Friday, March 5, 2010

"The Morons" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third installment of "The Morons", an early science fiction story by pioneering writer Harl Vincent. This is the first appearance of "The Morons" since its original publication in the June 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

The story so far:
Grayson, Matthews, and Nelson are the crew of the Dragon, a spaceship that has crash-landed on Venus. When they encounter Throg, one of the simple-minded natives, he surprises them by speaking Italian. They soon learn why when they meet Signor Polto, the sole survivor of an earlier expedition to Venus launched by Italy. Grayson is astonished when Throg takes a pen and paper and draws an improved version of his ship's engine. Theresa, the queen of the Venusians arrives, and the three Earthmen are equally astonished to discover that she is an Earth woman . . .

* * *

Then, so suddenly it startled Grayson, the regal Theresa changed. A sudden wave of joy seemed to sweep her, the regal anger evaporated, the stiff carriage was gone and in an instant she was flying to him, clutching his arm passionately, speaking to him in breathless Italian so swift he could scarce catch her meaning.

"Oh, father was right -- Polto told truth. You are from Earth, you are from the home-beyond-the-mist! Always, papa said that when men did not bow at my command, then those men were of Earth! You are of Earth, you will take Theresa back . . . you will, please --"

Polto came up suddenly, an apologetic little smile crinkling his unkempt beard. "So, my little one, so. They are from Earth, and now you will understand." He turned to the Terrestrians as the girl now clung to him, looking with wide, curious eyes at the lean, quiet little Grayson and the erect, commanding stance of Matthews, strange to her eyes used only to the shambling, stupid, but amiable morons.

"I taught her thus," Polto explained with a little shrug, "for several reasons. She must command the morons -- and God alone knew when I must die. And she would not know quickly the men of Earth; she could not understand what is meant by intelligence in the eye, the face. I . . . I am not what I was, and offered poor comparison to her." He shrugged. "This was the only way to serve her thus in both ways. And -- I knew men would never cease their attempts."

"I thought you said you alone reached the planet alive," Matthews questioned suddenly.

Polto's face was suddenly haggard and haunted. He gulped and held the girl tighter. "I . . . I was. The ship crumpled -- the men screamed and died. I . . . I fell on the three others in the control room and lived. My wife, my other Theresa, was in her berth, pillowed and protected in every way, for I was mad and she was mad, and she had accompanied us.

"I was the ship's doctor, and when we had landed and the ship split like a rotten fruit, I went to her. She -- was dead, and I was alone, so I had to perform very quickly the operation that saved little Theresa. My arm was broken, but it was done. The natives came then, and they were friendly and witless, but one of the women took Theresa. Somehow, one of them set my arm, for I was unconscious for many days -- nearly a season, here.

"I taught them then, and raised Theresa to know that she was the Queen from the Skies." The queerly pompous little gray-bearded Italian seemed more majestic and strangely representative of Man, then, as he held his daughter. She looked at the strange, erect and confident men of Earth. Grayson felt a new respect for this marooned scientist of two decades ago. "We lived," the little man shrugged. "I knew men would not cease to try."

A terrific roar from the fern jungle brought everyone to their feet, Earthman and native alike. Native spears were poised.

"It's the biggest xyll in the wilds!" screeched Polto. "He heard that other!"

There was a crashing of jungle fronds, soft and clinging and wet as they were, as they gave way to the plungings of the enormous beast. Theresa whimpered with a little purring whine. Grayson drew his Bronson gun, as did the other two Earthmen.

The monster which broke into the marshy clearing was maddened by insects of a sort that could evidently pierce its thick hide and scales. Its snouted head weaved madly; its small eyes were bloodshot.

Nelson was the first to break on sight of the thing. His Bronson spat forth its message of death. White flame split the gloom of Venus and there was a kicking, screaming monster wallowing in the bog.

"Good work!" shouted Grayson.

"Pooh!" said the queen. "Theresa has a better weapon than that."

* * *

The scientist rubbed his fingers through what remained of his hair. Here were things to think about; things, not to worry about, but most puzzling to the mind. These primals: what could they know of science or mathematics? Yet they did -- or they remembered fragments of knowledge from an ancient source. That was it -- yes -- words and figures came to them unbidden, unsearched-for -- or maybe there was a search that Grayson couldn't figure out. As beings with life and movement, they didn't know what it was all about. Still the intelligence was there, somehow unavailably within themselves.

"Matt!" he called.

Matthews was absorbed in Theresa.

"You come with me!" Grayson insisted. "I want to talk with you seriously."

The spaceman came, and Theresa was borne away, pouting. A strange, but likable, almost wild, creature. What had she meant when she spoke of a better weapon? An old one of Polto's from Earth, Grayson concluded.

Matthews grinned sheepishly. "What's so serious?" he asked.

No one could long remain impatient with Matt. Grayson grinned back at him. "Everything, Matt," he said. "Have you thought much of what we've seen here? Have you realized what has happened to Polto and his daughter here? Any idea what it's all about?"

The younger man sobered. "I sure have -- more than you think. I even did a lot of before we got here that I didn't tell you about."

"So you knew the fuel was low before we landed? How'll you get us away?" asked Grayson.

Matthews looked away. "Frankly I'm stumped. Sorry. But the Dragon is no use without the radite engine, and that could be brought only by a rescue ship -- if we could radio for one. Even then, I doubt whether they would come either from Mars or Earth -- you know what the space lords think of this planet. We're stuck . . . unless" -- Matthews hesitated -- "unless a miracle occurs. And I don't believe in miracles."

Well enough for the younger man to take it so calmly. Grayson did not want to be marooned here forever like Polto. But he shrugged resignedly, then brightened: "At least we can learn what power it is that brings such intelligence to Throg's poor mind. We'll have something to occupy us."

"Maybe he'll be able to help us," Matthews suggested jokingly.

Grayson wondered. Might be something in this, at that. He decided to do a great deal of investigating. He was suddenly hungry. The odor of xyll steaks broiling over the open fire was strong in his nostrils.

"Suppose we could eat a chunk off that beast?" he asked Matt.

"Why not? Polto and Theresa eat it and are healthy. Let's go."

Forgetting their problems for the time, they set forth to where the natives were massed about the glowing coals of the fire. Nelson and Polto already were gorging themselves.

"Move over," said Grayson.

Nelson and the Italian obligatingly made room, and he and Matt squatted near them. Nelson poked into the coals and drew out a large chunk of the meat of the xyll, handing it to Grayson on the stick he had speared it with. It was wrapped in wide, charred fronds and gave forth a most appetizing aroma.

"Have a bite," grinned Nelson.

Grayson bit; he ate ravenously of the sweetest meat he had ever in his life tasted. Who could dream, even wildly, that a monster like the xyll could produce so succulent a mouthful? The scientist relaxed with his satiation. Venus wasn't so bad after all.

He looked over at Polto, who was leaning back on his elbows, fully and sleepily stuffed with food. The terror of that long-gone landing had slipped from him again. And the daughter, poor kid -- all these years of bringing up on this planet of morons.

Grayson's eyes wandered around the circle of reposing Venusians. They were laughing, happy, obviously bantering one another in their own gutteral speech. Occasional loud burst of laughter would greet a sally from one of their number. Grayson reflected that morons are frequently possessed of an unusual amount of with and good humor. He wished he was able to understand their jargon. Why, some of the most famous court jesters of ancient Earth history had been morons. Perhaps it was not so bad a state of mind to be in. At least they seemed to have no worries.

His eyes again lighted on Polto. He moved over to talk with him.

"You want to speak to me?" the Italian asked drowsily.

"What do you know about these ideas the natives get? How can they make these drawings and put down figures they do not know?"

The Italian shrugged helplessly. "In twenty years I have not thought it out."

"I have an idea they have memories, racial memories perhaps. Inherited scraps of knowledge from a higher civilization they've lost. Are there any more intelligent races on Venus? You must have explored it some," said Grayson.

Polto shook his head. "Not much. The natives will not go -- and I cannot go alone. They say there are no cities; that it is everywhere the same."

Grayson was more than ever puzzled. Polto couldn't help him any, he could see that. Scraps of knowledge . . . from where?

* * *

His cogitations were interrupted by a wild scream which rang out through the swampy fern jungle.

"Theresa!" yelped Polto. "She is in danger." He leaped to his feet.

"Easy," counseled Matthews. "It's her voice, but I don't think she's in any real danger." But Polto was already on the run.

Alarmed, Grayson, Matthews, Nelson, and most of the natives streaked after him. There were other screams, now close at hand.

They crashed through the tall tree-like fronds, and then were in a large clearing in which was a sizable but primitively-constructed house which obviously was the "palace" of the queen. A xyll-like beast with carnivorous fangs of such tremendous size that Grayson could hardly believe his eyes had the girl Theresa cornered. The beast had trampled her courtiers under its massive feet and was bellowing in rage. A dozen heavy spears hung from it. The girl was silent now, desperately edging her way toward the door of her palace.

The Bronsons spat forth flame, but it spattered almost harmlessly against the scaly hide of this super-xyll, burning him deeply but with insufficient energy to reach a vital spot. Polto had an ancient Barratini that shot its stinging charges with no more effect than a popgun. But the stings of the Bronson charges were merely further maddening the monster with pain. It wheeled to face its new enemies.

Grayson's two guns had almost exhausted their loads when Theresa had gotten inside the hut and was out again with one of the native crystal-studded weapons, a futile thing against that hide. She raised it quickly, sighted along the rough crystals, and there was a screaming hiss. No flame, no singing dart or other missile, nothing that could be seen came from the bit of crystal at the front end of the queer arm. The mountainous xyll collapsed into a smouldering, twitching mass. The great beast was dead.

Theresa, beyond doubt, had a superior weapon. But what was it?

Polto had his daughter in his arms and was assuring himself of her safety. "You all right, bambina?" he asked anxiously. "Sure you're all right?"

"Yes," she laughed tremulously. "But I had a bad scare."

The Earthmen crowded to the flagged porchlike entrance. Matthews, of course, managed to be nearest to the girl. Grayson, seeing that she was unhurt, turned his attention to the weapon she had used. It appeared to be made in the crudest manner possible, from a piece of a tree limb, a large jagged bit of crystal, a metal endpiece that might once have been a portion of a tin can, and a few odd-colored bits of rock and crystal, roughly shaped.

Theresa saw him eyeing it and smiled past Matthews. "You see?" she exulted. "Did not Theresa tell you she had a better weapon?"

"You win," chuckled the scientist. "But what is it and where did you get it?"

"It's a -- what do you say -- heat ray. Throg made it."

"Throg!" Dazedly he reached for the crude thing as the girl gave it into his hands. "Throg! It isn't possible."

"Careful," warned Theresa. "This catch releases the ray." She indicated a small strip of crudely hammered metal attached to the rough unfinished stock.

Grayson turned the thing over in his hands, unbelieving. From the weight of it, he judged that the largest bit of crystal had in some way been hollowed, and that it contained the generating force of the heat ray. The tin object he had noticed at the forward end was just what he had judged to to be; a cylinder rolled up from a piece of tin can. Evidently these, the only visible metal parts, had come from the wreckage of Polto's ship many years before.

"Want to try it?" Theresa asked him, seeing his great interest.

"Try it? On what?"

"That tree." The girl indicated an enormous, fronded trunk at the edge of the clearing. "Try it," she repeated, seeing his hesitation.

Matthews and Nelson watched with great interest as he raised the weapon to his shoulder and aimed at the base of the huge trunk.

He pressed the catch. There was only the screaming hiss, no recoil, no visible ray. But the great tree trunk was neatly and soundlessly cut down, the stump and the severed end of the already crashing trunk smouldering with little tongues of flame licking here and there. At the moment of impact there had been a blinding flash over there where the ray contacted -- nothing more. The heat generated must be terrific.

And yet the stone power bowl of this weapon was not even warm.

"I'll be damned!" was all Grayson could say, returning the weapon to the girl. "Thanks."

He stared at Matthews, who was agape. "You heard her, Matt," he said. "A heat ray. You saw it. And Throg made it -- from nothing. We're going to have a talk with him."

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