Monday, August 17, 2015

Her Majesty's Aberration - Part One - Forest of the Dead

This short story opens with "There is a slight disadvantage in being absent-minded," which is a way of understating that our hero is literally too stupid to live.  In his debut, we saw that Ole Doc couldn't remember to take the regular medical treatment responsible for both extending and preserving his life, while this story begins with Ole Doc forgetting to refuel on Spico, even after Hippocrates "pointedly and repeatedly" asked if he took a moment to pick up a new "pile" before they left the asteroid-planet.

I'm assuming this means "atomic pile," suggesting that 1) the Morgue is nuclear-powered and 2) Hubbard is confusing a nuclear reactor for a nuclear energy source.  It's possible that Hippocrates really was asking to replace the whole shebang, but reading ahead indicates that Ole Doc is after a "small two-billion-foot-thrust pile" that is able to fit in his pocket.  Maybe it's an extremely small nuclear reactor.  That you can carry around without any sort of shielding or safety measures.  Not that we should be surprised if this author is dangerously misinformed about radiation and nuclear theory.

All this to say, Ole Doc forgot to fill up the tank, and he and Hippocrates only realize this when they're ninety light-years from Spico.  The little alien voices his disapproval by waving his four arms and reciting a two hundred thousand-word document on "fuels and their necessity in space travel," and it really is remarkable that someone wasted that much ink to express the notion that spaceships need fuel to go zoom.  Sealed in the cockpit, Ole Doc has to cut off all the communication channels with the rest of the ship so he can use the "inertia converters" to make a detour to the Algol system.  Sure is lucky there was a habitable planet nearby that might have some spare go-juice, and they had enough at the bottom of the tank to get there. 

Algol, as I'm sure you know, has a bit of a reputation as an unlucky heavenly body, with nicknames like the "ghoul star" or "demon star" because it... regularly flickers or blinks, I guess.  Be a merrier world if the ancients had called it the "flirty star."  Well, in the far-off future of 2700-whatever, these old superstitions have been reinforced with ghost stories from the early days of space colonization: the first exploration ship crashed on one of its planets, the first colony attempt disappeared, a "transgalactic flier" went up in flames while passing nearby, and so forth.  So the system became a pirate base, then "as is natural in such evolutions" grew over the centuries into a monarchy, so that now Algol boasts a six-planet polity centered around the planet Dorcon, capital city Ringo.  Ole Doc looked all this up in United Planets Vacugraphic Office Star Pilot, a book he reads on his knees and not, say, the ship's computer screens.

Our hero tries to tell his slave where they're going, but Hippocrates is still reciting that paper, so Ole Doc focuses on landing.  This involves a lot of noise.

A gong rang.  A whistle blew.  A big plate before him began to flick-flick-flick as it displayed likely landing spots, one after another.  A metal finger jutted suddenly from the gravity meter and touched off the proximity coil.  The ship went on to chemical brakes.  The cockpit turned at right angles to ease the deceleration of the last few hundred miles and then there was a slight bump.  The Morgue had sat down.  There was a clang inside as her safety doors slid open again, a tinkle of ladders dropping and a click-click-click as instruments dusted themselves and put themselves out of sight in the bulkheads.

That gimbaled space furniture again.  Was this a convention of 1940's science fiction?  Or did Hubbard just have a thing for it, even when his spaceships were using artificial gravity to keep people from floating and to handle g-forces?

Also, notice what's all missing during that landing sequence.  First, there's no communication.  No system patrol craft hails the Morgue as it approaches Algol's outer reaches, the Morgue doesn't pick up radio chatter between the planets in the system, and Dorcon Air Traffic Control doesn't demand that Ole Doc submit a flight plan and request for a landing field.  The future, it seems, is pretty unconcerned when it comes to strange spaceships showing up and alighting on your planet.

Second thing is that this super-smart space doctor spares not a moment's thought for any foreign pathogens he may be introduced to on this world he has never visited before, or of what he might be bringing to the population viz-a-viz spacepox.

Third is that Ole Doc doesn't get a good look at his intended landing zone until he hits the dirt and pops the doors, to increase the shock when he sees what's out there.

After taking off his helmet, Ole Doc spares a moment to look over the ship's instruments - now, after landing, after popping open the ship's hatches.  All the stuff measuring the local atmosphere, gravity, flora, weather, temperature and radiation come up green (nothing for disease), but "it said red-red-red to soldiers, weapons, dead men, women, and hostility."  I can't help but read "dead men" and "women" as separate categories.  Eww, space cooties.

Anyway, the ship's conclusion is a line reading "Relatively unsafe.  Recommend take-off."  And so after wasting precious fuel entering the world's gravity well and moving through its atmosphere, Ole Doc is prepared to burn even more after learning that he probably shouldn't have landed in the first place.  This is why the Enterprise came up with long-range sensors.

But before Ole Doc can hit the button, Hippocrates, sweet, loyal Hippocrates, jams his head into the cockpit to continue his lecture.  Ole Doc bellows "STOP IT!" and stomps out to have some milk in the spaceship's salon.  Since this is a Hubbard sci-fi story, the author of course spared no expense when it came to designing impractically-opulent accommodations for his hero.  In this case, the Morgue's salon is "paneled in gold and obsidian and exquisitely muraled with an infinity of feasting scenes which, together, blended into a large star map of the Earth Galaxy as it had been known in his time."  Er, Hubbard means the Milky Way Galaxy.  Naming a galaxy of around 300 billion stars after one planet in it would be pretty stupid.

This masterwork by the famed Siraglio... hmm, was that intentional, Hubbard?  Well, the effect of the murals is quite spoiled by what's visible through the viewports they surround.

Six hundred and nineteen dead men swung from the limbs of the landing field trees.  They were in uniforms bleached by suns and snows and their features were mostly ragged teeth and yellow bone.  The blasts of the Morgue's landing had made a wind in which they swung, idly, indolently as though in their way they waltzed and spun to an unheard dirge.

Maybe the parts of Ole Doc's brain that would normally help him remember to take the medicine that keeps him alive or put fuel in his spaceship are instead busy instantly tallying things like the number of nearby corpses.

Now, when it was just the "dead men" sensors advising him to clear out, Ole Doc was ready to leave, but now that he actually sees the dangling corpses, he sets down his milk to have a good look out the window at the bodies as well as the well-kept grounds surrounding them.  Then he calls for Hippocrates and tells him to put up good ol' Force Screen Alpha if anyone but him approaches the ship.  After donning a golden tunic and "sun-fiber cloak" and belting on a pair of blaster pistols, our space cowboy descends the landing ladder and sallies forth.

A man develops, after a few score years, certain sensitivities which are not necessarily recognized as senses.  Carrying on the business of the Universal Medical Society was apt to quicken them.  For though the members of the society possessed among them the monopoly of all medical knowledge forbidden by the various systems and states and although they had no sovereign and were inviolate, things happen.  Yes, things happen.  More than a hundred ebony coffins lay in the little chapel of their far off base--Soldiers of Light who had come home forever.

He directed, therefore, his entire energy to getting a pile and escaping Ringo within the hour if possible.

Ah.  Well.  For a minute there I thought Ole Doc's "certain sensitivities" were picking up on something about the situation on Dorcon that desperately called for a Soldier of Light.  But instead it looks like his keen instincts have suggested, after he looked out a window and saw hundreds of corpses on display, that he might want to be careful when poking around this planet.

Maybe all his Common Sense is busy stating the obvious instead of reminding him to gas up when at a convenient spaceport.

One last thing - Hubbard's narration explains that Algol's "blinking" phenomenon is due to a darker star in a binary system passing in front of the brighter one as it orbits.  If you've read its Wikipedia article you may have learned that Algol is actually a three-star system, but this fact was only discovered in the 1950's, while "Her Majesty's Aberration" was first published in March, 1948.  So he gets a pass on this one.

Back to the end of "Ole Doc Methuselah"

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