Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  He needed to do this precisely, with the least use of fuel. He was helped somewhat by riding “with the current” from west to east; the 940-mile-per-hour rotational speed of Venus at her equator was profit rather than loss. However, exact placement was another matter. A departure time was selected so that the entire descending curve would be on the day side of the planet in order to use the Sun as a reckoning point for placement in longitude; placement in latitude would have to depend on dead reckoning by careful choice of course.

  The Sun is the only possible celestial body to use in air navigation at Venus, and even Sol is lost to the naked eye as soon as one is inside the planet-wide blanket of cloud. Matt “shot the Sun” by keeping one eye glued on the eyepiece of an infra-red adapter which had been fitted to the ship’s octant, and was enabled thereby to coach his skipper from a prepared flight plan. It had not been considered practical to cut a cam for the automatic robot; too little was known about the atmospheric conditions to be expected.

  When Matt informed his pilot that they were about thirty miles up, by radar, and approaching the proper longitude, is given by the infrared image of the Sun, Thurlow brought the jeep down toward their target, ever lower and slower, and finally braked her with the jet to let her drop in a parabola distorted by air resistance.

  They were enveloped in the ever-present Venerian clouds. The pilot’s port was utterly useless to them. Matt now started watching the surface under them, using an infrared-sensitive “cloud piercer.”

  Thurlow watched his radar altimeter, checking it against the height-time plan for grounding.

  “If we are going to dodge around any, it’s got to be now,” he said quietly to Matt. “What do you see?”

  “Looks fairly smooth. Can’t tell much.”

  Thurlow sneaked a look. “It’s not water, anyway—and it’s not forest. I guess we’ll chance it.”

  Down they dropped, with Matt watching the ghostly infrared-produced picture narrowly at the end, ready to tell Thurlow to give her full power if it were a meadow.

  Thurlow eased off his jet—and cut it. There was a bump as if they had fallen a couple of feet. They were down, landed on Venus.

  “Whew!” said the pilot and wiped sweat from his forehead. “I don’t want to have to try that every day.”

  “Nice landing, Skipper!” called out Oscar.

  “Yea bo!” agreed Tex.

  “Thanks, fellows. Well, let’s get the stilts down.” He punched a stud on the control board. Like most rockets built for jet landings, the jeep was fitted with three stabilizing jacks which came telescoping out of the craft’s sides and slanting downward. Hydraulic pressure forced them down until they touched something solid enough to hold them, whereupon the thrusting force was automatically cut off and they locked in place, propping the rocket on three sides, tripod fashion, and holding it erect.

  Thurlow waited until three little green lights appeared under the stud controlling the stilts, then unclutched the jeep’s stabilizing gyros. The jeep held steady, he unstrapped. “All right, men. Let’s take a look. Matt and Tex, stay inside. Oscar, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, since it’s your home town, you should do the honors.”

  “Right!” Oscar unstrapped and hurried to the lock. There was no need to check the air, since Venus is man-inhabited, and all of them, as members of the Patrol, had been immunized to the virulent Venerian fungi.

  Thurlow crowded close behind him. Matt unstrapped and came down to sit by Tex in the passenger rest Oscar had left. The space around the lock was too limited in the little craft to make it worthwhile to do anything but wait.

  Oscar stared out into the mist. “Well, how does it feel to be home?” asked Thurlow.

  “Swell! What a beautiful, beautiful day!”

  Thurlow smiled at Oscar’s back and said, “Let’s get the ladder down and see where we are.” The access door was more than fifty feet above the jeep’s fins, with no convenient loading elevator.

  “Okay.” Oscar turned and squeezed past Thurlow. The jeep settled suddenly on the side away from the door, seemed to catch itself, then started to fall over with increasing speed.

  “The gyros!” yelled Thurlow. “Matt, clutch the gyros!” He tried to scramble past Oscar; they fouled each other, then the two fell sprawling backwards as the jeep toppled over.

  At the pilot’s yell Matt tried to comply—but he had been sprawled out, relaxing. He grabbed the sides of the rest, trying to force himself up and back to the control station, but the rest tilted backwards; he found himself “skinning the cat” out of it, and then was resting on the side of the craft, which was now horizontal.

  Oscar and Thurlow were the first things he saw as he untangled himself. They were piled up on the inner wall of the ship, with Oscar mostly on top. Oscar started to get up—and stopped. “Eeeyowp!”

  “You hurt, Oz?”

  “My arm.”

  “What’s the trouble?” This was Tex, who appeared from behind Matt, apparently untouched by the tumble.

  Oscar helped himself up with his right arm, then tenderly felt his left forearm. “I don’t know. A sprain—or a break, maybe. Eeee—ah! It’s a break.”

  “Are you sure?” Matt stepped forward. “Let me see it.”

  “What’s the matter with the skipper?” asked Tex.

  “Huh?” said Matt and Oscar together. Thurlow had not moved. Tex went to him and knelt over him.

  “Looks like he’s knocked out cold.”

  “Throw some water over him.”

  “No, don’t do that. Do—” The craft settled again. Oscar looked startled and said, “I think we had better get out of here.”

  “Huh? We can’t,” protested Matt. “We’ve got to bring Mr. Thurlow to.”

  Oscar did not answer him but started climbing up toward the open lock, now ten feet over their heads, swearing in Venerian as he struggled painfully and awkwardly, using one hand, from strut to brace. “’S’matter with old Oz?” asked Tex. “Acts like he’s blown his top.”

  “Let him go. We’ve got to take care of the skipper.” They knelt over Thurlow and gave him a quick, gentle examination. He seemed unhurt, but remained unconscious.; “Maybe he’s just had the breath knocked out of him,” suggested Matt. “His heart beat is strong and steady.”

  “Look at this, Matt.” It was a lump on the back of the; lieutenant’s head. Matt felt it gently.

  “Didn’t bash in his skull. He’s just had a wallop on his noggin. He’ll be all right—I think.”

  “I wish Doc Pickering was here.”

  “Yeah, and if fish had feet, they’d be mice. Quit worrying, Tex. Stop messing with him and give him a chance to come out of it naturally.”

  Oscar stuck his head down into the open door. “Hey, you guys! Come up out of there—and fast!”

  “What for?” asked Matt. “Anyhow, we can’t—we got to stay with the boss, and he’s still out cold.”

  “Then carry him!”

  “How? Piggyback?”

  “Any way—but do it! The ship is sinking!”

  Tex opened his mouth, closed it again, and dived toward a small locker. Matt yelled. “Tex—get a line!”

  “What do you think I’m doing? Ice-skating?” Tex reappeared with a coil of thin, strong line used in warping the little craft in to her mother ship. “Easy now—lift him as I slip it under his chest.”

  “We ought to make a proper sling. We might hurt him.”

  “No time for that!” urged Oscar from above them. “Hurry!”

  Matt swarmed up to the door with the end of the line while Tex was still fastening the loop under the armpits of the unconscious man. A quick look around was enough to confirm Oscar’s prediction; the jeep lay on her side with her fins barely touching solid ground. The nose was lower than the tail and sinking in thin, yellow mud. The mud stretched away into the mist, like a flat field, its surface carpeted with a greenish-yellow fungus except for a small space adjacent to the ship where the ship, in failing, had splashed a
gap in the surface.

  Matt had no time to take the scene in; the mud was almost up to the door. “Ready down there?”

  “Ready. I’ll be right up.”

  “Stay where you are and steady him. I think I can handle him.” Thurlow weighed one hundred forty pounds, Earth-side; his Venus weight was about one hundred and seventeen. Matt straddled the door and took a strain on the line.

  “I can give you one hand, Matt,” Oscar said anxiously.

  “Just stay out of my way.” With Matt pulling and Tex pushing and steadying from below, they got the limp lieutenant over the lip of the door and laid out on the rocket.

  The craft lurched again as a tail fin slid off the bank. “Let’s get going, troops,” Matt urged. “Oz, can you get up on that bank by yourself?”


  “Then do so. Well leave the line on the skipper and chuck the end to you and you can hang onto it with your good hand. That way, if he goes in the mud, we can haul him out.”

  “Quit talking and get busy.” Oscar trotted the length of the craft, taking the end of the line with him. He made it to the bank by stepping from a tail fin.

  Matt and Tex had no trouble carrying Thurlow as far as the fins, but the last few feet, from fins to bank, were awkward. They had to work close to the jet tube, still sizzling hot, and balance themselves in a trough formed by a fin and the converging side of the ship. They finally made it by letting Oscar take most of the lieutenant’s weight by hauling from the bank with his one good arm.

  When they had gotten Thurlow laid out on the turf Matt jumped back aboard the jeep. Oscar shouted at him. “Hey, Matt—where do you think you’re going?”

  “Back inside.”

  “Don’t do it. Come back here.” Matt hesitated, Oscar added, “That’s an order, Matt.”

  Matt answered, “I’ll only be a minute. We’ve got no weapons and no survival kits. I’ll duck in and toss them out.”

  “Don’t try it.” Matt stood still a moment, balanced between Oscar’s unquestioned seniority and the novelty of taking direct orders from his roommate. “Look at the door, Matt,” Oscar added. “You’d be trapped.”

  Matt looked. The far end of the door was already in the mud and a steady stream was slopping into the ship, like molasses. As he looked the jeep rolled about a quarter turn, seeking a new stability. Matt made it to the bank in one flying leap.

  He looked back and saw that the door was out of sight; a big bubble formed and plopped!—and then another. “Thanks, Oz!”

  They stood and watched as the tail slid away from the bank. A cloud of steam came up and joined the mist as the jet tube hit the wetness; then the tail lifted and the jeep was almost vertical, upside down, for a few moments, with only her after end showing above the slime.

  She sank slowly. Presently there was nothing but bubbles in the mud and a ragged break in the false lawn to show where it had been.

  Matt’s chin was trembling. “I should have stayed at the controls. I could have caught her on her gyros.”

  “Nonsense,” said Oscar. “He didn’t tell you to stay put.”

  “I should have known better.”

  “Quit beating yourself with it. The procedures say it’s the pilot’s business. If there was any doubt in his mind he should have left her stabilized on gyro until he inspected. Right now we got to take care of him, so cut out the postmortem.”

  “Okay.” Matt knelt down and tried Thurlow’s pulse. It was still steady. “Nothing we can do for him at the moment but let him rest. Let’s see your arm.”

  “Okay, but take it easy. Ouch!”

  “Sorry. I’m afraid I’ll have to hurt you; I’ve never actually set a bone before.”

  “I have,” said Tex, “out on the range. Here you go, Oz old boy—lie down on your back. And relax—it’s going to hurt.”

  “Okay. Only I thought that down in Texas you just shot ’em.” Oscar managed to smile.

  “Just for broken legs. Broken arms we usually save. Matt, you whip up a couple of splints. Got a knife?”


  “Good thing—I don’t have. Better take your blouse off first, Oscar.” With help Jensen complied; Tex placed a foot in Oscar’s left armpit, grasped his left hand in both of his, and gave a steady tug.

  Oscar yelped. “I think that did it,” said Tex. “Matt, hurry up with those splints.”

  “Coming.” Matt had found a clump of grass, twelve to fifteen feet tall and superficially similar to Earth-side bamboo. He cut about a dozen lengths as thick as his little finger and around fifteen inches long, brought them back and gave them to Tex. “Will these do?”

  “I guess so. Here goes your blouse, Oscar.” Tex attempted to tear strips from the garment, then gave up. “Golly, that stuff is tough. Gimme your knife, Matt.”

  Ten minutes later Oscar was adequately splinted and bandaged, with what remained of his blouse rigged as a sling. Tex took off his own blouse and sat down on it, for the turf was damp and the day was hot and muggy as only Venus can be. “That’s done,” he said, “and the skipper hasn’t blinked an eye. That leaves you holding the sack, Oz—when do we have lunch?”

  “A fine question, that.” Oscar wrinkled his brows. “First, let’s see what we’ve got to work with. Turn out your pouches.”

  Matt had his knife. Oscar’s pouch contained nothing of significance. Tex contributed his harmonica. Oscar looked worried. “Fellows, do you suppose I’m justified in looking through Mr. Thurlow’s pouch?”

  “I think you ought to,” said Tex. “I’ve never seen anybody stay out so long.”

  “I agree,” added Matt. “I think we had better admit he s got a concussion and assume that he’s going to be out of the running for a while. Go ahead, Oscar.”

  Thurlow’s pouch contained some personal items that they skipped over quickly, the orders to the expedition, and a second knife—which had set in its handle a small, ornamental, magnetic compass. “Golly, I’m glad to find that item. I’ve been wondering how we would ever find our way back to this spot without natives to guide us.”

  “Who wants to?” asked Tex. “It doesn’t seem to have any attractions for me.”

  “The jeep is here.”

  “And the Triplex is somewhere over your head. One is about as close as the other—to a pedestrian, meaning me.”

  “Look, Tex—somehow we’ve got to get that firecracker out of the mud and put her back into commission. Otherwise we stay here for life.”

  “Huh? I’d been depending on you, the old Venerian hand, to lead us back to civilization.”

  “You don’t know what you’re saying. Maybe you can walk five or six thousand miles through swamps, and sink holes, and cane brake; I can’t. Just remember that there isn’t a permanent settlement, not even a plantation, more than five hundred miles from either one of the poles. You know Venus isn’t really explored—I know about as much about this neck of the woods as you know about Tibet.”

  “I wonder what in the world the Gary was doing here?” Matt commented.

  “Search me.”

  “Say!” said Tex. “Maybe we can get home in the Gary.”

  “Maybe we can, but we haven’t even found the Gary yet. Consequently if we find we can’t, just as soon as we carry out these orders—” Oscar held up the paper he had taken from Thurlow’s pouch, “—we’ve got to find some way to haul the jeep out of the sinkhole.”

  “With our own, little pink patty-paws?” inquired Tex. “And what’s that about our orders? We don’t seem to be in very good shape to go around quelling riots, putting down insurrection, and generally throwing our weight about. We haven’t even got a bean shooter, much less a bean. Come to think about it, if I had a bean, I’d eat it.”

  “Oscar’s right,” agreed Matt, “We’re here; we’ve got a mission to perform; we’ve got to carry it out. That’s what Mr. Thurlow would say. After that comes trying to figure out a way to get back.”

  Tex stood up. “I should have gone into the cattle bu
siness. Okay, Oscar—what next?”

  “The first thing is for you and Matt to build a litter to carry the boss. We’ve got to find open water and I don’t want to split up the party.”

  The same clump of cane grass that furnished splints provided material for a litter frame. Using both knives Matt and Tex cut two seven-foot lengths as thick as their upper arms. The stuff was light and, in that thickness, satisfactorily stiff. They slipped the poles through the sleeves of their blouses, then notched in cross pieces near each end. There was a wide gap in the middle which they wound about with the line salvaged from the jeep.

  The result was a sloppy piece of work, but serviceable. Thurlow was still unconscious. His breathing was shallow but his pulse was still steady. They lifted him onto the stretcher and set out, with Oscar in the lead, compass in hand.

  For about an hour they tramped through swampy land, splashing through mud, getting welts from the undergrowth, and pursued by clouds of insects. At last Matt called out, “Oz! We’ve just got to have some rest.”

  Jensen turned around. “Okay—this is the end of the line, anyhow. Open water.”

  They crowded forward and joined him. Beyond the cane brake, perfectly flat and calm under the fog, was a pond or lake. Its size was uncertain as the far shore was lost in the mist.

  They tramped out a spot to put the litter down, then Oscar bent over the water and slapped it—Slap!—Slap!—Slap, slap, slap—Slap, slap!

  “What do we do now?”

  “We wait—and pray. Thank goodness the natives are usually friendly.”

  “Do you think they can help us?”

  “If they want to help I’ll lay you even money that they can snake the jeep out of that muck and polish it clean in three days.”

  “You really think so? I knew the Venerians were friendly but a job like that—”

  “Don’t underrate the Little People. They don’t look like us but don’t let that throw you.”

  Matt squatted down and started fanning the insects away from the unconscious officer. Presently Oscar slapped the water again, in the same pattern.

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