Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ole Doc Methuselah - Part Six - Partners in Crime

Captain Blanchard is in trouble.  He's tried every application of the Speechcraft skill - persuasion, threats, bribery - but he cannot get the starship captain he's dealing with to let him aboard so he can flee the planet with his ill-gotten gains.  You see, the other captain has a "yeller ticket."

In Hubbard's future dictatorship of the medical elite, the Soldiers of Light aren't supposed to be "political," and they operate above the law, but they still get to issue edicts of their own.  In this case, the starship captain along with the captains of the other few spaceships on Spico, was issued a yellow ticket that forbids them to leave the planet due to a medical quarantine.  It doesn't say what what disease the überdoktor is worried about, or even confirm that the space captain is carrying a disease in the first place - it doesn't have to, the mere existence of the yellow ticket is enough to keep the spaceman grounded.

Capt. Blanchard tries to assure the guy that he can get one of the colony physicians to clear the yellow ticket to a white one, but the nameless space captain scoffs at the idea - he's not willing to spend the rest of his life as an outlaw, and no port in the galaxy would dare accept a freighter bearing a yellow ticket from a Soldier of Light.  He shuts the spaceship door with a clang, leaving Captain Blanchard, Dart the Martian, Nameless Outlaws #1, 2 and 3, and a "peculiarly noisy chest" in a bit of a bind.

And I guess "Captain" Blanchard doesn't actually have his own spaceship.  It'd be awfully inconvenient for the story if he did, ya ken.  As it is, we're told that "If Blanchard's eyes had been acetylene torches they would have cut [the door] nearly through," but alas, he doesn't have superpowers either.

Things get worse for the villain as he retreats towards the Comet Saloon - look, we're in outer space, so everything is named after space stuff.  He passes some colonists drinking from a fire hydrant, and notices them glancing skyward and grumbling about the awful weather, how it's sure to rain, or worse.  And it's getting cold, so their old lady is sure to die.  And the ground here is much too hard to dig a proper grave in.  Except when Blanchard looks up, he can't see a cloud in the night sky, and the soil is soft beneath his feet.  What ever could be going on?

Well we can make a good guess, but while Blanchard can't read the story he's in and wouldn't know about Ole Doc dumping powder in the city reservoir, he should at least remember a mysterious stranger coming in to purchase the town waterworks and be suspicious about that.  Though I suppose a powder that makes people pessimistic might be one of those medical secrets hoarded by the Soldiers of Light, so Blanchard would have no reason to connect the afternoon's events with the citizens' reactions.

At any rate, the bad guys are nervous since their survival depends on the colonists being happy and docile instead of waving torches and pitchforks, so Blanchard calls a huddle and gives orders.  The Nameless Outlaws are to take the contents of the chest (it's Alicia Elston) and dump her into the reservoir, while Blanchard and Dart "have a task to perform" that will get them their white ticket so they can leave.  The mooks go off with our story's only female character to murder her, but since it's expected to occur off-screen, don't worry too much about her safety.

Dart, meanwhile, has a little freakout while he "slither[s] after his master."  He looks up at the stars above and realizes how small he is, and of course how there's barely a planet in the heavens that a Soldier of Light hasn't visited - the author cannot overemphasize how awesome those guys are.  But getting passage on a spaceship is hard enough even without the handicap of a "slave passport" like his, confirming that slavery is fully legal in this galaxy, wow!  It's not enough that a cabal of super-doctors are withholding medical knowledge from you, you might be legally considered property!  It's all just too much for poor Dart, and he tears off his mask and has his vision and hearing messed up by the flood of merciless oxygen.

And then things get even worse for the bad guys when they pick up on the "hum of voices, hive-like," coming from the town's center.  Blanchard orders his slave to climb up the landing tower near where the Morgue is parked, and Dart yells down that he can see Ole Doc on a platform in front of a mob of people, yelling things into a portable speaker to make them a howling, angry mob.

Did you know that in the future, spaceships won't have door locks?  Because Blanchard is able to "with past familiarity" open the portal and hop aboard the Morgue with no trouble at all.  Makes you wonder why he doesn't feel like breaking into that captain's spaceship and commandeering it with his armed thugs.  Oh, and did you know that despite being apolitical figures supposed to ensure mankind's survival, Soldiers of Light such as Ole Doc have weapon racks on their spaceships, containing a selection of long-ranged killing implements?  The enlightened regime of the Soldiers of Light has done away with all that 'do no harm' nonsense, much like they're decided human rights shouldn't get in the way of cheap labor.

Blanchard selects a "missile thrower" from the doctor's armory, climbs the landing tower, and looks down the sights.  The thing has a fancy scope that's able to zoom in on the town square all crisp and clear, and Blanchard puts the crosshairs on his enemy, the rangefinder whirrs, the sights flash green, he squeezes the trigger, and...

There was a crash of fire against the pillar on Ole Doc's right and he reeled.  Sprays, like orange plumes, radiated down into the crowd and slammed men and women to earth.  The material of the platform began to burn and char and at its base small green puffs bloomed where the dust was burning.

The hell kind of "missile" did that thing "throw?"  Explosive round, incendiary ammo, nebulous blaster fire, what?

Despite missing his target even with the benefit of sophisticated aiming assistance, Blanchard feels "considerable pride" and is "glowing with the pleasure of good marksmanship."  Ole Doc is down and his clothes are starting to catch fire, which means he is definitively dead.  When a frantic Dart starts tugging at his arm and points out three bodies floating in a nearby moon(s)lit river, Blanchard merely says "To hell with it!"  Just "A drunken brawl" or something.  Certainly not worth investigating with that fancy scope or sparing a second thought for.

But while Blanchard's jimmies remain unrustled, Dart is 100% done.  The little Martian is screaming and scrambling down the tower so fast that the whole thing is shaking.  And Blanchard, already unnerved by his plans going down the toilet and all he's had to do tonight, has had enough.  "It was all too clear that Dart had broken before the crime's importance.  And a broken slave..."  So he carefully sights down - oh, wait no.  He puts the "missile thrower" to his hip and shoots a blast of flame too far ahead of the running Martian, then flips the thing on full auto and just goes nuts until the recoil is making Blanchard shoot straight upward.

So it's a fully-automatic "missile thrower" that shoots fire instead of solid projectiles, huh?

Dart keeps running for a few more paces, but he's been hit, and stumbles through one of the fires resulting from Blanchard's keen marksmanship.  He gets a full paragraph describing his death where he screams in agony and tears at his mask before falling into a bonfire, but... well, I'm a bit confused.  The "missile thrower" seems to set things on fire, yeah?  Except even though Dart was hit, he didn't ignite until he accidentally runs through a fire started by the same weapon he was hit by.  Guess Martians don't burn as easy as a wooden platform?  Or the ground?

For his part, Blanchard's hands are shaking after the deed is done.  He just gave a loyal minion an appalling death because of "his own lack of self-control," but when he climbs down from the tower and is reminded of all the spacebux in his pocket, Blanchard goes for broke.  He runs for the Morgue, planning on either using the "ray disintegrators" - the medical ship's "ray disintegrators," mind you - to raze the town behind him to cover his tracks, or if that doesn't work he can just stand the ship on its tail and use the engine backwash to do the same.  The authorities will put the whole debacle down to space pirates while Blanchard sells the ship and uses his stolen fortune to start a new life.  And he'd better hurry up and get a start on that, because the angry mob's yelling is getting closer.

It was only for an instant that Blanchard regretted the way in which he had been forced into doing things for which a man could be enslaved and sent to the hells forever.

There's Hubbard's generic space hells again.  Also, it looks like slavery is a punitive measure?  I'm sure that makes it better.  Now we can wonder what horrible crimes Hippocrates committed to have his freedom taken away from him.

Elston had been his scapegoat.  And a good one, for Elston was dead.  But even then Blanchard doubted that any blame would be attached to anyone now except the inevitable space pirates to which System Police always assigned blame for those crimes which otherwise were never solved.  And in another ten minutes this corner of Spico would be subject to certain chain reactions caused by either guns or tubes.

Don't tell me that the colonists have already riddled the planet with mineshafts filled with a "breathe-gas" that reacts explosively to even a single isotope of radiation delivered by either weapons or spaceship engines.

When he passes the "the charred thing that had been Dart," Blanchard takes a moment to toss his identifying "salametal tag" next to the Martian's in hopes that someone will assume the pile of ash is made up of two bodies, then resumes running towards the ship.  But then someone yells "Blanchard!"  It's Ole Doc, a little scorched, and his arm is in a sling, but he's still alive!  The guy who wasn't directly hit and just kinda fell down wasn't killed after all!  And he's got the whole town following him!

The thing to do in this situation is obviously to take a single hasty shot with your "missile thrower," miss, and scramble through the ship's port.  And then it gets confusing again.

In an instant, Blanchard had gained the port.  Cursing he brought it to and then raced into the control section.  Somewhere a door clanged.

Throwing the gun down Blanchard grabbed for the panel where the starting levers and throttles stood waiting.  One set was marked chemical for departure and landing on a port.  The other set was marked atomic.  It was the second that he thrust full ahead to "start."  In about ten seconds there would be the beginning of the fission.


About the ship the mob swung, many of them passing by the tubes.

Right, read all that carefully.  See any clear indication that Ole Doc entered the ship at any point?  Well he must have, because when the viewpoint shifts to the crowd surrounding the Morgue, Ole Doc isn't with them, and everyone assumes he got aboard.  Guess the yell of "Blanchard!" was coming from inside the ship and the door clanging was the port opening up again.

Someone in the mob yells for everyone to stand clear of the "tubes," while Mayor Zoran orders some burly Centauri men to try to force the port door open.  They only succeed in twisting some iron bars into "pretzels," but... alright, let's think about this.  Blanchard goes through the port door, but doesn't lock it behind him, because otherwise how did Ole Doc follow him aboard?  So the one time Ole Doc thought to lock his spaceship full of priceless, dangerous medical technology was when he was in hot pursuit of a villain, with a full mob of allies behind him?  Or did Blanchard indeed lock the door when he broke into the spaceship, but Ole Doc managed to use some device to gain access anyway?  If so, why did Ole Doc use that device now instead of locking the ship earlier so Blanchard couldn't get in to begin with?

Not that the door lock even matters.  Some brat climbs on the very top of the spaceship and starts yanking on the "emergency entrance hatch," manages to get it open, and climbs inside.  Because when you're flying through vacuum or trying to protect knowledge that lesser people shouldn't possess, you want a spaceship with an entrance that can be forced by a child.  You know, just in case of an emergency.

Everyone's real impressed with the child's ingenuity until the women realize that "Blanchard might be in there, still alive, after killing Ole Doc," and so start screaming in panic.  But before those burly Centauri chaps can force the door, it swings open on its own, revealing... well, let's save it for next time, end this entry on a cliffhanger.

Though since people are worried that Blanchard might have killed Ole Doc, it's probably safe to bet that isn't what happened.

Back to Part Five

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