Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 5: When In Rome, Be a Roman Candle

In our last thrilling installment of E.E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space, scientist Dick Seaton and his buddy, millionaire industrialist and inventor Martin Crane, have rescued Seaton's fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, who had been abducted by Seaton's rival, Marc C. DuQuesne, and another damsel in distress, Margaret Spenser. Now all they have to do is get back to Earth.

This won't be easy, because the desparate chase after DuQuesne has left the Skylark several light centuries away from home. Seaton and his crew are now trying to find a planet where they can acquire enough copper to power their ship for the return trip.

The Skylark has entered a dense clusters of stars and identified a promising planet. The planet's climate is warm, and it's gravity less than half on Earths, but it has a breathable atmosphere. More importantly, the sample of sea water they test shows the presence of ammoniacal copper sulfate -- a sign that this planet has significant copper deposits.

While scouting the planet, they come across an aerial battle between a group of armored aircraft and an equal number of flying leviathans. "They must be animals," Crane says. "I do not believe that any engineer, anywhere, would design machines like that." The creatures have immense wings and dozens of tentacles and are covered with a kind of transparent armor which seems impervious to the attacks of the airships.

Impulsively, Seaton intervenes in the battle by literally blowing one of the critters out of the sky with one of the explosive shells he's devised tipped with his X metal. He then lands the Skylark near the crippled flagship that had been fighting the monsters to meet with the natives.

The natives of this world are a lot like the Red Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom: They look exactly like idealized, perfectly-formed humans except for their exotic skin color; (like Mr. Spock, their skin in green; no doubt because of copper in their biochemistry); they are not as strong as humans due to their planet's lower gravity; their technology is more advanced than earth's in some respects -- enough to make them exotic and interesting -- but behind earth in other ways -- to give the earthmen an edge beyond mere punching and leaping as John Carter does. They also have a warlike and rather Darwinian culture. Oh, and they don't wear clothing, save for ornaments and utilitarian harnesses.

The scene in which Seaton establishes First Contact with the leader of the natives, a guy named Nalboon who turns out to be the ruler of one of the major superpowers of the planet, plays out like every "White Explorer Meets Chief of Jungle Tribe" scene -- which is probably why when I first read the novel as a kid I kept on envisioning Nalboon's people living in grass huts -- albeit with a few interesting subversions. Seaton startles them by pulling some sleight-of-hand with a cigarette and matches, but they are only moderately impressed by a display of signal rockets.

Later in private, Dick comments on this:
"I don't get these folks at all. ... They've got next century's machines, but never heard of sleight-of-hand. Class Nine rockets are old stuff, but matches scare them. Funny."
It's not terribly plausible, but Martin lampshades the situation:

"It's surprising enough that their physical shape is the same as ours. ... It would be altogether too much to expect that all the details of development would be parallel."
Nalboon offers Seaton the gift of several prisoners from his ship. Dorothy isn't happy about bringing them aboard the Skylark, but Crane surmises that if they don't accept these slaves, the slaves might be executed anyway -- a guess which turns out to be accurate. Besides, as Dick observes, "when in Rome, you've got to be a Roman candle."

Nalboon's surviving battlecraft escort the Skylark to his capital city, an impressive metropolis of tall buildings with wide green plazas. The buildings vary in their layout, but all are have identical heights; a subtle point suggesting the totalitarian nature of their government. Or maybe I'm over-thinking this.

The Skylark crew are treated to a lavish banquet by Nalboon. Seaton and DuQuesne check out the food first; they have strong reason to suspect that much of it will be poisonous to humans. "These probably won't poison us too much," DuQuesne says selecting a few of the safest dishes. "That is, if we don't eat much now and don't eat any of it again too soon." Their doubts are confirmed when a bowl of blue crystals is set out intended to season the food and Seaton recognizes the crystals as copper sulfate.

Anticipating this problem, and remembering how impressed the natives had been with his sleight-of-hand, Dick has hidden various eating utensils and such about his person, which he now produces. Nalboon is interested in the pepper-shaker and finds the pepper quite tasty; but the salt startles him even more than the matches did. Nalboon summons an officer to examine the salt crystals, and then through signs requests the whole shaker. Seaton consents; they have plenty of salt in the Skylark's stores so it's not big deal to him; but evidently it is to Nalboon.

A heavily-armed honor guard escorts Seaton and his company to private rooms to spend the night. Seaton is liking the set-up less and less, but at the moment sees little to do but play along. The slaves Nalboon gave them with are still with them; and Dorothy insists that the female ones sleep in the quarters with her and Margaret and the males stay with the boys.

The leader of the prisoners, a tall man wearing a thick metal belt collects some of the stuff from Seaton's pockets. When Dick has gone to sleep, the man opens up concealed pockets in his belt and removes a set of tools and electronic components. As Seaton's party sleeps, he begins constructing an elaborate device.
Seaton spends a hot, uncomfortable night. Well, night is not exactly the right word. Located as it is in the middle of a dense star cluster, the planet always has several suns in the sky at any time and so there is not actual night. He meets with the others to discuss their situation. Dorothy has made friends with the female prisoners and picked up a little bit of their language. She is able to relay the message that the man with the belt wants Seaton's help to get something which is being held by Nalboon's people. It's something extremely important. Seaton agrees.

Seaton is able to bull his way past the guards outside their sleeping quarters to the room where the somthing is being kept. There's an altercation there in which Dick gives another guard a forceful shove which, thanks to the lower gravity, proves fatal. More armed guards show up and Seaton pulls the pistol he had hidden under his shirt. Another of his explosive rounds obliterates the reinforcements, as well as that wing of the palace. The prisoner with the metal belt recovers more electrical components from the guarded room and they all withdraw back to the sleeping quarters.

The prisoner connects the new components to the apparatus he had built the previous night; a device of a complexity that impresses even DuQuense. The device has several headsets which he motions that Seaton and his party should put on. They all agree, except for DuQuense: "Go ahead; let them make zombies of you. Nobody wires me up to a machine I can't understand."

His caution, although prudent, turns out to be unnecessary. The device is an electronic educator, designed to download knowledge of the native language from the man with the belt to the earth-folk. It's an experimental design and the prisoner happened to have the necessary parts hidden in his his belt. Because you never can tell when something like that might come in handy. It works almost perfectly; but an unexpected short in the apparatus winds up copying all of the prisoner's memories into Seaton's brain and vice-versa.

Now much becomes clear. The name of the planet is Osnome; and they are currently in the nation of Mardonale. Their new friend is Dunark, prince of the rival nation of Kondal, who along with his entourage had been captured by Nalboon's forces. For something like six thousand years now the two nations have been at war. Nalboon had been in the process of executing Dunark and his people in an elaborate ritual when his sky vessel had been attacked by the karlono, the armored sky leviathens. Rather than feeling gratitude for Seaton's rescue, Nalboon has decided that Seaton is a pushover and plans to kill him. Salt is a rare substance on Osnome, and it is also a vital ingredient in the production of arenak, a transparent nearly invulnerable metal which the Osnomians use to armor their warships.

This puts Seaton in something of an ethical dilemma. Nalboon intends to use the technology on board the Skylark, and it's unlimited (by Osnomian standards) supply of salt to obliterate Kondal. But if he aids the Kondalians, they will do the same to Mardonale.
"So ethically, perhaps we should leave you all here and try to blast our own way to the Skylark. Then go on about our own business." 
"That is your right." 
"But I couldn't do it. And if I did, Dottie would skin me alive and rub salt in, every day from now on ... and Nalboon and his crowd are the scum of the universe ... Maybe I'm prejudiced by having your whole mind in mine, but I think I'd have to come to the same decision if I had Nalboons's whole mind in there as well."
Another point which he does not mention is that the presence of the Skylark has already upset the balance of power on Osnome; Nalboon's people have already learned quite a bit just from their cursory examination of the Skylark, and the salt shaker Seaton gave Nalboon contains more salt than is know to exist on the whole planet -- enough to give Mardonale a tremendous advantage in the Osnomian arms race.

In any case, at the moment the ethical concerns of taking sides in a millenia-old conflict take a back seat to the immediate concerns of escaping from Mardonale. Seaton leads a break for freedom, overpowering the guards and seizing their weapons. With the explosive-tipped X cartridges in Seaton's pistol, they are able to blast their way back to the Skylark, taking Durnak and his followers with them.

But the explosive force of the X shells does not just wipe out their opposition; it also damages the Skylark. Her thick quartz windows have been shattered; her frame dented and warped, and much of her plating ripped away. They'll be able to fly it out of Mardonale, but the Skylark will require some major repairs before it can go back into space. For better or worse, Seaton and his friends will have to throw in their lot with Durnak.

As they head out, Dick and Martin have a discussion about the subject.
"Do you think we can really trust thes Konalians, any more than we should have trusted the Mardonalians? It might be better for us to stay in the Skylark instead of going to the palace at all." 
"Yes to the first; no to the second," Seaton replied. "I went off half-cocked last time, I admit; but I've got his whole mind inside my skull, so I know him a lot better than I know you. They've got some mighty funny ideas, and they're bloodthirsty and hard as tungsten carbide; but, basically, they're just as decent as we are. 
"As for staying in here, what good would that do? Steel is as soft as mush to the stuff they've got. And we can't go anywhere, anyway. No copper -- we're down to the plating in spots. And we couldn't if we were full of copper. The old bus is a wreck; she's got to be completely rebuilt. But you don't have to worry this time, Mart. I know they're friends of ours."
The die is cast.

NEXT:  Honored guests of Kondal; a Royal Wedding; Karlono Hunting; and the Final Battle for Osnome!

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