Monday, August 3, 2009

"The Barrier" by Harl Vincent, part 1

Seventy-five years ago this month, the September 1934 issue of Amazing Stories magazine rolled off the presses. Amazing had originally been bedsheet size when it first appeared in 1926, but circulation began to fall after the Great Depression began in 1929, and the publishers switched to the smaller, less prestigious pulp size with the October 1933 issue. The following month saw rival Wonder Stories switch from bedsheet to pulp size, and the upstart Astounding Stories had always been a pulp magazine.

The September 1934 issue of Amazing included a story called "The Barrier" by Harl Vincent, the pen name of mechanical engineer Harold Vincent Schoepflin. By 1934 Vincent was one of the grand old men of the field, having published close to fifty stories since his initial appearance in the June 1928 issue of Amazing. He would ultimately publish over seventy stories before ending his writing career in the 1940s.

"The Barrier" is the fifth Vincent story to be reprinted in full here at the Johnny Pez blog (in the usual blog-friendly multi-part format), part of our lonely effort to revive interest in this forgotten pioneer of the Gernsback Era of science fiction. Together with the six stories that can be found at Project Gutenberg, this brings to eleven the number of Vincent's public-domain stories available online, a far cry from the single story that was available a mere two years ago.

And now, without further ado, we present

The Barrier
by Harl Vincent

Dropping his aircab from the night traffic level and hovering over the place at dawn, Peyton could see nothing to justify the fears of his companion. It was just an ancient landmark, a rambling, frame mansion of the past century, hidden away and forgotten in the scrub oak woods, now covering this deserted section of Long Island.

"Sure this is it, Pete?" he asked his companion.

"Positive." Peter Canfield gripped the arms of his seat and peered anxiously through the floor port.

"Looks harmless enough. I think you've been dreaming."

"Would I waken you in the middle of the night to bring me out here if I wasn't sure? I tell you there's something wrong, Bert."

"Marian is down there?"

"Just as I told you. The government planted her boss here for some special research. Daniels, you know. Of course he brought her along."

Albert Peyton, prosaic advertising man and confirmed bachelor, could hardly work himself up over his friend's worries. Nor could he bring himself to believe the incredible tale Pete had brought to him in the small hours. "This wall of yours," he drawled. "I don't see it. How'd you say you came to find it?"

"I told you it's invisible," returned Pete wearily. "I didn't hear from Marian for a few days so tried to radiophone. There was no reply. Anxious about her, I came out in the speed boat -- my aircab's laid up, you know. Had a devil of a time getting inland on foot too. Then the wall held me back, so I went after you."

"What's it like, glass?"

"No-o. It's yielding, rubbery -- seems to be alive if you get what I mean. Pulsating, sort of. As invisible as the air."

"No surface reflections?"

"No, just nothing. I heaved a rock at the stuff and it bounced off without a sound. Was flung upward too."

* * *

"Hm-m." Bert strained his eyes but still could see no sign of unusual purport below. "It surrounds grounds and all, you say?"

"Positively. I'm scared stiff about it."

Pete looked scared. His usually bright gray eyes were dull and shadowed. His hands trembled and bleak lines were around his tight-lipped mouth. Bert knew of his feelings toward Marian Persons.

"What's your plan?" asked Bert. "We're here now."

"Drop inside this barrier. See? -- it's a wall and we'll land inside. Find out what's what."

"No one will be up yet. It's too early."

"So much the better. We'll surprise them."

Bert nosed the aircab down and headed in toward the clearing in back of the house. "This all right?" he asked. "Think we'll be within the limits of your wall?"

"You're okay; bring her down."

Try as Bert would he could see no evidence of the existence of a transparent wall; there was no slightest clouding of his vision. He still doubted.

Easing off the gravity repulsion energy he allowed the aircab to settle slowly. When a hundred feet from the clearing they were brought up short with a bump no heavier than an ordinary landing on solid ground. But the little cab bounded high, settled and bumped again, bouncing and careening as if on the surface of some yielding solid.

"Good Lord!" Pete groaned. "There's a roof, too."

It was true. The ship had come to rest; this roof supported it, though both of the men would have sworn that nothing but the fresh morning air separated them from the ground. The atomic motor died. They were helpless to rise from this incredible unseen support.

Then, without warning, they were falling. Whatever had stopped the aircab and held them from the ground had given way, or had been removed by unseen hands, and they were left to crash earthward. The little craft turned partly on its side and struck with terrible force.

Abruptly there was darkness, not the ordinary darkness of the night but absolute Stygian inkiness.

Dazed by the shock, Bert knew only hazily that Pete had crawled from the cab and was dragging himself out, asking if he was hurt, feeling his body in search of broken bones or other injuries.

"I'm blind! I'm blind!" Bert gasped, the conviction coming horribly to his returning senses.

Peter Canfield laughed crazily.

"Blind, hell!" he chattered. "The sun went out. I saw it through the trees, then it just faded away and died. A little after-glow, then . . . nothing."

Bert was sure Pete's mind had been unbalanced by the crash. Both of them were blind. Whoever or whatever had dropped them through that invisible roof had also blinded them by equally mysterious means. Of course the sun would go out, just as Pete had described it.

There was nothing before nor since like that awful darkness. It was utter absence of light; thick and stifling. At first the silence was as awful as the darkness. Eerie; a complete absence of sound. Were they deafened as well as blinded? A distinct gasp from Pete reassured Bert on that score; and they heard the ominous rustle of things creeping in the dark -- live creatures closing in on them stealthily.

(continue to part 2)

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