Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Thia of the Drylands" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth 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.

On Mars, Barron finds himself among a group of semibarbaric drylanders. One, Maranu, insists that he be killed, while another, Durvil, wants him imprisoned until the drylanders' mysterious plans are complete. The final decision, however, rests with the drylanders' ruler, the beautiful, quick-tempered Thia. Thia helps him escape, and Barron makes his way to Lintarg's clinic, dodging Terran Secret Service agents on the way . . .

* * *

A long-drawn musical note, vibrant and mellow. Grateful warmth that penetrated deep into the tissues, stimulating muscular activity, setting the pulses a-throb, revitalizing bodily functions long dormant. The tang of ozone, like sweet mountain air filling the lungs. Light-images, hazy and unstable at first, resolving into clear-cut forms of things animate and inanimate . . . substantial and real . . .

Abruptly, Cliff Barron knew he was in the land of the living.

The musical note slithered down the scale and trailed off into silence. Cliff drew in his breath sharply; looked down at his nude body. He was standing on a metal plate that glowed with pale rosy light. His flesh was firm, his skin healthy. His hands -- he moved a finger; spread all ten fingers wide. His arms, no longer withered and rigidly twisted -- he flung them wide with sudden vigor.

A choked sob rose in his throat.

He looked up slowly and reverently into a smiling, gray-bearded face. Lintarg. Other white-coated Martians were in the room -- a room of crystal walls and weird apparatus. All the white-coated ones were looking at Cliff, watching him intently as one watches the subject of a laboratory experiment -- for untoward reactions. All excepting Lintarg. The great surgeon’s gaze was confident, friendly and sympathetic. Cliff tried to speak and couldn’t.

It was no less than a miracle, this thing that had been done by the famed healer of Risapar. A man made over. A healthy, normal human being made from a physical derelict. A wreck salvaged.

Cliff extended his hands and turned them palm upwards. Wriggled his fingers as an infant, when first cognizant of the strange appendages, wriggles its toes. Impulsively, he stretched those muscular new hands of his to Lintarg. Gripped him mightily. Said not a word.

A little later, when Cliff had mastered his emotions, a flood of questions clamored for utterance. The staff physicians and attendants had quitted the laboratory. He was alone with the great Lintarg.

“Tell me doctor,” he demanded, “am I entirely fit and well?”

Lintarg’s round eyes twinkled behind his spectacles. “You feel fit, don’t you?” he countered.

“Never better. But I don’t understand; my lost weight has been returned; my senses seem more acute -- everything. I am a new man --“

“You are precisely that, Barron. And wondering about it all, I am sure. We will discuss it in your room. Here -- cover yourself and come with me.” Lintarg tossed him a light robe.

In the small bare room with the high white bed, Cliff hugged himself and grinned like a boy. Rising to his toes and with legs rigid, he bent double and touched the tips of his fingers to the floor.

“Here, here,” Lintarg, behind him, reproved. “None of that, young man. You are to take to your bed at once.”

“Bed” -- blankly. “Why, I feel --“

"Precisely; you feel like dancing and singing and being many fools combined in one. Nevertheless, you are going to bed -- a night of real sleep is necessary after your experience. Normal sleep.”

To Cliff it seemed he was in condition to tackle a dozen wildcats then and there. But he yielded to the great physician; stretched flat under the covers with arms outside where he could see and gloat over their easy movement, their muscular --

“You are a fortunate young man,” Lintarg pronounced, interrupting his thoughts. “Extremely fortunate.”

“I’ll say I am.” Cliff looked up into the grave round eyes and a wave of deep gratitude swept his being. Gratitude he could not hope to express properly. “I can’t tell you, sir, how much --“

“Forget all that.” Lintarg’s voice was gruff, but understanding was in the round Martian eyes. “The thing is done, and you will be discharged in the morning. Meanwhile, as I am a very busy man, I must bid you farewell. It will be impossible for me to see you tomorrow. So good luck to you, my boy.”

“Wait, sir; tell me how -- what --“

“Yes.” Lintarg glanced swiftly at the huge Martian chronometer he drew from his pocket. “Yes, of course, you will not remember it. You fainted in the hall, Barron, and we brought you at once to the operating room. It was none too soon. Of the operation itself I shall speak little, as the details are highly technical -- the repair and rejuvenation of certain motor and sensory nerve centers -- you may hardly expect to comprehend. Then followed five days of intensive treatment, healing scars, building up tissues, and strengthening the weakened organs by means of curative rays. Electrical, you understand. Systematic exercise, proper dieting -- it is, after all, quite simple.”

“Five days!” Cliff stared. “And I know nothing of it -- this was all done while I remained unconscious!”

“Precisely; it is the Lintarg system. We keep the patient’s mental processes entirely dormant during treatment, in order that there be no possibility of conscious or subconscious resistance of the mind. Ninety days of convalescence are thereby accomplished in five days of time. Is this all clear to you?”

“Y-yes.” It wasn’t clear, but Cliff had a vague understanding of what they must have done to him.

“Then -- truly -- I must be leaving you.” Lintarg moved to go.

“Your fee, sir --

“All taken care of by your benefactor, and your letter of credit is intact as well. I repeat, you are a fortunate young man.” The surgeon was fidgeting; anxious to be gone.

“Oh -- I’ll not keep you, sir. Thanks -- it’s all I can say -- I --“ Cliff swallowed hard; extended his hand -- the firm strong right hand Lintarg had given to him.

The Martian gripped it, smiling. “Henes be with you my boy.” And then the great Lintarg was gone.

* * *

Cliff lay for a long time thinking. Moving his fingers one by one, trying each in turn. Flexing the muscles of his arms. Peering at the remade members as if they belonged to another man. Marveling.

He thought of what Lintarg had told him. That sealed letter of Vetter’s had taken care of the great surgeon’s fees -- large fees, too, they must be. Vetter had done more than he agreed. Good old Vetter, whatever his connections with those drylanders . . .

Abruptly Cliff Barron sat up in his bed. Memory of Thia smote him like a blow. Five days! He had been out of the picture five whole days while she was in danger of unknown nature. But serious danger. He remembered the League of Terra men. They were on Thia’s trail -- or Vetter’s. After the whole gang probably.

He jumped from his bed. Stay here overnight? -- not if he could help it. He rushed to the small closet in a corner of the room; saw his clothing hanging there neatly arranged. In a panic of apprehension, he dressed more swiftly than he had done in his lifetime.

Flinging open the door, he came face to face with a nurse. A round-eyed Martian girl, stolid of features and severely prim in the starched white uniform of her calling.

“Henes!” she gasped. “The patient is mad. You must return to bed instantly, Earthling.”

“Nonsense, woman!” Cliff brushed past her and strode down the hall. “I’m as well as any man in the city. And I’m going away from here.”

The nurse pattered after him, clutching at his arm. He shook her off. An orderly, a great bleached-skinned hulk of a drylander, came from a side hall, blocking his way. Cliff flung him aside as if he had been a child.

He was in the outer office then, marching past the astonished and protesting registrar into the reception hall. Other orderlies came running, but these fell back under his grim threats. A lift stopped at the floor; the door opened. Cliff flung himself inside and was whisked away to the lower regions.

* * *

Reaching the main entrance of the building, he looked out over the central square of Risapar with satisfaction. The city was in darkness save for the twinkling cold-white lights of the square and the roadways. The pedestrian ways and moving platforms were almost deserted. Cliff drew a breath of relief and stepped out between the great columns of the portal.

And then he was stopped short in his tracks by a sound that came to his ears. A sharp click, directly behind him, followed by a whir as of some swiftly rotating mechanism. He wheeled about to look into the grim visage of the Secret Service operative who had first accosted him and into the violet glare of light that sprang from a pistol-like contrivance that was thrust in his face. A languorous, numbing sensation flashed over his body and his knees sagged.

“Now you’ll talk, buddy,” the operative growled. “Get down there to the corner where you see that small private ronsal. Quick!”

Everything within him cried out against it, but Cliff was without power to refuse. The wily operative was using a hypno-ray, one of those devilish contrivances that rob a man of his will and render him utterly subject to the will of another. Like an automaton Cliff faced about; as in a dream he walked jerkily to where the small ronsal was waiting at the roadside.

The second operative, the one he had seen in Lintarg’s reception hall, was inside the ronsal. The one with the hypno-ray backed Cliff against the side of the vehicle, in the shadow.

“Now!” he snarled, bringing the violet glare closer, “You’ll tell us how you got here from Terra. Make it fast, young fellow.”

Cliff shut his eyes, endeavoring to blot out the violet glare that had him in its power. But to no avail. He struggled mightily to clamp his jaws tight that his lips might not speak the words. But in his consciousness that other will was beating his down -- a will inferior to his own had it not been supplemented by the fiendish energy of the violet glare. Mechanically his voice repeated the fatal words:

“Carl Vetter’s space car . . . hurled across void in less than an hour . . . projector of car in cavern deep in mesa . . . Arizona -- in desert . . . due south of Tuba City . . . “

“Enough.” The violet glare was extinguished.

Cliff had vague knowledge that both operatives were now in the small ronsal. He heard the faint whine of the vehicle’s starting generators; battled desperately to regain control of his own movements. But too late he succeeded. With a swift rush the wheelless cab had risen from the nickel-cobalt roadway and lurched off into one of the express traffic lanes. By the time his brain had cleared of the hypno-ray’s influence, it was lost to his view.

The stark awfulness of the thing he had done smote Cliff with overwhelming force. He had betrayed Vetter, his benefactor; he had broken his solemn promise to Thia. Thia the beautiful, the impulsive, who was in such grave danger. True, he could not have helped it -- it was impossible for man to fight the energies of the hypno-ray. But that made the thing none the less calamitous.

He rushed shouting into the square, to a waiting ronsal of the public transportation system.

* * *

Of the swift ride along Canal Pyramus toward the city limits he took little heed. At the back of his brain was hammering the dread certainty that he would arrive too late. Even now the word was being flung earthward through the ether -- agents of the Secret Service would be at Vetter’s laboratory in the mesa within an hour.

Lucky he had not been asked any details regarding the Martian terminal of the space tube. If Thia were still there, she at least might be warned. If she had gone to Earth . . . Cliff shuddered.

Sykes had done this thing, smugly complacent Leonard Sykes, who had refused Cliff the chance Vetter later gave him. Sykes, somehow, had learned of Vetter’s space tube. Unable to locate it, he had used his vast wealth and political influence to corrupt even the League of Terra Secret Service. And now he would ruin Vetter. Thia, whatever her secret connection with the project, was in danger of exposure -- perhaps of death. There was a mystery here, of course, in the Risapar terminal of the space tube -- shady dealings, maybe, between Vetter and these drylanders of Thia’s. No matter. They had given Cliff his coveted chance of recovery and he was throwing in his lot with theirs.

The ronsal stopped at Cliff’s destination. When it had slid off into the night he clambered down the stair to the lower level of the canal bank. How different from when he had staggered up these same steps with useless arms dangling!

By the dim illumination of the flickering lights above, he made out the approximate location of the hidden entrance of the underground passages which communicated with the cavern of the projector. It had remained indelibly written in his memory.

Then he was tearing at the thick moss of the sloping bank with his fingers. It resisted with the toughness of leather. Desperately he cast about for an implement. The iron rail of the stairway -- he tore away a six foot section of its length as if it had been the lightest of bamboo and attacked the thick moss violently.

At length he had located the door frame. Of smooth metal, it was, and entirely unyielding. Between the strapped and studded wood of the door itself and the frame was not the smallest crack into which he might insert his improvised crowbar. But he located the outer plate of the lock eventually and went at it with the fury of a madman, his iron bar used as a battering ram.

He looked up anxiously to the pedestrian way at the top of the bank, fearing the din was attracting attention. But no faces peered down at him as yet, and he went back to his task with renewed vigor.

Presently there was a snap of metal inside. The door yielded slightly. An inch, two inches. The iron bar crashed home again and again. Then, suddenly, the door swung inward, creaking protestingly, and Cliff was in the dark passage.

* * *

He ran frantically, blindly, bumping heavily against rough-hewn walls as he lost his sense of direction in the darkness. He came out into lighted passages that seemed familiar, yet gave him no indication as to whether he was on the right track. Into the darkness again and again, feeling his way, stumbling and panting, scratched and bruised by many contacts with the jagged stones of the passage walls.

It was a hopeless task, finding his way in the labyrinth of dark tunnels and lighted ones that were equally unfamiliar. He shouted occasionally, pausing to listen for replies. But none came.

God! -- if Thia had gone! Or, if, even now, she was on her way to Earth in the space car . . . what fate awaited her at the other end of the tube? Cliff could only imagine, and, imagining, he conjured up in his mind the most frightful of possibilities.

And then, amazingly, he had come out into the cavern of the space car. He saw that operators of the projector were at the controls. Instructions were being called out by the observer at the radio telescope. And, on the landing platform at the entrance manhole of the car, was Maranu. Thia, in a boyish leathern garment, was entering the bullet-like vessel of the heavens.

“Stop!” Cliff was yelling as he ran toward the platform. “Wait, Thia -- they know!”

But the girl was already inside, and Maranu faced him with an ugly leer as he mounted the platform. “She can’t go, you fool!” Cliff gibbered. “Don’t you understand? Terrestrial Secret Service -- they will be waiting at the other end. The car must stay here.”

Maranu’s eyes narrowed. His burly form blocked the entrance port of the car. “So!” he rasped. “You think it must stay.”

Cliff was upon him then, bearing him to the floor. In a flash he had crawled over his prostrate form and was in the airlock of the car. There was a yell from outside and the port cover swung shut with a crash. Cliff heard the jangling of the bolts as it was fastened to its seats. But the import of this did not impress itself upon him then. He was too intend upon his quest of Thia.

“You monster, you’ve killed them!” Cliff heard Thia’s voice beyond the door of the passenger compartment.

Bursting through, he halted in amazement. She was facing Carl Vetter, a new Vetter with disarranged hair and staring eyes in which bloodlust gleamed. His fingers clutched the butt of a flame pistol and a heap of bodies was on the floor -- bodies of the drylanders.

“You’ve been killing them all,” Thia moaned. “And now you want to kill me. Oh, you vile traitor --“

“What’s this?” Cliff yelped in amazement.

“Thia turned swiftly and threw herself in his arms -- those new strong arms that closed protectingly about her.

“You!” Vetter exclaimed, falling back. His face paled to ghastly whiteness. “You! And completely recovered.”

“Yes, me, Vetter. What’s the idea?” Cliff still was unable to credit his senses. That a man who had done the thing Vetter had done for him should be engaged in what was evidently nefarious business, was incredible. A murderer -- Vetter? Impossible.

The buzzer shrilled viciously. They were sending the car across!

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