Earth’s Last Fortress (vt Masters of Time) – AE van Vogt (1950)
‘Volunteers for the tomorrow front
It looked like a perfectly innocent store front, a volunteer enrollment office for young idealists who wanted to help the desperate forces of a young democracy overseas win their civil war. The young girl who sat at the desk inside was attractive, sympathetic, and would see that you got your passage safely.
But it was all a trap. It was indeed a recruiting station, but the war for which it brainwashed its deluded cannon fodder was out of this world — remote in time, remote in space, and nobody would ever return alive. As for the girl — she was as much a slave of that monstrous future-world machine as if she were chained to the desk.
Except for one thing that even the inhuman super-science of EARTH’S LAST FORTRESS did not suspect — that Norma was the secret lever that could shatter their universe!’
Blurb from the 1960 D-431 Ace Doubles paperback edition
Norma Mathieson, a young woman planning to commit suicide by jumping into a river, is approached by a dark stranger and offered a job. She is to be a receptionist in a recruiting station where they are recruiting young men to fight for the ‘Calonian Cause’.
She is given a key to an apartment above the station and told that all she has to do is get the young men to fill out and sign a form, then send them through to a back room for a medical examination.
Norma soon realises that all is not what it seems as no one ever returns from beyond the door. The stranger who offered her the job, the mysterious Dr Lell, is recruiting men from all the ages of Earth and shipping them off to fight in a far future war.
Despite the fact that she has been mentally conditioned, Norma manages to write to an ex-lover, now a Professor, Jack Garson. Garson writes back to her, thinking her delusional, but then arrives in person and is pressganged by Dr Lell and sent off to join the frontline troops in the far future.
The plot is suitably vanVogtian and once again demonstrates the author’s slightly contradictory view of female psychology.
Norma is, after all, a weak and feeble woman who can not possibly stand up to the masculine dominance of Dr Lell, and yet she does.
Garson discovers that he needs to get a message to one of the Planetarians (who are battling The Glorious) to tell them that the time barrier which is being created to end the war has to be destroyed before it, in its turn, destroys the universe. Norma discovers that she is in mental rapport with Dr Lell’s giant (and sentient) machine and can manipulate its power to a certain extent.
Between them they can try and avert universal disaster.
Originally published in 1942 as ‘The Recruiting Station’ it is by no means one of van Vogt’s best works although it does have the usual oddly compelling narrative with fantastic twists and turns.
There are vast machines and their mobile appendages, the ‘tentacles’, and a far future Earth where vast armies are being slaughtered daily in a senseless war of ideologies. It’s interesting but perhaps fruitless to speculate what effect the progress of World War II was having on van Vogt when he originally wrote this in 1942. There is an interesting correlation between the young men going through a door for a medical examination but never returning, and the situation in Hitler’s concentration camps although this I suspect may be merely a chilling coincidence.