Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"High-Frequency War" by Harl Vincent, part 1

Harl Vincent was the pen name of Harold Vincent Schoepflin (born Buffalo, New York, 19 October 1893; died Los Angeles, California, 5 May 1968), a mechanical engineer employed by Westinghouse. Vincent was one of the most prolific writers of the Gernsback Era of science fiction, publishing 56 stories between 1928 and 1935. However, he had dropped out of the field by the time science fiction began to move out of the pulp magazines after World War 2, and his work has been largely forgotten.

With the rise of the internet, though, everything old is new again. Vincent's fiction is starting to see the light of day once more. His story "Creatures of Vibration" from the January 1932 issue of Astounding Stories was uploaded into Project Gutenberg on July 26, 2007, and can be found here. Meanwhile, I've taken it upon myself to resurrect as many of his stories as possible here on this blog, starting with "Terrors Unseen" from the March 1931 issue of Astounding, which begins here. I've also started a Harl Vincent Facebook group, of which I am currently the sole member.

Next up on my revival list is the story "High-Frequency War" from the February 1940 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. By 1940 the Campbell Revolution was in full flight in the pages of Astounding, and Vincent's story shared the magazine with such science fiction luminaries as Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Leigh Brackett. I now present, for the first time since its initial publication 69 years ago, "High-Frequency War", presented in a blog-friendly multipart format.

High-Frequency War
by Harl Vincent

You could see that the fellow at the recruiting officer's desk was doing his level best to stand erect in his baggy clothing. He turned a battered felt hat over and over, in nervous, clawed fingers. In his pale eyes was a far-away look and almost servile pleading. His nondescript, rose-hued whiskers were something to remember.

"But listen," he was insisting mildly, "there must be something a guy like me can do. Even if I am a little lame. I just got to help."

Sergeant Hurley screwed up his scarred features in a grin that was meant to be kindly. "Sorry, Pinky," he said. "Not in this man's army. Looks like you've seen enough of this rotten war, anyway."

"Not even in a ground kitchen?" the mild one wheedled.

"Not even anywhere. Hell, man, we got physical exams. Take a walk now, like a good guy." The hard-boiled sergeant shook his head sadly at the nearby noncom as the man shuffled away. "Poor old geezer," he muttered.

Pinky wasn't old. He wasn't forty yet, but might have been anything up to sixty. To look at him, you'd think he wasn't quite all there. He wasn't. In the early days of the war, in 1974 or maybe 1973, something had happened to him. He'd been gassed, or perhaps caught up in one of those invisible wave eddies from a frequency bomb -- something, anyway.

He didn't remember. Nobody did. Pinky didn't even know where he came from, or who he was. There were thousands like him. But Pinky was different. Most of those other poor devils, who'd been through the first awful days when the combined air fleets of the Quadruple Alliance had swept over the eastern seaboard and inland, were all washed up. Pinky wasn't; at least, he wouldn't admit it. He drifted from one half-ruined city to another, to the small towns, even, always trying to enlist. Of course, they wouldn't let him.

He earned the sobriquet Pinky by the color of his beard, which had not been removed in he didn't know how long. He was broke, of course, and had to depend on canteens or relief stores for occasional shelter, or a meal, or a too-big pair of shoes. Most of the time he spent on the road. He was too sick even to be a good hobo; he was bent and twisted and lame from whatever had happened to him. But he kept going and he kept trying to enlist.

It was cold tonight. Pinky held the collar of his threadbare coat up around his neck with skinny fingers. He dragged himself along the State road that led out of town. He didn't know how far it might be to the next one. All he knew was that, wherever he was, it was way back of the lines. You couldn't even hear gunfire back here, or see a flash in the sky. He was hungry and wished now he'd remembered to stop in the canteen back in that burg. It's hell to be cold and hungry.

No traffic on this road and no lights at all. Must be a blackout around this part of the country. Dimly against the brooding sky ahead, Pinky caught the outlines of a group of fairly large buildings on a low hill. Not a light there, either. He limped on up the hill, hungrier and colder than ever.

There was a high iron fence, a gravel drive leading to an open gate. Pinky went into the grounds. It would be warmer sleeping alongside one of those buildings than in the open. Then he saw a closely shuttered light shining from a basement window. He moved cautiously toward it. There was the faint hum of machinery that throbbed in that basement. The window was partly open and a grateful warmth from inside enveloped Pinky as he moved next to it. He could see the glittering machines and a lot of clocklike gadgets and lights on the wall. There were steps leading down to a sort of hall, It would be warm down there. Perhaps he could curl up out of sight.

He was halfway down the steps when a door opened and a glare of light and damp heat swept over him. There was a chunky young fellow in greasy dungarees coming toward him with a wrench in his hand. With the light at his back, you couldn't see his face. Pinky threw up his arm to ward off the blow he expected. Then something went wrong inside of him. He couldn't breath at all and his muscles went limp. He slumped down and just forgot everything.

* * *

When Pinky came to, he was in where it was warm and light. The chunky fellow was holding up his head and pouring something down his throat. Whiskey. The heat of it in his stomach revived him and he sat up and blinked owlishly. The young chap in the dungarees laughed relievedly.

"Gee!" he exclaimed. "You scared the devil outta me. I thought it was a corpse falling down the stairs."

Pinky waggled the whiskers in an apologetic grin. "Guess I was just about all in," he admitted.

"I'll say you were! You are yet." Bright brown eyes narrowed in their inspection of Pinky. "How long since you've eaten?"

"Oh, I don't know" -- negligently. "Couple of days, I guess."

"I thought so. Here, can you walk, Pinky?"

Everybody called him that without being told. One look at the odd foliage was enough. Pinky said, "Sure, I can walk," and let the young fellow take his arm.

They walked through the aisle of the shiny, humming machines and into a sort of locker room where there was a table and a few padded, board chairs.

"Sit down," directed the young chap, "and I'll get you a bowl of soup. What's your name?"

"You named me, already."

The dungareed one, opening a can he took from a locker, grinned appreciatively. "What? Pinky?" He laughed.

Pinky nodded and his pale eyes twinkled. "Suits, doesn't it?"

"Sure does. Well, mine's Slim -- 'cause I'm so short and wide. Slim Harvey." He was busy with a pan and the soup, and an electric grill. "All you get is soup, Pinky. At first. In an hour or so you can have some sandwiches and stuff. Your belly's too flat for more, right away."

Pinky nodded again. This Slim Harvey knew what he was doing. "What is this place, Slim?"

The university. Doc Buckley's you know." Young Harvey had out a bowl and the thick soup steamed in. "This is the power plant for the whole place down here and I'm supposed to be engineer. Doc's lab is up above, in the same building."

The soup smelled great and Pinky began ladling it in. "Let's see," he said, "Buckley's the one's been working on a new weapon or something, isn't he?"

"Yeah, that's why the blackout around here. Been working for a year, year and a half, and nothing doing yet." Slim Harvey sat across the board table, eying his guest curiously.

"Must be swell, said Pinky, between swallows of hot soup, "to be working here. Government subsidy, isn't it?"

Harvey's eyes narrowed, though the friendly gleam did not die out. "Say!" he exclaimed. "What're you doing around here, really?"

His guest looked into nothingness. "Just been trying to enlist."

"Where'd you come from? Where'd you try and enlist?"

Pinky waved the soup spoon in a vague arc. "Around," he said. "Just about everywhere. I don't remember."

A light seemed to burst on Slim Harvey. "Let's look at your arm," he demanded.

Pinky laid down the spoon and pulled up a ragged sleeve. The soup was finished anyway, and he felt better. Harvey peered at the skinny forearm and noted the droop of the hand at the wrist.

"Hell's bells, man," he sympathized. "They freaked you; and that's let you out. Gee for a minute, I thought you was a spy. But a freak bomb can do anything. Don't you remember about it?"


"Don't know your real name or where you come from?"

Pinky's cheeks flushed to match his beard. "No," he admitted.

"Holy smoke! Amnesia and --" A bell rang faintly out where the machines hummed and Slim jumped up. "Come along," he said, "while I see who that is. You can have more eats later and bunk here tonight."

Pinky followed. He felt warm all over inside. It wasn't just the grub. He knew he'd found a friend.

(continue on to part 2)

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