Hal Clement

Hot Planet

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 Scholssberg 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, Kneed 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 Rawson smiled. “You researchers told me where to land after ten days in orbit mapping this rock-ball. 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 secondhand 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 homemade 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

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