THE EMPEROR'S GAMBIT
by Charles Lee Jackson II
HOLLYWOOD WAS JUST waking up outside the studio, that bright clear Spring Monday
Now, if you're wondering why a federal agent would be turning to a movie producer for help, it's easy to explain. Though my main job is entertaining people, I've long had a sideline as a champion of Justice.
My name is Charles Lee Jackson, the Second, also known, as the above dialogue indicates, as "The Emperor", originally a reflection of the entertainment empire I was building, but also an apt name, given my special aptitudes. I had a disability as a child, and overcoming that disability was only a start for me; for, as a friend once told me, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. I worked at it very hard, as much to shame those who told me I never could as to improve myself. And I really did overdo it, at least as far as some people are concerned. I've become very smart, very fast, somewhat bullet-proof, and a little magical. My only real shortcoming is my modesty.
Seriously, I decided that if I had the power to help others and crush crime, I really ought to use that power to do so. In the course of this I've made a lot of like-minded friends and gained enough respect that people like Max Decker would turn to me.
As for the movie part, my friends in the trouble-busting game have graciously allowed me to recreate some of their adventures. I used to make movies about them; these days I'm a little too busy, so I stick to prose.
BUT IN THOSE by-gone days of the 'seventies, my little studio doubled as a headquarters for the people I called "Swashbucklers" and whom others called "J-Men", Justice Men (and woman), free-lance crimefighters.
Though we didn't know it yet, everybody else was aware of the problem onto which Max Decker had stumbled. We, however, were just getting started. In those days, on my lapel I wore an insignia with my company logotype, my signature in red on a silver background in a blue ellipse. But it wasn't just a badge, it was a two-way radio. "Richmond?" I addressed my radio operator. Working from a secret location, never seen by the public, he'd been with me a decade, and never failed to be on the job when anyone radioed or telephoned. But this time, there was no response. "...Richmond?" Nope, no answer. I picked up the office 'phone and dialed nine-nine-nine.
"Richmond, why aren't—" the static was awful. I asided to Deck, "Jeez, you're right, I can barely hear him...." Back into the telephone: "Why aren't you answering the wireless? ...Oh." I cradled the receiver.
"Richmond says he's been off the air since about four AM. The satellite microwave beamer faded out in the last half hour."
"Which means?" Deck asked.
"Which means that there must be what amounts to a world-wide radio blackout – and enough static on the 'phone lines to close down all communications in the world."
Decker blinked. "Any idea who could be doing it?"
I mused a moment. "Continent-Eight doesn't have the technology – they tried something like this a few years ago, on a very limited scale, and it didn't work." Continent-Eight being a world-wide organization of criminals, our most frequent opponents, about whom you'll learn more in time.
"Hmmm," Deck considered at length, "it shouldn't affect the telegraph lines…."
"That's an idea. Once the word gets out, or actually, doesn't get out, I expect some of our compatriots will turn up here, but if not, I'll get the word out one way or another and maybe we can learn something about what's going on out there."
"OUT THERE", THINGS were popping. Over at LA International Airport, the RADAR was out, and the runways were being frantically cleared as a jumbo seven-forty-seven made its approach. The pilot, running on Visual Flight Rules, was trying to land the crate by the seat of his pants….
…At Station Twelve of the aforementioned Continent-Eight, the Communications Chief was trying to comply with a request from Maskman, one of the people in charge. Tall and broad-shouldered, his identity was concealed by a steel helmet.
"Sorry, Leader Four. I can't connect you with Station One. We have white noise on all channels."
Maskman – whose only link to the outside world was his radio – could barely hear her speaking. "What? I can't hear you – I've got white noise on my radio." He tapped his pocket communicator, but it didn't help….
…In the south of England, an old retired officer from the lancers was annoyed. His butler was having trouble tuning in the BBC broadcast.
"Sorry, sir. The Home Service seems to not be on the air today."
"Dash it all," the old gentleman complained. "Whatever happened to reliability? Whatever happened to pride in your work?
"That's the second time in twenty years."
A STURDILY BUILT fellow entered my office without an introduction from the girl in the outer office. It was my partner, David McDaniel. Dave, author of an assortment of spy novels and SF stories, was also a proficient marksman who sometimes joined me on my adventures. At the studio, he mostly practiced his favorite trade, as Director of Photography and Key Film Editor. Additionally, he kept an eye on things on the set until I arrived to take over the Director's chair.
Presumably, he had come up to report on the morning's studio activity. Radio or no, Production would go right along – at least unless the static interfered with the Nagra sound recorders.
"See?" I said, "They're floating in already. Max Decker, you remember my right-hand man, David McDaniel?" Max waved a greeting.
"Hiya, Siya," Dave responded, "Hi, Deck." He brushed a stray lock of his pale brown hair away from his green eyes and said, "I was just down on the set. Robin's supervising the swing gang down on stage B. …Who's floating in?"
"Nobody in particular, just Swashbucklers in general. I've got a feeling we've got a big problem ahead."
"Bob and Bill expected?" Dave asked. He referred to our comrades in film and arms, Robert Short and William Mills, who not only worked on stunts, effects, and music for CLJII Pictures, but also lent their fists and brains to the fight for Justice.
"Well," I explained, "Robert is up at Vasquez Rocks with the Effects crew placing charges for tomorrow's location shoot. Lord knows where William has gotten himself to... But I assume they'll both be along sometime today."
The door opened again, and my Executive Secretary stepped in. Heather McKenzie, beautiful, smart, with pretty blue-green eyes and soft light brown, almost blonde, hair, had been with me for several years, handling everything from a Continent-Eight attack to stalling off no-talent Hollywood bimbettes looking for work.
"Sire? There's a woman outside to see you." It was a familiar situation, though not one often brought to my attention.
"Only one?" quipped McDaniel.
"Well," McKenzie allowed, "there are about a dozen waiting... but this one seemed special."
The girl in question had poked her head in. Seeing who she was, I said, "She certainly is!"
She came running to my open arms. "Uncle Sire," she cried.
"Illenya Petrina," I greeted her.
As we hugged, I remembered our last meeting – which had also been our first. Visiting a Soviet science conference, to which I had been invited as someone who represented the West and did not represent US foreign policy, I had met Pyotr Vostok, a member of a science group I won't name, and had been invited to stay at his home. There I was introduced to his pretty teen-aged daughter, who, having shown the aptitude, was already working with her father. Like all pretty teenage girls, she was quite taken with me.
That had been nineteen seventy-three, and she'd done an excellent job of growing up in the interim. Even having her blonde hair pulled into a severe bun in the back didn't detract from her milky complexion and bright blue eyes; and the plain sweater and skirt and boots she wore didn't hide her attractive figure.
McKenzie gave her the eye and turned on a heel, leaving.
"It is good to see you again," Illenya told me, "and I wish that was my only reason for coming." She indicated the others in the room. "May I speak freely?"
"Yes." I introduced the gentlemen, and ushered the girl to a sofa.
"My country has sent me to ask you to once again help with a difficult situation; to ask you to oversee the decommissioning of Utrennaya Zvyozdochka as a gesture of peace to the western nations."
Not many things catch me off guard. This did. "You mean Utrennaya Zvyozdochka still exists?"
Deck, surprised at my sudden concern, asked, "What's this 'Utrennaya' whasis?"
"Utrennaya Zvyozdochka," McDaniel thought a moment. "That's Russian for... 'Morning Star'."
"That's right," I said. "A very poetic name for something quite the contrary.
"It's a leftover from the frantic 'fifties: an automatic nuclear retaliatory base located in the Caucasus. It launches a strike automatically unless countermanded every twelve hours by a coded radio signal!"
Deck, who had leaned back against my desk, jumped to attention. "Say what? But… that would mean—"
"Exactly. And from her calm demeanor, I doubt Illenya knows that there's a world-wide radio blackout!"
The Russian gasped. "What is this?"
I explained what we believed about the interference.
She blanched. "But if Moskva cannot radio the base, the computer will assume that Russka has been destroyed!"
"Yes," I added, "and blast the US to atomic rubble in retaliation! Unless we can get there in time and stop it!"
I turned to Max Decker. This re-stacked the cards. "This is far more important than the radio blackout itself. The whole world could be doomed! You hold down the fort here. I'll be back."
I headed for the side door, the one that led straight to the inner courtyard. "Illenya – come with me – quick!!"
I breezed past McKenzie, who, having overheard the whole story, was returning from her office. McDaniel joined her as I left. She remarked, "If he's not back in a few hours, the whole world could be doomed."
David nodded absently. "Maybe we should run and hide.
"...As soon as we figure out where."
RESTING IN A launching cradle in a courtyard beyond sound stage A was a singular aircraft. Designed like a scaled-down Concorde, with swept-back delta wings and a droop nose, His Majesty's – well, My – Ship Skystar was the only 'plane of its kind. The entire underside of the fuselage was lined with plates made of CL-arium, a unique metal the properties of which include the ability to screen out the force of gravity itself. Since I'd discovered it and found a way to synthesize it, I got to name it. I told you modesty wasn't one of my strong points.
As Illenya strapped herself in, I fired up the twin Rolls-Royce engines. The ship trembled against the docking clamps, until I touched the button that blew them free.
Skystar shot into the heavens at tremendous speed. With an effective weight of only a few pounds, the engines could push the massive craft well beyond the speed of sound. We'd be over the Soviet Union in a couple of hours.
Lining up on magnetic north, I pushed back from the control panel. George could fly it from here. I needed more info from Illenya.
"Do you know the details of how 'Morningstar' is set up?"
"No, no details," she said. "I was just to ask you to meet with our people and watch so that your President would be assured of our sincerity."
"He's not my President," I pointed out. "Without the schematics, and with so little time to spare, I may have to do this the hard way."
"Rockets don't fly very well if you've beaten them to pulp with your bare hands."
FAR BELOW, MY friends watched the tiny black speck that was Skystar disappear into the northern sky. McDaniel's trained eye spotted something else, though. He pointed and asked, "What's that?"
The others saw it too, a tiny gleam of light racing across the heavens, doing something all but impossible: catching up with Skystar!
Then the glint vanished, but a moment later something happened to prove that it had not been an optical illusion.
As something flashed past my field of vision, Skystar was rocked by a tremendous explosion!!
The port engine was wrecked, and the whole ship lurched over. Illenya, who had released her seat belt, was thrown across the cabin. Falling myself, I got under her and kept her from harm.
With the starboard engine still going full blast, the ship began to loop into a left-handed spin, zooming out-of-control around the sky.
I made a dive for an access panel – closer than the controls at the moment – and cut the engines. Skystar continued its caper across the heavens, but at least it gained a modicum of stability.
Now going to the control console, I flipped the switch to allow for individual control of the CL-arium plates. By rocking the application of gravity, I hoped to straighten out the ship. The problem with gravity manipulation is that inertia doesn't like to play along.
Presently I had us on a straight course. By letting gravity pull on the tail assembly, I slowed our forward motion. Then I set all the panels at point zero zero five of one G and let Skystar float toward the ground. Below was the Antelope Valley, with plenty of acceptable touchdown points.
I glanced back toward Hollywood, musing, "They're going to be somewhat surprised down on the ground when they see what hit us."
Illenya, whose hair had come undone in the shaking, was busily fixing it, but stopped to ask, "You saw something? What did it look like?"
I had a sketch pad handy, and put my pen to it, drawing a distinctive shape, with highlighting and everything. Illenya recognized it. Anyone would.
It was a flying saucer!
A REAL BARN BURNER
EVEN AS WE drifted to the Valley floor, that flying saucer was similarly floating down to a landing field somewhere west of us. A vehicle made entirely of a glass-like material; the convex disc was all but invisible in the air – except when sunlight glinted off it. Close up, you could see the indistinct silhouettes of two men inside.
It touched down in the corral of a small farmhouse, though perhaps "farm" wasn't the right word. The corral was filled with half a dozen of the glass discs. Stands of tall trees concealed the improvised landing field from the nearby highway.
As the pilot, a short fellow with an oily complexion, opened a hatch and exited his craft, another man approached him. This fellow also had a shiny face, as though he was a profuse sweater. Both men wore the same outfit, blue-gray coveralls with a large red keystone design on the back.
The pilot was informed that the commander awaited his report. Heading into the main house on the trot, he entered a room filled with scientific paraphernalia. Sitting on an ordinary looking table was a complicated device that included a round glass viewplate just below a tiny lens.
The pilot touched a button, and the viewscreen brightened with the image of an angry man.
He too had that oily complexion, but wore a different outfit, at least as much as could be seen on the screen.
The two men carried on a conversation in a very foreign sounding tongue. The pilot explained that, on a patrol, he had seen an aircraft make a vertical ascent, and had shot it down at once.
The commander wanted to know from where the craft had arisen, and was surprised to learn that it had come from a moving-picture studio.
He couldn't think what a fancy vehicle like that would be doing at such a place, but its very existence suggested a higher technology that he'd expected. The people responsible for the ship might uncover their plans.
IT WAS A good concern, for later that day, after Illenya and I had returned to my offices, I was saying much the same thing to Max Decker.
"...We may uncover their plans – if they're the ones who are blanketing the spectrum and blacking out all radio and 'phone communication."
Deck lighted a cigarette, asking, "Do you think they know about 'Morningstar'? If they do, who'd gain anything from a nuclear war?"
I thought about it a moment, then suggested, "Someone who's afraid of the dark? He'd have enough five-legged glow-in-the-dark sheep to last a long time."
Illenya wasn't happy with this badinage. "Uncle, can you be serious?"
"Time enough for that later. But what about your people? Are our Soviet friends on the job?"
"I'm afraid that the guards at Utrennaya Zvyozdochka are instructed to ignore any and all blandishments from outside their fence. They will probably shoot as a traitor anyone approaching the site."
"Well, there is another way," I pointed out. "That flying disc is a hot lead. Since I dislike the inference of coincidence, it suggests that the black-out guys have people in this area. If we can locate them we might be able to deactivate whatever's causing the problem. Then Moscow can radio the code message to reset the timer on the missiles."
"But how can you find them in time?" she asked.
"If I can't, I can still go to the Caucasus the fastest way I can – alone. But we have," I consulted the wall clock and dredged up the memory of the code sequence (something the Soviets didn't know I knew, big surprise) and announced, "five and a half more hours before things get messy. We can wait a while yet before panicking."
"Actually, I think we can start panicking now," countered Max Decker, who had stepped to the window for his smoke. "Look."
My eyes followed the line of his pointing finger. It looked like a formation of window-panes, 'way off in the distance. Then suddenly the glints of light disappeared.
"Where'd they go?" Deck asked.
My eyes were keener. "Still there – they've just begun to descend. And they're headed right this way. I think we've got a fight on our hands."
"Against your flying saucers? How can we out-fly something that catch Skystar?"
"We can't. But maybe we can out-maneuver them."
THE MAIN DRIVE of the Studio ran from the front gate to the flight of stone steps leading up a hill to a low bluff atop which sat the modest mansion in which I was living at the time. Behind the offices was a hangar where repairs were done on Skystar and where several other craft were stored. Among these were some special ships I thought might serve our purpose at the moment.
The three bi-planes were parked at the base of the cliff, warming up, when David, Deck, and I got there a minute later. It pays to have a crew standing by, let me tell you. Two of the ships, a blue one and a green one, were fitted up to look like World War æroplanes. The lead ship, black and shiny, was mine.
The flight of glass discs, six of them, was just diving on the studio, so close they were clearly visible. They zoomed overhead, dropping some sort of bombs that whistled like the kind the Nazis used to use. One hit the hangar roof, splashing some sort of flaming chemical over the building. Another hit near Stage B. The others plunked down in the studio lake, landing with a whoomp! and burst of steam.
The fire alarm went off and men ran to put out the blazes. I waved to Dave and Deck and raced the motor in my 'plane, rolling forward. We all had to dodge around the firefighters, but taxied down the main driveway and got into the air without difficulty, skimming the sign over the driveway entrance by inches.
The discs stopped dead in the air and reversed direction, heading, as I had hoped, for us instead of the studio lot. I pulled an inside wingover and flew straight at them, breaking up their formation. Deck followed me around, and got one of them in his sights.
His ship had twin guns, synchronized with the propeller, and he blasted away, hitting the disc a dozen times before it jerked out of the way.
Dave had gone over the top, and dropped down on two of the enemy, blazing away. Rolling over, he just missed getting hit by some sort of ray beam.
McKenzie and Illenya watched in fascination. Above them, the three little bi-planes soared around, making tight turns, loops, and rolls, while the almost invisible discs cut right angles through the flight patterns.
At one point, David dropped down, swinging up, and discovered that he was invisible to the enemy from that angle. Decker caught on, and the two of them began swooping up on the discs, scoring repeated hits.
At first the discs had seemed unaffected by the fusillades, but presently began to show signs of wear and tear under the long bursts the boys could now fire. Two of the saucers had begun to wobble, and retreated.
To keep the others busy, I kept arcing overhead, confounding the enemy pilots with my prescient out-maneuvering of their ray blasts.
Then one of the saucers dropped straight down, as though damaged, but abruptly stopped and wheeled up after Dave's 'plane. I snapped back the stick, tumbling my ship over backward, and dived straight at the disc. My 'plane had no guns, but it had me.
Just short of a collision, I rolled the 'plane over and dropped out, hurtling straight at the menacing saucer. Turning over, I came at them feet-first. I can't imagine what the people inside must've thought.
I hit the disc's trailing edge, jolting it severely. Taking the impact with bended knee, I bounced back, springing up and into my æroplane again as it loop-de-looped around.
The glass disc, though, spun out-of-control, and hurtled to earth, crashing against the hillside near my house. At that, the three remaining saucers suddenly zipped away, heading west and up at tremendous speed.
I signaled Dave and Deck to land, but ascended to check on the enemy. The discs were already out of sight for normal eyes, but I could just make them out.
When they descended toward a farm of some sort out past Agoura Hills, I got a visual fix on it and turned back for the studio. I'd had enough aircraft shot out from under me for one day.
AN HOUR LATER I was westbound on the Ventura Freeway, sitting in the back seat of a very special automobile. By the time I'd returned to the studio, Dave and Deck were waiting anxiously to get going again. Mister Mills and Mister Short had also arrived, and were champing at the bit to join in whatever was going on.
That made quite a gang, and so, when I explained our next step, it was decided that we'd take Robert's car, it being the biggest.
Bob Short's car, a big Chrysler. was a replica of "Black Beauty" from the "Green Hornet" television series. As we were climbing aboard, Illenya came running out after us.
Rather than argue with her, I let her come along. Robert drove, with Dave and Deck up front. Bill Mills sat behind Bob, while Illenya leaned against me.
As the road dropped into the Conejo Valley, I directed Bob's attention to some structures partially visible through a stand of trees north of the highway. At the next ramp, we got off, beginning a jaunt through a maze of back-country roads none of which seemed to go where we wanted to go. Finally, I told Bob to pull up beside the railroad tracks beyond which were the target trees.
"Stay with the car," I told Illenya.
"Maybe I better stay with her," Bill offered.
Bob opened his door and hauled him out. "Maybe you'd better come with us. Be easier on my upholstery."
She locked the doors from the inside as we started across the right-of-way. Deck checked his pistol, a Police Positive thirty-eight, and kept it in his hand. Dave, Bill, and Bob, each of whom carried a nine-millimeter Walther P-thirty-eight, checked his piece and then replaced it in his shoulder holster.
BEYOND THE TREES was an old board fence, and beyond that the corral being used as a landing field for those glass saucers. Workmen were toiling over two of the discs, spackling on some compound that seemed to heel the pits and gouges made by machine-gun fire.
The boys crouched down against the trees while I slipped up to the fence, locating a proximity-alarm wire running along the upper edge. I signaled to the others to head along the trees toward the rear of the barn, and disappeared.
A minute later I joined them behind the barn, about ten feet from the fence. "The alarm wire goes all the way around. We'll have to go over the top."
Dave wasn't happy about that, and Deck was puzzled. "Over the top? How?"
"Watch," Bill told him.
I stood a few feet from the fence, and Bill ran straight toward me. As he passed I grabbed him and threw him over the fence, a sort of a pop fly. He landed in the grass behind the barn, tucking, rolling, and coming up to his feet.
Bob followed a moment later. Stuntmen, both of them were used to this kind of thing. Dave, a cameraman, wasn't. But Bob and Bill beckoned him to come on, and finally he did.
He landed a bit clumsily, though the boys caught him handily. I threw Deck after them and pointed for them to slip inside the barn. Then I went around the long way again.
They entered through the side door to a tack room, and checked out the barn.
Though hay was piled up in the loft, it was obviously a long time since the place had been used in any farming activity. Pitchforks, hoes, and assorted tools lay along one side. Horse tack could be seen through the open door to a small room. A bulldozer, probably last used to level the corral for a landing field, stood against the rear wall.
Meanwhile, I was slipping into the main house through a window on the far side.
I was in a bedroom that had been converted to some sort of barracks. Ten wooden cots, hardly more than pallets, filled up the room. Between each pair was a table made of one of those big wooden spools used for heavy cable.
On one of these was an odd-looking book with a green cloth cover. At the time I noticed it only in passing. Because just then I heard the alarm.
It was just a buzzer from the next room, but the commotion it caused left no doubt as to its meaning. I went back outside to see what was up.
Three men were running toward the rear fence. There they jumped someone who was trying to hide.
It was Illenya. Apparently, she had found herself unable to sit and wait and, despite my instructions, had followed us. Unawares, she had set off the proximity alarm. Two men in coveralls began to drag her toward the house, and I prepared for the standard rescue scene.
But then the third man barked an order, speaking some language I didn't understand, and he and one of the first two entered one of the discs, dragging the girl with them.
It began to rise almost immediately, leaving me no choice. I raced forward from concealment and leaped for the disc. As I did, voices began yelling.
I just caught the lip of the saucer, dragging it down, but the ship kept going, hauling me away with it.
Dozens of the coveralled workers came running out of the house, pointing and shouting. The commotion brought my boys to the barn door, trying to see what was going on without being seen.
They failed at the latter. The first they realized this was when a ray-gun blast exploded against the door near them. Workers brandishing ray-pistols began firing at them, and the boys dived for cover.
The boys returned the fire, but few targets presented themselves. Meanwhile, ray-gun blasts were igniting tiny fires all over the front of the building.
And then a ray-blast hit the hay! The dry straw all but exploded from the heat, raining fiery brands all around the boys!
Deck ran for the door to the tack room, dodging just in time as a ray-gun beam shot through from outside. The others retreated toward him, before they realized there was no place to go!
As the fire spread, the hayloft collapsed and the walls began to buckle!!
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