"Do you speak English?" he asked. The man brightened but shook his head.
"No hablo ingles," he said, "pero el medico 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.
"el medico," said the man who had greeted Jan, gesturing. "el habla ingles."
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, senor," 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 Senora 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.
"I said I had just diagnosed it, not that it had just started, senor," corrected Sanchez. "As you know, the trip to Earth takes 145 days and it can be started only when the two planets are at the right position in their orbits. Have you ever seen anyone die of the Venus Shadow?"
"Yes, I have," replied Jan in a low voice. He had seen two people die of it, and it had not been pleasant.
Medical men thought it was a deficiency disease, but they had not traced down the deficiency responsible. Treatment by vitamins, diet, antibiotics, infrared and ultraviolet rays, all were useless. The only thing that could arrest and cure the disease was removal from the dry, cloud-hung surface of Venus and return to a moist, sunny climate on Earth.
Without that treatment, once the typical mottled texture of the skin appeared, the flesh rapidly deteriorated and fell away in chunks. The victim remained unfevered and agonizingly conscious until the degeneration reached a vital spot.
"If you have," said Sanchez, "you must realize that Diego cannot wait for a later ship, if his life is to be saved. He must get to Earth at once."
Jan puffed at the Heerenbaai-Tabak and cogitated. The place was aptly named. It was a ratty community. The boy was a dark-skinned little Spaniard--of Mexican origin, perhaps. But he was a boy, and a human being.
A thought occurred to him. From what he had seen and heard, the entire economy of Rathole could not support the tremendous expense of sending the boy across the millions of miles to Earth by spaceship.
"Who's paying his passage?" he asked. "The Dutch Central Venus Company isn't exactly a charitable institution."
"Your Senor Dekker said that would be taken care of," replied Sanchez.
Jan relit his pipe silently, making a mental resolution that Dekker wouldn't take care of it alone. Salaries for Venerian service were high, and many of the men at Oostpoort would contribute readily to such a cause.
"Who is Diego's father?" he asked.
"He was Ramon Murillo, a very good mechanic," answered Sanchez, with a sliding sidelong glance at Jan's face. "He has been dead for three years."
"The copters at Oostpoort can't buck this wind," he said thoughtfully, "or I'd have come in one of those in the first place instead of trying to cross Den Hoorn by land. But if you have any sort of aircraft here, it might make it downwind--if it isn't wrecked on takeoff."
"I'm afraid not," said Sanchez.
"Too bad. There's nothing we can do, then. The nearest settlement west of here is more than a thousand kilometers away, and I happen to know they have no planes, either. Just copters. So that's no help."
"Wait," said Sanchez, lifting the scalpel and tilting his head. "I believe there is something, though we cannot use it. This was once an American naval base, and the people here were civilian employes who refused to move north with it. There was a flying machine they used for short-range work, and one was left behind--probably with a little help from the people of the settlement. But...."
"What kind of machine? Copter or plane?"
"They call it a flying platform. It carries two men, I believe. But, senor...."
"I know them. I've operated them, before I left Earth. Man, you don't expect me to try to fly one of those little things in this wind? They're tricky as they can be, and the passengers are absolutely unprotected!"
"Senor, I have asked you to do nothing."
"No, you haven't," muttered Jan. "But you know I'll do it."
Sanchez looked into his face, smiling faintly and a little sadly.
"I was sure you would be willing," he said. He turned and spoke in Spanish to Mrs. Murillo.
The woman rose to her feet and came to them. As Jan arose, she looked up at him, tears in her eyes.
"Gracias," she murmured. "Un millon de gracias."
She lifted his hands in hers and kissed them.
Jan disengaged himself gently, embarrassed. But it occurred to him, looking down on the bowed head of the beautiful young widow, that he might make some flying trips back over here in his leisure time. Language barriers were not impassable, and feminine companionship might cure his neurotic, history-born distaste for Spaniards, for more than one reason.
Sanchez was tugging at his elbow.
"Senor, I have been trying to tell you," he said. "It is generous and good of you, and I wanted Senora Murillo to know what a brave man you are. But have you forgotten that we have no gasoline engines here? There is no fuel for the flying platform."
The platform was in a warehouse which, like the rest of the structures in Rathole, was a half-buried dome. The platform's ring-shaped base was less than a meter thick, standing on four metal legs. On top of it, in the center, was a railed circle that would hold two men, but would crowd them. Two small gasoline engines sat on each side of this railed circle and between them on a third side was the fuel tank. The passengers entered it on the fourth side.
The machine was dusty and spotted with rust, Jan, surrounded by Sanchez, Diego and a dozen men, inspected it thoughtfully. The letters USN*SES were painted in white on the platform itself, and each engine bore the label "Hiller."
Jan peered over the edge of the platform at the twin-ducted fans in their plastic shrouds. They appeared in good shape. Each was powered by one of the engines, transmitted to it by heavy rubber belts.
Jan sighed. It was an unhappy situation. As far as he could determine, without making tests, the engines were in perfect condition. Two perfectly good engines, and no fuel for them.
"You're sure there's no gasoline, anywhere in Rathole?" he asked Sanchez.
Sanchez smiled ruefully, as he had once before, at Jan's appellation for the community. The inhabitants' term for it was simply "La Ciudad Nuestra"--"Our Town." But he made no protest. He turned to one of the other men and talked rapidly for a few moments in Spanish.
"None, senor," he said, turning back to Jan. "The Americans, of course, kept much of it when they were here, but the few things we take to Oostpoort to trade could not buy precious gasoline. We have electricity in plenty if you can power the platform with it."
Jan thought that over, trying to find a way.
"No, it wouldn't work," he said. "We could rig batteries on the platform and electric motors to turn the propellers. But batteries big enough to power it all the way to Oostpoort would be so heavy the machine couldn't lift them off the ground. If there were some way to carry a power line all the way to Oostpoort, or to broadcast the power to it.... But it's a light-load machine, and must have an engine that gives it the necessary power from very little weight."
Wild schemes ran through his head. If they were on water, instead of land, he could rig up a sail. He could still rig up a sail, for a groundcar, except for the chasm out on Den Hoorn.
The groundcar! Jan straightened and snapped his fingers.
"Doctor!" he explained. "Send a couple of men to drain the rest of the fuel from my groundcar. And let's get this platform above ground and tie it down until we can get it started."
Sanchez gave rapid orders in Spanish. Two of the men left at a run, carrying five-gallon cans with them.
Three others picked up the platform and carried it up a ramp and outside. As soon as they reached ground level, the wind hit them. They dropped the platform to the ground, where it shuddered and swayed momentarily, and two of the men fell successfully on their stomachs. The wind caught the third and somersaulted him half a dozen times before he skidded to a stop on his back with outstretched arms and legs. He turned over cautiously and crawled back to them.
Jan, his head just above ground level, surveyed the terrain. There was flat ground to the east, clear in a fairly broad alley for at least half a kilometer before any of the domes protruded up into it.
"This is as good a spot for takeoff as we'll find," he said to Sanchez.
The men put three heavy ropes on the platform's windward rail and secured it by them to the heavy chain that ran by the dome. The platform quivered and shuddered in the heavy wind, but its base was too low for it to overturn.
Shortly the two men returned with the fuel from the groundcar, struggling along the chain. Jan got above ground in a crouch, clinging to the rail of the platform, and helped them fill the fuel tank with it. He primed the carburetors and spun the engines.
He turned the engines over again. One of them coughed, and a cloud of blue smoke burst from its exhaust, but they did not catch.
"What is the matter, senor?" asked Sanchez from the dome entrance.
"I don't know," replied Jan. "Maybe it's that the engines haven't been used in so long. I'm afraid I'm not a good enough mechanic to tell."
"Some of these men were good mechanics when the navy was here," said Sanchez. "Wait."
He turned and spoke to someone in the dome. One of the men of Rathole came to Jan's side and tried the engines. They refused to catch. The man made carburetor adjustments and tried again. No success.
He sniffed, took the cap from the fuel tank and stuck a finger inside. He withdrew it, wet and oily, and examined it. He turned and spoke to Sanchez.
"He says that your groundcar must have a diesel engine," Sanchez interpreted to Jan. "Is that correct?"