Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Master Control" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth 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.

However, the Central Control strikes back, abducting eight of the women, including Mera, and imprisoning Hardy. All hope seems lost when Pinky appears in Hardy's cell under an invisibility ray and brings him safely to Scott's secret laboratory. There Scott informs Hardy that he must learn to operate the roomfull of complex devices . . .

Chapter Four: The Master Control

"You'll master them," Scott averred in a quiet voice, having read Hardy's mind. "But not without mechanical aid. It is strange, that with the force of mind the most powerful of all the forces in the universe man has not learned as yet how to use his power to the utmost without the assistance of matter. All of which is to become clear to you when you have acquired a little more knowledge."

The scientist took from a cabinet two caplike contrivances, one of which he handed to Hardy. "Here," he said, "put this on. Through the medium of these we can reach complete rapport. It is necessary now as never before in human history."

Hardy fitted the contrivance of flexible metal banding and spring fingers and mysterious coils, condensers and whatnot over his head and buckled its strap beneath his chin. Immediately a sense of unlimited capacity for absorbing knowledge took over in his mind. He looked at Scott, who was smiling, and Scott's thoughts became his thoughts; the scientist's vast storehouse of information was at his command.

He was led first to a long desklike affair that was somewhat similar to one of those before which sat the lesser Controls but infinitely more complicated in its multiplicity of indicating lights, tiny relays, vision screens and operating buttons. Many of the tiny lights were flickering through swiftly changing shades of what seemed to be the uniform basic color, blue. Others flamed red and suddenly went out. Relays clicked incessantly as waves of new color swept the endless banks of indicators above them. Hardy knew suddenly that the life of the city of Manhattan was before him. This board he was facing pictured the activities of the thousands of Controls of the nearly two million inhabitants.

Scott indicated a separate small panel of the assembly on which were indicating lights and relays in pairs, each pair consisting of one white and one red bulb. There were forty-three pairs. This panel represented the individuals the scientist had chosen for the great work he had outlined to them in the meeting of the previous night. Some of the lights were out, but only one complete pair. That was Hardy and Mera. There were seven other lights out, all of them white. These were the other women who had been abducted. Scott did not have to tell him by word of mouth; the knowledge simply flowed in as he observed these things.

There were relays corresponding to the lights, rows of buttons underneath. The meaning and use of each of these became apparent after but a moment of consideration. Such had been the material adjuncts to Scott's mind force. Their mysteries now were unfolding in Hardy's own mind, a vast store of knowledge.

Time stood still as knowledge increased. The tiny lights, the myriads of clicking relays, the activating buttons drifted out of Hardy's vision. He was probing the sum total of man's knowledge through endless ages; he floated on a tide of brain waves that swept him ever nearer to a shore where was to be found solid ground and understanding of all things. Back and forth he was swept, now to understanding of the ancient science of Mu, now to the lost science of only three centuries back.

He knew now that man's intellectual force is comparable to all other forces in that it, too, is vibratory. He learned to identify and classify the differing vibratory characteristics. He understood gravity, the "cold magnetic force" of the Motherland of a thousand centuries gone; he understood how the touch of Pinky's hand had communicated to himself the vibratory essential of invisibility, how the atoms of his own body had been enabled to pass through and between the atoms comprising solid metal walls without collisions of the particles.

* * *

It became clear to him that life as it now existed on earth was futile and entirely aimless, that its ramifications were utterly dependent on the whims of beings who had no soul and no conscience. His mind was for a long time unequal to the grasping of the real reason for this, as ages of hereditary belief had to be overcome. He groped in the knowledge that in no city of earth were there contented human beings, groped for the reason. There was no logical pattern to any of it, no logical goal toward which human beings might be supposed to aspire. In the upper levels a few effeminate men and empty-headed, vainglorious women idled away their lives in the lax power of the Prime Controls. In the mid-level virile men and women, kept physically fit for their labors by the lesser Controls and speeded to twice their normal capacity during working hours, burned up their bodies in a few short years after attaining maturity. In the lower levels were the outcasts, left entirely to their own resources with the exception of the few robot police who kept them from invading the upper levels and dealt summarily with them if they encroached upon one another among themselves.

There was the rigidly controlled birth rate in the mid-levels and the taking of infants from their parents for rearing and education as the Controls would have it. There was the uncontrolled death rate exceeding the meagre birth rate alarmingly. No disease there was, to be sure, for disease had been conquered. But the unnaturally overworked bodies just wore out and stopped ticking.

No reason could be assigned for any of this except . . . it came to Hardy in a flash of enlightenment that it was all the mad plan of Central Control. Manhattan was only a laboratory in which Central Control experimented with his human guinea pigs. He was merely playing with human life, letting those of the purple play around with their baser emotions and himself observing the effects and reactions. Working those of the gray to their early deaths merely to keep the city functioning and to observe their reactions. Allowing those of the lowest levels to shift for themselves, allowing them to starve and to live in complete ignorance and utter misery in order that he might tabulate the results of an experiment. Closing up dozens of levels of robots who might have done the work and left a life of comparative ease which might have been made highly profitable physically and intellectually for the humans.

Why? Why should a being the masses had been taught to look upon as a God conduct such an inhuman experiment and continue it down through the centuries?

Why? This knowledge came to Hardy finally: because Central Control was not a man but a machine. A machine that could think for itself, functioning entirely without human manipulation or emotion. A machine, hating mankind because of its lack of soul and of love and of any of the human emotions excepting hatred. A machine which was the product of a mad scientist of the twenty-third century whose secret had died with him and had only now been discovered by Fowler Scott. A devilish contrivance which, in the dark century, had been able to duplicate itself forty-two times and, with its counterparts, take over all remaining City-States of the globe.

* * *

But this machine that perched atop Manhattan had been unable to control its duplicates for they were exact duplicates and it thus had no features of superiority over them. The forty-three cities had remained independent hellholes of misery, hatcheries of a civilization only kept alive at all for purposes of fiendish experimentation. A civilization dying out but not too rapidly to suit the machines. Perhaps there would at some distant date come a time when the Central Controls would permit the propagation of a new line for even more cruel and barbarous purposes. Unless someone would come along who could control the Centrals.

Hardy drifted out from his sea of thoughts and saw the scientist smiling and nodding in satisfaction. "Your last question," said the scientist, "is answered in the mechanism before you."

The intricate contrivances of the desklike assembly swam clearly now into Hardy's vision. He grasped its many ramifications as one amazing, thought-overwhelming whole. "The Master Control," he gasped. "Master of the Centrals; Master of the world."

"Precisely," Scott agreed. "But it, unlike the Centrals, has no mind of its own. For the work that is to be accomplished it must be manipulated by human hands and controlled by a human mind. Do you see the responsibility that devolves upon the mind that is to do this? And upon yours and other minds which are to take over the other Centrals?"

As the scientist said this, Hardy saw for the first time that his eyes were red-rimmed and haunted. The man was afraid, afraid of this great responsibility. And who could blame him?

"Anything would be preferable to things as they are," the younger man told him.

"I suppose so," sighed Scott. And Hardy saw suddenly that the man was very old and weighed down with care and anxiety. He pointed a shaky forefinger at a small synchronous motor that perched on a bracket. "But one adjustment remains to be made," he said, "and I dare not make it till all of you are here. Now eight are missing. We must wait."

Hardy started guiltily. Mera! How much time had been lost! She must be rescued from her captors. He would never forgive himself if . . . "Wait!" he exclaimed. "We must get Mera -- now!"

The haunted look intensified in the old man's eyes. "Yes, and the rest of them," he intoned. Then, raising his voice: "Pinky!"

Before the echoes of his voice had ceased reverberating from the metal walls of the huge laboratory, the twisted little man of the lowest levels was in the room with them.

* * *

Scott moved to the machine from which the blue light had flashed to restore visibility before. It flashed again and bathed the shriveled form of Pinky in its eerie radiance. Waveringly, he disappeared from view.

"I want you to go to level ninety-nine, crossway eighty-six, group four nought five and see if you can get to the eight young ladies in gray that I told you of. Bring them here one at a time."

"Yer the boss, mister," came out of nowhere. There was a faint crumpling as of tissue being crammed through an opening. Pinky was gone.

Scott crossed to the desklike switchboard and fiddled with a series of buttons. Hardy knew at once that these were on the panel that was segregated for effect on Central Control. Nothing happened. Scott moved to the small synchronous motor he had previously indicated. He manipulated a switch at its base and it whirred into life. Over it was a circular dial on which a pointer began to rotate slowly; with his new-found knowledge, Hardy knew this to be a synchronoscope. Scott intended to synchronize this motor with the activating motor at Central Control. He was not going to wait!

The pointer of the synchronoscope rotated clockwise as the motor picked up speed, turning ever faster. Then, as the motor settled down to constant speed, Scott carefully adjusted the speed changer. The moving pointer slowed down, commenced rotating in the counterclockwise direction. Ever so cautiously, the scientist reversed the speed changer. The pointer hesitated, returned slowly to the vertical, swayed past and then returned. Scott threw in the synchronizing switch, whereupon there was a confused clicking of the tiny relays on the Central Control panel and a lighting of its multitudinous indicators.

"We're in touch now, Hardy," he exclaimed exultantly. "All is ready. And with you here, I need not wait. The other cities can follow when I have returned the eight and brought the rest. We can go ahead now -- in Manhattan."

"But Mera -- how about her?" objected the younger man.

"Don't you see? It's quicker this way. Pinky may take some time bringing them all in. This way we take control of -- everything. We can take over the Prime Controls and order them all released -- instantly."

The fires of relentless purpose were in the old man's eyes. He depressed a series of buttons -- the series. And there came a flash from the board that struck him down! A voice from nowhere that laughed in a raucous mechanical tone. Central Control had not been caught napping. Swiftly Hardy bent over Scott's crumpled form. The man was unconscious but breating. Evidently his wall insulation here, while not entirely effective, had been sufficiently so to lessen greatly the force of the bolt hurled by Central Control. Intuitively, Hardy knew what to do; in an instant he was at the switch of the synchronous motor and had opened it. Relays clicked off, the lights on the panel snuffed out, the whine of the motor ran down the scale as its speed decreased.

"Here's one of 'em," came the voice of Pinky from out of the air.

Hardy saw that the scientist was stretched out in a comfortable position, then ran to the machine of the blue light and turned it on.

Pinky and one thoroughly frightened, white-faced girl in gray stood hand in hand before him. The girl was not Mera.

* * *

"What's wrong with the boss?" asked Pinky, staring at the prone figure of the scientist.

"Shock," tersely answered Hardy. "Did you see the others?"

"What others?" -- blankly.

"The other seven girls."

"Uh -- yeh. They're all there -- where he said. Only, two of 'em's already gettin' spliced."

"Spliced? You mean married?" Hardy's voice rose.

"Yeh, that's it."

"Do you know who they were?"

"Naw." Pinky moved toward where Scott lay.

The girl, overcoming her fear, spoke up.

"They were Doris and Mera," she said quickly.

"Pinky!" Hardy had the little man by the arm. "We're going back to stop that -- quick, you hear?" He dragged Pinky to the machine of the blue light. "Turn this off when we vanish, he told the girl, "and look after Scott while we're gone."

"All -- all -- right." The girl, still pale and shaken, nodded.

But his instructions regarding the machine had been unnecessary; he found he could shut it off himself after the blue light had flashed them into the vibrating invisibility.

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