Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Master Control" by Harl Vincent, part 1

After our brief diversion into the works of Amelia Reynolds Long, we now return to our primary field of study, the early works of Harl Vincent. As this blog's hypothetical readers are aware, Harl Vincent (1893 - 1968) was the pen name of Harold Vincent Schoepflin, a mechanical engineer who published over seventy stories in the pulp SF magazines between 1928 and 1942. Most of Vincent's stories have never appeared anywhere but the original magazines, and all of them are in the public domain. As part of our effort to revive interest in this forgotten pioneer of the Gernsback Era, the Johnny Pez blog will now attempt to publish Vincent's "Master Control" from the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories. This story is the third in a trilogy that began with "Gray Denim" from the December 1930 issue of Astounding Stories and continued with "Power" from the January 1932 issue of Amazing Stories. As always, the story will appear in a blog-friendly multi-part format. And now, without further ado:

Master Control
by Harl Vincent

Chapter One: Central Control

That any one man, even though he might wear the purple of the upper levels and be most adept among the technics, should learn the secret of Central Control was unthinkable. For nearly two centuries now, tradition had it that Central Control was little less than a God, a being not to be understood nor seen nor communicated with by mere humans, a being of beneficence to the wearers of the purple and of stern unbending discipline and cruelty to those of the mid-level gray. A being, hidden and protected and unapproachable in the ancient dome atop the city, whose will was meted out by the Prime Controls of the upper levels and the lesser Controls in the reaches far beneath, whose favors were for the few and whose harshness for the many. Even the Controls did not know the secret of their Central activating power. Of course the Controls were themselves human beings, though for all the thinking power and independence of will they were permitted they might well have been automatons. They were mere agents of the great Central obeying unquestioningly all orders emanating from that mysterious dome, unquestioningly and rigidly enforcing them.

But one man knew the secret of Central Control. One man alone, the greatest scientist the twenty-fifth century had unwittingly produced, one who, for his ability and accomplishments, had been made chief of the technics of Manhattan, most powerful of all the remaining States of the decadent and nearly depopulated world. Fowler Scott was that man and he was a man who was most careful to hide within his own consciousness the knowledge and the thoughts that went with his discovery of the great secret. Scott's mind was insulated against the thought-probing vibrations that went out from Central and all the lesser Controls, at least that portion of his mind he wished to conceal. Scott was a man with a very definite purpose in view and he did not propose to fail of that purpose. It was a lofty one and incredible to contemplate.

With the privileges that were his, Scott was able to make frequent visits to the lower levels of the city. And many were the secret explorations he had made of the closed-off and inoperative levels of the millions of robots who had performed all of man's work in the twenty-third century. Many visits he had made to the ancient and long unused centers of learning, the museums and libraries with their dust-covered and moth-eaten relics. Many visits to the mid-levels where the gray-clad human workers had taken the places of the robots and were themselves little better than robots under the production-speeding impulses of the labor Controls. Scott had learned much of history, much concerning the reasons for the deplorable conditions of the present. And he had found the truth, had learned the great secret. He now was formulating plans for the remedy -- the only remedy possible. The only hope.

To this end he must have a following and thus he was cautiously and without the knowledge of his intended followers preparing them to join the movement he was building up. In each unit of industry he was choosing a pair of them, choosing carefully as to physical and mental superiority, unsuspectedly educating them for the great work that was to come. He could not fail.

* * *

A lesser man, one Hardy, had come to know there was a quality in himself that was not common to his kind. He knew, and he reveled in this knowledge secretly, schooling his thoughts against the possibility of letting loose any radiation which might apprise his immediate Control of this difference he had discovered and was assiduously cultivating. Yes, Hardy was different. And in a subtly peculiar and dangerous way. Dangerous to the security of those who controlled the system of slavery in the cowed cities of this world of the twenty-fifth century. Dangerous to the Controls themselves, to the Central Control of Manhattan. And -- Hardy had only recently come to this realization himself -- dangerous to the Central Controls of all the widely scattered and war-exhausted cities of the entire globe. For Hardy had learned that he could immunize himself against the brain waves that radiated from the mechanisms manipulated by the Controls. He could be an independently functioning individual if and when he chose. In this he believed he was unique.

How he had learned of his own capabilities, he did not know. It had merely become clear to him one day that he was able to shield his own thoughts from his immediate Control. He could think independently and have no fear of the brain-numbing flash that could sweep out from the orb of metal that topped the machines at the end of the long line of gray-clad workers of which he was a part. And from that day he had waited and had craftily planned. They could not know of his thoughts. This knowledge gave him a feeling of power. Latent power he would some day unleash.

Next to him in line a slim girl worked. Her shell-like ear was day by day a more intriguing thing as he viewed it from the corner of his eye, partially covered though it usually was by the soft masses of brown hair that fell in witching wavelets to the girl's shoulders. Mera, she was called, this neighboring automaton whose face he had never been able to study. You were not allowed to turn your head from your work, not able to do so on account of the gripping brain waves which emanated from the Control orb and kept you at the long hours of arduous toil. At least the others could not do so; Hardy had found that he could move his head if he so desired, but was careful to keep his eyes straight front so that his secret might not be discovered.

And when, at the end of the interminable work day, you were released by the Control and permitted to go to your poor dwelling quarters, you were simply too tired even to wish to turn your head, too tired even to wish for human companionship. You submitted meekly to the new Control which took you over; with sagging knees and drooping shoulders you were herded into the grimy, perspiring huddles of humanity that were swept on their homeward way in the tiny tube cars, silent and unthinking. It was only during the long sleeping periods, if wakefulness came, that you were able really to think for yourself. And then only dully, for the poor, ordinary devitalized brain cells had no time to become fully active. All except Hardy -- he had learned the secret of outwitting the Controls.

Now as he carefully masked his thoughts from the probing of his day Control, he was furtively admiring that neighboring ear. Somehow it thrilled him and made him wonder what its owner looked like, what sort of a person she would be to know, to talk with, to associate with during the few hours when there was no work to be done. But attractive female workers seldom mated with their own class; they were reserved for the favorites of the Controls, for the few wearers of the purple who cavorted in the upper levels of the city.

Something of Hardy's thoughts must have been communicated to the girl Mera for, suddenly and without warning, she turned swiftly and faced him for the briefest instant. Hardy, as if electrically impelled, had turned full face toward her at precisely the same time. Then both heads once more faced straight forward; both pairs of eyes were intent on the delicate setting of bearing jewels in the instrument parts that came endlessly before them on the traveling belt. The Control had not observed the lapse of the two.

But that revealing instant had Hardy's heart beating like an electric hammer. Not only was the girl breathtaking in her soft beauty, not only were the dark fringes of her lashes the longest and most startling Hardy had ever seen, not only were those eyes at the same time the bluest conceivable and her lips the reddest, but Mera was like himself. She, too, could think for herself; she, too, was capable of shielding or of projecting her own independent thoughts. Distinctly there had come to his mind from hers a gesture of friendliness. They had for one flashing moment been en rapport. It was inconceivable, soul-stirring. Hardy no longer felt the oppression his former isolation had brought.

As his fingers worked with nimble sureness with the tiny drilled sapphires under the magnifying glass before him a number was distinctly impressed on his consciousness. Over and over it was repeated. 26-23-208. 26-23-208. Mera -- communicating with him mentally! It was a place of meeting, twenty-sixth level, twenty-third crossway, group 208. Hardy was to see her there tonight. New life surged through him as the siren shrieked for the change of Control.

Fowler Scott's plans were beginning to materialize.

* * *

In the silent darkness of a huge unused room of the old Synthetic Food Company a tiny spot of light glowed for a moment on strange uncouth mechanical forms and then blinked out. There was the faint snap of a switch and the gentle hum of machinery starting up. The light flicked on again, this time revealing two giant figures that stood erect like two men about to engage in combat. Two robots, thick with the dust of ages, had come to life. A soft chuckle issued from lips in the unseen face behind the circle of light.

"Go to it," a voice whispered with suppressed glee. "Let's see what you can do to one another."

There was the clank of metal on metal. The two dim figures struck out like live boxers in the upper closed-circle theatres where the ennui of the leisured class was supposedly relieved. Wavering shadows of the fighting figures loomed large and spookily on the ceiling above.

"Alley-oop!" the sardonic human voice chuckled. "Sock him, Rusty. Sock him, old dust-in-the-face."

There was a tinkle of crashing glass as the eye lens of one of the battling monsters crumpled inward. The rasping metallic voice of the mechanical creature was raised in protest.

"Okay," said the man who could not be seen. "You'll do, the two of you. Back to your places."

With heavy measured tread, the robots stalked to a long line of similar figures and stiffly sat among them. The sound of their motors died down. The light snapped out.

Another link in Scott's chain was forged.

* * *

On the extreme ground level of the city where half human derelicts skulk among the shadowy ruins of the ancient public squares and where only an occasional robot police patrol clanks along a deserted corridor, Pinky Collins hobbled painfully into the half light of the lone sunglo lamp that still burned high in the ceiling arch of Cooper Square. Pinky had found nothing to eat in many days; he was faint with hunger, desperate.

There was a dim illumination away in the back of one of the shabby old shops that still remained to the district. Pinky looked cautiously to the left and right, then hobbled stealthily to the grimy front of the place. He tried the door and it yielded to his shivering touch.

Here in the nether regions where forgotten men and women eked out a precarious existence, shut off as they were by twenty or more levels from the mid-city area and by nearly a hundred from the wearers of the purple, crime was dealt with swiftly and effectively by the few robots needed. There were no courts, no magistrates, no juries. Swift death at the steel hands of the robots was the reward of the transgressor. The last remnants of the shiftless lower class were being speedily reduced in number until soon the ground level would no longer contain a human being.

As Pinky's hand reached in through the shop door, fingers of steel closed on his wrist. Pinky stifled a scream of terror. But these steel fingers did not crush as he had anticipated; they simply tugged at his arm. He wheeled to stare into the crystal eye lenses of one of his traditional enemies. His jaw sagged as a toneless, measured voice came from the resonance chamber beneath.

This was not the usual rasping voice of authority.

"Want something to eat, Pinky?" it asked.

"Garn! Wot yer doin' -- kiddin me before bustin' me open?"

"No. Come along and you'll eat."

"Garn!" Pinky's jaw sagged still lower and he stared at the lenses of eyes. They did not glow with the accustomed fierce red but with a soft violent that was somehow reassuring. "Cripes! Yuh mean it!"

The robot cackled; it was almost a human sound of laughter. "Of course I mean it. Come along." The steel fingers relaxed; the seven foot monster stood waiting.

And Pinky trotted along trustingly as the robot strode off slowly into the shadows. How could Pinky know that a man named Fowler Scott had reached even into this region of the lost ones with the long range searching of a mind that was set on a new era for all of Mankind?

(continue to part 2)

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