Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Thia of the Drylands" by Harl Vincent, part 5

This is the fifth and final 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.

After five days of therapy, Barron is cured. After leaving the clinic, he is ambushed by Secret Service agents who use a hypno-ray to learn what he knows of Vetter's space gun operation. Barron returns to the drylanders, and follows Thia into the space car. Inside, he finds that Vetter has just killed a group of drylanders, and is about to do the same to Thia . . .

* * *

Vetter had recovered his equanimity and was raising the flame pistol. A maniacal gleam had come into his eyes.

“Stop!” Cliff snapped. “They’re wise -- at the other end. Waiting for you -- the authorities.”

“Wha-a-at!” Vetter lowered the muzzle of the pistol.

Again the buzzer shrilled -- twice. They were speeding the start.

Cliff swung Thia in his arms and deposited her in one of the hammocks. Only one minute before that awful pressure --

“No!” Vetter snarled. “She must die!” He flung up his arm with the pistol trained upon her.

Cliff sprang swiftly in a flying tackle, wrapping his arms about the big man’s knees and bringing him to the floor with a terrific thud.

“Cleef! Cleef!” Thia was screaming. “Quickly -- into the swing.”

Vetter had struggled to his knees when Cliff threw himself into the nearest hammock. Murder was in his eyes and he raised the flame pistol toward Cliff, cursing. Truly, this was a new Vetter.

Then came the shuddering vibration of the car, the terrible pressure of acceleration. Cliff was pressed gasping into the cushions as the space car lurched off into the heavens.

Vetter scream of agony rose high as he was crushed to the floor-plates. There was the sharp snapping of his bones; weak whimperings gasped painfully. Vetter had paid the penalty of his perfidy.

Still the awful pressure increased, driving Cliff deeper into the cushions with every passing second. He tried to move, tried to raise his voice in words of comfort to Thia. It was utterly impossible. His vision lapsed under the smashing pressure; his breath came short.

There was silence in the speeding car, save for the throbbing of the pumps that supplied the oxygen they breathed. On the floor there were the dead drylanders -- and Vetter. In the hammocks two living beings; inert; helpless.

At the end of the journey -- what?

After endless time it seemed the pressure of acceleration had eased slightly. Still Cliff was unable to move. But his brain was active and he pondered the strange situation.

What was this thing Vetter had done? Evidently there had been a plot to carry these drylanders of Thia’s to Earth. Perhaps they were the piratical crew Cliff had thought. Perhaps Vetter, discovering this, had been slaying them as they entered the space car one by one. A qualm assailed the young pilot as he thought of his benefactor -- a crushed mass there on the floor beneath the hammock.

But Vetter had intended to kill Thia; would have killed Cliff had not the space car leaped into the heavens in the nick of time. And Thia was in no way responsible for whatever deeds of dishonor might have been contemplated by those she called her people. Cliff made up his mind on that point. She was too essentially feminine; too much of the tender-heartedness of womankind was in her makeup. She was the very personification of the ideal Cliff had always secretly cherished. Too human, though her eyes might flash fire when anger overcame her. A delectable and desirable creature . . .

The pressure was easing. Cliff found he could roll his eyes and that breathing was somewhat less difficult. But he was as yet unable to move his limbs or to speak. He assumed they had reached the mid-point of their journey and that deceleration had commenced for the long gradually slackening dash to Earth.

What was to become of them there? Cliff swore a mighty oath to himself that he’d battle for Thia against them all. Against his own world; against all Mars, if need be.

Definitely now, the pressure was less. He moved his legs and arms slowly and painfully. “Thia!” he managed to gasp.

“Y-yes,” after anxious moments.

“You all right?”

“I -- I am.” A sob was in the girl’s mellow voice.

The pressure suddenly was released entirely. Cliff made a move and was astonished to find his body drift out of the cushions and away from the hammock. Weightless! In a flash he understood what had occurred; the receiving tube of vibrations from Earth had been discontinued. They were drifting in space, helplessly entombed in a closed vessel whose oxygen supply could last no more than ten hours -- doomed.

“Thia!” he groaned.

Pushing against a stanchion of the hammock support, he drifted over to where the girl lay motionless. His fingers twined with hers.

All else was forgotten as instant revelation came to each that the other cared. No whispered words were needed, no stereotyped avowals. They knew . . . And, knowing, were speechless -- forgetful of the moment of the hopelessness of their position.

“You understand what this means -- the stopping of the space car?” Cliff asked gently, after a while.

“Yes -- I know. We were let loose at the point where the transmitting and receiving tubes met in space. Something happened to cut off the power at the terrestrial station, and we are adrift. We shall die together, Cleef.” Desperately, Thia fought back the sob that was in her throat.

To find happiness, undreamed-of happiness, and then to lose it! Cliff swallowed painfully, taking her in desperate enfolding arms as if by their new-found strength he might save her.

The pumps throbbed softly in the adjacent compartment.

Presently they were talking of other things. Resigned to their cruel fate, they would at least pass their last hours together in sympathetic understanding -- and in sanity. Resolutely they turned their thoughts and conversation from the future, which might have been theirs, but now could never be.

And many things which had been puzzling Cliff became clear to him as Thia spoke of her past life.

As he had suspected, she was no drylander. Pampered, orphaned daughter of an influential patrician of Risapar, she had fled to the drylands two years previously to escape a disastrous marriage about to be forced upon her by the Eugenics Board of the Canal Cities Union. She reached the City of Diamonds, the walled city of fabulous wealth that lay in the drylands only a few miles from Risapar. And here she found refuge.

A plague visited her new home, decimating the population of the City of Diamonds and striking terror to the souls of all who dwelt within the city walls. Thia had been an angel of mercy, working day and night with the physicians, organizing squads of nurses, and herself going into the homes of the afflicted and ministering to them.

Thia passed swiftly over this phase, but Cliff was able to learn that the survivors, mostly males and only a few hundred in number, had set her up as their new ruler. This they did in gratitude and in real appreciation of her organizing ability.

Then had come a demand for tribute from the Canal Cities Union. Her people had refused and had taken to the diamond mines and the maze of passages underneath their city, blasting the entrances shut to hide themselves from the militias sent against them.

Outlawed by the authorities and their lives forfeit, they had dwelt underneath the surface. Eventually they explored the connecting passages and came upon the retreat of Vetter and his companions in the space tube development. They had bargained with Vetter to convey them to Earth and he had agreed to do so for a vast fortune in diamonds that was offered. But none of the drylanders would risk passage in the car until a man of sufficient courage, or sufficient desperation, might be found. Thus Cliff had come into the picture.

Thia had successfully concealed from her people the fact that Cliff had escaped, and they had spent the past five days sending them across to Earth in the tiny bullet-like car. But today, with most of them gone, Thia had become suspicious. Maranu always guarded the entrance and her people had gone into the space car singly. And on Maranu’s cruel face there was always that sinister smile. And today had come Thia’s own turn; she had entered the car and had learned what had been happening . . . Cliff himself had seen . . .

She shuddered as she glanced at the heap of corpses. Stirring they were, in their weightlessness. Shifting position eerily.

“Lord!” Cliff muttered. “You think Vetter killed them all? Every trip was the same?”

“I do; I am sure of it.”

“Why -- in God’s name why?”

Thia’s eyes darkened to jet. “Maranu!” she whispered. “He and Vetter sold out to the Canal Cities Union. For additional payment of gold and precious stones they became the executioners -- they --“

“Vetter -- did -- this!” Cliff marveled. “After what he did for me with Lintarg. How could he? I’m glad I gave the thing away.”

“You -- gave what away?” Thia’s eyes were wide upon him.

He told her swiftly of how he had been forced to tell of Vetter’s Arizona retreat.

“You were not to blame,” she exonerated him. “But, Cleef, I do not understand -- these Secret Service -- why should they care?”

Cliff told her bitterly of Leonard Sykes, his rancor returning. At least he had the treacherous murderer Vetter to thank for Lintarg --

* * *

“Hush -- what was that?” Thia interrupted him.

There was the sound of metal contacting with the shell of the car somewhere about the entrance port. Their bodies drifted toward that side of the vessel. Some object of considerable mass had approached them, bringing this simulation of gravitational force by its attraction. A heavy thud followed and the space car lurched violently.

“A rocket ship!” Cliff exulted. “We’re saved, Thia, we’re saved. It could be nothing else out here -- nothing but a space liner.”

Choking with emotion, he held her fiercely close.

The sound of heavy footsteps resounded on the shell of the space car. Men in vacuum-tight apparel were out there making a rescue connection. In a few minutes they’d be inside.

Cliff’s jubilation gave way to swift realization.

“Thia,” he husked, “they’ll take you. By the treaty between the Canan Cities Union and the League of Terra your return will be demanded.”

“They’ll take you too, my Cleef,” sadly, “for you will be considered as an accomplice. There is evidence that Vetter sent you to Lintarg -- he paid --“

Cliff grabbed up the traitor’s flame pistol from the floor. He’d not let them take her! Better to die here together than that --

* * *

The entrance manhole was open and someone was coming through the airlock. A vacuum-sealed connection had been established with the rescuing vessel.

“Chet!” exclaimed Cliff as a square-shouldered, smiling youngster came through the door, “Chet Andrews, by all that’s good and holy!”

Andrews, his bosom pal in the old days -- pilot of the H-4 -- good old Chet was here!

“Yeah, it’s me.” His friend drifted near, pulling himself along from stanchion to stanchion. “Put away that thing,” he grinned, eyeing the flame pistol, “We’re taking you aboard, you bonehead.”

“No!” Cliff was suddenly panicky. “You don’t know, Chet -- Thia here -- they’ll return her to Mars. There’s a death sentence --“

“Such boneheadedness!” Chet continued to grin. “You don’t think we’d stand for that, do you? Your old pals? Not much.”

“Sure there’s a way out?” Cliff set the pistol down.

“Sure -- absolutely -- come on.”

Though he saw not how, Cliff believed him. Holding fast to Thia, who helped as best she could in the awkward absence of appreciable gravity, he made his way through the airlock after Chet.

In the artificial gravity of the H-4, they moved naturally again. Chet was chuckling with glee as he led the two toward the master stateroom of the liner.

“Got a surprise for you, Cliff,” he boasted.


“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

And then they were inside the room and Cliff was staring incredulously at a pudgy, smiling man who sat by the library table. Others of Cliff’s friends were grouped about the man -- Davis, Trent, Thomas. But Cliff had eyes only for the pudgy one and mad rage surged up in him.

“Leonard Sykes!” he bellowed. “You dirty swine!”

He plunged forward. More double-dealing, he supposed. Well, at least he’d have the satisfaction of repaying Sykes --

* * *

“Easy now!” Cut it out, pilot!” “Don’t be a bonehead!” The soothing words of friends were in his ears as they hemmed him in, holding him off from the man he intended to pulverize. Thia had drawn back against the wall and stood staring.

“Let me at him!” Cliff yelped. “I’ll mop the floor with him. You know what he did?”

“Yeah, we know what he did,” Chet Andrews drawled, thrusting his face close to Cliff’s and hanging tight to his wrists. “He fixed you up, that’s what he did. Fixed things with Lintarg -- Sykes did, not Vetter -- don’t be a bonehead all your life.”

“Sykes -- did --“ Cliff let his arms fall weakly at his side and moved to a chair, where he sat down dazedly. He stared at his former employer, who continued to smile. “Is this true, Mr. Sykes?”

“It is, my boy.” Sykes’ gaze was frank, kindly.

Cliff hunched himself dejectedly where he sat. It seemed as if he had been seventeen kinds of fool. “I -- I’m sorry then, Mr. Sykes,” he stammered. “I’ve been thinking all this time --“

“I know what you’ve thought,” returned Sykes, “and small wonder. I’ll explain, if you will listen.”

Cliff listened. The matron on board had taken charge of Thia and he gave his undivided attention to what the financier had to say.

“Barron,” Sykes told him, “I had to do what I did -- refuse the very reasonable request you made of me. Two Secret Service men were in the next room and I was acting in accordance with instructions. A serious situation had arisen between the League of Terra and the Canal Cities Union that amounted to a threat of war. In some manner the Martian Union had learned of Vetter’s machinations, though they could not locate his apparatus on Mars, nor could they find the condemned drylanders he was negotiating with. But their spies in America had the information that he intended to approach you, Cliff, in the matter of the trial trip. And they put it up to our Secret Service to trail you to Vetter’s lair, using you as the bait with which to trap him. But his autogiro was too fast for their antiquated ships and they lost him. Hence came the attempt to get information from you by others of their number before your operation. Here again they blundered, or you outsmarted them, but finally they succeeded in locating Vetter’s operation in Arizona and shut off the power there.”

“Yes, they succeeded all right,” said Cliff dryly. “But you, Mr. Sykes, how did you come to be out here? And how do you know all this?”

“We came out at once after you had left my office. I suspected what Vetter was up to, as he originally stole this invention from an old crony of mine. He worked on your resentment against me and on your former disability to get you to make this trial he dared not make himself. He was crafty, Vetter was.”

“I’ll say so,” growled Cliff, a light dawning on him. “Then Vetter didn’t --“

“He did not,” Sykes interrupted. “The letter of credit he gave you was forged; the supposed letter to Lintarg only blank paper. He had counted on Maranu to make away with you when you arrived, but Maranu failed him, I take it, on account of Thia’s intervention.”

Cliff nodded.

“But I have agents in Risapar, Barron, and I kept in touch with them by etherphone. They arranged everything with Lintarg, even to the new letter of credit -- and kept their mouths shut, too.”

“Then you, not Vetter, did this -- for me!” Consumed with chagrin, Cliff listened as Sykes went on with the story.

Though he did not know the location of Vetter’s projector, Sykes did know of the existence of the space tube. He had come out here in anticipation of just such a thing as had happened; had hovered in space with the H-4 midway between Mars and Earth, hoping to rescue anyone who might be set adrift in the space car. He had kept in touch with the situation by means of etherphone conversations with his agents on both Earth and Mars. And here he was, Johnny-on-the-spot!

Cliff could restrain himself no longer. He pleaded with Sykes for forgiveness. Murderous rage had been in his heart, and misunderstanding. But Sykes would have none of his apologies, and his old buddies made sport of his embarrassment. It was good to have friends like these!

A little later Thia returned with the matron and came at once to Cliff’s side. He observed with pride the admiring, envious glances of his buddies.

“And what about us, Mr. Sykes?” Cliff asked, drawing Thia to him. This girl can not return to Mars, you know.”

“Nor to Earth.” Sykes gaze was solemn. “As far as that goes, Barron, you are no better off yourself. Both of you are exiles. You must know the status of diplomatic relations between the League of Terra and the Canal Cities Union. Even though there was double-dealing on the part of the Union when they bought Maranu and Vetter off without advising the League, they will deny it and will still insist that we keep the letter of the law on extradition. Neither of you may be harbored safely on Terra.”

“I’ve always wanted to visit Callisto,” Cliff said vaguely. He had heard of the idyllic beauty of that satellite of Jupiter from returning adventurers.

Leonard Sykes permitted himself a chuckle. “You read my mind, Barron,” he said. “It is the very place for you and your bride.”

“Bride!” blankly.

“Within ten minutes.” Sykes beamed expansively.

With a gurgle of delight Thia crossed to where he sat and hugged him enthusiastically. Sykes reddened painfully, and every man in the room was consumed with envy.

A space pilot is vested with the same authority as is the captain of an ocean-going vessel of Earth. And so it was that Cliff and Thia were made one in a simple ceremony performed by Chet Andrews.

* * *

“Now we come to the means of getting you two to Callisto,” said Sykes, when the congratulations and the felicitations were over. “Of course it is impossible for the H-4 to carry you there; the ship would be missed by the Interplanetary Police if she were to be away for so long.”

“What then?” Cliff asked.

The financier’s eyes twinkled. “You’ve been itching for a long time to sit at the controls of an ethership, haven’t you Barron?”

“I’ll say so!” Cliff looked down at his strong hands, so lately clawed and useless. “Ever -- ever since --“

“Exactly.” Sykes grinned understandingly. “Well, how would you like to take over the H-4’s tender?”

“You -- you mean --“

“I mean I’m giving you the Hornet. Take her and go to Callisto with your charming wife. And, some day perhaps we shall pay you a visit there -- some of the boys and myself. What do you say?”

Cliff said nothing. He couldn’t speak for the fullness of his heart, but his grip said more than mere words.

“It’ll be a fine little ship for a honeymoon,” Sykes added, his eyes misting and his voice wistful.

* * *

When the tiny ethership Hornet slipped from her air-lock in the side of the H-4, Thia was beside Cliff at the controls. They waved a farewell to Chet and Sykes as Cliff maneuvered to pass the forward port of the H-4. And then the Hornet drove off into the blackness of the star-studded heavens.

They passed the bullet-like shell that was the tomb of Vetter and the last lot of drylanders he had murdered.

“I did all I could for them,” Thia murmured.

“Yes.” Cliff set a course for the orbit of Jupiter. “You’ve done far more than your share, my dear.”

“You’re not sorry?” she whispered dreamily.

“Sorry!” Cliff looked off toward the H-4; saw the sudden flare of her stern rocket tubes as she made for Terra. “Sorry! Why, I’m the luckiest man in the universe. I’ve always been a drifter, a lover of faraway places. Earth was no more my home than Mars or Venus. And now I’ll not only have a new home and the means of traveling through the heavens when I like -- I’ll have you.”

Thia dropped her tired head to his shoulder. “I too,” she sighed blissfully. “What more could I ask?”

They sat thus, silent for many minutes, while the Hornet drove on into the void toward the new land and the new life that held such promise of happiness. And when next they spoke, it was only of the future.


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