Friday, September 4, 2015

The Great Air Monopoly - Part Three - The Visitation

You don't think George Lucas might have read L. Ron Hubbard at some point, and then referenced him in Star Wars, do you?  'cause Han Solo famously claims to have made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, and as we all know, parsecs is a unit of distance, not time.  In the original script it's clear Han is BS-ing, while the Star Wars expanded universe has since explained that Kessel is surrounded by black holes, so charting such a short course through them is a testament to Solo's piloting skills.

I ask because here Hubbard claims that the Morgue's gig is capable of "several light-years speed," which makes as much sense as me saying my Toyota can handle several miles speed.  And in the very same sentence he states that the gig was going ten thousand miles per hour, making the previous confusion pointless.  It's not even like that's lightspeed, which would be over 670 million miles per hour.  Sometimes I think Hubbard picked up a grudge against intellectuals after dropping out of college, and included stuff like this in a deliberate effort to make any readers who were smarter than him wince.  Like he's being deliberately, maliciously misinformed here.

At any rate, rest assured that the stupid gig can move at hypersonic velocities, and since Ole Doc is flying along at something like Mach 13 if I've plugged and chugged correctly, he overshoots his objective twice before thinking to slow down enough to see the landing strip.  No, the planet doesn't have Space Google Maps or anything to help him navigate.  No, he doesn't have to get clearance before setting down.  No, nobody hails him on the radio as he approaches and chews him out for shattering windows after zig-zagging his stupidly fast spaceship over a populated area.  This civilization somehow went from Flight to Rocketry and rushed the Apollo Program without picking up Radio at any point.  And then racked up some Future Techs while skipping Satellites, Nuclear Fusion or The Internet.

So Ole Doc is in Minga to look for a doctor who knows how Hippocrates works, maybe even his species' name.  He isn't impressed by the place.

Ordinarily Ole Doc disliked middle-sized towns.  They didn't have the chummy, "hello-stranger" attitude of the pioneer villages of space and yet lacked any of the true comforts of the city.  Built by money-hungry citizenry around a space repair yard, such towns were intent upon draining off the profit of the mines and farms incoming and outgoing.  They were, in short, provincial.  A rover port had some color and danger, a metropolis had comfort and art.  Such as Minga had law and order and a Rotarian club and were usually most confoundedly proud of being dull.

It's weird.  If we think of a starport as equivalent to a more conventional port, you'd expect a settlement with one to be large and successful, built around commerce and catering to travelers.  Except that wouldn't be necessary, you need the right kind of coast to have a successful seaport, but you can build a spaceport anywhere there was enough room for a lander to touch down and take off.  Which means that you could just stick one right next to the mine or farms to ship the products off as quickly as possible, instead of wasting time and money shipping the stuff to another site on-planet before sending it offworld.  And any incoming ships needing repairs or whatnot could land at a spaceport next to an actual city, get their space oil changed while staying at a proper Space Hilton or something.  So there doesn't seem to be any reason for a community like Minga, the rocket age equivalent of those towns centered around an interstate exit, to exist.

Anyway, Ole Doc doesn't like these kinds of towns and wouldn't spare one a second glance, but he sees something in this settlement that makes him stop and stare.  Something unlike anything he's seen before in his abnormally long life.  Yes, "Had he seen a riot, a golden palace, a ten-tailed dog or a parade of seals singing 'Hallelujah,' Ole Doc would not have been much amazed, for one sees many things strange and disorders unreasonable in a lifetime of rolling through the systems great and small."  But this, this scene blows his mind.

It's a man stalking a cat.

Guy is well-dressed, not obviously insane, but he's carrying a butterfly net and shadows the cat until he pounces and bags it.  Then he talks about what a fine morsel it'll make, how long since he's had some decent feline cuisine.

I guess this pretty much confirms what a boring and unimaginative galaxy Hubbard's created for us.

After watching this go on for over a friggin' page, Ole Doc engages the gentleman in conversation to ask where he might find the firm Malbright, Diggs.  While blowing his nose several times, the gentleman suggests "if you've a mind for fantasy, you might try looking in heaven and then again, as their creditors would have had it, in hell."  The firm folded, you see, once poor Malbright started needing more and more "air" but couldn't pay the bills for it, so his company got snapped up by that Air, Limited.

Ole Doc isn't really interested, and asks if the gentleman ever met "a small extraracial clerk" by the name of Bestin Karjoy, but learns that Malbright and Diggs had over a thousand clerks, so the answer is no.  It's only at this point that Ole Doc asks how such a company could fail because one man started needing something that is all around them and available for free.  At such crazy talk, the gentleman says "I beg your pardon, sir.  I beg your pardon" and makes a hasty exit.

He takes the cat with him.  This makes me angry, and you'll see why momentarily.

This weirdness makes Ole Doc actually pay attention to the dreary town, so he's able to notice the shutters and doors flapping in the wind, the hopeless look in the eyes of its citizens, the pot bellies on the children - why, this place is starving!  At random he enters the residence of a bedridden woman surrounded by family members, a woman who tries to explain she can't pay when she sees him.  Ole Doc assures her he's not here to collect, puts a gold coin down on the table... it's depressing to see how little we've come in over eight centuries, isn't it?

Ole Doc again says that he's looking for a four-handed "extraracial being" by the name of Bestin Karjoy, and since gold is inherently valuable the starving woman gets one of her kids to show Ole Doc where to go.  Now that he's close enough to see just how emaciated the woman is, Ole Doc pulls a gun, causing everyone to scream and flee while a brave youth tackles him to the- actually, no.  Everyone mistakes the device for a blaster, but only "stared in awe" as Ole Doc uses this "hypo gun" six times, painlessly firing some undefined "jet" at the family that "force-fed" the lot of them.  Guess they're too starved and hopeless to react properly when a stranger whips out an apparent weapon and starts pulling the trigger.

And this is why I'm upset with Ole Doc.  He has a miracle device that can feed people as easily as a similar-looking device can kill them, but he didn't think to use it on that gentleman from earlier, thus saving a poor cat from becoming dinner.

With the kid's help, Ole Doc is ushered to a place he probably didn't need help finding, a tall, golden structure with the words "Air, Limited" and "Big Lem Tolliver, Savior of Arphon" on the front.  There's a pair of those Serephon mutants guarding the entrance, but Ole Doc is able to walk right past after hitting them with that hypo gun to give them some "rigor."  And hang on, he's not hypnotizing anyone like he did in the first two stories!  He didn't even need a gun back then, just told one guy he was a stone and shone something at another guy's nose until he was a dog.  Huh.  Maybe Ole Doc is slipping in his advanced age.  That stuff was like two hundred years ago.

Our hero is confronted by a clerk as he enters the building in search of the records, because remember, he does not give a Psychlo's eleventh finger about Tolliver and the titular air monopoly, and he's even given up on that girl whose name was only mentioned once - this is all about getting Hippocrates a vet.  Another blast with the hypo gun, this round a "narco slug," gets the guy cooperative and thinking that it's Tolliver's will that Ole Doc get these records, but then our hero has the misfortune to bump into Big Lem himself.

Our villain is outraged that someone is issuing orders in his name, while Ole Doc is as impressed with the bad guy as he was with the town he's running.  He tries to pull out the hypo gun again, but one of Big Lem's bodyguards is too quick and grabs him.  As Ole Doc is frisked, everyone gets a good look at the gorget of his cape, bearing the "solid gold ray rods of the UMS."  This gets about a page of all the villains staring awestruck at the logo of those Soldiers of Light, but Tolliver is convinced that those guys are "strictly big time" and have no interest in something like his operation.  Sadly, he is absolutely correct.

Big Lem only makes a mistake in assuming that Ole Doc is some conman posing as a Soldier of Light, here to get graft or blackmail material or whatever, and demands to see how far he's willing to play this lie.

Ole Doc sighed.  He had seen such men before.  "I suppose I am addressing Lem Tollander."


How are we supposed to take this bad guy seriously if the hero doesn't?  Why should we be interested in this Great Air Monopoly if the good guy is more concerned about finding a doctor?

Tollander assumes Ole Doc is here for that girl slave from earlier, and starts blustering about how foolish he is to make such an attempt after the licking he got.  Ole Doc stuns the whole room into silence by sighing "Oh, do be quiet," which is the first time in years anyone's had the disinterest courage to say such a thing to the guy who has the planet by the throat.  When he's able to talk again, Big Lem starts asking questions, assuming that Ole Doc is a crooked doctor running cons disguised as a Soldier of Light.  Since he has no use for competition, Big Lem makes a simple gesture, the man standing behind Ole Doc levels his blastgun at the doctor's spine, and in a single shot- oh, I'm wrong.

What really happens is that Big Lem invites Ole Doc into his overly-large, stupidly-fancy office.  They chat about what could have led the newcomer here, and Ole Doc is coy about learning medicine "a long time ago" while Big Lem makes assumptions about how he got into crime, some mistake or infraction Ole Doc made back in the day.  He's quite confident his guest is no Soldier of Light - again, they have no reason to get involved here, and more to the point Ole Doc was clearly carrying a "blaster" but had no stethoscope.  But our bad guy could have use for an unethical man with a medical background.  See, there's no physicians on Arphon anymore - "Them that was here up and went away," while Big Lem's medically-minded partner died five years ago from too much booze and wimmen.  

Let's see, Hippocrates' intro claims that "there is roughly one physician to every a hundred and sixty" humans in the galaxy... the city of Minga supposedly has a population of 90,000... so this settlement alone should have had 562.5 doctors in it.  And they all left except for one corrupt drunkard, who finally kicked it half a decade ago.

This is what it takes for this story to work.  Good grief.

Anyway.  Tolliver promises Ole Doc "Thousands and thousands and thousands" could be awaiting a crooked doctor like him.  Arphon's government has collapsed, so Air, Limited is more or less running the place, and collects heavy taxes to maintain its "health machines" (evil laugh).  Ole Doc is open to doing business with our villain, but wants his help to find the being he's looking for first.  Big Lem says that ain't happening yet, so before he signs on, Ole Doc asks "What taxes?  What air?  What are you doing?"

And we have a mere 13 pages left in this story, so it's a good thing our hero is finally trying to figure out what its title means.

Back to Part Two

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