JAMES BARON was not pleased to hear that he had had a visitor when he reached the Red Lion that evening. He had no stomach for mysteries, vast or trifling, and there were pressing things to think about at this time. Yet the doorman had flagged him as he came in from the street: “A thousand pardons, Mr. Baron. The gentleman—he would leave no name. He said you’d want to see him. He will be back by eight.”
Now Baron drummed his fingers on the table top, staring about the quiet lounge. Street trade was discouraged at the Red Lion, gently but persuasively; the patrons were few in number. Across to the right was a group that Baron knew vaguely—Andean climbers, or at least two of them were. Over near the door he recognized old Balmer, who had mapped the first passage to the core of Vulcan Crater on Venus. Baron returned his smile with a nod. Then he settled back and waited impatiently for the intruder who demanded his time without justifying it.
Presently a small, grizzled man crossed the room and sat down at Baron’s table. He was short and wiry. His face held no key to his age—he might have been thirty or a thousand—but he looked weary and immensely ugly. His cheeks and forehead were twisted and brown, with scars that were still healing.
The stranger said, “I’m glad you waited. I’ve heard you’re planning to attempt the Brightside.”
Baron stared at the man for a moment. “I see you can read telecasts,” he said coldly. “The news was correct. We are going to make a Brightside Crossing.”
“Of course. When else?”
The grizzled man searched Baron’s face for a moment without expression. Then he said slowly, “No, I’m afraid you’re not going to make the Crossing.”
“Say, who are you, if you don’t mind?” Baron demanded.
“The name is Claney,” said the stranger.
There was a silence. Then: “Claney? Peter Claney?”
Baron’s eyes were wide with excitement, all trace of anger gone. “Great balls of fire, man—where have you been hiding? We’ve been trying to contact you for months!”
“I know. I was hoping you’d quit looking and chuck the whole idea.”
“Quit looking!” Baron bent forward over the table. “My friend, we’d given up hope, but we’ve never quit looking. Here, have a drink. There’s so much you can tell us.” His fingers were trembling.
Peter Claney shook his head. “I can’t tell you anything you want to hear.”
“But you’ve got to. You’re the only man on Earth who’s attempted a Brightside Crossing and lived through it! And the story you cleared for the news—it was nothing. We need details. Where did your equipment fall down? Where did you miscalculate? What were the trouble spots?” Baron jabbed a finger at Claney’s face. “That, for instance—epithelioma? Why? What was wrong with your glass? Your filters? We’ve got to know those things. If you can tell us, we can make it across where your attempt failed—”
“You want to know why we failed?” asked Claney.
“Of course we want to know. We have to know.”
“It’s simple. We failed because it can’t be done. We couldn’t do it and neither can you. No human beings will ever cross the Brightside alive, not if they try for centuries.”
“Nonsense,” Baron declared. “We will.”
Claney shrugged. “I was there. I know what I’m saying. You can blame the equipment or the men—there were flaws in both quarters—but we just didn’t know what we were fighting. It was the planet that whipped us, that and the Sun. They’ll whip you, too, if you try it.”
“Never,” said Baron.
“Let me tell you,” Peter Claney said.
I’d been interested in the Brightside for almost as long as I can remember (Claney said). I guess I was about ten when Wyatt and Carpenter made the last attempt—that was in 2082, I think. I followed the news stories like a tri-V serial and then I was heartbroken when they just disappeared.
I know now that they were a pair of idiots, starting off without proper equipment, with practically no knowledge of surface conditions, without any charts—they couldn’t have made a hundred miles—but I didn’t know that then and it was a terrible tragedy. After that, I followed Sanderson’s work in the Twilight Lab up there and began to get Brightside into my blood, sure as death.
But it was Mikuta’s idea to attempt a Crossing. Did you ever know Tom Mikuta? I don’t suppose you did. No, not Japanese—Polish-American. He was a major in the Interplanetary Service for some years and hung onto the title after he gave up his commission.
He was with Armstrong on Mars during his Service days, did a good deal of the original mapping and surveying for the Colony there. I first met him on Venus; we spent five years together up there doing some of the nastiest exploring since the Matto Grasso. Then he made the attempt on Vulcan Crater that paved the way for Balmer a few years later.
I’d always liked the Major—he was big and quiet and cool, the sort of guy who always had things figured a little further ahead than anyone else and always knew what to do in a tight place. Too many men in this game are all nerve and luck, with no judgment. The Major had both. He also had the kind of personality that could take a crew of wild men and make them work like a well-oiled machine across a thousand miles of Venus jungle. I liked him and I trusted him.
He contacted me in New York and he was very casual at first. We spent an evening here at the Red Lion, talking about old times; he told me about the Vulcan business, and how he’d been out to see Sanderson and the Twilight Lab on Mercury, and how he preferred a hot trek to a cold one any day of the year—and then he wanted to know what I’d been doing since Venus and what my plans were.
“No particular plans,” I told him. “Why?”
He looked me over. “How much do you weigh, Peter?”
I told him one-thirty-five.
“That much!” he said. “Well, there can’t be much fat on you, at any rate. How do you take heat?”
“You should know,” I said. “Venus was no icebox.”
“No, I mean real heat.”
Then I began to get it. “You’re planning a trip.”
“That’s right. A hot trip.” He grinned at me. “Might be dangerous, too.”
“Brightside of Mercury,” the Major said.
I whistled cautiously. “At aphelion?”
He threw his head back. “Why try a Crossing at aphelion? What have you done then? Four thousand miles of butcherous heat, just to have some joker come along, use your data and drum you out of the glory by crossing at perihelion forty-four days later? No, thanks. I want the Brightside without any nonsense about it.” He leaned across me eagerly. “I want to make a Crossing at perihelion and I want to cross on the surface. If a man can do that, he’s got Mercury. Until then, nobody’s got Mercury. I want Mercury—but I’ll need help getting it.”
I’d thought of it a thousand times and never dared consider it. Nobody had, since Wyatt and Carpenter disappeared. Mercury turns on its axis in the same time that it wheels around the Sun, which means that the Brightside is always facing in. That makes the Brightside of Mercury at perihelion the hottest place in the Solar System, with one single exception: the surface of the Sun itself.
It would be a hellish trek. Only a few men had ever learned just how hellish and they never came back to tell about it. It was a real hell’s Crossing, but someday, I thought, somebody would cross it.
I wanted to be along.
The Twilight Lab, near the northern pole of Mercury, was the obvious jumping-off place. The setup there wasn’t very extensive—a rocket landing, the labs and quarters for Sanderson’s crew sunk deep into the crust, and the tower that housed the Solar ’scope that Sanderson had built up there ten years before.
Twilight Lab wasn’t particularly interested in the Brightside, of course—the Sun was Sanderson’s baby and he’d picked Mercury as the closest chunk of rock to the Sun that could hold his observatory. He’d chosen a good location, too. On Mercury, the Brightside temperature hits 770° F. at perihelion and the Darkside runs pretty constant at -410° F. No permanent installation with a human crew could survive at either extreme. But with Mercury’s wobble, the twilight zone between Brightside and Darkside offers something closer to survival temperatures.
Sanderson built the Lab up near the pole, where the zone is about five miles wide, so the temperature only varies 50 to 60 degrees with the libration. The Solar ’scope could take that much change and they’d get good clear observation of the Sun for about seventy out of the eighty-eight days it takes the planet to wheel around.
The Major was counting on Sanderson knowing something about Mercury as well as the Sun when we camped at the Lab to make final preparations.
Sanderson did. He thought we’d lost our minds and he said so, but he gave us all the help he could. He spent a week briefing Jack Stone, the third member of our party, who had arrived with the supplies and equipment a few days earlier. Poor Jack met us at the rocket landing almost bawling, Sanderson had given him such a gloomy picture of what Brightside was like.
Stone was a youngster—hardly twenty-five, I’d say—but he’d been with the Major at Vulcan and had begged to join this trek. I had a funny feeling that Jack really didn’t care for exploring too much, but he thought Mikuta was God, followed him around like a puppy.
It didn’t matter to me as long as he knew what he was getting in for. You don’t go asking people in this game why they do it—they’re liable to get awfully uneasy and none of them can ever give you an answer that makes sense. Anyway, Stone had borrowed three men from the Lab, and had the supplies and equipment all lined up when we got there, ready to check and test.
We dug right in. With plenty of funds—tri-V money and some government cash the Major had talked his way around—our equipment was new and good. Mikuta had done the designing and testing himself, with a big assist from Sanderson. We had four Bugs, three of them the light pillow-tire models, with special lead-cooled cut-in engines when the heat set in, and one heavy-duty tractor model for pulling the sledges.
The Major went over them like a kid at the circus. Then he said, “Have you heard anything from McIvers?”
“Who’s he?” Stone wanted to know.
“He’ll be joining us. He’s a good man—got quite a name for climbing, back home.” The Major turned to me. “You’ve probably heard of him.”
I’d heard plenty of stories about Ted McIvers and I wasn’t too happy to hear that he was joining us. “Kind of a daredevil, isn’t he?”
“Maybe. He’s lucky and skillful. Where do you draw the line? We’ll need plenty of both.”
“Have you ever worked with him?” I asked.
“No. Are you worried?”
“Not exactly. But Brightside is no place to count on luck.”
The Major laughed. “I don’t think we need to worry about McIvers. We understood each other when I talked up the trip to him and we’re going to need each other too much to do any fooling around.” He turned back to the supply list. “Meanwhile, let’s get this stuff listed and packed. We’ll need to cut weight sharply and our time is short. Sanderson says we should leave in three days.”
Two days later, McIvers hadn’t arrived. The Major didn’t say much about it. Stone was getting edgy and so was I. We spent the second day studying charts of the Brightside, such as they were. The best available were pretty poor, taken from so far out that the detail dissolved into blurs on blow-up. They showed the biggest ranges of peaks and craters and faults, and that was all. Still, we could use them to plan a broad outline of our course.
“This range here,” the Major said as we crowded around the board, “is largely inactive, according to Sanderson. But these to the south and west could be active. Seismograph tracings suggest a lot of activity in that region, getting worse down toward the equator—not only volcanic, but sub-surface shifting.”
Stone nodded. “Sanderson told me there was probably constant surface activity.”
The Major shrugged. “Well, it’s treacherous, there’s no doubt of it. But the only way to avoid it is to travel over the Pole, which would lose us days and offer us no guarantee of less activity to the west. Now we might avoid some if we could find a pass through this range and cut sharp east—”
It seemed that the more we considered the problem, the further we got from a solution. We knew there were active volcanoes on the Brightside—even on the Darkside, though surface activity there was pretty much slowed down and localized.
But there were problems of atmosphere on Brightside, as well. There was an atmosphere and a constant atmospheric flow from Brightside to Darkside. Not much—the lighter gases had reached escape velocity and disappeared from Brightside millennia ago—but there was CO2, and nitrogen, and traces of other heavier gases. There was also an abundance of sulfur vapor, as well as carbon disulfide and sulfur dioxide.
The atmospheric tide moved toward the Darkside, where it condensed, carrying enough volcanic ash with it for Sanderson to estimate the depth and nature of the surface upheavals on Brightside from his samplings. The trick was to find a passage that avoided those upheavals as far as possible. But in the final analysis, we were barely scraping the surface. The only way we would find out what was happening where was to be there.
Finally, on the third day, McIvers blew in on a freight rocket from Venus. He’d missed the ship that the Major and I had taken by a few hours, and had conned his way to Venus in hopes of getting a hop from there. He didn’t seem too upset about it, as though this were his usual way of doing things and he couldn’t see why everyone should get so excited.
He was a tall, rangy man with long, wavy hair prematurely gray, and the sort of eyes that looked like a climber’s—half-closed, sleepy, almost indolent, but capable of abrupt alertness. And he never stood still; he was always moving, always doing something with his hands, or talking, or pacing about.
Evidently the Major decided not to press the issue of his arrival. There was still work to do, and an hour later we were running the final tests on the pressure suits. That evening, Stone and McIvers were thick as thieves, and everything was set for an early departure after we got some rest.
“And that,” said Baron, finishing his drink and signaling the waiter for another pair, “was your first big mistake.”
Peter Claney raised his eyebrows. “McIvers?”
Claney shrugged, glanced at the small quiet tables around them. “There are lots of bizarre personalities around a place like this, and some of the best wouldn’t seem to be the most reliable at first glance. Anyway, personality problems weren’t our big problem right then. Equipment worried us first and route next.”
Baron nodded in agreement. “What kind of suits did you have?”
“The best insulating suits ever made,” said Claney. “Each one had an inner lining of a fiberglass modification, to avoid the clumsiness of asbestos, and carried the refrigerating unit and oxygen storage which we recharged from the sledges every eight hours. Outer layer carried a monomolecular chrome reflecting surface that made us glitter like Christmas trees. And we had a half-inch dead-air space under positive pressure between the two layers. Warning thermocouples, of course—at 770 degrees, it wouldn’t take much time to fry us to cinders if the suits failed somewhere.”
“How about the Bugs?”
“They were insulated, too, but we weren’t counting on them too much for protection.”
“You weren’t!” Baron exclaimed. “Why not?”
“We’d be in and out of them too much. They gave us mobility and storage, but we knew we’d have to do a lot of forward work on foot.” Claney smiled bitterly. “Which meant that we had an inch of fiberglass and a half-inch of dead air between us and a surface temperature where lead flowed like water and zinc was almost at melting point and the pools of sulfur in the shadows were boiling like oatmeal over a campfire.”
Baron licked his lips. His fingers stroked the cool, wet glass as he set it down on the tablecloth.
“Go on,” he said tautly. “You started on schedule?”
“Oh, yes,” said Claney, “we started on schedule, all right. We just didn’t quite end on schedule, that was all. But I’m getting to that.”
He settled back in his chair and continued.
We jumped off from Twilight on a course due southeast with thirty days to make it to the Center of Brightside. If we could cross an average of seventy miles a day, we could hit Center exactly at perihelion, the point of Mercury’s closest approach to the Sun—which made Center the hottest part of the planet at the hottest it ever gets.
The Sun was already huge and yellow over the horizon when we started, twice the size it appears on Earth. Every day that Sun would grow bigger and whiter, and every day the surface would get hotter. But once we reached Center, the job was only half done—we would still have to travel another two thousand miles to the opposite twilight zone. Sanderson was to meet us on the other side in the Laboratory’s scout ship, approximately sixty days from the time we jumped off.
That was the plan, in outline. It was up to us to cross those seventy miles a day, no matter how hot it became, no matter what terrain we had to cross. Detours would be dangerous and time-consuming. Delays could cost us our lives. We all knew that.
The Major briefed us on details an hour before we left. “Peter, you’ll take the lead Bug, the small one we stripped down for you. Stone and I will flank you on either side, giving you a hundred-yard lead. McIvers, you’ll have the job of dragging the sledges, so we’ll have to direct your course pretty closely. Peter’s job is to pick the passage at any given point. If there’s any doubt of safe passage, we’ll all explore ahead on foot before we risk the Bugs. Got that?”
McIvers and Stone exchanged glances. McIvers said: “Jack and I were planning to change around. We figured he could take the sledges. That would give me a little more mobility.”
The Major looked up sharply at Stone. “Do you buy that, Jack?”
Stone shrugged. “I don’t mind. Mac wanted—”
McIvers made an impatient gesture with his hands. “It doesn’t matter. I just feel better when I’m on the move. Does it make any difference?”
“I guess it doesn’t,” said the Major. “Then you’ll flank Peter along with me. Right?”
“Sure, sure.” McIvers pulled at his lower lip. “Who’s going to do the advance scouting?”
“It sounds like I am,” I cut in. “We want to keep the lead Bug light as possible.”
Mikuta nodded. “That’s right. Peter’s Bug is stripped down to the frame and wheels.”
McIvers shook his head. “No, I mean the advance work. You need somebody out ahead—four or five miles, at least—to pick up the big flaws and active surface changes, don’t you?” He stared at the Major. “I mean, how can we tell what sort of a hole we may be moving into, unless we have a scout up ahead?”
“That’s what we have the charts for,” the Major said sharply.
“Charts! I’m talking about detail work. We don’t need to worry about the major topography. It’s the little faults you can’t see on the pictures that can kill us.” He tossed the charts down excitedly. “Look, let me take a Bug out ahead and work reconnaissance, keep five, maybe ten miles ahead of the column. I can stay on good solid ground, of course, but scan the area closely and radio back to Peter where to avoid the flaws. Then—”
“No dice,” the Major broke in.
“But why not? We could save ourselves days!”
“I don’t care what we could save. We stay together. When we get to the Center, I want live men along with me. That means we stay within easy sight of each other at all times. Any climber knows that everybody is safer in a party than one man alone—any time, any place.”
McIvers stared at him, his cheeks an angry red. Finally he gave a sullen nod. “Okay. If you say so.”
“Well, I say so and I mean it. I don’t want any fancy stuff. We’re going to hit Center together, and finish the Crossing together. Got that?”
McIvers nodded. Mikuta then looked at Stone and me and we nodded, too.
“All right,” he said slowly. “Now that we’ve got it straight, let’s go.”
It was hot. If I forget everything else about that trek, I’ll never forget that huge yellow Sun glaring down, without a break, hotter and hotter with every mile. We knew that the first few days would be the easiest and we were rested and fresh when we started down the long ragged gorge southeast of the Twilight Lab.
I moved out first; back over my shoulder, I could see the Major and McIvers crawling out behind me, their pillow tires taking the rugged floor of the gorge smoothly. Behind them, Stone dragged the sledges.
Even at only 30 per cent Earth gravity they were a strain on the big tractor, until the ski-blades bit into the fluffy volcanic ash blanketing the valley. We even had a path to follow for the first twenty miles.
I kept my eyes pasted to the big polaroid binocs, picking out the track the early research teams had made out into the edge of Brightside. But in a couple of hours we rumbled past Sanderson’s little outpost observatory and the tracks stopped. We were in virgin territory and already the Sun was beginning to bite.
We didn’t feel the heat so much those first days out. We saw it. The refrig units kept our skins at a nice comfortable seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit inside our suits, but our eyes watched that glaring Sun and the baked yellow rocks going past, and some nerve pathways got twisted up, somehow. We poured sweat as if we were in a superheated furnace.
We drove eight hours and slept five. When a sleep period came due, we pulled the Bugs together into a square, threw up a light aluminum sun-shield and lay out in the dust and rocks. The sun-shield cut the temperature down sixty or seventy degrees, for whatever help that was. And then we ate from the forward sledge—sucking through tubes—protein, carbohydrates, bulk gelatin, vitamins.
The Major measured water out with an iron hand, because we’d have drunk ourselves into nephritis in a week otherwise. We were constantly, unceasingly thirsty. Ask the physiologists and psychiatrists why—they can give you have a dozen interesting reasons—but all we knew, or cared about, was that it happened to be so.
We didn’t sleep the first few stops, as a consequence. Our eyes burned in spite of the filters and we had roaring headaches, but we couldn’t sleep them off. We sat around looking at each other. Then McIvers would say how good a beer would taste, and off we’d go. We’d have murdered our grandmothers for one ice-cold bottle of beer.
After a few driving periods, I began to get my bearings at the wheel. We were moving down into desolation that made Earth’s old Death Valley look like a Japanese rose garden. Huge sun-baked cracks opened up in the floor of the gorge, with black cliffs jutting up on either side; the air was filled with a barely visible yellowish mist of sulfur and sulfurous gases.
It was a hot, barren hole, no place for any man to go, but the challenge was so powerful you could almost feel it. No one had ever crossed this land before and escaped. Those who had tried it had been cruelly punished, but the land was still there, so it had to be crossed. Not the easy way. It had to be crossed the hardest way possible: overland, through anything the land could throw up to us, at the most difficult time possible.
Yet we knew that even the land might have been conquered before, except for that Sun. We’d fought absolute cold before and won. We’d never fought heat like this and won. The only worse heat in the Solar System was the surface of the Sun itself.
Brightside was worth trying for. We would get it or it would get us. That was the bargain.
I learned a lot about Mercury those first few driving periods. The gorge petered out after a hundred miles and we moved onto the slope of a range of ragged craters that ran south and east. This range had shown no activity since the first landing on Mercury forty years before, but beyond it there were active cones. Yellow fumes rose from the craters constantly; their sides were shrouded with heavy ash.
We couldn’t detect a wind, but we knew there was a hot, sulfurous breeze sweeping in great continental tides across the face of the planet. Not enough for erosion, though. The craters rose up out of jagged gorges, huge towering spears of rock and rubble. Below were the vast yellow flatlands, smoking and hissing from the gases beneath the crust. Over everything was gray dust—silicates and salts, pumice and limestone and granite ash, filling crevices and declivities—offering a soft, treacherous surface for the Bug’s pillow tires.
I learned to read the ground, to tell a covered fault by the sag of the dust; I learned to spot a passable crack, and tell it from an impassable cut. Time after time the Bugs ground to a halt while we explored a passage on foot, tied together with light copper cable, digging, advancing, digging some more until we were sure the surface would carry the machines. It was cruel work; we slept in exhaustion. But it went smoothly, at first.
Too smoothly, it seemed to me, and the others seemed to think so, too.
McIvers’ restlessness was beginning to grate on our nerves. He talked too much, while we were resting or while we were driving; wisecracks, witticisms, unfunny jokes that wore thin with repetition. He took to making side trips from the route now and then, never far, but a little further each time.
Jack Stone reacted quite the opposite; he grew quieter with each stop, more reserved and apprehensive. I didn’t like it, but I figured that it would pass off after a while. I was apprehensive enough myself; I just managed to hide it better.
And every mile the Sun got bigger and whiter and higher in the sky and hotter. Without our ultra-violet screens and glare filters we would have been blinded; as it was our eyes ached constantly and the skin on our faces itched and tingled at the end of an eight-hour trek.
But it took one of those side trips of McIvers’ to deliver the penultimate blow to our already fraying nerves. He had driven down a side-branch of a long canyon running off west of our route and was almost out of sight in a cloud of ash when we heard a sharp cry through our earphones.
I wheeled my Bug around with my heart in my throat and spotted him through the binocs, waving frantically from the top of his machine. The Major and I took off, lumbering down the gulch after him as fast as the Bugs could go, with a thousand horrible pictures racing through our minds....
We found him standing stock-still, pointing down the gorge and, for once, he didn’t have anything to say. It was the wreck of a Bug; an old-fashioned half-track model of the sort that hadn’t been in use for years. It was wedged tight in a cut in the rock, an axle broken, its casing split wide open up the middle, half-buried in a rock slide. A dozen feet away were two insulated suits with white bones gleaming through the fiberglass helmets.
This was as far as Wyatt and Carpenter had gotten on their Brightside Crossing.
On the fifth driving period out, the terrain began to change. It looked the same, but every now and then it felt different. On two occasions I felt my wheels spin, with a howl of protest from my engine. Then, quite suddenly, the Bug gave a lurch; I gunned my motor and nothing happened.
I could see the dull gray stuff seeping up around the hubs, thick and tenacious, splattering around in steaming gobs as the wheels spun. I knew what had happened the moment the wheels gave and, a few minutes later, they chained me to the tractor and dragged me back out of the mire. It looked for all the world like thick gray mud, but it was a pit of molten lead, steaming under a soft layer of concealing ash.
I picked my way more cautiously then. We were getting into an area of recent surface activity; the surface was really treacherous. I caught myself wishing that the Major had okayed McIvers’ scheme for an advanced scout; more dangerous for the individual, maybe, but I was driving blind now and I didn’t like it.
One error in judgment could sink us all, but I wasn’t thinking much about the others. I was worried about me, plenty worried. I kept thinking, better McIvers should go than me. It wasn’t healthy thinking and I knew it, but I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind.
It was a grueling eight hours and we slept poorly. Back in the Bug again, we moved still more slowly—edging out on a broad flat plateau, dodging a network of gaping surface cracks—winding back and forth in an effort to keep the machines on solid rock. I couldn’t see far ahead, because of the yellow haze rising from the cracks, so I was almost on top of it when I saw a sharp cut ahead where the surface dropped six feet beyond a deep crack.
I let out a shout to halt the others; then I edged my Bug forward, peering at the cleft. It was deep and wide. I moved fifty yards to the left, then back to the right.
There was only one place that looked like a possible crossing; a long, narrow ledge of gray stuff that lay down across a section of the fault like a ramp. Even as I watched it, I could feel the surface crust under the Bug trembling and saw the ledge shift over a few feet.
The Major’s voice sounded in my ears. “How about it, Peter?”
“I don’t know. This crust is on roller skates,” I called back.
“How about that ledge?”
I hesitated. “I’m scared of it, Major. Let’s backtrack and try to find a way around.”
There was a roar of disgust in my earphones and McIvers’ Bug suddenly lurched forward. It rolled down past me, picked up speed, with McIvers hunched behind the wheel like a race driver. He was heading past me straight for the gray ledge.
My shout caught in my throat; I heard the Major take a huge breath and roar: “Mac! stop that thing, you fool!” and then McIvers’ Bug was out on the ledge, lumbering across like a juggernaut.
The ledge jolted as the tires struck it; for a horrible moment, it seemed to be sliding out from under the machine. And then the Bug was across in a cloud of dust, and I heard McIvers’ voice in my ears, shouting in glee. “Come on, you slowpokes. It’ll hold you!”
Something unprintable came through the earphones as the Major drew up alongside me and moved his Bug out on the ledge slowly and over to the other side. Then he said, “Take it slow, Peter. Then give Jack a hand with the sledges.” His voice sounded tight as a wire.
Ten minutes later, we were on the other side of the cleft. The Major checked the whole column; then he turned on McIvers angrily. “One more trick like that,” he said, “and I’ll strap you to a rock and leave you. Do you understand me? One more time—”
McIvers’ voice was heavy with protest. “Good Lord, if we leave it up to Claney, he’ll have us out here forever! Any blind fool could see that that ledge would hold.”
“I saw it moving,” I shot back at him.
“All right, all right, so you’ve got good eyes. Why all the fuss? We got across, didn’t we? But I say we’ve got to have a little nerve and use it once in a while if we’re ever going to get across this lousy hotbox.”
“We need to use a little judgment, too,” the Major snapped. “All right, let’s roll. But if you think I was joking, you just try me out once.” He let it soak in for a minute. Then he geared his Bug on around to my flank again.
At the stopover, the incident wasn’t mentioned again, but the Major drew me aside just as I was settling down for sleep. “Peter, I’m worried,” he said slowly.
“McIvers? Don’t worry. He’s not as reckless as he seems—just impatient. We are over a hundred miles behind schedule and we’re moving awfully slow. We only made forty miles this last drive.”
The Major shook his head. “I don’t mean McIvers. I mean the kid.”
“Jack? What about him?”
“Take a look.”
Stone was shaking. He was over near the tractor—away from the rest of us—and he was lying on his back, but he wasn’t asleep. His whole body was shaking, convulsively. I saw him grip an outcropping of rock hard.
I walked over and sat down beside him. “Get your water all right?” I said.
He didn’t answer. He just kept on shaking.
“Hey, boy,” I said. “What’s the trouble?”
“It’s hot,” he said, choking out the words.
“Sure it’s hot, but don’t let it throw you. We’re in really good shape.”
“We’re not,” he snapped. “We’re in rotten shape, if you ask me. We’re not going to make it, do you know that? That crazy fool’s going to kill us for sure—” All of a sudden, he was bawling like a baby. “I’m scared—I shouldn’t be here—I’m scared. What am I trying to prove by coming out here, for God’s sake? I’m some kind of hero or something? I tell you I’m scared—”
“Look,” I said. “Mikuta’s scared, I’m scared. So what? We’ll make it, don’t worry. And nobody’s trying to be a hero.”
“Nobody but Hero Stone,” he said bitterly. He shook himself and gave a tight little laugh. “Some hero, eh?”
“We’ll make it,” I said.
“Sure,” he said finally. “Sorry. I’ll be okay.”
I rolled over, but waited until he was good and quiet. Then I tried to sleep, but I didn’t sleep too well. I kept thinking about that ledge. I’d known from the look of it what it was; a zinc slough of the sort Sanderson had warned us about, a wide sheet of almost pure zinc that had been thrown up white-hot from below, quite recently, just waiting for oxygen or sulfur to rot it through.
I knew enough about zinc to know that at these temperatures it gets brittle as glass. Take a chance like McIvers had taken and the whole sheet could snap like a dry pine board. And it wasn’t McIvers’ fault that it hadn’t.
Five hours later, we were back at the wheel. We were hardly moving at all. The ragged surface was almost impassable—great jutting rocks peppered the plateau; ledges crumbled the moment my tires touched them; long, open canyons turned into lead-mires or sulfur pits.
A dozen times I climbed out of the Bug to prod out an uncertain area with my boots and pikestaff. Whenever I did, McIvers piled out behind me, running ahead like a schoolboy at the fair, then climbing back again red-faced and panting, while we moved the machines ahead another mile or two.
Time was pressing us now and McIvers wouldn’t let me forget it. We had made only about three hundred twenty miles in six driving periods, so we were about a hundred miles or even more behind schedule.
“We’re not going to make it,” McIvers would complain angrily. “That Sun’s going to be out to aphelion by the time we hit the Center—”
“Sorry, but I can’t take it any faster,” I told him. I was getting good and mad. I knew what he wanted, but didn’t dare let him have it. I was scared enough pushing the Bug out on those ledges, even knowing that at least I was making the decisions. Put him in the lead and we wouldn’t last for eight hours. Our nerves wouldn’t take it, at any rate, even if the machines would.
Jack Stone looked up from the aluminum chart sheets. “Another hundred miles and we should hit a good stretch,” he said. “Maybe we can make up distance there for a couple of days.”
The Major agreed, but McIvers couldn’t hold his impatience. He kept staring up at the Sun as if he had a personal grudge against it and stamped back and forth under the sunshield. “That’ll be just fine,” he said. “If we ever get that far, that is.”
We dropped it there, but the Major stopped me as we climbed aboard for the next run. “That guy’s going to blow wide open if we don’t move faster, Peter. I don’t want him in the lead, no matter what happens. He’s right though, about the need to make better time. Keep your head, but crowd your luck a little, okay?”
“I’ll try,” I said. It was asking the impossible and Mikuta knew it. We were on a long downward slope that shifted and buckled all around us, as though there were a molten underlay beneath the crust; the slope was broken by huge crevasses, partly covered with dust and zinc sheeting, like a vast glacier of stone and metal. The outside temperature registered 547° F. and getting hotter. It was no place to start rushing ahead.
I tried it anyway. I took half a dozen shaky passages, edging slowly out on flat zinc ledges, then toppling over and across. It seemed easy for a while and we made progress. We hit an even stretch and raced ahead. And then I quickly jumped on my brakes and jerked the Bug to a halt in a cloud of dust.
I’d gone too far. We were out on a wide, flat sheet of gray stuff, apparently solid—until I’d suddenly caught sight of the crevasse beneath in the corner of my eye. It was an overhanging shell that trembled under me as I stopped.
McIvers’ voice was in my ear. “What’s the trouble now, Claney?”
“Move back!” I shouted. “It can’t hold us!”
“Looks solid enough from here.”
“You want to argue about it? It’s too thin, it’ll snap. Move back!”
I started edging back down the ledge. I heard McIvers swear; then I saw his Bug start to creep outward on the shelf. Not fast or reckless, this time, but slowly, churning up dust in a gentle cloud behind him.
I just stared and felt the blood rush to my head. It seemed so hot I could hardly breathe as he edged out beyond me, further and further—
I think I felt it snap before I saw it. My own machine gave a sickening lurch and a long black crack appeared across the shelf—and widened. Then the ledge began to upend. I heard a scream as McIvers’ Bug rose up and up and then crashed down into the crevasse in a thundering slide of rock and shattered metal.
I just stared for a full minute, I think. I couldn’t move until I heard Jack Stone groan and the Major shouting, “Claney! I couldn’t see—what happened?”
“It snapped on him, that’s what happened,” I roared. I gunned my motor, edged forward toward the fresh broken edge of the shelf. The crevasse gaped; I couldn’t see any sign of the machine. Dust was still billowing up blindingly from below.
We stood staring down, the three of us. I caught a glimpse of Jack Stone’s face through his helmet. It wasn’t pretty.
“Well,” said the Major heavily, “that’s that.”
“I guess so.” I felt the way Stone looked.
“Wait,” said Stone. “I heard something.”
He had. It was a cry in the earphones—faint, but unmistakable.
“Mac!” The Major called. “Mac, can you hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah. I can hear you.” The voice was very weak.
“Are you all right?”
“I don’t know. Broken leg, I think. It’s—hot.” There was a long pause. Then: “I think my cooler’s gone out.”
The Major shot me a glance, then turned to Stone. “Get a cable from the second sledge fast. He’ll fry alive if we don’t get him out of there. Peter, I need you to lower me. Use the tractor winch.”
I lowered him; he stayed down only a few moments. When I hauled him up, his face was drawn. “Still alive,” he panted. “He won’t be very long, though.” He hesitated for just an instant. “We’ve got to make a try.”
“I don’t like this ledge,” I said. “It’s moved twice since I got out. Why not back off and lower him a cable?”
“No good. The Bug is smashed and he’s inside it. We’ll need torches and I’ll need one of you to help.” He looked at me and then gave Stone a long look. “Peter, you’d better come.”
“Wait,” said Stone. His face was very white. “Let me go down with you.”
“Peter is lighter.”
“I’m not so heavy. Let me go down.”
“Okay, if that’s the way you want it.” The Major tossed him a torch. “Peter, check these hitches and lower us slowly. If you see any kind of trouble, anything, cast yourself free and back off this thing, do you understand? This whole ledge may go.”
I nodded. “Good luck.”
They went over the ledge. I let the cable down bit by bit until it hit two hundred feet and slacked off.
“How does it look?” I shouted.
“Bad,” said the Major. “We’ll have to work fast. This whole side of the crevasse is ready to crumble. Down a little more.”
Minutes passed without a sound. I tried to relax, but I couldn’t. Then I felt the ground shift, and the tractor lurched to the side.
The Major shouted, “It’s going, Peter—pull back!” and I threw the tractor into reverse, jerked the controls as the tractor rumbled off the shelf. The cable snapped, coiled up in front like a broken clockspring. The whole surface under me was shaking wildly now; ash rose in huge gray clouds. Then, with a roar, the whole shelf lurched and slid sideways. It teetered on the edge for seconds before it crashed into the crevasse, tearing the side wall down with it in a mammoth slide. I jerked the tractor to a halt as the dust and flame billowed up.
They were gone—all three of them, McIvers and the Major and Jack Stone—buried under a thousand tons of rock and zinc and molten lead. There wasn’t any danger of anybody ever finding their bones.
Peter Claney leaned back, finishing his drink, rubbing his scarred face as he looked across at Baron.
Slowly, Baron’s grip relaxed on the chair arm. “You got back,” he said.
Claney nodded. “I got back, sure. I had the tractor and the sledges. I had seven days to drive back under that yellow Sun. I had plenty of time to think.”
“You took the wrong man along,” Baron said. “That was your mistake. Without him you would have made it.”
“Never.” Claney shook his head. “That’s what I was thinking the first day or so—that it was McIvers’ fault, that he was to blame. But that isn’t true. He was wild, reckless and had lots of nerve.”
“But his judgment was bad!”
“It couldn’t have been sounder. We had to keep to our schedule even if it killed us, because it would positively kill us if we didn’t.”
“But a man like that—”
“A man like McIvers was necessary. Can’t you see that? It was the Sun that beat us, that surface. Perhaps we were licked the very day we started.” Claney leaned across the table, his eyes pleading. “We didn’t realize that, but it was true. There are places that men can’t go, conditions men can’t tolerate. The others had to die to learn that. I was lucky, I came back. But I’m trying to tell you what I found out—that nobody will ever make a Brightside Crossing.”
“We will,” said Baron. “It won’t be a picnic, but we’ll make it.”
“But suppose you do,” said Claney, suddenly. “Suppose I’m all wrong, suppose you do make it. Then what? What comes next?”
“The Sun,” said Baron.
Claney nodded slowly. “Yes. That would be it, wouldn’t it?” He laughed. “Good-by, Baron. Jolly talk and all that. Thanks for listening.”
Baron caught his wrist as he started to rise. “Just one question more, Claney. Why did you come here?”
“To try to talk you out of killing yourself,” said Claney.
“You’re a liar,” said Baron.
Claney stared down at him for a long moment. Then he crumpled in the chair. There was defeat in his pale blue eyes and something else.
Peter Claney spread his hands, a helpless gesture. “When do you leave, Baron? I want you to take me along.”
This e-text was produced from “Tiger by the Tail and Other Science Fiction Stories by Alan E. Nourse” and was first published in Galaxy, January 1956. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
Punctuation and capitalization have been normalized. Variations in hyphenation have been retained as they were in the original publication.
The original text has been modified to include the author’s name after the title as follows: