Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth installment of "Undersea Prisoner", a science fiction story by pioneering writer Harl Vincent. The story first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Amazing Stories, and was reprinted in the Spring 1971 issue of Science Fiction Adventure Classics.

The story so far:
After being framed for his friend's murder, Richard Burke avoids a prison sentence by volunteering to take part in a dangerous experiment, riding an undersea balloon to a depth of six miles. Burke suspects that the balloon's inventor, Professor Francis Augustine, is the man who framed him. With the aid of another prisoner, Burke is able to trap Augustine with him in the descending balloon.

When Augustine regains consciousness, he tells Burke that he welded the iron ballast weights to the bottom of the gondola, so that they will be unable to return to the surface. The balloon is more than three miles down when a giant squid attacks it, ripping the gondola from the balloon and swallowing it whole.

Burke switches on the gondola's antimonster defense, causing the outer shell to become electrified. This heats up the giant squid's gastric juices, causing them to evaporate and expand, and causing the giant squid to rise to the surface. When Burke and Augustine get into a brawl, the antimonster defense is accidentally set to full power, causing the giant squid to burst open . . .

Chapter IV
A Submarine Plateau

Burke's first conscious impression was of a continuous six foot length of aching bone and sinew that was obviously his own body, next of something freezing cold and steel-hard that pressed flatly and determinedly against his cheek. He opened an experimental eye. And with it he gazed directly into two frigidly staring optics of the most fearsome creature he had ever beheld. This nightmare object was not more than three feet from his face. He closed one eye and concentrated with his muddled wits on what he had seen. Or had it been hallucination merely? Such things couldn't exist.

It had been like a fish, yet it was not a fish. A head like that of one of the Furies, but larger than a man's, had faced him with such a malevolent stare as only a basilisk might achieve. And the head, though attached to a sinuously scaly body with iridescent fins, was covered with long black hair that streamed upward as if each strand was electrified and straining to be away. The mouth had been most horrible of all, with two long curved tusks projecting from the lower jaw to the level of the glaring eyes, and a dozen smaller tusks arching down from the upper jaw. The face itself, if it could be called a face, was a distorted, evilly grinning gargoyle. It was purple. Burke opened both of his eyes suddenly. The thing was still there.

Then his mind began working normally. He remembered. The surface against his cheek was one of the thick glass ports of Augustine's sphere. His aches and pains were from the fight with the professor. No, not from the fight; something had happened. Of course -- the big octopus thing had blown up. That accounted for the shock which had stunned him and flung him where he now lay. And they were in the water once more; this was a denizen of the ultimate depths hovering outside the port. Where was Augustine? Was he alive? Recalling his former rash spouting of words, Burke decided to keep quiet until he could learn for himself.

Turning slightly, repressing a groan at the pain it caused, he cast his eyes upward. He was under the instrument table. His attention was drawn by a shuffling of feet on the steel floorplates. Augustine, then, was alive and conscious.

Deep silence followed; there was not even the faint whine of the tiny battery-powered energy generator. Of course, with the monster no more, they would not need that now. Further reflection convinced Burke they hadn't dropped any great distance. The shock of falling to the ocean floor at a depth of even two or three miles would have broken their bones, probably killed them. Slowly he turned his head toward where he'd heard the shuffling.

The professor was seated on the edge of the lower bunk, eating from an opened tin and regarding him curiously. He was somehow changed; his mien was composed, confident, gloating. None of his former panicky nervousness; he was sure of himself now. He actually grinned.

"Nice long sleep you had," he remarked. "Sorry I fell on you."

"Uh-huh." Painfully, Burke crawled out from under the table, his head throbbing as if it would split as he struggled to his feet, where he stood swaying. "Where are we?"

The professor waved his spoon airily toward one of the other ports. "On the very rim of a submarine plateau where our giant creature kindly deposited us when his sudden rise in the watery world rent him asunder."

Burke gasped. Not only was Augustine trying to be flowery in his speech, but what he said was true. Out there in the brilliance of the sphere's floods there showed the edge of a precipice. Vast chunks of the defunct monster draped over its jagged outline, huge oozing and quivering blobs on which a score of miscellaneous horrors of the deep were feeding. The young engineer shuddered. He looked at the pressure gauge. Three hundred forty pounds, eight hundred feet. So near and yet so far. There still remained twenty percent of the battery charge.

"So now what?" he demanded.

"So now the Scipio is on her way to haul us up from here. Have something to eat? You need it." Leering, Augustine passed can and opener.

"You mean you've had them on the televis?" Burke's eyes narrowed. Realizing suddenly that he was very hungry, he opened the tin and ate.

* * *

"I have and they're on their way. That damned living sub we were in carried us nearly two hundred miles toward Ireland. But the Scipio will reach us in a few hours." The triumph in Augustine's insolent stare was patent. He had put something over.

"So then what?" Burke mumbled through a mouthful of corned beef.

The professor shrugged. "Then I go back to work and you go back to jail." His little black eyes glittered and he patted the capsule gun where it lay beside him on the bunk.

"So you frisked me," growled the engineer.

"Why not? The tables had to turn somehow."

"The law's been satisfied. I'm free now, Prof. And you're the one who's in jeopardy. You told me you killed Van den Broek." Burke was only sparring for time and opportunity; he knew what the reaction would be.

Augustine laughed harshly. "Who'd take the word of a convict against mine? And there are two more charges against you now. You'll be a third offender now and will surely be sentenced to life imprisonment, don't forget that."

"What do you mean, two more charges?"

"First degree assault on me for one thing, kidnaping me for another." The professor's grin was ghoulish.

Burke was silent for a long time after this. Everything Augustine had said was true. They wouldn't take his unsupported word that the professor had confessed. And the assault and kidnaping charges were bad -- they'd stick. He hadn't thought of those at the time. Then, he hadn't the faintest idea he'd ever come up alive in this sphere. He'd only thought of taking Augustine with him. Hadn't cared about the rest. Now it was of great importance. But, maybe . . . Burke remembered his foolishness in talking too much previously; now he would keep his own counsel. Get out of this as best he could.

Augustine's eyes never left him nor did his fingers stray far from that destructive capsule projector. He had the upper hand now and he intended to keep things this way.

"But you did kill Van den Broek," Burke said. Whether it would be of any use or not, he determined to get more detail.

"Certainly I did!" Augustine was vigorously defiant. "And for good reason. Time after time, he embarrassed me before the Academy of Science. Time after time he bungled my experiments and made a laughing stock of me. He would have ruined me if I had let him live. Of course I killed Van den Broek, but you can't prove it. Nor can anyone else."

"You mean you stole some of his inventions and called them yours. And you were afraid he'd expose you. That's why you killed him."

The professor reddened, puffing out his fat cheeks as if about to explode in a tirade. But he subsided, again laughing harshly. "Oh, maybe that did have something to do with it," he admitted. "Might as well admit it to you privately; you'll never be able to tell. It was necessary that Van be removed, necessary too that someone other than myself be found guilty of the murder."

"And that's where I came in," Burke said bitterly. "You hated me for the same reason you hated Van, so you planted the evidence on me."

Augustine now chuckled, much pleased with himself. "Quite right, my boy. And I did it cleverly, too. Used your pistol with a rubber glove on my hand to prevent fingerprints, then put it back in your own drawer, from which I'd taken it. Your cigaret case, which was found beside the body -- I put that there, too. And your prints were on that. You hadn't a chance and you haven't now."

"And then when you found I'd won this alternative sentence, you welded the ballast weights to the bottom of the car to be sure I'd never come up. Swell setup." Burke talked deliberately with dully hopeless tones. He was getting an idea.

"All true, my boy. I think I've done a pretty good job, even if I missed out on this and nearly lost my own life. With Van out of the way and you behind bars for life, it will be plain sailing for me now." Fat fingers caressed the capsule gun. "At first I was going to kill you -- when the squid blew up. I figured one could live longer than two and knew I could get away with that, too. Self defense, you know. But then I saw where we had landed and found there'd be enough battery and air, so I decided life imprisonment was probably better after all. You won't like that, will you?"

Burke stared at the man in open astonishment. "No, I wouldn't like that," was all he could say.

Augustine was so utterly cold-blooded about it all, so completely sure of himself, so entirely self-satisfied, that it seemed incredible.

* * *

After that, Burke wandered aimlessly in the narrow confines of the sphere, tinkering with this instrument and that, always under the professor's watchful eye. Few words passed between them. Each was too occupied with his own thoughts.

There were frequent televis calls, always answered by the older man in pompous voice. World Telecasts came in with a request for a speech and Augustine's triumph knew no bounds.

Burke listened in mounting disgust as he mouthed long strings of superlatives and posed before the iconoscopic scanning eye with the capsule projector against his prisoner's temple for added effect. Forgetting entirely that this was his first deep sea dive in his own or any other contrivance. Bragging of scientific achievement, dramatizing his kidnaping, boasting of subduing a dangerous criminal and returning him to justice, lying blatantly about the means of their salvation from a watery grave, taking full credit for himself. It was sickening. But Burke held his peace.

"See what chance you'll have?" gloated the man, when wiping the perspiration from his brow after this effort.

The engineer did not reply.

Another silent hour passed before the Scipio was overhead and her grappling hooks were reaching down for them, taking hold.

Then Augustine played his trump card. "I suppose you think you'll get somewhere mentioning the welded weights," he said.

Burke started. "I had thought of that," he admitted.

The professor drew a slender tube from his pocket with one hand, keeping his prisoner covered with the capsule gun in his other. "Well, you won't do it," he grated. "You know what this is. Your own invention, the psycho-neural regrader. It'll blast out your memory of the past ten hours entirely. You will never be able to tell anything of this, because you won't remember. And you get it now."

Burke tensed as the tube leveled at him.

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