Lensman: Kinnexa is (mostly) Awesome

Triplanetary 7 – Chapter 2: The Fall of Atlantis

Welcome to the read! This chapter has a deal less questionable material in it than previous ones, so you’ll see some longer intervals between my comments.

Four of the conferees filed out and a brisk young man strode in. Although he did not look at the Faros his eyes asked questions.

“Reporting for orders, sir.” He saluted the Officer punctiliously.

“At ease, sir.” Artomenes returned the salute. “You were called here for a word from the Faros. Sir, I present Captain Phryges.”

“Not orders, son… no.” Ariponides’ right hand rested in greeting upon the captain’s left shoulder, wise old eyes probed deeply into gold-flecked, tawny eyes of youth; the Faros saw, without really noticing, a flaming thatch of red-bronze-auburn hair.

In 1948 as today, very distinctive hair and eye colors are a good indicator that someone is a protagonist.

“I asked you here to wish you well; not only for myself, but for all our nation and perhaps for our entire race. While everything in my being rebels against an unprovoked and unannounced assault, we may be compelled to choose between our Officer’s plan of campaign and the destruction of Civilization.

Wait. In the previous half of this section, the Officer’s first-strike plan was described as ‘entirely futile.’ A large chunk of the text was spent establishing that it was both unacceptable morally and unworkable practically. Why is it still being talked about like it’s even remotely a thing? Sure, proceed with the recon mission, it’s always good to have better intel, but – huh? I feel like I’m looking at a transitional draft because this makes no sense to me at all.

Since you already know the vital importance of your mission, I need not enlarge upon it. But I want you to know fully, Captain Phryges, that all Atlantis flies with you this night.”

Yeah, this ‘weight of the world’ talk really makes it sound as though the first-strike mission had not just been rejected. In context, Phryges’ mission should still be an important fact-finding mission, but nothing to justify ‘all Atlantis flies with you.’ This reads like the author really liked the dramatic tension of the super-high-stakes mission, but didn’t bother to reconcile it with the actual ethics and politics of nuclear weapons that he wound up outlining beforehand.

I’m going to try reading it like this: for some reason (morale, focus, continuity, information sequestration) the Faros has decided not to tell Phryges that his mission isn’t the tip of a nuclear spear. Let’s see if that’s consistent with the rest of the text.

“Th… thank you, sir.” Phryges gulped twice to steady his voice. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

That’s a nice touch of emotional vulnerability to humanize our hero.

And later, in a wingless craft flying toward the airfield, young Phryges broke a long silence.

‘Wingless craft’ could mean a lot of things: helicopter, hovercraft, some sort of jump-rocket, a lifting-body aircraft; all modern or futuristic ideas in 1948.

“So that is the Faros… I like him, Officer … I have never seen him close up before… there’s something about him…. He isn’t like my father, much, but it seems as though I have known him for a thousand years!”

That’s a lot of ellipses, indicating a very unusual pattern of speech. I don’t know what to make of it. Is he meant to be deep in thought? Star-struck and rambling?

“Hm-m-m. Peculiar. You two are a lot alike, at that, even though you don’t look anything like each other…. Can’t put a finger on exactly what it is, but it’s there.” Although Artomenes nor any other of his time could place it, the resemblance was indeed there. It was in and back of the eyes; it was the “look of eagles” which was long later to become associated with the wearers of Arisia’s Lens.

More Lens foreshadowing. ‘Look of eagles’ is an interesting term; it sounds good without being at all clear what it means. As far as I can tell, it goes back to Roman times, applied to a particularly martial attitude, referencing the golden eagles on the standards of the legions.

“But here we are, and your ship’s ready. Luck, son.”

“Thanks, sir. But one more thing. If it should—if I don’t get back—will you see that my wife and the baby are…?”

It’s not common for pulp action heroes to be married, but in this case it’s essential. I can’t really talk about this without spoilers: Phryges’ eye and hair color are the signature of a very important Arisian-cultivated bloodline, and so it’s important to establish how that bloodline outlived Atlantis.

“I will, son. They will leave for North Maya tomorrow morning. They will live, whether you and I do or not. Anything else?”

I don’t know what the extent of the fictional Maya nation is supposed to be, but I guess that North Maya probably refers to North America, a bit of USA-centric conceit. It does seem to mean that Phryges’ precious awesome genetic material spent thousands of years being passed down through the Native American population, which is a welcome nod of racial inclusion, not that I think it’s ever mentioned again.

“No, sir. Thanks. Goodbye.”

The ship was a tremendous flying wing. A standard commercial job.

Flying wing aircraft got a lot of development during WW2, and seem to have been particularly popular models for futuristic fiction, possibly because they just look so distinct from ordinary aircraft.

Empty—passengers, even crewmen, were never subjected to the brutal accelerations regularly used by unmanned carriers.

I was surprised to see that this vehicle is essentially a drone, but apparently remote-controlled aircraft were used in a number of roles in WW2.

Phryges scanned the panel. Tiny motors were pulling tapes through the controllers. Every light showed green. Everything was set. Donning a water-proof coverall, he slid through a flexible valve into his acceleration-tank and waited.

Use of liquid suspension to help people withstand acceleration is something that’s had a lot of math done on it but has always wound up being impractical. However, as a minor element in a soft sci-fi story, it adds a nice gloss of realism.

A siren yelled briefly. Black night turned blinding white as the harnessed energies of the atom were released.

Whoa, okay. So this standard commercial aircraft uses some sort of nuclear-powered propulsion. That’s terrifying, because it means that there are fleets of these things flying around, and they’re basically low-grade nuclear missiles in cargo plane drag. It’s also kind of nuts that the technology has developed fast enough that a nuclear drive fits on an airplane, but that the world is still dealing with what seems to be the first round of fallout from nuclear energy.

For five and six-tenths seconds the sharp, hard, beryllium-bronze leading edge of the back-sweeping V sliced its way through ever-thinning air.

The vessel seemed to pause momentarily; paused and bucked viciously. She shuddered and shivered, tried to tear herself into shreds and chunks; but Phryges in his tank was unconcerned. Earlier, weaker ships went to pieces against the solid-seeming wall of atmospheric incompressibility at the velocity of sound; but this one was built solidly enough, and powered to hit that wall hard enough, to go through unharmed.

Historically, flying wing aircraft actually fell out of favor because they weren’t compatible with supersonic flight. Flying that fast requires a thin wing, and if that wing has to contain the crew and machinery it simply can’t be thin enough. I don’t know if the power of a nuclear rocket could overcome that, but I don’t care, this is exciting stuff.

The hellish vibration ceased; the fantastic violence of the drive subsided to a mere shove; Phryges knew that the vessel had leveled off at its cruising speed of two thousand miles per hour.

Holy crap. Two thousand miles/hour is Mach 2.6. My back-of-napkin calculation estimates that the average acceleration during those 5.6 seconds of acceleration was ~16 gravities. That’s… remarkably reasonable; apparently untrained humans have remained functional at up to 20 gravities for less than 10 seconds exposure (which makes Phryges’ tank seems like over-caution) but those tests weren’t done until 1960, so you can’t blame the author for not knowing.

What’s remarkably unreasonable is that the fleets of nuclear drone missiles are also super-sonic. That seems like a truly absurd security risk, if someone could manage to override their controls to use them as weapons the devastation would be ghastly.

He emerged, spilling the least possible amount of water upon the polished steel floor. He took off his coverall and stuffed it back through the valve into the tank. He mopped and polished the floor with towels, which likewise went into the tank.

He drew on a pair of soft gloves and, by manual control, jettisoned the acceleration tank and all the apparatus which had made that unloading possible. This junk would fall into the ocean; would sink; would never be found.

Covering his tracks, espionage-style. This is the signal to the reader that despite the ancient time period and sci-fi setting, Phryges’ part of this narrative is a spy story. Spy thrillers had experienced a significant resurgence before and during WW2, so pulp readers could be expected to be familiar with and enjoy such, even as an interlude in a larger sci-fi narrative.

He examined the compartment and the hatch minutely. No scratches, no scars, no mars; no tell-tale marks or prints of any kind. Let the Norskies search. So far, so good.

‘Norskies’ sounds very similar to ‘Ruskies,’ a slang term for Russians.

Back toward the trailing edge then, to a small escape-hatch beside which was fastened a dull black ball. The anchoring devices went out first. He gasped as the air rushed out into near-vacuum, but he had been trained to take sudden and violent fluctuations in pressure. He rolled the ball out upon the hatch, where he opened it; two hinged hemispheres, each heavily padded with molded composition resembling sponge rubber. It seemed incredible that a man as big as Phryges, especially when wearing a parachute, could be crammed into a space so small; but that lining had been molded to fit.

This ball seems like it could be a high-tech spy gadget, but given the setting it could just be an ordinary (for the setting) device that we’re unfamiliar with. I’m a little shaky on the physics of operating in an unsealed craft at supersonic speeds, but I’ll buy it for the purposes of pulp action.

This ball had to be small. The ship, even though it was on a regularly-scheduled commercial flight, would be scanned intensively and continuously from the moment of entering Norheiman radar range.

Much less plausible is the conceit that one nation would let another nation routinely send these horrifying death machines into their airspace, even with very close monitoring. The economic incentive must be enormous.

Since the ball would be invisible on any radar screen, no suspicion would be aroused; particularly since—as far as Atlantean Intelligence had been able to discover—the Norheimans had not yet succeeded in perfecting any device by the use of which a living man could bail out of a super-sonic plane.

Okay, so this ball is a spy gadget, high-tech even for the high-tech setting. Limited forms of radar stealth technology had been developed in WW2, and sonar stealth before that, so that’s simple extrapolation.

Phryges waited—and waited—until the second hand of his watch marked the arrival of zero time. He curled up into one half of the ball; the other half closed over him and locked. The hatch opened. Ball and closely-prisoned man plummeted downward; slowing abruptly, with a horrible deceleration, to terminal velocity. Had the air been any trifle thicker the Atlantean captain would have died then and there; but that, too, had been computed accurately and Phryges lived.

And as the ball bulleted downward on a screaming slant, it shrank!

This, too, the Atlanteans hoped, was new—a synthetic which air-friction would erode away, molecule by molecule, so rapidly that no perceptible fragment of it would reach ground.

That is a very neat little piece of speculative technology, much more plausible and interesting than I was expecting.

The casing disappeared, and the yielding porous lining. And Phryges, still at an altitude of over thirty thousand feet, kicked away the remaining fragments of his cocoon and, by judicious planning, turned himself so that he could see the ground, now dimly visible in the first dull gray of dawn. There was the highway, paralleling his line of flight; he wouldn’t miss it more than a hundred yards.

He fought down an almost overwhelming urge to pull his rip-cord too soon. He had to wait—wait until the last possible second—because parachutes were big and Norheiman radar practically swept the ground.

This is recognizably a High Altitude Low Opening (or HALO) parachute jump, and it’s very much ahead of its time. John Stapp had experimented with high-altitude flight in 1946, but as far as I can tell, practical HALO techniques didn’t start development until 1960. If this is a genuine prediction-come-true on the author’s part, it wasn’t the first; there’s a much more famous one I’ll get to when it comes up.

Low enough at last, he pulled the ring. Z-r-r-e-e-k—WHAP! The chute banged open; his harness tightened with a savage jerk, mere seconds before his hard-sprung knees took the shock of landing.

It’s not a completely accurate depiction. The opening is far too low even by HALO standards, and there’s no depiction of Phryges using an oxygen tank to stave off hypoxia from the altitude and pressure sickness from the rapid descent. This is amply excused by the at-the-time lack of data and general action hero fudge factor.

That was close—too close! He was white and shaking, but unhurt, as he gathered in the billowing, fighting sheet and rolled it, together with his harness, into a wad. He broke open a tiny ampoule, and as the drops of liquid touched it the stout fabric began to disappear. It did not burn; it simply disintegrated and vanished. In less than a minute there remained only a few steel snaps and rings, which the Atlantean buried under a meticulously-replaced circle of sod.

More super-spy gadgetry. This focus on leaving as little evidence as possible really sells the sense of threat without ever seeing any opposition.

He was still on schedule. In less than three minutes the signals would be on the air and he would know where he was—unless the Norskies had succeeded in finding and eliminating the whole Atlantean under-cover group. He pressed a stud on a small instrument; held it down. A line burned green across the dial—flared red—vanished.

“Damn!” he breathed, explosively. The strength of the signal told him that he was within a mile or so of the hide-out—first-class computation—but the red flash warned him to keep away. Kinnexa—it had better be Kinnexa!—would come to him.

How? By air? Along the road? Through the woods on foot? He had no way of knowing—talking, even on a tight beam, was out of the question. He made his way to the highway and crouched behind a tree. Here she could come at him by any route of the three. Again he waited, pressing infrequently a stud of his sender.

A long, low-slung ground-car swung around the curve and Phryges’ binoculars were at his eyes.

The term ground-car implies that there are non-ground cars, presumably the flying cars that sci-fi kept promising us.

It was Kinnexa—or a duplicate. At the thought he dropped his glasses and pulled his guns—blaster in right hand, air-pistol in left.

As far as I know, the term ‘blaster’ originates in Asimov’s Foundation series, in 1942, where it referred to a specifically nuclear-powered energy weapon. Actually deadly air guns date back to at least the 18th century, and since they don’t rely on a detonation to propel their projectiles, are considerably stealthier than ordinary guns, which seems like a decent choice for covert action.

But no, that wouldn’t do. She’d be suspicious, too—she’d have to be—and that car probably mounted heavy stuff. If he stepped out ready for business she’d fry him, and quick. Maybe not—she might have protection—but he couldn’t take the chance.

The car slowed; stopped. The girl got out, examined a front tire, straightened up, and looked down the road, straight at Phryges’ hiding place.

It’s not clear exactly how old Kinnexa is supposed to be, but I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt she’s an adult engaged in serious business, and calling her a girl isn’t really appropriate. On the other hand, I’m not sure where the standard for that was in 1948.

This time the binoculars brought her up to little more than arm’s length. Tall, blonde, beautifully built; the slightly crooked left eyebrow. The thread-line of gold betraying a one-tooth bridge and the tiny scar on her upper lip, for both of which he had been responsible—she always did insist on playing cops-and-robbers with boys older and bigger than herself—it was Kinnexa! Not even Norheim’s science could imitate so perfectly every personalizing characteristic of a girl he had known ever since she was knee-high to a duck!

There are a number of notable women in this series, but I think Kinnexa is the only one who’s allowed to have her looks marred in even this small way, to illustrate her history as a rough-houser, no less. She’s also one of the few who doesn’t have her beauty expounded on at length, and one of the few who gets to go into serious physical danger.

The girl slid back into her seat and the heavy car began to move. Open-handed, Phryges stepped out into its way. The car stopped.

“Turn around. Back up to me, hands behind you,” she directed, crisply.

Also, she’s not messing around.

The man, although surprised, obeyed. Not until he felt a finger exploring the short hair at the back of his neck did he realize what she was seeking—the almost imperceptible scar marking the place where she bit him when she was seven years old!

“Oh, Fry! It is you! Really you! Thank the gods! I’ve been ashamed of that all my life, but now….”

Kinnexa is not a Strong Female Character in the wonderfully mockable mold. She gets to have regrets and sentimentality and so on.

He whirled and caught her as she slumped, but she did not quite faint.

She also gets to barely remain conscious. Wow, I did not see that coming. The fainting woman trope is usually a signifier of a damsel in distress figure, and Kinnexa’s shown none of the signs of that so far. It kind of feels like the author thought he’d written her too bad-ass and needed to establish some frailty so she didn’t look better than the male hero.

“Quick! Get in… drive on… not too fast!” she cautioned, sharply, as the tires began to scream. “The speed limit along here is seventy, and we can’t be picked up.”

“Easy it is, Kinny. But give! What’s the score? Where’s Kolanides? Or rather, what happened to him?”

“Dead. So are the others, I think. They put him on a psycho-bench and turned him inside out.”

Hm, maybe that fainting was justified after all; emotional fainting requires truly extraordinary intensity, but having your entire spy ring captured, tortured, and executed certainly qualifies. Still, I don’t think we ever see a man faint, no matter the circumstances, although I’ll remember to keep an eye out for such a thing.

“But the blocks?”

“Didn’t hold—over here they add such trimmings as skinning and salt to the regular psycho routine. But none of them knew anything about me, nor about how their reports were picked up, or I’d have been dead, too. But it doesn’t make any difference, Fry—we’re just one week too late.”

“What do you mean, too late? Speed it up!” His tone was rough, but the hand he placed on her arm was gentleness itself.

“I’m telling you as fast as I can. I picked up his last report day before yesterday. They have missiles just as big and just as fast as ours—maybe more so—and they are going to fire one at Atlantis tonight at exactly seven o’clock.”

“Tonight! Holy gods!” The man’s mind raced.

“Yes.” Kinnexa’s voice was low, uninflected. “And there was nothing in the world that I could do about it. If I approached any one of our places, or tried to use a beam strong enough to reach anywhere, I would simply have got picked up, too. I’ve thought and thought, but could figure out only one thing that might possibly be of any use, and I couldn’t do that alone. But two of us, perhaps….”

“Go on. Brief me. Nobody ever accused you of not having a brain, and you know this whole country like the palm of your hand.”

“Steal a ship. Be over the ramp at exactly Seven Pay Emma. When the lid opens, go into a full-power dive, beam Artomenes—if I had a second before they blanketed my wave—and meet their rocket head-on in their own launching-tube.”

This was stark stuff, but so tense was the moment and so highly keyed up were the two that neither of them saw anything out of the ordinary in it.

So, the intel-gathering mission has become something much more serious. I think it works better as an escalation from a fraught but relatively ordinary mission rather than from a preliminary to nuclear first strike.

“Not bad, if we can’t figure out anything better. The joker being, of course, that you didn’t see how you could steal a ship?”

“Exactly. I can’t carry blasters. No woman in Norheim is wearing a coat or a cloak now, so I can’t either. And just look at this dress! Do you see any place where I could hide even one?”

He looked, appreciatively, and she had the grace to blush.

The implication that a female agent would be impeded by revealing fashion is a good bit more realistic than the actual arguments made against female agents in, for example, both World Wars, which were a greatest hits medley of sexist fables. Those same sexist attitudes frequently gave (and indeed, give) women agents a significant edge in avoiding suspicion.

“Can’t say that I do,” he admitted. “But I’d rather have one of our own ships, if we could make the approach. Could both of us make it, do you suppose?”

“Not a chance. They’d keep at least one man inside all the time. Even if we killed everybody outside, the ship would take off before we could get close enough to open the port with the outside controls.”

“Probably. Go on. But first, are you sure that you’re in the clear?”

“Positive.” She grinned mirthlessly. “The fact that I am still alive is conclusive evidence that they didn’t find out anything about me. But I don’t want you to work on that idea if you can think of a better one. I’ve got passports and so on for you to be anything you want to be, from a tube-man up to an Ekoptian banker. Ditto for me, and for us both, as Mr. and Mrs.”

“Smart girl.” He thought for minutes, then shook his head. “No possible way out that I can see. The sneak-boat isn’t due for a week, and from what you’ve said it probably won’t get here. But you might make it, at that. I’ll drop you somewhere….”

“You will not,” she interrupted, quietly but definitely. “Which would you rather—go out in a blast like that one will be, beside a good Atlantean, or, after deserting him, be psychoed, skinned, salted, and—still alive—drawn and quartered?”

Casually talking about mass shooting, calmly choosing her death, Kinnexa gets all the good spy dialogue. ‘Fry’ seems pretty vanilla by comparison. Maybe that’s to make him easier for the reader to project upon? I don’t know, in the earlier books (that are later in the narrative), the author seems to make a real effort to make his characters distinct.

“Together, then, all the way,” he assented. “Man and wife. Tourists—newlyweds—from some town not too far away. Pretty well fixed, to match what we’re riding in. Can do?”

“Very simple.” She opened a compartment and selected one of a stack of documents. “I can fix this one up in ten minutes. We’ll have to dispose of the rest of these, and a lot of other stuff, too. And you had better get out of that leather and into a suit that matches this passport photo.”

“Right. Straight road for miles, and nothing in sight either way. Give me the suit and I’ll change now. Keep on going or stop?”

“Better stop, I think,” the girl decided. “Quicker, and we’ll have to find a place to hide or bury this evidence.”

While the man changed clothes, Kinnexa collected the contraband, wrapping it up in the discarded jacket. She looked up just as Phryges was adjusting his coat. She glanced at his armpits, then stared.

“Where are your blasters?” she demanded. “They ought to show, at least a little, and even I can’t see a sign of them.”

He showed her.

“But they’re so tiny! I never saw blasters like that!”

Kinnexa talks about guns like most girls talk about kittens.

“I’ve got a blaster, but it’s in the tail pocket. These aren’t. They’re air-guns. Poisoned needles. Not worth a damn beyond a hundred feet, but deadly close up. One touch anywhere and the guy dies right then. Two seconds max.”

“Nice!” She was no shrinking violet this young Atlantean spy. “You have spares, of course, and I can hide two of them easily enough in leg-holsters. Gimme, and show me how they work.”

“Standard controls, pretty much like blasters. Like so.” He demonstrated, and as he drove sedately down the highway the girl sewed industriously.

Almost fainting aside, I kind of love the juxtaposition of traditional femininity and hard-boiled spy activity that is Kinnexa. It’s not a lot of depth, but it’s enough that she feels authentic to me.

The day wore on, nor was it uneventful. One incident, in fact—the detailing of which would serve no useful purpose here—was of such a nature that at its end:

“Better pin-point me, don’t you think, on that ramp?” Phryges asked, quietly. “Just in case you get scragged in one of these brawls and I don’t?”

I think it’s a mistake to gloss over the action that hard. Action’s what we’re here for at this point, deliberately withholding all description is just stingy.

“Oh! Of course! Forgive me, Fry—it slipped my mind completely that you didn’t know where it was. Area six; pin-point four seven three dash six oh five.

“Got it.” He repeated the figures.

But neither of the Atlanteans was “scragged”, and at six P.M. an allegedly honeymooning couple parked their big roadster in the garage at Norgrad Field and went through the gates. Their papers, tickets included, were in perfect order; they were as inconspicuous and as undemonstrative as newlyweds are wont to be. No more so, and no less.

Strolling idly, gazing eagerly at each new thing, they made their circuitous way toward a certain small hangar. As the girl had said, this field boasted hundreds of super-sonic fighters, so many that servicing was a round-the-clock routine. In that hangar was a sharp-nosed, stubby-V’d flyer, one of Norheim’s fastest. It was serviced and ready.

It was too much to hope, of course, that the visitors could actually get into the building unchallenged. Nor did they.

“Back, you!” A guard waved them away. “Get back to the Concourse, where you belong—no visitors allowed out here!”

F-f-t! F-f-t! Phryges’ air-gun broke into soft but deadly coughing. Kinnexa whirled—hands flashing down, skirt flying up-and ran. Guards tried to head her off; tried to bring their own weapons to bear. Tried—failed—died.

It’s not explicit that Kinnexa is responsible for those kills, as opposed to Phryges picking them off to cover her, but given the range limitations of the air-guns and the implication that she drew her own weapons, I don’t think there’s any reasonable doubt that she’s fighting for herself.

Phryges, too, ran; ran backward. His blaster was out now and flaming, for no living enemy remained within needle range. A rifle bullet w-h-i-n-g-e-d past his head, making him duck involuntarily and uselessly. Rifles were bad; but their hazard, too, had been considered and had been accepted.

Huh. Ordinary bullet-firing rifles. They feel slightly out-of-place; blasters seemed to be set-up as the standard firearm. It seems like Norheim is still transitioning to personal energy weapons, or (since we don’t see them use any) haven’t gotten the power sources for them small enough yet. Transitional states can be a really good world-building tool, but this is a too nebulous to be effective.

Kinnexa reached the fighter’s port, opened it, sprang in. He jumped. She fell against him. He tossed her clear, slammed and dogged the door. He looked at her then, and swore bitterly. A small, round hole marred the bridge of her nose: the back of her head was gone.

Kinnexa gets a warrior’s death. It’s not particularly heroic, but she got the job done and was a fully-contributing member of the mission.

He leaped to the controls and the fleet little ship screamed skyward. He cut in transmitter and receiver, keyed and twiddled briefly. No soap. He had been afraid of that. They were already blanketing every frequency he could employ; using power through which he could not drive even a tight beam a hundred miles.

But he could still crash that missile in its tube. Or—could he? He was not afraid of other Norheiman fighters; he had a long lead and he rode one of their very fastest. But since they were already so suspicious, wouldn’t they launch the bomb before seven o’clock? He tried vainly to coax another knot out of his wide-open engines.

With all his speed, he neared the pin-point just in time to see a trail of super-heated vapor extending up into and disappearing beyond the stratosphere. He nosed his flyer upward, locked the missile into his sights, and leveled off. Although his ship did not have the giant rocket’s acceleration, he could catch it before it got to Atlantis, since he did not need its altitude and since most of its journey would be made without power. What he could do about it after he caught it he did not know, but he’d do something.

He caught it; and, by a feat of piloting to be appreciated only by those who have handled planes at super-sonic speeds, he matched its course and velocity. Then, from a distance of barely a hundred feet, he poured his heaviest shells into the missile’s war-head. He couldn’t be missing! It was worse than shooting sitting ducks—it was like dynamiting fish in a bucket! Nevertheless, nothing happened. The thing wasn’t fuzed for impact, then, but for time; and the activating mechanism would be shell-and shock-proof.

But there was still a way. He didn’t need to call Artomenes now, even if he could get through the interference which the fast-approaching pursuers were still sending out. Atlantean observers would have lined this stuff up long since; the Officer would know exactly what was going on.

Driving ahead and downward, at maximum power, Phryges swung his ship slowly into a right-angle collision course. The fighter’s needle nose struck the war-head within a foot of the Atlantean’s point of aim, and as he died Phryges knew that he had accomplished his mission. Norheim’s missile would not strike Atlantis, but would fall at least ten miles short, and the water there was very deep. Very, very deep. Atlantis would not be harmed.

There’s the real hero’s death. Kinnexa and Phryges gave their all in true action hero style, and stopped the missile. But we know it’s futile in the end, so…

It might have been better, however, if Phryges had died with Kinnexa on Norgrad Field; in which case the continent would probably have endured. As it was, while that one missile did not reach the city, its frightful atomic charge exploded under six hundred fathoms of water, ten scant miles from Atlantis’ harbor, and very close to an ancient geological fault.

There it is.

Artomenes, as Phryges had surmised, had had time in which to act, and he knew much more than Phryges did about what was coming toward Atlantis. Too late, he knew that not one missile, but seven, had been launched from Norheim, and at least five from Uighar. The retaliatory rockets which were to wipe out Norgrad, Uigharstoy, and thousands of square miles of environs were on their way long before either bomb or earthquake destroyed all of the Atlantean launching ramps.

And there’s the other shoe. The Norgrad-Uighar alliance’s first-strike only led to their own destruction from the Atlantean response, and presumably either the fallout or further infighting will doom the other nations as well.

But when equilibrium was at last restored, the ocean rolled serenely where a minor continent had been.

I like this. It builds up the opposition as genuinely threatening. This series has a fair number of defeats for the good guys, but most of them occur on the personal scale. Opening the story with a larger-scope loss (or two, or three) helps create a sense of risk that could carry through the rest of the story.

Join me next post for Chapter Three, and the next round of humanity being caught between other species’ differences.

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