The Wizard of Starship Poseidon
Reviewed date: 2023 Jan 27
The Maxwell Fund
Professor Cheslin Randolph has a problem: this is his year to receive the grant from the Maxwell Fund, which was to pay for his experimental attempt to create artificial life. However, the Trustees have decided instead to give the money to Professor of Shavian Literature Helen Chase, to buy some dusty old manuscripts to try to prove her belief that the ancient writers "George Bernard Shaw and Herbert George Wells were one and the same man."
Incensed that his grant money has been stolen to fund frivolous nonsense, Professor Randolph does what any aggrieved academic would do: he rounds up a crew of ruffians and plans a heist. He will steal a consignment of cash from the Navy.
Because, of course, in the future they have interstellar travel but the salaries of all Navy personnel must be paid in cash, necessitating the delivery of huge pallets of currency to remote military outposts on desolate planets.
Randolph is thoroughly disagreeable and puffed up with his own importance. I don't like him.
Professor Cheslin Randolph enlists his nephew Terence Mallow and his assistant Professor Peter Howland. Mallow enlists the rest: Dr. Willi Haffner, an alcoholic but top-notch scientist, lately fired by the Chemical Company. A couple of ex-Navy guys, ex-Boatswain's Mate Duffy Higgs and ex-Chief Petty Officer Barny Cain. Con man Charles Sergeivitch Kwang. Stella Ramsy and Colin Ramsy. Sammy Larssen. Colonel Erwin Troisdorff. Fingers Kirkup. And a few other unnamed ruffians as hired muscle.
It's Fingers Kirkup that gets the group in trouble. Before they can put their plan into action, Kirkup gets himself murdered. Howland thinks Mallow killed Kirkup to keep him from squealing to the police. Mallow denies it, but also intimates that Howland will end up the same way if he tries to back out. Mallow is a bad dude.
Big bad government
Vice Chancellor Dudley Harcourt of Lewistead university pulls Randolph aside one day and lets slip a secret: the Maxwell Fund money isn't really being diverted to fund Helen Chase's literary ambitions. The money to buy a few manuscripts is a drop in the bucket. The bulk of the money has been appropriated by the government to fund new weapons research. Randolph is incensed. All humanity is united under one government, and there are no alien races as yet discovered. There is no use for weapons. Any qualms he had about stealing from the Navy are gone—they stole from him first!
Randolph and his outlaw gang board the Poseidon, ostensibly taking a little holiday. In reality they've concocted an elaborate plan to disable the crew and passengers using a bioengineered virus that's activated by an auditory trigger. Then they'll steal the cash from the cargo hold. What could possibly go wrong? A few members of the outlaw band suggest maybe the authorities will get suspicious when Randolph returns from his holiday flush with cash, but Randolph angrily says nobody would dare accuse a university professor of wrongdoing.
The jig is up
The only problem is Tim Warner, a nosy reporter who happens to be aboard the Poseidon chasing a story, and who keeps bumping into Randolph's gang at inopportune times. Warner turns out not to be a journalist but rather an agent of the Terran Space Navy Intelligence. He's been on to them the whole time. The jig is up.
Or is it? Just as Warner arrests Randolph and his co-conspirators, rebels from the Freedom Front stage an armed robbery. They're here to steal the money too! Stella Ramsy blows a special whistle and activates the virus, rendering everybody (except Randolph's crew, who has been inoculated) frozen and unconscious for 24 hours. Mallow, Diggs, and Cain arrive with a ship to carry off the money. Randolph and the gang steal the money, the only hiccup being that Mallow double-crosses Randolph and says there's no way he will hand over the money back on Earth when it's all done. Mallow and those loyal to him are thwarted by the virus—they were never inoculated, so quick-thinking Howland blows the special whistle and freezes them too. Kwang, Colonel Troisdorff, and Colin Ramsy will pilot the getaway ship. By the time the virus's effects wear off, the money is gone, the Freedom Front is blamed, and Randolph has gotten away with it.
Professor Randolph has his money and begins his research. He sets up on the lifeless planet Pochalin Nine; the creation of new life must not contaminate or be contaminated by a world with pre-existing life. They will live in a hermetically sealed habitat on Pochalin Nine for several years to oversee the research. The research is progressing swimmingly until Terence Mallow shows up. He's cross and wants money and revenge. Fortuitously, just as Mallow is about to start shooting, Warner and the authorities show up: Randolph's impeccable reputation as an academic notwithstanding, it wasn't hard to figure out who really stole the money.
A new election
But—surprise! While Randolph has been working on Pochalin Nine there has been a new election back on earth. The old government is out, the new guys are in. One of the new guys is Vice Chancellor Dudley Harcourt, Randolph's boss back at Lewistead university. Harcourt is now Secretary for Extra-Solar Affairs. He apologizes for the previous government's seizure of the Maxwell Fund grant, says that the funding will be restored the next year, and in the meantime the government is advancing Randolph a sum of money that matches precisely the amount he stole from the Poseidon. But all is not quite forgiven. Randolph did steal the money, and justice must be served. He is sentenced to two years in prison. And the name of the prison is—Pochalin Nine.