Wind - Cover


by Charles L. Fontenay

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: When you have an engine with no fuel, and fuel without an engine, and a life-and-death deadline to meet, you have a problem indeed. Unless you are a stubborn Dutchman--and Jan Van Artevelde was the stubbornest Dutchman on Venus.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Jan Willem van Artevelde claimed descent from William of Orange. He had no genealogy to prove it, but on Venus there was no one who could disprove it, either.

Jan Willem van Artevelde smoked a clay pipe, which only a Dutchman can do properly, because the clay bit grates on less stubborn teeth.

Jan needed all his Dutch stubbornness, and a good deal of pure physical strength besides, to maneuver the roach-flat groundcar across the tumbled terrain of Den Hoorn into the teeth of the howling gale that swept from the west. The huge wheels twisted and jolted against the rocks outside, and Jan bounced against his seat belt, wrestled the steering wheel and puffed at his pijp. The mild aroma of Heerenbaai-Tabak filled the airtight groundcar.

There came a new swaying that was not the roughness of the terrain. Through the thick windshield Jan saw all the ground about him buckle and heave for a second or two before it settled to rugged quiescence again. This time he was really heaved about.

Jan mentioned this to the groundcar radio.

“That’s the third time in half an hour,” he commented. “The place tosses like the IJsselmeer on a rough day.”

“You just don’t forget it isn’t the Zuider Zee,” retorted Heemskerk from the other end. “You sink there and you don’t come up three times.”

“Don’t worry,” said Jan. “I’ll be back on time, with a broom at the masthead.”

“This I shall want to see,” chuckled Heemskerk; a logical reaction, considering the scarcity of brooms on Venus.

Two hours earlier the two men had sat across a small table playing chess, with little indication there would be anything else to occupy their time before blastoff of the stubby gravity-boat. It would be their last chess game for many months, for Jan was a member of the Dutch colony at Oostpoort in the northern hemisphere of Venus, while Heemskerk was pilot of the G-boat from the Dutch spaceship Vanderdecken, scheduled to begin an Earthward orbit in a few hours.

It was near the dusk of the 485-hour Venerian day, and the Twilight Gale already had arisen, sweeping from the comparatively chill Venerian nightside into the superheated dayside. Oostpoort, established near some outcroppings that contained uranium ore, was protected from both the Dawn Gale and the Twilight Gale, for it was in a valley in the midst of a small range of mountains.

Jan had just figured out a combination by which he hoped to cheat Heemskerk out of one of his knights, when Dekker, the burgemeester of Oostpoort, entered the spaceport ready room.

“There’s been an emergency radio message,” said Dekker. “They’ve got a passenger for the Earthship over at Rathole.”

“Rathole?” repeated Heemskerk. “What’s that? I didn’t know there was another colony within two thousand kilometers.”

“It isn’t a colony, in the sense Oostpoort is,” explained Dekker. “The people are the families of a bunch of laborers left behind when the colony folded several years ago. It’s about eighty kilometers away, right across the Hoorn, but they don’t have any vehicles that can navigate when the wind’s up.”

Heemskerk pushed his short-billed cap back on his close-cropped head, leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his comfortable stomach.

“Then the passenger will have to wait for the next ship,” he pronounced. “The Vanderdecken has to blast off in thirty hours to catch Earth at the right orbital spot, and the G-boat has to blast off in ten hours to catch the Vanderdecken.”

“This passenger can’t wait,” said Dekker. “He needs to be evacuated to Earth immediately. He’s suffering from the Venus Shadow.”

Jan whistled softly. He had seen the effects of that disease. Dekker was right.

“Jan, you’re the best driver in Oostpoort,” said Dekker. “You will have to take a groundcar to Rathole and bring the fellow back.”

So now Jan gripped his clay pipe between his teeth and piloted the groundcar into the teeth of the Twilight Gale.

Den Hoorn was a comparatively flat desert sweep that ran along the western side of the Oost Mountains, just over the mountain from Oostpoort. It was a thin fault area of a planet whose crust was peculiarly subject to earthquakes, particularly at the beginning and end of each long day when temperatures of the surface rocks changed. On the other side of it lay Rathole, a little settlement that eked a precarious living from the Venerian vegetation. Jan never had seen it.

He had little difficulty driving up and over the mountain, for the Dutch settlers had carved a rough road through the ravines. But even the 2-1/2-meter wheels of the groundcar had trouble amid the tumbled rocks of Den Hoorn. The wind hit the car in full strength here and, though the body of the groundcar was suspended from the axles, there was constant danger of its being flipped over by a gust if not handled just right.

The three earthshocks that had shaken Den Hoorn since he had been driving made his task no easier, but he was obviously lucky, at that. Often he had to detour far from his course to skirt long, deep cracks in the surface, or steep breaks where the crust had been raised or dropped several meters by past quakes.

The groundcar zig-zagged slowly westward. The tattered violet-and-indigo clouds boiled low above it, but the wind was as dry as the breath of an oven. Despite the heavy cloud cover, the afternoon was as bright as an Earth-day. The thermometer showed the outside temperature to have dropped to 40 degrees Centigrade in the west wind, and it was still going down.

Jan reached the edge of a crack that made further progress seem impossible. A hundred meters wide, of unknown depth, it stretched out of sight in both directions. For the first time he entertained serious doubts that Den Hoorn could be crossed by land.

After a moment’s hesitation, he swung the groundcar northward and raced along the edge of the chasm as fast as the car would negotiate the terrain. He looked anxiously at his watch. Nearly three hours had passed since he left Oostpoort. He had seven hours to go and he was still at least 16 kilometers from Rathole. His pipe was out, but he could not take his hands from the wheel to refill it.

He had driven at least eight kilometers before he realized that the crack was narrowing. At least as far again, the two edges came together, but not at the same level. A sheer cliff three meters high now barred his passage. He drove on.

Apparently it was the result of an old quake. He found a spot where rocks had tumbled down, making a steep, rough ramp up the break. He drove up it and turned back southwestward.

He made it just in time. He had driven less than three hundred meters when a quake more severe than any of the others struck. Suddenly behind him the break reversed itself, so that where he had climbed up coming westward he would now have to climb a cliff of equal height returning eastward.

The ground heaved and buckled like a tempestuous sea. Rocks rolled and leaped through the air, several large ones striking the groundcar with ominous force. The car staggered forward on its giant wheels like a drunken man. The quake was so violent that at one time the vehicle was hurled several meters sideways, and almost overturned. And the wind smashed down on it unrelentingly.

The quake lasted for several minutes, during which Jan was able to make no progress at all and struggled only to keep the groundcar upright. Then, in unison, both earthquake and wind died to absolute quiescence.

Jan made use of this calm to step down on the accelerator and send the groundcar speeding forward. The terrain was easier here, nearing the western edge of Den Hoorn, and he covered several kilometers before the wind struck again, cutting his speed down considerably. He judged he must be nearing Rathole.

Not long thereafter, he rounded an outcropping of rock and it lay before him.

A wave of nostalgia swept over him. Back at Oostpoort, the power was nuclear, but this little settlement made use of the cheapest, most obviously available power source. It was dotted with more than a dozen windmills.

Windmills! Tears came to Jan’s eyes. For a moment, he was carried back to the flat lands around ‘s Gravenhage. For a moment he was a tow-headed, round-eyed boy again, clumping in wooden shoes along the edge of the tulip fields.

But there were no canals here. The flat land, stretching into the darkening west, was spotted with patches of cactus and leather-leaved Venerian plants. Amid the windmills, low domes protruded from the earth, indicating that the dwellings of Rathole were, appropriately, partly underground.

He drove into the place. There were no streets, as such, but there were avenues between lines of heavy chains strung to short iron posts, evidently as handholds against the wind. The savage gale piled dust and sand in drifts against the domes, then, shifting slightly, swept them clean again.

There was no one moving abroad, but just inside the community Jan found half a dozen men in a group, clinging to one of the chains and waving to him. He pulled the groundcar to a stop beside them, stuck his pipe in a pocket of his plastic venusuit, donned his helmet and got out.

The wind almost took him away before one of them grabbed him and he was able to grasp the chain himself. They gathered around him. They were swarthy, black-eyed men, with curly hair. One of them grasped his hand.

Bienvenido, señor,” said the man.

Jan recoiled and dropped the man’s hand. All the Orangeman blood he claimed protested in outrage.

Spaniards! All these men were Spaniards!

Jan recovered himself at once. He had been reading too much ancient history during his leisure hours. The hot monotony of Venus was beginning to affect his brain. It had been 500 years since the Netherlands revolted against Spanish rule. A lot of water over the dam since then.

A look at the men around him, the sound of their chatter, convinced him that he need not try German or Hollandsch here. He fell back on the international language.

“Do you speak English?” he asked. The man brightened but shook his head.

No hablo inglés,” he said, “pero el médico lo habla. Venga conmigo.

He gestured for Jan to follow him and started off, pulling his way against the wind along the chain. Jan followed, and the other men fell in behind in single file. A hundred meters farther on, they turned, descended some steps and entered one of the half-buried domes. A gray-haired, bearded man was in the well-lighted room, apparently the living room of a home, with a young woman.

Él médico,” said the man who had greeted Jan, gesturing. “Él habla inglés.

He went out, shutting the airlock door behind him.

“You must be the man from Oostpoort,” said the bearded man, holding out his hand. “I am Doctor Sanchez. We are very grateful you have come.”

“I thought for a while I wouldn’t make it,” said Jan ruefully, removing his venushelmet.

“This is Mrs. Murillo,” said Sanchez.

The woman was a Spanish blonde, full-lipped and beautiful, with golden hair and dark, liquid eyes. She smiled at Jan.

Encantada de conocerlo, señor,” she greeted him.

“Is this the patient, Doctor?” asked Jan, astonished. She looked in the best of health.

“No, the patient is in the next room,” answered Sanchez.

“Well, as much as I’d like to stop for a pipe, we’d better start at once,” said Jan. “It’s a hard drive back, and blastoff can’t be delayed.”

The woman seemed to sense his meaning. She turned and called: “Diego!

A boy appeared in the door, a dark-skinned, sleepy-eyed boy of about eight. He yawned. Then, catching sight of the big Dutchman, he opened his eyes wide and smiled.

The boy was healthy-looking, alert, but the mark of the Venus Shadow was on his face. There was a faint mottling, a criss-cross of dead-white lines.

Mrs. Murillo spoke to him rapidly in Spanish and he nodded. She zipped him into a venusuit and fitted a small helmet on his head.

“Good luck, amigo,” said Sanchez, shaking Jan’s hand again.

“Thanks,” replied Jan. He donned his own helmet. “I’ll need it, if the trip over was any indication.”

Jan and Diego made their way back down the chain to the groundcar. There was a score of men there now, and a few women. They let the pair go through, and waved farewell as Jan swung the groundcar around and headed back eastward.

It was easier driving with the wind behind him, and Jan hit a hundred kilometers an hour several times before striking the rougher ground of Den Hoorn. Now, if he could only find a way over the bluff raised by that last quake...

The ground of Den Hoorn was still shivering. Jan did not realize this until he had to brake the groundcar almost to a stop at one point, because it was not shaking in severe, periodic shocks as it had earlier. It quivered constantly, like the surface of quicksand.

The ground far ahead of him had a strange color to it. Jan, watching for the cliff he had to skirt and scale, had picked up speed over some fairly even terrain, but now he slowed again, puzzled. There was something wrong ahead. He couldn’t quite figure it out.

Diego, beside him, had sat quietly so far, peering eagerly through the windshield, not saying a word. Now suddenly he cried in a high thin tenor:

Cuidado! Cuidado! Un abismo!

Jim saw it at the same time and hit the brakes so hard the groundcar would have stood on its nose had its wheels been smaller. They skidded to a stop.

The chasm that had caused him such a long detour before had widened, evidently in the big quake that had hit earlier. Now it was a canyon, half a kilometer wide. Five meters from the edge he looked out over blank space at the far wall, and could not see the bottom.

Cursing choice Dutch profanity, Jan wheeled the groundcar northward and drove along the edge of the abyss as fast as he could. He wasted half an hour before realizing that it was getting no narrower.

There was no point in going back southward. It might be a hundred kilometers long or a thousand, but he never could reach the end of it and thread the tumbled rocks of Den Hoorn to Oostpoort before the G-boat blastoff.

There was nothing to do but turn back to Rathole and see if some other way could not be found.

Jan sat in the half-buried room and enjoyed the luxury of a pipe filled with some of Theodorus Neimeijer’s mild tobacco. Before him, Dr. Sanchez sat with crossed legs, cleaning his fingernails with a scalpel. Diego’s mother talked to the boy in low, liquid tones in a corner of the room.

Jan was at a loss to know how people whose technical knowledge was as skimpy as it obviously was in Rathole were able to build these semi-underground domes to resist the earth shocks that came from Den Hoorn. But this one showed no signs of stress. A religious print and a small pencil sketch of Señora Murillo, probably done by the boy, were awry on the inward-curving walls, but that was all.

Jan felt justifiably exasperated at these Spanish-speaking people.

“If some effort had been made to take the boy to Oostpoort from here, instead of calling on us to send a car, Den Hoorn could have been crossed before the crack opened,” he pointed out.

“An effort was made,” replied Sanchez quietly. “Perhaps you do not fully realize our position here. We have no engines except the stationary generators that give us current for our air-conditioning and our utilities. They are powered by the windmills. We do not have gasoline engines for vehicles, so our vehicles are operated by hand.”

“You push them?” demanded Jan incredulously.

“No. You’ve seen pictures of the pump-cars that once were used on terrestrial railroads? Ours are powered like that, but we cannot operate them when the Venerian wind is blowing. By the time I diagnosed the Venus Shadow in Diego, the wind was coming up, and we had no way to get him to Oostpoort.”

“Mmm,” grunted Jan. He shifted uncomfortably and looked at the pair in the corner. The blonde head was bent over the boy protectingly, and over his mother’s shoulder Diego’s black eyes returned Jan’s glance.

“If the disease has just started, the boy could wait for the next Earth ship, couldn’t he?” asked Jan.

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