Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Baroness #10: A Black Hole To Die In (unpublished volume)


The Baroness #10: A Black Hole To Die In, by Paul Kenyon
Undated manuscript, circa Fall 1976

I’ve been interested in this unpublished volume of The Baroness since I learned about it years ago on the Baroness Yahoo Group, where series author  Donald “Paul Kenyon” Moffitt revealed – via an interview with ppsantos – that the plot concerned a black hole in outer space. Given Moffitt’s later ventures in sci-fi, A Black Hole To Die In offered a lot of potential; each volume of the series had an overlay of science fiction, at least insofar the gadgets Penny “The Baroness” St. John-Orsini employed on her assignments, but this one sounded like it could go even further in that direction. But as it turns out, A Black Hole To Die In stays fairly grounded for the majority of the narrative, until literally blasting off into space in the final pages. 

One thing to point out at the start is that this manuscript made me revisit my assumption of when Moffitt was writing. Internal evidence, which I’ll document, indicates that A Black Hole To Die In was written no earlier than September of 1976. This changes everything I speculated about in my review of the previous unpublished manuscript, #9: Death Is A Copycat.  It is now evident that Moffitt was writing this manuscript long after the last official installment of the series, #8: Black Gold, was published, in February of 1975. In that Yahoo Group Moffitt also stated he became ill after writing Black Gold and took some time off; when he returned he wrote these two manuscripts, only to find out later that the series was cancelled. However we know that Death Is A Copycat was published in France, in January of 1976, given the info at this site. This would indicate that Moffitt certainly wrote Death Is A Copycat in 1975, or even late 1974. Given this, I propose that Moffitt, writing on that Yahoo Group many decades later, had his dates and titles confused – maybe it was after he wrote Death Is A Copycat, not Black Gold, that he became sick, hence the delay until he wrote A Black Hole To Die In in late 1976. 

Unfortunately, as will be seen from the screenshots below, the 285-page manuscript of A Black Hole To Die In is in pretty bad shape. The paper is very yellowed and the typescript has faded over the decades, making for a sometimes-difficult read. I get the impression that this is a copy Moffitt made for himself before mailing the original to Engel, given the sometimes-blurry nature of the print, but who knows. Again, it’s a miracle it even exists, and I’m only just pointing this out now so as to explain why the screenshots might be a little hard to read. Also as you can tell by the manuscript title page above, so far as Moffitt was concerned this was the tenth volume of the series; in other words there’s no accounting for Robert Vardeman’s also-unpublished installment, Quicktime Death.

As with the review for Death Is A Copycat, I’ll be even more comprehsensive in this review than I usually am…as before, this will be more of a blow-by-blow account of the manuscript, given its unpublished nature. Off the top I’ll say I mostly enjoyed A Black Hole To Die In, save for some issues with the climax, but as with the previous unpublished installment it’s a shame it never made it to print. Moffitt continues to be fully invested in the series, resulting in a very entertaining read. There was also a special vibe to this one given that it was the last Baroness novel Moffitt ever wrote – indeed, there is a definite air of finality to the climax. That being said, I don’t think Moffitt intended this as a “series finale,” as I’ll detail below. 

The opening gets back to the usual series template; as we’ll recall, Death Is A Copycat was unique in that it opened with Penny herself, driving in the French countryside. Most every other installment opened with some world-threatening incident, followed by a meeting of US intelligence chiefs who would argue over who should handle the situation, with the Baroness ultimately getting the gig. All this happens here; the inciting incident however isn’t of the dire ramifactions of previous threats. At least initially. In what seems a tribute to the film version of You Only Live Twice, we read as a Russian spacecraft, looking to hurriedly build a 50-man space station to get superiority over the US, vanishes in space…to the total confusion of the control center back in Russia. 

From here to the usual intel briefing, where the CIA et al argue with each other; they monitor all Russian space activities and are under the mistaken assumption that the commies have developed the ability to cloak their spacecraft from monitoring devices. Ultimately “Coin” gets the assignment to find out what’s going on, with the caveat that the Russian bear must not be poked too much. This leads to the fun sequence of John Farnsworth, aka Penny’s handler “Key,” looking at himself in his bathroom mirror as he’s about to shave and then suddenly finding his NSA contact looking at him through the mirror. More of Moffitt’s spy-fy stuff, with the mirror actually being a video conference screen that masks Farnsworth’s face from the NSA man. 

After getting the assignment Farnsworth calls in “Coin,” aka Penny, who happens to be on vacation: “The Baroness had spent most of her summer playing with her new seven-million-dollar toy, a 300-foot yacht that she’d christened the Reynaldo”, after her second husband, the Baron Orsini.” Farnsworth records his orders to Penny and sends the message to Greece, where she’s vacationing, via MESTAR satellite. More weird sci-fi stuff ensues as Tom Sumo abruptly appears on Farnsworth’s TV screen – another “bug” the electronics wiz has set up to keep in contact with the various team members – and cries that Penny’s “dead,” or at least will be: the Athens CIA branch has been compromised and Farnsworth’s message will be intercepted, just as Sumo himself has intercepted it. Thus when Penny goes to pick it up via prearranged scenario at the Athens branch she’ll be walking into a hit. 

Penny’s intro has her scuba diving topless near Aphros, Greece (“One ought to swim naked in the Aegean.”), searching for an ancient Phoenician statue of the love goddess Astarte. As I predicted, Hughes from the previous two volumes is gone and not once mentioned; when we meet her, the Baroness’s latest stud is Valentin Stark, “a bronze, slightly dissolute Apollo with a big, golden-curled head and devil-may-care face.” As with most of Penny’s men he’s rich and handsome, “heir to a supermarket fortune and a playboy reputation.” He also has an interest in archeology, hence this effective intro in which he and Penny search for the statue. An unusual element here is that some of Penny’s team are on vacation with her: Skytop, Wharton, Inga, and Eric are all also aboard and helping with the underwater search (and apparently unfazed by the sight of Penny’s “bare breasts” as she traipses around the yacht). Penny’s discovery of the statue is especially apt: 


Penny furthers the image by stripping off her trunks and floating here forty feet underwater in the same position as the statue – kneeling, offering her breasts to her supplicants. She then takes her scuba knifes and hacks at Val’s crotch(!), as if inspired by those ancient supplicants who would literally castrate themselves for the goddess. Instead Penny’s goal is to slice a “gash” in Val’s wetsuit, which she somehow manages to do rather than castrating him. This leads to an underwater sex scene, which on my initial perusal of the manuscript I mistakenly assumed was a zero-gravity sex sequence. Given the “floating” imagery, it’s not easy to see why I was confused: 


Moffitt pours on the kink factor here; complete with Penny taking off her mouthpiece long enough to give Val a b.j., and then Val returning the favor – his mask rubbing against her thighs and adding “piquancy to the delicious sensasion.” Not to mention the “little orgasm” Penny enjoys given the “icy shock” of the seawater that gets inside her as Val spreads her legs further. This leads to a “rotary” style of underwater sex, as Penny “rotate[es] like some massive piece of machinery around the shaft that [Val] had plugged into her socket:” 


Before long we have the memorable image of Penny “fondl[ing] one of the [statue’s] golden breasts in sisterly salute!” This is probably one of the most out-there sex scenes in the entire Baroness series, Moffitt leaving no kinky stone unturned – we’re even informed how that gash Penny cut in Val’s wetsuit has resulted in “flaps of rubber” that “whisked round [Penny’s] mound of Venus like an erotic gasket.” A sequence that comes to the usual whopping mutual-climaxes finale we know and love from the series, with Penny “sandwiched between the metal breasts of the goddess and Val’s broad, rubber sheathed chest.” This leads to that other mainstay of the series, one that went missing in the previous volume – when Penny finds Val immediately ready for round two, she checks her watch to see how much time’s left in their tanks, only to see that she’s receiving a secret coded message from Farnsworth. Duty calls. 

One thing I enjoy about reading older books is to see how long certain phrases have been in the vernacular; here I learned that “banging” was being employed for sex even in the mid ‘70s (I was under the impression “balling” was more frequently used at the time, but maybe that was a hippie thing). Val is ready for another round despite the dwindling air tanks, because, “Even five minues was worth it when you were sampling the Baroness, but they’d been banging one another an average of seven or eight times a day since the start of the voyage, and he wouldn’t mind waiting till they got topside to do it properly.” But Penny has to get going, which leads to another humorous image of her, Val, and the statue being lifted out of the sea to the awaiting crew – with Penny still “stark naked” and Val’s “prong…sticking out of a hole in his rubber trunks.” Val takes umbrage at Penny’s sudden “impulsive” announcement that she must go to Athens, but Penny’s crew intervenes as our heroine goes to her quarters to change. Once again Moffitt brings a trash fiction vibe to men’s adventure with the opulent décor: 


As predicted Penny walks into a trap; Farnsworth’s coded message has her entering the Acropolis to meet her CIA contact. But Penny, armed only with her small automatic, quickly discovers it’s a hit attempt. This leads to the first action scene in the novel, as well as a surprise appearance, as Penny turns around in a darkened colonnade to find an “old man” – a tour guide she passed on her way into the Acropolis – has snuck up on her and is holding a .45 pistol: 


Farnsworth explains that he’s gotten to Athens in three hours via “The SR-71 experimental job,” ie the Blackbird. But there’s another hitman, one with a heavy machine gun hidden in an old-fashioned camera tripod, and Penny takes him out in her preferred method: using her bare hands while she’s completely naked: 


After taking out a few more of the terrorists – including one whose eyeballs Penny stabs out with her fingers – Farnsworth and the Baroness repair to a tavern, where Penny’s clued in on the assignment. Humorously, both of them discount the theory of the “idiots in Washington” that the Russians have come up with a way to cloak their spacecraft; clearly something bad has happened to the ship and the Soviets are trying to hide it. Given that “détente” prevents Penny from going into Russia via Afghanistan with a commando team, she decides to head to England along with Eric and Skytop. They meet with Sir Percival, the Astronomer Royal; Penny declares that she’s “doing journalism” because it’s “all the rage this year. Candace is doing it, of course, and Pia, and Jackie and Marisa and Margaux.” 

Here Penny learns via radar data that the Russian craft mysteriously vanished. This leads Penny to Professor Ralph Earle, who has Percival’s data on the disappeared ship, and who might be a target for Russian assassins because of it. This leads to the introduction of the most outrageous villain yet in The Baroness, “the Zhook,” a creepy Russian assassin who seems to have lurched in from a horror novel:


The Zhook turns out to even be stranger, with “empty eyes” and scarred sockets hidden by goggles, and anatomy that clicks when he moves. I have a hunch Moffitt was inspired by Peter Lorre’s character Dr. Gogol in the 1935 horror flick Mad Love.  This leads to a bizarre fight in a darkened computer room as the Zhook, on all fours “like a beetle” and able to see in the dark, gets the better of Penny, Skytop, and Eric. In fact he only doesn’t kill them because he’s in a hurry; even man-mountain Joe Skytop is injured badly, Eric gets a concussion, and Penny considers lucky that “her liver and transverse colon [are] unruptured.” 

After this per series template the Baroness assembles her team and sends them out on various assignments. Since Professor Earle has been killed, the goal is to find some other scientist who might’ve made some headway on the data about the missing Russian ship and figure out what happened to it. We get what appears to have been the start of a new series gimmick in that this is the second volume in a row in which someone smokes a joint during Penny’s team briefing; this time it’s Fiona. (“Real Panama gold, from Nippy’s private stash!”) Also here we get what I believe is the first indication that Fiona has her eyes on the ultra-reserved Wharton, thinking of him as “one of her unfinished projects.” 

Speaking of Fiona, she and Tommy have a run-in with the Zhook shortly afterwards; sent to round up two prominent astrophysicists at a conference, they find that these men have been abducted by the Soviets. Fiona has an off-page encounter with the Zhook, sprawled unconscious with her “breasts spilling out” of her torn dress when Tommy finds her. When Tommy asks “Are you…,” Fiona responds, “Did he rape me, you mean? Lord, no! Even a Russian isn’t that quick.” Again the team is lucky to have survived, as they find the corpse of a girl in the scientists’s bathroom, “broken in half like a doll,” same as Professor Earle was. This is a specialty of the Zhook with his superhuman strength, and the only reason Fiona wasn’t killed too was because the Zhook was in a hurry. Meanwhile Wharton heads to Harvard to check on an Indian astrophysicist who may be able to help out. Here Moffitt indulges in his obvious science interests, with the professor, Singh, giving a lecture on black holes and how they threaten the stability of the universe: “Since a black hole must continue to collapse until it reaches the point of zero volume and infinite density, the whole universe will necessarily become such a Swarzschild singularity – go down the drain, in other words.” 

Wharton also strikes out – Singh is abducted seconds before he arrives – and next we move on to Paul and Yvette (ie the black members of the team) in California. Moffitt doesn’t mention the grim torture Yvette experienced in the previous volume, but then The Baroness never had much in the way of continuity to begin with. We meet them as they are having a candlelit dinner, but in a humorous reveal this turns out to be a commercial they’re filming for a product called Orasan, “The oral spray with sex appeal.” Sumo’s sci-fi electronics strike again, as he and the Baroness give Paul and Yvette their assignment – to find another scientist – through the mirror mounted inside Yvette’s makeup case. They strike out as well when they hunt down their scientist, getting in a fight with the Russians who take him, as well as a pair of redneck cops. The two get out of custody, and next we see them they’re back with the Baroness in England, “their eyes red-rimmed with jet lag.” 

Here we learn that Dr. Hunnicut, yet another astrophysicist, has also been abducted, right out of a CIA safehouse. The difference with Hunnicut is that we briefly met him at the start of the novel; the intel heads retained his services to look into the data about the disappeared spacecraft. The narrative picks up here as Penny decides to hit the Russians, détente be damned. They’ll abduct a Russian astrophysicist themselves; one happens to be staying at the Russian embassy. Meanwhile we learn that a Russian spy has somehow figured out that Penny is the elusive “Coin” who is wanted dead by the Soviets, and plans to make the score solo for his own benefit. 

The Baroness puts on a disguise and passes herself as “a rich, crotchety old woman,” with Inga as her nurse. Meanwhile Fiona poses as the Baroness, and the guys on the team pose as “rock musicicians on their way to a gig,” complete with Paul hiding a Galil assault rifle in a hollowed-out guitar. Penny’s disguise is so as to fool the KGB watcher, while meanwhile a car with Skytop and Paul try to divert the Russians who are escorting the astrophysicist out of the embassy. In the firefight Skytop loses an earlobe: 


Penny, still disguised as an old lady, manages to take out the KGB crew shepharding the Russian scientist to Heathrow. This is a nicely-done scene which sees Yvette sporting a big false afro that hides a bomb. They manage to capture the scientist, but then Penny herself is captured – by the solo Russian agent who has figured out she is the infamous Coin. This leads to a somewhat goofy bit where an injured Paul limps back to the others and informs them the Baroness is “dead,” which comes off as repetitious given that Tom Sumo declared the exact same thing at the opening of the novel. Heck, maybe Moffit subconsciously suspected this would be the final installment, hence all these “The Baroness is dead!” freakouts. Meanwhile we see that the solo Russian who abducted Penny is…none other than Alexey, the GRU commando who first appeared in #3: Death Is A Ruby Light and then again in #9: Death Is A Copycat

Penny delcares “It’s been a long time” since she last saw Alexey, and we get a brief rundown of their time in Death Is A Ruby Light, with the events of Death Is A Copycat rendered as a mere “The last time we met, you let me live,” from Alexey. Who by the way has Penny completely nude; she awakens to find her entire body stiff and her private parts feeling “greasy” from obviously having been searched. Given that Alexey appeared in the previous volume, this makes one wonder how long A Black Hole To Die In occurs after Death Is A Copycat; the Baroness herself clearly thinks it’s been a while. But as I noted above, I think this is because Moffitt was writing this volume over a year after he wrote Death Is A Copycat

Alexey is under the impression Penny has been “murdering KGB agents and kidnapping Nobel Prize winners;” he has no idea that this is an “eye for an eye” retaliation for the American scientists the Russians have been kidnapping. In fact, Alexey was here in England to spy on the Shah of Iran and only discovered Penny’s presence by accident; he knew she was Coin from Death Is A Ruby Light, and decided to capture her for his own advancement. But at this point the two are, once again, uneasy allies; Alexey informs Penny that “the Zhook” is really a guy named Zhukalov, his nickname Zhook (Russian for “click-beetle”) courtesy the KGB agents who fear him. (We also learn by this point that Alexey and Penny have already “made love once, on the leather couch, just to take the edge off.”) 

We learn that the Zhook came to his mutilated state courtesy the Germans, who captured him when he was very young and working behind German lines in the last days of WWII. They “tore his arms and legs out of their sockets,” which now results in that clicking sound when he moves. And did more horrible things: 


As for the Zhook’s ability to see in the dark, that is due to Chinese agents in 1960 throwing “some sort of caustic substance into his eyes” which blinded him. However only the lens of his eyes were destroyed, leaving behind a scarred reitna and iris in each eye. The lenses were replaced with clear glass; Penny surmises that this is what gives the Zhook the ability to see in the dark, but Alexey scoffs at the idea as “supernatural.” Penny insists that the Zhook “can see beyond the spectrum of visible light,” as “his ultraviolet filter is in his glasses, not his eyes,” meaning the Zhook can “switch from one sort of vision to the other whenever he wants.” Oh and he gets his “source of illumination” from a “black-light lantern hidden in that shroud of a suit he wears.” 

Given that the Zhook basically runs his own team in the KGB, both Alexey and Penny assume he is the one behind all the scientist snatches, and Alexey decides to help out, for once again it is in “the interest of both our nations” to free all these various kidnapped scientists. After that’s decided, it’s on to the hardcore sex; we rejoin the Baroness and Alexey as they’re about to enjoy their ninth round, Penny having to encourage Alexey to go at it again. Moffitt injects some humor in the scene with the buttons on the leather couch hurting Alexey’s back, so they repair to a wooden chair for the, uh, climax:


Next we jump ahead a week. Penny’s relaxing in her opulent London hotel with Inga as ever at her side. No mention is made of how the team thought Penny was dead just a few pages ago; Moffitt has left the reunion between Penny and her team off-page. Alexey sneaks into Penny’s hotel, posing as a waiter, to inform her that “The Zhook is holding your scientists prisoner in a fortified villa on the Black Sea coast, near Yelta.” While Alexey says the prisoners have not been ill-treated, he says it is a “bad place…the scum of the Soviet intelligence services are assigned there, sadists, psychopaths…the KGB brass stay away from the place.” We see that the place is beautiful on the outside but nightmarish on the inside; a Russian official visits the villa to check on the condition of the scientists, who are kept in a rat-filled dungeon. Again it’s like a horror novel as the Zhook follows a scientist who has escaped down a sewage tunnel and breaks him into pieces. 

The Baroness and team head to Istanbul, where Tom Sumo reveals “experimental wetsuits” he’s created from NASA spacesuits that were designed for “exploring planets with corrosive atmospheres.” Described as a “snakeskin,” it has “friction pads” on the fingertips so you can grip a gun and hold things; the suit itself is too slippery to even pick up. It sounds very much like the “plastic suit” in another series produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel, John Eagle Expeditor


Penny quickly proves this “slipperysuit” is effective in combat. She challenges Skytop to attack her: “And no faking. If you break one of my ribs, I’ll buy you that Zeiss F 0.7 lens you’ve had your eye on – the one Kubrick used.” But try as he might, Skytop’s unable to even get a hold of the Baroness, who continuously slips out of his grip. Indeed I get the impression Moffitt might’ve been inspired by that other Engel-produced series, as the slipperysuit is next proven to be knife-proof. Penny commands Paul to come at her with a knife, and it merely “slither[s] along the surface of the fluorocarbon fabric without penetrating it.” Penny suspects the suit could only stop a “glancing hit” from a bullet; “I felt that knife edge! With a high-velocity bullet, the shock wave travelling through your body fluids would kill you.” As readers of John Eagle Expeditor recall, Eagle has a special pair of infrared googles for his plastic suit. And so too does the Baroness for hers; the “snake eyes,” which Sumo just made for her:


As usual Penny’s plan is to make a show of herself, thus she has a big party on her yacht in Instanbul, inviting all her jet-setting friends. It’s a big affair, complete with a “rock band from London” that’s “taking a hash break” as the chapter opens. This is the Baroness’s “Black Sea Bash,” with all the glitterati in attendance, so close to the Crimean coast that Soviet jets are doing flybys and a submarine is tracking the yacht. We get the usual cast of partying nobles and jet-setters, complete with a jokey reference to Peter Benchley and Jaws: one of the guests is “the young novelist whose book about a killer whale was making its second million dollars.” 

Penny slips off and begins a 12-mile swim to the coast with the rest of the team, all garbed in the wetsuits (Skytop and Wharton wear jocks under theirs, we’re informed, while everyone else is naked), pulled along by “screws” created by Sumo that are made of “synthetic resilin protein – same stuff that lets a flea jump hundreds of times its own length.” So as to not set off any monitoring devices they have no metal on them; even the guns are made of “radar-transparent plastic.” The screws look like black whips and churn the water “in a rotary motion;” given the frequency of how often “rotary position” appears throughout A Black Hole To Die In, I’m going to chalk it up as some intentional thematic work on Moffitt’s part. The team goes in through the rat-infested sewer – the offal sliding right off their suits – and breaks out the scientists one by one. Penny’s appearance through the latrine drain in one scientist’s cell is particularly memorable: 


The team begins springing the other scientists from their individual cells. After this Penny puts the slipperysuit in action against some guards, also wielding the trident she used during the swim here:


There follows a big gunfight with the Baroness and Eric (whose foot is broken by a bullet that glances off the suit) holding off hordes of approaching Russians. Penny ends up holding them off on her own as Eric makes his escape: 


Penny’s trapped in the cell, and gets out in a novel way – she takes a hostage, straps all of her plastique to his “testes,” and shoves him back out into the cell to his waiting comrades! In the diversion she makes her escape. But on her way through the sewer to reconnect with the others she finds the Zhook waiting for her – Eric’s twisted body in his grip, “limp as death.” An effective sequence as the two size each other up, Penny just as able to see in the dark as the Zhook is, thanks to her infrared goggles. Despite her own superheroic skills, the Baroness is no match for the Zhook, who does his best to crush her to pulp. When all seems lost Penny snaps him with her backup “screw,” which Sumo earlier warned could be used as a brutal weapon – its coils are wound up to slowly power a 12-mile swim. But if they were to be unwound all at once on a human victim it would make for a gory spectacle, as the Zhook discovers. It goes on for a while, the Zhook being crushed to death to the point that he screams for his mother, until finally we get this memorable image: 


As with the fakeout with Yvette at the end of Death Is A Copycat, Eric’s wounds turn out to be a lot less terrible than Moffitt implied; we learn he just has a few cracked ribs. The scientists are taken to Penny’s yacht, and we get more of the “Black Sea Bash” stuff as we jump ahead a few hours and see Russian soldiers boarding the boat and looking agog at the drunk and high revellers aboard. The Russians leave after being threatened with starting a diplomatic incident, and after this…Moffitt applies the breaks. A Black Hole To Die In descends into a mire of exposition and TV-watching as first the scientists explain what the Russians have discovered…then the Russians discuss it amongst themselves…then the US President discusses the exact same stuff with the scientists, and etc. 

Long story short, the Russian space ship disappeared due to a “mini black hole” in Earth’s orbit, one that’s “no bigger than a virus.” Despite its microscopic size, it has the weight and density of a star, thus sucks anything into it. The Russians, we learn, plan to send multiple spaceships up there to harness the black hole into a source of unlimited energy; Moffitt capabaly makes it all seem possible as a Russian scientist explains his plan to the Premiere. Meanwhile we learn from the US scientists – the ones Penny rescued – that the black hole threatens the Earth, given that it’s entered Earth’s orbit and could easily wipe out the planet. Moffitt works in the mysterious Tunguska explosion of 1908, which is often theorized as being caused by a meteor; one of the scientists explains it was really the black hole, which follows a “comet trajectory” and actually passed through the Earth that time. This time, given that the hole is bigger, the impact will be even more catastrophic. 

But the US can’t do anything because, given the “dwindling” funds for the Space Race, there are no operational Saturn rocks left over from the Apollo Program. So friends believe it or not but the first half of this climax features the Baroness and team watching television as the various networks report on the mass Russian spacecraft launches – complete with Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite giving reports! So basically the Russians are turning it into a media spectacle, launching three ships at once with several men in space at the same time. The intent being that they are staking the black hole as their own. And going about the process of harnessing it for energy: 


Then the Chinese launch their own spaceship to interfere, having gotten the intel thanks to one of the scientists Penny’s team freed; a guy named Dr. Hsu who managed to escape her and get back to China with the info. So ridiculously enough, Penny and team continue to watch television as now the Chinese enter the race for the mini black hole. Our heroine finally gets re-engaged with the plot when she calls Farnsworth and demands that he scramble an SR-71 for her – with Wharton flying it – so Penny can parachute over the Chinese rocket complex at Shwangchengtze. Aerial photography implies that the Chinese are about to rush up another rocket, “to get in the black hole business.” Penny plans for there to be another “passenger” on that rocket – herself! When Farnsworth says she’d be unable to jump out of an SR-71, given that it basically flies in space, she responds, “Then I’ll need a space suit, won’t I, darling?” 

Before we can get to this, though, Penny watches more TV, as NBC reports that the Chinese spacecraft has “extracted a cylindrical module from the booster…about the size of the special docking adapter that allowed the American Apollo craft to link up with the Russian’s Soyuz ship back in 1975.” The Apollo-Soyuz linkup occurred in July of 1975. So here we have our first internal indication that A Black Hole To Die In was written at least by then. We get more confirmation of this as Penny, who flies her LearJet to Hawaii to rendevous with the SR-71, watches even more TV – and this time it’s “Yuri Fokin, the veteran announcer who had covered the Apollo-Soyuz mission.” However as we will soon learn, Moffitt was writing even later than the summer of 1975…something that is also indicated by that “back in 1975” in the dialog above. 

At any rate, once again action is relayed via TV coverage as the commander of the twelve-man Russian space station informs viewers that the Chinese spaceship is being “extremely reckless” with its close approach. We also see how the times have changed, as per Penny the “worldwide audience” is clearly rooting for the Russians, and “whatever happened could be turned into anti-Chinese propaganda.” You don’t see too much of that these days! But again, Penny here just watches TV as the Chinese “ram” the Russian space station and overtake it, killing all the cosmonauts with weapons that look like “underwater spear guns.” 

More TV coverage ensues as the Chinese overtake the station and “blackmail” the US and USSR with threats of destruction. This is a great bit from Moffitt, who has the Chinese issuing their demands but insisting they are a “people of peace.” How little things change!  More exposition follows as the President argues with his intel chiefs that nothing can be done, as does the Premiere with his underlings – both leaders also try to cancel a mission a sole agent of theirs is undertaking to stop the threat, only to be told its too late. Meanwhile Wharton flies the Baroness over the Gobi desert and she bails out, dressed in an astronaut helmet and an experimental NASA pressure suit: 


It’s night in the desert when she lands and she’s immediately spotted by a trio of Mongols. After killing one of them, Penny – who is still in her spacesuit and helmet – bluffs that she’s from the rocket base, speaking in perfect Mandarin. The Mongols demand she take off the helmet, to prove she’s Chinese. Penny hesitates a moment, and then: 


We later learn that her body has also been “dyed to make her look Chinese, and even her nipples ha[ve] been colored brown.” The disguise works for a while, but Penny ends up fighting the last two Mongols anyway, crushing one’s throat in her usual favored move. But then she’s caught unawares by another guy who comes out of the darkness – one who knows who she is. It is of course Alexey, who returns to the narrative once again – he was the solo agent the Premiere was trying to stop. Alexey says he recognizes Penny despite the Chinese disguise, because “nobody has a body like yours.” Alexey relates how he’s gotten here on his own desperate solo quest to stop the Chinese, and again he and Penny decide to work together. It’s curious that Moffitt has shown this sudden interest in Alexey; after appearing in the third volume he was gone and forgotten, until abruptly reappearing in the last pages of Death Is A Copycat, to return again here. 

Regardless, he and Penny once again get on famously – despite the fact that the world’s about to end and they’re alone in the middle of the desert, surrounded by a few million enemy, Penny and Alexey find the time to engage in some hardcore shenanigans: “She rode his long, stiff shaft with a steady in-and-out motion, taking it slow at first, lifting her tail at the end of each stroke.” As typical with the series this goes on for a few pages, and we learn that, once again, it’s their tenth round! The show gets back on the road as Alexey and Penny split up to get into the base; Penny is buried in the sand and manages to secretly board a train headed for the rocket site. 

Penny wants on the base because earlier she planted a bug up the ass of Hsu, the scientist she rescued who turned out to be a Chinese agent. (One that’s “too small” for Hsu to even notice, we’re informed!) She wants “fifteen minutes” with him to ask him a few questions. Using a directional finder that’s locked on the bug, she hunts him down in the rocket base. We also learn that the Baroness has no plans to “get out of here alive.” It always surprises me how brutal Penny can be; she tracks Hsu to a blockhouse from which various scientists are entering and exiting. Penny spots her chance when a tall Chinese woman comes out, a nurse or somesuch. Penny lassos her into the darkness and, after saying “Sorry, sweetie,” proceeds to strangle her. “She made it as quick and painless as possible, but it’s never nice.” Just imagine Mack Bolan or John Eagle strangling a nurse! 

Here we get our firmest indication of when A Black Hole To Die In was written; part of Penny’s disguise is a Mao button she takes from the dead nurse. This triggers one of the guards, who starts yelling at her, and Penny realizes, “Mao was barely in his grave, and already the factions were squaring off.” So this confirms that the manuscript was written sometime in the Fall of ’76, as Mao died in early September of that year. Penny – after killing a few technicians and a doctor – corners Hsu in the “astronaut prep” room; despite his advanced age, the old man is going up in space. He recognizes the Baroness despite the disguise. He won’t tell her why he’s insisting to go into space, as the trip will clearly kill him. Penny uses a “synthetic hypnotic” to get him to talk, and here, in the eleventh hour, Dr. Hsu is revealed as the main villain of the piece: 


Hsu has “falsified” his calculations so that the Chinese think that the black hole will merely pass through the Earth if their demands are not met; they are unaware Hsu has set it so the black hole will stay in Earth’s orbit and render everything into “nothingness.” He’s also set it so that the plan will go into effect even if the Chinese don’t launch the hole themselves; even if the nations were to give in to their demands, the mini black-hole would still descend into Earth’s orbit. And it’s going to happen “within the next twenty-four hours.” Penny strangles Hsu – he’s very casual about his death, given that drug – and then she takes a page from Connery’s Bond in You Only Live Twice by putting on Hsu’s spacesuit and passing herself off as one of the Chinese astronauts. In the chaos – caused by Alexey firing SAM rockets into the installation from afar – she mows through the crowd, slicing and dicing doctors, technicians, and other astronauts with a scalpel as she makes her way toward the rocket, which is about to launch. 

Indeed the finale is a bit preposterous – and rushed – as Penny storms across the crazed compound as the SAM rockets fall around her. Here she uses an “AR-7 survival rifle” which she’s brought along with her, sniping technicians and soldiers from afar as she climbs the 30-story scaffolding to the rocket’s cockpit. More soldiers are on the way, and MIGs are bombing Alexey’s position (“Goodbye, Alexey!” Penny thinks to herself). It’s incredibly apocalyptic, and there are only two pages left in the manuscript. At this point I started to get a sinking suspicion; there was no way Moffitt could suitably end the tale in just two pages. And folks it turns out he doesn’t; as maddening as it is to believe, A Black Hole To Die In ends on a cliffhanger! 

Penny gets into the cockpit, the only person aboard. She straps herself into the bamboo astronaut couches, turns on the AC and the oxygen supply, and cuts off mission control. She then figures out how to launch the rocket! “And then a huge gentle hand was pushing at her chest, presssing her into the couch. She lay back and willed herself to relax while the G-forces built up.” As Hsu told her, “the launch sequence had been wired in automatically,” meaning that the second and third stages of the launch sequence will go down without Penny having to do anything: “She had a free ride all the way.” 

We’re now on the last page of the manuscript, and our heroine is launching herself into space! “It was the most thrilling sensation she’d ever felt in her life.” And folks this is how A Black Hole To Die In comes to a close, as Penny’s rocket passes through the atmosphere into the zero-gravity of space: 


This is the most bonkers finale I ever could’ve expected, and I would love to know if Moffitt even intended for this manuscript to see print. (Though I have to admit it’s pretty great how he still found a way to mention Penny’s breasts one last time!) But as the handwritten and typed edits throughout attest, this wasn’t Moffitt’s first draft, so clearly it was the draft he submitted to Lyle Kenyon Engel for publication. It’s all just so crazy as to be ludicrous; Penny has absolutely no plan on how to even stop Hsu’s plot, and what will she do in space? It’s about as irrational and ridiculous as Doomsday Warrior #14. This also begs the question of how Moffitt planned to follow this installment up. Would his next volume have been entirely in space? Or would the climactic events of A Black Hole To Die In be skirted over in the intro of the next volume? What’s interesting is that no other volume ever ended on a cliffhanger, with little in the way of series continuity to link together the installments. 

As mentioned at the start of this review, there is an air of finality here – note the last line of the manuscript: “Nobody would ever see it again.” Was Moffitt referring to the series itself? Maybe he intentionally delivered this apocalyptic finale – with no resolution – knowing that it would never see print. Or maybe he wrote it in the hopes that if it were printed, reader demand to know what happened next would be sufficient to keep up sales and thus continue the series. 

Unfortunately we’ll never know. Moffitt passed away in 2014, taking any answers with him. Here’s hoping ppsantos also got to read this manuscript and was able to discuss it with Moffitt. If you are out there my friend, I’d love to hear from you! Otherwise I have to say my feelings on A Black Hole To Die In are mixed. It started strong, then got a bit sluggish, only to become incredibly crazed in the final few pages. It’s hard to judge it given the nightmarish climax, as the adventure doesn’t seem complete – particularly given that we’ll never get to see what Moffitt intended to happen next. In a way then I’m almost glad this one was never published; Death Is A Copycat would’ve made a much more suitable series finale (and indeed it was – in France!). 

One day I’m sure I’ll read this again, and I look forward to it because then I’ll just be able to read it and do a “normal” review (as part of my re-reading of the entire series; the most recent I’ve re-read is #2: Diamonds Are For Dying), and not have to worry about documenting everything. I have to say, doing these overly-comprehensive reviews of the two unpublished Baroness novels has really been exhausting! Again though I was very grateful for the chance to read them. But man I wish Moffitt had gotten to write another volume, to tie up the loose ends. 

There is of course one more unpublished Baroness novel: Robert Vardeman’s Quicktime Death, which we at least know was submtted to Engel before A Black Hole To Die In. (Vardeman has said Engel told him that “the next volume” of the series would concern a black hole.) I’ve reached out to Vardeman to see if he would mind sharing any detail on his unpublished manuscript, but haven’t heard back from him – hopefully I will, though!

8 comments:

Johny Malone said...

The end is a kind of "liberation by space", as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (although there are tits here, which is appreciated).

TrueAim said...

WOW, Joe, fantastic write-up!! You practically wrote a book, man. Love it.

And, boy, you cracked me up with your link to "Dr. Gogol." You nailed it. Paul actually may have been inspired by Lorre's great turn as the "good" doctor there, or some similar character out of Eerie/Creepy (or the long lost Skywalk Horror-Moods). Thanks for the laugh, and the shoutout to Lorre--my #1 all-time favorite character actor. And what a name for an assassin--the Zhook. Love it. Sounds like a great villain the way you discuss him throughout your review.

Love this, too: he says it is a “bad place... the scum of the Soviet intelligence services are assigned there, sadists, psychopaths... the KGB brass stay away from the place.” Spies and assassins so horrific and evil that their own commanders are afraid of them--how great is that?

And the strangling of the Nurse--with that dialog?? WTF? So OTT--which is why it's so great.

And more OTT: Sniping with an AR-7 survival rifle while on the run and climbing up to a rocket ship. I can see that like it's right out of a movie. Always loved that crazy little "rifle." Plinker, really. Even Bond used one once.

Cliffhanger ending, huh? WOW. When they're done right, like in the original "The Italian Job" movie, there's no better ending. Here it sounds like it... miiiight... have worked. Not sure, though. Would have to read "Black Hole" like you did. But I like ballsy endings like that--when they actually work. Real shame this never got a print run!!! But thanks to you we got a great glimpse into the closing two-out-of-three final installments of this cool series.

And, Joe, I'm right with you on vernacular/slang thing, too. I love coming across usages in unexpected timeframes. For instance, for years I thought the dismissive use of the term "whatever" came about in the mid-80s, but low and behold, I was reading a late-70s book in which a teen girl character dismissively and snottily says "whatever." Threw me for a loop.

Jason Reynolds said...

Another great write-up! I saw this manuscript too, and really enjoyed it. The slippery-suits were another piece of fun tech, something this series had lots of. The opening in the Aegean, where she excavates a goddess statue that happens to look exactly like her was fun too.

The Zhook was a suitably dangerous villain. She rarely had opponents who could physically best her. E.g. the super-swordsman in "Black Gold" was able to cut her up, and that was because she had just been knocked unconscious, drowned, and boiled in oil, but she still sliced him in half.

The Zhook's origin, though, was too pitiable for a monster like him. He should have been a Nazi/Soviet super-soldier experiment instead of a victim of relentless torture. That was too awful, and gave him too much sympathy. She kind of cheated in their final battle too, when she killed him with the whip. She should have, I don't know, killed him with a thigh crush or something.

One other difference between this and the standard template for the series was the fate of the mad scientist. In all the previous books he is done in by his creation. Mr. Jolly is pleasured to death by his wire implants as his victims rip him apart. Dr. Thing is speared with his own death ray. Penny always triggers his end, but it's his own evil that does him in.

Here, though, she simply kills the black hole expert Prof. Hsu. She should have found him already in the rocket and flown up with him. As she battles him and the taikonauts up in orbit, she should have somehow changed the black hole's trajectory and run it through him. That saves the planet and does him in at the same time. She then deorbits and hooks up with Alexey for the usual finish.

I hope you reach Mr. Vardeman! He would could a great job in getting his own book out and cleaning up these.

Graham said...

Great write-up, that 'cliffhanger' ending makes me think of a novel from the early 2000s. 'Target Lock' was the last volume of James H. Cobbs 'Amanda Garrett' techothrillers.

While the main plot ends with the villains defeat,they get away and the novels coda has the heroes speculating just what the villain plans to do now that they've been exposed.

And it's clear from that ending that the next novel was going to be a continuation of the storyline from 'Target Lock'.

However the novel never appeared and after much searching I found a post from the author on a forum dating from 2006. In that he stated that the English language publisher had rejected the novel (Which would have been entitled 'Phantom Force'.) and so the novel had only come out in Japanese and German.

With the author's death in 2014 the trail ran cold. I've no idea what happened to his manuscripts after that point.

Dh said...

Thanks Joe-fantastic! Many years ago, I actually read the draft for those there unpublished book. QuickTime Death. It seemed to have been written by a different author. Did not think it was a good as the books in the series

Thanks again and if you can, additional screen shots of the fight scenes in copycat and black hole would be great.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey everyone, thanks a lot for the comments and sorry to take so long to respond. I really enjoyed reading them. Jason I agree with you about some of the problems with the manuscript. I bet that stuff will be even more evident if I ever re-read this one and don't have to worry about excerpting everything. I began to wonder if Moffit himself thought this was going to be published -- the increasing apocalyptic vibe is just so at odds with the rest of the series. He had to suspect at least something was up, given that he was writing so long after #8 was published.

But then...I just heard from Robert Vardeman, who gave me a little more info on why the Baroness was cancelled. Basically, it was the decision of an editor at Pocket, who claimed that "no one read" any of the men's adventure books, thus killed all of them! I'm hoping to do an interview with Vardeman on his Baroness manuscript (which he still has, but isn't sure he can share given that techinically it's owned by BCI).

Speaking of which, Dh -- would love to know how you got to read Vardeman's manuscript! And any other details you could provide about it?

Dh said...

It was probably around 1996 or so. Don’t remember how I wound up corresponding with him but he was nice enough to send the manuscript along with a note. In the note, he mentioned how Lyle insisted every book include some scenes that featured dogs. He forced him to add dog scenes after the first draft.
Unfortunately, after many moves and relocations i lost the manuscript.

The book featured a bad guy who invented a drug that doubled strength and reaction times in humans. I remember the bad guy and his crew were Sikhs. The action scenes (and sex scenes) were no where as graphic as the other novels. The book was also shorter than the others. I think her crew was smaller and some of the usual baroness crew were not included. Based on your reviews I think the other 2 missing books would be much more enjoyable and closer in theme to the original 8.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi Dh, you certainly did read Quicktime Death -- I've heard back from Robert Vardeman and he mentioned several of the things you describe above, particularly the request (from Engel after he turned in his first draft) to include the dogs. Too bad you lost your manuscript! He's no longer willing to share it out, but he is willing to answer some questions I'm going to put together for him, so hopefully sometime soon I'll have more detail here about the last remaining unpublished Baroness novel.