Monday, September 21, 2009

"The War of the Planets" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third installment of "The War of the Planets", the third published story by Harl Vincent and a sequel to his first story, "The Golden Girl of Munan". It originally appeared in the January 1929 issue of Amazing Stories magazine and has not seen the light of day since. The first two installments can be found here and here.

As we join our story, twenty years have passed since Professor Nilsson, Roy Hamilton, and the nineteen survivors of the destruction of the island of Munan settled in New York City. Thelda Serano has married Hamilton, while her friend Zora has married Nilsson, and the two couples have one child each, Walter Hamilton and Dorothy Nilsson. Now word has reached them that over a hundred spherical objects of unknown origin are approaching the Earth. Nilsson, Roy and Walter decide to send the three women to see a Broadway show while they stay home and discuss the troubling spheres . . .


When the ladies were safely on their way to the theatre, the three men sat for a time before the videophone and listened to the latest reports. The view from Castle Mountain was very little different from that which had been observed two hours previously. Of course the strange objects were about two thousand miles closer to the earth, but this was so small a proportion of the total distance that no appreciable increase in the size of the little globes was seen. However, they seemed to have taken on a sort of sheen in the deeper darkness. This was not like the reflected light from planets and planetoids in the field of vision, but was rather an iridescence, a gleam of shifting colors foreign to anything else observable in the sky.

The announcer now dwelt mainly on the disorders which had broken out in many cities all over the world. He spoke of rioting in Denver, Buffalo, Copenhagen, and Alexandria, cautioning the people of the world to calm themselves and to remain in their homes for news, rather than crowding the public squares to listen to the reports over the public videos.

By this time the rotation of the earth had carried the position of the traveling mass so close to the horizon that soon the Castle Mountain reflector would no longer be able to follow it. But the announcer reported that, as soon as connections could be made at another observatory where a view could be obtained, it would again be transmitted over the terrestrial videophone system.

Soon it was necessary to discontinue the view, but the voice of the announcer continued, tonelessly and tiresomely.

The professor gave a grunt of disgust and savagely bit the end from a fresh cigar. He sat up suddenly in his chair and exploded.

Fools! They will have the whole world in an uproar. Why don’t some of our efficient news censors put a stop to this travesty? Roy, if it isn’t too much to ask, will you turn the darn thing off?”

Roy laughed, “My sentiments exactly, Nils. I was just going to propose that very thing. Let’s do some talking instead. I’d like to hear your theories.”

He touched the news lever and the video was silent. After turning on the lights, he returned to his chair and looked inquiringly at the professor.

“Well, how about it, Nils?” he asked.

Walter hung breathlessly on the professor’s words as the reply came in measured voice:

“I am very much disturbed, Roy. And you, Walter, I wish you would listen very closely to what I have to say. Your work in my laboratory has prepared you to a great extent to appreciate and understand science and scientific reasoning, and I have a feeling that you are going to learn many things, during the next few days or weeks or months, which I could not possibly teach you myself. Of course, I am merely going to theorize, but it seems to me that if our great astronomers would do a little more theorizing and a little less looking through their telescopes at this stage of the game when the objects can scarcely be seen, they would arrive at the same conclusion as I have.

“Don’t laugh when I tell you I honestly believe that these seemingly small spheres now seen approaching our earth are space-traversing machines of some sort and that they are coming to us from another planet, quite probably with no good intentions.”

“But, Professor,” objected Walter, “the theory that life exists on other planets in our solar system has been opposed by our most eminent scientists for many centuries.”

“I know it has, Walter. Nevertheless, that does not make the thing impossible. From your reading you must know that as far back as the nineteenth century, some of the savants, notably Lowell, really believed that Mars was inhabited. Others said that this was extremely unlikely, but that there was a possibility of the existence of life on Venus. Later, as more and more power in optical instruments was attained, our astronomers began to think they were observing such detailed formations and making such careful and accurate determinations of atmospheric densities and constituents that they had definitely proved the non-existence of life on any of the other planets. Still I claim they can be wrong. What does the Castle Mountain reflector, the largest in existence, tell us of the possibility of life on a planet many millions of miles from us when it appears as a speck not over a quarter inch across, like an object that is four or five hundred feet in diameter and a mere hundred thousand miles away?”

“Come now, Nils,” interjected Roy, “surely you don’t believe that creatures similar to ourselves can exist, say in the atmosphere of Mars? If I remember rightly, the gravity at the surface of Mars is only about one-third that of the earth, and the atmosphere extremely rare. Surely any beings existing there would be misshapen and entirely unlike ourselves or any earthly life.”

“Another fallacy,” said the professor, settling back for a long talk. “That has been the reasoning of students for ages, but again I say they are quite possibly wrong in their conclusions. Not that it would make any difference in the present instance what the creatures look like, provided they possess a high order of intelligence. In fact, being warred upon by ugly, unspeakable monsters from another world, would be even more horrible to contemplate than if they resembled human beings.”

* * *

“Be that as it may, I still maintain that life is possible on any of the planets – any of them. The two most likely are Mars and Venus, and I see no reason that has been or can be advanced which makes it impossible for beings, similar to us in all outward appearances, to live on either. Take Mars, for instance. Science has proved that its atmosphere is extremely rare, that its gravity constant is, as you say, about one-third that of the earth. Centuries ago this led to the conclusion that, if any higher form of life existed, the creature must necessarily be of a large size, with atrophied leg muscles; that they must be provided with huge barrels of chests to permit breathing the attenuated atmosphere; that their ears must be enormously large to permit of hearing sounds which are not readily conducted by an atmosphere of extremely low density. They tended to show that, with the scarcity of water on the planet, plant life was practically impossible and that living beings could not possibly contrive to get along in any great numbers, due to this scarcity.

“Again I say, they may be wrong. We all believe in God. Science has never disproved the essentials of His Word. We have all read that He created man in His own image. Many believe that the word ‘image’ here does not mean a physical likeness. Possibly it doesn’t. But suppose it does? Is there any reason He could not create, by a process of evolution, if you choose, a physical likeness under any possible conditions? The likeness might only be external, it is true. But why the oversize lungs and chest? Why the spindly legs, the huge ears? A body cast in the same mold as yours or mine could easily have entirely different density, different specific gravity as a whole. Why could not the bones be larger in proportion, mere shells, so as to weigh much less with relation to the entire body? The very cells comprising flesh, muscle, skin, might well be larger – contain more air, less water. The density of the body might easily be a third of ours, did environment make it necessary. Lungs identical in size with our own could readily extract sufficient oxygen from any reasonable rarity of atmosphere were the rate of respiration increased proportionately. Or, even with the same rate of respiration, sufficient could be provided for a blood of different characteristics from our own – blood that would not require as much oxygen to perform its functions in a body with suitably altered chemical changes. Auditory nerves of vastly greater sensitivity than ours would eliminate the necessity for the grotesque ears. No, I claim that beings exactly similar to humans in appearance, with as great or greater brain power, can and probably do inhabit the planet Mars. In fact, their mental development is likely to exceed our own greatly, since Mars is a far more ancient planet and has had much more time for the evolution and education of its peoples, if such exist.”

Walter listened attentively. Roy laughed, “Why Nils, I haven’t heard you hold forth like this in years. I am almost tempted to start calling you Prof again. But go on. It is extremely interesting.”

Unheeding, the professor continued. “As regards Venus, there are no such objections. Its size is almost exactly the same as that of our earth. Its atmosphere is similar in composition and density and is known to contain water vapor. Its gravity constant is about seven-eighths of ours. Centuries ago there was some doubt as to its period of rotation about its axis. Now we know for a certainty that it rotates once in about twenty-four hours – that its day is almost exactly the same length as our own. The plane of the equator inclines to that of its orbit. Thus its seasons are similar to those on earth, though of shorter duration, since its year is but 224 days in length. The surface temperature averages about ten degrees higher than that of our earth, but that is not serious. All in all, it seems very simple to conclude that life does indeed exist on Venus and that it is inhabited by an intelligent race of beings very similar to ourselves.

“Now, if we accept the hypothesis that life exists in intelligent form on one or both of these planets and that beings from one or the other are on their way to visit our earth, what may we expect? If these spheres approaching us are space fliers, peopled by such beings, they will be here in a very few days. If their mission is a peaceful one all will be well and we may benefit by it greatly. But if it is a warlike invasion – I shudder to think of the result. Still, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ and we might not fare so badly after all. However, they would surely cause great damage and loss of life before means could be found to conquer them.”

The professor became silent. Thoughtfully he tapped the arm of his chair with his finger-tips.

“Do you really think there is a possibility of an actual ‘War of the Worlds’?” eagerly asked Walter.

“Yes I do, Walter,” answered the professor. “I cannot fully explain why I feel this way, but I have the most uncanny premonition of disaster from such a source that I simply cannot rid my mind of it.”

Roy bent forward, startled. “Why Nils, I had the same sort of feeling this afternoon when I first heard the news,” he said. “It is a strange coincidence.”

The professor seemed much interested. “And did you think of Munan at the same time?” he asked.

“I did, and I thought it very peculiar.”

The two gazed at each other in wonderment. They were remembering the telepathic faculties of certain of the Munanese. But Walter could not understand.

For two hours they discussed the problem – considered it from every angle – and when they had exhausted their ideas they were no nearer a definite conclusion than they were at the beginning. Walter could see only adventure in any of the possibilities that were suggested, but the older men viewed it with deep concern.

Shortly before midnight the ladies returned and the subject was dropped. The news lever of the videophone was not touched again that night.

Walter managed to get Dorothy aside and engage her in an earnest conversation. What was said at this time will never be known to any but themselves, but when they returned to the rest of the group, they were strangely silent.

The party broke up within an hour and cheerful and affectionate adieux were made. No further mention was made of the strange news of the day and, when they retired, Walter and his father congratulated themselves that they had kept from Thelda any hint of impending trouble.

(continue to part 4)

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