Brightside Crossing - Cover

Brightside Crossing

by Alan Edward Nourse

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Four men set out to prove their mettle by crossing the bright side of Mercury when it is closest to the sun. A feat which no one has ever done and survived. The odds are against them and they will need all of their expertise and courage if they are to succeed. Even that might not be enough.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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.”

“At perihelion?”

“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?”

“That’s right.”

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.”

“What trip?”

“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 CO_, 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?”

“Of course.”

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.

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