Friday, March 26, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 5

This is the fifth and final 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.

Burke is knocked unconscious from the shock, and wakes to find that the gondola has come to rest on a plateau a mere eight hundred feet below the surface, that Augustine has made contact with the surface, and that a ship is on its way to rescue them. Augustine confesses to killing Burke's friend and framing him, then says that when they are rescued, Burke will be going back to prison for assault and kidnaping. He then prepares to wipe the whole thing from Burke's mind . . .

Chapter V
Battle on the Ocean Floor

Knowing that no man can perform two differing actions simultaneously with any degree of success in either, Burke took his chances on that last word of the professor's. Figured he was concentrating on the amnesia.

Swinging sharply with his right hand, he knocked the regrader from the man's grasp and hooked a stiff left into his paunch at the instant the capsule gun popped. Its deadly missile crashed harmlessly into an instrument panel as Burke's right fist caught Augustine in his gaping mouth, splashing out a gush of blood and knocking him into the bunk. But the professor clung fast to the pistol, gasping, stuttering primeval wrath and spitting out teeth. The engineer clamped on his gun wrist just as the sphere swayed to the tugging cables and commenced rising.

Augustine brought up a knee violently as Burke twisted his thick wrist. Burke went dizzy and weak with pain. His antagonist was a powerful brute, as he'd learned before. It took superhuman efforts of will and half-paralyzed muscles to keep him down and hold on to his gun hand at the same time. Slamming away weakly with his right, Burke willed a desperate newe accession of vigor into his left and tore the projector loose. It clattered to the floor and he had both fists free to use on the professor. His head was clearing now and muscular strength flowing back. In a few moments the big man was groggy and Burke retrieved both gun and regrader.

"Now!" he rasped, "I'm the boss. Get back there." He prodded Augustine with the capsule gun and experienced savage glee at the bulging of his victim's eyes.

"Don't shoot," babbled the professor. "I'll do anything. I'll --"

"Shut up!" Burke twisted a tiny dial on the regrader and pressed its latch. A blue haze bathed Augustine's head for an instant, then vanished as if soaked up by a sponge. A blank look came into the popping eyes and the big man went stiff-limbed as an automaton.

There was a clank overhead. The sphere had ceased rising. They were alongside the Scipio -- or possibly on deck already. The televis shrilled insistently. Burke switched it off, knowing this would send back an "out-of-order" signal to the ship.

Immediately there were sounds at the manhole. And in two minutes its cover clanked off. Burke shoved the disjointed professor through and tumbled after him. They were on the deck of the Scipio.

It was to have been a notable occasion. It was, though not as had been intended. They moved into a circle of staring iconoscopic eyes. Above them swung the microphones of the telecasters and high above these hovered a swarm of gyrocopters. The sea around was dotted with bobbing amphibians. Everywhere were goggling human eyes.

The captain of the ship, his officers and most of the crew, were there. There were many strangers in the crowd, some of them obvious dignitaries of one sort or another. This was to have been a crowning triumph for one Professor Augustine.

Burke looked around for the deputies, whom he had thought would be there to rearrest him. Then he remembered; they had returned Zybyski to Sing Sing. He remembered, too, that this was on the high seas. That Captain Jameson was the sole authority. He walked over to the amazed officer and surrendered the capsule gun.

"What's this all about?" bellowed Jameson, peering amazedly into the blank eyes of Augustine, who stood rigidly before the iconoscopic eyes and microphones. "What have you done to the professor?"

"Nothing serious," Burke assured him. "If you'll give me a chance to prove it, I'll show you and the world that he's a faker. That he's the criminal, not I."

The crowd was closing in around them. "Put him in irons!" came a shout. "Hang him from the foremast," another. An angry murmur rose and swelled as the telecasters stood irresolute.

Gun in hand, Captain Jameson faced Burke as his officers and crew gathered around. The surrendering of that gun had confused them, and Augustine's condition made them uncertain.

"What's this all about?" demanded the captain. "I asked you before. Now I want it all."

All over the ship, in the surrounding sea, high in the air, there was commotion. Excitement. Expectation of the unexpected. The cries for Burke's scalp died down. His gray eyes looked frankly and levelly into the captain's brown ones.

"I only ask -- first -- that you have one of your officers examine the ballast weights of Augustine's sphere and report to you what he finds. Then I believe you'll trust me to show you the rest."

Jameson nodded to the mate.

The first officer was back in a moment. "The weights are welded fast to the shell, Captain, he reported in an amazed voice.

"You may proceed, Burke," said Jameson.

* * *

Dick moved to Augustine's side and, with the regrader still in his pocket, made a new adjustment. Pressed the latch. The professor was at once erect, his usual debonair self. Seeing the microphones, he blinked, then bowed before the iconoscopic battery. Immediately the telecasters became frantically busy. This was to be the scoop of the year. It was.

Instead of addressing his beloved public in the usual way, the professor wandered a bit over the deck, gazed importantly at the sphere, and began to talk with extreme rapidity.

"Well, my hearties," were his first words. "Ready for the plunge? It won't be long. But while the bag's filling . . . "

From then on, his words became so rapid they could be followed only with the strictest attention.

" . . . It's all right, boys . . . there's only room for three inside . . . we're down . . . we've submerged . . . I welded the ballast weights . . . I guess I deserve what I'm getting, too . . . Dick, before I die, I must confess. I was the one who killed Van den Broek . . . you wouldn't turn me in, would you, Dick? . . . used your pistol with a rubber glove, then put it back . . . your cigaret case . . . I put that there, too . . . it'll blast out your memory of the past ten hours entirely . . . . "

In a very few minutes it was over. Every word Augustine had used during the past ten hours went out over a world-wide hook-up. For an instant after he had finished he seemed dazed. Everyone on the deck of the Scipio was dazed. Even the gyrocopters overhead seemed to be drawing back in astonishment. At millions of televis sets throughout the world must have sat dazed listeners and observers.

Suddenly the great professor came to full realization of what he had done. He leaped for the rail and would have plunged overboard. But Captain Jameson and his officers were too quick for him. They had him under arrest about as quickly as Zybyski had been taken before.

It was the end for Francis Augustine, the beginning for Richard Burke.

* * *

Later, in the captain's cabin, Burke sat before the scanners and mikes and told his story in detail, questioned and prompted by Jameson himself from time to time.

"But, Mr. Burke," said the captain, when he had reached the point of the final landing on deck. "Tell the telecast audience what it was that Augustine intended using on you to blank out your memory. What it was you used to force his confession."

"A very simple discovery of my own. One that the professor had st -- er -- appropriated and which he did not fully understand. It is well known, of course, that the nerve currents and the activities of the cells of the brain itself are electrical or electro-chemical in nature. Well, investigating multitudes of these phenomena, I stumbled upon a means of controlling the nerve and brain impulses in a number of ways. One of these is a simple blocking process. Another is a means of running back along the thought train for any desired period and then blocking to produce amnesia. And this process can be reversed.

"I merely set back Augustine's clock ten hours, so to speak, and left him in a state of complete amnesia and partial neural paralysis. Then, by a simple reverse adjustment of my pocket apparatus, and an increase in the normal thought rate in the normal forward direction, combined with a hypnotic compulsion impulse, I caused him to repeat at greatly accelerated speed, all his speech of the amnesia period. It was really nothing at all."

"Hm-m. Probably not," commented Captain Jameson. "And do you intend to give this invention to the world, Mr. Burke?"

"To the medical profession only, where it may have uses. Do you think it would be safe in other hands, Captain?" laughed Burke.

"Not in hands like Augustine's, that's sure."

The telecasters signed for a cut off and Burke sank back into the captain's own chair with a sigh of relief. "Thank God, that's over," he said.

Upon which there was an insistent shrilling of the captain's personal televis. It was Al Brown, New York State's governor calling for Richard Burke.

"Mr. Burke," his mellow voice started, without preamble. "This entire remarkable performance has been witnessed by me here in Albany. I congratulate you and greet you as an outstanding citizen our our great State. And I wish to assure you that your legal status is clear in all respects. I shall so direct the Attorney-General at once. Good-bye, Mr. Burke and good luck."


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