The Planet Mappers

E. Everett Evans

Preview: Issue 1 of 27

CHAPTER 1

As he heard that dread yet telltale spang against the hull of their spaceboat, young Jon Carver dropped his reelbook and sprang to his feet. His eyes looked swiftly to help his ears trace the sudden hiss he knew was their precious air escaping.

In the back of his mind he heard the sudden grunt his father made, the sound of a falling body, his mother's frightened scream, and his brother's "What's wrong?" But he did not stop his own lanky, gangling body in its leap toward the outer bulkhead. And as he jumped, he pulled his handkerchief from his hip pocket.

"Leaping tuna! If that isn't fixed quick, we'll lose our air," was his near-panicked thought. "We won't be able to get where we're going. Be lucky if we come out of it alive!"

So, guided by the whistling, escaping air, Jon found the hole, nearly half an inch in diameter. Into it he wadded the corner of the cloth as best he could. The outward loss of their precious air slackened, although there was still some leakage he could not stop this way. He jumped to the nearest of the many emergency repair kits scattered about the ship. From it he grabbed a metal patch and an electric torch.

Swiftly he plugged the latter into a wall socket. With it he quickly welded the patch into place, after pulling--with considerable difficulty--his handkerchief from the hole. "It'll do for now," he decided, after carefully examining his work and listening closely to make sure there was no more whistling-out of air. "But we'll have to go outside and really fill in and weld-plug that hole in the hull, but quick."

He re-stowed the torch, then opened a flagon of emergency oxygen-helium mixture in front of the electric blowers that kept their air circulating--to replenish what had been lost. Only then--although it had been less than two minutes, really--did he turn back to the rest of the family. He had been somewhat surprised that his father had not come to help him; he had not been at all surprised that his brother had not. Jak was a grand guy--Jon thought the world of him--but he just wasn't worth a dead salmon in an emergency like this; he did not have a mechanical type of mind.

Now, as he turned, Jon saw his mother and brother kneeling beside the prone body of his father, and noted with astonishment that she was crying. There was something stiff and unnatural about the man's body, too, lying there on the deck beside his recline seat.

A sudden fear sent the boy leaping across the room. "What ... what happened? Pop isn't dead, is he?"

"No. Something made him fall, and he hit his head on the deck and knocked himself out," Jak said without looking up. "His foot caught in the footrest, and as he fell over the seat arm his leg broke."

Jon dropped to his knees beside his weeping mother and threw an arm about her. His eyes were wide and damp with swift tears, for, in spite of the rapid growth his body had undergone in the past few years, he was still only sixteen--and he loved this splendid father of his with genuine devotion.

It just couldn't be that Pop wouldn't live, he thought in panic. He couldn't make himself believe that he might no longer have the wonderful companionship and guidance and counsel of this grand man who had been his world.

His mother, seeming to realize what the boy was undergoing, forced back her own grief to turn and gather this younger son into her arms, comforting him as only mothers can.

They watched the elder brother's swift, competent hands as he bathed with soft cotton, soaked in some kind of medicine taken from the open first-aid kit beside him, the bruised place on the back of the father's head. Jak had already shaved away the hair about this bruise. Now he took an atomizer and sprayed on a clear, plastic bandage.

Mrs. Carver turned anxiously to her younger son. "Jon, you know how to run the ship. Turn it around and get us back to the nearest hospital as fast as it will go."

Jon looked at her in astonishment, for it had never before occurred to him that she did not know at least something about inter-stellar astrogation. "We can't, Mom. You don't run a ship in space like you do a ground car. We're on negative acceleration now, but it'll be close to two days before we've slowed enough for any kind of maneuvering."

"That's right, Mother," Jak came unexpectedly to his brother's aid. "You can't stop or turn a spaceship at will. But I don't think we need worry too much. Father's head wound is not serious, although there's a slight concussion. And we can set his leg so it will heal straight--it's a clean break."

"Besides, it would take at least a month to get back to the nearest colonized planet," Jon took up the explanation. "You know we're almost six weeks out of Terra."

Mrs. Carver still looked doubtful, but responded, as did Jon, when Jak began issuing instructions to them to help him in setting the broken leg. He had cut away the trousers and removed the boot and sock. Now he asked his mother to grasp his father's shoulders and hold tightly. He then showed Jon how to hold the toes and heel of the injured leg, and pull steadily downward while he manipulated the bone ends into place.

When the break had been adjusted, Jak dissolved certain plastics into a heavy, viscous liquid which he sprayed onto the leg. This mixture hardened almost instantly, forming a cast that was far stiffer and yet less weighty than either the ancient plaster casts or cumbersome splints.

When it was finished, they all rose, and while their mother hurried ahead to prepare the bunk, the boys stooped and lifted their father's inert body. Staggering a bit under the load, yet handling him tenderly, they carried him to his wall bunk and lowered him onto the sheeted mattress. After their mother had tucked in the top sheet and blankets, the boys buckled the acceleration straps about the bunk, and Jak made an extra binder with a folded blanket about the broken leg. Now, if their father regained consciousness, or moved about restlessly in partial awakening, he could not fall out and perhaps hurt himself more.

When all had been done to make the wounded man as comfortable as possible, Mrs. Carver turned to Jon questioningly.

"What happened, Son? Do you know?"

"Meteoroid broached the hull, then must have gone on and almost hit Pop. If it was a close miss, the force of its passage must have made him duck and fall."

"But I don't feel any air escaping."

"There isn't now. I patched the hole, inside. Temporary job, though. Pop'll--" He stopped in sudden realization, then straightened resolutely and his voice was calmer, more sure, as he went on. "I mean, I'll have to go outside and make a permanent weld. Might as well do it now."

His mother's face showed the pride she felt in this young son who could plan and do the things that had to be done, even while she knew he was upset by his father's accident.

"Yes, it should be done at once." But she gripped his arm convulsively. "Be sure your lifeline is fastened securely, Jon."

He patted her hand awkwardly. "I will, Mom. I've been outside a lot, you know, and understand just what to do."

He broke away and ran toward the airlock. From the closet just inside the inner lockdoor he took his spacesuit, and put it on as quickly as he could. He was still working on the zippered seam down the front, smearing on the quickly-drying plastic that made it doubly airtight, when his brother came in.

"Can I help, Chubby?"

"Sure, give me a hand with my helmet. Say, Owl, will Pop really be all OK?"

"I ... I think so. He got a bad smack when he fell. But his heart seems to be beating strongly, and I think the concussion'll wear off soon. The leg'll heal, but he'll be out of commission about six weeks."

He picked up the quartzite "fishbowl" and slipped it over Jon's head. They settled it firmly in place on the suit-ring, and screwed tight the lugs that held it in place. As Jon turned on his oxygen he motioned to the plastic, and Jak smeared it carefully all around the seam.

When he had finished, Jon increased the oxygen flow until the suit bulged, while Jak minutely inspected every point for any possible leakage. Finding none, he made the OK sign with thumb and bent forefinger, and Jon reduced his air-flow and opened the escape valve until the suit deflated enough so he could move about easily.

From a chest of repair supplies the younger boy took a can of metal-seal and a self-contained acetylene torch. These he fastened to his belt while Jak was getting, from a wall hook, a coil of thin but terrifically strong, light, plastic rope that would neither freeze nor lose its pliability in the utter cold of space. While spacesuits had magnetic shoe soles to keep their wearers in contact with the hull, a lifeline was a safety factor in case they happened to break that contact and drift away from the ship.

Jon checked his suit and equipment again, making sure he had all the tools he might need, and that they were firmly in place. He snapped one end of his lifeline into a ring at his belt, tugging strongly on it several times.

Then he turned and grinned through the helmet at his elder brother. He waved him away from the inner lockdoor, then pressed a button. The inner door swung open and air rushed in to fill the vacuum between the inner and outer lockdoors.

Jon stepped into the narrow space, skirted the handling mechanism there, then pressed another button to actuate the motor that closed and locked the inner door. When the red signal light told him it was airtight, he switched on the pump that returned the air to the body of the ship. The lock empty, he twisted the knob that opened the outer lockdoor, then snapped the other end of his lifeline to a ring just beside the opening doorway. He switched on his suit-heater as he felt the chill of space.

Slowly, ponderously, the mechanism swung the great eighteen-inch-thick outer door partially open, and Jon was facing deep space. Although he had spent nearly a third of his life out here, it was a sight that never tired the boy's active, imaginative mind, and even now he stood for a long minute, eagerly looking outward.

The awesome blackness of the void seemed alive with millions upon countless millions of tiny, distant, pinpointed lights he knew were giant suns. On and on they stretched, as far as the eye could see--and beyond. In the far, far distance were blotches of light Jon knew were the incredibly distant nebulae--other uncounted billions of suns that made up the far-off galaxies and universes.

He looked overhead, picking out against the backdrop of the nearer suns of our own galaxy--the Milky Way--some of the larger giant suns ... Canopus, Rigel, Deneb, Betelgeuse, Antares and others he knew by sight. The patterns familiar on Terra were somewhat distorted here because of the difference in distance and his line of sight, but those suns could not be mistaken.

He only stood there for a moment, then he reached out carefully and grasped the rung of the metal ladder welded onto the hull, and which ran completely around the ship. He pulled himself onto this, and held there while he estimated where that hole should be.

"About twenty-four feet to the left, and one or two lower than the doortop, I think," he muttered to himself. He climbed several rungs, then half-straightened and set first one foot and then the other firmly and flatly onto the hull beside the ladder rungs. He tried each of his shoes, making sure their magnetic soles were gripping tightly against the hull surface. Then he let loose the ladder and stood upright. Compared to the decks inside, he was at right angles, but there is no up, down or sideways in space--except that your feet always seem "down."

Assured that his shoes were holding firmly, he slid first one foot and then the other along the hull. In this way he walked ahead, always in full contact, yet able to progress almost at a normal pace. He counted his steps, and when he felt he was near the hole for which he was looking, stooped and began searching about the surface more minutely.

His estimate had been close, and it took him only a moment to find the place where the meteoroid had struck. He drew his lifeline taut and tied the loop to his belt, leaving the end of the line still snapped in place. Now, even though his knot might come loose, he was still fastened to the ship.

He took the can of metal-seal from his belt pouch, fumbling a bit because it was difficult working with such heavy gloves as those attached to his spacesuit. There was plenty of light from the billions of stars, nor did it matter what hour the ship's chronoms might indicate inside, it was always the same out here.

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