Triplanetary Agent

by William B. Ellern
Series: Lensman
Reviewed date: 2020 Jul 25
101 pages
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Triplanetary Agent is a Lensman story by William B. Ellern, who received permission from E. E. "Doc" Smith to write stories in the Lensman universe. Whether this makes Triplanetary Agent canon is a question I'm not prepared to answer. I do know that it was serialized across six issues of Perry Rhodan books in 1976. It has never been republished.

The Perry Rhodan translations into English--it is a German series--was an effort managed by Forrest J. Ackerman, and each issue contains quite a lot of non-Perry Rhodan material. Presumably Ackerman bought the story Triplanetary Agent. I'd love to know more about the origins of this, why it's never been republished, and why Ellern never wrote any more Lensman stories.

But alas, I'll never know.

Since the stories are so hard to find, I will summarize them in detail for those who are unable to spend the time or money tracking down six issues of Perry Rhodan from the 1970s.

Characters - Heroes
Bill Howard, Triplanetary Service Sector Chief
Larry McQueen, Triplanetary Service secret agent on Mercury
Bonny, McQueen's sweetheart
Noel Elliott, a repairman
Evans, member of Samms' staff
Captain of the Boise

Alburn Norwitsky, technician for Alice Springs Engineering
Frank Cue, owner of Alice Springs Engineering
Frankel, one of Frank Cue's goons
Don Wills, ex-Patrol veteran of the Third Jovian War
Extra-Solarians, non-human Pirates of an unknown race
Bacher, Head of Security
the General Agent, the pirate chief
Base Commander

Characters mentioned only:
Sid Fletcher (Triplanetary Service agent), Gill and Brandon (pirates), Samms

Mercury, a frontier planet with a mining economy
Sea of the Sun, a sea of molten tin on Mercury
The Bubble, a force-field-domed city on the shore of the Sea of the Sun
Keeps, underground shelters on Mercury, previously inhabited and now used for storage
Mercury Control
The shelter, underground shelter in the Bubble
Halliburton Keep, one of the three Keeps
Pirate research center
The Hill on Tellus

Places mentioned only:
Ed's Place (restaurant/bar on Mercury)

Triplanetary Patrol
Triplanetary Service
Golden Meteor, the badge of the Triplanetary Service
Alice Springs Engineering, a front for pirates
Mercury Mining
CUE-EKS, I.e., QX. The mental words "spoken" by the Golden Meteor badge when it is touched to verify the badge's authenticity
ultrawave spy-ray, spying goggles used by the Triplanetary Service
veeper (aka visiphone-recorder), a video phone communications device
meld, slang for sex
bedwarmer, slang meaning something akin to "loose" or "slut"
V-2 gas, illegal gas that knocks people out
hopper, local sub-orbital transport craft on Mercury
televisotype, a digital messaging network, and the device used to access that network
Signet Project, the pirate code name for the counterfeit badge operation
Lewiston, a model of gun
Patrol Tracking Network, space traffic control
Boise, the Patrol's new supership
semi-portable, a heavy weapon

Things mentioned only:
Triplanetary Research Labs (designers of the Golden Meteor badge), electroencephalopath (process or device by which Triplanetary Research Labs imprints the sounds Q-X onto the Golden Meteor badge), Third Jovian War, Wills Affair, pirate starship

Chapter 1: The Bubble
Published in Perry Rhodan #100, The Desert of Death's Domain
Bill Howard rides a space tug down to Mercury. He pumps the pilot and navigator for information about the new ground controller, Larry McQueen. They tell him McQueen is seeing Bonny, a waitress at Ed's Place.

Howard views the surface of Mercury: it looks like the moon, except for the Sea of the Sun, a lake of molten tin. On the shore is the Bubble, a domed city protected by a force field. The Bubble is the only city on Mercury, since the underground Keeps were converted into storage.

After arriving at the Bubble, Howard goes to see McQueen, who is a Triplanetary Service secret agent. Howard shows his Golden Meteor badge and identifies himself as the Sector Chief. He is investigating a criminal ring that is counterfeiting the Triplanetary Service's Golden Meteor badge.

Howard shows McQueen the latest Golden Meteor badge. McQueen touches it, and the sound "CUE-EKS" booms through his mind. Howard explains that "Q - X" is the best, most intelligible mental symbol that the Triplanetary Research Labs could imprint on the badge using their electroencephalopath. The mental sound authenticates the Golden Meteor badge as genuine. (In a footnote, the author tells us this is the source of the term QX, meaning okay or alright.)

Howard tells McQueen that one of these new badges has been stolen, and is being mailed to Alburn Norwitsky on Mercury. Norwitsky works for Alice Springs Engineering, a front company for a criminal gang run by Frank Cue. McQueen's job is to track the movement of stolen Golden Meteor badge and determine where the counterfeiting operation is located. Howard gives McQueen an ultrawave spy-ray set to aid in tracking the stolen badge; the badge gives off a big red ball of radiation when viewed via ultrawave, making it easy to track its location.

Next, Howard tells McQueen to stop seeing Bonny. There are only three types of girls on a frontier town like Mercury: prostitutes, wives, and working girls--and the working girls quickly end up in one of the first two categories. Howard tells McQueen not to abstain from sex and socializing--that would mark him as an agent--but having emotional entanglements will endanger both him and his sweetheart. McQueen reluctantly agrees to break it off, but Howard doesn't think he will.

The computer predicts a solar flare, so Howard leaves Mercury in a hurry to beat the storm.

McQueen returns to his apartment; Bonny stops by. McQueen is distant toward her. She questions him about it, and McQueen makes up a lie: he can't get too close to her, he says, because he witnessed a crime on Earth and now he's on the run from a criminal gang that wants to make sure he won't testify. He's afraid Bonny might get hurt if they come after him on Mercury.

Bonny and McQueen have a long conversation about their lives and their moral codes. McQueen says he's learning to grow out of his black-and-white Boy Scout moral code, and that the world isn't so simple anymore. He figures that whatever a person does to survive, that's morality. Bonny says her moral code is survival too, but a big part of survival is choosing who she wants to survive with--and she wants McQueen.

Thoughts about Chapter 1
The style is nothing like Doc Smith. If this were not tied into the Lensman universe, there would be no reason (yet) to recommend it.

I do like the explanation that Ellern invented for the origin of the term QX. It is the mental phrase that the Golden Meteor badge speaks into a person's mind when the person touches the badge. Thus, "Q-X" verifies that the badge is authentic, that it is OK. I've always wondered about that in the Lensman series, and his explanation makes so much sense. It's a bit of a retcon, since in Triplanetary it was specifically mentioned that the badge's mental word was unpronounceable, but Ellern says this new Golden Meteor that says "Q-X" is an improvement on the older badges. OK. Or rather, QX.

I'm not sure I like my Lensman universe quite this gritty. And by gritty, I mean Howard telling McQueen to let go of his Boy Scout morality, drop Bonny, and patronize prostitutes instead. That's the kind of realism I read space opera to escape, not to wallow in. I want Boy Scout morality. Lensman is the epitome of Boy Scout morality. So far, Triplanetary Agent isn't the Lensman universe I know and love.

Chapter 2: The Golden Meteors
Published in Perry Rhodan #101, Blockade: Lepso
McQueen proposes to Bonny. She accepts.

McQueen secretly observes Cue's crew disassemble and duplicate the stolen Golden Meteor badge. McQueen monitors the location of the counterfeit badges. Howard returns to Mercury and meets with the Sheriff. Cue's assassins try to kill Howard (and the Sheriff) with V-2 gas, but McQueen, using the ultra-wave spy-ray set, spots the plot in action and warns Howard in time. While preoccupied with the assassination attempt, McQueen loses track of the counterfeit Golden Meteor badges.

Assassins come to kill McQueen; he shoots one and takes the other prisoner. Frank Cue takes Bonny hostage, then shoots her twice and escapes, taking a hopper to Halliburton Keep on the dark side to rendezvous with Norwitsky. Howard takes Bonny to the hospital. The doctors do what they can, but her outcome is in doubt.

Cue blasts off from Mercury in a tug. Howard shoots down the tug with a multiplex projector. The tug crashes.

Howard and the Sheriff interrogate Frankel, the man McQueen took prisoner. Howard threatens to execute him if he won't talk--which, as a Triplanetary Service agent, he could get away with.

Thoughts about Chapter 2
In Chapter 1, the term ultrawave is one word. In part two, it's consistently spelled ultra-wave.

This chapter seems both rushed and overly long. We still don't know anything except that Frank Cue's outfit is definitely behind the counterfeit Golden Meteor badges. Larry McQueen has totally muffed the job. He lost track of the counterfeit badges, and he got too involved with Bonny and endangered her.

Also, who is the Sheriff? He wasn't mentioned in Chapter 1. What's his name? Is he to the Triplanetary Service's presence on Mercury? If he is, why isn't McQueen reporting to him? And if he's not, why is Howard meeting with him? Lots of unanswered questions.

Chapter 3: The Extra-Solarians
Published in Perry Rhodan #102, Spoor of the Antis
Howard plays Russian Roulette with Frankel's life. Frankel talks. Norwitsky was the head of the operation, Frank Cue was just the front man. Norwitsky "printed" fake Golden Meteor badges from plastic using advanced technology like nothing Frankel had ever seen, with markings in a language Frankel didn't recognize.

Bonny is out of surgery but still unconscious in critical condition. McQueen and Howard review the tapes and conclude Norwitsky was not on the tug with Cue. Further research into the records reveals that Norwitsky is a real unknown: they can't trace his comings and goings, or even determine how he first arrived on Mercury. Now it appears he's left Mercury by unknown means.

The Sheriff questions Frankel further, and Frankel gives up Don Wills. Howard, McQueen and the Sheriff question Wills, who bargains for his own safety: he offers tapes of detailed evidence about the pirate organization, and he offers to give up the location of the Pirate research center. Suddenly someone throws a fragmentation grenade into the room.

Meanwhile, at the Pirate research center, five men--most of them of an "extra-solarian race"--discuss the situation. Bacher, the Head of Security, thinks Howard is unaware of the Signet Project, that is, the counterfeiting operation. The General Agent is unsure, but is more concerned that the Triplanetary Service not become aware of the Wills Affair. Bacher says he has all possibilities covered: whatever he learns, Howard will never report back to Tellus.

Thoughts about Chapter 3
Well, things are getting interesting. The badge counterfeiting--the Signet Project--is just one part of the pirate operation. The bigger conspiracy is the Wills Affair, whatever that is. Also there are aliens involved. I'm not clear whether Norwitsky is an alien; I think not.

One bit stuck out as odd to me, but the author was correct after all. Howard tells Frankel: "You mentioned duplicating the Meteors," but in fact Frankel had only ever talked about the badges in response to a direct question about them. However, upon a careful re-reading of Chapter 2, it turns out that although the Sheriff asked Frankel about the "counterfeit Golden Meteors," it was indeed Frankel who mentioned duplicating them. Specifically, he denied duplicating them--which was not precisely what the Sheriff had asked, so Frankel gave himself away there.

Chapter 4: "We Kill McQueen"
Published in Perry Rhodan #103, False Front
Howard, McQueen, the Sheriff, and Wills take cover. The grenade explodes. McQueen shoots the would-be assassin with his Lewiston, then passes out. He awakens in a hospital. The doctor tells him Wills and the Sheriff are dead, along with two civilians in the apartment nextdoor. Two goons were shot dead. Howard survived and is in the next room. Howard shows McQueen a gun taken from the man McQueen shot: it's small, advanced, and of unknown origin. The markings on it are in an unknown language.

Four assassins come to kill Howard and McQueen, but the Service agents gun them down first. Howard and McQueen try to call Tellus, first on the visiphone and then via televisotype, but someone is blocking communications. Norwitsky calls Howard on the veeper (visiphone) and threatens to destroy the Bubble if he tries again to contact the Patrol.

McQueen takes a repairman, Noel Elliot, and goes outside the Bubble to investigate the transmitting antenna. It's been sabotaged. A pirate in space armor takes them hostage, loads them into a hopper.

At the Pirate research center, five men are again meeting in council. This time, Norwitsky is one of the five. Norwistky explains his plans to recover the incriminating tapes Wills left, and then to kill McQueen and Howard.

The pirate takes McQueen and Elliot to the secret underground base near the Mercury North Pole and locks them in a cell. McQueen keeps Howard apprised via ultrawave. Two guards arrive to take McQueen and Elliot to their doom.

Thoughts about Chapter 4
Wow, a lot of stuff happens. Things are moving fast.

I notice that Boise is given a mention. I can't recall exactly but I think that places this story after the events in the book Triplanetary. It's definitely before First Lensman, because there are no Lensmen yet, and this is still the Triplanetary days. Also, it's before New Lensman, which we know is concurrent with events in First Lensman, so that makes sense. I'm still fuzzy on the precise timeline. How many years pass between Triplanetary and First Lensman? I'll have to look that up.

Chapter 5: Inside the Pirate Base
Published in Perry Rhodan #104, The Man with Two Faces
McQueen pretends to light a cigarette, then throws the lighter which explodes in a flash, blinding the two guards. McQueen kills them. He and Noel Elliot, pretending to be new pirate recruits, head to the warehouse and bully the attendant into giving them armor and a semi-portable. They take over the communications center and contact the Hill on Tellus. McQueen talks with Evans, a member of Samms' general staff, and asks him to send Boise to reduce the pirate base. Then McQueen and Noel Elliot move through the pirate base with the semi-portable, killing pirates and destroying equipment. Howard, still in contact with McQueen via ultra-wave, lets him know that Boise is still an hour away.

In a secure part of the pirate base, the top pirate officials meet. Norwitsky offers excuses for letting McQueen escape custody. The General Agent is not prepared to reveal his new starship to the Triplanetary Patrol, so he will withdraw himself and key personnel to the ship before Boise arrives. He tells the Base Commander to contact him if and when they destroy Boise.

McQueen and Noel Elliot's semi-portable runs low on power, so they abandon it and pretend to be wounded pirates. They steal another semi-portable.

Thoughts about Chapter 5
This is a pretty basic plot advancement. All the elements are in place: the Patrol is about to arrive in force, but we know the pirates have a surprise (or two) waiting.

Noel Elliot is not a Triplanetary Service agent, but he seems pretty quick on the uptake, and has no trouble in combat. Neither McQueen nor Noel Elliot have any trouble slaughtering pirates by the dozens.

I'm not totally clear on how Howard learned that Boise was an hour away. It was McQueen who contacted the Patrol using the pirate communications equipment, so how was Howard back at the Bubble able to get word from the Patrol? Surely their communications are still being blocked by the pirates. Maybe the Triplanetary Service contacted him via ultra-wave once McQueen made contact. But in that case, why not contact McQueen directly? Why relay a message through Howard?

In trying to determine the timeline, I'm even more confused now. Certainly this is pre-Lensman era. We've got Boise referred to as the Triplanetary Patrol's "new supership" so it must be relatively soon after the events in Triplanetary. However, we've also got a mention of the Hill and of Samms as a bigwig, and if that refers to Virgil Samms, he was in First Lensman, not Triplanetary. Ah, but I just checked. In Triplanetary, Samms is already the head of the Triplanetary Service, and Kinnison is Commissioner of Public Safety, head of the Triplanetary's armed forces. OK. I had thought there was a generation between Triplanetary and First Lensman, but I seem to be misremembering. Oops.

Chapter 6: Space Ablaze
Published in Perry Rhodan #105, Wonderflower of Utik
McQueen has Howard tell Boise to hold off for a few minutes while he and Noel Elliot take shelter in an auxiliary battery control center. Then Boise opens up her beams. The base's defensive screens hold, and the pirates return fire from five batteries. Boise's captain suspects the pirates are holding something back to catch Boise when she goes inert, so he has Boise simulate an inert attack with a drill beam while actually remaining free. The pirates tip their hand: they have a drill beam too.

McQueen and Noel Elliot take control of the battery. Boise begins her attack in earnest, hitting the base's screens with a drill. The pirates hit Boise back with their drill. McQueen and Noel Elliot use their battery to take out the pirates' drill. The pirates open up their macro-beams from two batteries. McQueen and Noel Elliot take out one of the macro-beam batteries before their own battery is neutralized.

Boise penetrates the base's screens and destroys the pirate base. McQueen and Noel Elliot dig their way out and Boise rescues them. They have not salvaged any useful information from the pirate base. The remains of the pirate base self-destruct. No pirate is left alive.

Boise's captain relays a message from Howard to McQueen: "Bonny is asking for you. The doctors are giving her a good chance to make it."

Thoughts about Chapter 6
First, enough with the passing messages. Howard can call McQueen direct, so why is he passing messages via Boise's captain?

Second, this ending is unsatisfactory. We don't know who the pirates are. We don't know where the extra-solarians are from. We don't learn anything more about their secret new spaceship. The destination of the fake Golden Meteors is never found--McQueen really failed there; the pirates counterfeited a whole bunch of them and got away with it. Really, this is just bitterly disappointing.

Third: in this section Ellern is trying to mimic Smith's style. The descriptions of the screens and beams and drills sounds almost Smithian. It's not Smith, but it sounds like someone attempting his style, and I appreciate the attempt. Thank you!

Also, I truly enjoyed this little line where the Captain of Boise wonders if the pirates have updated their technology:

"It's been almost 4 months since the Nevian war," he said. "They should have, at least, updated their stuff to what was used then."

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