Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Too Many Boards" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third installment of "Too Many Boards", a story by pioneering science fiction writer Harl Vincent. The story first appeared in the April 1931 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, and has since passed into the public domain. This is the first time "Too Many Boards" has seen the light of day since its original magazine publication 78 years ago. The first two installments can be found here and here.

As we join our story, Larry Conover, the President of United Synthetic Food, is being forced by the Board of Eugenics to marry his friend Alta Farrish. It's the year 2030, and by law all members of classification A2 must marry by age 32. Conover is an A2, and two months short of the deadline. Then he meets his new secretary, Una Sinclair, and falls in love with her. When Sinclair is reclassified as an F2, Conover decides that they must elope to Mercury. Travel there is forbidden, but Conover is certain his friend Chick Davis, a spaceship captain, can smuggle them in . . .

* * *

The Rocket III was berthed on her huge float, fifty miles off Montauk Point. A monster dirigible from the mainland had just discharged its cargo, the highly concentrated liquid explosive which provided tremendous propulsive energy for the liner in limited storage space, and was headed for home. Scores of smaller private aircraft hovered at a respectful distance, awaiting the take-off of the great vessel -- a sight they had come hundreds, even thousands, of miles to witness.

Captain Davis stood at the hyper-optophone in the control room of his space ship. He had reported to the Board of Tri-planetary Transportation in Washington that all was well for the one hundredth voyage of the Rocket III. He grinned when he turned from the disc. The Board was due for a surprise this trip.

The published passenger list had carefully omitted the names of certain of those actually aboard. Captain Davis had seen to that, as he had seen to the obtaining of Una's and Larry's passports, ostensibly for a trip to Venus. Other essential matters there were too, that had required his personal attention. But it was a job that Chick Davis liked, for he doted on romance. Besides, he scented an unusual adventure.

The time for departure was at hand, and the shrill siren on the float warned the surrounding visitors to withdraw to a safe distance. The screaming exhaust of the vessel's rocket tubes was a thing to be feared, an incandescent blast that could wither and destroy the greatest of the ships of the lower air.

With its five hundred feet of glistening length resting in the chute, its blunt nose pointed skyward at an angle of thirty degrees, the Rocket III was a thing of beauty, a monument to the genius and scientific attainment of mankind. But, when the mighty energies were released from within, it became a monster of terrifying power, a mechanism that went roaring into the skies ahead of a trail of blinding magnificence, splitting the protesting air with a screech whose intensity was beyond all belief.

Precisely on schedule, the Rocket III hurled itself into the heavens. When the last vestige of its flaming tail had vanished, the awed spectators turned their ships homeward, stunned and silenced by this marvel of the twenty-first century.

Far outside the earth's atmosphere the vessel straightened away on its course and settled to its carefully regulated rate of acceleration. The captain was entertaining a much excited couple in his cabin.

* * *

There was consternation in the despatching room of the Tri-planetary Transportation Board in Washington. The Rocket III had long since left her berth and the engineers in charge had observed her progress on the chart for more than ten million miles. Then the tiny light-point of red that traveled so slowly from the blue-white representation of the earth's orb flickered and went out. Frantic efforts to raise the ship's hyper-optophone failed utterly, and the chief despatcher made haste to report the calamity.

Every available space ship of the terrestrial government was pressed into service and the liners of the Tri-planetary system already in transit were advised by optophone to keep close watch for the wanderer. But little hope was entertained of locating the vessel in this manner. In the vastness of space even the largest of liners was an infinitesimal mite, and, with its opto inoperative, became but one of myriads of tiny bodies that hurtled through the blackness at enormous speed.

The nature of the disaster which had overtaken the Rocket III could but be conjectured. Nothing of the sort had occurred during more than thirty years of continued inteplanetary service. Great fear there was in official circles that the vessel's fuel compartment had exploded. Though such an accident was deemed highly improbable, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility, and it was an undoubted fact that something of a serious nature had happened to the mighty vessel of the skies.

Efforts were made to keep the news of the disaster from the public, but, as is usually the case, there was a leak. Within a very few hours the public and private news optos throughout the world blared forth the incredible tidings. Frantic relatives and friends of the more than twelve hundred passengers and three hundred members of the crew besieged the various departments of the terrestrial government in Washington for confirmation or denial of the terrible news. In the lower levels of the great cities, the public squares were jammed with horror-stricken humanity, waiting in vain for definite assurance from the news announcers.

Hour after hour the vigil was kept and eventually the reports of the government scouting ships commenced coming in. But these held forth nothing of hope. There was but one chance in many millions that trace of the lost ones would ever be uncovered.

But the officials of the Board refused to give up their vessel as lost, though hoping against hope. Its captain, Charles Davis, was the most resourceful and experienced in the service. They could not conceive of him as unequal to any emergency which might have arisen.

* * *

On the planet Mercury an unusual conference was in progress in the executive chambers, or Dairofa, in Luzan, the capital city of the realm. In the great plaza before the palace there rested a space ship of strange design, a small and sleek craft that had been the subject of discussion throughout the city during the twelve aka (about six and one-half earth days) since its arrival from afar.

The huge blood-red disc of the sun shone hotly at the horizon, its almost horizontal rays making of the city a motley of sweltering highlights and dark shadows. Rose tinted mists hung low over all, effectually obscuring the heavens above. It was always thus in Luzan, the sun never leaving the horizon entirely, but circling it once every eighty-eight earth days and alternately rising to a point that exposed the lower rim of the enormous disc, then sinking to a point where the topmost edge just peeped through the mists above the undulating line of demarcation between land and sky.

Suddenly there came from above a fearsome sound, a screaming roar that brought the populace to the streets and the officials and their subordinates from the palace. Once, twice, thrice, the sky was shot with a blinding stab of light. A huge shape swung into view through the mists. Another and larger space ship! A moment it poised at the edge of the plaza, then swooped to a landing and rolled slowly to a lumbering stop.

The assembled Mercurians stared agape when the main port was opened and the gangplank lowered. Never before had one of the huge liners of the Tri-planetary Alliance made actual landing on the globe. Murmurs of surprised interest greeted the appearance of teh only three visitors to disembark from the giant vessel -- a girl, a young woman of fragile and delicate mold by Mercurian standards, and two men who were likewise of terrestrial littleness in stature.

(continue to part 4)

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