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´╗┐Title: Half Around Pluto
Author: Wellman, Manly Wade
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 "Half Around Pluto" ***

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                           HALF AROUND PLUTO

                         BY MANLY WADE WELLMAN

                  _Pluto was a coffin world, airless,
                utterly cold. And they had ten days to
              reach Base Camp, ten thousand miles away._

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
             Worlds of If Science Fiction, December 1958.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Their glassite space helmets fogged, and their metal glove joints
stiffened in the incredible surface cold: but the two men who could
work finished their job. In the black sky glistened the little arclight
of the sun, a sixteen-hundredth of the blaze that fell on Earth. Around
them sulked Pluto's crags and gullies, sheathed with the hard-frozen
pallor that had been Pluto's atmosphere, eons ago.

From the wrecked cylinder of the scout rocket they had dragged two
interior girders, ready-curved at the ends. These, clamped side by side
with transverse brackets and decked with bulkhead metal, managed to
look like a sled.

At the rear they set a salvaged engine unit. For steering, they rigged
a boom shaft to warp the runners right or left. For cargo, they piled
the sled with full containers, ration boxes, the foil tent, what
instruments they could detach and carry, armfuls of heat-tools, a
crowbar, a hatchet, a few other items.

Moving back from the finished work, one of them stumbled against the
other. Instantly the two puffy, soot-black shapes were crouched, gloved
fists up, fierce in the system's duskiest corner.

Then the moment passed. Warily, helmets turned toward each other, they
went back in the half-stripped wreck.

In the still airtight control room, lighted by one bulb, their officer
stirred on his bedstrip. His tunic had been pulled off, his broken left
arm and collarbone set and splinted. Under a fillet of bandage, his
gaunt young face looked pale, but he had his wits back.

"The appropriate question," he said, "is 'What happened?'"

The two men were removing their helmets. "Conked and crashed, sir,"
said Jenks, the smaller one, uncovering a sallow, hollow-cheeked face.

Lieutenant Wofforth sat up, supporting himself on his sound arm. "How
long have I been out?"

"Maybe forty hours, sir. Delirious. Corbett and me did the best we
could. Take it easy, sir," he said as Wofforth began to get up. "Lie
back. We've done what Emergency Plan Six says--bolted a sled together
and coupled on a sound engine unit for power."

"Quite a haul back to base," said Wofforth, almost cheerfully. His
eyes were bright, as though he savored the idea. "About halfway around
Pluto. We'd better start now, or they'll get tired of waiting."

"They've gone, sir," Corbett growled before Jenks could gesture him to
silence. He was beefy, slit-eyed. "We saw the jets going sunward this
morning."

Wofforth winced. "Gone," he said. "That's right. I didn't stop to
think. You said forty hours.... They couldn't wait that long. We're
past opposition already, getting farther away all the time. They had to
go, or they wouldn't have made it."

He stood up uncertainly and reached for his ripped tunic. Corbett
stepped over and helped him slide his uninjured arm into the right
sleeve, then to fasten and drape the tunic over his splinted left arm
and shoulder.

"We'll just have to get back to Base Camp and wait," said Wofforth
grimly.

"Sir," said Jenks, "our radio is gone. I tried to patch it up, but it
was gone. When they didn't get a signal, they must have thought--"

"Nonsense!" Wofforth broke in. "They'll have left us supplies. They
couldn't wait, signal or none. Our job is to get back, and stick it out
there until they come for us."

He sat at the control and began to write in the log book. Corbett and
Jenks drifted together at the other end of the room.

"You meat-head," snarled Jenks under his breath. "You knew he took the
berth to Pluto because the first mate was a lady--Lya Stromminger."

"He had to know they were gone," protested Corbett, equally fierce.

"Not flat like you gave it. He came here to be with her. Now she's
jetted away without him. How does a man feel when a woman's done that--"

"Stop blathering, you two, and help me into my suit," called Wofforth,
rising again. "We're going to rev up that sled engine and get out of
here!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Outside, the sled lay ready under the frigid sky. Wofforth tramped
around it, leaned over and poked the load.

"Too much," said his voice in their radios. "Keep the synthesizer, the
tent, these two ration boxes. Wait, keep the crowbar and the hatchet.
Dump the rest."

"We travel that light, sir?" said Jenks doubtfully.

"I've been figuring," said Wofforth. "We're on the far side of Pluto
from Base Camp. That makes ten thousand miles, more or less. Pluto's
day is nineteen hours and a minute or so, Earth time. We can travel
only by what they humorously call daylight. And we'd better get there
in ten days--a thousand miles every nine and a half hours--or maybe we
won't get there at all."

"How's that, sir?" asked Corbett.

"The heaters in these suits," Wofforth reminded him. "Two hundred and
forty hours of efficiency, and that's all. Well, it's noon. Let's take
off."

His voice shook. He was still weak. Jenks helped him sit on the two
lashed ration boxes, and slung a mooring strap across his knees. Then
Jenks took the steering boom, and Corbett bent to start the engine.

When the arclight sun set in the west, they had traveled more than four
hours over country not too rugged to slow them much. Darkness closed
in fast while Jenks and Corbett pitched the pyramidal tent of metal
foil and clamped it down solidly. They spread and zipped in the ground
fabric, set up lights and heater inside, and began to pipe in thawed
gases from the drifts outside.

After their scanty meal, Corbett and Jenks sought their bedstrips,
on opposite sides of the tent. Wofforth tended the atomic heater for
minutes, until the sound of deep breathing told him that his companions
were asleep.

Then he put on his spacesuit, clumsy with his single hand to close
seams. He picked up sextant and telescope, and slipped out into the
Plutonian night.

It was as utterly black as the bottom of a pond of ink. But above
Wofforth shone the faithful stars, in the constellations mapped by the
first star-gazers of long ago. He made observations, checked for time
and position. He chuckled inside his helmet, as though congratulating
himself. Back in the tent, he opened the log book and wrote:

    _First day: Course due west. Run 410 mi. To go 9590 mi. approx.
    Supplies adeq. Spirits good._

Wriggling out of his space gear, he lay down, asleep almost before his
weary limbs relaxed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Everyone was awake before dawn. They made coffee on the heater, and
broke out protein biscuits for breakfast.

As the tiny sun winked into view over the horizon, they loaded the
sled. Corbett slouched toward the idling engine at the tail of the sled.

"No, get on amidships," said Wofforth. "I'll take over engine."

"My job--" began Corbett.

"You're relieved. Strap yourself on the ration boxes. That's right.
Jenks, steer again. Make for the level ahead."

With his right hand Wofforth ran a length of pliable cable around his
waist and through a ring-bolt on the decking. He touched the engine
controls, and they pulled away from camp.

The sled coursed over great knoll-like swellings of the terrain, coated
with the dull-pale frozen atmosphere. Beyond, it gained speed on a vast
flat plain, almost as smooth as a desert of glass.

"What's this big rink. Lieutenant?" asked Jenks.

"Maybe a sea, or maybe just a sunken area, full of solid gases. Stand
by the helm, I'm going to gun a few more M. P. H. out of her."

"No wind," grunted Corbett. "Nothing moving except us. The floor of
hell."

"If you was in hell, the rest of us would be better off," said Jenks
sourly.

Wofforth began to sing, though he did not feel like it:

    _Trim your nails and scrape your face,
    They're all on the Other Side of space!
    Tokyo--Baltimore, Maryland--
    Hong Kong--Paris--Samarkand--
    Tokyo--London--Troy--Fort Worth--
    The happy towns of the Planet Earth...._

At camp that night he wrote in the log book:

    _Second Day: Course due west. Run 1014 mi. To go 8576 mi. approx.
    Supplies adeq. Spirits fair...._


"What's for supper?" bawled Corbett, entering. "I could eat a horse."

"That'd be cannibalism," said Jenks at once.

"Yah, you splinter! Don't eat any lizards, then."

_Spirits good_, Wofforth corrected his entry, and closed the log book.
He thought of Lya Stromminger. She was a most efficient officer. Her
hair was black as night on Pluto, and her eyes as bright as the faraway
sun.

       *       *       *       *       *

Wofforth wrote in his log book:

    _Fifth day: Course north, west, then southwest. Curving thru
    mountainous territory. Run 1066 mi. but direct progress toward base
    camp not exceeding 950. To go, 6260 mi. approx. Supplies short.
    Spirits fair._

He wrote in his log book:

    _Seventh day: Course west, southwest, west, northwest, west. Run
    1108 mi. To go 4090 mi. approx. Supplies low. Spirits fair._

He wrote in his log book:

    _Ninth day: Course northwest by west, west. Run 1108 mi. To go 2030
    mi. approx. Supplies low. Spirits low...._

"Lieutenant," said Jenks from across the tent, as Wofforth closed the
book.

"Well?"

"We know you're in command. This party and all of Pluto. But we ask
permission to state our case."

"What case is your case?" demanded Wofforth, rising. "I'm doing my best
to get you back to Base Camp."

"Sure," said Corbett. "Sure. But why Base Camp?"

"You know why."

"That's right, we know why," agreed Jenks, and Corbett grinned in his
ten days' tussock of beard.

"They'll have left supplies for us," Wofforth went on. "Shelter and
food and fuel and instruments. They'll expect us to reach Base Camp and
hold it down for the next attempt to reach Pluto."

"We know why," repeated Jenks. "And that's not why, lieutenant. Let me
talk, sir. It's a dead man talking."

"You won't die," snapped Wofforth. "I'll get you both there alive."

He stepped to where, in one corner, he had managed a bath--a hollow in
the frozen ground, lined by pushing the floor fabric into it. From the
heater he ran tepid, clean water into it. He clipped a mirror to the
tent foil, searched out an automatic razor, and began to shave his own
dark young thatch of beard.

"You're proving my point, lieutenant," said Jenks. "Policing up your
face to look pretty."

"Why not?" growled Wofforth, mowing another swath of whiskers.

"No reason why not. Ten, twenty years from now they'll find your
body--whenever the inner orbits get to where they can boom off another
expedition. You'll look young and clean-shaved. You know who'll weep."

Wofforth lowered the razor in his good hand and glared at the two. They
grinned in the bright light opposite him. They looked as if they hoped
he'd see the joke.

"I said it's a dying man that's talking," said Jenks again. "Won't you
let me say my dying say, lieutenant? Let's all die honest."

"I'm going to get you there," Wofforth insisted.

"Ah, now," said Corbett, as though persuading a naughty child. "You
think they've left twenty years' worth of supplies to keep us going?
The ship didn't carry that much, even if they left it all." He grinned
mirthlessly. "I can figure what you're figuring, lieutenant," he went
on, with a touch of Jenks' sly manner. "You die, young and brave.
You'll shave up again before you lie down and let go. And when the
next shipload arrives there'll be you, lying like a statue of your
good-looking young self, frozen stiff. Am I right?"

Corbett was right, Wofforth admitted to himself. The man was more than
a great meaty lump, after all, to see another man's unspoken thought so
clearly.

"Then," Jenks took it up, "First Mate Lya Stromminger will have a look.
She may command the new expedition. She'll be promoted away up to
Admiral or higher--twenty years of brilliant service--gone gray around
the edges, but still a lovely lady. There you'll lie before her eyes,
young and brave as you was when she deserted you. She'll cry, won't
she? And hot tears can't thaw you out or wake you up--"

"Shut your heads, both of you!" shouted Wofforth, so fierce and loud
that the foil tent wall vibrated as with a gale in the airless night.

But they had guessed true. He'd wanted to be found at Base Camp. He'd
wanted Lya Stromminger to know, some day, that she'd blasted off and
left behind the man most worthy of all men on all worlds....

"Everybody takes a hot bath tonight," said Wofforth. "We'll all sleep
better for it. Tomorrow's our last day on the trail."

"To do two thousand miles?" said Jenks.

"To do all of that. The expedition mapped an area at least that wide
around Base Camp, and it's slick and smooth. We can almost slide in."

"All slick and smooth but just this side of Base Camp, lieutenant,"
said Jenks.

"How do you mean?"

"That string of craters. Don't you remember? It's just this side--east
of Base Camp. This sled'll never go over that, sir."

"Nor around," Corbett put in. "We'd have to detour maybe three thousand
miles. And the heaters in our suits won't last."

"I know about the craters," said Wofforth. "Well take care of them when
we reach them."

Stripping, he lowered his body into the makeshift tub and began to
scrub himself one-handed.

       *       *       *       *       *

He wakened in the morning to the sound of furious argument.

Corbett and Jenks, of course. A trifle--division of the breakfast
ration, or of the breakfast chores--had set off their nerves like
trains of explosive. Even as Wofforth rose from his bedstrip, Corbett
swung a cobble-like fist at Jenks' gaunt, grimacing face. The nimbler,
smaller man ducked and sidled away. Corbett took a lumbering step to
close in on his enemy, and Jenks darted a hand to his belt behind, then
brought it forward again with an electro-automatic pistol.

"I've been keeping this for you!" Jenks shrilled. "I'll just diminish
the population of Pluto by thirty-three and one-third percent!"

"Hold it!" bellowed Wofforth.

He was too late. A stream of bullets chattered through Corbett's body,
folding him over and ripping through the paper-thin wall of the tent.
Air whistled out; the tent began to collapse.

Jenks, pinned under Corbett's body, was squealing like a pig.
"Lieutenant, help me--!"

Wofforth saw in an instant that the wall could not be patched in time;
the bullets had torn loose an irregular strip, pressure had done the
rest: even now, the tent was only a few seconds away from complete
collapse. As he stumbled across the floor toward the spacesuits, his
heart was laboring and his chest straining for breath. Spots swam in
front of his eyes. He found the topmost spacesuit by touch, and fumbled
for the helmet. The tent drifted down on his head in soft, murderous
folds. He opened the valve, shoved his face into the helmet, and gulped
precious oxygen. His dulled awareness brightened again, momentarily;
but he knew he was still a dead man unless he could get into the suit
before pressure fell completely. Numbed fingers plucked at the suit
opening. Somehow he got the awkward garment over his legs, closed and
locked the torso, pulled down the helmet....

He was lying in darkness, with a low, steady hiss of oxygen in his
ears. He rolled over weakly, got to his feet. He turned on his helmet
light. He was propping up a gray cave of metal foil, that fell in
stiff creases all around him. At his feet were the bodies of Jenks and
Corbett. Both were dead.

After a while, clumsily, painfully, he dragged the two corpses free of
the tent. He found the heater and thawed a hole in the frozen surface,
big enough for both. He tumbled them in, then undercut the edges of the
hole with the heater, so that chunks fell in and covered them. While
he watched, the cloud of vapor he had made began to settle, slowly
congealing on the broken surface and blurring it over again. In a
year, there would be no mark here to show that the surface had been
disturbed. In a thousand years, it would still be the same.

In the first ray of dawn he flung all supplies from the sled except the
fuel containers. He checked the engine, and started it.

Into his belt-bag he thrust the log book. Nothing else went aboard the
sled--no food, no water container, no tools, instruments or oxygen
tanks. The tent he left lying there, with all that had been carried
inside the night before.

As the sun rose clear of the distant rim of the plain to eastward, he
rigged a line to the steering boom, then lashed himself securely within
reach of the engine. Steering by the taut line, he started westward,
slowly at first, then faster. It was as he had hoped. The lightened
sled attained and held a greater speed than on any previous day.

"I'll make it," he said aloud, with nobody else to listen on all Pluto.
"I'll make it!"

Faster he urged the engine's rhythm, and faster. He clocked its speed
by the indicators on the housing. A hundred and fifty miles an hour. A
hundred and sixty; not enough. Whipping the boom line tight around his
waist to hold his course steady, he sighted between the upcurve of the
runner forward. There was level, smooth-frozen country, mile upon mile.
He speeded up to one hundred and seventy-five miles an hour. More. The
sled hummed at every joining.

At noon, he had done a good thousand miles. At mid-afternoon, sixteen
hundred. Two and a half hours of visibility left, and more than four
hundred miles to go.

"I can do those on my head," muttered Wofforth to himself, and then,
far in the distance, the flat rim of the horizon was flat no longer.

It had sprung up jagged, full of points and bulges. Speeding toward it,
he steered by the line around his waist while he cut his engine. He
came close at fifty miles an hour, almost a crawl.

Some ancient volcanic action had thrown up those mountains, like a rank
of close-drawn sentries. The sled could not cross them anywhere. Still
reducing speed, Wofforth drew close to a notch, but the notch gave into
a crater, a great shallow saucer two miles in diameter and filled with
shadows below, so that Wofforth could not gauge its depth. Opposite,
another notch--perhaps once the crater had been a lake, with water
running in and out. If he had come there at noon, he could have seen
the bottom, and perhaps--

"But it isn't noon." Wofforth was talking to himself again. His voice
sounded thin and petulant in his own ears. "By noon tomorrow, the heat
will be out of this suit."

He stopped the sled, unlashed himself and trudged to the notch. He
stood in it, looking down, then across.

The little bright jewel of the sun, sagging toward the horizon, showed
him the upper reaches of the crater's interior, pitched at an angle of
perhaps fifty degrees.

Even if it had been noon, it would have been no use. The sled could
never climb a slope like that.

Then he looked again, this way and that. He nodded inside his helmet.

He might as well try.

Returning to the sled, he started the engine and lashed himself fast
again. He steered away from the crater, and around. He made a great
looping journey of twenty miles or so across the plain, building speed
all the time.

As he rounded the rear curve of his course, he was driving along at two
hundred and sixty miles an hour, and he had to apply pressure to the
boom with both hand and knees to point the sled back straight for the
notch. Straightening his humming vehicle into a headlong course, he
leaned forward and sighted between the upcurved runners.

"Now!" he urged himself, and watched the break in the crater wall rush
toward him.

It greatened, yawned. He leaped through, and with a groaning gasp of
prayer he dragged the boom over to steer the sled right.

       *       *       *       *       *

It worked, as he had not dared hope. The runners bounced, bit. Then he
was racing around the inside of the great cup's rim, like a hurtling
bubble on the inner surface of a whirlpool's funnel. Two miles across,
three miles and more on the half diameter--the engine laboring up to
three hundred miles an hour, centrifugal force holding it there--

Little more than thirty seconds raced by when he knew he had won. He
saw the far notch growing near. He came to it in a last booming rush,
and hurled his whole weight against the boom to face the runners into
the notch.

Under the low-dropping sun, he and his sled shot into open country
beyond the range.

His right arm felt dead from shoulder to fingertip. His head roared
and drummed with the racing of his blood. His face had tired spots in
it, where muscles he had never used before had locked into an agonized
grimace.

On he sped, straight west, gasping and gurgling and mumbling in crazy
triumph.

An hour, an anticlimactic hour wherein the sled almost steered itself
over the smoothest of plain, and up ahead he spied the black outline of
Base Camp.

It was a sprawling, low structure, prefabricated metal and plastic and
insulation, black outside to gather what heat might come from outer
space. It held aloof on the dull frozen plain from the irregular stain
where the expedition ship had braked off with one set of rockets and
had soared away with another set. Larger, more familiar, grew Base Camp
with each second of approach. Shakily Wofforth cut his engine, slowed
from high speed to medium, to a hundred miles an hour, to sixty, to
fifty. He made a final circle around Base Camp, and let it coast in
with the engine off, to within twenty yards of the main lock panel.

He got up, on legs that shook inside his boots. He felt his heart
still racing, his head still ringing. He sighed once, and walked
close, his gauntlet fumbling at the release button on the lock panel.

But the button did not respond.

"Jammed," he said. "No--locked."

He couldn't get in. He had reached Base Camp, but he could not get in.
They hadn't counted on his return. They'd gone off and left Base Camp
locked up.

He sagged against the lock panel, and cursed once, with an utter and
furious resignation.

He felt himself slipping. He was going to faint. His legs would not
hold him up. He was slipping forward--seemed to be sinking into the
massive and unyielding outer surface of Base Camp. It was a dream. Or
it was death.

He did not lose all hold on his awareness. He had a sense of lying at
full length, and blinding light flashes that made his eyelids jump. And
a tug somewhere, as though his helmet was coming off. He would have put
out a hand to see, but his left arm was broken, and his right arm limp
from weariness.

"You're back," said a voice he knew, a voice strained with wonder. "You
managed. I knew you would."

"Now," said Wofforth, "I know it's a dream. We dream after we die."

A hand was cupped behind his neck, lifting him to a sitting position.
He felt warm fluid at his lips. "It's no dream," said the voice
beseechingly. "Look at me."

"I don't dare. The dream will go away."

But he opened his eyes and looked at her hair like Plutonian night, her
eyes like bright stars. "Lya," he said. "I'm going to call you Lya."

"Please call me Lya."

"I'd be bound to dream about you. I've dreamed about you so much....
_Owww!_"

He got his right hand up to cherish his tingling cheek.

"So you felt that," she said. "Now you know you're awake. Or must I
slap you again?"

"I'm sorry, Madame."

"You called me Lya. Can you stand up? I'll help you."

She helped him. He stood up, there in the admission chamber of Base
Camp. Lya Stromminger was smiling, and she was crying, too.

"You didn't go away," he said. "You're still here." The weight of his
odyssey, half around Pluto, was beginning to stagger him.

"No, I stayed. I knew you'd come back. I knew Pluto couldn't kill you
or keep you from coming back."

He drank more from the cup she held to his lips.

"We'll wait together for them to come with the next expedition," she
promised him.

"Twenty years? Supplies--"

"There'll be plenty. Don't you know about Pluto? Didn't those craters,
those old volcanoes, tell you?"

Thinking of how he had crossed the crater, Wofforth shuddered.

"Pluto is colder than anybody even guessed--outside. But inside are
the internal fires--like all the solid planets. We made our tests and
we can tap them. I kept the instruments for that. It means we'll have
power, and can make our synthetic foods and so on for as long as we
need them. You and I are the inhabitants here--"

He stumbled to a chair and sat. "Twenty years--" he said.

Her arm was still around him. Her hair brushed his cheek. "It won't be
long. We have so much to say to each other."





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