Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"The Barrier" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third 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 two installments can be found here and here.

As we join our story, Bert Peyton and Pete Canfield have discovered that Martian spies led by the aristocratic "Boris" have taken over a house in Long Island. The house hides a weapons research lab run by the reclusive Daniels and employing Canfield's girlfriend Marian Persons. After escaping from a locked basement room, Peyton and Canfield discover Daniels chained to a pillar . . .

* * *

By clambering upon Pete's shoulders, Bert was able to detach the chain from the ring. But they could not free Daniels' hands, for the manacles were riveted fast. Pete cut the older man short when he asked for explanations.

"No matter how we got here," he breathed. "The trick is to get out and to take care of the mess upstairs. We haven't much time, so give us what dope you can. Then we'll make plans."

Daniels' eyes lighted hopefully, then glazed once more. "No use," he sighed. "There are too many of them; they are desperate, and I'm afraid for Marian Persons. I shouldn't have let her come here. I am responsible for her safety --"

Pete snapped, "We're thinking of that too."

"But you don't understand; she's in the power of this Martian. To save my life she agreed to marry him. I feel --"

"What!" exploded Pete. "She'd keep such a promise?"

Bert warned him to silence.

"No," said Daniels. "She probably wouldn't if things could be adjusted in some other manner. But that's impossible."

"Nothing's impossible." Pete was growing impatient. "Tell us all about it; we'll see what can be done."

The story came out in cautious whispers while Bert guarded the door with the atomite pistol. Pete, being an engineer of sorts, was the man to get the details. But it was all overheard by Bert, though much of it he did not understand at the time.

Pete's surmise had been correct. With war-clouds gathering from the direction of the red planet, the World Federation had sent Daniels and his corps of experts to this place, thinking it safe from spies. The Secret Service had not suspected Boris, but Boris and his men had come and slain all of Daniels' men. Now the Martian planned to steal all the Federation's armament secrets and return -- with Marian -- to his own planet. The case was hopeless, Daniels averred; there was no way they could get word to Washington -- or to any of the Federal authorities.

"Nonsense," scoffed Pete. "Tell us about this barrier and the other gadgets you have here. We'll work out a way."

It developed then that the Daniels experiments were mainly in the realm of vibratory waves and electronic forces. He had evolved a terrible energy projector which could destroy human life at enormous distances, or could be used to demolish a space ship or even a city -- it was an engine of destruction like none the world had ever seen, of greater range and power than any weapon of the Martians. Its operation was silent and its force ray invisible.

The barrier was composed of walls of electronic discharges, that could not be seen on account of the high speed and infinitesimal size of the particles. This was defensive armament; the largest atomite shells of Mars could not pierce it invisible armor when fired at it from outside the enclosure. Yet from the inside -- it acted like a check valve -- it was readily penetrated by metal objects traveling at high speed, so would not interfere with the fire of ordnance from within. The force gun, of course, could fire from inside as well.

The artificial darkness used by Boris' men when they captured Bert and Pete was another freak of oscillations or etheric waves which were of such frequency and characteristic, so as to neutralize exactly the vibrations of light, leaving an entire absence of it within their influence. By such means, Daniels explained, the entire space fleet of an enemy might be blinded and rendered helpless to prevent its own destruction by force gun or ordinary gunfire.

"No wonder Boris wants these schemes!" Bert commented.

Pete was not satisfied. "Sure you didn't sell out to Boris?" he asked the inventor.

* * *

Daniels was properly horrified. "Sell out! You must be crazy."

Bert saw that his friend did not really suspect Daniels of such perfidy; it was merely his bitterness over Marian's actions which prompted the accusation.

"I didn't mean it," apologized Pete. "But what about Boris and -- the girl?"

Daniels shuddered. "It was to save me, I know. Yet I wonder, when I see her yield to his caresses. At first I rebelled when she agreed to leave with him, but he would have killed me as he did my men. She insisted that I be imprisoned instead. Meanwhile Boris and his engineers are in my laboratory making drawings and calculations, solving the secrets from the apparatus itself."

"We'll put a stop to it." Pete's voice was grim.

Daniels turned a haggard face to his rescuers. A wan smile twisted his thin lips and he streched out his hands. Those irons! Without further speech or even a groan, Daniels pitched forward and lay still on the concrete.

"Fainted," Pete announced, when he had rolled him over and disposed his body more comfortably. "And no wonder -- poor devil."

There was still no sound from above except the incessant drone of the generator. Pete stood a moment in thought, his jaw set.

"We'll lick them yet," he muttered. "Get Daniels out of this, too. And Marian -- if she wants to get out. Let's go, Bert."

The locked the door of Daniels' cell, fearing he might stumble out and get into trouble later. He was in no shape to be of help.

A foolhardy undertaking this, but there was no alternative. Outnumbered by desperate Martians and with a single atomite gun between them, they were in a tight place. But much was at stake besides their own precious lives. They had to go on. Creeping stealthily up the stairs, they found themselves in the long hall of the first floor. It must have been just after sunset, for the deepening gloom made of the hall a nightmare of lurking shadows and strange shapes that kept them in constant expectation of a surprise attack.

Bert handed the pistol to his friend; Pete was the better shot.

Through an alcove they glimpsed a light, and merry voices reached their ears from that point. The Martians were dining. And Marian; her trilling laugh brought Pete up short and Bert grabbed him.

There were six at table, Boris at the head with the girl at his right, and four others of the Martians. Five to reckon with; probably more. At least one must be in the kitchen.

Boris rose with glass in hand, proposing a toast -- to his future bride. Pete growled and Bert dragged him away.

"Lay off!" he husked. "This gives you your chance to search the laboratory."

The second floor was deserted so they climbed to the third. It was from here the sound of the generator came.

An enormous, single room comprised the top floor and this was the laboratory, cluttered with apparatus. In a corner was the generator, of the high frequency type, and its musical note seemed hardly more noticeable here than it had been in the cellar.

Pete set about examining the mechanisms that were so mysterious and awe-inspiring to Bert. He handled them as if already familiar with their workings.

"Ah!" he breathed, after inspecting what looked like a telescope mounted on a radio transmitter. "The force gun -- may help us later. Here Bert, you take the pistol and go downstairs. Watch them from a safe distance and if anything happens or if they start up here, fire three shots as a signal."

Cold chills chased down Bert's spine, but the feel of the pistol gave him confidence and he turned to the stairs.

"Atta boy," Pete whispered. "A lot depends on this."

He returned to his examination of the force gun.

(continue to part 4)

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