Zaino made sure
of that before he abandoned the radio watch to Rowson, suited up and
joined Hargedon at the remaining one. They climbed in, and Hargedon set
it in motion.

At about the same time, the first tractor came into view again, now
traveling north on the farther side of the chasm. Hargedon took this as
evidence that the route thus far was unchanged, and kicked in highest
speed.

The cabin was pretty cramped, even though some of the equipment had
been attached outside. The men could not expect much comfort for the
next week.

Hargedon was used to the trips, however. He disapproved on principle
of people who complained about minor inconveniences such as having
to sleep in spacesuits; fortunately, Zaino's interest and excitement
overrode any thought he might have had about discomfort.

This lasted through the time they spent doubling the vast crack in
Mercury's crust, driving on a little to the north of the ship on the
other side and then turning west toward the dark hemisphere. The
route was identical to that of Harmon's machine for some time, though
no trace of its passage showed on the hard surface. Then Hargedon
angled off toward the southwest. He had driven this run often enough
to know it well even without the markers which had been set out with
the seismographs. The photographic maps were also aboard. With them,
even Zaino had no trouble keeping track of their progress while they
remained in sunlight.

However, the sun sank as they traveled west. In two hours its lower rim
would have been on the horizon, had they been able to see the horizon;
as it was, more of the "sea level" lava plain was in shadow than not
even near the ship, and their route now lay in semi-darkness.

The light came from peaks projecting into the sunlight, from scattered
sky-light which was growing rapidly fainter and from the brighter
celestial objects such as Earth. Even with the tractor's lights it was
getting harder to spot crevasses and seismometer markers. Zaino quickly
found the fun wearing off ... though his pride made him cover this fact
as best he could.

If Hargedon saw this, he said nothing. He set Zaino to picking up
every other instrument, as any partner would have, making no allowance
for the work the youngster was doing for Schlossberg. This might, of
course, have had the purpose of keeping the radioman too busy to think
about discomfort. Or it might merely have been Hargedon's idea of
normal procedure.

Whatever the cause, Zaino got little chance to use the radio once they
had driven into the darkness. He managed only one or two brief talks
with those left at the ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

The talks might have helped his morale, since they certainly must have
given the impression that nothing was going on in the ship while at
least he had something to do in the tractor. However, this state of
affairs did not last. Before the vehicle was four hours out of sight of
the _Albireo_, a broadcast by Camille Burkett reached them.

The mineralogist's voice contained at least as much professional
enthusiasm as alarm, but everyone listening must have thought promptly
of the dubious stability of Mercury's crust. The call was intended for
her fellow geologists Mardikian and Harmon. But it interested Zaino at
least as much.

"Joe! Eileen! There's a column of what looks like black smoke rising
over Northeast Spur. It can't be a real fire, of course; I can't see
its point of origin, but if it's the convection current it seems to
be the source must be pretty hot. It's the closest thing to a genuine
volcano I've seen since we arrived; it's certainly not another of those
ash mounds. I should think you'd still be close enough to make it out,
Joe. Can you see anything?"

The reply from Mardikian's tractor was inaudible to Zaino and Hargedon,
but Burkett's answer made its general tenor plain.

"I hadn't thought of that. Yes, I'd say it was pretty close to the
Brightside route. It wouldn't be practical for you to stop your run now
to come back to see. You couldn't do much about it anyway. I could go
out to have a look and then report to you. If the way back is blocked
there'll be plenty of time to work out another." Hargedon and Zaino
passed questioning glances at each other during the shorter pause that
followed.

"I know there aren't," the voice then went on, responding to the words
they could not hear, "but it's only two or three miles, I'd say. Two
to the spur and not much farther to where I could see the other side.
Enough of the way is in shade so I could make it in a suit easily
enough. I can't see calling back either of the dark-side tractors.
Their work is just as important as the rest--anyway, Eileen is probably
out of range. She hasn't answered yet."

Another pause.

"That's true. Still, it would mean sacrificing that set of seismic
records--no, wait. We could go out later for those. And Mel could take
his own weather measures on the later trip. There's plenty of time!"

Pause, longer this time.

"You're right, of course. I just wanted to get an early look at this
volcano, if it is one. We'll let the others finish their runs, and when
you get back you can check the thing from the other side yourself. If
it is blocking your way there's time to find an alternate route. We
could be doing that from the maps in the meantime, just in case."

Zaino looked again at his companion.

"Isn't that just my luck!" he exclaimed. "I jump at the first chance
to get away from being bored to death. The minute I'm safely away, the
only interesting thing of the whole operation happens--back at the
ship!"

"Who asked to come on this trip?"

"Oh, I'm not blaming anyone but myself. If I'd stayed back there the
volcano would have popped out here somewhere, or else waited until we
were gone."

"If it is a volcano. Dr. Burkett didn't seem quite sure."

"No, and I'll bet a nickel she's suiting up right now to go out and
see. I hope she comes back with something while we're still near enough
to hear about it."

Hargedon shrugged. "I suppose it was also just your luck that sent you
on a Darkside trip? You know the radio stuff. You knew we couldn't
reach as far this way with the radios. Didn't you think of that in
advance?"

"I didn't think of it, any more than you would have. It was bad luck,
but I'm not grousing about it. Let's get on with this job." Hargedon
nodded with approval, and possibly with some surprise, and the tractor
hummed on its way.

The darkness deepened around the patches of lava shown by the driving
lights; the sky darkened toward a midnight hue, with stars showing
ever brighter through it; and radio reception from the _Albireo_
began to get spotty. Gas density at the ion layer was high enough so
that recombination of molecules with their radiation-freed electrons
was rapid. Only occasional streamers of ionized gas reached far over
Darkside. As these thinned out, so did radio reception. Camille
Burkett's next broadcast came through very poorly.

There was enough in it, however, to seize the attention of the two men
in the tractor.

       *       *       *       *       *

She was saying: "--real all right, and dangerous. It's the ... thing I
ever saw ... kinds of lava from what looks like ... same vent. There's
high viscosity stuff building a spatter cone to end all spatter cones,
and some very thin fluid from somewhere at the bottom. The flow has
already blocked the valley used by the Brightside routes and is coming
along it. A new return route will have to be found for the tractors
that ... was spreading fast when I saw it. I can't tell how much will
come. But unless it stops there's nothing at all to keep the flow away
from the ship. It isn't coming fast, but it's coming. I'd advise all
tractors to turn back. Captain Rowson reminds me that only one takeoff
is possible. If we leave this site, we're committed to leaving Mercury.
Arnie and Ren, do you hear me?"

Zaino responded at once. "We got most of it, Doctor. Do you really
think the ship is in danger?"

"I don't know. I can only say that _if_ this flow continues the
ship will have to leave, because this area will sooner or later be
covered. I can't guess how likely ... check further to get some sort
of estimate. It's different from any Earthly lava source--maybe you
heard--should try to get Eileen and Eric back, too. I can't raise
them. I suppose they're well out from under the ion layer by now.
Maybe you're close enough to them to catch them with diffracted waves.
Try, anyway. Whether you can raise them or not you'd better start back
yourself."

Hargedon cut in at this point. "What does Dr. Mardikian say about that?
We still have most of the seismometers on this route to visit."

"I think Captain Rowson has the deciding word here, but if it helps
your decision Dr. Mardikian has already started back. He hasn't
finished his route, either. So hop back here, Ren. And Arnie, put that
technical skill you haven't had to use yet to work raising Eileen and
Eric."

"What I can do, I will," replied Zaino, "but you'd better tape a recall
message and keep it going out on. Let's see--band F."

"All right. I'll be ready to check the volcano as soon as you get back.
How long?"

"Seven hours--maybe six and a half," replied Hargedon. "We have to be
careful."

"Very well. Stay outside when you arrive; I'll want to go right out in
the tractor to get a closer look." She cut off.

"And _that_ came through clearly enough!" remarked Hargedon as he swung
the tractor around. "I've been awake for fourteen hours, driving off
and on for ten of them; I'm about to drive for another six; and then
I'm to stand by for more."

"Would you like me to do some of the driving?" asked Zaino.

"I guess you'll have to, whether I like it or not," was the rather
lukewarm reply. "I'll keep on for awhile, though--until we're back in
better light. You get at your radio job."


III

Zaino tried. Hour after hour he juggled from one band to another. Once
he had Hargedon stop while he went out to attach a makeshift antenna
which, he hoped, would change his output from broadcast to some sort
of beam; after this he kept probing the sky with the "beam," first
listening to the _Albireo's_ broadcast in an effort to find projecting
wisps of ionosphere and then, whenever he thought he had one, switching
on his transmitter and driving his own message at it.

Not once did he complain about lack of equipment or remark how much
better he could do once he was back at the ship.

Hargedon's silence began to carry an undercurrent of approval not
usual in people who spent much time with Zaino. The technician made no
further reference to the suggestion of switching drivers. They came
in sight of the _Albireo_ and doubled the chasm with Hargedon still at
the wheel, Zaino still at his radio and both of them still uncertain
whether any of the calls had gotten through.

Both had to admit, even before they could see the ship, that Burkett
had had a right to be impressed.

The smoke column showed starkly against the sky, blowing back over the
tractor and blocking the sunlight which would otherwise have glared
into the driver's eyes. Fine particles fell from it in a steady shower;
looking back, the men could see tracks left by their vehicle in the
deposit which had already fallen.

As they approached the ship the dark pillar grew denser and narrower,
while the particles raining from it became coarser. In some places the
ash was drifting into fairly deep piles, giving Hargedon some anxiety
about possible concealed cracks. The last part of the trip, along the
edge of the great chasm and around its end, was really dangerous;
cracks running from its sides were definitely spreading. The two men
reached the _Albireo_ later than Hargedon had promised, and found
Burkett waiting impatiently with a pile of apparatus beside her.

She didn't wait for them to get out before starting to organize.

"There isn't much here. We'll take off just enough of what you're
carrying to make room for this. No--wait. I'll have to check some of
your equipment; I'm going to need one of Milt Schlossberg's gadget's, I
think, so leave that on. We'll take--"

"Excuse me, Doctor," cut in Hargedon. "Our suits need servicing, or at
least mine will if you want me to drive you. Perhaps Arnie can help you
load for a while, if you don't think it's too important for him to get
at the radio--"

"Of course. Excuse me. I should have had someone out here to help me
with this. You two go on in. Ren, please get back as soon as you can. I
can do the work here; none of this stuff is very heavy."

Zaino hesitated as he swung out of the cab. True, there wasn't too
much to be moved, and it wasn't very heavy in Mercury's gravity,
and he really should be at the radio; but the thirty-nine-year-old
mineralogist was a middle-aged lady by his standards, and shouldn't be
allowed to carry heavy packages....

"Get along, Arnie!" the middle-aged lady interrupted this train of
thought. "Eric and Eileen are getting farther away and harder to reach
every second you dawdle!"

       *       *       *       *       *

He got, though he couldn't help looking northeast as he went rather
than where he was going.

The towering menace in that direction would have claimed anyone's
attention. The pillar of sable ash was rising straighter, as though
the wind were having less effect on it. An equally black cone had
risen into sight beyond Northeast Spur--a cone that must have grown
to some two thousand feet in roughly ten hours. It had far steeper
sides than the cinder mounds near it; it couldn't be made of the same
loose ash. Perhaps it consisted of half-melted particles which were
fusing together as they fell--that might be what Burkett had meant by
"spatter-cone." Still, if that were the case, the material fountaining
from the cone's top should be lighting the plain with its incandescence
rather than casting an inky shadow for its entire height.

Well, that was a problem for the geologists; Zaino climbed aboard and
settled to his task.

The trouble was that he could do very little more here than he could
in the tractor. He could have improvised longer-wave transmitting
coils whose radiations would have diffracted a little more effectively
beyond the horizon, but the receiver on the missing vehicle would
not have detected them. He had more power at his disposal, but could
only beam it into empty space with his better antennae. He had better
equipment for locating any projecting wisps of charged gas which might
reflect his waves, but he was already located under a solid roof of the
stuff--the _Albireo_ was technically on Brightside. Bouncing his beam
from this layer still didn't give him the range he needed, as he had
found both by calculation and trial.

What he really needed was a relay satellite. The target was simply too
far around Mercury's sharp curve by now for anything less.

Zaino's final gesture was to set his transmission beam on the lowest
frequency the tractor would pick up, aim it as close to the vehicle's
direction as he could calculate from map and itinerary and set the
recorded return message going. He told Rowson as much.

"Can't think of anything else?" the captain asked. "Well, neither can
I, but of course it's not my field. I'd give a year's pay if I could.
How long before they should be back in range?"

"About four days. A hundred hours, give or take a few. They'll be
heading back anyway by that time."

"Of course. Well, keep trying."

"I am--or rather, the equipment is. I don't see what else I can do
unless a really bright idea should suddenly sprout. Is there anywhere
else I could be useful? I'm as likely to have ideas working as just
sitting."

"We can keep you busy, all right. But how about taking a transmitter up
one of those mountains? That would get your wave farther."

"Not as far as it's going already. I'm bouncing it off the ion layer,
which is higher than any mountain we've seen on Mercury even if it's
nowhere near as high as Earth's."

"Hmph. All right."

"I could help Ren and Dr. Burkett. I could hang on outside the
tractor--"

"They've already gone. You'd better call them, though, and keep a log
of what they do."

"All right." Zaino turned back to his board and with no trouble raised
the tractor carrying Hargedon and the mineralogist. The latter had been
trying to call the _Albireo_ and had some acid comments about radio
operators who slept on the job.

       *       *       *       *       *

"There's only one of me, and I've been trying to get the Darkside
team," he pointed out. "Have you found anything new about this lava
flood?"

"Flow, not flood," corrected the professional automatically. "We're
not in sight of it yet. We've just rounded the corner that takes us
out of your sight. It's over a mile yet, and a couple of more corners,
before we get to the spot where I left it. Of course, it will be closer
than that by now. It was spreading at perhaps a hundred yards an hour
then. That's one figure we must refine.... Of course, I'll try to get
samples, too. I wish there were some way to get samples of the central
cone. The whole thing is the queerest volcano I've ever heard of. Have
you gotten Eileen started back?"

"Not as far as I can tell. As with your cone samples, there are
practical difficulties," replied Zaino. "I haven't quit yet, though."

"I should think not. If some of us were paid by the idea we'd be pretty
poor, but the perspiration part of genius is open to all of us."

"You mean I should charge a bonus for getting this call through?"
retorted the operator.

Whatever Burkett's reply to this might have been was never learned; her
attention was diverted at that point.

"We've just come in sight of the flow. It's about five hundred yards
ahead. We'll get as close as seems safe, and I'll try to make sure
whether it's really lava or just mud."

"Mud? Is that possible? I thought there wasn't--couldn't be--any water
on this planet!"

"It is, and there probably isn't. The liquid phase of mud doesn't have
to be water, even though it usually is on Earth. Here, for example, it
might conceivably be sulfur."

"But if it's just mud, it wouldn't hurt the ship, would it?"

"Probably not."

"Then why all this fuss about getting the tractors back in a hurry?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The voice which answered reminded him of another lady in his past, who
had kept him after school for drawing pictures in math class.

"Because in my judgment the flow is far more likely to be lava than
mud, and if I must be wrong I'd rather my error were one that left
us alive. I have no time at the moment to explain the basis of my
judgment. I will be reporting our activities quite steadily from now
on, and would prefer that you not interrupt unless a serious emergency
demands it, or you get a call from Eileen.

"We are about three hundred yards away now. The front is moving about
as fast as before, which suggests that the flow is coming only along
this valley. It's only three or four feet high, so viscosity is very
low or density very high. Probably the former, considering where we
are. It's as black as the smoke column."

"Not glowing?" cut in Zaino thoughtlessly.

"_Black_, I said. Temperature will be easier to measure when we get
closer. The front is nearly straight across the valley, with just a few
lobes projecting ten or twelve yards and one notch where a small spine
is being surrounded. By the way, I trust you're taping all this?" Again
Zaino was reminded of the afternoon after school.

"Yes, Ma'am," he replied. "On my one and only monitor tape."

"Very well. We're stopping near the middle of the valley one hundred
yards from the front. I am getting out, and will walk as close as I
can with a sampler and a radiometer. I assume that the radio equipment
will continue to relay my suit broadcast back to you." Zaino cringed a
little, certain as he was that the tractor's electronic apparatus was
in perfect order.

It struck him that Dr. Burkett was being more snappish than usual. It
never crossed his mind that the woman might be afraid.

"Ren, don't get any closer with the tractor unless I call. I'll get a
set of temperature readings as soon as I'm close enough. Then I'll try
to get a sample. Then I'll come back with that to the tractor, leave it
and the radiometer and get the markers to set out."

"Couldn't I be putting out the markers while you get the sample,
Doctor?"

"You could, but I'd rather you stayed at the wheel." Hargedon made no
answer, and Burkett resumed her description for the record.

"I'm walking toward the front, a good deal faster than it's flowing
toward me. I am now about twenty yards away, and am going to take a set
of radiation-temperature measures." A brief pause. "Readings coming.
Nine sixty. Nine eighty. Nine ninety--that's from the bottom edge near
the spine that's being surrounded. Nine eighty-five--" The voice
droned on until about two dozen readings had been taped. Then, "I'm
going closer now. The sampler is just a ladle on a twelve-foot handle
we improvised, so I'll have to get that close. The stuff is moving
slowly; there should be no trouble. I'm in reach now. The lava is very
liquid; there's no trouble getting the sampler in--or out again--it's
not very dense, either. I'm heading back toward the tractor now. No,
Ren, don't come to meet me."

There was a minute of silence, while Zaino pictured the spacesuited
figure with its awkwardly long burden, walking away from the
creeping menace to the relative safety of the tractor. "It's frozen
solid already; we needn't worry about spilling. The temperature is
about--five eighty. Give me the markers, please."

Another pause, shorter this time. Zaino wondered how much of that
could be laid to a faster walk without the ladle and how much to the
lessening distance between flow and tractor. "I'm tossing the first
marker close to the edge--it's landed less than a foot from the lava.
They're all on a light cord at ten-foot intervals; I'm paying out the
cord as I go back to the tractor. Now we'll stand by and time the
arrival at each marker as well as we can."

"How close are you to the main cone?" asked Zaino.

"Not close enough to see its base, I'm afraid. Or to get a sample of
it, which is worse. We--goodness, what was that?"

Zaino had just time to ask, "What was what?" when he found out.


IV

For a moment, he thought that the _Albireo_ had been flung bodily into
the air. Then he decided that the great metal pillar had merely fallen
over. Finally he realized that the ship was still erect, but the ground
under it had just tried to leave.

Everyone in the group had become so used to the almost perpetual ground
tremors that they had ceased to notice them; but this one demanded
attention. Rowson, using language which suggested that his career
might not have been completely free of adventure after all, flashed
through the communication level on his way down to the power section.
Schlossberg and Babineau followed, the medic pausing to ask Zaino if he
were all right. The radioman merely nodded affirmatively; his attention
was already back at his job. Burkett was speaking a good deal faster
than before.

"Never mind if the sample isn't lashed tight yet--if it falls off
there'll be plenty more. There isn't time! Arnie, get in touch with Dr.
Mardikian and Dr. Marini. Tell them that this volcano is explosive,
that all estimates of what the flow may do are off until we can make
more measures, and in any case the whole situation is unpredictable.
Everyone should get back as soon as possible. Remember, we decided that
those big craters Eileen checked were not meteor pits. I don't know
whether this thing will let go in the next hour, the next year, or at
all. Maybe what's happening now will act as a safety valve--but let's
get out. Ren, that flow is speeding up and getting higher, and the ash
rain is getting a lot worse. Can you see to drive?"

She fell silent. Zaino, in spite of her orders, left his set long
enough to leap to the nearest port for a look at the volcano.

He never regretted it.

Across the riven plain, whose cracks were now nearly hidden under the
new ash, the black cone towered above the nearer elevations. It was
visibly taller than it had been only a few hours before. The fountain
from its top was thicker, now jetting straight up as though wind no
longer meant a thing to the fiercely driven column of gas and dust. The
darkness was not so complete; patches of red and yellow incandescence
showed briefly in the pillar, and glowing sparks rather than black
cinders rained back on the steep slopes. Far above, a ring of smoke
rolled and spread about the column, forming an ever-broadening blanket
of opaque cloud above a landscape which had never before been shaded
from the sun. Streamers of lightning leaped between cloud and pillar,
pillar and mountain, even cloud and ground. Any thunder there might
have been was drowned in the howl of the escaping gas, a roar which
seemed to combine every possible note from the shrillest possible
whistle to a bass felt by the chest rather than heard by the ears.
Rowson's language had become inaudible almost before he had disappeared
down the hatch.

For long moments the radioman watched the spreading cloud, and wondered
whether the _Albireo_ could escape being struck by the flickering,
ceaseless lightning. Far above the widening ring of cloud the smoke
fountain drove, spreading slowly in the thinning atmosphere and beyond
it. Zaino had had enough space experience to tell at a glance whether
a smoke or dust cloud was in air or not. This wasn't, at least at the
upper extremity....

And then, quite calmly, he turned back to his desk, aimed the antenna
straight up, and called Eileen Harmon. She answered promptly.

       *       *       *       *       *

The stratigrapher listened without interruption to his report and the
order to return. She conferred briefly with her companion, replied
"We'll be back in twelve hours," and signed off. And that was that.

Zaino settled back with a sign, and wondered whether it would be
tactful to remind Rowson of his offer of a year's pay.

All four vehicles were now homeward bound; all one had to worry about
was whether any of them would make it. Hargedon and Burkett were
fighting their way through an ever-increasing ash rain a scant two
miles away--ash which not only cut visibility but threatened to block
the way with drifts too deep to negotiate. The wind, now blowing
fiercely toward the volcano, blasted the gritty stuff against their
front window as though it would erode through; and the lava flow,
moving far faster than the gentle ooze they had never quite measured,
surged--and glowed--grimly behind.

A hundred miles or more to the east, the tractors containing Mardikian,
Marini and their drivers headed southwest along the alternate route
their maps had suggested; but Mardikian, some three hours in the lead,
reported that he could see four other smoke columns in that general
direction.

Mercury seemed to be entering a new phase. The maps might well be out
of date.

Harmon and Trackman were having no trouble at the moment, but they
would have to pass the great chasm. This had been shooting out daughter
cracks when Zaino and Hargedon passed it hours before. No one could say
what it might be like now, and no one was going out to make sure.

"We can see you!" Burkett's voice came through suddenly. "Half a mile
to go, and we're way ahead of the flow."

"But it's coming?" Rowson asked tensely. He had returned from the power
level at Zaino's phoned report of success.

"It's coming."

"How fast? When will it get here? Do you know whether the ship can
stand contact with it?"

"I don't know the speed exactly. There may be two hours, maybe five
or six. The ship can't take it. Even the temperature measures I got
were above the softening point of the alloys, and it's hotter and much
deeper now. Anyway, if the others aren't back before the flow reaches
the ship they won't get through. The tractor wheels would char away,
and I doubt that the bodies would float. You certainly can't wade
through the stuff in a spacesuit, either."

"And you think there can't be more than five or six hours before the
flow arrives?"

"I'd say that was a very optimistic guess. I'll stop and get a better
speed estimate if you want, but won't swear to it."

Rowson thought for a moment.

"No," he said finally, "don't bother. Get back here as soon as you can.
We need the tractor and human muscles more than we need even expert
guesses." He turned to the operator.

"Zaino, tell all the tractors there'll be no answer from the ship for a
while, because no one will be aboard. Then suit up and come outside."
He was gone.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ten minutes later, six human beings and a tractor were assembled in the
flame-lit near-darkness outside the ship. The cloud had spread to the
horizon, and the sun was gone. Burkett and Hargedon had arrived, but
Rowson wasted no time on congratulations.

"We have work to do. It will be easy enough to keep the lava from the
ship, since there seems to be a foot or more of ash on the ground and
a touch of main drive would push it into a ringwall around us; but
that's not the main problem. We have to keep it from reaching the
chasm anywhere south of us, since that's the way the others will
be coming. If they're cut off, they're dead. It will be brute work.
We'll use the tractor any way we can think of. Unfortunately it has no
plow attachment, and I can't think of anything aboard which could be
turned into one. You have shovels, such as they are. The ash is light,
especially here, but there's a mile and a half of dam to be built. I
don't see how it can possibly be done ... but it's going to be."

"Come on, Arnie! You're young and strong," came the voice of the
mineralogist. "You should be able to lift as much of this stuff as I
can. I understand you were lucky enough to get hold of Eileen--have you
asked for the bonus yet?--but your work isn't done."

"It wasn't luck," Zaino retorted. Burkett, in spite of her voice,
seemed much less of a schoolmistress when encased in a spacesuit and
carrying a shovel, so he was able to talk back to her. "I was simply
alert enough to make use of existing conditions, which I had to observe
for myself in spite of all the scientists around. I'm charging the
achievement to my regular salary. I saw--"

He stopped suddenly, both with tongue and shovel. Then, "Captain!"

"What is it?"

"The only reason we're starting this wall here is to keep well ahead
of the flow so we can work as long as possible, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose so. I never thought of trying anywhere else. The valley
would mean a much shorter dam, but if the flow isn't through it by now
it would be before we could get there--oh! Wait a minute!"

"Yes, sir. You can put the main switch anywhere in a D. C. circuit.
Where are the seismology stores we never had to use?"

Four minutes later the tractor set out from the _Albireo_, carrying
Rowson and Zaino. Six minutes after that it stopped at the base of the
ash cone which formed the north side of the valley from which the lava
was coming. They parked a quarter of the way around the cone's base
from the emerging flood and started to climb on foot, both carrying
burdens.

Forty-seven minutes later they returned empty-handed to the vehicle, to
find that it had been engulfed by the spreading liquid.

With noticeable haste they floundered through the loose ash a few
yards above the base until they had outdistanced the glowing menace,
descended and started back across the plain to where they knew the
ship to be, though she was invisible through the falling detritus.
Once they had to detour around a crack. Once they encountered one
which widened toward the chasm on their right, and they knew a detour
would be impossible. Leaping it seemed impossible, too, but they did
it. Thirty seconds after this, forty minutes after finding the tractor
destroyed, the landscape was bathed in a magnesium-white glare as the
two one-and-a-half kiloton charges planted just inside the crater rim
let go.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Should we go back and see if it worked?" asked Zaino.

"What's the use? The only other charges we had were in the tractor.
Thank goodness they were nuclear instead of H. E. If it didn't work
we'd have more trouble to get back than we're having now."

"If it didn't work, is there any point in going back?"

"Stop quibbling and keep walking. Dr. Burkett, are you listening?"

"Yes, Captain."

"We're fresh out of tractors, but if you want to try it on foot you
might start a set of flow measures on the lava. Arnie wants to know
whether our landslide slid properly."

However, the two were able to tell for themselves before getting back
to the _Albireo_.

The flow didn't stop all at once, of course; but with the valley
feeding it blocked off by a pile of volcanic ash four hundred feet high
on one side, nearly fifty on the other and more than a quarter of a
mile long, its enthusiasm quickly subsided. It was thin, fluid stuff,
as Burkett had noted; but as it spread it cooled, and as it cooled it
thickened.

Six hours after the blast it had stopped with its nearest lobe almost a
mile from the ship, less than two feet thick at the edge.

When Mardikian's tractor arrived, Burkett was happily trying to analyze
samples of the flow, and less happily speculating on how long it would
be before the entire area would be blown off the planet. When Marini's
and Harmon's vehicles arrived, almost together, the specimens had been
loaded and everything stowed for acceleration. Sixty seconds after the
last person was aboard, the _Albireo_ left Mercury's surface at two
gravities.

The haste, it turned out, wasn't really necessary. She had been in
parking orbit nearly forty-five hours before the first of the giant
volcanoes reached its climax, and the one beside their former site was
not the first. It was the fourth.

"And that seems to be that," said Camille Burkett rather tritely as
they drifted a hundred miles above the little world's surface. "Just a
belt of white-hot calderas all around the planet. Pretty, if you like
symmetry."

"I like being able to see it from this distance," replied Zaino,
floating weightless beside her. "By the way, how much bonus should I
ask for getting that idea of putting the seismic charges to use after
all?"

"I wouldn't mention it. Any one of us might have thought of that. We
all knew about them."

"Anyone _might_ have. Let's speculate on how long it would have been
before anyone _did_."

"It's still not like the other idea, which involved your own specialty.
I still don't see what made you suppose that the gas pillar from the
volcano would be heavily charged enough to reflect your radio beam. How
did that idea strike you?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Zaino thought back, and smiled a little as the picture of lightning
blazing around pillar, cloud and mountain rose before his eyes.

"You're not quite right," he said. "I was worried about it for a while,
but it didn't actually strike me."

It fell rather flat; Camille Burkett, Ph.D., had to have it explained
to her.





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