Thursday, March 12, 2009

"High-Frequency War" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second installment of "High-Frequency War", a 1940 science fiction story by Harl Vincent, a prolific writer of the 1930s who has since fallen into obscurity. I have taken it upon myself to introduce Vincent's work to the (potentially) vast audience of the internet. The first installment can be found here. And now, we return to "High-Frequency War" . . .

* * *

He didn't know until a minute later, that Slim had saved his life.

"It's Doc Buckley," the engineer explained after he had answered the audio call. "He's up in the lab and wants me for a while. So you wait right here in the engine room. And whatever you do, don't try to go outside the building."

"Why?" asked Pinky, innocently. Then hastily: "Of course, I wouldn't."

"There's a frequency barrier all around the building, Pinky. It's what dropped you on the stair. You'd be dead by now, if I hadn't hauled you in."

Slim was gone then through a narrow hall and Pinky sat on a bench near one of the machines to mull this over. Of course, with government research going on here, that's what they'd do. A lot of guards outside the fence would be a dead give-away to any enemy detectoscopes that might scan the area. But they couldn't see through a freak barrier, and it was a sure defense against spies. Pinky whistled at the thought of his own narrow escape. If Slim hadn't been coming to the door just at that time, he'd have been shriveled up to a cinder by now. Lying in the frequency swirl for only a few minutes, would do it. You were helpless once they'd put you to sleep -- unless someone like Slim was there.

The soup was taking effect. Pinky dozed off where he sat, lulled by the drone of the machines. He dreamed blissfully of signing enlistment papers and getting a uniform. Then suddenly he was awake with a start. Something had awakened him, something not right with one of the machines. It was groaning loudly, as if in pain or something. Pinky looked at the clock and saw he had slept for two hours. Slim wasn't back yet. Something was wrong, somewhere.

Pinky went near the groaning machine and saw a curl of smoke arise from a gadget at its end. Slim ought to know about this. Hobbling to the audiophone, Pinky tried to put through a call to Buckley's lab. No use; the thing seemed to be dead. He'd have to find Slim, himself.

He found him by instinct and by feel, at last. The halls and the stairs were in utter darkness, so it was a slow job. And when he did find Slim it was in a rubbish-cluttered corner, huddled in with a pile of junk, bound and gagged. Pinky went to work on the gag and had it off swiftly. He was worried about that sick machine.

"Slim," he said frantically, "I had to find you. One of those machines of yours is making a terrible noise. And now, you're like this. Who did it?"

"Never mind that machine," Slim whispered. "It's only an overloaded generator. It won't burn out. Get the knife out of my hip pocket and set me loose."

"Who did it?" repeated Pinky, getting the knife and sawing at the cord that held Slim.

"Buckley. He's a traitor, the skunk."

"A traitor!" Pinky had the engineer's legs free and was working on the cords that held his arms behind his back.

"Yeah. Don't talk so loud or they'll be hearing us. There's a couple of guys with him I know are Allied agents. They're up to something. That's why Doc got me up here. To have me out of the way when they loaded up the generators downstairs. What they're up to, I don't know, but it's bad business. And we've got to stop it -- somehow." Slim was free now and Pinky helped him limber up his arms.

"What can we do?" he whispered. A thrill, such as Pinky could not remember having ever experienced, ran through him. He'd managed to serve the United States, somehow, whether they wanted him or not!

"I don't know." Slim sounded sort of hopeless. "We can audio the military, for one thing, only that might be too late."

"Audio's cut off," Pinky told him.

"They would do that. Well, come along -- let's see what we can do ourselves." Slim grabbed his hand in the darkness and they felt their way along to another stair.

At the head of this flight was a door under which a slit of light appeared. Behind the door was the sound of voices in monotone and the sudden keening scream of some mechanism coming swiftly up to speed. The scream held its high note for a second and broke off abruptly. A chorus of guttural exclamations followed.

Slim opened the door a crack and peered inside. "We'll sneak in," he breathed. "There's a transformer that'll hide us."

Pinky followed him and softly closed the door. From their vantage point behind the bulky transformer case he could see three men absorbedly regarding a large videoscreen. Its news audio was off.

"The tall guy's Buckley," whispered Slim.

* * *

This was the main laboratory, a huge room with a great dome overhead and with al sorts of apparatus along the walls, in the center, and scattered here and there. Pinky looked around it and was amazed by the number and size of the queer-looking machines and by the gadnets that clustered around some, making them look like Christmas trees. His gaze returned to the man Slim had said was Buckley. Something tenuously obscure stirred in his memory as the man turned his head slightly. There was a certain familiarity to that aquiline profile. Buckley was talking to the two squat men with the close-cropped hair, in that thick, foreign tongue. That, too, was vaguely reminiscent of something.

"What're they doing?" breathed Pinky.


Pinky gave some attention to the large videoscreen and gasped at what he saw. The far-off pickup was sweeping a blasted, mountainous region. The Alleghenies! The front-line pill-boxes were here, the main strongholds which had held back the Allied advance for more than a year. The view shifted to the skies where a hundred V's of tiny light points could be seen approaching. A Q.A. fleet in battle formation! The view swept down again to the front lines and a dozen fans of pale-blue light lanced skyward. The men at the videoscreen were silent, tense; so were the two men behind the transformer. The war was here, with them!

Buckley moved his hand to a lever and the silence was blasted by the blare of the news audio. Pinky jumped a foot and Slim hung on to him.

"-- out 22Z and 23Y!" roared the military announcer. "Blackout sections 22Z and 23Y. Allied air forces advancing in this sector. American fleet and fan barriers rising to defense. But a few minutes ago there was a mysterious interruption to the fan barriers. Either something went wrong or the Allies have a new weapon. To prepare, orders are to blackout sections 22Z and 23Y. Blackout --"

Buckley grinned satanically as he flipped off the sound. The video continued. The American defense flet was up with feeler-rays, springing toward the enemy. Cross-rays darted down. A burst of white flame enveloped an entire enemy squadron. Three American squadrons flared into sudden incandescence and were gone. But the enemy was almost at the fan barrier. They could not pass that. Unless--

There was suddenly, here beside them, that shrilling crescendo they had heard in the hall. If Pinky had jumped a foot before, he jumped six now. Every roseate whisker stood on end. His skin tingled from the electrification of the air. Blue flame lashed from a huge helix high in the dome. And when the screech of the frequency generator had risen to its peak and held it a second, those far-off fan barriers flicked into blackness. The enemy fleet was inside! The second line of defense would have to take up the battle.

"Gee!" husked Slim. "That was done from here. What'll we do?"

Pinky felt a strange stirring within him. He was thinking in a new and unaccustomed way. Things long forgotten were surging up from his subconscious. Not clearly at all, but pricking into the conscious.

"Wait," he told Slim. "Listen to what they're saying." The three at the videoscreen were jabbering excitedly.

"Huh, who can understand that?" grated Slim.

"I can." Suddenly Pinky found he could understand the jargon. A little. Some words. Enough. It was amazing.

"You see!" Buckley was exulting. "I told you. We now have them inside. We will do the same with the second and third barriers and on every front. In a week, the war will end -- with our victory."

"Suppose we are discovered before then?" one of the squat ones retorted.

"I have arranged," said Buckley. "The stupid fools of the American government will not suspect the great Dr. Buckley. Already, I have the permission to isolate her for ten days to complete what they think is to be the great new weapon. By the time they suspect, it will be too late -- for them."

Pinky's wrath mounted. With each word he understood better. And other things besides the language he was remembering. Things -- well, maybe this fool would not be so smart, after all. Maybe Pinky could find a way at last to serve his country.

"What'd they say?" demanded Slim.

"Too much to tell, Slim. But they're planning to end the war from right here and have everything arranged. I think it is to be by what might be called a multiple frequency propagation--" Pinky's lower jaw dropped as he realized what he had said. Where had those words come from and what did they mean?

* * *

Slim was equally incredulous. "Why, you . . . you seem to know something. Do you know what to do?"

Pinky passed a shaking hand across his brow to wipe away the sudden beads of persperation that were dripping into his eyes. "Wait -- wait," he begged. "It hasn't come, yet. But I'll know in a minute, maybe."

A terrific struggle was going on within his brain. He knew there was something to be done, something that was within his consciousness, but hidden. Something that was fighting to be out. Meanwhile, thousands of his countrymen were dying. The flashes in the sky and on the terrain beneath told him that. Why didn't they turn off the video so he couldn't see? The three over there at the controls were jabbering anew, but Pinky didn't listen. He was sweating to listen to that small inner voice of his consciousness, trying to fish out something tremendously important.

"What can we do? What can anyone do?" Slim was whimpering now in horrified despair.

It was weird. Here everything was so calm and comparatively still. Out there, less than a hundred miles away, bloody warfare was raging. A country on its last legs was being wiped out of existence. And three men, only three, were doing it. Three against two, Pinky was thinking, and the three with many times those odds in their favor.

Fan barriers in the second line radiated upward. The American defense fleet was almost down in its entirety. Again Buckley reached for a control. The squeal of the generator keened toward the upper limit of audibility. Once more Pinky's whiskers bristled. And then he knew! He knew! He hugged the humming transformer case. It was the very transformer that had them, the one supplying this energy. Its radiations were restoring memories. Of course. He grabbed Slim's arm with fingers that were suddenly of steel.

Slim winced and his eyes widened, looking into those of his companion. "Why . . . why, what the hell?" he gasped. "You're a different guy."

Pinky was a different guy. "We'll lick them at their own game," he grated. "You and I, Slim. And I know how."

"You do? How?" gasped the engineer.

"You've got to take a big chance, Slim. So've I."

"But, do you know? Are you sure it'll work?"

"It's a fifty-fifty chance. But I think it will work. Are you game to risk your life with me?"

Slim gaped at the new Pinky. "Gee, if I'd have known what you had on the ball! You bet, I'm game."

Pinky gripped his hand and whispered, "Thanks. And trust me, Slim. Here's what I want. I'm going to sprint for those controls back there. They're bound to see me on the way unless their attention's distracted. It's up to you to do that."


"By staying right here and yelling. Let them start this way and begin their shooting. But keep under cover as much as you can. Once I get to those unused controls, I'll have them stopped."

Slim's eyes bulged. "How'd you know what --"

"Never mind that now. Still trust me?"

The engineer looked long and hard at his erstwhile guest and what he saw convinced him. "Yes; say the word."

Pinky peered around the corner of the transformer, seeing that their three enemies were absorbed in the videoscreen. "I'm going to crawl," he whispered, "for ten feet. They probably won't notice at first, but when you see me out that far, it's time to start yelling. I'll do the rest."

"Go ahead. Shoot," husked Slim.

Pinky started crawling into full sight of the three, at right angles to their line of vision. Ten feet away was another transformer. Fate was against him; one of the squat aliens spied him before he reached it. Gutturals rolled forth and a hissing, stab-ray scorched across Pinky's neck just as Slim commenced yelling. Pinky leaped to his feet and scooted for his controls. Forgetting caution, Slim came out of hiding.

(continue on to part 3)

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