Thursday, August 6, 2009

"The Barrier" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth 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 three installments can be found here, here, and here.

As we join our story, Bert Peyton and Pete Canfield have discovered that Martian spies have taken over a secret research lab on Long Island. While the Martians eat a hearty dinner, Canfield has snuck into the laboratory, determined to turn its secret weapons against the spies . . .

* * *

The diners had come to the point of hilarity by the time Bert reached the first floor hall. It was evident that Boris and his men felt absolutely safe here within the invisible barrier which they kept in operation for their very security.

Creeping along the hall to the alcove, Bert secreted himself in the draperies. From here he had a view of the table and where sat Marian and Boris. The girl, flushed and smiling, had rested her hand in Boris' huge paw where the latter lay on the cloth.

It sickened Bert, yet he could hardly believe the girl was playing anything but a game. A desperate game, with their lives and the fate of a world the stakes. Pete, he knew, was consumed with jealous fury and was blinded to Marian's true motives. Being in love with her, that was probably natural for him. Bert could see the thing more clearly.

What a position! In this world of the twenty-first century, with all but five per cent of the population concentrated in the mechanized cities, to be out here, miles from civilization, beyond all hope of communication, off the regular air lanes and without radiophone or heliograph. It was a return to the primitive; Bert felt much as he thought a prisoner in the ancient encampment of savages might have felt.

They had to see the thing through, though, he and Pete. At the moment, Bert had no slightest idea as to how this was to be accomplished. But, if anyone could find a way, Pete could.

Up in the laboratory, Pete already was planning something. But could he, in a few short minutes, contrive to upset the carefully laid plans of Martian spies who had worked on the thing for months?

A move of Boris' cut short Bert's meditations. The Martian had leaped to his feet, tipping over his chair in his haste, and stood with his head cocked as if listening. Marian Persons went white with fear. A dead silence fell in that dining room. Bert missed something then -- the drone of the generator from above. Poor old Pete.

Boris roared like an enraged bull and dashed through the alcove. Afterwards Bert wished he had shot him through the heart as he passed, but, remembering Pete's instructions, he fired three shots into the floor instead. The sharp spangs of the propelling atomite and the thuds of three expanding slugs created something like pandemonium in the place.

Boris was on the stairs shouting. The lights switched off and the lower floor was in impenetrable darkness. Boris' men were falling over one another in their efforts to get out of the dining room, and a single, choking scream, from the girl, told Bert of her fright.

The men had gone then, clattering up the stairs, stumbling and cursing in the darkness, clumping about and yelling when they reached the floor above.

"Miss Persons," Bert called softly. "Are you there?"

"Oh-h!" she gasped after a little silence. "It's you, Bert -- I, I'm afraid -- the shooting and all -- what does it mean?"

Bert heard the rustle of her movements in the murky blackness; groping, he found her hand and pressed it reassuringly, even though he was mighty shaky himself.

"I'm not exactly sure," he told her. "But Pete's up there in the laboratory. I fired the shots to warn him."

The girl moaned: "They'll kill him, Bert. Oh, go to him -- go up there and help."

She was frantic in her fear for Pete. Bert knew then that he had judged her correctly and that Pete was wrong. He leaped to the stairs.

* * *

He could see nothing, but by clinging to the stair-rail managed to make progress. The sound of a single shot echoed from above, then a horrible gurgling cry followed by ghastly silence.

Panicky, feeling his way along the second floor hall, Bert was suddenly aware of heavy breathing and the padding of feet close by. He stopped short, listening. A man brushed by and he grappled with him, but his fingers slipped and the fellow scurried away. A shot from the atomite gun produced no result save mocking echoes.

Bert hesitated. What did the silence portend, and who had so furtively sneaked away? Where was the girl? He hurried to the second flight of stairs.

Light streamed down from above and he took these steps two at a time. Pete stood by the telescope-like instrument -- alone! He was swaying on his feet as if dazed. The air was sharp with ozone.

"Where are they? What's become of them?" Bert jabbered.

Pete waived his hand airily. "Gone," he proclaimed. "Melted into thin air -- by this force gun of Daniels'. They got in only one shot at me -- a miss. Then the energy from this. Horrible!"

Bert stared. No wonder Pete was dazed! There were no bodies. Nothing whatever in sight. Yet what he said must be the truth.

"H-how many?" stammered Bert.

"Five." Pete shook his head to clear it. "You got Boris down below, I suppose."

Bert started anew. "Boris! Why, he came up here. He was the first to reach the stairs down there."

Pete gripped his arm until he winced. "Boris wasn't here," he husked. "There were the four from the dining room and the other from the kitchen. Don't tell me Boris escaped!"

With his knees sagging, Bert told what had happened in the hall below. Boris had been the one who passed him in the dark.

Pete rushed to a wall-panel and closed a switch which set the generator humming -- closed another that lighted the lower floors.

"Dammit!" he rasped. "Why didn't I think of it? Know what he did? Boris hid back of his men till he saw what happened, then beat it. Well, he can't pass the barrier; it's operating again."

That cleared some things in Bert's mind. Humans couldn't pass through from inside -- only projectiles. And Pete had deliberately cut off the generator and the lights to bring the Martians to the laboratory, intending to take them prisoners but forced to slaughter them in self-defense. Suddenly Bert thought of the girl.

"Marian!" he exclaimed. "She's down there -- with Boris loose!"

"Good Lord!" Peter Canfield went white. In that instant his foolish jealousies were forgotten. "Come on, Bert!" he yelped, and was down the stairs like a streak. Unarmed! Bert still clutched the pistol in his sweating hand.

They searched the house from top to bottom but found no trace of Boris or the girl. Pete was like a wild man when they reached the cellar. Finally he stopped at the door of Daniels' cell.

"The keys, Bert," he demanded shakily.

(continue to part 5)

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