Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Thia of the Drylands" by Harl Vincent, part 1

As promised, the Johnny Pez blog is proud to present the first installment of "Thia of the Drylands" by Harl Vincent, a Gernsback Era science fiction story that has entered the public domain. By posting this story, we hope to determine if someone at Project Gutenberg is watching us and attempting to match us story for story. It's all in the name of science.

Today's story, "Thia of the Drylands", was first published in the July 1932 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. However, unlike most of Vincent's stories, this one did not vanish after its initial magazine publication. The reason why goes back to 1965, when Ziff-Davis Publications, the then-owners of Amazing Stories, sold the magazine to some cheapskates called Ultimate Publishing Company. With Amazing itself came reprint rights to all its back issues, and Ultimate made heavy use of them, filling Amazing with reprinted stories and starting a new magazine called Science Fiction Classics to publish more reprints. "Thia of the Drylands" appeared in the first issue in 1967, alongside other Gernsback Era reprints from Amazing by Murray Leinster, Raymond Z. Gallun, and others. Science Fiction Classics went on to reprint four more Vincent stories between 1967 and 1972, "Invisible Ships", "Roadways of Mars", "Undersea Prisoner", and "Voice from the Void".

And now, without further ado, we present part 1 of:

Thia of the Drylands
by Harl Vincent

“Is that final, Mr. Sykes?”

“It is, Barron. Sorry, but I can say no more -- we’ve done all we can. You’re just out of luck, I’m afraid.” The president of Interplanetary Lines, Incorporated, could not meet the gaze of the tall young man who faced him across his polished mahogany desk.

Cliff Barron’s white lips set in a tight, grim line, and fire flashed from his shadowed eyes. He was sick, very sick, and disabled besides. Broke. Let down by the employers he had served honestly and faithfully for more than ten years. Hopeless of the future.

“It’s rotten, Mr. Sykes,” he husked. “I wouldn’t have believed it of Interplan - I - I --“

Scathing words of denunciation died in his throat. Leonard Sykes had turned to his papers and his pudgy finger was on the pearl button that would summon his secretary. The interview was ended.

Curbing his wrath and disappointment, Cliff rushed from the office and through the long main aisle of the repair shop where the slender shapes of several ether-ships rested in their cradles. Out into the open air and stumbling across the landing field, his paralyzed arms dangling woodenly at his sides and the clawed fingers, that once had been so sure and strong, resisting stiffly and without sensation the effort of his will that should have clenched them into hard fists.

* * *

Dazedly he wandered over the field to the small pavilion where visitors gathered on exhibition days. The place was deserted and he sank to a seat on one of the stone benches.

After a hideous pain-fraught moment he raised his eyes to where one of the small passenger-carrying ether-ships was taxiing to position for a takeoff. It was the J-18! His own ship -- the one he had last piloted. The one in which he had been stricken with this terrible thing that had made of him a useless, pitiful wreck.

There was the raucous shriek of a siren and the J-18 took to the air like a frightened bird. Climbing steadily under the tremendous lift of her helicopter screws, the little vessel was quickly lost in the low-flung clouds over the Long Island field. For a time Cliff could hear the pulsing throb of the motors used in atmospheric flying. Growing ever fainter, it was. And then even that sound trailed off into the gloomy silence.

The gray of the skies flashed brightly crimson; dulled again, and there was a second flash, less brilliant than the first. And now the heavens were rent by the hoarse scream of the vessel’s rocket tubes. Ear-splitting that first blast, giving rise to thunderous protestations of the riven air more than a mile above. The second discharge came as a faintly derisive echo of the first, and following long after. Many miles up there in the stratosphere by this time, the J-18 was plunging into space with the ever increasing speed of full acceleration. If only Cliff were able to be in that pilot’s seat!

He groaned aloud and, swinging his useless arms like a pendulum, beat the knotted hands frantically against the stone bench. A voice laughed crazily in the stillness of the deepening twilight; his own voice, cracked and unreal. Realizing then, that he was on the verge of complete breakdown, Cliff Barron fought desperately back to sanity.

But returning calmness of mind brought increased bitterness and intensifying hatred of Leonard Sykes. True, the corporation had paid most of Cliff’s hospital expenses and had provided for him the best medical attention available. But they had left him in this condition to shift for himself, disabled for life -- miserably. And the one chance he had for complete recovery had been denied him by Leonard Sykes, the hard-boiled financier, whose coffers Cliff had helped to fill. Denied for no good reason at all that Cliff could see -- Sykes had refused to discuss it almost; had offered no explanations . . .

A crunching footstep roused Cliff from his wrathful thoughts and he looked up to see a stranger approaching him. Not entirely a stranger, he saw on closer inspection, but a man he had met or seen somewhere. A man big in stature and of confident bearing.

* * *

“Your name is Barron, isn’t it?” he asked, addressing Cliff.

“That’s right.”

“Mine’s Vetter -- Carl Vetter. You may remember me as one of the passengers of the J-18 on the last trip you made as her pilot.”

“Oh, yes.” Cliff did remember; the man had been there, when the strange Martian fever laid him low.

“I’ve been interested in your case,” Vetter went on as Cliff rose from his hard seat, “and perhaps I can help you. You’ll not take offense if I ask you to talk it over with me?”

Wild hope surged through the young pilot’s being. “Why -- why no, Mr. Vetter. I don’t know how to tell you -- I --“

“Good,” brusquely, “that’s fine. Come along with me to New York. My autogiro is over here and we can be in my apartment in no time at all. Talking will be easier over there.”

The big man turned swiftly away from Cliff’s stammering protestations of gratitude and strode across the field toward the private hangers. The young pilot stumbled after him, torn by doubts and hopes. It was too much to believe -- but at least it was a chance to talk with someone who was willing to listen. Someone whose every action betokened sympathetic understanding.

A little later they sat in Vetter’s luxurious Park Avenue apartment, having covered the ninety miles to New York in less than half an hour of the man’s skillful piloting. Vetter, though bearing the air of a man of means and influence, was an adept at handling the little ship of the lower air levels.

* * *

“No doubt you are surprised at my approaching you this way,” Cliff’s host began. “But you’ll understand when I’ve finished. Really, I have selfish reasons -- several of them -- and I’m going to offer you a job you may not accept.”

Cliff hadn’t expected this. “A -- a job!” he stammered. “What sort of a job can I hold -- now?” Awkwardly but significantly, he swung one of his dangling arms, and a slow flush crept into his hollow cheeks. Was Vetter making sport of him?

“I mean it, Barron. This is a job you can take and can do well, if you’ll accept it. Anxious to visit Mars, aren’t you? Risapar, to be exact?”

“Yes, yes. How did you know?” Cliff half rose from his chair.

“I told you I had been interested in your case – I’ve been doing a bit of inquiring. Will you talk freely of what happened today in Leonard Sykes’ office?”

Cliff’s anger flamed. “Are you his friend?” he demanded.

“An acquaintance only -- formerly a business associate. You need have no fear of speaking out --“

“I haven’t. Listen, Mr. Vetter, I’m not quite thirty years old, but I’ve piloted etherships for Sykes more than ten years. Piloted with the best of them, and helped earn him a huge fortune. I contracted this Martian disease on one of his ships, as you know, and I claim he owes it to me to see me out of the -- the results -- if it is at all possible. Doesn’t he owe it to me?”

Cliff’s voice rose on the last and he stared hard at his host.

Vetter nodded slowly. There was pity in his friendly gaze and something of Cliff’s own rising anger. “I certainly think so,” he agreed feelingly. “Do you mean to say he refused you passage to Risapar -- that he refused to do anything further in your behalf?”

“He did just that, the swine! When I was discharged from the hospital they told me I had only one hope -- to see the great surgeon Lintarg of Risapar. He, they said, might restore my strength. My arms -- my hands that are . . . as you see them . . . “ Cliff swung the useless members hopelessly.

“And you told this to Sykes?” Vetter urged gently.

“Sure I told him -- told him everything. Begged him; asked him for passage to Risapar, for a loan to pay Lintarg’s fee. Told him I’d work it out when I recovered. And I know I would recover -- I know it! But what did Sykes care? I’ve salvaged more than a million for him in one trip, Mr. Vetter, and he had the nerve to turn me down. Can you beat it?”

“No, I can’t.” Vetter was obviously much moved by he recital. “Didn’t he explain his refusal in any way, Barron?”

“No. Just sat there tight-mouthed, looking out of the window. Said he was sorry. Sorry -- good God!” Cliff looked down at the talons that were his hands, shuddering.

His host arose and stood over him, resting a hand on his shoulder. “It’s a shame, Barron,” he said feelingly, “and I can’t say I blame you for feeling this way. It’s difficult to excuse him --“

“Excuse him!” I’d like to see him in my place -- done for -- maimed as I am maimed. I wish --“ Cliff choked, and his wasted face was contorted with hatred as he raised it to Vetter.

“Just so, Barron -- I can appreciate your bitterness. And really, what you have told me makes things a little easier -- about this job I want you to take, I mean.”

Cliff recovered his poise. “What’s that got to do with the job?” he inquired blankly.

“I’ll explain.” Vetter drew his own chair close and resumed his seat. He then launched forth in rapid speech.

“This action of Sykes and your feeling toward him does make a difference,” he said. “At least I feel it will make a difference with you. Because, Barron, my project is one that is in direct competition with Interplanetary; it will undoubtedly bring about the financial ruin of Leonard Sykes if it is successful. And if you accept this job you will be working against Sykes. See what I mean?”

“See! I’ll say I do!” hissed the young pilot. “Nothing would suit me better.”

“I have obtained control,” his host continued, “of a new means of traversing space that will render obsolete the present rocket-ships. The vast investment in Interplanetary Lines and Sykes’ control of it will become worthless. His ships will be so much scrap -- that is a foregone conclusion. But more important to you, I know, is that you will have the chance you long for -- you will go to Lintarg for this treatment which can cure you. And your name will go down in history, besides, as the --“

“How? Tell me?” Cliff’s cheeks burned; he was fevered with excitement.

* * *

“--as the first man to cross space by the new method. Instead of taking a journey of days to reach Mars, you will make the trip in less than an hour. Think of it! You will travel at a speed of twenty thousand miles a second. Safely. All mankind thereafter will traverse space at such speeds. Do you agree with me that it will mean the end of rocket-ship travel?”

“Lord yes, but how --“

“We will shoot you across space in a projectile-like car. Like being shot from a gun, excepting in this case the gun is a magnetic one and its barrel extends throughout the entire distance of the journey. It is a vast tube spanning the ether between two planets.”

“Wha-a-at!” Cliff began to doubt his own ears.

“Just that. It’s an invisible tube, of course, and is projected in much the same way as radio impulses are projected in a concentrated beam. A hollow cylinder of etheric vibrations is what it really is. The cylinder may be likened to the carrier beam used in radio, only the superimposed frequency serves an entirely different purpose. Instead of carrying voice or television impulses, the heterodyning frequency produces nodes of energy at regular intervals throughout the enormous length of the tube -- magnetic fields of unbelievable power which draw the projectile-like car along within the tube with ever-increasing velocity. All controlled, of course, from transmitting and receiving stations located on the planets between which the car travels. Don’t you see? -- the regularly-spaced fields of magnetic force are energized in swift succession and the car, which is of magnetic material, is speeded through each in turn. Gathering momentum with each pull until -- pfff! -- it is beyond comprehension.”

“I’ll say it is!” The flush had left Cliff’s cheeks. He was beginning to appreciate the seriousness of the matter. “And you want me to take the first trip in this -- this bullet?” he asked.

“Exactly.” Vetter rubbed the palms of his hands one over the other in nervous anxiety as to his guest’s reception of the proposal. “And don’t think I’m asking you to commit suicide, Barron. We have sent living creatures across to Mars -- guinea pigs first, then a dog, and most recently a small pony. All arrived safely -- quite unharmed. I swear it; I have proof. But to obtain adequate financial backing for the entire project I must have a man. Only by sending a human being across safely can I overcome the skepticism of the big men who are interested in the financing. And there must be secrecy until the project is well under way. Don’t you see? -- that is one of the reasons I chose you -- Barron --“

“Yes, I see.” Cliff rose jerkily and moved to the table where he stood with face averted, his dangling arms leaden at his sides.

Vetter maintained a discreet silence as his guest thought it out.

There would be a certain satisfaction to Cliff in obtaining some measure of revenge on Sykes in this manner. Certainly he had nothing but bitterness in him toward his former employer, nor would he feel any sympathy or regret if Vetter’s scheme actually came to bring about the man’s downfall. But this was relatively unimportant; his own idea of squaring the account was of something more personal. Once his vigor and the use of his arms and hands were restored he’d find a satisfactory way -- more satisfactory than mere financial ruin for Sykes. He’d make him suffer physically -- cruelly.

And he’d gloat as he did so.

Most important, though, was that he get to Lintarg. He must get to Lintarg. And Vetter’s proposal was a possible means of attaining that end. A long chance, maybe, much longer than Vetter would have him believe. Perhaps they had sent dumb animals across the gulf of space in this crazy bullet-thing. But would the reaction of such tremendous acceleration be the same on humans? That was what Vetter had to prove to his backers, of course, and he hadn’t been able to find a man willing to risk the trip.

For that reason he had taken advantage of Cliff’s disability and despair to . . .

Well, suppose he had? Vetter was sincere in his belief in this amazing contraption, and had been frank in divulging the details. If he was wrong, that trial trip meant death to the man who took it. Death. Cliff contemplated it in a new light. Rather have death than a life of this. Permanently disabled . . . he’d be a ward of the government; a derelict. Life? That meant activity to Cliff, the sort of activity he had always gloried in. Without the zest of that activity which had been his, he’d rather have the other – death . . . oblivion . . . release . . .

“I’ll do it, Mr. Vetter,” he blurted, wheeling suddenly and facing Vetter.

“Good -- good boy!” The big man thrust forth his hand, but let it fall swiftly when he saw the look of pain that flashed across the young pilot’s drawn features.

“Sorry, Barron,” he mumbled apologetically, “I didn’t think.” Then brightening with excitement: “But you won’t be sorry, boy.

“You’ll have it all back; be shaking hands with me in a month.

“Come on, we’ll arrange the details.”

(continue to part 2)


Paul said...

Thanks, Johnny! I've been wanting to read this story for a long time.

Johnny Pez said...

Glad to oblige, Paul. I'd post more of Vincent's Mars stories if I only had access to them.

Avi Abrams said...

Wonderful choice! Read my review of this marvelous story here -