Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter XIV - New No Chicago

Now that the filthy subhuman species that infest the galaxy have been dealt another blow, we join the Hound of Heaven as it completes what's called the "Big Bear Circuit," a shipping route through the Ursa Major - excuse me, Ursus Major constellation.  The path runs from Johnny's Landing, Wherever to "Paradise, Alcor, from Paradise Alcor to Sweeney Merak to Coppaccine Dubhe and Coppaccine Dubhe to Earth, or as the pilot had it, to Earth Sun."  It was an exhausting trip made the more difficult by mechanical failures, inadequate fuel and supplies at the places they visited, and a surprise dearth of spare parts on Dubhe.  So all said it's been about a ship year since their last visit to Earth.

I'd just like to point out that Alpha Ursae Majoris, also known as Dubhe, is roughly 123 lightyears away from Earth, and that Hubbard insists that the Hound is cruising along at just short of lightspeed.

But let's not let boring ol' science get in the way of a science fiction story.  The Hound enters Earth's outer atmosphere and just floats for a bit while Swifty does reconnaissance in his plane.  No, some traffic control officer in Halloland doesn't start yelling at them over the radio for getting in the way of lunar-bound freighters.  No, they aren't being bombarded by television broadcasts as they approach humanity's birthplace.  No, the ship's computer doesn't link up with the planetary internet to get updated on what's going on.  This is the norm for Hubbard's idea of space travel, but in this case when Swifty returns he reports that it looks like Earth went through a war a few hundred years back.  So if this story did acknowledge that long-distance communication was a thing, this is the sort of situation where there wouldn't be any, even if the characters in it can't remark on how strangely quiet this planet is because of the author's failures of imagination.

Obviously, the thing to do when it looks like some disaster has befallen your travel destination is to go ahead and land.  The Hound descends towards what was once Chicago, then New Chicago, and eventually became Candia, but instead of a bustling spaceport they find nothing but cattle grazing on an open plain.  So Jocelyn has them relocate west, and in two hours the Hound puts down in what was once Colorado, but is now "a sprawling, irregular city some hundreds of miles in extent."

A city so big, in fact, that we might wonder why it wasn't spotted from orbit, and why Swifty's recon flight overlooked the fact that there was no spaceport in their usual landing spot, but there was an enormous population center just a few states over.

The Hound descends butt-first into "a strange sort of port" next to another parked spaceship, a landing that uses the last of its "take-off fuel," and man are they gonna be embarrassed if it turns out there isn't a place to fill the tank up in this city.  But the first challenge will be finding another human being in this spaceport, which is both strangely fortified, with barred metal gates, and seemingly deserted.  Spooky.

Captain Jocelyn... well, our stern, rabidly xenophobic captain has taken a bit of a turn since we last saw him.  See, they landed on a world that was "deceptively inviting but poisonous with beryllium oxide," which must have gotten through a loose valve in Jocelyn's space helmet or something.  I guess that space suit had a high heat tolerance, since Wikipedia says beryllium oxide is a colorless solid with a boiling point of over seven thousand degrees Fahrenheit.  Regardless of how he managed to get poisoned, the captain has picked up a cough and looks tired, and scuttlebutt on the ship is that Strange warned that Jocelyn's illness might be terminal.  What a shame.

Anyway, the captain tells Corday to check out the ship they just parked next to and see if they know what's going on, but when Corday hails the vessel - not over the radio, but by walking up her gangway and yelling "Hello the officer!" into its open door - there's no response.  The First Fairaway out of Mars is not only empty, someone's completely stripped its interior so it's just a spaceship-shaped shell sitting on the landing pad.

So the spaceport is strangely deserted, its gates are locked, and there's an empty spaceship sitting conspicuously on the tarmac like a wooden duck in a pond.  But if the characters think this might be a trap, we're not told.  And what are their options, anyway?  They were dumb enough to use up the last of their fuel by committing to a gravity well, and then relocating hundreds of miles from the open field they initially landed in to a proper spaceport.

No, the only thing to do in this situation is to have Hale suit up, take a team to those gates, and "If they are locked, make no overt move but call any human you may see and demand freedom of the port."  Jocelyn gives the order, Hale gives a cheerful farewell to Corday, and the away team of sixteen men marches across the "wide plain of the port" to those locked gates as the Hound's remaining crew watches from the viewports.

Unfortunately, everyone must have put on their red uniforms that day because when they reach those gates, "With a suddenness which meant long planning and great practice," the ground beneath the away team explodes and "long tongues of brilliant orange" blast through the gate.  Hale nevertheless tries to rally three other survivors to attack, but after another valley he gets a dramatic, paragraph-long death where he's able to turn and stagger towards the Hound despite being "torn almost in half," and raises his arm before one final blast fells him.

Hey, who was Hale again?  Swifty's the recon pilot, Bill the Eye is the kid pilot, Gow-eater was Corday's minder for a bit, and Hale... oh, he was like another officer, wasn't he?  He tutored Corday in space stuff way back in Chapter V.  Okay, now I can feel appropriately shocked and saddened by this character's death.

Corday at least is pissed, and in a murderous rage nearly kills... the Hound's gunner, for sitting and watching the ambush happen, though Corday quickly concedes that as close as Hale's party was, there was no way to safely provide fire support.  But the upside of having that landing party be wiped out is that there's no friendly targets to worry about now, so Jocelyn, "icily emotionless," gives the order to load smoke.  Or rather, he tells Snoozer to pass on the order to load smoke.  Because this ship doesn't even have those high-tech yelling tubes we saw back in "Space Can."

So we get about a page of Jocelyn yelling orders, Snoozer repeating those orders, and descriptions of what those orders accomplished.  First the Hound saturates the ten square miles around the spaceport gates with a thick cloud of smoke, then Jocelyn has the gunner fire on the "memory plate" image of where the gate was in all the murk.  As opposed to, say, telling the gun's targeting systems to revert to an earlier, stationary target.  Then the Hound shoots some "G19" charges that, "at least in other days, had foiled detectors which might search for the Hound."  So unless these attackers have had their guns aimed at the stationary spaceship for the past ten minutes, there's no way for them to target the vessel.  For an encore, the Hound farts out some "regurgitant gas to cling to the particles of smoke," in order to... I don't know, make the bad guys throw up?

Corday has already grabbed his helmet and gun before Jocelyn gives the order for "Battle party stand by the starboard ground lock in full space kit," but then the captain surprises him by suiting up to lead it himself.  Corday has been in other battles, after all, and as the ship's remaining mate he should be the one leading the next scratch force.  But instead Jocelyn leaves him in command of the Hound during his absence, since Corday is now "sufficiently informed of these thing to sell her not inexpensively should I fall."

He took to coughing and the eyes of Mistress Luck were round with concern.  He cleared his throat and then continued.  "You are young and impulsive and have many faults to overcome.  Let no quixotic stupidity lead you to risk this vessel and the women, children and crew which remain within her unless you have clear and unavoidable cause.  I will be back, I am sure.  Remember that," he added hastily.

So Corday gets to sit and fume about how meaningless it is to be in charge of a grounded spaceship when all the superior officers are either dead or absent, and how obviously Joceyln doesn't trust him after that incident at Johnny's Landing even though Corday has since redeemed himself over several other exciting adventures the author didn't see fit to put to page.  Meanwhile the landing party gets out some vague "equipment" that will help sneak around and attack their foes from the rear and take hostages they can use to bargain for freedom and supplies.  "Long-passage practice, time worn and usually successful."

And man, this book is almost over and there still isn't anything in it to explain why going through the long passage is worth it.  You throw your life away for a voyage between stars, all in the gamble that you'll be able to sell whatever you find out there to whatever you find when you return home, assuming you don't have to wage war on whatever alien race has popped up while you were gone, or are forced to struggle along because one of your stops didn't have any supplies for you.  And now here's the revelation that the Hound has been forced to fight people on some of the worlds it visits, to take hostages just to get enough supplies to take off again and go to another planet, where you might have to repeat the process.

Science fiction is supposed to make you look forward to the future, right?  To make you want to go out and explore other worlds?  But instead this book makes me want to groan and tell NASA "don't even bother."

Anyway, Corday's in charge, and he decides to be a jerkass in Jocelyn's absence by telling Irma the "bridge talker" to stay at her post when she asks if she can run down and tell Joe goodbye before he leaves the ship.  Then he has Snoozer pass on an order for Swifty to do a head count of everyone still onboard - turns out that with the second away team gone, and the first one killed, the Hound of Heaven is "down to five old men, forty engineers and technicians, sixty-eight women" who of course cannot be among the aforementioned specialists on account of their gender, "thirty-one kids and thee and me."  Swifty jokes about how one of the crew said "Glug, glug" around a mouthful of milk when asked what his emergency station was, Corday ignores it and has all hands put on "full battle kit, gamma-proof spacesuits."  Presumably they make wargear in kids' sizes in the future.

Swifty points out that, since they're stupid and now sitting on an open field in an unfueled spaceship, they're not going to last very long if the bad guys are serious about killing them.  But Corday snaps that the bad guys want them intact so they can be salvaged like the other ship.

So, you know what's dumber than throwing your life away to join the long passage?  Setting up an elaborate trap in the hope that one of those ships from the long passage will land on your world in your lifetime, so you can ambush its crew and steal all the obsolete crap aboard a millennia-old spaceship.

Also, Corday is concerned that if the enemy has any "telepathy machines" they may be able to target them, smoke or no smoke.  This is the only time such devices are mentioned in the story, and of course the author fails to elaborate on them.  Just a bit of randomness that means we're in a setting where ships can't break the lightspeed barrier, but humanity has somehow constructed a device that grants its user extrasensory perception.

Normally I'd be all over this, except I'm distracted with what happens next: Corday isn't feeling very secure and wants to know how Joeclyn's task force is doing, so he sends someone outside the ship to listen.  And he tells Swifty to give this guy a phone.  There are ways to communicate other than via teenage courier.  It might even be possible, assuming this "phone" isn't on an extension cord, to send messages great distances, even between spaceships in orbit and speakers on the ground.

So why are we using this phone to communicate with a lookout listening for Jocelyn's progress instead of using a phone to stay in contact with Jocelyn directly?  Do those space helmets have no way of conversing with others?  Do these space men communicate with hand signals while they're walking around on the hull of the ship, attempting repairs?

I mean, this book was published in 1954!  They had radios back then!  Commercial air travel!  Television!  So why doesn't this story?!

Sigh.  Swifty's upset about the sentry thing, but not for the same reason I am.

"Won't that spot us, old boy?"

"That happens to be the least of our worries," said Alan.  "Post the man."

Aww, lookit him, trying so hard to be as big a prick as his cappie.

"If you say so," shrugged Swifty and went off on the errand.

Alan worriedly twisted at his scarf, realized what he was doing and hurriedly stopped.  Waiting was hard.

Not as hard as reading about someone waiting.

Back to Chapter XIII

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