Friday, May 27, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter XIII - Suffer Not the Alien to Live

This chapter opens with a snippet of song, but it's unclear why.  There's no mention of any crewmen singing in the background, or of a radio or anything playing.  Since it's the first thing in the chapter it might be one of them fancy quotations from a fictional source that some authors use as an extra bit of world-building, except Hubbard hasn't bothered with any of that before.  Maybe the ship is haunted or something.

Behold the funny passenger
Afloat in the thinnest air
Missing on all gravities
His coffee in his hair...

Also it seems to suggest that low air pressure is what causes people to float around.  Guess that makes sense, right, like how stuff underwater sinks?

Our first scene is set in the Hound's wardroom, where the ship's officers and whatnot can eat without having to rub shoulders with the rank and file.  Which is not to say that there isn't any rankness - Queen is there griping about how much she looks forward to the ship finally getting cleaned out after its colonist passengers leave, even though she has still declined to make use of the water recycling system that Corday installed several voyages ago to give herself a much-needed scrub.  Meanwhile Corday is treating himself to a packet of cigarettes, and I was going to remark about how stupid filling a closed air system with burnt tobacco smoke and carcinogens would be, except it turns out that the US Navy actually allowed submariners to indulge in this suicidal vice up until 2010.  This doesn't make the idea less stupid, mind you, it just goes to show that the most powerful military force on the planet can still make some shockingly bad decisions.

Oh, and Corday notes that the last time he was in the Solar System, smoking seemed to have been out of style for centuries.  Sure is a good thing they didn't show up with a cargo full of Denebian tobacco or luxury cigars from Aldebaran.

While he's wasting precious oxygen and adding to the filth coating the Hound's insides for the sake of a flavorless cigarette, Corday realizes that he still doesn't have any friends among these galactic vagabonds.  Queen is a grimy old bat with a ribald sense of humor who is overly-familiar with everyone else in the crew, "still part of the ship, part of his country.  And like his country and his ship, she now ignored him."  Swifty is a nice enough fellow, but still distant to Corday even while sitting at a table with Queen, joking about what good sports the women on the last world they visited were.  And since that's everyone sitting in the room with him, that's the extent of Corday's musings.

But there is a rather shocking moment on the next page - a Hubbard character reflects on his flaws.  Corday acknowledges that "he had a lot of things to overcome," like the aloof, abrupt manner of someone born into the tenth class, whatever that is.  Even though there is no such thing as a tenth class these days, Corday is still hesitant to cast that part of his past aside.  "How did a man shed his background?  Could he do so?"

A lot of people somehow manage to reinvent themselves and make a conscious effort to alter their behavior, but Corday is considering more drastic measures, like a visit to the ship's doctor.

Strange, ingratiating to all, even Alan, had said something one night about wiping out experience from the mind.  Strange had claimed that an ancient work he had seen in his youth gave forth a method which would eradicate even loyalty from the mind.  If he could just forget-  But he shuddered at the vision of some of the crew, empty-eyed people on whom Strange had worked.

Isn't is str- isn't it weird how little Dr. Strange has appeared in the story?  Even if this tale was written before Hubbard's distrust towards psychology escalated to a global conspiracy out to turn everybody gay, a mind-scrubbing quack is such an intriguing notion that you'd think such a character would play a bigger part in the plot.  But nope, there's that early chapter where we learn that Corday's tenth class training makes him immune to Strange's tricks, and then the psychologist fades into the background.  Just like all the lobotomized crewmen who don't have any names or screentime.

Hey, you know who else follows orders unerringly and isn't bothered by the horror of the long passage?  Robots.  All the utility of mind-scrubbed humans, but they can work 24-7 and you don't have to feed them.  Just putting that out there.

Anyway, Corday is about to ask Swifty about the crew's opinion of him, but then... huh.  So all through this story, characters on the Hound have been behaving as if there was gravity, right?  They've been walking down halls and climbing steps rather than launching themselves along tubes and drifting to their destination.  It's unclear whether the ship has some sort of artificial gravity system, or if the author simply flunked physics.

Well, something floats in this chapter, Corday's cigarettes.  Or rather, they had been "floating upwards from ungravity," but then they abruptly fall into his empty coffee mug, which Swifty takes to mean that the Hound is "check blasting for a land, what?"  And I just don't know.  It might be that the Hound's gravity systems have a more pronounced effect on smaller objects than humans, except again I can't remember anything else floating in the story.  Maybe the cigarettes are supposed to be levitating from the ship's high speed, and it's only when the Hound slows that they come crashing down, but why are they alone affected by this?  Why isn't Corday lurching as his spine briefly compresses like an accordion?

At any rate, we learn that the twelve-year-old Bill the Eye is flying the spaceship, and that he got in trouble for buzzing a parade last time they were on Earth.  Corday is summoned to the bridge for a navigation check in a message relayed by Snoozer, "big-eyed, clean scrubbed" in contrast to Queen.  She reminds him to not leave his cigarettes behind, and is more or less ignored for her trouble - Corday doesn't respond when she delivers Jocelyn's summons, and doesn't even mumble a "thanks" as he leaves the officer's mess.

So much for our hero trying to shake off his tenth class habits.

Paragraph break, and we're back on Johnny's Landing, now "speckled with farms and cities, laked with artificial dams and netted with something Alan recognized as ancient power lines," and Captain Jocelyn does not like it, no sir.  Corday and Jocelyn are peering out from the Hound's bridge after landing on a commanding hill, and the former notes how the latter's face is "bone-white with hatred."  A moment later Corday finds what Jocelyn is looking at, an army complete with tanks and artillery advancing along the road from a nearby city.  "But they were not men."

Yes, it's a task force of about five hundred aliens polluting a wonderful planet with their inhuman stink, and Jocelyn, "strained white with ferocity," whips into action, ordering Corday to lead a twenty-man force against them.  No, it's not a suicidal order, Corday notices "the antiquity of their weapons" and rounds up some irregulars.  Including their young pilot, who's brought along as a messenger.  Huh.  Not the sort of person I'd want on the front lines for a number of reasons, but I'm sure Corday's surveyor-engineer tenth class training has prepared him for this sort of thing.

Or maybe Corday realized that he needed someone along to jabber some exposition at us before the fight scene, since Bill remembers seeing these creatures from a previous trip to Johnny's Landing - "The Earth colony here used 'em as slaves.  Then they all died off from something."  But a couple thousand years later they must've "sprung out of some place again."

If we're meant to make a connection between the previous colony's disappearance and these little degenerates, the book doesn't exactly spell it out for us.  But I guess that's a possibility, some escaped alien slaves ran off to a distant corner of Johnny's Landing, passing down stories of Terran oppressors, and gradually built up their numbers until they were able to rise up and crush their former masters.  Except now Corday and everyone are here to stop them.

"Old Jocelyn's death on these sentient races," chattered Bill.  "Seen him burn down five hundred thousand Gleeanites oncet [sic].  Burned 'em clean off Majority Capella.  That was before your time.  You got any chewin' gum?"

Yes, in between carrying cargoes of questionable value across the lightyears and eons, the Hound of Heaven dabbles in a bit of genocide.  Excuse me, pest control.  And really, who can blame them?  Aliens are gross.

Watching that crawling snake of an army, Alan shuddered a little. It was a chilly thing. These "people" had no features or eyes that he could see through his glass.

We can only assume they're man-shaped blobs of putty since this is all the description we get of them.  On the other hand, this is a refreshing change from Hubbard's other aliens, which tend to be humans with exaggerated features that can make them into racial caricatures.

Then he shifted to their nearest town and then to a power line. Strange but those things were quite different from anything he had seen in the ancient histories of Earth.

Different in ways we can only imagine, since the author can't be bothered to explain the difference between a 20th Century Earth power line and a Whateverth Millennium alien power line.  Also, despite how alien these constructions allegedly look, Corday was able to scope out an approaching army and identify things as tanks and artillery without any trouble.

With sudden amazement he shifted back to the oncoming army.  The things could evolve a society that included finite physics.

So... physics then?  What in Xenu's sinister mustache are you talking about, Hubbard?  Has Corday cracked infinite physics in his free time?

And then a slight chill hit him.  If they could get this far, they could some day throw ships into the long passage.  And that army showed that they had no slightest use for man.

Except just the very last chapter the author explained how interstellar war was unfeasible, since any army sent against a world would be centuries if not thousands of years out of date in comparison to its defenders.  Except in this chapter we have human invaders from another planet with more advanced weapons than those of the society they're attacking, who have had thousands of years to develop since their last visit.  So who the hell knows.

Ugh, let's fight already.  The enemy's already within the two mile range of Corday's company's "enfilade hand fire," I have no idea either, but he waits until the tanks pass a boulder just over a mile away before springing the ambush.  Corday gives the signal, which is to say he dramatically chops his hand instead of giving the order over the radio, and then "The defile crackled, the air ionized, the daylight went dim." The incoming mass of aliens more or less turns to fire and smoke.  GG, 2 EZ.

Unfortunately, these guys don't have any tricorders or anything to warn them of sudden surprises, nor do they have a drone overhead to mark enemy positions on the minimap, and Swifty isn't flying his plane around or anything.  So three alien tanks are able to suddenly surge out of the smoke a mere hundred yards right in front of them.  As the "spacemen" adjust the range of their ray guns, the landed Hound provides some covering fire from its forward battery that turns "the air overhead into green tatters," but... wait, why not fight from the comfort of the Hound?

Then- oh, is that why?  'cause despite this volley from the ship's guns, the tank menacing Corday is unaffected, and lowers its "muzzles" to blast the guy.  Except then Bill grabs Corday's sidearm and blasts the tank with it, creating "an explosive boil of molten metal and fragments of a blazing thing" which he then shoots again just to be sure, the scamp.

So, not quite a flawless victory.  Corday screwed up by not focusing on the enemy armor and forgetting that it could charge at him under the cover of the smoke from his weapons, a mistake which earns him a bandage and got another guy killed, but he didn't even have a name so who cares.  Corday himself would have died were it not for young Bill the Eye, and now we know why this ship uses underage messengers instead of friggin' walkie-talkies.  Jocelyn is sure to give him an earful after this bungled job.

At last Jocelyn came up on the bridge.  Alan stiffened.  After the first glance Jocelyn walked away and went into his cabin.

Or not.  I bet not getting bitched at by Captain Jocelyn is somehow worse than getting bitched at by him.

On the bright side, Regiment Hauber and his company have a lot of ready-made buildings to occupy once Swifty makes a "quick flight with virus over the towns of these hideous things."  Because as we all know, the best colonies are those built on the bones of their previous inhabitants.  God bless America.

I guess the Hound of Heaven always devotes some cargo space to jars of "virus" just in case of this sort of situation.  And it's some pretty potent "virus" that's able to work against any species encountered on any planet.  But not such potent "virus" that it renders the planet unsuitable for human habitation.

Back to Chapter XII

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