Saturday, March 6, 2010

"The Morons" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth 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. They learn that she is Polto's daughter, born just after his wife died in the wreck of his ship.

When a large carnivore attacks Theresa she kills it with a crude weapon made of a tree limb with bits of crystal and metal attached. She tells them it is a heat ray invented by Throg . . .

* * *

Grayson and Matthews collared Polto. "We want to talk with this Throg," the scientist told him. "Will you interpret for us? You know his language, don't you?"

"But I don't think I'll help much," Polto shrugged in the characteristic, hopeless gesture. "He doesn't speak any English -- but he understands you."

"What?" Matthews exclaimed.

"It is so . . . you'll see," the Italian affirmed.

Grayson looked significantly at the young pilot of the Dragon.

Matthews nodded solemnly. "Let's get Throg."

They found the smiling, vacant-eyed Venusian at the base of the white cliff.

"Ugh," was all he said.

"You understand what I say?" Grayson asked him, in English.

Again the native nodded, smiling foolishly but engagingly. He uttered a string of harsh gutterals this time.

"What did he say?" the scientist asked Polto.

"He says as usual -- that he understands. They always say -- and do." The old Italian shrugged.

"Not so nuts as Polto thinks, maybe," Matthews said under his breath.

Then, turning to Throg, Grayson asked: "Can you tell us how you made the weapon used by the queen?"

This time Throg shook his head in the negative.

"But you made it!" protested the scientist.

Throg grinned amiably, and with a characteristic Poltonian shrug, said: "You're hopeless . . . you're nuts. You'll drive me crazy."

"You get that knowledge from somewhere," insisted Grayson.

Again Throg nodded amiably, with a funny little concentration of bush brows that were never meant for thought.

"Where do you get it?" Grayson was becoming patient and interested. The problem, the mystery of this queer creature's half-glimpsed wisdom was baffling -- and intriguing.

Throg sputtered and mouthed difficult Italian, then, surprisingly, mouthed a clearly English word, "Dunno," and burst into gutteral cluckings and clickings. One laboriously mouthed word intruded, something like "benzul."

Polto shook his head slowly and translated. "I've tried for twenty years, signori, and it is hopeless. It does not make sense. He is crazy with an astounding craziness, I tell you. He says he's cold, but he likes it, and he's going in the house -- the big house -- because the ashes fire is going out and the flame fire will, too, and he wants the 'benzul' -- whatever that is."

Matthews swore gently. "That," said he, "is this thing." From his pocket he drew his notebook and pencil. Throg nodded amiably and grabbed them. He flopped onto the ground for this composition, and labored mightily. Long strings of weird mathematical symbols followed, traced in sloppy, jerky lines, staggering across one page onto another. Throg turned a page, and other straggling symbols followed.

Then he stopped, and the queer little frown of terribly labored thought wrinkled his placid, shaggy brows. A straggling line of poorly formed, but recognizable symbols followed, then another and another, till finally Throg grunted in annoyance, handed both notebook and pencil to Grayson, and grinned amiably. He walked off with a clacking grunt, leaving the party where they were.

Old Nelson shifted his wooden leg out of the hole it had sunk into. "He got disgusted, I guess."

Polto looked after him in resignation. "He simply said, 'I'm tired. Good night,' as usual. He worked unusually long that time."

Grayson looked after him, then at the book. There were fully a dozen lines of formulas in unknown characters, and perhaps three and a half in familiar form. But the formulas weren't familiar. "If these are translations, we can finish the translation. If they aren't -- well, he may be willing to try in the 'morning.' I suppose there is no night here?"

"Once in about forty-five hours Venus revolves. It gets a twilight dullness, but the refractive atmosphere prevents real dark. They all sleep when the light gets reddish," Polto explained. "Nothing will make them give up their sleep."

Grayson and Matthews noticed for the first time that a duller, redder tinge had crept into the gray mist layer. "I suppose we may as well go back to the ship and work on this for a while. do you and Theresa want to come?"

Polto smiled and shook his head. "Theresa wouldn't like the ship, and I will stay with my little one. She is used to Venus."

* * *

Grayson labored over the mathematical formulas stubbornly. The symbols were exceedingly hard to translate, even after Matthews, a competent draftsman, had turned them into more or less regularly formed characters. But gradually, he was pinning down a long series of formulas, laboriously translating. Some, he found, didn't translate, so he had to use original characters.

Old Nelson made coffee, and fried some eggs and potatoes, and they ate. "You know," he said in disgust as he saw Grayson's labors, "I'd be damned before I'd put in that much work on a crazy man's scratchings."

Grayson sighed. "I wouldn't. Not when he's this crazy. That equation there, is, I've at last determined, a variant of Hartman's seventh-power field. That, they're beginning to think, may have something to do with the stability of the atom. And this equation arbitrarily introduces a function -- this one I've called F(π) -- which, from the action of the equation, is arbitrarily designated as the function which disrupts the equation."

"And," said Matthews softly, "the atom. That is a beautiful idea. Find the equation of the atom -- arbitrarily define F(π) such that it disrupts the equation -- solve for F(π) -- and you have the atom disruptor. If you can do it."

"Throg is a moron. He couldn't possibly think of that!" Grayson wailed. "He can't concentrate, he hasn't the knowledge."

"What's the next equation?"

"Solution for F(π)," groaned Grayson. "It checks, but I can't see how it's solved."

"And what," asked Matthews, "would the rest be?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out. The first one looks like an explanation of what the atom breaks into."

Two hours later Grayson knew. The next one was a solution for a different F(π), with other conditions defined. Somehow, impossibly, Throg had given him twelve different solutions for F(π) such that F(π) was a function capable of disrupting the atom. Each was, apparently, a sound solution. Each defined a different method. Each method defined different products. There was another half-completed solution for yet another type of disruptive fuction.

"Hartman," said Grayson in weary disgust, "would be interested. A moron on Venus not only knows his prize accomplishment -- he got the Nobel prize this year -- but knows at least thirteen different ways of breaking it down. Polto is quite right. They're crazy. I'm going to bed."

Matthews looked at the formulas. As a space pilot, he knew mathematics fairly well. He recognized, by a few simple checks, that each of the different solutions was classic, sound, and beautiful. But he couldn't derive the solutions, because the mathematical steps had been left out, and he didn't think that brand of mathematics existed. He went to bed.

There was a dull, angry gray mist curtain hanging over them when they awoke. A little exploration revealed all of the natives and Polto and Theresa as well, sleeping soundly. Grayson irritably went back to his mathematics.

He had an advantage. Working both ends against the middle, the solution and the original against the unknown steps, using the power of all Earth's highest mathematics and three calculators installed in the pilot room of the ship, he broke it down. Then, because Throg and his source of information remained asleep, he and Matthews readjusted the calculator machines with some new drive systems that took advantage of perfectly magnificent and unheard-of mathematical methods he had found. Two more he developed himself from hints in the others.

He fed the incomplete solution into the machine, started it, and waited. It clittered and snapped and chuckled to itself for ten minutes, then thunked heavily as it printed a solution. Matthews darted forward, but Grayson stopped him.

"Wait," said the scientist. "That isn't the machine it used to be. It now has a brain as capable as our moronic friends; no longer handicapped like yours or mine," he explained bitterly.

The machine continued to chitter and clink. In half an hour it thudded heavily eleven times, then finally stopped. The final solution was F(π)=0. "That," explained Grayson, "means that that's all the solutions it can find. That makes a total of twenty-three different solutions that moron friend of ours could have written out if he'd taken the trouble. Incidentally, any one of the twenty-three would have made us billionaires on Earth."

"I wonder if we can't harness one of them?" remarked Matthews.

"No," said Grayson. "We haven't the needed material. Eighteen of these things are explosive, and the other five produce electric potentials so high we couldn't insulate them in this little ship."

"With good insulation --" began Matthews, perplexedly.

"You still need thirty feet of air gap to stop a fifty-million-volt potential," snapped Grayson. "But that's all right. Wait till that damned moron wakes up and we'll find out how."

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