Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"The Barrier" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second installment of "The Barrier", a story by pioneering science fiction writer Harl Vincent. The story first appeared in the September 1934 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, and has since passed into the public domain. This is the first time "The Barrier" has seen the light of day since its original magazine publication 75 years ago this month. The first installment can be found here.

As we join our story, Albert Peyton has joined his friend Peter Canfield for a visit to the Long Island laboratory of the mysterious Dr. Daniels. Canfield's girlfriend Marian Persons works at the lab, and he became concerned when he suddenly lost contact with her. Upon arrival, they find their aircab's way blocked by an invisible barrier. The aircab crashes, and the two men find themselves in complete darkness. They soon hear the ominous rustle of things creeping up on them in the dark . . .

* * *

Then they were fighting these assailants in their blindness. Back to back with his friend, Bert struck out ineffectually, weakly. A man can't fight an enemy he can't see. Fingers of steel closed on Bert's wrists; a sweet odor assailed his nostrils.

It did not render him unconscious, that gas, but bereft him of the use of his muscles as completely as if he were paralyzed. He was helpless in the strong arms that lifted him and bore him away. Sounds in the blackness apprised him of Pete's similar treatment.

The distance to the house must have been short, but in Bert's condition of mortal funk brought on by the uncanny happenings, it seemed as age until their captors halted. There were snarled, unintelligible conversations and Bert was gripped the tighter as the one who held him waited.

A door opened. Light streamed forth from behind that door. Light, blessed light! Dazzling; the most welcome sight of Bert's lifetime. He laughed then, loudly and crazily; he was not blind. His captor shook him with violence.

Bert commenced to take notice of his surroundings.

They had been taken into the drawing room of the old house by their captors. With the effects of the gas still lingering, both remained docile and silent.

A powerfully built stranger was tying Pete hand and foot. Bert's captor, equally powerful of physique, was doing the same to him. His was the most repellent face Bert had ever seen. Close-set, yellowish eyes stared from it ferociously, and a livid scar extended from below the right eye to his chin, deforming both lips as it crossed the hard mouth -- a face never to be forgotten.

The one who had Pete in hand was as bad. They were a tough pair, strangely unhuman in appearance. What they were doing in Daniels' hideaway was as much a mystery as were the happenings outside.

An oily voice from the doorway broke in on them. "What is this?" it demanded in perfect English but with an accent Bert could not identify. "Whom have I the honor of welcoming as guests?"

The speaker was taller and of more aristocratic bearing than their captors but was obviously of the same nationality. He was a handsome chap and polished, like the titled sort so attractive to some of our more impressionable debutantes.

Pete growled in his throat.

"Will you be so kind as to answer my question?" the newcomer asked in measured, silky tones.

The captives were not deceived; sinister warning was in those glass-hard eyes.

Pete broke loose. "Who wants to know? I'd like to know who you are, what you're doing here. What in --"

His tirade ceased abruptly as the tall foreigner sprang catlike and struck him full on the mouth with his open hand. Bert saw the blood spurt from Pete's lips, saw him tug furiously at his bonds.

"Boris! Peter!" A feminine voice, shocked and imperious, cut through the tense silence.

Marian Persons! Attired in an incongruously luxurious peignoir, flushed with excitement, with wide open eyes, she faced the man.

* * *

"Why Boris," she quavered, "these are my friends; they can have done no harm. Release them at once."

She made as if to kneel at Pete's side, then thought better of it and laid a caressing hand on Boris' arm instead. Once more Pete Canfield growled in his throat, then he turned his head to the wall. The girl paled at the significance of the gesture.

"My dear," said the suave Boris, his gaze devouring her, "what you ask I can not do. For you I would do much, but these men have spied upon us. Our lookout upstairs captured them by cutting off the power from the energy barrier and dropping them through. They have learned too much. They must die."

"Oh no!" The girl caught at her throat, then let her hand creep up Boris' arm to his shoulder. "Please not, for Marian."

Amazed at this evidence of a close bond between the two, Bert coughed noisily to cover Pete's contemptuous sniff. Boris' hard eyes softened, looking into the girl's pleading blue ones. "Marian," he capitulated, "for you I spare their lives. But you must realize I can not free them; instead they shall be imprisoneed in the cellar until the thing is finished. Am I not magnanimous?"

The girl pouted a bit but accepted his dictum. She flashed a look at Bert he could not fathom, and at the same time was hugging Boris' arm with a great show of affection and gratitude. It was well that Pete Canfield kept his eyes averted.

Boris jabbered some orders to his men in an unknown tongue, then swaggered from the room with the girl on his arm. She clung to him as if he were lord of the universe.

Bert and Pete were locked in an empty, basement room which obviously had been a storeroom at one time. The door was of heavy oak, bound with iron straps. The place smelled of dry rot. It was as secure as a cell in Sing Sing. By good fortune they had been untied and their jailers had not cut off the power from the single electric bulb that lighted the room.

Pete was morose, and out of respect for his feelings Bert kept silence.

After staring long and unseeingly at his friend, Pete let loose: "Can you imagine a girl like Marian falling for the smooth talk of this duke or whatever he is? Within a few weeks after her promise to me, too! What a sap I've been!"

"A duke?" Bert could think of nothing else to say; he knew his friend was deeply hurt.

"That's what he claims. Marian and I met him in Miami during the summer, and he hung around her a lot. He's supposed to be an Istrian -- old Slavonic nobility -- but I have my doubts."

"Even so, what could be his game here?" Bert wrinkled his brow in increased puzzlement. "And where do you suppose Daniels is?"

"It's queer -- the whole thing. If Marian --"

"Martians!" The inspiration striking him, Bert interrupted.

"Eh?" Pete stared; his eyes brightened suddenly, then narrowed with determination. He had forgotten the girl temporarily.

"That's what they are, Boris and his men. Notice the coppery glint to their skin?"

"You're right. There have been rumors of a possible war with Mars, too. That explains it. The World Federation has had Daniels working on offensive and defensive armament. Boris is a spy."

Bert's jaw dropped. "The barrier, and the sudden darkness -- Daniels' secrets. They'll get them all."

"It's up to us to stop them." Pete was grim now. "We can't let them get away with anything of value."

Bert took stock of their chances. There was not a loose piece of anything in that bare room, not a scrap of metal or even lumber that might be used in an effort to force the massive door. They were helpless here. Besides, they knew Boris had at least two men at his command; quite likely there were others. If they could escape from the cell the odds would still be against them. Bert voiced his thoughts.

"Let's sit down and think it out between us." Pete was more cheerful; all thoughts of Marian Persons seemed to have left his mind.

For many hours they talked without reaching a solution. Through it all they were conscious of a droning sound that told of the operation of a large motor or generator somewhere in the house. Eventually the monotonous sound had its effect; Pete dozed off, and Bert was not long in following suit.

* * *

There were ghastly dreams, a genuine nightmare, from which Bert wakened and sprang to his feet. In the first flash of returning consciousness he saw that the Martian with the scarred face was in the room. That was no dream; the fellow was stripped to the waist, and his smooth, bronze body gave unmistakable proof of his nativity.

Pete was already crouched, as if for a spring at the brute, fully awake and itching to mix things with him. But an ugly atomite pistol in the Martian's hand was waving him down. In his other hand, he of the scarred face held a small tray on which was a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water. Their dinner.

Mechanically, Bert reached for the tray. Then, reckless of consequences, he grasped the handle of the pitcher and swung the heavy container against the Martian's wrist. The pistol clattered to the floor and in that instant Pete was upon their jailer. Bert closed the door to muffle the sounds of combat and sprang to the assistance of his friend.

But Pete Canfield needed no aid. With his terrific short-arm punches he already had his opponent gasping for breath. That awful scar purpled and swelled as the brute tried savagely to get in past Pete's flailing arms. Finally losing all caution, the Martian dived in with lowered head.

That was all Pete needed. A long punch that started near the floor brought up with a crunch on the point of the scarred one's jaw. He went down like a sack of meal and lay there in a twisted heap.

Bert cheered excitedly. Then, remembering the danger, lowered his voice. "We're in for it now, big boy," he whispered.

Pete examined his knuckles ruefully, then chortled with glee as he picked up the Martian's atomite pistol. "This'll help though," he gloated.

It gave Bert a feeling of comfort to see the weapon in Pete's capable hand.

"What to do now?" he asked.

Pete had started for the door but turned with a sudden thought. "Get his keys, Bert. May need them."

The Martian groaned.

"We're boneheads," muttered Bert. "We should have gagged him."

Strips torn from the Martian's trousers provided an effectual gag; a coil of wire they found in his pockets secured wrists and ankles. A bunch of keys clipped to his belt found their way into Bert's hands.

Opening the door cautiously, Pete peered through the crack and pronounced the coast clear. They went out into the main basement and Bert locked up their erstwhile jailer. Pete had the atomite pistol in readiness for use.

"Sh-h!" he whispered, cocking his ear. "What's that?"

Bert heard a faint moan from somewhere near at hand.

Pete muttered huskily, "It's old Daniels!"

The scientist, in a state of near-collapse, was chained by his wrists to an iron ring set high in a massive pillar.

(continue to part 3)

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