Monday, August 31, 2015

The Great Air Monopoly - Part One - Deep Breath

In the previous Ole Doc Methuselah story, the plot depended upon future spacemen being too stupid to bring a Geiger counter along when they explored alien worlds.  The author also took a stand against slavery, yet seemed to forget that his hero owned a slave himself.  This tale, I think, is even worse.

It starts innocently enough, with Ole Doc sitting outside the Morgue, "his ship-laboratory," puffing on a pipe.  We established a while ago that the Morgue is another of Hubbard's luxury spaceships, so it's little surprise when we learn that it has a fold-out awning to make a pavilion worthy of its owner.  Hippocrates, Ole Doc's "little super-gravitic slave," is fretting about his owner's indulgence - "Nicotine on his fingers, poisoning him, nicotine in his lungs.  Poison, that's what it is."

Alrighty, research time...  "The Great Air Monopoly" was first published in 1948... German anti-smoking groups as early as 1912... 1950 British Medical Journal study suggesting link between smoking and lung cancer... 1964 US Surgeon General's Report describing similar link...  Well, Hubbard might be ahead of his American contemporaries in denouncing smoking, but as usual got the science wrong and thinks it's the nicotine causing lung cancer and not the tobacco smoke.  The guy's heart is in the right place; shame about his brain.

While Hippocrates starts reciting the list of poisons, going on through "Nilophine, Novocaine and Nymphodryl," of which only one is recognized by Wikipedia and is an anesthetic instead of a poison, Ole Doc continues to sit and puff on his pipe and do calculations on the golden cuff of his sleeve because in the grim darkness of the far future, there are no laptops.  "His filing case was full of torn cuffs containing solutions which would have rocked even his brothers of the Universal Medical Society, much less the thousand and five humanoid systems in this one galaxy."  I'm deeply cynical that he ever remembers to share these revolutionary discoveries - not that the rest of the galaxy would really benefit from them even if he did dump off a drawer full of shredded, scribbled clothing next time he passed by headquarters.

Now, the reason these two are chilling out is not because Ole Doc whimsically decided to land on a planet he happened to be flying by to do some fishing.  No, it's actually Ole Doc's 905th birthday!  So they're celebrating by landing on a pretty planet to do some fishing.  All... two of them.

Huh.  Nine centuries of life, and Hippocrates is the only being that Ole Doc gets to celebrate his birthday with.  Not even one of his fellow Soldiers of Light is around.  That's actually kind of sad.

The weird thing is that the author never comments on this, never points out the implications of this two-person birthday.  So either this is the one time in his entire career that L. Ron Hubbard made a subtle point, or it was totally accidental and unintentional.  After all, after hundreds of birthdays, Ole Doc may not see much point in making a big deal of them.

Well, since Ole Doc hasn't gotten a mission from his bosses or an empty fuel tank to address, the plot in this story will only get started once trouble finds him.  And like in the first Ole Doc story, a hawt women will ultimately be what prompts our hero to get "political" and stop the local bad guy.

He didn't hear the clanking chains or the bark of the guards on the march, even though they came closer with every second and would pass hard by the ship.  It was nothing to Ole Doc that Arphon was a boiling turmoil of revolt and murder.

Where is this galactic empire occasionally mentioned?  Or even that Systems Patrol from the first story?

In the eight hundred and eighty years since he had graduated from John Hopkins medical school in Baltimore, Maryland, First Continental District, Earth, Orbit Three, Sun1, Rim Zone, Galaxy1, Universe - or 1, 3160, 1 m. ly hub1, 264-89, sub-328, which will find it for you on the space charts if you are going there - he

Where to start... why is Baltimore still considered to be in the state of Maryland while the rest of the United States has become the First Continental District?  Why the need to specify that Earth is the third planet from our star and not that Maryland is the 7th state in the former US?  Why doesn't the sun have a proper name?  Why not specify that the Solar system is in the galaxy's Orion Arm instead of vaguely and unhelpfully locating it in the galactic rim?  Why are we not in the Milky Way galaxy?  If there is no way to travel to another universe yet, what is the point of specifying that we're in the one universe we know about?

he had seen everything, done everything, felt everything, tasted everything, been anything including a Messiah,

You couldn't lead a starving man to a buffet, Ole Doc.

a dictator, a humanoid animal in a glass dome and a god,

Eat me.

and there were few things left to amaze or interest him.

Keep this comment in mind about twenty pages from now.

It's actually another page before Ole Doc notices the slave train mentioned at the start of that stupid paragraph.  He's busy calculating the ninety variables of the limb regeneration technique he's working on, or musing that "some day he would crack up or get shot or forget his regular youth treatments" and get one of those expensive coffins.

Hippocrates of course reacts first... sixteen minutes after first hearing it, but he's busy, okay?  The little superdense alien hits some switches that "utterly camouflaged the Morgue, screened Ole Doc without making him invisible, trained outward a brace of 600 mm. blasters rated at a thousand rounds a second and turned down the oven so his cake wouldn't burn."  Heh.  Alright, that was mildly amusing.

Ole Doc only notices the slave train because it is about to run right into the invisible spaceship, raising the question of where they parked it.  I mean, he probably didn't put the Morgue down on a highway, but if he's out in the woods thinking about doing some fishing, why is the slave column marching through them?  For that matter, why are they marching?  Is there not a truck available?

It was a weird sight, that column.  The lush grass bent under white human feet

Oh, thank goodness.  If it was a bunch of Mongolian slaves, who knows if Ole Doc would bother to get involved?

and became stained with red.  Clothing ripped to nothing, eyes sunken and haunted, bent with iron fetters and despair, the hundred and sixteen people captive there appeared like shades just issued forth from hell for a bout with Judgment Day.

The slaves' tenders aren't even human, or at least not anymore, but beings "eugenicized" into "ape-armed, jaguar-toothed devils were like humans mad with a poisonous stimulant or like Persephons dragged from their pits and injected with satanic human intelligence," shaggy, heavy, pointy-headed brutes.  And I wonder why they get to be abhumans, and not aliens.  Is it to maximize the shock value, to horrify the reader with what careless (or sadistically careful) breeding can do to the human form?  Or a sign that, aside from Hippocrates and those radiation-pooping grayskins from the last story, this is not a very diverse galaxy?

Anyway, all Ole Doc does when he sees the slaves coming up is raise a "microglass" to read the brand on one of them, which reads "Air, Limited."  And the narration tells us that might have been the end of it, and the whole encounter would be nothing but a footnote in the Morgue's logs, had Ole Doc not seen "her," a slight but appealingly curvy girl clapped in irons.  Something about the way her hair flows down her back or the way her eyes and nose form a triangle makes Ole Doc drop his pipe and stand up with his knees wobbling.

She sees him too and slows enough to make the old man chained behind her stumble and the guy in front of her jerk back, then the "Persephon humanoid" sees the tangle and gets out his brass rod.  But before any beatings can occur the monster "sort of exploded into a mist" while his arm ends up sixty feet away, landed on top of the still-invisible Morgue.  See, Ole Doc is not only packing, but he's a genuine Galactic Medalist in short arms, and though he's merely four hundred years out of practice he manages to quick-draw and hip-shoot the offending slavedriver.  The other five Persephon guards open fire to kill some grass, and are similarly reduced to little craters.

Nothing like a low-stakes, completely one-sided action scene to start the story off right, eh?

The slaves are all stunned at the sudden violence, one old woman got "pinked" by a wild shot and is staring at her blood, while Ole Doc is shaking from the excitement and chastising himself for getting a thrill out of killing.  He picks up his pipe and all the slaves scream and recoil from "this smoking monster..."  Wow.  So if Ole Doc, who was visible when he did all this, had picked up and put on a rubber mask, would they have wet themselves at his horrible transformation?  Even if smoking has become "extinct most everywhere for hundreds of years," this is pretty stupid.

Hippocrates is annoyed, both with himself for barely managing to take aim with the ship's cannons before Ole Doc took care of the threat, and with Ole Doc for engaging in violence.  He shrilly chews out his owner, reminding him that "It says right in your code that 'Whosoever shall kill large numbers of people solely for satisfaction shall be given a hearing and shall be fined a week's pay, it being the mission of this Society to preserve mankind in the galaxy-'"  This would really mean something if we knew what a Soldier of Light's weekly pay was.  Or saw them spending money on anything.  As it is, this sounds like a laughably light slap on the wrist for a heinous crime, all the more alarming because the organization in question is supposedly a group of doctors protecting the human race.

And oh, it gets better.  Hippocrates trails off when he realizes he's actually quoting the Parody Code, and the Universal Medical Society's real rules say its members shouldn't "kill large numbers for experimentation."  So by implication, small numbers are fine.  And again, killing large numbers of people is an offense worthy of a hearing and small fine.

I'd wonder whether Hubbard was being remarkably subtle, and actually intended for the reader to rail against the injustice of this dictatorship of the physician he's set up for us.  But I don't think so.  Ole Doc has always been glorified as a hero, the actions he takes are presented as right and proper, and nobody in the story ever wishes that "ordinary" doctors could handle the emergencies that the Soldiers of Light occasionally deign to solve.

Anyway.  Hippocrates shuts up, but Ole Doc doesn't notice him, or even the dropped pipe - which the alien slave slyly picks up and breaks.  Hippocrates is happy he solved his master's filthy habit until he realizes that Ole Doc and that girl are staring at each other, and thus groans "A girl!", because he and we have seen this song-and-dance before.

Now, it was no plan of Ole Doc's to inspect Arphon of Sun12.

You can make up a planet's name but not a star's name, huh, Hubbard?

He was on his leisurely way to hand a deposition warrant to a System Chief over in Sub-Rim 18, 5260, that worthy having failed to respect Section 8, Paragraph 918 of Code 94 of the Universal Medical Society.

Meaningless words and numbers, just wasting paper and ink.  Not even the effort to name this System Chief, to say nothing of explaining what medical law he violated.

And if Arphon has slaves like this, it was theoretically none of his medical business.

But she was staring at him.

He flushed a little and looked down. But he was caped in gold and belted in scarlet with metal wings on his yellow boots and was decent.

Yeah, "decent."  Not a garish spoof of Hermes or anything.  Funny thing is, the cover artist seems to have forgotten to add the little wings to Ole Doc's booties.  Wonder why?

Hippocrates sighs, breaks the girl's bonds with his bare hands, puts her aside, and tries to shoo off the other 115 former captives, telling them to go home.  But they complain that they can't, and the girl mentions an "air tax" while the rest get down and crawl towards Hippocrates, groveling and begging for money.  Hippocrates has "definite limits on his skills and when these were reached he had but one god," and so cries for his master to do something, but Ole Doc is still staring at the girl.  He only reacts when she blushes and adjusts her ragged robe.

Ole Doc finally snaps out of it and orders Hippocrates to "Put her in the ship!"  The other hundred slaves?  "Go back to your homes!  Beat it!"  Our hero.

Alas, an old man chooses that moment to choke out "Air!  Air!  Oh-" and collapse, followed by two others.  Ole Doc sniffs and orders Hippocrates to "Test for air."  I can't help but feel that this is something you should do before you set up a little pavilion to relax in on a foreign world.

While Hippocrates, "master of machinery," checks the instruments for... air, or whatever, he takes satisfaction in how the other slaves freak out when this makes the Morgue turn visible again.  I wonder how common this stealth technology is?  We certainly haven't seen anyone else use it.  Is this another piece of "medical" knowledge the Soldiers of Light seized for themselves?

The air turns out to be good, though Ole Doc still puts on his helmet.  He examines the keeled-over old guy and eight other victims of this mysterious affliction, and has Hippocrates test a saliva sample for bacteria and junk, but nope, nothing.  And then "She" faceplants and goes still.

Ole Doc immediately rushes Her into the Morgue's medical suite, while the others are presumably left outside under a force field as Hippocrates goes around, spraying a sterilizer and breaking their chains.  It sure is reassuring to know that the degree of treatment you can expect from a Soldier of Light is directly tied to how much he wants to bone you.

Finally acting professional instead of merely horny, Ole Doc declares that he's never heard of anything like "mal-oxygenation," and spots a tag on Her ear, reading "Property of Air, Limited.  Repossessed Juduary 43rd, '53.  By order of Lem Tolliver, President, Air, Limited."  He tears the tag off and stomps it underfoot, then spends a moment healing the ear so there's not even a scar.  Then he goes back to handling that little breathing problem she's experiencing by sticking an oxygen mask on her.

Hippocrates jumps aboard again to report that another ship is coming in for a landing, and also that "Guns ready.  Tell me when to shoot."  Ole Doc gets his slave to settle down and keep a force field up until they know what the newcomers are doing.  His air treatment finished, he helps the girl ease upright and take off her mask, and they make gooey eyes at each other.

"Ugh!" said Hippocrates.  "Nicotine, women!  You never live to be ten thousand, I bet.  Next, rum!"

"Fine idea," said Ole Doc.  "My dear, if you'd like to step this way-"

And he opens some doors, leading Her into a stateroom, and Hippocrates knows that she'll soon shower and get dressed in one of Ole Doc's robes, then they'll sit in that salon and talk.  I guess we can assume that at some point afterword they'll enjoy some "coffee" or whatever euphemism is appropriate.  At first Hippocrates is like "Ugh!  It had been exactly nineteen years and six days since Ole Doc had show any interest in a woman-", but then he remembers that, well, it is Ole Doc's birthday.  So he grins and climbs into a gun turret, leaving the two "love"birds alone.

There is still a crowd of people gasping and crying for "Air!" outside the bloody spaceship.  And Ole Doc has a treatment that can alleviate their problems.  But he is ignoring them in favor of getting into this woman's pants.  Also, that bleeding woman who got winged by a blaster bolt never got treatment.

While Ole Doc and this woman he just met are doing something private in his quarters, Hippocrates sits in one of the Morgue's gun turrets, watching the approaching Scoutcraft Raider, a vehicle with "enough armament to slaughter a city and it was manned with humans who, even at this distance, looked extremely unreliable."  Presumably this vessel is open-topped, but... well, just wait.

Five goons disembark from the raiding craft with guns drawn, followed shortly by a big guy in black who reminds Hippocrates of a vulture.  The alien switches on the "near screen," throwing up another force field and disregarding how doing so "kicked about twenty slaves a dozen feet or more outward from the Morgue."  None of them were hot chicks, so it's no loss.

The goons examine the scorched grass where there used to be some sort of mutant, glare at the groveling, pleading slaves, but miss the crossed "ray rods" on the medical ship's nose and don't see U.M.S.S. Morgue, Ole Doc Methuselah spelled out on its side.  They certainly didn't pick up the vessel's transponder on the way in, and of course they didn't make radio contact at any point.

But... well, Ole Doc's ship has to have a radio or something, because Hippocrates is able to warn "You'd better stop" from the turret, and the bad guys stop.  Because how else would that work?  What, is the turret exposed and uncovered, allowing Hippocrates to yell at them from the gunner's seat?

Except the goons' leader shouts back at Hippocrates, there's no mention of a communicator in his hand or anything... so are they really having this conversation through sheets of glass and metal and miscellaneous energy fields?  Is Hippocrates' nasally, whining yelling throwing off Ole Doc's groove right when he's trying to get to know Her in a biblical sense?

Anyway, the big bad guy introduces himself as Big Lem Tolliver and demands to know why his Persephons are greasy stains on the ground.  Hippocrates advises the man to retreat because "If my master sees you, he'll cut you open to see the size of your liver or drill holes in your skull to equalize the vacuum."  The bad guys ignore this, and one of Tolliver's flunkies reports that there's 115 slaves here, but the radio report said there were 116.  So they do have radios in this universe, they just never seem to use them when they should.

Tolliver orders his thugs to search the Morgue, Hippocrates explains whose ship this is and that they "specialize in dead men named Lem Tolliver."  Hippocrates is, in fact, having some fun adapting dialogue from Tales of the Early Space Pioneers to everyday life.  This would be more endearing if I didn't find Hippocrates so annoying, and if this didn't have deadly consequences.

"Spacecrap!" said Lem Tolliver.

Sweet Earthchrist...

"That's no U.M.S. ship!  You'd never steal a slave if you were."

Yeah, why would anyone expect the benevolent dictators of the galaxy to rescue even a single slave?

"Slaves are U.M.S. business, pardner," said Hippocrates.

By which he means to say a UMS doctor will do business with slave traders and purchase a slave such as himself.

"And even if they weren't, we'd make it our business, son.  You going to go along and tell your mama to wipe your nose or am I going to have to wipe it myself - with 'sploders?  Now git!"  He was certainly converting well today.

Man, every frontier after the 19th century is going to turn out like the Old West, isn't it?  We'll settle new planets while wearing cowboy hats, dusters and sixshooter blasters at our hips.  We'll colonize the ocean floor with sombreros attached to the top of our diving suits and ponchos over our oxygen tanks.  We're explore the quantum universe on quark-sized nano-horses for easy movement between the atoms.  And we'll talk with a drawl the whole time.

Tolliver tells his henchmen to search the Morgue, but Hippocrates looses a dozen explosive shots in front of the bad guys.  And we're told he would've shot "a thousand more as warning," but the raiding ship had orders to respond if the Morgue did anything.  And boy does it respond, with "a resounding vomit of fire," a big, acidy splatter of electric death, heaving out of the gullets of the raider's cannons.

The Morgue reeled as the screen folded.  The top turret caved into tangled smoke.  The side port fused and dripped alloy gone molten.  And Big Lem Tolliver looked on in some annoyance for there went his chance of recovering the missing repossessed slave.

And that's "The Great Air Monopoly," everyone!  Guess we'll never see what the title was talking about, but kudos to the author for pulling off such an unexpected, even shocking, ending!  What a refreshing subversion to the idea that some boring invincible hero can show up, chase the first skirt he sees, and leave crucial business unfinished and important interactions to his incompetent sidekick.  You really have to hand-

Okay, I kid, I kid.  But I can dream.  Maybe the final Ole Doc Methuselah story will end this way.

Now, you might be wondering - wasn't the last story about slaves?  And didn't it end with Ole Doc convincing the Soldiers of Light to work to ban the interstellar slave trade?  Well, you're not the only one confused, because when he first sees those mutant slavedrivers, our hero thinks "this was odd because Ole Doc himself a hundred or was it fifty years before had thought the practice stopped by his own policing."

Wait... I think I'm reading that wrong.  The slaves are only mentioned once, that paragraph is more about the beings guarding them.  I think Ole Doc is remembering that he supposedly stopped the practice of using eugenics to make those monsters, not the time a hundred years ago when he convinced a guy to ship some plutonium-eating slaves home.  He doesn't really wonder that there's still slavery in the galaxy.  Hell, he wasn't even going to get involved until he saw that hot slave.

Sure is nice to know that our hero can make a difference, isn't it?

Back to "The Expensive Slaves"

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