Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 6: The Battle for Osnome

Concluding our look at Edward E. "Doc" Smith's seminal space opera, The Skylark of Space.

Dick Seaton and his partner Martin Crane have rescued Seaton's fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, and another girl, Margaret Spencer, who had been abducted by Seaton's scientific rival Marc C. DuQuense. Now the lot of them are in a remote section of the galaxy, trying to find enough copper to fuel Seaton's spaceship, the Skylark.

This search has landed them right in the middle of a millennia-old conflict between the Kondalians and the Mardonalians on the planet Osnome. Imprisoned by the jerk of a ruler of Mardonale, Seaton manages to escape with the help of Dunark, the crown prince of Kondal. Now the Skylark, badly damaged in the fight, is on its way to the palace of Dunark's father.

The Skylark arrives in Kondal and is greeted by Dunark's father Roban, the Karfedix of Kondal. Dunark introduces Seaton and Crane as "Karfedix of Knowledge" and "Karfedix of Wealth" respectively.

Dunark's father is puzzled. The word "Karfedix" means roughly "emperor." "Knowledge and wealth are not -- cannot be -- ruled over. Are you sure that you have translated their titles correctly?"
"No translation is possible. Crane has no title, and was not at all willing for me to apply any title to him. Seaton's title, one of learnedness, has no equivalent in our language. ... Their government is not a government at all, but stark madness, the rulers being chosen by the people themselves, who change their minds and their rulers every year or two. And everyone being equal before the law, does just about as he pleases..." 
"Incredible!" exclaimed Roban. "How, then, is anything done?" 
"I do not know. I simply do not understand it at all. They do not seem to care, as a nation, whether anything worth while gets done or not, as long as each man has what he calls his liberty."
But Dunark insists that despite the earthmen's incomprehensible values and sense of ethics (not to mention Seaton's inexplicable truce with his enemy DuQuense and their bizarre insistence of wearing clothing), "...their sense of honor is, at bottom, as sound as ours, and as strong." And the fact that Nalboon tried to kill them puts the earthmen firmly on Kondal's side.

After the formal reception is over, Margaret takes Crane aside. "What did Dunark mean calling you Karfedix of Wealth?" He had originally been introduced to her as Marty Crane, an inventor friend of Dick's; when she agreed to marry him she had no idea he was M. Reynolds Crane, the billionaire industrialist. He takes her in his arms. "Is that all that was bothering you?"

As Dorothy had guessed earlier, if Margaret had known about Martin's wealth, she would have been too intimidated to talk to him. But now that the two have gotten to know each other, and fallen in love, and agreed to marry, the unfortunate situation of Crane's fortune is not longer an impediment.

Dorothy also wants to speak privately with Dick. Being located in the middle of a dense star cluster, the planet Osnome never experiences night. She tells Dick that the continual daylight and lack of darkness is starting to freak her out and making it difficult for her to sleep. She cuddles up to him and pleads, "I never thought I was a clinging-vine type, I'm I'm getting to be. I'm simply scared to death to go to bed."

Seaton, the classic clueless male, misses the point. "We'll fix the chariot and snap back to Earth in a hurry."
She pushed him into his room, followed him inside, closed the door, and put both hands on his shoulders. 
"Dick Seaton," she said blushing hotly, "You're not as dumb as I thought you were -- you're dumber! But if you won't say it, even after such a sob-story as that, I will. No law says that a marriage has to be performed on Earth to be legal."
Despite all the alien nudity they encounter, this is the closest we're going to get to a bedroom scene in this story. Be that as it may, Dick agrees to talk to Dunark about arranging a wedding ceremony; and at Dorothy's suggestion, talking to Martin about making the wedding a double one. Seaton handles this with his usual lack of tact, but both Martin and Margaret are agreeable. "The sooner the better," Margaret says blushing.

Dunark's father is delighted at the opportunity to host their double wedding.
"Marriage between such highly-evolved persons as are you four is demanded by the First Cause, whose servants we all are. Aside from that, it is an unheard-of honor for any ruler to have even one other karfedix married under his roof, and you are granting me the honor of two! I thank you, and assure you that we will do our best to make the occasion memorable."
The Osnomian religion is a curious blending of theology and Darwinism. They believe in a supreme being, which they call the First Cause, and of the existence of "an immortal and unknowable life-principle, or soul." But they also regard the "survival of the fittest" not just as a natural law, but as a Divine Commandment. Although weaker in physical strength than humans due to the planet's weaker gravity, the natives of Osnome are otherwise physically perfect, thanks to millennia of selective breeding. There is a dark side to their Divinely-mandated Darwinistic culture: the feeble-minded and the feeble-bodied are executed; and the punishments for "vice" are particularly draconian. This vast difference in cultures is one of the reasons Dunark has difficulty understanding Seaton's culture, despite having all the memories in Seaton's brain imprinted on his own.

There are three levels of marriage on Osnome. Couples are initially given a two-year trial marriage, but may at any time opt for a full marriage. Couples of the highest evolutionary development and mental character -- and Kondal's Chief Prelate and Commander of the Army assure Seaton and his friends that they are such -- are permitted the third level of marriage which is bound not just until death, but all eternity. As part of the marriage ceremony, the couples are given brain scans to ensure their compatibility.

Dick wonders if the Kondalian wedding will be considered valid on Earth. "Is there any precedent in law that says a man can make a promise that will be binding on his immortal soul for all the rest of eternity?"
"I rather doubt it," Martin replies. "I'm sure there will be, however, when our attorneys close the case."

For the ceremony, the girls wear dazzling gowns made of iridescent Onsomian fabrics -- the Onsomians generally don't wear clothing, but will wear robes of state on formal occasions -- and ornamented with the brilliant jewels that the Onsomians love. Dunark sheepishly admits that he gave them the smallest diamonds he could find; by terrestrial standards they are still gaudy and ostentatious. Each one of the two couples receive a special jewel, called a faidon; a beautiful, light-emitting adamantite crystal; to symbolize their eternal bond of love
The guys, lacking formal wear of their own, dress in tennis whites. "Only Dunark will know that whites are not our most formal dress." Given the tropical Kondalian climate and the exotic lighting from Osnomes multitude of suns, tennis togs prove to be a perfect choice.

While the wedding preparations are being made, Seaton and Dunark are also working on building a new version of the Skylark as well as new ships for the Kondalian navy. Seaton gives Dunark several pounds of salt from the Skylark's stores -- they have plenty to spare -- as well as some of the nuggets of X metal they found on the planet of the Carboniferous Era monsters -- Seaton knows where he can get more.

The Kondalians make the new Skylark to Seaton's specifications out of arenak, the transparent, nigh-invulnerable metal they use to armor their battleships. The salt Dick gave to Dunark is a necessary catalyst in the process of making arenak. (Smith, the chemist, must have liked catalysts). While the new ship is being built, Dunark also has his people manufacturing the copper bars they'll need to power it. Smith devotes as much loving description to the construction of the new Skylark as he does to the wedding.

While testing out the new Skylark, a karlon, one of the huge sky-leviathans that roam the planet, appears near the site. Seaton and Crane try capturing the beast for scientific study using the Skylark's attractor beams. They "hook" it, and the monster takes the Skylark on the aerial equivalent of a Nantucket sleigh-ride, zooming from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean, to burrowing into the muck of a swamp. Unable to tire the beast, or even of driving it away, Dick reluctantly finishes it off with an explosive shell.

Dunark has also been concerned about a possible Mardonalian attack. While a prisoner of Nalboon, he overheard discussion about some kind of secret weapon. Seaton suggests that Dunark take the first batch of copper bars, fly over to Mardonale and raid the palace, but Dunark is offended by the idea. Under the Kondalian Code, he is obligated to supply Seaton's ship first and only then see to his own needs. Dick apologizes. He doesn't understand why this matter of honor is so important to Dunark any more than Dunark understands Seaton's need to wear pants, but he knows that it is important and respects that.

Suddenly, the Mardonalians fleet attacks. Dunark scrambles his air fleet and Seaton and Crane join him in the Skylark with DuQuesne manning the guns. The Mardonalians have several tricks in store for the Kondalian defenders, including sonic attacks and heat-based attacks. Perhaps most deadly, they have a beam to create high voltage currents in the metal of the ships, which electrocutes or stuns most of the crew of Dunark's flagship. "It's a good thing for all of us that you have those fancy handles on your levers," DuQuesne comments.

After a furious battle, the Kondalian Navy, led by the Skylark, soundly defeats the Mardonalian attack. Afterwards, the Karfedix Roban honors Seaton and Crane for their service to Konal. Even DuQuense is given a reward to recognize his part in the battle.

After the victory celebrations are over, the Skylark heads back for home. The trip is uneventful. Thanks to object-compass Seaton still has fixed on Earth, they have no fear of getting lost. When they finally get within sight of home, DuQuense brings up the question of what will be done with him.

"I'd like to have you in a square ring with four-ounce gloves," Seaton says. "You've been of altogether too much real help on this trip for either of us to enjoy seeing you hanged. At the same time, you're altogether too much of a scoundrel for us to let you go free..."

DuQuense is unimpressed. He tells Seaton that thanks to the wealth he's acquired on the trip -- Roban's gift to him amounted to a fortune in precious jewels and a sealed container holding a half-pound of metallic radium -- he no longer has any need to associate with World Steel. Unless it is in his interest to do so.
"I may find it desirable at some future time to obtain a monopoly of X. If so, you and Crane, and possibly a few others, would die. No matter what happens or does not happen, however, this whole thing is over, as far as I'm concerned. Done with. Fini."
Seaton laughs at this. He's confident that he can handle anything DuQuense might throw at him. But then he becomes more serious.

"But listen, DuQuesne," Seaton said slowly, every word sharp, clear, and glacially cold. "That goes for Crane and me, personally. Nobody else. I could be arrested for what I think of you as a man; and if anything you ever do touches either Dorothy or Margaret in any way I'll kill you like I would a snake -- or rather, I'll take you apart like I would any other piece of scientific apparatus."
DuQuense takes the point. Shortly afterwards, as the Skylark has entered the atmosphere and is flying somewhere over the Panama Canal, the airlock cycles and DuQuesne slips out wearing a Kondalian parachute and carrying his fortune; much as Long John Silver escaped at the end of Treasure Island. Dorothy declares that he's earned his liberty. Margaret disagrees, but is simply glad to have seen the last of him.

Soon the Skylark lands at Crane field, where Martin's faithful servant Shiro is waiting for them. Dick and Dorothy embrace. They are home at last.

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