Thursday, January 28, 2016

"A vast cloud of utter darkness"

There's a huge dark cloud--billions of miles across--near the center of the galaxy. It is an area in which visible light literally does not exist. You can't even bring an artificial light source into it, because not even this will not work. A scientist flew into the cloud some years ago to investigate, but he never came back. So the cloud is an unsolvable mystery.

Its position puts it right along side the futuristic version of Route 66. When the galaxy is united under one Federation, a lot of interstellar traffic will pass right by the cloud. So when a magnetic force suddenly reaches out from within the cloud, literally thousands of space ships are sucked into it.

This is the situation we find in "The Cosmic Cloud," the last of Edmond Hamilton's wonderful Interstellar Patrol stories. This story appeared in the November 1930 issue of Weird Tales. 

*Just as an aside, this was a pretty epic issue, including one of Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn stories (in which Bran teams up with a time-travelling King Kull), stories by Clark Ashton Smith and Seabury Quinn and a poem by H.P. Lovecraft. It also had a dinosaur on the cover.*

Hamilton's Captain Future was frequently saving the Solar System, but to the Interstellar Patrol, saving a mere solar system is what we would call "Tuesday." The Patrol stories dealt with threats that would annihilate the galaxy or perhaps the entire universe. At least one story involved the potential destruction of three universes.

So when Patrolmen Dur Nal and his crew are sent to investigate, it's no surprise that they do indeed find a galaxy-level threat. The Patrol ship is soon caught in the same magnetic beam that caught other ships and they are dragged onto a planet inside the cloud. The planet is just as pitch dark as the rest of the cloud.

This is where the story gets really cool. The Patrolmen are taken prisoner by aliens who apparently navigate purely by sound. Dur Nal manages to get away, but this leaves him wandering around a strange city in pitch darkness, not able to make the slightest sound without getting caught.

It is a unique and very creepy situation. And even when Dur Nal manages to hook up with the scientist who went missing in the cloud years ago and gets a pair of lenses that allows him to see, the overall situation is very grim. The blind aliens captured all those ships because they plan to launch an invasion that will bring utter darkness on the rest of the galaxy and allow them to take over.

Edmond Hamilton knew how to generate excitement and had a talent for making us believe in all the super-scientific stuff he throws at us. With around 10,000 words, he gives us the cosmic cloud that cancels visible light through some natural process, portable machines that can accomplish the same thing artificially, super-magnets that work by electrically charging the poles of the cloud planet, and ultra-violet googles that let you see in total darkness. Plus a race of aliens that use sound as effectively as we use sight.

And, by golly, I believe every word of it. I really do.

"The Cosmic Cloud" is available to read online HERE.

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