Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"New Management", part 4

This is the fourth installment of "New Management", a fanfic prequel to Isaac Asimov's early blood-and-thunder space opera "Black Friar of the Flame". The first three installments can be found here, here, and here.

"There is a tendency," said Admiral Roh, "to view the past through the lens of the present. Indeed, there are some who argue that that is the only way to view it; that one cannot understand an event in the past unless one has an analogous event in the present to compare it to."

William McInnis had concluded that even if you didn't already know that Roh had been an academic before the war, listening to him would have been evidence enough. How many times, McInnis wondered, had Roh made this same speech before the students at his military history lectures at New Beijing University? Dozens, he guessed.

"But the people of the past had their own reasons," Roh continued, "and it is up to us to see their world through their eyes, not just through our own. Consider the Terrestrial explorers who first encountered the Vegans two hundred years ago. When they established their policy of noninterference, it was not just of the Vegans they were thinking. Remember, interstellar travel was only fifteen years old then, and here they were, making first contact with an alien civilization only twenty-five light years from Earth. 'Surely,' they said to themselves, 'if we have come across another intelligent race so close to us in space, there must be a multitude of others yet undiscovered.' It was for these hypothetical other alien races, more than for the Vegans themselves, that they established the policy."

"And yet," Dr. Hartz answered him, "even if they had known that our Galaxy contained only themselves and the Vegans, I think they would still have adopted the policy. Without it, there was always the danger that mankind would regard the Vegans simply as a resource to be exploited, and not as fellow sapients deserving of the chance to be left alone to work out their own destiny for themselves."

There was a surreal quality to the scene, McInnis felt. Around them were the streets of Lhasinu, capital city of the island Kingdom of Lhasi. The bright glare of Vega was shielded by an overcast sky that threatened imminent rain. They passed through crowds of Vegans, looking almost -- but not quite -- human as they argued, gossiped, bargained, flirted, boasted, and otherwise interacted with each other. Here in Lhasi their fine scales were a golden yellow hue, though elsewhere on the planet you could find Vegans who were green, or blue, or red. The buildings had the unplanned, slapdash look that you only found here on Vega VI, or among the ancient cities of Earth. The streets wound among them wherever the Vegans had thought it might be convenient to walk, rather than being laid out beforehand by a planning commission or a real-estate developer.

In the midst of the brawling Vegan city, the small group of humans looked as out of place as a Vegan equinox-festival procession would have looked among the spotlessly clean shopping arcades of New Hamburg. At the head of the short column were Roh and Hartz carrying on their debate, the former accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Nguyen Cong Danh, the latter by Lieutenant Kovarik. The Sirian officers were guarded by two of their marines, while the whole party was flanked by four of Kovarik's security people. And, of course, there was McInnis himself, lodged in the middle of the group. Roh and Danh were wearing Sirian Navy dress uniforms, which McInnis had no trouble recognizing as near-duplicates of 21st century Royal Navy uniforms. The Sirian Marines were also in dress uniforms, also apparently modeled after 21st century British military uniforms. Kovarik and his security team were wearing their usual khaki uniforms, while Hartz wore a broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and ankle-length skirt. McInnis, as he usually did out in the field, wore a similar hat and shirt, along with a knee-length kilt and plenty of sunscreen on his legs. Since kilts were common male attire among the Vegans, it helped him to blend in with the locals.

The humans were on their way to an audience with Carg Jendo Porga, the King of Lhasi. Roh would be attempting to persuade King Carg to allow Vegans to serve in the Sirian military, while Hartz would be attempting to persuade him not to. McInnis would serve as translator, and Danh, a linguist who specialized in Lhasinuic, would be on hand to keep McInnis honest. While the two leaders continued their debate, McInnis fell in beside Danh and spoke in low-pitched Lhasinuic. "Does your chief talk like that all the time?"

"You can take the man out of the university," Danh responded in the same language, "but you can't take the university out of the man."

"What do you think of the idea of recruiting people?" People, of course, being the only Lhasinuic word for Vegan.

"I think the chief is right. We need soldiers, and the world has plenty of soldiers to spare." The world, of course, being the only Lhasinuic word for Vega VI.

"How good can they be?" McInnis wondered. "They don't have any machines more complicated than a catapault."

"You don't have to know how to build a sky ship to be a good soldier," said Danh. "All you have to know how to do is wield a weapon and obey orders, and the people are good at both."

That was true enough. If there was one thing the Vegans excelled at, it was fighting each other.

The group passed through the flagstoned square opposite the main gateway of the Royal Palace, and drew up in front of the two Vegan guards who stood flanking it. The gates, of stout wood crossed with iron bands, stood open. The Vegans, in mail shirts and iron helmets, clashed their spears onto the flagstones, and the one on the left called out loudly, "Who approaches the palace of Carg Jendo Porga, beloved of the Gods, King of the Lhasi and defender of his people?"

That was McInnis' cue. Stepping forward from the group, he responded equally loudly, "It is the learned Nelda Hartz of the sky people, friend of His Majesty, in the company of her countrymen. The learned Nelda Hartz has sent word to His Majesty seeking an audience, and His Majesty in his beneficence has seen fit to grant it. We come now in response to His Majesty's summons."

"Not bad," Danh said quietly in English.

"We recognize the learned Nelda Hartz, friend of His Majesty. Enter, then, by His Majesty's leave." The two guards raised their spears from the ground, expertly swung them in unison, and planted them again, this time points down. McInnis stepped back in among the other humans, and followed as Dr. Hartz led them through the gateway and into the palace grounds.

(to be continued)

Monday, March 29, 2010

"New Management", part 3

This is the third installment of "New Management", a fanfic prequel to Isaac Asimov's early blood-and-thunder space opera "Black Friar of the Flame". The first two installments can be found here and here.

Professor Adrienne Devereaux peered through her sunglasses around the compound's landing field. Even from a distance of 350 million kilometers, the star Vega appeared much brighter than the Sun did from Earth or Alpha A from Centaurus, so sunglasses were standard to protect the eyes, just as broad-brimmed hats and extensive clothing were standard to protect the skin from the star's ultraviolet rays. The Vegans of course had evolved to find the light of Vega perfectly satisfactory; no doubt they would find the light unpleasantly dim on Earth or Centaurus.

The Resolute was hours on its way back to Centaurus, and few at Lhasinu Base missed Major van Orden and his men. The man in command of the Sirian fleet, who called himself Admiral Roh, had contacted the base to inform them that his flagship would be sending down a boat. Now Devereaux was here along with Dr. Hartz and Lieutenant Kovarik to welcome its occupants to Vega VI. Hartz had informed Dr. Romano that she wanted him, as second-in-command, to monitor events from her office. Devereaux believed that Hartz had done this in order to keep the botanist out of the way during this critical meeting with the Sirians; if so, it was cleverly done.

"The Sirians are due to land in five minutes," Kovarik announced.

"Lieutenant," Devereaux asked him, "do you find anything ominous in the Sirians' uncommunicativeness? Apart from the message informing us of the arrival of this boat, they have remained silent."

"Ominous?" said Kovarik. "I don't think so. I think the Sirians are nervous. They have no idea what sort of reception to expect. We know that all of the Centaurian military left with the Resolute, but they can't know that. For all they know, we're just waiting for the opportunity to blow their boat out of the sky as a prelude to attacking their fleet."

Devereaux shook her head. "I'm still not used to the idea of being at war. It seems so . . . archaic. I half expect to hear Charles de Gaulle beaming defiant messages from London."

Initially a mere speck in the sky, the boat quickly grew into a solid object, raising a cloud of dust from the ground as it landed. In appearance it was much like the recently-departed boat that carried van Orden and his men away. When she remarked on this to Kovarik, he pointed out, "They were probably built to the same design. Standardized designs are a commonplace of modern shipbuilding technique."

The boat's main hatch opened, and a short set of stairs extended down to the ground. Three men emerged, all wearing the same uniform of dark blue jumpsuits and billed caps. All three wore sunglasses, as the three from the base did. That they were prepared for the bright light of Vega did not surprise Devereaux; men used to the light of Sirius would not find Vega unusual. The men exhibited Asian ancestry, as most of the people of Sirius did; the different nationalities of mankind had tended to separate themselves as they settled other worlds. Devereaux noted with distaste that the three were also armed; each wore a belt around his waist with a holstered sidearm.

The three men walked in unison across the concrete of the landing field, then halted three meters from the base's trio. The man in the center raised his hand to his forehead, then brought it down sharply to his side. She recognized the gesture from historical dramas as a salute, a form of greeting used by the military. No doubt the man had copied the gesture from those same historical dramas.

"Good day," the man said. "I am Commander Hashimoto of the Sirian Navy. My subordinates are Lieutenant Chen and Lieutenant Song."

"Good day, commander," Hartz responded. "I am Dr. Nelda Hartz, Chief Administrator of Lhasinu Base. This is Lieutenant Anton Kovarik, the Head of Security, and Professor Adrienne Devereaux, Head of the Biology Section. Welcome to Vega Six."

Hashimoto nodded to the three in turn, then addressed Kovarik. "As a member of the Centaurian military, Lieutenant, it is my unfortunate duty to declare you a prisoner of war."

"Lieutenant Kovarik is not with the Centaurian military," Hartz corrected the Sirian. "Technically, he is a member of the New Brussels Police Department, as are the rest of his security team."

"Ah," said Hashimoto. He seemed momentarily taken aback. Presumably, he had instructions for dealing with ordinary civilians, and instructions for dealing with military personnel, but no instructions for dealing with law enforcement officers. Finally, he said, "Lieutenant, you and your security team can remain in place for now, unless I receive orders to the contrary from my superiors."

Devereaux expected a sardonic comment from Kovarik, but the man simply nodded to Hashimoto.

"If you don't mind my asking, Commander," said Hartz, "why are you here? I wouldn't have thought that the Vega system held any strategic value."

"That's where you're wrong, Dr. Hartz," said Hashimoto with a slight smile. "This system has great strategic value. After all, Vega Six is the Galaxy's only source of trained soldiers, and trained soldiers are just what the Sirian Alliance needs."

(continue to part 4)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"New Management", part 2

This is the second installment of "New Management", a fanfic prequel to Isaac Asimov's early blood-and-thunder space opera "Black Friar of the Flame". The first installment can be found here.

Lieutenant Anton Kovarik sat in the canteen and watched as the scientists of Lhasinu Base drifted in. His job as head of security at the base allowed him to monitor all communications, and he had taken particular care to keep up with all of the traffic between Major van Orden and the Resolute, so he knew (and the members of his team knew) what Dr. Hartz was about to tell her staff.

Kovarik found the meeting to be typical of Hartz' management style. Rather than sending out the news in a text message, she brought her staff together to inform her them in person, and she had chosen to act sooner rather than later. Kovarik approved of both aspects of the decision; it was what made Hartz a good administrator.

The head of security noted the arrival of Giuseppi Romano, the base's deputy administrator. He sat himself at an otherwise empty table and spent his time staring out of the canteen's broad window at the alien cityscape of Lhasinu. Originally a senior member of the botany section, Romano had found himself unexpectedly thrust into his new role after van Orden's arrival. He was not a man who sought authority, and a year in the position had not made him like the job any better. He went out in the field as often as possible; he was scheduled to go out again tomorrow. Kovarik didn't think he would be doing so.

Teresa Karpinska and Adrienne Devereaux were sitting and talking quietly together, as they usually did in the canteen. The former had much in common with Hartz, including her training as a geologist and her sensible approach to life. The latter was the base's senior biologist, and exercised a good deal of unofficial authority by virtue of her age and scientific reputation. Either, in Kovarik's opinion, would have been a better choice for deputy director than Romano.

More and more members of the base's staff came in as Dr. Hartz' thirty-minute deadline approached. They seated themselves and chatted together or remained silent, as their natures dictated. The main topic of conversation was the reason for the sudden, unscheduled meeting, and several of the scientists had already correctly guessed it.

Finally, at the twenty-nine minute mark, Dr. Hartz entered. She motioned for the others to remain silent, and they did while she took up a position in front of the food dispensary.

"I've come here to bring you all some important news," she began, her hands clasped behind her back as she addressed the room. "According to Major van Orden, a fleet of Sirian ships has come out of hyperspace here in the Vegan system."

"Why would the Sirians send a fleet of ships here?" asked Devereaux.

"I don't know, Professor," Hartz answered. "I presume they'll explain their reasoning when they get here, which they will be doing by noon tomorrow. Major van Orden says that he and his men will be going up to the Resolute, and leaving the Vegan system to report back to Alpha Centauri."

"The famous military maneuver known as the strategic withdrawal," remarked William McInnis, a junior member of the linguistics section. There was laughter at his remark, and the tension in the room went down.

"That is all the information I have at the present time," Hartz continued. "I'll keep you all updated as the situation develops."

"Will they be sending us to the Sirian system for internment?" asked Karpinska.

"Why not?" Romano answered. "That's what we did to them."

The room was immediately plunged back into gloom. Upon his arrival the year before, Major van Orden had had two thirds of the base's personnel -- everyone from the Sirian Bloc and Earth -- removed and sent back to Centaurus as "security risks". The base's biology and sociology sections had been particularly hard-hit, since those specialties tended to be dominated by Terrestrials. Only Professor Devereaux's status as a naturalized Centaurian citizen -- and her formidable scientific reputation -- had kept her from joining her fellow Earth-born colleagues in internment. From a research point of view, the base had only been limping along since then. It hadn't made van Orden and his men very popular with the remaining base personnel, either.

"It is possible that some or all of us may be interned on Sirius V," Hartz answered. "It is even possible that the Sirians may shut down Lhasinu Base completely. However, as I said, we don't know why the Sirians are coming here, so we don't know what their plans are."

"Perhaps they're here to start a recruiting drive among the Vegans," suggested McInnis, and again there was laughter. Kovarik had to agree that the thought of the sword-swinging natives taking part in humanity's first interstellar war was a comical one.

(continue to part 3)

"New Management" part 1

As promised (or threatened, as the case may be), the Johnny Pez blog now presents an original Asimov fanfic based on the much-derided space opera "Black Friar of the Flame". We now turn back the clock six thousand years before the Great Rebellion, when the human race was in the early centuries of its expansion through the Galaxy, and the Lhasinu were a pre-industrial race confined to their original homeworld . . .

New Management
by Johnny Pez

Dr. Nelda Hartz was enjoying a cup of tea in her office when the call came through from Major van Orden.

"Good morning, Major," Hartz said as the young officer's face appeared on her monitor. "What can I do for you?" The major was a relatively recent addition to the staff of Lhasinu Base, and his arrival had caused Hartz nothing but trouble. In theory, he was subordinate to her, but Hartz was not eager to test that theory by refusing one of his suggestions.

"Doctor, I've just received word from the Resolute that several ships have appeared in the Vega system from hyperspace," said van Orden. "We have to assume that this is a Sirian flotilla. The ships are expected to reach Vega VI by noon tomorrow local time."

Hartz felt despair settle into her soul at the news. Her faint hope that the war would bypass Vega VI, already cracked by Major van Orden's arrival, now broke asunder. "What is your response going to be, Major?" She feared that he would attempt to fight it out with the Sirians.

"My orders in this situation are clear," said van Orden. "In the event that an enemy force appears in numbers too great to resist, I am to withdraw my own forces and bring word back to the General Staff back on Centuarus. I have given orders for the Resolute to send a boat down to pick up our ground forces. We will be breaking orbit within twelve hours."

"Very well, Major," said Hartz. "Carry on." Van Orden nodded and ended the call.

Hartz sat at her desk and considered the situation as her tea grew cold. The upside of the situation was that with van Orden and his force (if you could call half a dozen volunteer militia a "force") withdrawing, there wouldn't be any fighting taking place in Lhasinu Base. The downside was that the Sirians were an unknown quantity. They might well shut down the base permanently, and they would certainly not allow Hartz to continue as Chief Administrator. Presumably she and the rest of the base staff from the Centauri Bloc would be interned as enemy aliens. She found herself shaking her head at the senselessness of the situation.

After two centuries, the human race was rediscovering the art of war. All across the hundreds of worlds settled by humanity since the discovery of hyperdrive, military organizations were being hastily set up, and merchant ships were being converted into warships. Two years ago, Major van Orden's grandly-named ACS Resolute had been an ore hauler called the Daisy, and van Orden himself had been a politically connected business owner.

Hartz found herself wondering why the politicians in the Stellar Parliament couldn't settle their disputes peacefully, then immediately answered herself that their disputes were beyond peaceful resolution. The Centaurians and their allies had dominated the Stellar Parliament since its foundation fifty-six years before, and they meant to maintain that domination. The Sirians and their allies were equally determined to assert their own independence.

As far as Hartz was concerned, there was little to admire about either side. Perhaps living here among the Vegans had distanced her from the rest of humanity, for she could honestly see no more reason to the current conflict than she could to the Vegans' own endless feudal disputes.

But there was no point in sitting here and pondering the situation. She had a scientific outpost to run, and it was up to her to prepare the rest of the staff for the impending arrival of the Sirians. Switching on the general intercom on her monitor, she said, "Attention all staff, this is the Chief Administrator. There will be a general staff meeting held in the canteen in thirty minutes' time. All staff are required to attend. I repeat, there will be a general staff meeting held in the canteen in thirty minutes' time, and all staff are required to attend. That is all."

Hartz switched off the intercom, then sat still for a moment. Garcia and Weddell were out doing field work among the Vegans. She would have to send word to them to drop what they were doing and return to base. They wouldn't be happy about it. Right now, though, the complaints she would be getting from them were the least of her worries.

(continue to part 2)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A deep look at "Undersea Prisoner"

February 1940 was a big month for Harl Vincent; he had stories appearing in no less than two science fiction magazines. There was "Undersea Prisoner" in the venerable Amazing Stories, and "High-Frequency War" in the almost-as-venerable Astounding Science-Fiction. I've speculated elsewhere that "Master Control" from the April 1940 Astonishing Stories was written before "High-Frequency War", and that Astounding editor John Campbell rejected the former story while suggesting one of the characters from it be made the protagonist of the latter story. I now speculate that "Undersea Prisoner" was also written before "High-Frequency War", on the basis that any story was likely to be submitted to the more prestigious Astounding first, and only after being rejected there would be submitted to Amazing. I speculate further that "Master Control" would also have been rejected by Amazing before being submitted to the upstart Astonishing, and therefore was written before "Undersea Prisoner", even though it appeared two months later.

Like Amelia Reynolds Long before him, Harl Vincent looked to the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard for inspiration. By the late 1930s, though, Professor Piccard had moved on from stratospheric ballooning and was investigating undersea exploration. At the time Vincent wrote "Undersea Prisoner", Professor Piccard had designed a small steel gondola that could withstand great external pressure, and an undersea version of a balloon filled with a lighter-than-water liquid to provide buoyancy. As it happened, Piccard's research was interrupted when the Germans invaded and occupied Belgium in 1940, and it was not until after World War II that he was able to complete work on an undersea balloon filled with gasoline. In the story, it is Professor Francis Augustine who makes Piccard's undersea balloon a reality, some seventy years after the original proposal -- which would place the story around the year 2007.

The early 21st century Vincent imagines is remarkably similar to the early 21st century we're living in now. He describes in vivid detail the media circus that greets Burke and Augustine when they emerge from their gondola onto the deck of the Scipio. There are hordes of television cameras iconoscopic eyes pointed at the two men and helicopters gyrocopters circling in the air above the ship. He even has the captain of the Scipio receive a cell phone televis call from Al Smith Brown, the Governor of New York.

A couple points of interest: Zybyski's crime of kidnaping and murdering a small child is doubtless a reference to the Lindbergh kidnaping and the arrest and trial of Bruno Hauptmann, which occurred earlier in the decade and would still have been fresh in Vincent's mind. I note without comment that Vincent made his Hauptmann-analog a Pole rather than a German. The ship that rescues Burke and Augustine, the Scipio, would have been named after one of the Scipios of the late Roman Republic, either Scipio Africanus the elder, who defeated Hannibal of Carthage at the Battle of Zama, or his grandson-by-adoption Scipio Africanus the younger, who destroyed Carthage sixty years later. The choice of name doesn't seem to have any deeper meaning.

Editorial note: Raymond Palmer, the editor of Amazing Stories, didn't like long sections of scientific exposition in his stories. When he encountered one, he would either eliminate it altogether, or condense it and turn it into a footnote. Isaac Asimov pointed out where Palmer had done this to his story "The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use" in The Early Asimov. Palmer did the same with "Undersea Prisoner", reducing two of that story's passages to footnotes. In reproducing the story in this blog, I have taken the liberty of un-footnoting the two passages and re-inserting them into the main body of the text. I make no apologies.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 5

This is the fifth and final installment of "Undersea Prisoner", a science fiction story by pioneering writer Harl Vincent. The story first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Amazing Stories, and was reprinted in the Spring 1971 issue of Science Fiction Adventure Classics.

The story so far:
After being framed for his friend's murder, Richard Burke avoids a prison sentence by volunteering to take part in a dangerous experiment, riding an undersea balloon to a depth of six miles. Burke suspects that the balloon's inventor, Professor Francis Augustine, is the man who framed him. With the aid of another prisoner, Burke is able to trap Augustine with him in the descending balloon.

When Augustine regains consciousness, he tells Burke that he welded the iron ballast weights to the bottom of the gondola, so that they will be unable to return to the surface. The balloon is more than three miles down when a giant squid attacks it, ripping the gondola from the balloon and swallowing it whole.

Burke switches on the gondola's antimonster defense, causing the outer shell to become electrified. This heats up the giant squid's gastric juices, causing them to evaporate and expand, and causing the giant squid to rise to the surface. When Burke and Augustine get into a brawl, the antimonster defense is accidentally set to full power, causing the giant squid to burst open.

Burke is knocked unconscious from the shock, and wakes to find that the gondola has come to rest on a plateau a mere eight hundred feet below the surface, that Augustine has made contact with the surface, and that a ship is on its way to rescue them. Augustine confesses to killing Burke's friend and framing him, then says that when they are rescued, Burke will be going back to prison for assault and kidnaping. He then prepares to wipe the whole thing from Burke's mind . . .

Chapter V
Battle on the Ocean Floor

Knowing that no man can perform two differing actions simultaneously with any degree of success in either, Burke took his chances on that last word of the professor's. Figured he was concentrating on the amnesia.

Swinging sharply with his right hand, he knocked the regrader from the man's grasp and hooked a stiff left into his paunch at the instant the capsule gun popped. Its deadly missile crashed harmlessly into an instrument panel as Burke's right fist caught Augustine in his gaping mouth, splashing out a gush of blood and knocking him into the bunk. But the professor clung fast to the pistol, gasping, stuttering primeval wrath and spitting out teeth. The engineer clamped on his gun wrist just as the sphere swayed to the tugging cables and commenced rising.

Augustine brought up a knee violently as Burke twisted his thick wrist. Burke went dizzy and weak with pain. His antagonist was a powerful brute, as he'd learned before. It took superhuman efforts of will and half-paralyzed muscles to keep him down and hold on to his gun hand at the same time. Slamming away weakly with his right, Burke willed a desperate newe accession of vigor into his left and tore the projector loose. It clattered to the floor and he had both fists free to use on the professor. His head was clearing now and muscular strength flowing back. In a few moments the big man was groggy and Burke retrieved both gun and regrader.

"Now!" he rasped, "I'm the boss. Get back there." He prodded Augustine with the capsule gun and experienced savage glee at the bulging of his victim's eyes.

"Don't shoot," babbled the professor. "I'll do anything. I'll --"

"Shut up!" Burke twisted a tiny dial on the regrader and pressed its latch. A blue haze bathed Augustine's head for an instant, then vanished as if soaked up by a sponge. A blank look came into the popping eyes and the big man went stiff-limbed as an automaton.

There was a clank overhead. The sphere had ceased rising. They were alongside the Scipio -- or possibly on deck already. The televis shrilled insistently. Burke switched it off, knowing this would send back an "out-of-order" signal to the ship.

Immediately there were sounds at the manhole. And in two minutes its cover clanked off. Burke shoved the disjointed professor through and tumbled after him. They were on the deck of the Scipio.

It was to have been a notable occasion. It was, though not as had been intended. They moved into a circle of staring iconoscopic eyes. Above them swung the microphones of the telecasters and high above these hovered a swarm of gyrocopters. The sea around was dotted with bobbing amphibians. Everywhere were goggling human eyes.

The captain of the ship, his officers and most of the crew, were there. There were many strangers in the crowd, some of them obvious dignitaries of one sort or another. This was to have been a crowning triumph for one Professor Augustine.

Burke looked around for the deputies, whom he had thought would be there to rearrest him. Then he remembered; they had returned Zybyski to Sing Sing. He remembered, too, that this was on the high seas. That Captain Jameson was the sole authority. He walked over to the amazed officer and surrendered the capsule gun.

"What's this all about?" bellowed Jameson, peering amazedly into the blank eyes of Augustine, who stood rigidly before the iconoscopic eyes and microphones. "What have you done to the professor?"

"Nothing serious," Burke assured him. "If you'll give me a chance to prove it, I'll show you and the world that he's a faker. That he's the criminal, not I."

The crowd was closing in around them. "Put him in irons!" came a shout. "Hang him from the foremast," another. An angry murmur rose and swelled as the telecasters stood irresolute.

Gun in hand, Captain Jameson faced Burke as his officers and crew gathered around. The surrendering of that gun had confused them, and Augustine's condition made them uncertain.

"What's this all about?" demanded the captain. "I asked you before. Now I want it all."

All over the ship, in the surrounding sea, high in the air, there was commotion. Excitement. Expectation of the unexpected. The cries for Burke's scalp died down. His gray eyes looked frankly and levelly into the captain's brown ones.

"I only ask -- first -- that you have one of your officers examine the ballast weights of Augustine's sphere and report to you what he finds. Then I believe you'll trust me to show you the rest."

Jameson nodded to the mate.

The first officer was back in a moment. "The weights are welded fast to the shell, Captain, he reported in an amazed voice.

"You may proceed, Burke," said Jameson.

* * *

Dick moved to Augustine's side and, with the regrader still in his pocket, made a new adjustment. Pressed the latch. The professor was at once erect, his usual debonair self. Seeing the microphones, he blinked, then bowed before the iconoscopic battery. Immediately the telecasters became frantically busy. This was to be the scoop of the year. It was.

Instead of addressing his beloved public in the usual way, the professor wandered a bit over the deck, gazed importantly at the sphere, and began to talk with extreme rapidity.

"Well, my hearties," were his first words. "Ready for the plunge? It won't be long. But while the bag's filling . . . "

From then on, his words became so rapid they could be followed only with the strictest attention.

" . . . It's all right, boys . . . there's only room for three inside . . . we're down . . . we've submerged . . . I welded the ballast weights . . . I guess I deserve what I'm getting, too . . . Dick, before I die, I must confess. I was the one who killed Van den Broek . . . you wouldn't turn me in, would you, Dick? . . . used your pistol with a rubber glove, then put it back . . . your cigaret case . . . I put that there, too . . . it'll blast out your memory of the past ten hours entirely . . . . "

In a very few minutes it was over. Every word Augustine had used during the past ten hours went out over a world-wide hook-up. For an instant after he had finished he seemed dazed. Everyone on the deck of the Scipio was dazed. Even the gyrocopters overhead seemed to be drawing back in astonishment. At millions of televis sets throughout the world must have sat dazed listeners and observers.

Suddenly the great professor came to full realization of what he had done. He leaped for the rail and would have plunged overboard. But Captain Jameson and his officers were too quick for him. They had him under arrest about as quickly as Zybyski had been taken before.

It was the end for Francis Augustine, the beginning for Richard Burke.

* * *

Later, in the captain's cabin, Burke sat before the scanners and mikes and told his story in detail, questioned and prompted by Jameson himself from time to time.

"But, Mr. Burke," said the captain, when he had reached the point of the final landing on deck. "Tell the telecast audience what it was that Augustine intended using on you to blank out your memory. What it was you used to force his confession."

"A very simple discovery of my own. One that the professor had st -- er -- appropriated and which he did not fully understand. It is well known, of course, that the nerve currents and the activities of the cells of the brain itself are electrical or electro-chemical in nature. Well, investigating multitudes of these phenomena, I stumbled upon a means of controlling the nerve and brain impulses in a number of ways. One of these is a simple blocking process. Another is a means of running back along the thought train for any desired period and then blocking to produce amnesia. And this process can be reversed.

"I merely set back Augustine's clock ten hours, so to speak, and left him in a state of complete amnesia and partial neural paralysis. Then, by a simple reverse adjustment of my pocket apparatus, and an increase in the normal thought rate in the normal forward direction, combined with a hypnotic compulsion impulse, I caused him to repeat at greatly accelerated speed, all his speech of the amnesia period. It was really nothing at all."

"Hm-m. Probably not," commented Captain Jameson. "And do you intend to give this invention to the world, Mr. Burke?"

"To the medical profession only, where it may have uses. Do you think it would be safe in other hands, Captain?" laughed Burke.

"Not in hands like Augustine's, that's sure."

The telecasters signed for a cut off and Burke sank back into the captain's own chair with a sigh of relief. "Thank God, that's over," he said.

Upon which there was an insistent shrilling of the captain's personal televis. It was Al Brown, New York State's governor calling for Richard Burke.

"Mr. Burke," his mellow voice started, without preamble. "This entire remarkable performance has been witnessed by me here in Albany. I congratulate you and greet you as an outstanding citizen our our great State. And I wish to assure you that your legal status is clear in all respects. I shall so direct the Attorney-General at once. Good-bye, Mr. Burke and good luck."


Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth installment of "Undersea Prisoner", a science fiction story by pioneering writer Harl Vincent. The story first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Amazing Stories, and was reprinted in the Spring 1971 issue of Science Fiction Adventure Classics.

The story so far:
After being framed for his friend's murder, Richard Burke avoids a prison sentence by volunteering to take part in a dangerous experiment, riding an undersea balloon to a depth of six miles. Burke suspects that the balloon's inventor, Professor Francis Augustine, is the man who framed him. With the aid of another prisoner, Burke is able to trap Augustine with him in the descending balloon.

When Augustine regains consciousness, he tells Burke that he welded the iron ballast weights to the bottom of the gondola, so that they will be unable to return to the surface. The balloon is more than three miles down when a giant squid attacks it, ripping the gondola from the balloon and swallowing it whole.

Burke switches on the gondola's antimonster defense, causing the outer shell to become electrified. This heats up the giant squid's gastric juices, causing them to evaporate and expand, and causing the giant squid to rise to the surface. When Burke and Augustine get into a brawl, the antimonster defense is accidentally set to full power, causing the giant squid to burst open . . .

Chapter IV
A Submarine Plateau

Burke's first conscious impression was of a continuous six foot length of aching bone and sinew that was obviously his own body, next of something freezing cold and steel-hard that pressed flatly and determinedly against his cheek. He opened an experimental eye. And with it he gazed directly into two frigidly staring optics of the most fearsome creature he had ever beheld. This nightmare object was not more than three feet from his face. He closed one eye and concentrated with his muddled wits on what he had seen. Or had it been hallucination merely? Such things couldn't exist.

It had been like a fish, yet it was not a fish. A head like that of one of the Furies, but larger than a man's, had faced him with such a malevolent stare as only a basilisk might achieve. And the head, though attached to a sinuously scaly body with iridescent fins, was covered with long black hair that streamed upward as if each strand was electrified and straining to be away. The mouth had been most horrible of all, with two long curved tusks projecting from the lower jaw to the level of the glaring eyes, and a dozen smaller tusks arching down from the upper jaw. The face itself, if it could be called a face, was a distorted, evilly grinning gargoyle. It was purple. Burke opened both of his eyes suddenly. The thing was still there.

Then his mind began working normally. He remembered. The surface against his cheek was one of the thick glass ports of Augustine's sphere. His aches and pains were from the fight with the professor. No, not from the fight; something had happened. Of course -- the big octopus thing had blown up. That accounted for the shock which had stunned him and flung him where he now lay. And they were in the water once more; this was a denizen of the ultimate depths hovering outside the port. Where was Augustine? Was he alive? Recalling his former rash spouting of words, Burke decided to keep quiet until he could learn for himself.

Turning slightly, repressing a groan at the pain it caused, he cast his eyes upward. He was under the instrument table. His attention was drawn by a shuffling of feet on the steel floorplates. Augustine, then, was alive and conscious.

Deep silence followed; there was not even the faint whine of the tiny battery-powered energy generator. Of course, with the monster no more, they would not need that now. Further reflection convinced Burke they hadn't dropped any great distance. The shock of falling to the ocean floor at a depth of even two or three miles would have broken their bones, probably killed them. Slowly he turned his head toward where he'd heard the shuffling.

The professor was seated on the edge of the lower bunk, eating from an opened tin and regarding him curiously. He was somehow changed; his mien was composed, confident, gloating. None of his former panicky nervousness; he was sure of himself now. He actually grinned.

"Nice long sleep you had," he remarked. "Sorry I fell on you."

"Uh-huh." Painfully, Burke crawled out from under the table, his head throbbing as if it would split as he struggled to his feet, where he stood swaying. "Where are we?"

The professor waved his spoon airily toward one of the other ports. "On the very rim of a submarine plateau where our giant creature kindly deposited us when his sudden rise in the watery world rent him asunder."

Burke gasped. Not only was Augustine trying to be flowery in his speech, but what he said was true. Out there in the brilliance of the sphere's floods there showed the edge of a precipice. Vast chunks of the defunct monster draped over its jagged outline, huge oozing and quivering blobs on which a score of miscellaneous horrors of the deep were feeding. The young engineer shuddered. He looked at the pressure gauge. Three hundred forty pounds, eight hundred feet. So near and yet so far. There still remained twenty percent of the battery charge.

"So now what?" he demanded.

"So now the Scipio is on her way to haul us up from here. Have something to eat? You need it." Leering, Augustine passed can and opener.

"You mean you've had them on the televis?" Burke's eyes narrowed. Realizing suddenly that he was very hungry, he opened the tin and ate.

* * *

"I have and they're on their way. That damned living sub we were in carried us nearly two hundred miles toward Ireland. But the Scipio will reach us in a few hours." The triumph in Augustine's insolent stare was patent. He had put something over.

"So then what?" Burke mumbled through a mouthful of corned beef.

The professor shrugged. "Then I go back to work and you go back to jail." His little black eyes glittered and he patted the capsule gun where it lay beside him on the bunk.

"So you frisked me," growled the engineer.

"Why not? The tables had to turn somehow."

"The law's been satisfied. I'm free now, Prof. And you're the one who's in jeopardy. You told me you killed Van den Broek." Burke was only sparring for time and opportunity; he knew what the reaction would be.

Augustine laughed harshly. "Who'd take the word of a convict against mine? And there are two more charges against you now. You'll be a third offender now and will surely be sentenced to life imprisonment, don't forget that."

"What do you mean, two more charges?"

"First degree assault on me for one thing, kidnaping me for another." The professor's grin was ghoulish.

Burke was silent for a long time after this. Everything Augustine had said was true. They wouldn't take his unsupported word that the professor had confessed. And the assault and kidnaping charges were bad -- they'd stick. He hadn't thought of those at the time. Then, he hadn't the faintest idea he'd ever come up alive in this sphere. He'd only thought of taking Augustine with him. Hadn't cared about the rest. Now it was of great importance. But, maybe . . . Burke remembered his foolishness in talking too much previously; now he would keep his own counsel. Get out of this as best he could.

Augustine's eyes never left him nor did his fingers stray far from that destructive capsule projector. He had the upper hand now and he intended to keep things this way.

"But you did kill Van den Broek," Burke said. Whether it would be of any use or not, he determined to get more detail.

"Certainly I did!" Augustine was vigorously defiant. "And for good reason. Time after time, he embarrassed me before the Academy of Science. Time after time he bungled my experiments and made a laughing stock of me. He would have ruined me if I had let him live. Of course I killed Van den Broek, but you can't prove it. Nor can anyone else."

"You mean you stole some of his inventions and called them yours. And you were afraid he'd expose you. That's why you killed him."

The professor reddened, puffing out his fat cheeks as if about to explode in a tirade. But he subsided, again laughing harshly. "Oh, maybe that did have something to do with it," he admitted. "Might as well admit it to you privately; you'll never be able to tell. It was necessary that Van be removed, necessary too that someone other than myself be found guilty of the murder."

"And that's where I came in," Burke said bitterly. "You hated me for the same reason you hated Van, so you planted the evidence on me."

Augustine now chuckled, much pleased with himself. "Quite right, my boy. And I did it cleverly, too. Used your pistol with a rubber glove on my hand to prevent fingerprints, then put it back in your own drawer, from which I'd taken it. Your cigaret case, which was found beside the body -- I put that there, too. And your prints were on that. You hadn't a chance and you haven't now."

"And then when you found I'd won this alternative sentence, you welded the ballast weights to the bottom of the car to be sure I'd never come up. Swell setup." Burke talked deliberately with dully hopeless tones. He was getting an idea.

"All true, my boy. I think I've done a pretty good job, even if I missed out on this and nearly lost my own life. With Van out of the way and you behind bars for life, it will be plain sailing for me now." Fat fingers caressed the capsule gun. "At first I was going to kill you -- when the squid blew up. I figured one could live longer than two and knew I could get away with that, too. Self defense, you know. But then I saw where we had landed and found there'd be enough battery and air, so I decided life imprisonment was probably better after all. You won't like that, will you?"

Burke stared at the man in open astonishment. "No, I wouldn't like that," was all he could say.

Augustine was so utterly cold-blooded about it all, so completely sure of himself, so entirely self-satisfied, that it seemed incredible.

* * *

After that, Burke wandered aimlessly in the narrow confines of the sphere, tinkering with this instrument and that, always under the professor's watchful eye. Few words passed between them. Each was too occupied with his own thoughts.

There were frequent televis calls, always answered by the older man in pompous voice. World Telecasts came in with a request for a speech and Augustine's triumph knew no bounds.

Burke listened in mounting disgust as he mouthed long strings of superlatives and posed before the iconoscopic scanning eye with the capsule projector against his prisoner's temple for added effect. Forgetting entirely that this was his first deep sea dive in his own or any other contrivance. Bragging of scientific achievement, dramatizing his kidnaping, boasting of subduing a dangerous criminal and returning him to justice, lying blatantly about the means of their salvation from a watery grave, taking full credit for himself. It was sickening. But Burke held his peace.

"See what chance you'll have?" gloated the man, when wiping the perspiration from his brow after this effort.

The engineer did not reply.

Another silent hour passed before the Scipio was overhead and her grappling hooks were reaching down for them, taking hold.

Then Augustine played his trump card. "I suppose you think you'll get somewhere mentioning the welded weights," he said.

Burke started. "I had thought of that," he admitted.

The professor drew a slender tube from his pocket with one hand, keeping his prisoner covered with the capsule gun in his other. "Well, you won't do it," he grated. "You know what this is. Your own invention, the psycho-neural regrader. It'll blast out your memory of the past ten hours entirely. You will never be able to tell anything of this, because you won't remember. And you get it now."

Burke tensed as the tube leveled at him.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third installment of "Undersea Prisoner", a science fiction story by pioneering writer Harl Vincent. The story first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Amazing Stories, and was reprinted in the Spring 1971 issue of Science Fiction Adventure Classics.

The story so far:
After being framed for his friend's murder, Richard Burke avoids a prison sentence by volunteering to take part in a dangerous experiment, riding an undersea balloon to a depth of six miles. Burke suspects that the balloon's inventor, Professor Francis Augustine, is the man who framed him. With the aid of another prisoner, Burke is able to trap Augustine with him in the descending balloon. When Augustine regains consciousness, he tells Burke that he welded the iron ballast to the gondola's hull, so that they will be unable to return to the surface. The balloon is more than three miles down when a giant squid attacks it, ripping the gondola from the balloon and swallowing it whole . . .

Chapter III
Monster with a Stomachache

Finally the car lurched to rest with its floor cocked at an angle. Not so bad, though; at least they could stand. They took stock of their bruises and of the bizarre surroundings.

"Hell of a note," grumbled Burke. Out through the port he saw only the swirling green stickiness of the digestive juices of their captor's interior. "Ugh!"

Augustine was blubbering again. "Dick," he whined, "before I die, I must confess. I was the one who killed Van den Broek. I set the police on you. I planted the evidence. Forgive me, Dick."

Forgive? Burke forgot their plight, forgot everything but blind rage. This man would've let him rot in the pen. He'd have sent him to the hot seat if he could. And now this! But rage was futile now.

"Hell of a time to confess!" snarled Burke. "You make me think of a guy who paid his pal fifty bucks he'd owed him for ten years -- just when the boat they were on was torpedoed. Sinking. Shut up your blubbering and tell me where's the gadget you charge the shell with."

"What gadget?"

"You built a weapon into these things to ward off undersea monsters. What good is it? How does it work?"

The demoralized professor shakily indicated a small control panel. Burke examined it, then yanked the rheostat all the way over. The result was instant and nearly catastrophic. A blinding flash outshone their floods in the green murk outside. The car heaved wildly, smashed him to the floor. Then he came up against the wall under a table.

There were violent upheavals and shudderings.

"The thing's trying to vomit us out," moaned the professor. "And we're stuck in its throat."

Burke could see that this was so. A port faced directly out toward the creature's mouth. The mouth was stretched wide. Through its gaping maw the engineer could see reflected in the glare of their flood lights the rocky rim of the cavern entrance. And the frayed cable ends dangling from above. Then, with a wild lunge, the monster flung out of its lair into the black abyss of the sea.

Clinging to the bolted-down legs of the table, Burke managed to get to his feet. He switched off the floods and saw that the green murk remained alight. The lambent flame that told of intense heat generated by this weapon that had been loosed within the beast. There were momentary flashes of emptiness where the thick green fluid would clear away only to be replaced by rolling whiteness. Steam!

"Hey, Prof!" Burke yelped. "What kind of energy's this?"

No answer. Augustine had fainted. He couldn't take it.

While the car swayed and teetered in the mad flight of the tortured beast, Burke clung to the table and studied the instruments. There was an indicator of horizontal speed and a compass. They were traveling east-northeast at ninety miles an hour! The pressure was decreasing. Which meant they were rising as well! Could this thing travel! Burke shut off the energy, just to see what would happen.

Their tremendous pace continued, but the pressure began to mount. The monster was diving. Or was it that? An inspiration; he switched on the energy again. The flaming in the green stuff commenced anew. Once more the pressure outside was decreasing. It was due to a gas generated in those digestive juices by the energy. They were making a veritable balloon of a living creature, their own container plugging its throat to retain the gas.

Burke could envision the bloating of the vast body which was taking place to such an extent that the weight of water displaced was considerably greater than its own. He found he could vary its buoyancy by manipulating the rheostat and thus regulate the speed of ascent. They were in the body of a living, though probably slowly dying, submarine balloon that was to an extent navigable. But the creature continued to propel itself madly in the northeasterly direction and this was entirely out of control. "What a belly-ache it must have!" thought Burke, grinning in spite of himself.

* * *

He was careful to keep the current low so they would not rise too swiftly, knowing that if the ascent became so rapid as to permit insufficient time for internal and external pressures to equalize, the creature would explode violently. Though he couldn't see how it would do him any good personally, he had a mad desire to get up to the surface. If the monster should expire then, as undoubtedly it would, and its carcass should float, there was still a bare chance for life. Even if it did mean prison for himself. He wondered how much pressure difference the thickly armored hide of the beast would stand. How much stretching due to the expansion in volume by tissue penetration of the gases. Undoubtedly there was some escape through natural orifices other than the gullet. Enough to act as a safety-valve, he hoped.

Augustine was stirring, groaning. The pressure gauge showed less than two thousand pounds when he tottered to his feet. Burke wasn't at all sure now how nearly this was an accurate indication of depth, since he didn't know the pressure differential between the inside and outside of their animate balloon. He thought this differential would not be very great. Their forward speed was slowing considerably; the monster was losing strength.

The professor gazed disbelievingly at the instruments. "Dick!" he exclaimed. "We're going up. We're saved!"

"Not yet," -- drily. "Think it out, stupid. We've a chance in a million, is all."

Fifteen hundred pounds, a thousand. The swirling green murk outside the ports had almost vanished. Burke could see the distended wall of the creature's stomach. It was dripping great blobs of sticky black stuff from several torn spots. The thing was hemorrhaging internally. He backed off further on the rheostat and the pressure gauge pointer moved slowly toward the lower end of the scale. They would have to keep their carrier intact as long as possible.

Augustine was talking again and was still excited. "You're wrong, Dick. There's more than a chance in a million; there's a good chance. Listen: I see you're easing it upward as gently as possible. That's right. We'll make the surface. The monster will die, of course; it's dying now. But it will float when we get up there. The carcass won't burst. Not if the pressures inside and outside are kept from differing too greatly, especially too suddenly. Don't you see?"

"Sure I see. As far as you've gone. So then what?"

"Why, the televis, naturally. We can start calling for help even before we're afloat -- a thousand feet before. Our own ship, any ship can easily come to us. We're saved, I tell you!" The professor's voice screeched as he tried to convince himself of his own words.

"Ever stop to think how much battery power this is taking? Take a slant at the charge indicator."

Augustine gasped. The battery charge was already down to thirty percent of full capacity. "I -- I didn't think of that," he faltered.

"Lots of things you haven't thought of," sneered Burke. "For one, the murder rap that'll be facing you if you do get up top alive."

This was a blunder. Burke had underestimated his companion's cunning and the courage which would come from desperation. In fact, he'd talked too much. He'd put ideas into the other's head that wouldn't have sunk in of their own accord.

The professor's voice changed subtly. He moved near and peered at the pressure gauge. "Eight hundred fifty pounds, two thousand feet," he murmured. Then: "You wouldn't turn me in, would you, Dick?"

"What did you do to me?"

Then, taken completely by surprise, Burke went down under the full weight of the enraged scientist. As he lurched from the instrument table, his hand automatically clung to the rheostat handle. He felt it slam over to the full "on" position. Then his grip tore loose.

* * *

Augustine's pudgy but powerful fingers twisted around his windpipe as they rolled over and over on the floor. Burke tore at them frantically, finally got them free. The squid mustn't explode!

"You fool!" he croaked. "The energy's full on. We'll go up like a shot. We'll --"

The professor, fighting blindly, evidently did not get the import of the scarcely intelligible words. He was pounding at Burke's face with everything he had and it was all the younger man could do to wriggle himself free and roll back against the wall.

"The energy!" he managed to howl before Augustine's two feet struck him together. "You damn --"

He lashed out blindly as pain from the heavy double kick flashed racing torture through his body. With sudden new energy, he scrambled erect and dived for the rheostat. Then he came down hard with his chin on the table. His antagonist had wrapped those huge arms around his knees and was dragging him down. Hell of a way to fight! Thoughts weren't at all clear now to Burke but he knew he must get to that rheostat. They were rising like a rocket.

"Wait, Prof!" he groaned.

He twisted free and lurched upward, starting a swift right to his opponent's bobbing jaw. But it never landed. There came a terrific wrench and a simultaneous crash as of the entire universe disrupting. Then utter blankness.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second installment of "Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, a science fiction story that first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Amazing Stories.

The story so far:
After being framed for his friend's murder, Richard Burke avoids a prison sentence by volunteering to take part in a dangerous experiment, riding an undersea balloon to a depth of six miles. Burke suspects that the balloon's inventor, Professor Francis Augustine, is the man who framed him. With the aid of another prisoner, Burke is able to trap Augustine with him in the descending balloon . . .

Chapter II
Monster of the Deep

The real Francis Augustine did not recover consciousness until the outside pressure gauge registered more than eleven hundred pounds. They were nearly a half mile beneath the surface. Trussed and gagged as he was, the professor could only struggle madly and make horrible grunting noises as his eyes seemed about to fall from their sockets.

Ungently, Burke ripped the gag from his mouth.

"G-god!" babbled Augustine, looking wildly at the gauges. "We're down. We've submerged."

Burke was untying the professor's feet. "You're telling me!" he said savagely. "And how do you like it?"

"But, Dick!" Augustine's stare was frenzied and perspiration oozed out in great beads from his forehead as he struggled to a sitting position. "You don't understand. You --"

"Damn right I understand. You fixed things so I'd stay sunk and now you're in the same boat. Don't think so much of it, do you?"

"But I didn't mean --"

"No, you didn't mean to come alone. But here you are. It was all right for me, wasn't it? When it's you it's different. Now, see if you can figure out a way out -- for both of us."

Augustine's flabby jowls twitched violently; his pendulous lower lip quivered. "Un-tie my hands, Dick," he begged.

Burke obliged, first patting his own hip pocket, to which the professor's capsule projector had been transferred. "Don't try anything funny," he warned. I've your gun. Not that I'd need it."

The older man was almost as white now as had been Zybyski when he stepped outside the sphere. With his hands finally free, he at once buried his face in them. His big frame shook convulsively. He was in a mortal funk.

"Snap out of it!" snarled Burke. "Get your think tank working. What'd you do to this thing to wreck it so it couldn't rise?"

The professor looked up with an agony of craven fear in his every expression. He was suddenly an old, old man. "I -- I welded the ballast weights to the shell," he admitted.

"That's nice. Lovely. All beautifully taken care of on the outside where we can't get at them. Where the pressure'd flatten us like chewing gum even if we could get out there. You're good, you are."

Augustine slumped to his knees, started alternately praying and cursing. Incoherently. Burke slapped him back to blubbering sanity.

"Get yourself together and face the facts. If we have to die, let's die sane anyway. And if there's any chance at all, let's try and dope it out."

"There's no chance in the world," sobbed the professor.

Burke drew back his arm for another swing. "Don't, don't," the demoralized man pleaded. "I'll be good."

He was like a child. The young research engineer regarded him contemptuously, turned his back and moved to the televis. "This is no good down this far, is it?" he asked.

"No -- not below a thousand feet."

Burke looked at the pressure gauge. Two thousand pounds, it read. "We're not sinking very fast," he said.

"No, the difference in weight of the car in excess of the buoyancy of the balloon is very little. The descent must be gradual for safety."

"Safety -- hmpf. Call this safety?"

"I mean under ordinary circumstances." Augustine was coming around to normal.

"Then we wouldn't need to discard much weight to halt our downward progress, would we?"

"A couple of hundred pounds would do it now. But there is no way of throwing off any weight at all. The manhole can't be opened from inside; even if it could be the pressure would swamp us. No hope!"

"How long will our air last? Food and water?"

"Four days with two aboard."

Burke's eyes narrowed, then he laughed. "Hell's bells," he chuckled. "No need of killing you or of you killing me to make it last eight days, is there? That would only prolong the agony for the one that was left alive. Might just as well wait for what's coming to us."

He stared at the professor. Augustine stared back. The spectre of certain death was between them.

* * *

Three thousand pounds, nearly seven thousand feet, they were down before either of them thought of switching on the outside lights to see what there was to see of the fabled denizens of the deep. Until now no man still alive and sane had seen ore than vague shadows on a color screen. That is, at any depth such as this.

"You can finishe telling me about the gadgets now," said Burke. "How do you turn on the outer floods?"

Augustine showed him, first illuminating the huge balloon that swayed above them, then the sides, then below. There were five of the thick glass ports, one above, one below, and three spaced around the middle. They saw absolutely nothing outside the circles of misty brilliance and nothing within the zones of illumination excepting a few wriggling, corkscrewlike glistening threads that slithered upward over the circular ports. They were utterly alone in the depths.

"Showing you about the gadgets, as you call them, reminds me," said the professor. "How did you and the other manage this? Where's he? All I remember is when the mountain fell on my head."

Burke laughed in spite of the seriousness of the situation. His companion was taking it better than he'd expected -- so far. "That was Teddy," he told him. "He slugged you from behind. You didn't make a sound to warn those outside. Then he took your sun glasses and stuck on the false mustache we'd made from his own hair in imitation of your real one. We stripped you and he changed into your clothing. Then he went outside and bossed the job of closing us up and dropping us over."

Augustine nodded. "Yes, that way, he could easily pass for me." Dropping his eyes to the unfamiliar clothing he'd not even noticed yet, the professor snapped: "But you -- you aided a criminal to escape. He would get away in my plane and not be suspected!"

"That's what you think. And that's what Teddy thought. I kidded him along so I could get you right here where you are. I won -- he lost. Once we were down I used the televis -- quick. Zybyski will say it was a double cross. I call it justice -- turning him in again. Think I'd let a rat like that loose? He'd be murdering someone else's baby in a year or so. Oh, no."

Augustine looked thoughtful. "You did a pretty good job at that," he admitted. "And I guess I deserve what I'm getting, too."

Burke was amazed; his companion was as cool now as a cucumber. Was he cooking up something in his treacherously inventive mind?

"You certainly do deserve it. But isn't there something we can do? No possible chance at all?"

The professor shook his head dolefully. Then his eyes widened suddenly and he pointed to one of the viewing ports. "Look!" he yelped. "What on earth is that?"

They had switched off the outer floodlight to save the batteries as much as possible, though why they needed to save them was not clear. "Looks like a submarine," exclaimed Burke.

It did. Something was approaching steadily in the inky blackness out there, something with a long row of small lights along its side and with a twin beam exploring ahead. Burke switched on their side floods and the creature was revealed, not as any man-made duplication of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, but as a gigantic living, swimming monster that carried its own lights. One look at its enormous bulk, its ten foot long razor fins, its huge head and broad, tusk-filled mouth was enough for Burke. He switched off the lights both inside and outside the sphere. The creature was five hundred feet long if it was an inch.

"Holy Smoke!" he gasped. "That thing could swallow us whole. And if it should get tangled up in the cables above or puncture the balloon, it'll be just too bad. Hope he didn't see us."

Augustine moaned a little in the darkness. "As well go that way as the other," he whispered.

It was true. Burke felt a little foolish over his useless precaution. But he didn't turn on the inside lights until they'd seen the monster that was like a lighted ocean liner in the blackness drift on up past the bulking shadow of the balloon and out of sight.

* * *

Fifty-five hundred pounds. About two and a half miles of ocean lay above them. A distinct sense of movement was felt suddenly; the pointer of the gauge swung rapidly across the scale to sixty-two hundred, then remained stationary.

"What the hell," said Burke. "Did we fall?"

Augustine looked at another of the gauges. "We were swept downward by a submarine current. And we're still in it, but it has leveled off and is carrying us rapidly toward the northeast. Sa-ay!"

The professor's eyes brightened on the exclamation.

"Say what?" Burke couldn't see anything to be jubilant over.

"There is a chance, just one remote chance," said Augustine, "that we may be swept into a rising current. Sort of an updraft, you know. We're heading for the Irish coast now. Where we started, the depth was more than five miles. It'll be getting shallower after a while. And if there is such an upward current and we strike it . . . "

"What are the probabilities?" asked the younger man dubiously.

Augustine's face fell. "About ten million to one," he admitted.

"That's what I thought."

They had started dropping again at about the former rate; the current had been unable to hold them. It was like drifting in the car of an ancient gas-filled balloon, at the mercy of every errant wind, falling for lack of ballast to throw out. They could discharge oil from the bag above, of course, the same as you could use the ripcord of a gas balloon. But that would hasten the end, not prolong it.

"Let's light up outside," said Burke for want of action. And he switched on the floods as he spoke. He hadn't the heart to go to work on Augustine right now. He'd suffer enough -- later.

A mountain peak looked immediately alongside, vanished into the blackness above. They were slithering downt the sheer face of a granite cliff, the great balloon overhead bouncing over its jutting edges. Fortunately, their descent was very gradual.

And then the balloon had lodged between two projecting fingers of rock. They jerked to a stop. The car dangled, swaying before the mouth of a huge cavern. The pressure was seventy-one hundred.

Burke's eyes tried to penetrate the gloom beyond the white wall of light that pushed perhaps a hundred feet into the cavern. He had thought he saw something flicker back there. He had! Four discs of luminosity swam into view, like the eyes of a team of dogs gleaming in an automobile headlight glare. But these four ghastly orbs grew steadily larger.

And then an ugly, squirmy monster hove into view. This was a giant squid, an octopus thing with four eyes that reared its hideous body forty feet from the cavern floor on three of its sucker-lined arms while the other five arms weaved and twined toward the dangling sphere. Two eyes were beneath, two above a cavernous, wide-open mouth that was lined with row upon row of glistening incisors. A tentative arm reached out as the terrifying creature advanced, its tip curling around a few of the cables that connected their car with the balloon. The car swung crazily in toward that yawning mouth, spilling the two men in a heap on the floor.

"God!" screamed Augustine. "It's going to swallow us."

The car jerked as cabled snapped. And then the great jaws closed in over them. There was the crunch of huge teeth on the berylumin shell. But the creature, powerful as it was, could make no impression on that glass-hard surface. The car rolled inside and the teeth snapped shut on what was left of the frayed cables.

There were convulsive heavings of the sphere and it rolled over and over in the huge cavity of a mouth, battering its two occupants against bunks, instrument tables and walls. A few dizzying flashes came to them in the tumbling, of great reddish-purple splotches and dangling fleshy members, of a constricted opening down which their sphere spun madly.

The monster was swallowing them whole!

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)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The flame next time

One of Isaac Asimov's early stories was one he originally called "Pilgrimage" and then "Galactic Crusade", and which was eventually published as "Black Friar of the Flame". As its Wikipedia entry (much of which I wrote) puts it , " 'Black Friar of the Flame' has a reputation as Asimov's worst story, based largely on Planet Stories editor Malcolm Reiss' wretched title. However, it is an obvious precursor to Asimov's more successful venture into future history, the Foundation Series."

As he notes in The Early Asimov, Dr. A. was inspired by Charles R. Tanner's "Tumithak of the Corridors" to write a story which was set in the far future, but which was written from the point of view of someone who regarded the events in it as possibly-legendary ancient history. He also wanted to try his hand at a story on an interstellar scale, since all his previous stories had been confined to the Solar System. The story went through numerous rejections and rewrites over the course of two and a half years before its final acceptance by Planet Stories, which had the effect of souring Asimov on the story, and on multiple rewrites in general.

The story is not available online, and since it is still under copywrite by Asimov's estate, it won't be appearing online anytime soon. So, if you want to read a copy, you're going to have to acquire a copy of The Early Asimov and read it there (assuming you haven't already). Nevertheless, I have a sneaking fondness for this story, which may well be Asimov's closest approach to blood 'n thunder space opera. Since the planets Trantor and Santanni, better known from their later appearances in the Foundation Series, are first mentioned here, BFotF can be thought of as an alternate version of the Foundation universe, one where humanity shares the Galaxy with a single other intelligent spacefaring race.

Since the story's aliens, the Lhasinu, are native to the Vega system, a mere 25 light years from Earth, I got to wondering how they got to the point found in the story of ruling a separate empire that covered a third of the Galaxy. I decided over ten years ago to answer that question by creating a whole timeline leading up to the story's events, and I now propose to share that timeline with my vast hypothetical blogging audience. Here, then, is my version of the six thousand years of history leading up to "Black Friar of the Flame". (BTW, don't be surprised if you see a fanfic prequel to BFotF based on this timeline appearing later on this blog.)

Hyperspacial Jump perfected. Exploration of interstellar space begins.

First colonies established on Alpha Centauri, 61 Cygni and Sirius.

Alien race discovered in the Vega system. The Vegans are militaristic reptiles with a pre-gunpowder Iron Age culture. Contact with the Vegans is restricted to a scientific outpost located in Lhasinu, capital city of an island kingdom on Vega VI.

As Jump technology improves, the cost of interstellar travels falls, bringing colonization within reach of moderately wealthy groups. Older colony worlds begin founding their own colonies.

Over 200 worlds have been colonized. The most distant, Santa Anna, is 500 parsecs from Earth.

Population of colony worlds passes that of Earth.

Colonial Bloc gains a majority in the Terran Parliament. Renamed Stellar Parliament. Alpha Centauri takes over administration of Lhasinu Base on Vega VI.

Growing resentment of outer worlds on Earth. Growing breach between Sirius Bloc and Centauri Bloc in Stellar Parliament.

Centauri-backed coup attempt on Sirius fails. Sirian Alliance secedes from Stellar Parliament.

Earth rebels against Stellar Parliament, sides with Sirian Alliance. Sirians seize Vegan system from Centaurians, begin recruiting soldiers from Lhasinu.

Centauri fleet defeated at Battle of Tau Ceti. Alpha Centauri recognizes independence of Sirian Alliance and Solar Federation.

Breakup of Stellar Parliament. Increasing use of Vegan mercenaries in interstellar wars. Returning Vegan mercenaries with human technical training enable Lhasinuic Kingdom to conquer Vega VI.

Industrial revolution on Vega VI. Vegans begin interstellar colonization.

Humans and Vegans occupy the Galaxy.

Radec Loara of Helicon travels to Earth, experiences epiphany, founds Loarism to restore ancient culture of Earth.

Spread of Loarism among humanity. Earth becomes religious capital of the Galaxy.

Vegan Mutiny. Vegans seize control of one fifth of the Galaxy. Foundation of Lhasinuic Empire. Beginning of Galactic Drive, the Vegan attempt to conquer the Galaxy.

Lhasinu gain control of one third of the Galaxy.

Lhasinu take Earth. Unsuccessful attempt by humans to regain Earth exhausts both sides. End of Galactic Drive. Loarism begins to decline.

Bloody Rebellion on Earth fails to free the planet from Lhasinu rule. Loarists and human worlds fail to support Earth. Loarists reach accommodation with Lhasinu.

"Black Friar of the Flame": Great Rebellion begins on Earth. Loara Filip Sanat unites human worlds against Lhasinu Empire.

Santanni Oligarchy withdraws from Loarist alliance. Battle of Luna. Lhasinu driven from Earth and other human worlds.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Meet me halfway

To commemorate the arrival of the spring equinox, the Johnny Pez blog now presents Death Cab for Cutie performing "Meet Me on the Equinox".

Friday, March 19, 2010

The other job

1999 was a bad year for the mortgage loan industry. Back then, I worked as a mail clerk for a mortgage loan company, and by the end of the year the cutbacks had reached the point where they had to let me go. I was unemployed for several months until a temp agency was able to get me a job as an accounting clerk at a small manufacturing plant in Warwick, Rhode Island. I had no experience whatsoever in accounting, so I had to pick it up on the fly, as well as learning my way around SouthWare, the company's accounting software.

History repeated itself; the company fell on hard times, and in August 2001 they had to let me go. But now I had something invaluable: I had experience as an accounting clerk. In November 2004 it was this accounting clerk experience that allowed me to escape from Wal-Mart and find work as night auditor at a moderately posh Newport hotel.

But hard times are never far away in post-Reagan America, and in the last six months my wife has suffered the loss of half of her income. Unless something was done, we wouldn't have enough money to keep up our mortgage payments, and we would join the millions who have lost their homes. So I started looking for a part-time second job. I went to Monster.com, posted a resume, and asked for daily updates. This turned out to be a mistake, because none of the jobs listed were suitable, and when I tried to delete my resume and end the daily updates, I found out that I couldn't. I was forced to divert the daily updates into my spam filter, and they still appear there every day. I won't be going back to Monster.com any more.

I also started looking on Craigslist, and it was there that I found that a small manufacturing plant in Providence was looking for an accounting clerk, especially one who was familiar with SouthWare accounting software. It was six hours a day, four days a week, and the work schedule meshed well with my work schedule at the hotel. I emailed to indicate my interest, and in due course I was contacted and invited in for an interview.

I learned that the previous accounting clerk had gone on temporary disability insurance, and that she might or might not be returning to the job at the end of February. That was fine with me; even if the job proved to be temporary, the extra income would be a big help. I started work there the next day. When the end of February came around, I learned that my predecessor would not, in fact, be coming back, and that I was now a permanent employee. I've been working there for exactly two months today. So now I have two jobs, and I owe both of them to my experience working as an accounting clerk ten years ago. In retrospect, that job proved to be a lot more imporant than it seemed at the time.

Between the two jobs, I now work sixty-four hours a week, and I have a seventy-mile round trip commute to Providence four times a week. Free time is pretty much a thing of the past, and the only reason I've got time to write this blog post is that it's the off-season at the hotel, and I can post from the computer here. On the plus side, our money problems are easing, and it looks as though we won't be losing the house after all.

Can I keep this up? If it becomes too wearing, I'm hopeful that I can switch to four nights a week at the hotel, allowing me the luxury of a mere fifty-six hour work week. I'll have to see how it goes.

UPDATE 1/15/12: As recorded elsewhere in this blog, we did in fact lose the house. By September 2010 it became clear to my wife that she was going to lose the other half of her income, and would not be able to find a new job. Her last paycheck would come in May 2011, and sometime during that summer we would have to pack up and move. I quit my accounting clerk job that May, spent the summer packing, and by happy chance was able to transfer from the hotel in Newport to one in Pittsburgh, where I am now.