Monday, September 21, 2015

A Sound Investment - Part Three - The Mind Robber

You just can't get good help these days.  Six soldiers bringing in boxes of science stuff for Ole Doc stagger from the load, astonishing him because "Hippocrates had always carried it so lightly" and making him snap "Now get out before you break something!" after they barely manage the second crate.  And when Ole Doc approaches the "unlovely thing" on the room's bed, the still nameless girl's hair nearly stands on end, so the doctor has to send her to sit over by the window while he works.

We might ask why Ole Doc is even keeping her around, but there are two answers to that question: to have a viewpoint character who isn't Ole Doc, thus allowing him to surprise us with his brilliance, and to facilitate the plot, as we'll see shortly.

While Ole Doc gets out a portable generator and a bunch of wires, then starts attacking the corpse with a scalpel, saw and chisel, the girl gets to sit and twist a pillow's tassels.  She screams when the generator suddenly turns on, but when things go quiet again, she looks over to see Ole Doc next to a metal box sitting on the bed's (golden, of course) sheets.

Cautiously she approached the Soldier.  "Is... is he in there?"

What an odd question.  What, is the corpse gone or something?  Does she think Ole Doc used his medical super-science to fit the body into a very small coffin?

Ole Doc looked up with a start.  "Just his brain, my dear."

Some doctors, to put their patients or others at ease, will discus a procedure before they start it, so everyone knows what's coming and what to expect.  Of course, some doctors live by the tenet 'first, do no harm' and wouldn't tear open a guy just to prove a point.

The girl gets to sit by the window some more, only now she's staring to worry that she's going to be sacrificed in some scientific necromancy to revive Mr. Giotini or something.  After all, that one man "built up an entire civilization on five worlds which had hitherto been given to outlaws and casual wanderers; his vast energy had been sufficient to make cities grow in a matter of weeks and whole new industries from mine to finished product in a month or two."  You know, like how George Washington liberated the colonies from the British, tamed the western frontier, led the Industrial Revolution, and for an encore invented Australia.

It's only at this point that we learn the girls name, when she muses "Who was she, Patricia Dore, to be weighed in this balance against an experiment involving Giotini?"  Her name is only used twice more in the rest of the story, the rest of the time she's "the girl" or "she."  This is because the fact that she is Patricia Dore isn't important, and her role could be filled by any creature fair enough to be noticed and rescued by Ole Doc and weak enough to be horrified by surgery.

Patricia is so certain that Ole Doc is going to do something horrible to her that she looks out the bedroom window and gauges her chances of surviving a drop to the courtyard below, but then she notices some soldiers gathering in it, soldiers who seem focused on this room.  She points this out to Ole Doc, not as a warning but as a threat if he tries anything unwholesome.  He immediately surmises that they're up to no good and throws open the window "in a burst of indignation" to lecture them, only for one to blow off part of the frame when he sticks his head out.

If you'll remember from the story before last, Ole Doc has several levels of Gunslinger in addition to his Soldier of Light prestige class, and so is able to gun down three attackers, then duck back into cover before the others' "battle sticks" can fire back.  "Battle stick" strikes me as a moniker that could describe a great many weapons, some of them quite primitive.  Luckily the late Giotini seemed to have expected this sort of thing, because he installed "ray-proof" shutters on the inside of the windows, which Ole Doc close.

So there's our excitement for the story - not the nature of the plague, which Ole Doc isn't really interested in, but a siege while Ole Doc performs an autopsy.

Patricia isn't actually bothered by the gunfire, she's read enough books to get "an aberrated idea of just how much men would do for one woman" and assumes that the soldiers are going to rescue her.  She even comes close to trying to assist them in apprehending this obviously fake Soldier before "Ole Doc told her to get out of the way and sit down and she obeyed meekly."  Then he stares at her because "it is easier to think when one has a pretty object on which to fasten the eyes."

And to think I was starting to wonder how someone so squeamish could be of assistance to the doctor.  Obviously she's there to look hot, much like how Hippocrates is usually there to do the heavy lifting.

Speaking of Hippocrates, Ole Doc was conveniently stupid enough to leave his helmet with its inbuilt radio in the generalissimo's car, and in the grim darkness of the near future there are no cellular phones.  In other words, he has no way of calling the Morgue for help.  So he resorts to wadding up some sheets, dousing them in medical alcohol, and tossing them onto a summerhouse and lighting the bundle with a blaster shot, all so quickly that the guards eyeing his room are unable to react before he's closed the shutters again. This creates a crude smoke signal that hopefully Hippocrates will notice.  Then Ole Doc does some calculations, on his cuffs, of course, which reminds him of how his slave burned the old lot and makes him curse out the being he's counting on to rescue him.

Eventually he's interrupted by someone battering on the doors to the room, forcing Ole Doc to get up and double-bar them... and all this security really raises questions about what kind of leader the late Giotini was.  Then he hears the distant sounds of the Morgue's guns, which suggests that rescue won't be coming anytime soon.  And then Patricia decides to do something by unlocking the door while Ole Doc is distracted, leading to a brief firefight that ends with another five soldiers dead.  "Now where do you think you're going?" he asks the hysterical woman.  "Sometimes I think Hippocrates is right!" he says to himself.

But even after she threatens his life with her misguided escape attempts, Ole Doc doesn't send her away - you see, he needs her around to listen to something, the little project he wanted those cuff notes for.

It was the basic formula of cellular memory transmission in the neuro-sonic range, derived from the highest harmonic of nerve cell frequency and computable in this form to calculate the bracket of particular memory types as transmitted from sonic reception to audio-sonic recording cells.  It was the retention frequency of audio memory.

Technobabble that would make the writers of Star Trek blush.  Technobabble that operates under the assumption that there are specific neurons dedicated solely to remembering sounds, and they vibrate at a certain frequency to do so as if they were strings in a musical instrument.

As the nerve cell does not live long and as it is very liable to putrefaction, Ole Doc considered himself fortunate to find as much of Giotini's brain intact as he had. 

Wikipedia says that the overwhelming majority of neurons in the neocortex were formed before birth.  I wonder if Hubbard's writings would have been less scientifically embarrassing if he had access to a free and easy-to-use encyclopedia?  On the other hand, reference books surely existed in the distant past of 1949, so there's no guarantee he would've bothered to do the research even if Wikipedia was on his laptop.

Ole Doc has rigged up a "disc recorder and a mike," and presumably a speaker as well, since he's able to make a man's voice start talking about the plague wracking the planet Hass and a doctor on the generalissimo's staff fearing that the entire population will soon be dead.  Or as Ole Doc explains it, "I have taken Giotini's brain, preserved it and taken from it its various memories in the audio range."

I'm having trouble deciding if this is more or less ridiculous than Wild Wild West suggesting that you could shine a light through a dead man's eyeballs to project the image of the last thing he saw.

Patricia can only listen for three seconds before she starts screaming, after which Ole Doc goes to the door and yells for a parlay with Lebel, explaining that his ship will be there before they manage to batter down the door.  He also says he has something of "considerable interest" to the generalissimo.

"Come here," said Ole Doc to the girl.  "Tell him what you have seen and heard."

"It's horrible!" she said.  "I won't!"

"Oh yes you will!" said Ole Doc.  "Tell him."

"He cut out Giotini's brain!" she cried.  "He put it in a machine and he made it talk and he's got records in here of him talking!  It's horrible!"

Lebel reacts strangely to the news of a dead man talking... I mean, it's a pretty weird scenario to begin with, but the author says that his throat is "strangely constricted" when he manages to speak, so obviously the guy's worried about something more than necromancy.  And Ole Doc cranks up the "recorder" and has the dead Giotini explain that his spies revealed that General Lebel was plotting against him, planning to not only overthrow him but kill everyone in the system.  Dramatic sting.

In another of Hubbard's patented 'undermine serious drama with comedic hijinks' moments, Ole Doc then quickly swings the door inward, causing Generalissimo Lebel, who of course was leaning against it, to tumble into the room, then bars it closed before anyone else can react.  Then Lebel gets a boot stomp to the neck, a gun butt to the head, and so wakes up tied and gagged.  Ole Doc explains the bad guy's scheme - Lebel and some renegade sonic engineer came up with a device that would emit sound waves below the range of human hearing to provoke such a strong, instinctive fear response that their victims would literally die of fright.  Hence why Lebel was so insistent that Ole Doc put on one of his own helmets, which of course would be proof against the thing.

Lebel and his conspirators used the sonic weapon to kill Giotini, then learned that the he had willed the revenue of the entire Fomalhaut system to the Universal Medical Society.  So they kept using their toy to cause a 'plague' that would kill or drive off everyone in the system, allowing them to claim it as salvage.  Yes, according to some space code, "any planet deserted by her populace shall become an object of salvage to whomever shall take possession."

Can we make a note, at some point before we start colonizing other worlds, to make a law or something saying that one person or group of people can't lay claim to an entire planet just because there's no one else on it at the moment?  Even giving them their own continent is pushing it.

Let's wrap this up.  Ole Doc jabs the captive Lebel with what he says is a poison, and won't give him the antidote until the general calls off his guards.  After only a minute, Lebel is in such sweating agony that he relents, allowing Ole Doc to reveal that he actually gave him a shot of an unpleasant but harmless vaccine for the yellow fever.  Then he unties Lebel and tells the man to "put up your fists!"  Ole Doc wants to get his payback for all these inconveniences with a good old-fashioned brawl.

Cut to Hippocrates melting the palace doors with the Morgue's guns, kicking his way into the building, and breaking down the barred door his master is behind to find Ole Doc, both fists broken, standing over "the bloodiest, messiest man it had ever been his fate to see."  Lebel's blind from "fair blows," his lips are split over what teeth are left, and he collapses after feebly trying to get off the floor.  Hooray, the hero has savagely, needlessly beaten a bad guy who was only revealed to be a bad guy a few pages ago.  How satisfying and honorable.

So that's that.  Lebel will be tried by... someone, at Hub City, which I guess is a Universal Medical Society headquarters or something.  Instead of being seized and exploited by the generalissimo and his goons, Fomalhaut's assets will be... seized and exploited by the Universal Medical Society.  Huh.  Can you do that, will an entire system's revenue to a private organization?  Give away all your citizens' money like that?

Oh, and Miss Dore has vanished.  She's there to scream about Ole Doc making a dead man talk on one page, but she has no reaction to Lebel being captured, Ole Doc's motive summation, and the subsequent beating.  The most mention made of her is on the second to last page, where Ole Doc tells Hippocrates that "There's a silly girl around here we'll have to gather up and we've got a lot of psycho-therapy to attend to where we can find anyone left alive."  Wonder when she left?

Wait a minute, this is the closest these stories have come to discussing psychology!  Dammit, I was promised "warped psychology" on the book jacket, and we've only got one story left after this one!

And now, punchline one: Hippocrates asks what to do with all of Ole Doc's equipment, and the Soldier of Light says it's "junk."  See, without those fifty-year-old calculation notes, he couldn't get the right "harmonic of memory retention," so he wasn't able to listen to a two-weeks-dead brain's memories.  The record he played for Lebel was nothing but a fake intended to get the general to cling to the door.  Abusing prisoners, manufacturing evidence - I was wondering why Hubbard wanted his protagonist to be a Space Doctor instead of a Space Cop, but I think it's clear that Ole Doc would be an even worse policeman than he is a physician.

Punchline two: on their way to make space phone calls and get this Fomalhaut situation sorted out, Ole Doc asks why Hippocrates burned all those old cuffs, and the alien responds that he didn't think they looked important when he read them.  Which means, due to Hippocrates' photographic memory, he had all the information in his skull the whole time.

"I thought you just mad because I not file right.  You didn't ask me."

Ole Doc laughed again.  "Well, no loss at all then.  Some of the notes may work despite this fiasco today.  Hippocrates, when I bought you at that auction a few hundred years back, I think I made the soundest investment of my life.  Let's go."

Hippocrates stared.  He almost staggered.  And then he grew at least another half meter in height.  He went out into the corridor breasting a pleading, hopeful, begging throng, carving a wide swathe through them and crying out in a voice which cracked chips from the pillars in the place.  "Make way!  Make way for Ole Doc Methuselah, Soldier of Light, knight of the U.M.S. and benefactor of mankind!  Make way!  Make way!"

And so the conflict at the start of this story was all a stupid, hilarious misunderstanding, and Hippocrates won't have to go free after all.


Back to Part Two 

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