Thursday, June 2, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter XV - Landing Fee Negotiations

When waiting anxiously for very important news, one good way to waste time is to, well, waste time.  Even though last chapter clearly explained how the Hound of Heaven wasted the last of its "take-off fuel" by landing in a pasture and then a hostile spaceport, Acting-Captain Corday nevertheless feels the need to check "on the possibility of take-off," only to confirm that yes, the tanks are still empty.

Well, I should say some of the tanks are empty.  The Hound actually has two means of propulsion, a "high drive" or "particle drive" used to make the trip between stars, and "non-radiant fuel" used for atmospheric maneuvers.  The Hound's crew was smart enough to make sure a good stockpile of the former fuel in stock in the event that "Earth would no longer be able to furnish fuels for herself and sister planets," but not quite smart enough to do the same for their supply of the latter.  And no, they can't use the interstellar drive to take off from the ground.

To take off on high was unthinkable.  Touching off their main power this close to Earth would, with zero initial velocity, simply blow them to pieces, to say nothing of cutting the Earth crust to a depth of forty miles or more and drowning the tiny fragments of ship and man in lava.

Uh huh.  And the engines that could carve a forty-mile-deep scar in solid rock don't tear apart the comparatively dinky spaceship they're pushing forward?  Oh, that's right, once the Hound is going fast enough it's safe.  Objection withdrawn.

Since seeing if the empty tanks haven't magically refilled themselves hasn't accomplished anything, Corday moves on to bugging his lookout for reports, presumably over that "phone" deployed last chapter, though the author doesn't explicitly say this or specify whether the phone has a land line or wireless receiver.  For all we know Corday forgot he even had it and sent out a runner.  The lookout reports several minutes of occasional weapons fire in the town, though of course there's no way of knowing what happened to Jocelyn's party because they don't have a phone.

It made Alan fume to be standing here, idle, trapped, and to think of his fellow shipmen out there waging war with high odds.  If Jocelyn lost-

I thought I remembered an earlier chapter going into detail about the folly of trying to wage war on another planet.  Even aside from the fact that it's a single "battle party" of however many men trying to fight off an entire city, isn't the expectation that the defenders will have more advanced technology than the attackers, and thus an even greater advantage?  

The ship knew much of what would happen and might be able to guess the rest.  If this city merely took the survivors prisoner, the people of the Hound were still lost for their ship would be lost and they, all of them, were millenniums out of phase.

Sweet Space Christ, stop being so melodramatic.  Yes, you have been forever severed from your homeland and dropped into a strange culture you know nothing of.  You don't speak the language, you don't know the customs, you don't know the history, you don't fit in.  Very sad.  Which puts you in the same boat as nearly every other immigrant in history.  The fact that you arrived via spaceship doesn't make you special and doesn't make this an insurmountable obstacle.

Plus, aren't you filthy rich from all the crap you sell as you travel from world to world?  Compared to all those folks fleeing ISIS, you've got it pretty good.  So quit your bitching.

Anyway.  Corday gets tired of harassing his lookout and sends a messenger, a "boy" messenger, out into a hostile city in the direction Jocelyn's party went, or specifically the cloud of smoke still hanging over the starport.  The kid has to find his way back with the help of a string he unspooled behind him, and returns with a wounded crewman, whose spacesuit has been compromised by some "scorching missile" so he's choking on the smoke and RG the Hound farted everywhere.

Corday visits the nameless crewman in the sickbay to get his report, and demands that Dr. Strange "Get a motor on him and pump out his lungs!"  Strange would rather treat him with "nerve drain," but Corday needs the patient responsive.  There's the "It might kill him" exchange where Corday has to show what a coldly logical commander he is by declaring that the information they get out of this guy might save the ship, and is therefore worth endangering his life.

So after Strange uses the tubes and gives the patient an "awakening shot," the wounded sailor can gasp "Lost--the party into--town.  I--was one of them.  Skipped pinned down--thousand men--no uniforms--got funny weapons--"  It's so helpful that Corday has the guy put back to sleep almost immediately.

Having confirmed what we already surmised, Corday paces for a bit, but then comes up with a cunning plan.  Well, we can assume that - dramatic tension demands that we not know what Corday's plan is just yet, we just get to see him "Suddenly" march into the engineering compartment and tell the Deuce to gather his tools and get his men in full kit, they've got work to do.  Then Corday has Snoozer pass word to have everyone (save Strange and his patient) get suited up and outside.  I'm pretty sure Corday gave the order to have everyone put on their masks and suits last chapter, but maybe he's just being sure.

Corday has the engineers detach one of the Hound's "hive drive" engines and its "load," and get the equipment stowed for a little trip.  This isn't as bad as it sounds, these drives are small enough to be carried on ropes by a group of men, and they've gotten so used to swapping them out mid-flight that they can get it out of the ship in seven minutes...  Wait, these things are so powerful that they can blast chasms in a planet's crust but they're that small?   Huh.  Just goes to show it's not the size that counts.

Anyway, Corday gets his plan in motion.  Bill the Eye stays behind at the Hound in case anyone from Jocelyn's party makes it back and needs to know where everyone's gone.  The rest of the crew march off toward a hill Corday could spot using his engineer-surveyor tenth class training.  It's an uneventful journey, where the only things that happen worth mentioning are Corday having men burn a hole in the fence surrounding the starport and the crewmen stepping on some people, "unmasked men in agonies of vomiting in the street, a sight which greatly cheered them all."  Of course these stricken humans are some of the Bad Guys who attacked the Hound, and certainly not unintended casualties from using chemical warfare in a sprawling urban environment.

The hike up the hill makes carrying that engine a bit inconvenient, but they manage it and reach a particularly luxurious home with a commanding view of the hillside, and even "a private railway."  Swifty lobs a grenade through the door, and the Hound's crew forces their way inside, where they find two people, presumably servants, writhing in agony on the porch, and it's unclear whether they're being affected by Swifty's (gas?) grenade or the smoke still blanketing the area.  Corday orders a spare mask to be put on the man, but "He gave no second thought for the woman," hero that he is.  He tries to question the manservant, but the guy is panicking too much to be responsive, and giving him a shot of "catalyst" just puts him to sleep.  Strange that they'd name a tranquilizer a "catalyst," but maybe it makes sense in the future.

As for that engine they hauled up the hill, Corday and the engineers dig a trench in the mansion's yard and set the thruster up so its angled up and over the city sprawling to the west of them, and rig it with "a throttle and an igniter" so it's ready to fire.  Maybe you can guess what Corday's plan is now?  The non-engineers who helped carry the engine are glad to be rid of it, since "They were suspicious of its radioactiveness and none too confident of the ability of their spacesuits to prevent burns."  Not radiation poisoning, just burns.  We're also randomly told that everyone gets shots of some strange serum of Dr. Strange's that's supposed to protect against gamma rays.  Presumably it's a liquid form of Rad-X.

And now it's time to have a talk with the enemy.  After searching for a bit, Corday eventually realizes that the "wall screen" he passed a few times is the house's communications device, and also uncovers "an index book of the city" which we can't very well call a phonebook, can we?  He and the reader learns that they're currently in the town of St. Denniston, the capital city of the Third Estate, ruled by someone named Consoundalin.  The "main exchange" is still listed as Denver, though.  Odd how some names make it through the millennia while others like Chicago pass by the wayside, huh?

After verifying these discoveries by checking "a basket full of tape, which proved to be a newspaper," Corday has everyone but the Deuce and Snoozer go up and over to the far side of the hill from the engine they've set up, while Corday and his two... buddies?  He's been all but ignoring Snoozer in most chapters, and if the Deuce has a name we're never told it.  Let's call them subordinates.  Corday and his two subordinates set off for another quarter mile, unspooling "throttle wire" down the hill behind them until they reach another residence.

Once again, there's no resistance as they let themselves in, all the servants are too sick to do anything, and we can only wonder where their masters have run off to.  The place isn't as big as the mansion they installed the engine behind, but it has one of those big video walls, which Corday figures out how to activate by sitting down in a nearby seat.

A girl glowed into three-dimensional being on the screen, a pretty girl, white, without much on.

Oh thank God!  Just imagine coming home after hundreds or thousands of years among the stars to find that colored people had taken over society.

"Give me Command 1," said Alan.

She frowned, trying to understand what he meant, and then asked for a repeat.

"Huh!" said the Deuce.  "If that's the language now, I'm glad I'm on the long passage!"

No, we're not told what's so disagreeable about the girl's still-comprehensible words.  After resorting to holding up a page from the not-phonebook and pointing at the number he wants, Corday gets a holding screen, then is transferred to some military aide in an office obviously beyond the Hound's smokescreen/chemical warfare attack.  We're not told any details about the guy's uniform, what parts of it Corday recognizes as echoes of the distant past and what parts he find ridiculous, just that he knows that he's dealing with a military aide.

Said aide is obviously unimpressed with Corday's call, and has to call in another guy in a naval uniform - again, Corday can tell - to translate the lingua spacia being used.  But Corday is able to introduce himself as the leader of the Hound of Heaven, a ship from the long passage.

The aide tensed and then relaxed with a smile. "Didn't know you had a phone, you know.

Is there a good onomatopoeia for a drawn-out, long-suffering sigh?

Interesting hook-in, isn't it?  Understand you're in a trifle of a jam.  Might tell me what your cargo is.  The old man is interested in cargoes since the embargo."

I'm just too tired to fight back at this point.  Sure, somebody put an embargo on Earth, and of course they didn't do anything to let oncoming freighters know about it, much less spare any manpower to try to enforce it. Makes as much sense as anything else in this story.

"I don't think you'll particularly care about our cargo," said Alan. "The way you are trying to buy it, it will come too high."

No, we're never told what the Hound's cargo is, what baubles they picked up that they thought people on a world 123 lightyears away might be willing to pay big bucks for.  Sure would be sad if all this death and conflict was over a few crates of Dubhean steak sauce. 

"You mean the fellows at the port," said the aide.  "I suppose you've been gone two or three years and won't realize that it's criminal to land.  Forfeit all your cargo to land.  You're calling to surrender, of course."

"I'm calling to give you five minutes to call off your pups," said Alan.


"For if you don't, you aren't going to have a town." 

The naval officer is unimpressed by what must surely be a bluff, and despite Corday's insistence that he doesn't want to kill off thousands of citizens just by proving he's serious ("I assure you," said the naval aide, "that the relief of such a number of populace would be a godsend."), the officer's repeated calls for surrender exhausts Corday's patience and he retracts a two-minute countdown.  Then our hero takes the switch connected to a quarter mile of cable, braces himself against a wall in the home's basement, and fires the starship engine.

The result is a cataclysm so devastating, so spectacular, that all the author has to say about it is "The ground rumbled."

When Corday and co. venture back up from the basement, one of the house's walls has collapsed, but the wall screen still works.  The operator lady is shaking when Corday rings her up, and collapses across her "board" after she puts the wire in the "plug" to connect him to the military channel.  Of course.

The military guy's room is now in disarray, with dust in the air and all the pictures fallen off the walls, and someone in a golden robe - of course - rushes in shouting before the naval officer can start talking.  

"If that is Consoundalin," said Alan in lingua spacia, "tell him he's a hostage."  He held up the switch, close to the screen so that the aide could see it, so that Consoundalin could see it.  "When I press this again, another blast begins.  I don't know what you know of this but it's high drive.  Another blast to another quarter of town will double your casualties.  Do you surrender?"

They do, even if golden robes turns purple with outrage before collapsing in defeat.  The bad guys cease hostilities and are to meet Corday's people at the gates of the spaceport in five minutes.  With that appointment in mind, Corday sends Snoozer off to recall the party - no phone for them, of course - while Corday himself grabs some "sporting weapon" off the wall as he hurries toward the rendezvous.

So that's the landing dispute sorted out, and all Corday had to do was turn a ship's propulsion engine into an engine of unimaginable destruction and threaten an entire city and thousands of innocent civilians.  And remember, this sort of spaceport hostility isn't uncommon, and Jocelyn and company have had to do similar things before, taking hostages and attacking people until they got what they needed to take off again.  But it's all worth it, so they can continue to fly around the stars... hating their meaningless existence... struggling to make money off their cargoes and find the parts they need to keep going...

Huh, wonder what happened to those two servants in the house right next to the engine whose apocalyptic firing was able to do untold damage and inflicted undisclosed casualties upon the town below?

Back to Chapter XIV 

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