Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Thia of the Drylands" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second installment of Harl Vincent's "Thia of the Drylands", a science fiction story from the Gernsback Era that first appeared in the July 1932 issue of Amazing Stories. Its only other appearance in print was in the Summer 1967 issue of Science Fiction Classics.

The story so far:
Cliff Barron is a spaceship pilot who has been disabled by a Martian disease. His boss, Leonard Sykes, President of Interplanetary Lines, refuses to allow Barron to travel to Mars to consult with the brilliant Martian surgeon Lintarg of Risapar. Barron is then approached by businessman Carl Vetter, who proposes to send him to Mars using a new technique he is developing: an electromagnetic space gun. Barron reluctantly agrees . . .

* * *

Twelve hours later they stepped from Vetter’s plane to the flat top of a mesa in the Painted Desert of Arizona. A spot far off the regular air lanes -- safe from prying eyes.

“You’ll understand the need for secrecy,” Vetter said when they entered a small building which topped a lift shaft that was bored into the solid rock of the mesa. “If Sykes learned of this he’d put his vast resources at work to head it off. His own vast investments at stake, he’d spare none of his influence or political power to squash the thing. Scientific progress and the benefit to mankind would mean nothing -- you know that.”

“Sure." Cliff Barron’s thoughts were upon the journey he was about to make; nothing else seemed important. A sick feeling came over him as the lift dropped into the darkness of the shaft.

In the hollowed-out heart of the mesa was massed a most amazing array of machinery. Cliff could only liken it to a huge power plant he had visited in 1997 when he was a fresh recruit of Interplanetary Lines. There were mighty generators here in the bowels of the mesa, generators driven by atomic engines whose fuel was common shale. Vetter told him that the atoms comprising this ordinary stone were disrupted in the retorts feeding the engines, and the enormous nuclear energy was thus liberated for use. Cheap and unlimited power. Huge coils of copper tubing surrounded the shiny projectile that was the space car, and great busbars connected these with the generators. This was the projector of the great invisible tube of space through which Cliff was to be hurled.

The blast of a whistle rose suddenly, shrilly. Men were running here and there, manipulating switches that started the main generators, operating controls that swung the giant coils and the space car itself around to a new angle. An observer was at the eyepiece of a great radio telescope signaling instructions.

“Just in time, Barron,” said Vetter. “They are preparing for the trial. We are now facing toward Mars at the proper angle.”

“I’m ready.” Cliff’s reply was in a steady voice, but he was as a man in a trance, moving listlessly and dazedly toward the car.

On a platform beside the entrance manhole of the steel projectile stood a small group of men, whom Cliff took to be the financiers or their agents, who were there to witness the start. The workmen in the great hidden laboratory, Cliff saw with surprise, were all blinded artisans or deaf mutes. But, of course, Vetter would employ such men in order to preserve secrecy the better.

They were inside the space car then, he and Vetter, and the older man was speaking rapidly of the appointments of the strange vehicle of the heavens. It was hollowly quiet in the heavily padded interior. Then Cliff heard the pumps of the oxygen-generating and carbon dioxide absorption apparatus. No propelling machinery was in the car; he well understood that he was to depend utterly on the ray-operators outside. If they made a mistake . . .

There were two compartments, one for freight and another for passengers. In the latter were about twenty deep-cushioned, spring-supported hammock berths. Vetter explained that these were to ease the pressure of acceleration and he assisted Cliff in disposing his body to best advantage in one of the comfortable berths. These swings were arranged so as to be reversible -- at approximately mid-point of the journey they would swing around to take care of deceleration as well . . .

Vetter’s voice droned on, but Cliff was listening to the pumps. He wanted to be off. The sooner the better.

A buzzer shrilled its wasp-like note.

* * *

“Three minutes now, old man,” exclaimed Vetter. “I’ll be leaving you soon. Here’s your Martian letter of credit and a note to Lintarg. My men at the other end will take care of you. Good luck, now, and au revoir. See you in a few hours.”

“Sure you will?” Cliff smiled; he was perfectly composed now that the time was at hand.

“Positive.” Vetter grinned encouragingly and then was gone.

Cliff heard only the pumps and the jangling of the bolts as the circular cover of the outer hatch was bolted to its hermetically sealed seat. He was alone in this man-made contraption that was to bring him his chance of life . . . real life once more . . . or of death.

Time passed at a snail’s pace as he waited. Funny, if Vetter was so positive, that he hadn’t made the initial trip himself. Cliff set his lips in a bleak smile. They never took any chances with their own precious lives, these promoters. Nor did they find it easy to get others to do so for them. Only in Cliff’s case it was different.

He thought of the things Vetter had told him. With Mars and Earth in their present relative positions, the distance between the two bodies was fifty-five million miles. And the trip was to require forty-five minutes!

The buzzer shrilled again. Sixty seconds to go, Vetter had told him, after that repeated signal. Cliff’s heart was pounding so loudly he could hear its thuds. Unconsciously he was holding his breath and was counting off the seconds. And he had stiffened his body in anticipation of the shock that was to come.

This would not do. Vetter had warned him to relax completely so his body might better withstand the pressure. He relaxed.

Sudden terrific vibrations gripped the car, causing the springs of the hammocks to resound noisily. Cliff was pressed into the cushions with tremendous force. The journey had begun.

* * *

It was incredible, impossible, that pressure which smashed him down. He body suddenly had acquired enormous weight, the weight of a behemoth. It was as if the paralysis of his arms and hands had taken hold of his entire being. He couldn’t move a muscle of his lower body or even turn his head.

And, second by second, the pressure increased until it seemed his bodily frame must give way under the strain. Breathing had become difficult, for the muscles of his lungs were overtaxed in expanding the unwonted weight of flesh and bone that covered them. His eyes burned in their sockets; his vision distorted. The weight of cornea and aqueous humour was depressing each lens so it no longer focused. And then, without warning, came oblivion. For Cliff Barron there was no further knowledge of the journey.

Faster and faster still the tiny space car drove on into the void, into the mysterious depths of the heavens towards Mars, where anxious observers awaited its coming.

* * *

Low voiced mumblings impressed themselves on Cliff’s returning consciousness. Sharp questions in a querulous rasping tone, answers in whispered syllables of the dryland tongue of Mars. Cliff opened an eye experimentally and saw a squat bearded Martian conversing with a second one of greater stature and forbidding countenance. They stood but a few feet from the cot on which he lay in a dim-lit and unfamiliar room. Cliff closed the one eye as his own name was mentioned in the uncouth speech of the parched plains of the red planet.

“It is he -- Cleef Barron -- of the paralyzed arms. Even as the ethergram advised us. But Vetter must be mad; we can not let this one go to Lintarg. He knows too much -- our plans would be ruined.”

“Hush!” The other was speaking. “He is about to awaken. It is wonderful, Maranu -- a complete vindication of Vetter’s claims. If this man Barron had perfect health and strength, he would have come through conscious and entirely unharmed. Even as it is, he is little the worse for the experience. Think what it means.”

“Surely I think. I know. But we must make away with him, I say; we must not heed Vetter’s message. He is a sentimental fool. It is too dangerous that this one be permitted to live.”

“Hush, I tell you -- he awakens.”

* * *

Cliff groaned and tossed, feigning a painful awakening. He had remembered the journey’s start and Vetter’s promises and was suddenly very much awake. If this was to be an argument as to his own life or death he wanted to take it standing. He dropped his legs over the edge of the cot and sat swaying weakly, though his head was now as clear as if he had just come out of a refreshing sleep.

“Where -- where am I?” he stammered.

The one called Maranu grunted disgustedly as the other, the squat bearded one, thrust out his hand to help Cliff to his feet.

“You haff arrived safe in Risapar,” the bearded one said in atrocious English. “No harm whateffer haff come to you. It iss --“

The big Martian Maranu shoved him roughly aside. “Enough!” he rasped in his own tongue. “It must be as I said, Durvil.” His hand moved to the flame pistol at his belt.

“No!” The one called Durvil reddened angrily and pushed himself in front of Cliff. “No killing now. I tell you we --“

Maranu choked him off with a huge hand closing on his throat and Cliff looked blankly from one to the other as if in complete ignorance of the speech of the drylands.

A clamor rose outside the door; someone was shouting excitedly in the corridor. Maranu let loose his grip of Durvil’s throat.

“They want to see him!” gasped the bearded one. “Maranu, you fool, they must see this man who has come across the void, else they will not believe. Are you mad?”

“True, we must show them,” the big fellow agreed. “I shall wait.”

Cliff would have welcomed any interruption at the moment. This byplay of the two Martians was puzzling; he could think of no reason why Maranu should want him out of the way. But he had no doubts as to the seriousness of the drylander’s intent, nor would he have gambled any great amount on the value or permanence of Durvil’s apparent friendliness to himself.

Maranu unlatched the door, grumbling, and there stood revealed in the hall an armed guard, a giant drylander who thrust his grimacing face into the room and jabbered unintelligibly in the lowest dialect of his race. Durvil, the squat one, lunged toward the guard.

“Outside!” he bellowed as the fellow tried to shove his way into the room. “We will bring the traveler to the dome room. Report this to your captain -- understand, scum?”

The big guard, a foot taller than the bearded one, cringed and withdrew. Cliff followed him in response to Durvil’s imperious gesture of command, and the two he had first seen in this place brought up the rear. Durvil was berating Maranu in husky whispers as they passed along the corridor.

It was a queer reversal of the first order of things. Now it was apparent that Durvil was the higher in authority, though before the guard’s coming Maranu had been the one to give orders. Cliff Barron knowing the temperament of the various races of Mars, was none the less puzzled.

They came out in a huge vaulted chamber that was quite like the one in the mesa of the Arizona desert. There were similar generators and the great copper coils of a projector of the hollow beam of ether vibrations. The space car itself rested on the receiving platform of the apparatus. It was from this place they had taken Cliff to the room where he returned to consciousness.

At the far end of the chamber was a group of Martians. Wondering, as he was led before them, Cliff saw that one was a woman. A strikingly beautiful woman, more like one from his own country, than like any he had ever seen in the drylands or canal cities of Mars. A woman of queenly bearing who sat on a cushioned and canopied couch surrounded by uniformed drylanders, and who stared at Cliff with the most remarkable of eyes. Wide-set eyes of lustrous jet in which a feral light glinted. Hypnotic eyes; compelling.

“It is the passenger, oh Thia,” said Durvil, making obeisance.

“He is quite well and uninjured after the voyage?” The black eyes of this Thia showed no change of expression.

“Not well, of course -- on account of his disability. But I can assure you, oh Thia, he has suffered no ill effect whatsoever due to the trip itself.”

Durvil’s voice was respectful but intimately confident. Evidently he was a personage of some account before this woman of dryland royalty, whoever she might be.

Thia’s eyes were on Cliff and he thought he detected a softening of the hard glitter. “Oh, yes,” she murmured, “the disability. He is to see Lintarg as Vetter requested?”

Maranu broke out in voluble objection, but was silenced by a fierce look from Thia.

“What say you, oh Durvil?” she purred, bending her gaze on the bearded one.

“I say there shall be no killing. Maranu was ever violent. But I say he should imprison the passenger until the thing is done, that he may do us no harm.”

“He must die!” rasped Maranu. “This one is a spy. Can you not see, oh Thia, by his attention to our speech that he understands? He is not ignorant of our tongue, as he has protested.”

“Is this true, Earthling?” Thia’s voice was cold and hard as were her eyes.

Cliff looked full into those blazing orbs and saw there could be no dissembling with this woman. “True, yes, that I comprehend your speech,” he admitted, “but that I am a spy, no. I know nothing of your plans and care less about them. I know only what Vetter told me; what he promised. I came here for one thing and one thing only -- to visit Lintarg. To try his skill in this --“

He hesitated, looking down at his paralyzed members. Little he cared what devilment these drylanders might be cooking up. All that mattered was what he had come after; he wanted to be out of this place and on his way to the famous surgeon.

* * *

Again there was the softening of Thia’s gaze, this time more noticeable. Again the grating expostulations of Maranu, silenced once more by the amazing woman who sat before them all.

“You see,” Cliff ventured hopefully, “I have only one desire -- I care nothing for your --“

“He must be imprisoned, oh Thia,” Durvil broke in firmly. “There is no other way, regardless of Vetter, regardless of --“

Something snapped then in Cliff Barron’s brain. Perhaps it was the nightmare of the journey; perhaps the thin atmosphere and the low gravity of the red planet. Whatever it was, it sent him into a wild rage and he threw himself at Durvil. Though his leg muscles had been greatly weakened by his illness, they were of ample power here, being accustomed to carry much more weight of body on Earth. And he soared high in his mad leap, landing on the squat Martian with both knees and smashing him to the pavement.

“Now go ahead!” he yelled. “Let Maranu shoot, damn him! Damn you all -- go on with your dirty work!”

The guards were upon him in an instant. With his useless arms in the way and encumbering him, he could only kick and butt. This was of little avail when they closed in from all sides. But he had the satisfaction of seeing Maranu go down when he brought a knee up into the big fellow’s midsection; saw that Durvil lay still where he had fallen.

And then Cliff was helpless in the hands of the guards. Though he struggled mightily, they carried him away. He looked back.

Thia was standing alone, and her scarlet lips quirked in an enigmatic smile.

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