Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Voyage of the Space Beagle, Part 3: Discord in Scarlet

On its intergalactic voyage of discovery, the Space Beagle has already encountered strange and dangerous life-forms. On a remote world on the fringes of our galaxy, it met the Coeurl, a highly-intelligent cat-like beast capable of manipulating electromagnetic energy and extremely hungry. Passing through a smaller star cluster, it made contact with the Riim, whose telepathic messages of friendship drove the crew mad.

Now the Beagle is crossing the deep void of intergalactic space.

What are the odds they meet something dangerous out here?

In the beginning was Ixtl.

All right. This is something of an exaggeration. But for all practical purposes, Ixtl has been out here, drifting through intergalactic space since forever, or at least since the cosmic cataclysm which destroyed his world. Practically immortal, nearly indestructible, he gets meager sustenance from the starlight of the distant galaxies and dreams of someday reaching one of them. But the chances of that are infintessimal. Almost as small as the odds of encountering a spaceship in the intergalactic void.

What are the odds?

The Space Beagle has stopped for repairs. In the middle of intergalactic space, their main drivers blew out for no apparent reason rupturing a large hole in their hull. It is as they are completing the repairs that one of the crewmen spots a creature, floating in space, just beyond the barrier of their ship's defensive force field.

"How in the name of all the hells can anything live in intergalactic space?" someone asks. Director Morton has another question:  "...Will you please give us the ratio of chance that blew out the drivers of the Beagle at the exact point in space where that thing was floating? Take a few hours to work it out."

"I don't have to do any figuring," their chief astronomer replies. "One would need a new system of notation to express the chance arithmetically. What you've got out there can't happen, mathematically speaking. ... It's impossible, unless space is saturated with such creatures."

It's a hideous thing, with bright red skin, four arms and four legs. "A regular blood-red devil spewed out of a nightmare, ugly as sin..." Morton comments. He asks Korita to speculate on what the creature's psychology might be, based on the cyclical theory of history, but the archaeologist has no data on which to build a guess. The best he can do is suggest caution.

Morton decides to cage the creature for study, but not to bring him into the ship just yet.

Elliot Grosvenor has been observing all this. He suspects that the creature was somehow responsible for their engines cutting out the way they did, but can't guess how. He also suspects that the creature is more dangerous than they know, but off-hand he cannot think of any precautions other than the ones they are already taking, so he keeps his counsel.

Von Grossen, a physicist, recommends keeping the creature out of the ship until it has been thoroughly studied; at least a week, in his opinion, maybe a month. Morton doesn't like the idea of stopping for that long, but says he will consider the recommendation.

Ixtl allows himself to be caged and brought to the ship. In doing so, the men of the ship are bringing him within the ship's force field. But when Ixtl sees them setting up cameras and scanning equipment, he realizes that this might give the humans too much information about himself, and most importantly about the precious items concealed in his body.

Ixtl alters the atomic structure of his body so that his hand can pass through the bars of the cage. At a point where the men were distracted, he reaches through the cage, snags a vibrator pistol from someone's holster, fires it at the lab equipment, and then drops it, all in a movement so swift that no one realizes he's done it.

At first the men are willing to blame the discharge of the vibrator as an unlucky accident. "The vibrator must have fallen out of my belt," the gun's owner apologizes. Grosvenor points out how unlikely this is in zero-G.

Smith, the biologist, happened to be caught in the vibrator's ray, and saw something of what happened. "I can't swear to this, but just before that vibrator shocked me, the creature moved. I have an idea he jumped to the ceiling. I admit it was too black to see more than a blur but..."

Whatever the cause, the lab equipment has been fried, and Morton is starting to grow impatient. Von Grossen suggests covering the outside of the cage with metal that can be energized, effectively surrounding the cage with a force field. But as they discuss this possibility, they notice something peculiar.

Ixtl has forgotten to shift his atomic structure back to normal. Without realizing it, he has passed through the bottom of his cage and come to rest against the denser metal of the spaceship hull.
As soon as he realizes his mistake -- and that the humans have spotted it -- Ixtl bolts for the ship's airlock and phasing through the inner doors, enters the ship. Once again, an unknown creature is at large aboard the Beagle.

Director Morton and Captain Leeth assemble the crew on the bridge. The ship's bridge is a multi-level affair with an auditorium on the lowest level; still, cramming nearly a thousand men in it is a tight squeeze.

"Gentlemen," Captain Leeth says, "these problems keep arising, do they not? I am beginning to feel that we military men have not properly appreciated scientists in the past. I thought they lived out their lives in laboratories, far from danger. But it's beginning to dawn on me that scientists can find trouble where it never existed before."

He turns the floor over to Director Morton, who starts off by emphasizing that no one could have anticipated what had happened and that all reasonable precautions had been taken. Grosvenor realizes that that Morton is trying to deflect any possible blame from himself; "a sad commentary on the ship's politics that he should have felt it necessary."

Various department heads give their analyses of what happened. Siedel, the psychologist, emphasizes the mistake the creature made in letting them know it could dematerialize through its cage. Smith, the biologist, observes that its legs and arms prove that it evolved on a planet; but that it's ability to survive in deep space suggest that its race has "solved the final secrets of biology." Kellie, the sociologist, takes that thought a bit further.
"Ah -- any being who could fit himself to live in a vacuum would be lord of the universe. His kind would dwell on every planet, clutter up every galaxy. Swarms of him would be floating in space. Yet we know for a fact that his race does not infest our galactic area. A paradox that is worthy of investigation."
Korita, the archaeologist, is once again called upon to speculate on what insight the cyclical theory of history might give into the creature's mindset. He apologetically admits that he can add little to the discussion at the moment, but does give us a general outline of the cyclical theory, the only description of the complete cycle the book gives us.
"You know the prevailing theory: that life proceeds upward -- whatever we mean by upward -- by a series of cycles. Each cycle begins with the peasant, who is rooted to his bit of soil. The peasant comes to market; and slowly the market place transforms into a town, with ever less 'inward' connection to the earth. Then we have cities and nations, finally the soulless world cities and a devastating struggle for power, a series of frightful wars which sweep men to fellahdom, and so to primitiveness, and on to a new peasanthood."
The theory seems a bit simplistic to me, and previously Grosvenor has expressed his own doubts about it; on the other hand, Korita is giving only a simplified overview of it to the others. But where in the cycle of history does this deep-space nightmare come from? Korita guesses either the late megalopolitan stage or the early peasant stage, leaning towards the latter because of the creature's apparent carelessness. If the creature is a "peasant", then, "his basic impulses would be much simpler. There would fist of all be the desire to reproduce, to have a son, to know that his blood was being carried on. Assuming great fundamental intelligence, this impulse might, in a superior being, take the form of a fanatic drive toward race survival."

Grosvenor is also called upon to offer his opinion, but before he has a chance to outline a plan to kill the beast, a report comes to the bridge. The Captain has ordered the walls around the ship's sleeping quarters be "energized", that is, they've had force fields run through the walls. The chief engineer, Pennons, announces that something has been caught in the walls of force.

It's true; Ixtl has blundered into one of the energized walls. He is able to escape from it and quickly realizes that the crew will be coming to investigate. This is good. He wanted to capture one anyway to see if these men were suitable as guuls. Ixtl has need of guuls.

Hiding in one of the unenergized walls he waits for a group of crewmen to run past and grabs the last one. He dematerializes his hand to probe the man's torso. In his haste, he partially materializes and inadvertently damages the man's heart, killing him; but before the man's companions come back, Ixtl finds some nice open areas in the man's stomach and lower digestive tract. Yes, these men will make fine guuls. As the men open fire on him, Ixtl again retreats into the walls.

Morton and several other scientists go to examine the dead crewman. "We're wasting time," says van Grossen, the physicist. "We can beat this fellow, but not by talking about him and feeling sick every time he makes a move."

Morton asks the chief engineer if it would be possible to energize the entire ship. Uncontrolled energization would kill every living thing on the ship, Pennon tells him, and melt the walls besides. And laying down the metal sheathing required for controlled energization would take time. As they discuss things, Ixtl appears again, right in the middle of the group.

Ixtl wants to seize a live crewman for his own purposes; but this attack is also a psychological one, to demoralize his adversaries. A tense moment follows as both sides wait for the other to make a move.
Then von Grossen does something unexpected. He has drawn something on a sheet of paper and hands it to the Ixtl. The creature snarls as it recognizes what von Grossen has drawn. "I've just shown him how we can defeat him," van Gossen says; but before he can explain further, Ixtl grabs him and phases through the wall.

Arriving late on the scene, Grosvenor has an idea what von Grossen might have drawn. "The only way one could gain the attention of an alien would be to show him a universally recognized symbol. Since von Grossen is a physicist, the symbol he would have used suggests itself.... I'll wager von Grossen drew for the creature a structural representation of the eccentric atom of the metal that makes up the outer shell of the Beagle." The creature was unable to pass through the outer hull, and that gives the men an advantage.

Once again, a meeting is convened to decide upon a course of action; and if I'm dwelling a bit much on these endless wranglings, it's because the core of the novel really isn't the Scary Space Monsters; it's the shipboard politics. A passage later on puts it this way:
It seemed to Grosvenor that he was learning slowly but surely how to influence men. It was not enough to have information and knowledge, not enough to be right. Men had to be persuaded and convince Sometimes that might take more time than could safely be spared. Sometimes it couldn't be done at all. And so civilizations crumbled, battles were lost, and ships destroyed because the man or group with the saving ideas would not go through the long-drawn-out ritual of convincing others. 
If he could help it, that was not going to happen here.
Grosvenor has earned Morton's respect in the previous alien encounters, and the Director is willing to listen to him. But this time, Grosvenor's plan is radical and shocking. He proposes that they use atomic projectors, devices capable of generating tremendous beams of energy, capable of disintegrating the walls and not intended for use inside the ship. What's more he recommends that the entire crew be divided up so that each projector has a team of military men to operate it and an accompanying group of scientist... as bait. Morton is not happy with this plan, nor with Captain Leeth's recommendation that the scientists be unarmed. He leans more towards an alternate plan of trying to trap the creature between energized floors; but Grosvenor points out that they have no real evidence that this will form an insurmountable barrier for the creature.

After some discussion, the Captain reluctantly withdraws his suggestion. It's too much to ask men to risk their lives without some chance of defending themselves. The entire crew votes, and a plurality votes for Grosvenor's plan; but the vast majority of the crew members abstain from the voting. "I don't know whether I'm for it or against it," one says; "I don't know enough."

Although van Vogt does not spell it out, this is another criticism of Democracy. "It is expected that grown men know their own minds. The whole idea of democracy is based on that supposition," Captain Leeth says. But there are situations where individuals cannot vote for their best interests because they don't have enough information to make an informed decision. Could Nexialism be a solution to this problem? Perhaps, but van Vogt does not get into that here; the crew has a monster to kill.

Ixtl observes the activities with the men with interest. He soon learns that the atomic projectors are much more dangerous to him than the hand-held vibrators he encountered before. But that just means he needs to be more cautious as he selects victims to grab for use a guuls. He tries to choose the ones with the largest stomachs, because he needs them to incubate his eggs.

A scary monster running around in a spaceship, capturing the crew and planting eggs in them. Does that sound familiar? Van Vogt thought so when the movie Alien came out, and he sued 20th Century Fox over it. Did the studio really plagiarize him, or were the similarities between the Xenomorph and Ixtl merely coincidental? Fox settled out of court, so we'll probably never know for sure.

Ixtl appears in the midst of one of the projector crews. One of the scientists accompanying the crew panics and fires his weapon -- precisely the worst-case scenario Captain Leeth feared. The projector crew hold their fire, because the technician hasn't taken cover the way he was supposed to; they get hit by the beam of the guy's weapon and collapse, knocking over the atomic projector in the process. The projector accidentally discharges, killing three men and exposing the rest to severe and possibly fatal doses of radiation, among them, Director Morton.

Without the amendments and compromises Morton added to Grosvenor's plan, it might have worked. Then again, without them, it would never have been accepted in the first place. Was Morton's skill at administration and compromise a strength or a weakness? Either way, Morton is now out of the picture, and Captain Leeth orders the withdrawal of the atomic projectors so that the crew can prepare to energize the deck levels as per the other plan.

Kellie, the ship's chief sociologist, has come up with an answer to the question he posed before. How is it that a creature capable of surviving in deep space hasn't spread out over the entire universe? The answer is, it did. Civilizations aren't the only things that go through cycles; the universe does too. Ixtl's race did at one time populate the entire cosmos; but then the universe collapsed, died, and was reborn. The creature the Beagle is now fighting is one that has survived the Big Bang. How do you fight something like that?

What's more, they discover that the creature can pass through the energized partitions after all. Their chief defense is useless. They can try making more of the resistance metal which the hull is made out of, but that is a long and time-consuming process.

Grosvenor has another idea. Korita has speculated that the creature is in the peasant stage of his civilization. That means he will be concerned with two things: ensuring he has decendants, and holding onto property.
"You mentioned that the peasant clings with an almost senseless tenacity to his plot of land. If this creature is in the peasant stage of one of his civilization, could he imagine our feeling differently about our property?" 
"I'm sure he could not." 
"He would make his plans in the full conviction that we cannot escape him, since we are cornered aboard this ship?"
Leeth sees the conclusion Grosvenor is working towards. It's an extreme action; it will mean sacrificing a lot, but it's their only chance. Especially as a search crew reports finding the men Ixtl has captured and the condition they are in.

Ixtl is annoyed that the men have located and taken away his guuls, but that just increases his determination. He realizes now that he'll have to kill them all and that he should have started doing that right away. He goes to the nearest laboratory an begins working on a weapon to do this. So intent is he on his work, that he doesn't notice right away how quiet the ship has gotten. Suddenly, he realizes that he's all alone; the men have abandoned the ship!

He bolts for the nearest airlock and hurls himself out into space just as the men remotely activate the uncontrolled energization of the ship that was too dangerous to attempt while they were still on board. Then Ixtl sees the lifeboats containing the crew return to the ship. The force fields go up again. It's too late. Ixtl is now trapped outside, and the Space Beagle activates its space drive and flys away.
The ship's doctor removes Ixtl's eggs from the captured crewmen and destroys them. Pennons and his engineers will have their hands full repairing the damage done to the ship from those few seconds of uncontrolled energization. And with Morton incapacitated, perhaps fatally, Kent will take over as Director of the mission. But the crisis has passed.
"By heaven!" said a man, "No dangerous-looking creature should ever be allowed aboard this ship again. My nerves are all shot; and I'm not so good a man as I was when I first came aboard the Beagle." 
"You speak for us all" came the voice of Acting Director Kent over the communicator.
No one discusses the possibility that since one such creature survived the Big Bang, there may be others in the voids of intergalactic space too.

What are the odds?

NEXT:  The Nexial Department under siege! The Space Beagle has several deadly menaces already, and that was just in intergalactic space. What will they encounter now that they have reached "M33 In Andromeda"!!!

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