Chapter 2 The Wizard of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I had promised Ero Shan that I would design and help him build an anotar in which he could fly back to Havatoo; and as Taman wished me to supervise the building of some for the Korvan army, we had two under construction at the same time.

While this work was in progress I designed and had fabricated an entirely new type of parachute which opened instantaneously and descended very slowly. It could also be guided by flaps which opened and closed holes in the fabric. Tests eventually demonstrated that it could be used safely at an altitude of only two hundred feet.

I might note here, parenthetically, that I was working on an even more efficient safety device at the time that Fate decreed new and unwelcome adventures for me; thus terminating my experiments. The fuel used in the silent motor of my anotar I have described several times before in recounting former adventures. It consists of a substance known as lor, which contains an element called yor-san and another element, vik-ro, the action of which upon yor-san results in absolute annihilation of the lor. To give you an idea of what this means in terms of heat generation, and therefore power, let me remind you that if coal could be absolutely annihilated it would release eighteen thousand million times more energy than by ordinary combustion.

Thinking therefore in terms of heat rather than power, I designed a small balloon gas bag of tarel, that incredibly strong fabric woven from the web of the targo, which was to be carried, collapsed, in a small container from which it could be shot by a powerful spring. Simultaneously, an infinitesimal piece of lor was to be annihilated, instantaneously generating sufficient heat to inflate the balloon, and continuing to generate such heat for a considerable period of time.

Thus, the airman compelled to bail out could be sustained in the air for a great length of time, or, by means of a rip cord, descend gradually to the ground. I was greatly disappointed that I could not have completed my experimental ballochute, as I called it.

But to get back to my narrative. As soon as the first anotar was completed I gave it a gruelling test. It was a sweet ship; but as I had incorporated some new ideas in its design, we felt it advisable to give it a cross-country test before Ero Shan set out on the long flight to Havatoo. Here is where either Fate or stupidity took a hand in shaping my destiny. This time I am going to give myself the benefit of the doubt and call it Fate.

We provisioned the ship for a long cruise, said our goodbys, and took off early one morning. I knew that Duare didn’t want me to go by the expression in her eyes and the way she clung to me. I promised her that I would be back in not more than three days; and with her kisses still warm upon my lips, I climbed into the forward cockpit with Ero Shan and took off.

I had never flown very far west over Anlap, and as that part of the continent has never been thoroughly explored I decided to cruise in that direction and have a look at it. Sanara is at the extreme eastern end of Anlap, which, according to Amtorian maps, extends in a westerly direction for about three thousand miles. But as Amtorian maps are based upon an erroneous conception of the shape of the planet, I was sure that the distance was nearer six thousand miles than three thousand. Barring accidents, I felt that we should make the round trip in something like twenty-five hours flying at full speed; but as I wished to map the country roughly, we would have to fly much slower on the way out. However, I felt that three days would give us ample time. It would also be an adequate test flight for the anotar.

We passed over some very beautiful country the first day, and came down for the night in the center of a vast plain upon which there was no sign of human habitation and therefore no likelihood of our being attacked during the night. However, we took turns keeping watch.

When we awoke, the inner cloud envelope hung much lower than I had ever before seen it; and it was billowing up and down. I had never before seen it so agitated. However, we took off and continued on toward the west with a ceiling of about two thousand feet.

We had not flown far before I noticed that our compass was behaving most erratically. Though I knew that we were still flying due west, because of landmarks I had noted on our map the evening before, the compass indicated that we were flying south; and presently it gave up the ghost entirely, the needle swinging back and forth, sometimes a full three hundred and sixty degrees. And to make matters worse, the inner cloud envelope was dropping lower and lower. In less than half an hour our ceiling had fallen from two thousand to a thousand feet.

“This,” I said to Ero Shan, “is the end of our test flight. I am going to turn back. We’ve mapped the country well enough to fly back to Sanara without any compass, but I certainly won’t take the risk of flying on any farther with those clouds dropping lower and lower all the time and with no compass to guide us if they should eventually envelop us.”

“You’re absolutely right,” agreed Ero Shan. “Look at ’em now. They’ve dropped to within five hundred feet in the last fifteen minutes.”

“I’m going to land and wait it out as soon as we get beyond this forest,” I said.

We were flying over a considerable area of forest land where a forced landing would have meant a crackup, which, if we survived it, would mean a long walk of between five and six thousand miles back to Sanara through a savage wilderness inhabited by terrible beasts and, perhaps, even more terrible men. It was something we couldn’t afford to risk. We must cross that forest before the clouds enveloped us.

With throttle wide we raced above that vast expanse of heliotrope and lavender foliage which, like a beautiful mantle of flowers across a casket, hid death beneath. And the clouds were settling lower and lower.

I estimated the height of the trees at about a hundred feet; and now, above the trees, we had a ceiling of about fifty feet. The forest stretched on interminably before us as far as the eye could reach. On the way out we had crossed this forest in fifteen minutes; so I realized that, flying without benefit of compass, our course was not due east and that we were probably now flying the long axis of the forest, either north or south. The indecision and suspense were maddening. I have seldom if ever felt so helpless. Here was a situation in which no amount of efficiency or intelligence could prevail against the blind, insensate forces of nature. I wished that Roy Chapman Andrews were there to tell me what to do.

“Here she comes!” exclaimed Ero Shan, as the clouds billowed down ahead of us to merge with the pastels of the tree tops, cutting our visibility to zero.

I said nothing. There was nothing to say, as I glanced back and saw the clouds settling rapidly behind us shutting off our vision in all directions; but I pulled the stick back and zoomed into that semi-liquid chaos. At fifteen thousand feet I felt that we would be safely above the giant forests that are occasionally found on Venus as well as above most of the mountain ranges. We would have, at least, time in which to think and plan.

Now I was flying blind, without a compass, over unknown terrain; than which there can be nothing more baffling to the human mind and ingenuity.

I turned to Ero Shan. “Bail out, if you wish,” I said.

“Are you going to?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “Even if we landed without spraining an ankle, or breaking a leg, or getting killed, the chances of our ever reaching Sanara would be practically nil. The anotar is our only hope of salvation. I shall stick with it. I shall either live with it, or die with it.”

“I think it will be the latter,” said Ero Shan, with a grim laugh, “but I’d rather take that chance with you than the other; though if you had elected to bail out I’d have gone with you.”