Monday, January 11, 2010

"Master Control" by Harl Vincent, part 3

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

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. At a secret meeting he reveals to them and forty-two other couples that the system ruled by the Central Control is driving the human race to extinction, and that he has chosen them to take control of the world after the Central's rule is overthrown . . .

Chapter Three: Prison Break

Hardy slept but poorly after the meeting. So engrossed had he been in the girl Mera that the enormity of what Scott had been doing and was proposing did not strike him fully until the sunglo illumination of his sleeping quarters had been snapped off and he was composed for sleep. A new train of thought then began to form in his mind, a train of thought that was increasingly more complex as he alternately dozed and awakened to remembrance of where he had left off in the thinking. He knew that a great change had come over him during the past three years, as undoubtedly it had in the case of every one of those forty-three couples. He did not remember much of his life up to the time when the change had started to set in; he had before that been too completely under the continuous spell of the Controls. He hadn't understood nor cared greatly in those dim days; he had merely lived on his days and nights in stolid submission along with the rest of the mid-level slaves. Now all that was changed. And by a man of the purple who obviously had something not possessed by the Controls themselves.

It had always seemed before that the Controls were malignant human beings. Now, through the revelations that had come to him and in the releasing of his own mental capacity, he had come to know that the lesser Controls were as much controlled as were their own charges. It was the machines at which they sat which stupefied the minds and speeded up the physical capacity of the workers. The men and women who were called Controls were merely the manipulators of the machines; they in turn were under orders from the Prime Controls, the Prime Controls under the mysterious being known as Central. Hardy and Mera were supposed to get to the point of displacing one of the Central Controls -- somewhere as yet not specified. It was incredible. And yet the man Scott had so far demonstrated his own powers; Hardy believed implicitly that he could do as he promised. But to what end? And what dangers and hardships were to be met in the doing?

The others at the meeting had seemed enthusiastic when they left. It had been settled; there were no serious objectors, no questions that had not been answered satisfactorily by Scott. And the promise had been made that immediate results would be forthcoming. Hardy became more and more excited over the prospect and less and less inclined to sleep as the night wore on. When the sunglo illumination came to signify that it was what they called morning, he was in and out of his bath and into his clothes with far more than his usual alacrity.

Mera was on his mind now above all else.

* * *

When he arrived at his seat before the long conveyor he looked down at the assembly line Control at the end with new insight into what it stood for. And he was actually sympathetic with the human being who sat at the innumerable check-back lamps and indicators and buttons that he faced. There was the quick, shrill blast that signified the start of the working day, the tingling of the brain impulses that penetrated Hardy's consciousness but were immediately thrown off. He kept his eyes front, though he sensed as never before the nearness of Mera at his side. His fingers began to fly, enormously enlarged, exceedingly swift and capable as seen through the glass. At least the Control was operative as far as speeding up his muscular action was concerned.

New ideas were crowding in upon him; he carefully shielded off his thoughts from the Control. How he was able to do this he did not know; he only knew it was so, and knew that somehow, from somewhere in the upper regions, Scott was doing it all. Continued exposition there was in his consciousness of conditions as they existed in Manhattan and in the rest of the world, continued propounding of remedies possible of application, continued reviewing of facts of history which had led up to these injustices and intolerable situations which were constantly growing worse.

So lost was he in contemplation of what was coming through to him that he did not notice a stir at his side. Not until it had become a veritable disturbance. And then he did something that was hitherto unheard of on the assembly line. He turned abruptly in his seat to face two officers of the upper-level guard who had raised Mera to her feet. Not another worker on the line had observed or stirred. Amazement at what he saw froze for an instant on Hardy's face as he staggered under the impact of a numbing brain wave that swept down from the Control. But almost immediately, with the power which had come to him, he shook it off. The orb of the Control flashed spiteful violet again and again but to no avail.

"Hardy, help me!" Mera was begging him. "Do something. They want to take me away."

One of the guards grabbed her arm roughly. "We are taking you away, my pretty," he corrected her. "And better not make any trouble or it will be harder for you in the end. You ought to consider yourself lucky."

The second guard clamped big fingers on her wrist and she cried out in fear and pain. Then was when Hardy went into action. He lashed out with both fists in blind fury. One, two, in professional boxer's style. And with the weight and power of an unusually vigorous body for a mid-level worker. The guard went down and stayed there. And the other one had released Mera and was coming for Hardy. The Control orb flashed frantically. And then there was the shrill whistle that called the robot police.

Hardy had no very clear idea of just what happened immediately after that. He only knew that again and again he felt the satisfaction of burying his knuckles in yielding flesh or of bones crushing or cracking under his blows. Both guards were on the floor when the reinforcements came in. There were other guards then and -- robots! Steel fingers wrapped around his windpipe, a jointed steel arm encircled his own arms, crushing them to his sides and rendering his frantic struggling futile. Mera, he could see, was being hustled off by new guards of the purple. He tried desperately to cry out but could not for the closing off of his breath. His senses reeled, swirling many-hued sunbursts danced before his eyes. Abruptly he knew no more.

* * *

When consciousness returned in intermittent flashes of agony that finally crystallized into one long-drawn throb of torture, Hardy found that he lay prone on a metal floor and in utter darkness. Each effort to swallow seemed to drive multiple-edged knives into the membranes of his throat; each effort at serious thinking set up racking vibrations in his tormented brain cells. An attempt to sit up brought a sense of swaying dizziness and nausea that caused him to slump back to the floor.

He lay for a long time suffering such exquisite mental and bodily pain as he had never known a human could endure. Uppermost in his tortured mind was the thought of Mera, helpless in the hands of the upper-level guards. Mera calling out to him for the help he was unable to give her. Hardy knew what this meant; he knew she had been chosen by the Prime Controls for one of the purple clad libertines of the top areas. As his physical pains abated, his mental upset increased. There must be a way to get control of the situation; where was the help of Fowler Scott in this crisis? Or had the Controls gotten to him as well? Was the entire plan to fail?

Eventually Hardy was able to sit up in the darkness; after that he rose groggily to his feet and managed to totter to the near wall of his prison. He felt gingerly over the vertical metal surfaces, edging from corner to corner until he had determined that he was in a doorless and seamless room not more than ten feet on a side. At least no doors nor seams were encountered by his searching fingertips. The darkness was so intense that it was a tangible thing, seeming to bear down on him like a thick, soupy fluid. The air was stifling, malodorous. Hardy knew he was in one of the dungeons of the Prime Controls.

The silence was complete, even the gentle thrum of the mid-level shops being absent. That is how he knew he was in the upper regions; the industrial centers and the power radiating center were too far removed for a sound or a sense of vibration to reach him.

And then the utter soundlessness was broken by a faint noise that was like the crumpling of tissue paper being thrust through an opening. A whispered voice suddenly was in Hardy's ears.

"Where are yuh, boss?" it came startlingly from out of the gloom. It was like no voice Hardy had ever heard, harsh, crackling and uncouth, yet more than welcome.

"Here," he whispered back. "Who are you?"

A hand touched his own then, a cold and clammy and bony hand. But it was something to which to cling. His confidence, unaccountably, came surging back.

"Pinky," said the voice. "Scott sent me. We're goin' outta here."

The hand was drawing him toward one of the walls. "But how?" he objected.

"Damfino, but yuh'll see. C'mon."

There was a slight sensation of resistance as if a draft of air had opposed their progress. And then they were in the lighted corridor outside. They had passed through the metal wall. Amazed, Hardy turned to look at his queer companion. There was no one with him! And still that clawed hand was in his own. He looked down and choked back the startled cry that rose to his lips. His own hand was not there; neither was his arm nor any part of his body he would ordinarily have seen. He pulled away from the uncanny grip and was immediately visible.

"Here, boss -- quick," came the mysterious voice of his invisible companion. "Grab me flipper -- quick. Somebody comin'."

Again that cold hand was in his own; once more he was an invisible entity. Something in that weird contact . . . something. But Hardy did not now stop to reason out the why and wherefore of the astounding thing he was experiencing. Two robot guards were coming down the passage. He and his companion passed on through them and were on their way. At least there was some satisfaction in knowing that they had robots as his guards, not humans. The humans had some respect for his physical prowess; they knew he was safe in the hands of the metal men. Or they thought they knew.

* * *

Still invisible, he followed the guiding hand of his mysterious liberator. They dropped a dozen levels in a lift and got off in an unused corridor. They ran through winding passages in utter darkness, even the illumination having been discontinued here. His companion seemed to know the way, seemed to be able to see in the dark. At length they were against a metal wall that was there and yet somehow only partly solid to the touch.

"Shove," said the invisible man who had called himself Pinky.

Hardy shoved and was through the wall, blinking in brilliant sunglo. Before him stood Fowler Scott.

"Good work, Pinky," he approved. A machine behind him flashed blue light and Pinky materialized as a wizened, nondescript little man with the wondering eyes of a five-year-old child.

"Tanks, boss," he said in a frightened voice, and scurried off.

Looking down, Hardy saw that his own substantiality had been restored. "How do you do it?" he could not help blurting out.

Scott smiled. "It is merely a matter of altered rates of vibration," he explained. "All material existence is vibratory, as are all forces. Each sub-atomic particle of your body has its definite rate of vibration as does that of any perceptible solid. The human senses, sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell, are capable only of distinguishing substances in a certain narrow range of vibratory characteristics. I merely alter the perceptible vibrational rates to higher or lower than are within the range of the human senses. You then become invisible, or absent to the touch, or soundless, or a combination of these, depending on the rate to which I shift the oscillatory attributes. It is very simple."

"Very," Hardy said drily. "Anyway, I appreciate what you've done. And now about Mera."

"Yes -- Mera." Fowler Scott was suddenly very solemn. "Something has gone wrong," he admitted. "Something has gone very wrong. Mera is but one of eight of my chosen ones -- all females -- who have been abducted. Central Control has in some way learned too much. How, I can not understand. I thought the shielding of brain wave forms was impenetrable."

A swift feeling of panic came to Hardy. "You -- you mean that our -- your plan must fail?"

"No-o, not necessarily. But there will be difficulties I had not anticipated. I am glad this happened in time to warn us of danger."

"Glad? What about Mera?" demanded Hardy. Then, as a shamefaced afterthought: "And the other women?"

"Something must be done, shall be done -- immediately. It is good, Hardy, that I brought you here. I have long probed your intellect and know that you can be a worthy assistant here. And I fear I shall need one who can absorb all of the details I shall necessarily have to impart."

There was something ominous in Scott's statement, an indication of a fear that had newly come to the scientist. A doubt, not a serious one as yet, perhaps, but forming. "I'll do anything possible to help," Hardy told him.

"Good." Scott became animated once more. "First off, of course, I must acquaint you with the apparatus in this secret laboratory of mine. In this apparatus lies the crux of the entire situation, the hope of mankind. You must understand it all soon -- now."

"How about Mera?" persisted the younger man.

Scott eyed him keenly. "So you care about her. It is well. At least in your case I did not err in my choice. Well, we shall see what can be done about Mera. Again I say, all depends upon my apparatus."

The scientist turned to a door that led into his inner sanctum and Hardy saw beyond him a great room that was crammed with intricate machines and festooned with cables and gleaming threadlike filaments. His heart sank; he could never master the workings of these formidable assemblies.

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