Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"The War of the Planets" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth installment of "The War of the Planets", the third published story by Harl Vincent and a sequel to his first story, "The Golden Girl of Munan". It originally appeared in the January 1929 issue of Amazing Stories magazine and has not seen the light of day since. The first three installments can be found here, here, and here.

As we join our story, twenty years have passed since Professor Nilsson, Roy Hamilton, and the nineteen survivors of the destruction of the island of Munan settled in New York City. Thelda Serano has married Hamilton, while her friend Zora has married Nilsson, and the two couples have one child each, Walter Hamilton and Dorothy Nilsson.

Now word has reached them that over a hundred spherical objects of unknown origin are approaching the Earth. Nilsson, Roy and Walter decide to send the three women to see a Broadway show while they stay home and discuss the troubling spheres. Nilsson explains that contrary to popular belief, there may well be humanoid intelligences on the other worlds of the Solar System. The spheres, he believes, are spaceships . . .


Two nights later the same group was again gathered together, this time in the Nilsson apartments. And now there was no effort at concealment. There could be none, since the whole world was now apprised of the fact that some unknown danger threatened and that whatever happened would occur within the next sixty hours.

Thelda had laughed gleefully when she found that Roy and Walter had conspired to keep the thing from her.

“Why, Daddy dear,” she had said, rumpling Roy’s hair with both hands. “You forget my highly developed faculty of thought-reading. It is true that I have held it in abeyance since coming from Munan, but when you are troubled by anything, it always comes back to me. You were a dear for sending us out the other night, but I knew just how it was and how concerned you were. You should be punished, though, for thinking so poorly of my courage. Do you not remember the days in the cavern under Leyris, when all was in doubt, when we never knew from one day to the next whether we should leave Munan alive, whether we could save the world or not? Did I lack courage then?”

“Indeed you did not,” replied Roy, contritely. “You were marvelous then, and still are. I was a fool to think that you would not take this heroically also.”

“But I must confess that I am somewhat worried at that. If this thing does develop, as you and the professor seem to fear, it will mean a bloody war, will it not?”

“I’m afraid it will, sweetheart. And probably a more terrible war than has ever been fought on this earth – as horrible as would have been the vengeance of the Munanese. Having absolutely no weapons of defense, we should be at their mercy and if they wished to utterly destroy us they could undoubtedly do so.”

Thelda sighed. “Then you, my dear, and our Walter also, would be compelled to engage in combat,” she said with fear clutching at her heart.

“No doubt we would. But do not fret yourself about it – yet. We have no certain knowledge that our fears are to be realized.”

The videophone spoke: “NY-14-328, NY-14-328.”

The professor hurried in from the next room as a stern but kindly face appeared on the disc.

“Professor Nilsson?” queried this gentleman, when he observed the professor approaching the instrument.

“Yes, Mr. Secretary. Can I be of service to you?”

“I believe you can. We have received a radio message at Washington from the invaders, and you are already involved. Can you leave for Washington at once and bring Roy Hamilton with you?”

“Yes sir,” he responded, as he noted Roy’s vigorous nod of acquiescence. “We will leave in the Pioneer within ten minutes and can be in Washington in about one hour.”

“Excellent,” approved the voice from Washington. “We shall await you in the Research building. Thank you for your prompt compliance.”

The voice broke off and the face disappeared from the disc. This was the Secretary of Terrestrial Scientific Research, whose features were at once recognized by all present.

“Oh Dad, may I go?” asked Walter at once.

The faces of the two women, Thelda and Zora, paled. They gazed at each other with stricken countenances. Dorothy rushed to Walter and buried her head on his shoulder.

Roy turned slowly toward Thelda and she answered his questioning look with a barely perceptible nod.

“Very well, son,” he replied. “Make ready at once.”

Tearfully hurried leave was taken and the three men rushed for the professor’s laboratory, where the aero reposed in its cradle on the top floor. The Pioneer had been used very little since the trip to and from Munan in 2406, but the professor had worked on it from time to time, making alterations and improvements. Walter had never seen it and was highly elated at the prospect of traveling in the craft which had carried his father and the professor on their perilous mission so many years before.

The laboratory was reached in a few minutes and the men clambered through the entrance manhole into the ship and on to the control room. Everything was exactly as Roy had seen it for the first time twenty years before and he thrilled to the same old excitement when the professor clambered into the pilot’s seat and turned the switch that started the sphere revolving. Walter watched in amazement as he followed the professor’s movements at the controls and saw the electron-collecting cone swing around to a point under the rapidly revolving sphere to direct upon its surface the stream of waste energy which was to raise them from their position and carry them on their journey.

* * *

The roof of the room in which the vessel rested had been slid back and, as the rotating sphere gathered speed, the Pioneer rose vertically, majestically soaring into the night above the great city of New York. Walter did not even go to the floor port-hole to watch the city slide away beneath them as they headed southward. He had seen this wonder too many times from the regular beam-lane liners and from his own small flyabout. Now he was far more interested in the mechanism of the Pioneer, which had always been such a mystery to him. For three years he had worked in this same laboratory with the professor but never until this night had he set eyes on the craft in which he was now being carried. Vaguely he understood that this ship did not depend on the energy carried by the regular beams which radiated to all points of the globe from his city, but obtained its power from stray electrons liberated by the losses of the regular energy systems. He had never understood the need for this but now he saw more clearly its advantages. They were absolutely free lances! Nobody could control their comings and goings and they would still have their source of power if something happened to cut off the regular energy.

While his father and the professor speculated on the contents of the radiogram and the reason for their call to Washington, Walter spent his time examining the mechanisms of the ship and investigating her appointments from stem to stern. Although the professor had always maintained great secrecy regarding the Pioneer and had never explained its workings to Walter, he did not now deter him from pursuing his investigatory ramblings.

Traveling at a speed of five hundred miles an hour, it did not take them long to reach Washington, and the three stepped into the anteroom of the Secretary’s office at the exact time promised by the professor.

They were admitted almost immediately to a large room where sat eight men before the screen of a standard news video. These were the secretary and his advisory council of seven. Here the approaching objects in the heavens appeared much larger and more distinct than when they had last seen them. There seemed to be fully as many as the one hundred and nine which had been counted by the astronomers. Now they looked like nothing so much as soap bubbles, truly spherical, and glistening with myriad shifting and shimmering hues. Beautiful they were, but in some unaccountable way awe-inspiring too. One could almost feel, in the air of the room, the menace of the weird objects.

Following mutual introductions, the Secretary handed to the professor a sheet of paper bearing the well known insignia of the Terrestrial Videophone Company. The three visitors read the message in silence. It was addressed to the President of the Terrestrial Government and read as follows:

“This is a formal declaration of war against the peoples of the world by the peoples of Venus. Munan shall be avenged.” The signature was a single word, “Mador.”

Roy and the professor gasped when they read this.

“Now you see why I sent for you two gentlemen,” spoke the Secretary. “The reference to Munan decided me.”

“And a very good reason it was,” replied the professor, “but let us think this over. What can be the meaning of that last sentence? And the signature seems to have a familiar sound, too.”

“Why, Nils,” Roy burst out, “Mador was the name often mentioned by the Munanese. He was one of their most noted scientists and was very close to the Zar. He was known to be working on some highly secret problem while we were there. But it could not possibly be the same, because none escaped when the island was destroyed.”

The professor paled, his fine features taking on an expression of comprehension and consternation.

“It must be the same fellow, my boy,” he said haltingly. “I see it all now. Quite probably this scientist was working on the construction of a space flier while we were engaged in our plans to destroy the island and rid the world of its menace. It must be that he had started on this trial trip of the contrivance and was away at the time the island was annihilated. If that is the case he undoubtedly had a number of Munanese with him and when they returned to find their island gone they would quite naturally set out for one of the other planets. Reaching Venus, they set about to make allies of its inhabitants and to plan a war of conquest against us. Hundreds of duplicate fliers could well have been constructed during the intervening twenty years and this is the result. You see I was right in my discussion the other evening. Life does exist on Venus and we are to learn more about it, to our sorrow.”

* * *

Walter was bright-eyed with excitement, but his father shook his head gravely.

The Secretary spoke, “From your words I infer that this means a great deal to you; that you are greatly concerned. That is why I called you. Of course the entire world knows the story of the heroic efforts put forth by you and Mr. Hamilton in the Munan affair, but details are more or less forgotten in as long a time as has elapsed since that historic event. Now, with the knowledge possessed by you two regarding the activities of the Munanese, what can you offer in the way of suggestions as to a means of defense?”

“Mr. Secretary,” the professor answered slowly, “that is a question that requires serious thought. Will you grant me until tomorrow morning to consider it?”

“Yes indeed, Professor. But do not forget that our enemies will be upon us at noon of the third day from this. You will have but little more than forty-eight hours in which to work. Possibly the world will again be compelled to rely upon you two to save it from disaster.”

“We shall not forget the short time, Mr. Secretary. Roy Hamilton and I will do all within our power. On the face of it, it looks pretty hopeless, but we shall see. I do not have a single idea as yet but it is certain that, whatever may be done, it will have to be worked out in the laboratory. In order to be prepared, I should like to request that you place one of the official laboratories at my disposal with a corps of experts to assist me. Is this possible?”

“Most assuredly,” agreed the Secretary. “The entire resources of my department and staff are yours. But there is one other question. Should I not order the videophone system discontinued on account of the possibility of the enemy overhearing conversations relative to the expected attack and to any defense plans which may be made?”

“Not at all,” replied the professor. “Although we did receive a radiogram from Mador, you must remember that it was by the old code method and that he has no means of intercepting the standard videophone waves.”

“But, Professor,” queried the Secretary, “if the enemy can transmit radio messages, even though they be of the code variety, why can they not intercept our video, which, after all, is a means of radio communication, however advanced it may be over the ancient systems?”

The professor smiled. “I do not believe you have given that point the consideration it deserves, Mr. Secretary,” he replied. “It is true that the videophone operates through the medium of high frequency radio vibrations but, as you know, the sound waves imposed on the carrier emitted from each individual video are distorted so as to be received on an ordinary radio as a garbled sequence of sounds, which have no resemblance to the human voice. As you are also aware, each video, though transmitting distorted sounds of a nature different from those of any other video, makes its connections through a central retransmitting office, where the individual distorted wave is rectified and ‘undistorted,’ so as to be properly received by the video to which the call is being made. Otherwise there would be no assurance at all of secrecy in any videophone calls between individuals. The only exception is the General News video which transmits a highly complicated distorted wave having such a characteristic as to be receivable by all individual videos. This too could not be rectified by any receiver not having the proper rectifying equipment. It is extremely unlikely, in fact I might say practically impossible, that the enemy is able to rectify these distorted waves and make them understandable, as there are an unlimited number of combinations possible in the distorting mechanisms. No, I think there is no likelihood of danger from that source.”

“Professor,” answered the Secretary, “I am absolutely chagrined at my failure to grasp so simple a problem as this, but in this time of stress and danger, I fear my mind is not working as it should. You are absolutely right about this as you have proved to be about many other things. Now, you will need a headquarters for your consideration of the main problem, and I wish to offer my home to you and your companions. Let us adjourn and leave for my residence at once.”

* * *

The Secretary conveyed the visitors to his small, speedy, private aero to his home in the outskirts of the city.

Washington was one of the few cities in the world that still retained the old arrangement of wide streets, spacious detached dwellings, and pedestrian traffic. Of course, there were landing stages on all buildings for the aeros, but there was none of the closely massed, continuous building construction with roofed-over multiple moving ways and artificial temperature control and ventilation encountered almost everywhere else in the world. Here one could look at the stars without taking a long elevator journey to the roof-tops of a completely covered city.

Roy, Walter and the professor were escorted to a spacious suite of rooms and there left to their own devices. The first thing they did was to establish a videophone connection with the professor’s apartments in New York. All three spoke to their loved ones and were deeply moved by the expressions of fear in the gentle faces that appeared in the disc. The ladies begged to be allowed to join them in Washington, but Roy and the professor steadfastly refused, since they feared that the initial attack would be aimed at Washington, the seat of the Terrestrial Government.

Far into the night the three men talked, Walter being thrilled to the core at thus having a hand in world affairs of such great moment. Finally the professor requested that the other two retire and leave him to his own thoughts. This they did reluctantly, though they fully realized that the professor’s analytical mind could function much better in private.

(continue to part 5)

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