Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Master Control" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second installment of "Master Control" by Harl Vincent, a pulp science fiction story from the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories magazine.

The story so far:
In the twenty-fifth century, Fowler Scott is a man plotting revolution. His target is the Central Control that rules the City-State of Manhattan, and the secret web he spins snares a starving derelict named Pinky Collins and two gray-clad mid-level workers named Hardy and Mera . . .

Chapter Two: The Man in Purple

There was something strange, something furtive in the meeting that night of Hardy and Mera. Something so exciting as to bring a deep flush to the smooth cheeks of the girl and an unnatural brightness to the eyes of the man. They met in the shadows of the deserted twenty-sixth level at the entrance of long-closed group 208. Hardy had seen but a single robot policeman since leaving the lift at this level and that one motionless, the activating power having been shut off. Something mysterious was behind this, but something extraordinarily exhilarating.

"Mera," breathed the man. "You did then tell me this number."

The girl's blue eyes widened. "I?" Her flush deepened as understanding came. "I thought you had told me."

It was Hardy's turn to stare. He saw that a light was inside the supposedly unusued group 208 and that several other couples were stealing along the disused corridor toward where they stood. "Someone else," he said finally, "told us both to come. What do you think?"

"It must be," the girl agreed. "It's sort of eerie, isn't it?"

"Yes. Sorry?"

"Oh, no," breathlessly, "I've hoped for something like this -- ever since --"

"Since what?" Hardy hung on her words.

"Since I knew. Oh, I can't explain, but you and I are -- different."

"Yes. But others seem to be different as well. See how many are here."

It was true, what he had said. Their eyes followed the movements of two couples who had gone inside; they saw a number of others there in seats that could be made out in the dim light. Couples, all couples. What had drawn them together?

"Shall we go in?" asked the girl.

"By all means." Hardy placed a hand under Mera's elbow, thrilled to the softness and warmth of the rounded forearm.

They sat, then, a little apart from the others, frankly appraising each other in the soft light.

Mera was first to speak. The throaty richness of her low voice was like a caress. "Whatever this is about," she breathed, "it is nice just to sit here and think and dream. To dream of impossible things and to know that someone else understands."

"Yes." Hardy said nothing further for a moment. Then: "But do we really understand? Why should you and I, of all those in the meter works, come to this knowledge? What is it that we have, anyway? Certainly nothing that has been taught to us."

"I wonder." The girl was thoughtful for a long space, then suddenly grasped Hardy's hand as naturally as would a child. "Look," she whispered. "Someone is mounting the platform."

It was true. A lone man, tall, commanding of presence, his broad shoulders slightly stooped, his thick hair gleaming silvery, was stepping purposefully across the dust-laden flooring that once had known the dancing feet of mid-level entertainers.

He faced the small assemblage, probably forty or fifty couples now being scattered throughout the large auditorium. "I am Fowler Scott," he said simply, in opening.

Which meant exactly nothing to Hardy and the girl at his side. Yet there was something that went with the man's words, something good and powerful and somehow familiar, that had them at instant attention.

Even though the man did wear the purple jacket and trunks of the upper levels.

* * *

"Friends," he went on after a pause. "There is no need of going into the reason you all found this place at the appointed time. All of you here are aware of the change in yourselves that has been taking place during the past three years. All of you know you have acquired a new ability, a power not granted to your associates in the various walks of life you occupy. You have, so far, used this new power wisely. And it is sufficient to tell you that it is I who have brought about this change -- for a purpose. I trust there is no objection."

A pattering of approving exclamations swept softly through the hall as the man waited expectantly.

"Good," he said with the ghost of a smile. "Now as to my reasons for doing this: It is to take over control of what is left of our civilization from the Controls, to give mankind an opportunity to re-establish itself and again to become free, prosperous and happy. To prevent its complete extinction."

Gasps of surprise at this unheard of temerity could be heard in the small gathering.

"And from what has happened to each and every one of you here, you should realize that this can be done," the speaker continued calmly. Then, warming to his subject: "Five hundred years ago, in the fourth and fifth decades of the twentieth century, our world went mad. In population we were most powerful, in the exercise of good judgment woefully weak. Our ancestors submitted to the rule of what were called dictators, men with the lust for power and conquest ingrained in their natures. A series of devastating wars that nearly depopulated the globe followed. The land was blasted and rendered sterile, the vast cities destroyed, the march of progress stayed. For nearly a century we returned to a state of savagery.

"Then science began anew to forge ahead. For two centuries it progressed until there rose the new City-States all over the world. With the land no longer productive, everything we ate and wore became synthetic. Life naturally went to the cities, leaving the wastelands between entirely depopulated. By the middle of the twenty-third century great advances had been made. Manhattan, then called New York, was, as it it today, completely closed in, with its own pure atmosphere and artificial sunlight. It was prosperous, housing fifty million humans in its more than twenty mile length of structure which rears to a maximum of a hundred levels, as you know. There were eleven similar structures in what was known as United North America, New York being the largest of all. In the rest of the world were almost fifty more such mechanized City-States. The world was at peace, its governments supposedly democratic. Its total population had been restored to twentieth century strength, though it was now localized in the few huge centers of habitation.

"But averice again came to the fore. Vast fortunes had been accumulated in the hands of the few. These few became plutocratic rulers who were, if anything, worse than the dictators. The population was dividing into three widely differing classes, those above who wore the purple, those of the mid-level gray, and the outcasts below. And there were the robots, outnumbering the humans two to one. Those of the purple deteriorated mentally, physically and morally. The preponderant wearers of the gray became sullen and discontented. Again war broke out, a series of civil wars that swept the City-States of the world and continued for more than a century. The plutocrats were destroyed, the robots became idle, the middle and lower classes were so reduced in number that the cities became what we are today, great empty shells with a few levels occupied and all remaining humans in the hands of the Controls. A few of the cities were wiped out entirely so that now but forty-three remain. And the population was cut to hardly more than five percent of what had been its maximum. It is even less today and growing smaller rapidly. In Manhattan today there are considerably less than two million humans. A hundred million robots lie idle in the fully mechanized levels. A few who remain of the purple, for some reason still humored by the Prime Controls and this humoring tolerated by the Central Control, loll lazily in the upper levels while those of the gray are made to work far beyond their physical power under the driving forces of the lesser Controls. We die young and we are not permitted often to propagate. Mankind is doomed to extinction unless there is a change, a radical change."

* * *

Fowler Scott paused dramatically. Then his voice rose determinedly: "We, you and I, are going to bring about that radical change. We shall take over the control of the cities temporarily. We shall restore freedom and sanity to the masses. Through our activities the land shall be reclaimed so that no one may go hungry. Production -- speeded, controlled labor will become a thing of the past. The Controls themselves are to go, the Central even."

At this last a solemn hush fell over the little assemblage. It was sacrilege this man had spoken. Not a pair of humans in the hall but anticipated an immediate bolt from the arches above to strike them down. But nothing happened; confidence surged back.

"And you," Scott went on, "you whom I have chosen are to take the places of the Centrals in the various cities. I have deliberately selected couples whom I have considered suitably mated, a couple for each of the forty-three scattered States. I shall continue your education until the Great Day, which is not so far distant. Have I your approval?"

A buzz of excited conversation rose confusedly. Each paired-off couple, men and girl, was conducting its own private discussion of the amazing scheme. No immediate decision seemed to be forthcoming.

Far back in the shadows of the auditorium, wondering dully what it was all about, slouched Pinky Collins. He too had been summoned, alone. But Pinky's stomach was full; he would have agreed to anything now.

Scott's voice rose once more and his audience fell silent. "If there is any question as to my choice of mates, let me say this: there is nothing to force any couple of you to wed. It is only that I feel that a man and woman are necessary to replace each Central Control, a male and female viewpoint working together as one. You may continue in your single state if you so desire. No one will force you to take any action you do not wish to take; you will be free-thinking units once the domination of the Controls is definitely removed. Are there any objections or questions?"

Mera was gazing up at Hardy starry-eyed. The thing was so big, so seemingly impossible of accomplishment that these two were speechless. Something else had come to them as well, something personally as big as what this Fowler Scott had proposed. And in their minds each looked ahead down a long vista in which it seemed they must travel always upward together, hand in hand.

They paid little attention to the discussion that followed; they felt secure in the new sense of power which had come to them and in the future that seemed about to open, content to wait for the Great Day and trust in this man who had given them so much.

* * *

In the rear of the auditorium, Pinky Collins waited, an inconspicuous blot against a pillar, merging into the shadows that were everywhere cast by the dim light. His ferret eyes were very bright as he saw the couples leaving arm in arm, always paired off as they had arrived, all chatting in animated tones, some gay, some solemnly impressed. Pinky was waiting for Fowler Scott. An unthinking, clanking mechanical man had fed him and had told him to be here. He still was not over the shock of the experience.

"Oh, here you are." The tall, stooped gray-haired man in purple was approaching him.

Pinky slunk further into the shadowy gloom. There was something queer about all this. "Garn!" he said huskily. "Yuh ain't lookin' fer me, mister."

"Oh, yes I am, Pinky. Come with me."

More frightened of these deserted corridors of the unused level than of his accustomed haunts, utterly mystified by this strange call from a man of the purple, utterly terrified at the prospect of being whisked to the top of the city in one of the high speed lifts, Pinky was yet under a compelling influence that somehow came from this man who had spoken so strangely and forcefully to this queer group of gray-coats. Though he had but dimly understood, though he had not the faintest idea as to what he was heading into, he still had a feeling that he was to be part and parcel of some mighty upset in conditions.

"Yer th' boss, mister," he said finally, and unhesitatingly followed the man who was Fowler Scott.

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