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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesUnwise Child - Chapter 19
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Unwise Child - Chapter 19 Post by :traffic-tart Category :Long Stories Author :Randall Garrett Date :May 2012 Read :2008

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Unwise Child - Chapter 19

The interstellar ship _Brainchild orbited around her destination, waiting during the final checkup before she landed on the planet below.

It was not a nice planet. As far as its size went, it could be classified as "Earth type," but size was almost the only resemblance to Earth. It orbited in space some five hundred and fifty million miles from its Sol-like parent--a little farther away from the primary than Jupiter is from Sol itself. It was cold there--terribly cold. At high noon on the equator, the temperature reached a sweltering 180 deg. absolute; it became somewhat chillier toward the poles.

H_{2}O was, anywhere on the planet, a whitish, crystalline mineral suitable for building material. The atmosphere was similar to that of Jupiter, although the proportions of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen were different because of the lower gravitational potential of the planet. It had managed to retain a great deal more hydrogen in its atmosphere than Earth had because of the fact that the average thermal velocity of the molecules was much lower. Since oxygen-releasing life had never developed on the frigid surface of the planet, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. It was all tied up in combination with the hydrogen of the ice and the surface rocks of the planet.

The Space Service ship that had discovered the planet, fifteen years before, had given it the name Eisberg, thus commemorating the name of a spaceman second class who happened to have the luck to be (a) named Robert Eisberg, (b) a member of the crew of the ship to discover the planet, and (c) under the command of a fun-loving captain.

Eisberg had been picked as the planet to transfer the potentially dangerous Snookums to for two reasons. In the first place, if Snookums actually did solve the problem of the total-annihilation bomb, the worst he could do was destroy a planet that wasn't much good, anyway. And, in the second place, the same energy requirements applied on Eisberg as did on Chilblains Base. It was easier to cool the helium bath of the brain if it only had to be lowered 175 degrees or so.

It was a great place for cold-work labs, but not worth anything for colonization.

* * * * *

Chief Powerman's Mate Multhaus looked gloomily at the figures on the landing sheet.

Mike the Angel watched the expression on the chief's face and said: "What's the matter, Multhaus? No like?"

Multhaus grimaced. "Well, sir, I don't like it, no. But I can't say I _dis_like it, either."

He stared at the landing sheet, pursing his lips. He looked as though he were valiantly restraining himself from asking questions about the other night's escapade--which he was.

He said: "I just don't like to land without jets, sir; that's all."

"Hell, neither do I," admitted Mike. "But we're not going to get down any other way. We managed to take off without jets; we'll manage to land without them."

"Yessir," said Multhaus, "but we took off _with the grain of Earth's magnetic field. We're landing _across the grain."

"Sure," said Mike. "So what? If we overlook the motors, that's okay. We may never be able to get off the planet with this ship again, but we aren't supposed to anyway.

"Come on, Multhaus, don't worry about it. I know you hate to burn up a ship, but this one is supposed to be expendable. You may never have another chance like this."

Multhaus tried to keep from grinning, but he couldn't. "Awright, Commander. You have appealed to my baser instincts. My subconscious desire to wreck a spaceship has been brought to the surface. I can't resist it. Am I nutty, maybe?"

"Not now, you're not," Mike said, grinning back.

"We'll have a bitch of a job getting through the plasmasphere, though," said the chief. "That fraction of a second will--"

"It'll jolt us," Mike agreed, interrupting. "But it won't wreck us. Let's get going."

"Aye, sir," said Multhaus.

* * * * *

The seas of Eisberg were liquid methane containing dissolved ammonia. Near the equator, they were liquid; farther north, the seas became slushy with crystallized ammonia.

The site picked for the new labs of the Computer Corporation of Earth was in the northern hemisphere, at 40 deg. north latitude, about the same distance from the equator as New York or Madrid, Spain, would be on Earth. The _Brainchild would be dropping through Eisberg's magnetic field at an angle, but it wouldn't be the ninety-degree angle of the equator. It would have been nice if the base could have been built at one of the poles, but that would have put the labs in an uncomfortable position, since there was no solid land at either pole.

Mike the Angel didn't like the idea of having to land on Eisberg without jets any more than Multhaus did, but he was almost certain that the ship would take the strain.

He took the companionway up to the Control Bridge, went in, and handed the landing sheet to Black Bart. The captain scowled at it, shrugged, and put it on his desk.

"Will we make it, sir?" Mike said. "Any word from the _Fireball_?"

Black Bart nodded. "She's orbiting outside the atmosphere. Captain Wurster will send down a ship to pick us up as soon as we've finished our business here."

The _Fireball_, being much faster than the clumsy _Brainchild_, had left Earth later than the slower ship, and had arrived earlier.

"_Now hear this! Now hear this! Third Warning! Landing orbit begins in one minute! Landing begins in one minute!_"

Sixty seconds later the _Brainchild began her long, logarithmic drop toward the surface of Eisberg.

Landing a ship on her jets isn't an easy job, but at least an ion rocket is built for the job. Maybe someday the Translation drive will be modified for planetary landings, but so far such a landing has been, as someone put it, "50 per cent raw energy and 50 per cent prayer." The landing was worse than the take-off, a truism which has held since the first glider took off from the surface of Earth in the nineteenth century. What goes up doesn't necessarily have to come down, but when it does, the job is a lot rougher than getting up was.

The plasmasphere of Eisberg differed from that of Earth in two ways. First, the ionizing source of radiation--the primary star--was farther away from Eisberg than Sol was from Earth, which tended to reduce the total ionization. Second, the upper atmosphere of Eisberg was pretty much pure hydrogen, which is somewhat easier to ionize than oxygen or nitrogen. And, since there was no ozonosphere to block out the UV radiation from the primary, the thickness of the ionosphere beneath the plasmasphere was greater.

Not until the _Brainchild hit the bare fringes of the upper atmosphere did she act any differently than she had in space.

But when she hit the outer fringes of the ionosphere--that upper layer of rarified protons, the rapidly moving current of high velocity ions known as the plasmasphere--she bucked like a kicked horse. From deep within her vitals, the throb began, a strumming, thrumming sound with a somewhat higher note imposed upon it, making a sound like that of a bass viol being plucked rapidly on its lowest string.

It was not the intensity of the ionosphere that cracked the drive of the _Brainchild_; it was the duration. The layer of ionization was too thick; the ship couldn't make it through the layer fast enough, in spite of her high velocity.

A man can hold a red-hot bit of steel in his hand for a fraction of a second without even feeling it. But if he has to hold a hot baked potato for thirty seconds, he's likely to get a bad burn.

So it was with the _Brainchild_. The passage through Earth's ionosphere during take-off had been measured in fractions of a second. The _Brainchild had reacted, but the exposure to the field had been too short to hurt her.

The ionosphere of Eisberg was much deeper and, although the intensity was less, the duration was much longer.

The drumming increased as she fell, a low-frequency, high-energy sine wave that shook the ship more violently than had the out-of-phase beat that had pummeled the ship shortly after her take-off.

Dr. Morris Fitzhugh, the roboticist, screamed imprecations into the intercom, but Captain Sir Henry Quill cut him off before anyone took notice and let the scientist rave into a dead pickup.

"How's she coming?"

The voice came over the intercom to the Power Section, and Mike the Angel knew that the question was meant for him.

"She'll make it, Captain," he said. "She'll make it. I designed this thing for a 500 per cent overload. She'll make it."

"Good," said Black Bart, snapping off the intercom.

Mike exhaled gustily. His eyes were still on the needles that kept creeping higher and higher along the calibrated periphery of the meters. Many of them had long since passed the red lines that marked the allowable overload point. Mike the Angel knew that those points had been set low, but he also knew that they were approaching the real overload point.

He took another deep breath and held it.

* * * * *

Point for point, the continent of Antarctica, Earth, is one of the most deadly areas ever found on a planet that is supposedly non-inimical to man. Earth is a nice, comfortable planet, most of the time, but Antarctica just doesn't cater to Man at all.

Still, it just happens to be the _worst spot on the _best planet in the known Galaxy.

Eisberg is different. At its best, it has the continent of Antarctica beat four thousand ways from a week ago last Candlemas. At its worst, it is sudden death; at its best, it is somewhat less than sudden.

Not that Eisberg is a really _mean planet; Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune can kill a man faster and with less pain. No, Eisberg isn't mean--it's torturous. A man without clothes, placed suddenly on the surface of Eisberg--_anywhere on the surface--would die. But the trouble is that he'd live long enough for it to hurt.

Man can survive, all right, but it takes equipment and intelligence to do it.

When the interstellar ship _Brainchild blew a tube--just one tube--of the external field that fought the ship's mass against the space-strain of the planet's gravitational field, the ship went off orbit. The tube blew when she was some ninety miles above the surface. She dropped too fast, jerked up, dropped again.

When the engines compensated for the lost tube, the descent was more leisurely, and the ship settled gently--well, not exactly _gently_--on the surface of Eisberg.

Captain Quill's voice came over the intercom.

"We are nearly a hundred miles from the base, Mister Gabriel. Any excuse?"

"No excuse, sir," said Mike the Angel.

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Captain Sir Henry Quill opened the door of the late Lieutenant Mellon's quarters and went in, followed by Mike the Angel. The dead man's gear had to be packed away so that it could be given to his nearest of kin when the officers and crew of the _Brainchild returned to Earth. Regulations provided that two officers must inventory his personal effects and those belonging to the Space Service. "Does Chief Pasteur know what killed him yet, Captain?" Mike asked. Quill shook his head. "No. He wants my permission to perform an autopsy." "Are you going to let him?" "I think