Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Master Control" by Harl Vincent, part 5

This is the fifth and final 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. Hardy despairs of doing so, but Scott uses a telepathic helmet to speed-teach him while Pinky retrieves one of the abducted women. Scott attempts to shut down Central Control, but is knocked unconscious when Central strikes back. Pinky returns with one of the abducted women -- but it isn't Mera. She tells them that Mera and another woman are due to be married off to a pair of Central's tame idlers. Leaving the woman to tend to Scott, Hardy and Pinky set off to rescue them . . .

Chapter Five: The End of Control

In the rotunda of the cubicle group to which the girls from below had been taken was a Mating Control where the empty ceremony of marriage and the impressing of the brain waves that bound two humans, male and female, until such time as the Controls desired to dissolve the union was performed. Before the orb of this Control two couples were standing with bowed heads when Pinky and Hardy entered. The orb was sputtering purple. The girls, Hardy noted in a glance, were backed up by two of the top-level guards each. And one of the girls was Mera.

Hardy leaped to the side of the dull-eyed human at the keyboad of the Control. His powerful invisible fingers wrenched the man's hands from the keys. Dazed, the fellow staggered from his seat just in time to receive Hardy's well-planted uppercut on the point of his jaw. He slumped down with a shuddering moan. The ceremony was over before it had well begun.

And then Hardy saw a terrifying thing. A painful tingling was creeping over his body. He saw his hands materializing, faintly blue in phantom outline. But materializing. Central Control somehow had learned much regarding Scott's activities and was taking measures to circumvent them! Leaping over the Control, Hardy reached for Mera.

Pandemonium broke loose in the place. Hardy struck down one of Mera's guards with no compunction. The fellow's eyes were bulging from his head when the phantom fist swung toward him. Other guards were rushing in. Little Pinky was battling desperately to get the other girl away. And the guards, taken aback by the visions of ghostly beings, were not quick enough to take advantage of the superiority of numbers which was theirs.

"Hardy!" Mera, wide-eyed with wonder, had recognized him. "So you came at last. But how --"

Momentarily, he and Pinky were becoming more fully creatures of flesh and blood. The guards recovered from their temporary panic. But the two men battled like fiends incarnate; they toppled them like tenpins. Little Pinky knew how to handle himself in a rough and tumble. Even the girls helped. They reached the door to the corridor, flinging off the last of the guards. The general alarm shrilled as they wheeled into a side passage. They were in the lift then; its door slid closed and it sank rapidly. For the time being they were safe.

Mera sagged in Hardy's arms. "Oh, I'm so glad," she whispered.

"Glad! It's a miracle." Hardy held her close and, as her face turned up to his, crushed the waiting lips with his own.

"Here y'are, Hardy," drily coughed Pinky.

The lift stopped; its door opened. The wizened little man from the lower regions was grinning broadly, as was the girl Doris. Pinky's grin was fading, though; he was regaining his invisibility. Central Control had lost track of them. Hardy's flagging hope revived. He was himself fading from sight.

"Oh, Hardy, I -- I don't like it," Mera whimpered as they sped along the corridor. "You -- you disappearing this way."

Clinging tightly to her hand to reassure her, he laughed indulgently. "You're the same way," he told her.

She stifled a little cry of horror when she saw that what he had said was so. The contact of his hand had set up the same vibrations in her own structure. They were four invisible creatures now running along in the gloom of the corridor, then plunging into the darkness of the unlighted side passage.

* * *

And it was a good thing tht the invisibility had returned. They found that Fowler Scott still lay insensible when they had oozed through the metal wall into his laboratory. The girl they had left behind with him would not kave known how to open the door.

"How is he?" asked Hardy anxiously as he snapped on the machine of the blue light to restore them to normal. He hugged Mera to him as she melted into view.

"Still breathing," said the girl. "But I can't bring him around."

"Oh, Hardy -- what happened? gasped Mera.

Explaining swiftly, Hardy dashed to the Master Control. A quick survey of its many panels told him that the city was being turned upside down in the search for them. Lights were blinking through the spectrum, relays were clicking. At this rate it would not be long before their hideaway would be discovered. It was an emergency Scott should be able to attend to himself.

"See what you can do for him, Pinky," snapped Hardy. "And get that cap on his head." He pointed to one of the contrivances through which Scott had transmitted to his mind so much needed information. Perhaps, even with the conscious mind inoperative, the old scientist might be able to guide him.

Hardy donned the other cap while Mera gazed at him in astonishment. "Are you going to let him lie here and do nothing about it?" she demanded.

"You girls and Pinky can look after him," the suddenly authoritative voice of Hardy snapped out. "I've important work to do here." Already he was in rapport with a portion of Scott's brain; intelligence was coming through to him by way of the caps.

Mera sniffed contemptuously. "You'd rather fool with that machine than help an injured man -- our leader, at that."

"You don't understand . . . you . . . " Hardy gave it up; there was too much to be done in too big a hurry to try and explain. You couldn't explain to a woman anyway; you just had to wait until she could see for herself. He bent to the task ahead of him.

From Scott's frantic thought waves he knew that the old scientist was dying. There was nothing anyone could do for him. But there was much to be done to save the rest of them and to make possible the carrying out of the great plan.

* * *

Hardy played on the buttons of the Master Control as a musician plays on the keys of an electric organ. One by one he paralyzed the lesser Controls. This was the first step in the necessary sequence, Scott's thoughts were telling him. These were not emanations from the scientist's subconscious he was getting; they were from the conscious. The man's vocal cords, muscles and nervous system were paralyzed, that was all. And they'd never be restored. But he might yet live to see his dream come true, his thoughts exulted. Only a little while.

The vision screens were picturing panics indescribable. This was necessary as a first step, too. With their Controls inoperative, the workers in gray were stampeding the lower levels, fighting, trampling one another to get to the transportation lanes. With the transportation Controls likewise inoperative, their panic increased. Mob fear possessed them. It could not be helped. The Prime Controls were next. Scenes in the upper levels were even more confusing than below. And here men and women lost all sense of decency, became savage animal things fighting indiscriminately. There were no scenes in the lower levels at all. This was why Scott had sent for Pinky. In lieu of Controls, Pinky was to be the one to carry the precepts of the new era to the lower regions. Scott would yet live to convey this part of the plan in its entirety, he telepathed. Ideas were flooding in so rapidly now to Hardy's mind that he could only store many of them away for future reference. The immediate present demanded his every attention.

He had started the synchronous motor anew now, was bringing it up to speed. It was synchronized with Central Control! Mechanically, Hardy went to the panel where Scott had been stricken down. Numbers were coming through to his mind now, complicated combinations of many buttons that must be pressed in exactly correct sequence. The thoughts from the scientist's weakening brain were growing fainter. He had made an error originally; Hardy could not, must not do so. The combinations were being set up less rapidly now on the panel under his fingers; only a few numbers remained. Hardy looked anxiously at the group around Scott. Mera and Doris were weeping. The other girl had gone for more water; Pinky was chafing the scientist's wrists. The final numbers came through. Something about the robots . . . not yet, though . . . .

But wait, came Scott'd dying thought flash. You must . . . . There was no more. The old man's career was ended. And now upon the broad shoulders of young Hardy rested the future of mankind. He had become the Master Control. He looked once at the cold, white face of Mera that raised up towards him. There was nothing but antagonism in her set look. Scott had died under her fingers and Hardy had not helped.

Doggedly he turned to the panels. Dozens of numbers danced in his brain. He tore off the cap from his head and tossed it to the floor. There was a mathematical formula involved in setting up these last numbers. It had come through to him and he had stored it away. But now he could not seem to extract it from the pigeonhole into which it had so hastily been thrust. Sweat ran down into his eyes. The vision screen lighted above him, showing a vast assemblage of intricate machinery surmounted by a huge sphere in which there was pulsating light of many colors. The Central Control. The machine with a brain. It had a definite line on them at last. A formula sang through Hardy's consciousness; the formula. He depressed the remaining buttons.

There was a brilliant flash and a terrific thump as if the very space about him had been warped violently. He was flung away from the board, tingling from head to foot with a million stinging, penetrating agonies. But on the vision screen before him he saw smoke arise from that sphere of many colors; it puffed out of existence in a flash that dwarfed to insignifigance the one that had struck here. Central Control was blasted out of the picture in that instant.

And then Hardy flung himself at the Master Control board with all the fury of a madman. He was Master Control now; his was the mind that would take things in hand and bring order out of chaos. He had not expected or wanted the job but now that it had been thrust upon him he would take care of it. And take care of it well.

* * *

Behind him three girls were sobbing softly. Pinky's crackling voice was trying clumsily to comfort them. But Hardy didn't hear what they were saying; he was intent upon his indicating lights and vision screens; he was driving himself to the task before him. Pigeonhole after pigeonhole of his brain he was exploring and bringing to light their newly acquired secrets. And, as he worked with the problem confronting him, it did not occur to him that a great measure of common sense was necessary to the leavening of the mass of intelligence Scott had kneaded into his brain.

One by one the Prime Controls were flicked back into operation but were left with open orders to restore some degree of sanity to their charges without the use of damaging force or any form of punishment. The lesser Controls followed. Labor and Transportation were resumed under the same binding instructions that there be no reprisals nor punishments. The small number of robot police throughout the inhabited levels were shut off from their radiated power. You couldn't trust the mechanical men, even when their orders had been explicit.

He had not noticed that Mera had risen to her feet and was at his elbow. "So," she remarked scathingly in his ear, "you have been charged with the lust for power. You have destroyed Central Control and now are doing as you please about things. You, who had such high ideals."

Hardy deigned no reply. In fact he was too busy to reply. But his heart was heavy within him. What mattered the rest of this if he had lost Mera? He continued doggedly with the work of restoring order. It was so urgently necessary. And he started up the panel of Scott's chosen following; one by one they were being called by the automatic telepathing mechanisms. They would soon start to gather in this place.

Behind him, Mera was watching the vision screens, watching his flying fingers. She could not help but see that he was bringing order out of chaos, that things in the city were returning gradually to normal. She was blinding herself to these things in the belief that he was setting himself up as a new Central Control. She would have to readjust her mind to a new order of things before she would fully understand. Of course, she had not been lucky enough to have the advantage Hardy had had of the individual teaching of the real Master.

"Just like one of the ancient dictators," she was saying cuttingly.

"Garn!" Pinky's voice spoke up. "Yuh must be dumb, lady. I seen it all; I heard it all. I wuz here, not you. Scott done it, not him. And this guy's goin' on just like Scott figgured. He's all right wit me, lady. Oughta be all right with you, too."

* * *

The pictures in some of the screens were blurring a little later as, one by one, Hardy got the various groups in order and the automatic controls were set. Soon Master Control would take care of itself for the time being. Soon he might get some rest. In couples, Scott's chosen following had been coming in; the scientist's body had already been removed to his former living quarters on Hardy's instructions. All was going as it should. All excepting the situation between Mera and himself.

"Hardy." A meek voice was raised at his side. Mera was looking up at him with tears in her round blue eyes. "Hardy, I'm a little fool. Pinky told me. And I've watched; I see it all now and know what you're doing. I -- I'm sorry. And I want to help, Hardy. Will you forgive me and -- take me back?"

"I shouldn't," he growled, eying her sternly. Then, as his eyes wandered about the laboratory and saw that they were alone, he slid down from his seat and swept her yielding form into his arms. "But I will."

You couldn't for long remain angry with Mera.


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