Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (Lucky Starr #4)

Chapter 4

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Then Lucky said, "Why? What's his motive?"

Urteil said calmly, "Because he's afraid. He's out here with millions of cash invested, cash that's been given him by a lax Council of Science, and he can't make his experiments work. He's calling his incompetence bad breaks. Eventually he'll go back to Earth and cry about Mercury's jinx. Then he'll get more money out of the Council, or, rather, out of the taxpayers, for some other fool scheme. Now you're coming to Mercury to investigate, and he's afraid that the Council, in

spite of itself, may learn a little of the truth… You

take it from there."

Lucky said, "If this is the truth, you know it already."

"Yes, and I hope to prove it."

"But you're the danger to Mindes, then. By your reasoning, it is you he should try to kill."

Urteil grinned and his plump cheeks broadened until his jowly face looked wider than it was long. He said, "He has tried to kill me. True enough. But I've been through many tough sieges working for the senator. I can handle myself."

"Scott Mindes never tried to kill you or anybody," said Dr. Gardoma, his face pinched and white. "You know it, too."

Urteil made no direct answer. He spoke instead to Lucky. "And keep an eye on the good doctor too. As I said, he's great friends with Mindes. If I were you, I wouldn't let him treat me for as much as a headache. Pills and injections can– " He snapped Ms fingers with a sharp cracking noise.

Dr. Gardoma, words coming thickly, said, "Some day, someone will kill you for– "

Urteil said carelessly, "Yes? Are you planning on being the one?" He turned to go, then said over his shoulder, "Oh, I forgot. I hear that old man Peverale wants to see you. He's very disturbed at there being no official welcome. He's upset. So go see him and pat his poor old head for him… And, Starr, another hint.

After this, don't use any protective suits of any kind without checking them for leaks. Know what I mean?" With that, finally, he left.

Long moments passed before Gardoma was near normality again, before he could talk without choking. Then he said, "He riles me more every time I see him. He's a mean-mouthed, lying-"

"A mighty shrewd fellow," said Lucky dryly. "It seems obvious that one of his methods of attack is deliberately to say exactly what is calculated most to anger his opponent. An angry opponent is a half-helpless one… And, Bigman, that goes for you. You can't just flail away at anyone who hints you're under sk feet."

"Lucky," wailed the pint-sized Martian, "he said I was hormone-deficient."

"Then learn to wait for the appropriate moment to convince him otherwise."

Bigman grumbled rebelliously, and one clenched fist beat softly against the tough plastic of his silver-and-vermilion hip boots (the colorfully designed hip boots that no one but a Martian farm boy would wear and which no Martian farm boy would be without. Bigman owned a dozen, each more glaring than the last).

Lucky said, "Well, we'll look up Dr. Peverale. He's the head of the Observatory, isn't he?"

"The head of the whole Dome," said the doctor. "Actually, he's getting old and he's lost touch. I'm glad to say that he hates Urteil as much as any of us do, but there's nothing he can do about it. He can't buck the senator. I wonder if the Council of Science can?" he ended gloomily.

Lucky said, "I think so. Now remember, I'll want to see Mindes when he wakes up."

"All right. Take care of yourself.''

Lucky stared at him curiously. "Take care of myself? How do you mean?"

Dr. Gardoma flushed. "Just an expression. I always say it. I don't mean anything by it."

"I see. Well, then, we'll be meeting again. Come along, Bigman, and stop frowning."

Dr. Lance Peverale shook them both by the hand with a vigor that was surprising in a man so old. His dark eyes were lit with concern and appeared the darker for the white eyebrows that topped them. His hair, still abundant, retained a considerable amount of its original color and had not faded past an iron gray. His lined and leathery cheeks, above which sharp cheekbones stood out prominently, did most to give him the appearance of age.

He spoke slowly and gently. "I am sorry, gentlemen, most concerned that you should have had such a distressing experience so soon after arriving at the Observatory. I blame myself."

"You have no reason to, Dr. Peverale," said Lucky.

"The fault is mine, sir. Had I been here to greet you as I ought to have… But there, we were following an important and quite anomalous prominence, and I'm afraid I allowed my profession to tempt me from the proper expression of hospitality."

"In any case, you are forgiven," said Lucky, and he glanced sidewise with some amusement at Bigman, who was listening, open-mouthed, to the old man's stately flow of words.

"I am past forgiveness," said the astronomer, "but it pleases me that you make the attempt. Meanwhile, I have ordered that quarters be placed at your disposal." He linked arms with both of them, urging them along the well-lit but narrow corridors of the Dome. "Our facilities are crowded, particularly since Dr. Mindes and his engineers have arrived and-and others. Still, I imagine you will find it welcome to have an opportunity to refresh yourselves and to sleep, perhaps. You will wish for food, I am sure, and it will be sent to you. Tomorrow will be time enough for you to meet us all socially, and for us to find out your purpose in coming here. For myself, the fact that the Council of Science vouches for you is sufficient. We will have a kind of banquet in your honor."

The corridor level was sinking as they walked, and they were burrowing into Mercury's vitals toward the residential level of the Dome.

Lucky said, "You are very kind. Perhaps I will also have the opportunity to inspect the Observatory."

Peverale seemed delighted at that. "I will be at your service in the matter, and I am sure you will not regret time spent in such an inspection. Our major equipment is mounted on a movable platform designed to move with the advancing or receding Terminator. In that fashion, a particular portion of the Sun can be kept continually in view despite Mercury's motions."

"Wonderful! But now, Dr. Peverale, one question. What is your opinion of Dr. Mindes? I'd appreciate a frank answer without any consideration for such things as diplomacy."

Peverale frowned. "Are you a sub-temporal engineer too?"

"Not quite," said Lucky, "but I was asking about Dr. Mindes."

"Exactly. Well"-and the astronomer looked thoughtful-"he is a pleasant young man, quite competent, I should think, but nervous, very nervous. He is easily offended, too easily offended. It has shown up as time has gone on and things have not been quite right with his project, and it is making him a little difficult to get along with. A pity, for as I say, he is a pleasant young man, otherwise. I am his superior, of course, while he is here at the Dome, but I don't really interfere with him. His project has no connection with our Observatory work."

"And your opinion of Jonathan Urteil?"

The old astronomer stopped walking on the instant. "What about him?"

"How does he get along here?"

"I am not interested in discussing the man," said Peverale.

They walked on in silence for a short while. The astronomer's face was lowering.

Lucky said, "Are there any other outsiders at the Dome? There are you and your men, Mindes and his men, and Urteil. Anyone else?"

"The doctor, of course. Dr. Gardoma."

"You do not consider him one of your own men?"

"Well, he's a doctor and not an astronomer. He supplies the one service the Dome must have and can't use machinery for. He cares for our health. He's new here."

"How new?"

"He replaced our old doctor after the latter's one-year shift. Dr. Gardoma arrived on the same ship that carried Mindes's group, as a matter of fact."

"One-year shift? Is that common for doctors here?"

"And most of the men. It makes it difficult to keep up continuity, and it is hard to train a man and have him leave; but then, Mercury is not an easy place to remain, and our men must be replaced frequently."

"Then in the last six months how many new men have you received here?"

"Perhaps twenty. The exact figures are in our records, but twenty is about it."

"Surely you yourself have been here quite a while."

The astronomer laughed. "Many years. I hate to think how many. And Dr. Cook, my assistant director, has been here for six years. Of course we take vacations frequently… Well, here are your quarters, gentlemen. If there is anything you should wish, do not hesitate to inform me."

Bigman looked about him. The room was a small one, but it held two beds that could fold up into a wall recess when not in use; two chairs of which the same was true; a one-piece desk-chair combination; a small closet; and an adjoining wash room.

"Hey," he said, "a lot better than the ship, anyway, huh?"

"Not bad," said Lucky. "This is probably one of their better rooms."

"Why not?" said Bigman. "I guess he knows who you are."

"I guess not, Bigman," said Lucky. "He thought I might be a sub-temporal engineer. All he knows is that the Council sent me."

"Everyone else knows who you are," said Bigman.

"Not everyone. Mindes, Gardoma, and Urteil… Look, Bigman, why don't you use the washroom? I'll have some food sent up and have them bring in the general utility kit from the Shooting Starr"

"Suits me," said Bigman cheerily.

Bigman sang loudly through the shower. As usual on a waterless world, the bath water was strictly rationed, with stern warnings on the wall as to the amount it was permissible to use. But Bigman had been born and bred on Mars. He had a huge respect for water and would no more think of splashing idly in it than in beef stew. So he used detergent copiously and water carefully and sang loudly.

He stepped in front of the forced-hot-air dryer which tingled his skin with its jets of bone-dry air and slapped his body with his hands to enhance the effect.

"Hey, Lucky," he yelled, "is there food on the table? I'm hungry."

He heard Lucky's voice speaking softly but could make out no words.

"Hey, Lucky," he repeated, and stepped out of the washroom. The desk had two steaming platters of roast beef and potatoes on it. (A slight sharpness in the aroma indicated the meat, at least, to be really a yeast imitation from the sub-sea gardens of Venus.) Lucky, however, was not eating, but sat on the bed and spoke into the room's Talkie.

Dr. Peverale's face was gazing out of the receiving plate.

Lucky said, "Well, then, was it general knowledge that this was to be our room?"

"Not general knowledge, but I gave the order to prepare your room over an open hookup. There was no reason for secrecy as far as I could see. I suppose anyone might have overheard. Furthermore, your room is one of a few such that are reserved for distinguished guests. There is no secret about it."

"I see. Thank you, sir."

"Is anything wrong?"

"Not at all," said Lucky, smiling, and broke connection. His smile disappeared and he looked thoughtful.

"Nothing wrong, my foot," exploded Bigman. "What's up, Lucky? Don't tell me there isn't anything wrong."

"Something is wrong, yes. I've been looking at the equipment here. These are special insulated suits for use on the Sun-side, I imagine."

Bigman lifted one of the suits hanging in a special wall recess. It was amazingly light for its bulk, nor could that be attributed to Mercurian gravity, since gravity here in the Dome was maintained at Earth-normal.

He shook his head. As usual, if he had to use a suit supplied him out of stock rather than one built to specifications, he would have to reduce all fittings to the minimum and even so find it inconvenient to use. He sighed resignedly. It was the penalty he paid for not being exactly tall. He always thought of it that way: "not exactly tall." He never thought of his five foot two as being actually "short."

He said, "Sands of Mars, they've got everything here for us, all set and waiting. Bed. Bath. Food. Suits."

"And something else too," said Lucky gravely. "Death is waiting in this room. See here."

Lucky lifted one arm of the larger suit. The ball joint at the shoulder moved easily, but where it joined the shaft of the shoulder there was a tiny, all but unnoticeable gap. It would have been completely un-noticeable if Lucky's fingers had not spread it apart.

It was a slash! Man-made, obviously! Insulation showed.

"On the inner surface," said Lucky, "There's a similar slash. This suit would have lasted just long enough to get me out on the Sun-side, and then it would have killed me neatly."


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