Saturday, September 3, 2016

"The Beam Flashed and Licked Charred Cloth and Smoking Leather from Newlin's Sleeve"

"Shock Treatment."
By Stanley Mullen (1911-74).
First appearance: Worlds of IF, September 1952.
Novelette (32 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF), Project Gutenberg HERE, and HERE.
"There was a harsh bleat of police whistles, near at hand. Newlin's imagination quivered with the possibility of blaster beams thrusting at his back. He fled."
For Newlin, hard up for money ("Poverty," he says, "is undignified and degrading; it poisons virtue and debases the outlook"), when Songeen, beautiful and ethereal, comes out of no-where to make him an offer he can't refuse, one that requires him to leave his job as a menial bartender at the Spacebell at Venusport and that will permit him to actualize his strongest yearnings for escape, he's very tempted:
"With money, a free man can be free [he explains to her]; a slave with money is still a slave. Perhaps I want to learn for myself which I am. I want enough to pay for a spaceship, the best to be had. A one-man ship in which I can escape this madhouse and venture alone—beyond Pluto. Such a plan requires money, so I work in the Spacebell. Between wages, tips, graft and my winnings, I may have half enough, by dawn. If I live that long."
"I can pay very generously [she says]. You can set your own price. Enough even for your spaceship. But what do you expect to find—beyond Pluto?"
"Myself, first. After that, who knows? This solar system is a vast pesthouse. I am contaminated by fools, moneygrubbers, sheep and the corrupt authorities that rule them. What else I find isn't important if I find myself. Even death."
There's a moment when she's unsure:
Newlin's eyes burned with a hot glare of fanaticism. Dread sprang into the girl's heart. Always with these people there was this fear, this panic-desire to escape, always an urge to destruction coupled with eery mysticism, compulsions, con-flicts—and always the final delusion of personal sanity in the atmosphere of chaos. Some of Newlin's words found echo in herself, but she checked a momentary sympathy. The system was mad, true—but how sane was Newlin? How sane and trustworthy? He could be a dangerous tool in her unskilled, frightened hands.
She had chosen him on the basis of his reputation. From his police record, and other documents. A capable man, courageous and self-reliant, ingenious, but a person of tensions and conflicts, a man of violence, unpredictable, torn by con-tradictory impulses, a savage but not without kindness and generosity. For her purposes, he might do as well as any other. At worst a man, cast in heroic mold. Quickly, but not without revulsions and reservations, she made her fateful decision.
All Newlin has to do, Songeen tells him, is "break into a building and bring me something. There is danger you would not understand. If you fail, death for both of us. For success, you set the price. Are you interested?" He's interested, all right, but is he interested enough to be willing to kill a total stranger for a beautiful woman?

Yet this situation is only the beginning: Newlin doesn't know it now, but in following this strange woman he's about to embark on a mind-bending journey to the far side of reality that could either cure his depleted spirit or drive him insane—if it doesn't kill him first . . .

Principal characters:
~ Spud Newlin:
   "He was a son of Chaos, a man of the brawling, violent Solar breeds. His temper was short, his words and actions direct. He saw challenge and answered in kind."
~ Songeen:
   "He had known many women on many, strange worlds. But none like this, none ever so strange, so wonderful, so terrifying."
~ Genarion:
   "Genarion was beyond speech. Tigerishly, he moved. He leaped upon Newlin and thrust him back. Newlin sprawled painfully, his back arched and twisted by invisible machinery."

Future wonders from the fifties:

   "They would probably have the robot trackers out, those hideous electronic bloodhounds which can unerringly sort out a man's trail from the infinity of other scents and markings, following not smell, but a curious tangle of electrical impulses left by his body like static electricity or intangible magnetism. No layman could even guess how such a robot worked, but fugitives had learned to dread its infallible tracking ability."

   "I couldn't even get in to see him. He knew the exact vibration level of my body, and had set supersonic traps to kill me if I tried to enter. Even my bones would have shattered. I would have died painfully and horribly."

   "The pre-holocaust Venusians were purely legendary. No written records could exist, amid such conditions as must have followed the ancient wars. Science knew that at least half a million years had passed since Venus was a fair green planet peopled with hearty, beautiful, ease-loving races. Half a million years since the surface people had even looked upon the sun."
   "Newlin had been hunted before, on Mars, but by live bloodhounds. Pepper, oil of mustard, and perfumes had saved him then. But this hound followed not scent, but something intangi-ble, electrical, and as mysterious as the soul-aura itself. It sorted two life-complexes from all other impulses and followed its own prime-directive—hunt down and kill."

   "The stone block did not slide, roll, or swing open. It gave a slight quiver and dissolved."

   "There is fatal disease in the race, a disease of instability and cruelty and violence. Call it madness—insanity—in the technical sense. It is pathological, and the disease is common to the human race, in all its ramifications. The Solar System is mad, and all who dwell in it are lunatics. Dangerous and homicidal lunatics. Sol's system is the asylum and pesthouse of our galaxy. We—my people—are its keepers and doctors."

   "Pressure for interstellar expansion is extreme on all of Sol's planets. The technicians work full time at the problems, and they will solve it, soon."

   "The ultimate weapon. Gravity displacement. Once used, it is the end. Planets will be wrenched from the Sun, electrons from their parent nuclei within the very atoms."

   "All forms in the maze of crystal varied constantly. Light flared and died in odd rhythms, and the almost visible winds played icy arpeggios upon strings of spun glass, like Aeolian harps. Showering notes like those of Chinese windbells hung in clusters in the eddies of great wind rivers, and both sound and light flowed together and wove strange patterns and infinite variations."

   "I hold this substance, this form, only by power of will. It is mine only for a short while more. My flesh is not like yours, subject to different laws of form and movement."

Typo: "Red stains spread swiftly, dying the crystal columns"

- Thanks to his science fiction output, Stanley Mullen earned notices in the SFE (HERE) and the ISFDb (HERE), as well as attention on Wikipedia (HERE).

The bottom line: "Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

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