Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ole Doc Methuselah - Part Three - Boom Town

When the geezer is stowed in the Science! drawer, the doors to the operating room automatically open, revealing the girl standing tense on the other side.  When Ole Doc puts on a "professional smile" and declares that her father has about 50-50 odds of surviving, the girl asks what exactly he's doing to him.

And we see just what kind of doctor our hero is when the narration tells us that "Ole Doc would ordinarily have given a rough time to anyone else who had dared to ask him that.  But he felt somehow summery as he gazed at her."  How dare you ask what this strange man is doing to your beloved family member?  Don't you know he's a doctor?  What right do you have to question his methods?  But you have nice cans, so Ole Doc will put on a smile.

Our hero finally asks the girl her name, which is Miss Elston.  No first name given, which only seems fair.  Continuing with our theme of withholding information, Ole Doc doesn't describe the extent of the old man's injuries, how "he virtually needed a whole new man" due to his torn-open lungs and a heart "split in two"(!) - and of course "professional ethics required one to forgo the expedience of kidnapping, no matter how vital it might seem."  Instead he explains that the girl's father will be alright "for a month, or more perhaps," and if he recovers will make a full recovery, with no pain and no memory of this event.

Again, nothing about what the hell he did to his patient.  The narration doesn't even mention it, so we have no idea whether Ole Doc used photon particles to stimulate cellular regeneration, gave him an emergency injection to put the man's humours back into balance, or had the ship's automated systems recite a mantra to get the man's heart chakra going.  But this is a lighthearted, soft sci-fi adventure romp, so the methods ultimately aren't important.  Just rest assured that Ole Doc is super smart and can fix anything.

Ole Doc complains that weapons technology always outpaces medical science by a thousand years - which means this semi-autonomous surgical suite is less advanced that that "radiating pellet" that dinged the ship a few pages ago.  But the girl is looking at him in a way that makes him feel really "summery."

"Even..." she said hesitantly, "even if you are so young, I have all the confidence in the universe in you, doctor."

That startled Ole Doc.  He hadn't been patronized that way for a long, long time.  But more importantly--he glanced into the mirror, over the table.  He looked more closely.  Well, he did look young.  Thirty, maybe.  And a glow began to creep up over him, and he looked back at her and saw her cascading glory of hair and the sweetness of her face--

Of course.  Of course the main character appears handsome and youthful beyond what his knowledge and ability would suggest.

Before Ole Doc can show what kind of physician he is by bending his former patient over the operating table, Hippocrates throws a figurative bucket of water over him by announcing that "the Earthman is gone!"  Our hero rushes to the port airlock and sees nothing of his former enemy but an abandoned shoe and "thin twirls of smoke arising from the charred and blasted grass."

And it's kinda vague what happened here - it's possible another spaceship flew over, land, picked up the disabled thug, and left without Ole Doc or Hippocrates or even a little computer on the Morgue noticing.  But later Ole Doc will reference the Earthman's remains, so the implication is that somebody came by and disintegrated him, but left without investigating or attacking the giant golden spaceship right next to him.  Or else the guy spontaneously combusted while the doctor was doing space surgery.

"Looks like we've got some opposition," says Ole Doc for the end-of-section cliffhanger, as if Elston's ship getting shot down and a man chasing her didn't make that clear.  Also not even a flicker of regret that he didn't do more to secure his prisoner than tell him he was a stone.

Whatever happened, nobody's too worried about it, because next thing we know, Ole Doc and Miss Elston are sitting down to eat the fish he caught, deep-fried Southern style.  The doctor is feeling "chivalrous" as he listens to her talk, or rather stares at her and thinks more about her hair than what she's saying, harkening "back to lonely days in cold space, on hostile and uninviting planets, and the woman-hunger which comes."  So 'summery' and 'chivalrous' are evidently being used as euphemisms.

There is at least a reference to Ole Doc Methuselah living up to his name - while he's staring at Miss Elston's hair, the narration mentions that "had he been regarding this from the viewpoint of volume 16 of Klote's standard work on human psychology, he would have realized the predicament into which with those words he had launched himself.  Thirteen hundred years ago a chap named Malory had written a book about knight-errantry; it had unhappily faded from Ole Doc's mind."

Anyway, I promised exposition, and Miss Elston explains the story's background: she and her father were on their way to nearby Junction City with a very valuable package when they were shot down - and when Ole Doc asks, she reveals she already knows who the culprits were.

"Miss Elston," he said, "if you know the identity of the band then perhaps something can be done, although I do not see what you could possibly gain merely by bringing them to the Bar of the Space Council."

Hippocrates was lumbering back and forth at the buffet clearing away the remains of the meal.  He was quoting singsong under his breath the code of the Soldiers of Light, "'It shall be unlawful for any medical officer to engage in political activities of any kind, to involve himself with the law, or in short, aid or abet the causes, petty feuds, personal vengeance..."  Ole Doc did not hear him.  The music of Venus was in Miss Elston's voice.

And chivalry was making Ole Doc's pants tight.  But yeah, this is a weird setting - it doesn't sound like there's any local Space Sheriffs or anything, apparently you're supposed to take your grievances directly to the Space Court.  Yet later in the story we'll learn there is such a thing as a System Patrol, but Ole Doc doesn't mention them.  Also, Space Doctors are apolitical, neutral actors forbidden to even help out when their patients are under attack, at least beyond sticking them in the Healing Drawer if they survive getting shot up.  Because reasons.

Anyway, the box the Elstons were transporting contained an important letter and the deed to the whole damn planet.  The old man is Judge Elston, and he came here to try and stop his partner from selling any more parcels of land.  See, a while ago a Captain Blanchard approached him with supposedly confidential information that Procyon-Sirius Spaceways wanted to use little Spico as a stopover point, and with Elston's name and investments set up the landing spots and started advertising Junction City as a tremendous business opportunity, luring thousands upon thousands of colonists to this supposed boom town.

Except Judge Elston recently talked to guys from the Spaceways company and learned that whoops, they have a new, more efficient engine that means there's no reason to use Spicos as a stopover point, and furthermore that this Blanchard guy was involved in shady speculations on Alpha Centauri.  Then when Elston "visio-graphed" Blanchard and told him to stop operations, refund the money, and use Elston's funds to absorb any losses, Blanchard refused and threatened to kill him.  And rather than going to the Upper Council, whoever they are, Judge Elston decided to come to Spico and fix things in person, and Miss Elston couldn't bear to stay behind.  But then they got shot down and the bad guys made off with all the evidence.

Miss Elston breaks down in sobs, saying that even if her father survives his injuries, since everything's happened in his name the scandal will kill him.  Hippocrates continues to pace around reciting the Space Code about why Ole Doc shouldn't get involved.

But Ole Doc's eyes were on her hair and his mind was roaming back to other days.  Almost absently he dropped a minute capsule in her water glass and told her to drink it.  Soon she was more composed.

She doesn't even ask what she's drinking, just gulps it down.  I guess now she knows better than to question the doctor.

Ole Doc puts his hands behind his head and hums for a bit, then makes his decision, smacks the table, stands up, and declares that all they have to do is find this Blanchard, recover the evidence, tell the truth, return the people's money, and get the judge healed, and everything will be a-okay.  Then he pours another glass of wine and only notices he's made a big mes on the white tablecloth - the author explicitly points out that it looks like a bloodstain - when he's filling the second glass. 

But across from him sat his ladye faire and now that he had couched his lance and found himself face to face with an enemy, even the thought of the shattered and blackened remains of the Earthman did not drive him back.  He smiled reassuringly and patted her hand.

Her eyes were jewels in the amber light.

Hey Hippocrates, anything in those space codes about having relationships with your patients?

So that's our premise: a conman is getting people to invest in a community under the promise that a transportation company will make it an important stop on a key travel route, while in actuality that isn't going to happen and he's going to run off with the money.  Or as the book's introduction puts it, this story is "reminiscent" of an earlier Hubbard western about a land-development scheme that's actually a swindle, but a mysterious drifter rides into town and sets things right.  Just replace the railroad with a... space travel company, or something.  And don't question why settling an inhabitable but unclaimed world would be considered a waste of effort.

I'm gonna have problems if it's implied Ole Doc made a move between sections, right after he slipped the woman he was dining with a little pill to make her relaxed.

Back to Part Two

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