Monday, March 22, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 1

Harl Vincent (1893 - 1968) was a mechanical engineer whose hobby was writing science fiction stories for the early genre pulp magazines. His first published story, "The Golden Girl of Munan", appeared in the June 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, and he went on to publish over seventy more stories over the next fourteen years before retiring from writing.

"Undersea Prisoner", from the February 1940 issue of Amazing, was one of his later stories. In order to promote interest in this neglected pioneer in the field of science fiction, the Johnny Pez blog will be reproducing this story in a blog-friendly multipart format. And now, without further ado, we present the first installment of:

Undersea Prisoner
by Harl Vincent

Chapter I
Into the Depths

"Richard Burke, I sentence you to confinement in Attica Prison for a period of not less than ten nor more than twenty years . . . . "

It would have been longer if he'd been a repeat offender or if they could have shown a motive for the killing of which he was accused. They couldn't show that. Kill Jack Van den Broek, the best friend he'd ever had? Impossible. But the jury had thought otherwise. There was circumstantial evidence that looked perfect. Alibis that seemingly broke down. And Burke was morally certain, knowing that the evidence had been planted, that Francis Augustine had somehow been at the bottom of his framing. The great Professor Augustine, for whom Dick had long worked, who had so many times . . . well, he just had the hunch, put it that way.

For which reason, he had engineered his plans through Slim Curran. And now he was waiting for the reply to his application.

Burke had a good friend in Slim Curran, one of the Sheriff's finer deputies. Slim had pulled some strings on the outside in Burke's behalf, otherwise, he'd have long since been on his way to Attica and already starting his ten to twenty bit.

Waiting in growing animosity toward Augustine, and in a state of nerves that was rapidly coming to the snapping point. Suppose the Court refused his application!

Burke wasn't the first, nor would he be the last man to suffer for the crime of another. He couldn't prove his innocence. He had but one hope now. In these days, where evidence was purely circumstantial, there were the chances for alternative sentences. In the interest of science, or rather in the interest of the scientists who were coming to be such a factor in all braches of government and jurisprudence. And one such possible alternative would give Burke his chance to get close to Augustine, might even enable him to go further . . . .

This was the Augustine Undersea Balloon, which was to descend six miles in the ocean in a couple of weeks. And in which would descend as observers two convicts who, thereby, would satisfy their sentences in full. None of Augustine's devices had returned from depths greater than two miles. But Burke was not concerned with that; he only wanted to get near to the man he was sure had framed him. And Augustine couldn't prevent that, once his application was appproved.

Whether or not he ever came up from the depths made no difference. To rot in the Big House would be worse. He knew Augustine, knew his influence, and felt certain that the man would see to it that he served his full time once he was sent away. By the same token, he knew that the professor, once he learned to his chagrin who was going down in his machine -- if Burke could make the grade -- would find some means of making sure he never came back alive. Augustine was full of dirty tricks. In the meantime, though, Burke would have a chance at him himself, some sort of chance . . . .

Days passed. He had about given up hope when there was a shout from the main gate of the gallery: "Burke -- going out! Get everything together. Going out!"

Going out? Burke was going down. His pulses raced with the excitement of the thought.

* * *

He had never thought much of these undersea contrivances of Augustine's. They were developments of the free balloon first proposed some seventy years previously by the more famous professor, Auguste Piccard. Strange, the slight similarity in names. The things had been an expensive hobby with Augustine; several had been built and tested. Two had never returned from the mysterious deep. The one which had at last come up to bob alongside the mother ship brought with it two madmen, two utterly crazed young scientists who were never able to discuss their adventure. Only their films were of value and even these recorded nothing beyond the two mile depth.

Augustine, unlike the originator of the underwater free balloon and one of the first to make stratosphere balloon flights, had never had the courage to go down in one of his own contraptions. The new Alternative Sentence Law was a help to him.

Burke's companion-to-be was Thaddeus Zybyski, a former radio man who had done three years of a life sentence in Sing Sing. Through some underworld connections he had somehow managed this alternative. He was a confessed kidnaper. Of a five year old baby, who had died on his hands! Burke was forced to occupy the same cell with the man on the ship that was to take them to the scene of the descent. The kidnaper, a surly and murderous-looking brute, insisted on being called Teddy. And Teddy was getting cold feet.

"I'm damn near tempted to back out," he told Burke on their second day out. "Hell, it's an easy life in the radio room up the river. So what the hell? The boys may make a break one of these days. And the hacks aren't so bad anyway. This way it's curtains sure. We'll never come up in that thing."

Which gave Burke an idea. He eyed the big man contemplatively. Teddy was about Augustine's build, same bulky frame, same paunchy jowls. If it weren't for the prison pallor, his lockstep gait and the absence of the square black mustache, he could easily pass for the scheming professor.

"Maybe we can rig up that break right here," he suggested to Teddy.

"A getaway! From here? You're nuts. What do you think two hacks came along from Sing Sing for? To see damn well I get in that machine and am properly sunk. Same as the two screws that came with you. Hell, they aren't giving us any breaks."

"I still think you might make it," Burke insisted. "Not me. I'm in this to stay. But you can get away with it."

"How?" The con was impressed.

Burke started outlining his plot.

* * *

At length there came a time when the whine of the atomic motors slowed and finally stopped. The ship was rolling and pitching without headway in deep water. "Too damn deep for me," growled Teddy. He and Burke were herded up on deck by the four guards. The professor greeted them unctuously, rubbing his pudgy hands together and showing tobacco-stained teeth beneath his square mustache. He wore sun goggles, which was a break Burke hadn't anticipated.

"Well, my hearties," he offered. "Ready for the plunge?"

"Sure we're ready," rasped Teddy. "How else could we be?"

Burke made no comment.

The car, suspended a few feet above the deck from the boom of a derrick, seemed huge viewed from nearby. It was a gleaming sphere of eighteen feet diameter, with three heavy conical ballast weights on its underside and with six broad vertical fins spaced around its circumference to keep its inner floor level when in the water. The ballast cones, Burke knew, could be unlatched from inside when it was desired to return to the surface. Provided the hatches hadn't been tampered with . . . .

From sturdy steel eyes on the top of the sphere, a dozen steel cables draped over the ship's rail and looped down to the wire net that enclosed the balloon. The balloon itself was an envelope of oil-and-water-tight metallic fabric filled with oil. Oil, being lighter than water, would buoy up the heavy goldola in water as helium or hydrogen lifted the car of a balloon in air. Only in this case the ballast was of sufficient weight to draw the balloon gradually to the bottom of the ocean.

Augustine turned to the guards. "It's all right, boys," he assured them, patting his hip. "I want to take them inside. There's only room for three inside. But I'm armed."

Burke saw from the corner of his eye that the professor's amphibian plane was on the after deck of the ship. Even as he looked, the pilot started warming up the motors. Just as he'd guessed and told Zybyski. Augustine was flying for home as soon as the sphere was in the water.

The three men were inside the gondola then and the professor started explaining its many apparatuses. The inner chamber was twelve feet in diameter, its three foot thickness of triple berylumin wall sufficient to withstand an external pressure of twenty thousand pounds per square inch. This was equivalent to more than forty-six thousand feet of sea water, so that the car was safe at depths fifty percent greater than any likely to be encountered in either Atlantic or Pacific.

In a half hour the watchers on the ship's deck saw Augustine climb through the manhole of the car and emerge. He looked over the side and saw that the huge oil bag was filled. The hose couplings had been disconnected and the bag nipples capped. Chuckling, he swung home the heavy plug to close the manhole and told the mechanics to make it fast. Then he turned to the grinning guards.

"They're as safe there as they would be anywhere," he said. "And I guess you fellows aren't sorry. Your work is done; you only have to wait for the cutter that is to take you back. When they return to the surface they're free according to law. And I wish them luck, for my sake as well as their own."

This last seemed sincere, spoken huskily. None of those who heard could doubt the professor's real feelings. He was a man of science, the listeners were convinced, who had a heart. Anxious to see his experiments succeed, anxious to give the world any new discoveries that might result. At the same time, ready to cooperate with and serve the ends of justice under the new laws. Why, he was positively pale with emotion!

As the great three-legged and six-finned sphere was lowered over the side, the professor stood with arms folded, his face hidden from the rest. Obviously, he was deeply moved as the waters closed over his brain child. And when the great oil-filled balloon began to sink and the cable from the derrick was let loose from the gondola below, he turned and hurried toward the amphibian.

"So long," he called back. "I'll keep in . . . "

Just then the deck televis shrieked: "Grab him! That's not Augustine! It's Zybyski. Take off his goggles and mustache."

The guards closed in swiftly and surely.

(continue to part 2)

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