XVII: ELEVATOR

For Barlennan himself it was hardly routine. The upper plateau was as it had seemed from the beginning: arid, stony, lifeless, and confusing. He did not dare go far from the edge; once among those boulders, direction would quickly vanish. There were no hills of any size to serve as land marks, or at least none which could be seen from the ground. The thickly scattered rocks hid everything more than a few yards away, towering into the line of sight in every direction except toward the edge of the cliff.

Travel itself was not too difficult. The ground was level, except for the stones; these merely had to be avoided. Eight hundred miles is a long walk for a man, and a longer one for a creature only fifteen inches long who has to “walk” by rippling forward caterpillar style; and the endless detours made the actual distance covered much more than eight hundred miles. True, Barlennan’s people could travel with considerable speed, all things considered; but much had to be considered.

The captain actually began to worry somewhat about the food supply before the trip was over. He had felt that he was allowing a generous safety margin when he first conceived the project; this idea had to be sharply modified. Time and again he anxiously asked the human beings far above how much farther he had to go; sometimes he received an answer — always discouraging — and sometimes the rocket was on the other side of the planet and his answer came from

Toorey, telling him to wait a short time for a fix. The relay stations were still functioning, but they could not be used to take a directional reading on his radio.

It did not occur “to him until the long walk was nearly over that he could have cut across among the stones after all. The sun by itself, of course, could not have served him as a directional guide; it circled the horizon completely in less than eighteen minutes, and a very accurate clock would be necessary to calculate the actual desired course from its apparent direction. However, the observers in the rocket could have told him at any time whether the sun was in front of him, behind him, or to a particular side with respect to his desired direction of travel. By the time this occurred to anyone, the remaining distance could be covered about as easily by keeping the edge in sight; the cliff was nearly straight between where Barlennanvthen was and the rendezvous point.

There was still a little food, but not too much, when they finally reached a position where the Earthmen could find no significant difference in the positions of the radios. Theoretically, the first ‘thing to do should have been to proceed with the next phase of Barlennan’s plan in order to replenish the supply of eatables; but actually there was a serious step to be taken first. Barlennan had mentioned it before the march began, but no one had really considered the matter with any care. Now it stared them in the eye.

The Earthmen had said they were about as close to the Bree as they could get. There should be, then, food only a hundred yards below them; but before they could take any steps toward getting it, someone — and probably several people — must look over the edge. They must see just where they were in relation to the ship; they must rig up lifting tackle to bring the food up; in short, they must look fully three hundred feet straight down — and they had excellent depth perception.

Still, it had to be done; and eventually it was done. Barlennan, as befitted his position, set the example.

He went — not too rapidly, it must be admitted — to the three-foot limit and fixed his eyes on the low hills and other terrain features visible between him and the distant horizon. Slowly he let his gaze wander downward to closer and closer objects, until it was blocked by the lip of rock directly ahead of him. Without haste, he looked back and forth, getting used to seeing things that he could tell already were below him. Then, almost imperceptibly, he inched forward to take in more and more of the landscape near the foot of the cliff. For a long time it looked generally the same, but he managed to keep his attention principally on the new details he could see rather than on the fearful thing he was doing. At last, however, the river became visible, and he moved forward almost rapidly. The far bank was there, the spot where most of the hunting parties had landed after swimming across; from above, ever* the branching and rebranching trails they had left — he had never- realized that such things showed so plainly from overhead.

Now the near bank could be seen, and the mark where the Bree had been drawn up before; a little farther — and the Bree herself was there, not a bit changed, sailors sprawled on her rafts or moving slowly about the bank in the neighborhood. For just an instant Barlennan forgot all about height and moved forward another body loop to call out to them. That loop put his head over the edge.

And he looked straight down the cliff.

He had thought that being lifted to the roof of the tank was the most hideous experience — at first — that he had ever undergone. He was never sure, after this, whether or not the cliff was worse. Barlennan did not know just how he got back from the cliff face, and he never asked his men whether he had needed help. When he fully realized his surroundings once more he was a good, safe two yards from the edge, still shaking and uncertain of himself. It took days for his normal personality and thinking ability to resume course.

He finally decided what could — and must — be done. He had been all right merely looking at the ship; the trouble had occurred when his eyes actually had a line to follow between his own position and that remote lower level. The Earthmen suggested this point, and after thought Barlennan agreed. That meant it was possible to do all that was necessary; they could signal the sailors below, and do any rope-pulling needed, as long as they did not actually look down the cliff face itself. Keeping heads a safe couple of inches back from the rim was — the key to sanity — and life.

Dondragmer had not seen his captain’s head on its brief appearance, but he knew that the other party had arrived at the cliff top. He, too, had been kept informed of its progress by the Flyers. Now he and his crew began examining the edge of the rock wall above them with extreme care while those above pushed a pack to the extreme verge and moved it back and forth. It was finally seen from below, almost exactly above the ship; Barlennan had noticed before giddiness overwhelmed him that they were not exactly in the right spot, and the error had been corrected in showing the signal.

“All right, we have you.” Dondragmer made the call in English, and it was relayed by one of the men in the rocket.

The sailor above thankfully stopped waving the empty pack, set it down projecting slightly over the edge so it could still be seen, and moved back to a safe distance from the verge. Meanwhile the rope that had been brought along was broken out. One end was bent firmly around a small boulder, Barlennan taking extreme pains with this operation; if the rope were lost, everyone on the plateau would almost certainly starve to death.

Satisfied at last on this matter, he had the rest of the cable carried close to the edge; and two sailors began carefully paying it over. Dondragmer was informed of their state of progress, but did not station anyone underneath to take the end as it came down. If anyone slipped above and the whole coil went over, the point immediately below could be rather uncomfortable, light as the cable was. He waited until Barlennan reported the line as completely paid out; then he and the rest of the crew went over to the foot of the cliff to find it.

The extra rope had fallen into a tight bundle on the hard ground. Dondragmer’s first act was to cut off the excess, straighten it out, and measure it. He had a very accurate idea now of the height of the cliff, for during the long wait he had had time to do much careful checking of shadow lengths.

The excess rope proved to be insufficiently long to reach again the full height of the cliff; so the mate obtained another length from the Bree, made sure it was long enough, attached it to the section hanging from the cliff top, and informed the Earthmen that Barlennan could start pulling up.

It was a hard job, but not too hard for the powerful beings at the upper end; and in a relatively short time the second rope was at the top of the cliff and the worst fears of the captain were eased. Now if a cable were dropped they at least had a spare.

The second load was very different from the first, as far as ease of hoisting went. It was a pack loaded with food, weighing about as much as one of the sailors. Normally a single Mesklinite could not lift such a weight anywhere near this part of the planet, and the relatively small crew with Barlennan had their work cut out for them. Only by snagging the rope around a convenient boulder and taking frequent rests did they finally manage to get the load up to and over the edge, and when it was done the rope showed distinct signs of wear all along its length from contact with the boulder as well as the cliff edge itself. Something obviously had to be done, and while he and his group were celebrating the end of the strict food rationing Barlennan decided what it would

have to be. He gave the appropriate orders to the mate after the feast.

The next several loads, in accordance with Barlennan’s instructions, consisted of several masts and spars, more rope, and a number of pulleys of the sort they had used previously in lowering the Bree over the cliff at the distant equator. These were used to construct a tripod and hoist arrangement similar to what they had used before — very gingerly, since the pieces had to be lifted into position for lashing and the old prejudice against having solid objects overhead was present in full force. Since the Mesklinites could not reach far from the ground now anyway, most of the lashing was done with the pieces involved lying flat; the assembly was then pried up into position with other spars as levers and boulders which had been laboriously rolled to convenient locations as fulcrums. A similar team of men, working under their natural conditions, could have done a corresponding job in an hour; it took the Mesklinites many times as long — and none of the watching Earthmen could blame them.

The tripod was assembled and erected well back from the edge, then inched laboriously into position as close to that point as could be managed and its legs propped in place with small boulders which the watching men classed mentally as pebbles. The heaviest of the pulleys was attached to the end of a mast as firmly as possible, the rope threaded through it, and the mast levered into position so that about a quarter of its length projected over the abyss past the supporting tripod. Its inner end was also weighted in place with the small stones. Much time was consumed in this work, but it proved worth while. Only a single pulley was used at first, so the hoisting crew still had their load’s full weight to handle; but the friction was largely eliminated, and a cleat attached to the inner end of the mast simplified the holding problem while the crew rested.

Load after load of supplies came up, while the crew below hunted and fished endlessly to keep the stream flowing. The area around the hoisting tackle began to take on a settled appearance; indeed, most of the sailors found time between spells at the rope to erect inch-high walls of pebbles around selected areas of their own so that the neighborhood came gradually to resemble more than slightly one of the cities of their own land. No fabric was available for roofs — or rather, Barlennan wasted no effort bringing any up from below — but in other respects the enclosures were almost homelike.

The supplies on hand were already more than one person could conveniently carry; Barlennan planned to establish caches along the route to the rocket. The journey was not expected to be as long as from the cleft they had climbed, but their stay at the site of the crippled machine would be long, and every provision to make it safe was to be taken. Actually, Barlennan would have liked a few more men on the plateau, so that he could leave some at the hoist and take others with him; but there were certain practical difficulties connected with that. For another group to travel up to the cleft, climb it, and come back to their present station seemed too lengthy a job; nobody liked to think of the alternative. Barlennan, of course, did; but an experiment on the part of one of the crew made it a difficult subject to broach.

That individual, after getting his captain’s approval — Barlennan regretted giving it later — and having the crewmen below warned away, had rolled a bullet-sized pebble to the edge of the cliff and given it a final shove. The results had been interesting, to both Mesklinites and Earthmen. The latter could see nothing, since the only view set at the foot of the cliff was still aboard the Bree and too distant from the point of impact to get a distinct view; but they heard as well as the natives. As a matter of fact, they saw almost as well; for even to Mesklinite vision the pebble simply vanished. There was a short note like a breaking violin string as it clove the air, followed a split second later by a sharp report as it struck the ground below.

Fortunately it landed on hard, slightly moist ground rather than on another stone; in the latter case, there would have been a distinct chance of someone’s being killed by flying splinters. The impact, at a speed of approximately a mile a second, sent the ground splashing outward in a wave too fast for any eye to see while it was in motion, but which froze after a fraction of a second, leaving a rimmed crater surrounding the deeper hole the missile had drilled in the soil. Slowly the sailors gathered around, eying the gently steaming ground; then with one accord they moved a few yards away from the foot of the cliff. It took some time to shake off the mood that experiment engendered.

Nevertheless, Barlennan wanted more men at the top; and he was not the individual to give up a project for fear it might not work. He came out with the proposal of an elevator one day, met the expected flat silence, but continued to revert to the subject at regular intervals as the work went on. As Lackland had long since noted, the captain was a persuasive individual. It was a pity that the present job of persuasion was done in.the native language, for the men would greatly have enjoyed hearing Barlennan’s remarkably varied and original approaches and seeing his listeners go from utter refusal to consideration, through unsympathetic listening, to grudging consent. They never became enthusiastic partisans of the idea, but Barlennan did not expect miracles anyway. Actually, it is very likely that his success was not entirely due to his own efforts. Dondragmer badly wanted to be among those present when the rocket was reached; he had been extremely unhappy at being ordered back down with the group that returned to the ship, though his ingrained dislike of people who argued against orders had prevented his allowing his feelings to show. Now that there seemed to be a chance to get back to the active group, as he looked on it, he found it much easier than might otherwise have been the case to persuade himself that being pulled up a cliff on the end of a rope really wasn’t so bad. In any case, he reflected, if the rope broke he’d never know it. He therefore became a disciple of the captain’s views among the sailors at the bottom of the cliff; and as they realized that their senior officer intended to go first, and actually seemed to want to go, much of their natural sales resistance disappeared. The automatic relays had now been completed, and Barlennan could talk directly to the other group, so his full strength of personality could also come into play.

The upshot was that a small wooden platform was constructed with a low, solid railing — Dondragmer’s invention — that would prevent anyone from seeing down once he was inside. The whole arrangement was supported in a rope sling that would hold it in a horizontal position; this was a relic of the previous hoisting experience at the equator.

The platform, all ropes and knots carefully tested by a tug of war that greatly interested the human spectators, was dragged over beneath the hoist and attached to the main rope. At the request of the mate, some slack was given from above and the last knot tested in the same fashion as the others; satisfied that all was secure, Dondragmer promptly climbed onto the platform, put the last section of railing in place, and gave the signal to hoist. The radio had been dragged over from the ship; Barlennan heard the mate directly. He joined his crew at the rope.

There was practically no swinging, anyway; Dondragmer remembered how uncomfortable that had been the last time he had been on such a device. Here the wind, though still blowing steadily along the cliff, was unable to budge perceptibly the pendulum of which he was a part; its cord was too narrow to furnish a grip for air currents, and the weight of its bob too enormous to be easily shifted by them. This was fortunate not merely from the point of view of comfort; if a swing had started from any cause, its period would have been around half a second at the start, decreasing as he ascended to a value that would have amounted to nearly sonic vibration and almost certainly pulled ‘the structure at the top from its foundations.

Dondragmer was. a being of straightforward, practical intelligence, and he made no attempt to do any sightseeing as he ascended. On the contrary, he kept his eyes carefully closed, and was not ashamed to do so. The trip seemed endless, of course; in actual fact, it took about six days. Barlennan periodically stopped proceedings while he inspected the hoist and its anchorage, but these were always sound.

At long last the platform appeared above the edge of the cliff and its supporting sling reached the pulley, preventing any further elevation. The edge of the elevator was only an inch or so from the cliff; it was long and narrow, to accommodate the Mesklinite form, and a push on one end with a spar sent the other swinging over solid ground. Dondragmer, who had opened — his eyes at the sound of voices, crawled thankfully off and away from the edge.

The watching Lackland announced his safety even before Barlennan could do so to the waiting sailors below, and his words were at once translated by one who knew some English. They were relieved, to put it mildly; they had seen the platform arrive, but could not tell the condition of its passenger. Barlennan took advantage of their feelings, sending the lift down as fast as possible and starting another passenger up.

The whole operation was completed without accident; ten times in all the elevator made its trip before Barlennan decided that there could be no more taken from below without making the supply job of those who remained too difficult.

The tension was over now, however, and once again a feeling that they were in the final stages of the mission spread through Earthmen and natives alike.

“If you’ll wait about two minutes, Barl,” Lackland relayed the information given him by one of the computers, “the sun will be exactly on the direction line you should follow. We’ve warned you that we can’t pin the rocket down closer than about six miles; we’ll guide you into the middle of the area that we’re sure contains it, and you’ll have to work out your own search from there. If the terrain is at all similar to what you have where you are now, that will be rather difficult, I fear.”

“You are probably right, Charles; we have had no experience with such matters. Still, I am sure we will solve that problem; we have solved all others — frequently with your help, I confess. Is the sun in line yet?”

“Just a moment — there! Is there any landmark even reasonably distant which you can use to hold your line until the sun comes around again?”

“None, I fear. We will have to do the best we can, and take your corrections each day.”

“That’s a bit like dead reckoning where you don’t know the winds or currents, but it will have to do. We’ll correct our own figures every time we can get a fix on you. Good luck!”

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