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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.
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