Friday, August 7, 2015

Ole Doc Methuselah - Part Four - Frontier in Space

Main character established, check, got the background and conflict set up, check.  Let's meet the story's villain and do stuff.

Junction City is "all turmoil, dust and hope," where ten thousand enterprising space colonists are trading lots so fast that nobody can keep track of their values.  People "had made a thousand dollars yesterday, who had made two thousand dollars this morning, and who avidly dreamed of making five thousand dollars before night," and if we knew how much a spacebuck bought, those numbers would mean something.  The population has come from a hundred different worlds, and represents hundreds of races and creeds, but they're united by "a common anxiety to profit and build a world anew."  I guess those other hundred worlds were full.

The settlement itself is... well, like I said, there's dust.  There's a saloon, since this is the Old West in Space.  And in that saloon sits our bad guy, "smug, hard and ruthless," with "agate eyes" watching the crowds.

It mattered nothing to Edouard Blanchard that bubbles left human wreckage in their wake, that on his departure all available buying power for this planet would go as well.

Why w- ah, that's right, one person has the deed to the entire planet.

Ten thousand homely souls, whose only crime had been hope, would be consigned to grubbing without finance, tools, or imported food for a questionable living on a small orb bound on a forgotten track in space.  Such concerns rarely troubled the consciences of the Edouard Blanchards.

He's multiplying!

Every villain needs a henchman, and Blanchard has Dart, a Martian fellow who has to wear a mask that takes out "forty percent of the oxygen from this atmosphere and so permit him to breathe."  Since oxygen therapy can include concentrations of 100% oxygen through a breathing mask, I'm gonna guess that someone from an oxygen-poor atmosphere won't have much trouble in an oxygen-average atmosphere, but maybe it's important that he wear something that makes him look "like some badly conceived and infinitely evil gnome."  Also, when Dart squirms, red dust accumulates on his boots.  Because he's from Mars.  Much like how immigrants from the Middle East can be easily spotted by the sand in their shoes.

Anyway, Blanchard orders Dart to go investigate that "medical spaceship" that has recently landed - between the gold paint and the crossed "ray rods" on its nose, it could only belong to a Soldier of Light.  And either he saw it flying overhead or else there is nothing in this boom town but the saloon, some streets, and the landing fields.

Dart squirms and says how he's always honest with the Captain, while his "dishonest eyes" (this is the joke) are unable to meet his boss' gaze.  Blanchard's character tic involves his hands, which go through a "sadistic stir" at this, and when he sits upright, Dart confesses that Miss Elston ran to that very golden spaceship.  He just thought she'd fly away instead of sticking around to be a problem, and neglected to tell his boss.

This seems to imply that it was Dart who came by and vaporized the nameless Earthman who was defeated by a fishing hook, though the story doesn't actually confirm this.  Maybe he came by, saw where Miss Elston fled to, and then was amazed when the Earthman suddenly burst into flames all on his own.

Anyway, Dart tries to assure Blanchard that there's nothing to be "afeared" of since "No Soldier of Light can Monkey with politics.  The Universal Medical Society won't interfere."  This is never really explained, we're just assured that these super-doctors only fix medical maladies, not social problems.  Guess they're pacifists devoted to the whole "do no harm" thing...

Hmm.  Ole Doc got that Earthman in the lip with a piece of sharp metal but never treated the injury he inflicted, to say nothing of that blow to the medulla oblongata.  Just jabbed him with a shot, told him he was a stone, and left him outside while Ole Doc got distracted by an attractive piece of meat.

Back on track.  Blanchard's hands twist some more as though "wrapping themselves around the sinews in Dart's body and snapping them one by one."  But he restrains himself, reminds Dart that he's his friend, and "it's only those who oppose my will whom I, shall we say, remove," because that's how villains talk.  Blanchard then pulls out the letter the Elstons had been bringing, which makes clear that Procyon-Sirius Spaceways has no use for Spico, and torches it while lighting a cigar.  Dart is ordered to monitor the situation, making sure Miss Elston doesn't leave the gilded spaceship and that this Soldier of Light doesn't discover anything.

But no sooner does Blanchard give these orders than he's addressed by a "pleasant, youthful voice," forcing our villain to smooth out his hands and hide the evilness in his eyes.  It is of course Ole Doc, who doesn't react to what he's overheard and instead compliments this "beautiful prospect," asking to see the person selling the lots.  Capt. Blanchard introduces himself as Mr. Elston's agent, and talks about how happy he is to be a part of all these families "being placed in the ways of real riches."

Very affectedly he gazed down at the dirt as though to let his tears of happiness splash into it undetected.  However, no tears splashed.

Meh, I appreciate what you're attempting, author, it's just not working for me.  I have too many problems with our hero to smirk at your attempts at wry narration.

Ole Doc, who still has not introduced himself, buys the last two lots available at a thousand spacebux apiece, forcing Blanchard to bury his shock at the swift business... now wait a minute, Hubbard, while setting this scene you just said that "lots were being bought and sold with such giddy rapidity that no one could keep track of their value."  So how is this quick purchase unusual?

At any rate, this means that Blanchard gets to lead Ole Doc to a flimsy structure serving as the colony's city hall, and introduces him to Mayor Zoran, a "tall, prepossessing individual."  In but a glance, Ole Doc concludes that this man is "idealistic but stupid" and knows that Zoran will be the fall guy when Blanchard bolts with the money.

Next time you go to your doctor, try not to worry about whether he's decided that your physical features betray your stupidity, or what he thinks of your lips.

Ole Doc comments on the honor that must come from having ten thousand people depending on you, which prompts Zoran to give a speech about the "fine beings" in Junction City - no "riffraff," of course - all determined to make this little asteroid-planet a new Eden.  The money from Spaceways traffic, combined with the crops they'll grow in the fields and the wages from the nuclear plant that Capt. Blanchard assures them will be built within a month, are sure to make the community prosper.

As a physician, Ole Doc knows that Spico is due a two-year winter soon, and asks if there's been any precautions for emergencies.  Blanchard doesn't see the point, and Zoran reveals that they have enough food to last three weeks, and money will surely come once those Spaceways guys come in... though come to think of it, Blanchard said that they'd be in that very day.  The captain explains that there's always delays, and they're sure to drop by within a week.

It occurs to me that this plot wouldn't work if just one of these ten thousand colonists had a means of contacting Procyon-Sirius Spaceways and double-checking that they in fact planned on having regular stops on Spico.  Or paid attention to technology news on Space Reddit and heard about those new engines that made such a stop pointless.

Before he actually hands over his thousand-dollar bills, Ole Doc asks about community essentials like schools and hospitals, and is assured that they'll be along shortly - "Why, yes, just this morning a ship from the Universal Medical Society landed here."  Our hero points out that the Society only does research, Capt. Blanchard adds that Spico already has three physicians.  Ole Doc suppresses his "humph" at the mention of lesser doctors, even though the extent of his medical skill as displayed in the story has been to press some buttons on automated equipment, while his conduct has been uncomfortable at best.

Not quite done at City Hall yet, Ole Doc inquires about the city's waterworks and asks if he could buy them, and Capt. Blanchard is all too happy to set up a deal where Ole Doc hands over twenty thousand spacebux as a down payment.  This transaction is carried out on paper, of course.  And after that Ole Doc tours the city of shanties constructed from secondhand materials, patting children's heads as he "diagnosed to himself various diseases and deformities, and was generally a Harun al-Rashid."  No mention of him treating anyone, he's still undercover, but rest assured he's behaving like the most virtuous and magnanimous of princes.  Just not a doctor.

He also notices that all the land in the town - bounded by a river and a ravine - has been sold off, everyone is so assured of their imminent wealth that citizens pay each other with promissory notes, deduces that all the town's actual money is in Capt. Blanchard's safe, and concludes that the conman must plan on leaving this very night.  He does this while ignoring and "barely avoiding" a "blaster fight" at a nearby "swill parlor."  No attempt to stop the violence, no attempt to treat the fallen.  Count yourself very lucky if Ole Doc notices you and deigns to use his godlike healing powers on your behalf.

Instead he visits the five other spacecraft at the starport and takes an "unusual step" that we'll have to be patient about, and goes back to the Morgue for dinner with Miss Elston.  I'm sure it was full of character development and explored the budding "romance" between our hero and the damsel he rescued, but the entire affair is merely mentioned before Ole Doc and "his slave" go out on another errand.  Hippocrates is ordered to capture the Martian monitoring them while Ole Doc makes a distraction, and the operation goes so smoothly that it's described in two sentences - one minute Dart is fidgeting, the next he's been struck from behind and is "Dreaming peacefully of his beloved canals."

According to Wikipedia, the notion of Martian canals began to fall out of favor following observations in 1909, while this story was first published in 1947.  Obviously this is a deliberate throwback, yeah.  Or Hubbard is implying that canals will be created on Mars as it's colonized.

After that, Ole Doc and Hippocrates visit Junction City's reservoirs, lit by Spico's three moons so that "triangular patterns" play upon the water.  But Hippocrates is troubled, troubled enough to recite the entire Space Code aloud, then a poem from Tales of the Space Rangers - is Ole Doc a Space Ranger?  He can't be, he's supposed to be apolitical and uninvolved, and what kind of Ranger flies around not doing things?

Since Hubbard thought it was important enough to spend a page on it instead of things like character or plot development:

On Woman

The stronger the woman
The safer the man
As he ventures afar
On the Spaces that span.

Should be "in the spaces."

But love may be lovely

Oh come on.

In summer's hot haze
And days may be sweeter
When fond passions blaze.

But far out on Astri
With light frying hot
Adventure can't live
When there's naught in the pot.

Her sweet curling ringlets
Can't warm you at night

I think much has been written of women's capacity for keeping beds warm, actually.

And the dew in her eyes
May but lead you to fight.

No!  Take woman stronger
Than Vega's bright blare
For then you live longer
Yea, live to get there!

I guess Hippocrates is implying that Miss Elston needs to hit the gym and get her pretty ass out here to lend a hand, or something.  At any rate, the alien is balking at his orders to pour out the sacks of powder into the town water supply, trembling with the effort of disobeying his master.  He stands silent, looking to his owner for succor, but Ole Doc says "Go ahead," only noticing afterward how terrified his slave is.  So Ole Doc has to strain himself dumping out the mysterious powder himself, and gives the empty sacks back to Hippocrates in a way that makes clear how angry he is.  On the trek back to the spaceship, the alien can only weep gypsum tears, since this is the first time his master has been angry with him.

I can't help but think about how different the dynamic between Han Solo and Chewbacca would be if, instead of a "life debt," the Wookie was explicitly owned by the smuggler.  And whenever they disagreed on something, Chewie would freeze, too terrified to act against his master but unwilling to follow his orders, then have a teary breakdown from the guilt resulting from this act of defiance.

So that's this section - the villain is a conman who's able to function because everyone around him is stupid, but don't worry, Ole Doc has undertaken mysterious actions that will fix everything, even though he's not supposed to stop criminals or anything like that.  We're about halfway through the story now, so more stuff will have to happen before everything's neatly explained at the ending.

Back to Part Three

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