Friday, February 5, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 1

Harl Vincent (1893 - 1968) was the pen name of Harold Vincent Schoepflin, a mechanical engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby. Vincent was one of the pioneers of the Gernsback Era of science fiction, publishing his first story in the June 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, the world's first (and at the time, only) science fiction magazine. Vincent went on to publish over seventy stories between 1928 and 1942, only to set aside his writing hobby when America entered World War II.

Most of Vincent's early stories have never appeared outside of the original magazines, and now that they have entered the public domain, we here at the Johnny Pez blog have chosen to post them here in a blog-friendly multi-part format. We now turn to our twelfth story, "Power", which first appeared in the January 1932 issue of Amazing, and until now has never appeared anywhere else. "Power" is the second story in a trilogy; the first, "Gray Denim", appeared in the December 1930 issue of Astounding Stories, and was posted online at Project Gutenberg in December 2009; while the third, "Master Control", appeared in the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories, and was posted at this blog last month.

And now, without further ado, we present the first installment of:

by Harl Vincent

Chapter I: The Darkness Before

Night, whose magic was unknown in the levels below, was a thing of wondrous beauty when viewed from the continuous rooftops of twenty-third century New York. To the wearers of the gray, in the lowest levels of all, it was only a word, a vaguely disturbing term for one of the strange moods of nature that brought darkness and terror to the mysterious wilderness and jungles of the uninhabitable territory that lay between the great cities of United North America.

They shivered in dread of the darkness, that multitude in gray denim, for daylight was always with them; the artificial daylight of the Power Syndicate that came to them as unfailingly as did the humidified and iodized air they breathed. Of the same intensity and blue-white color throughout each twenty-four hours, it searched out every nook and cranny of the maze of passages and shaftways that separated as well as connected their living and working quarters. It was with them even as they slept; for them there was neither night nor day, only the passing of time.

But the wearers of the purple were more fortunate; for those so wealthy or favored as to reside in the topmost levels there was the opportunity of faring forth on the vast roof surface, where they might feast their eyes on the beauties of the heavens by night, if they so desired. A view of the moon and stars, or the grandeur of a storm-tossed sky shot with luminous streaks, that were the night-flying ships of the government lines, was theirs for the asking. But there were few who availed themselves of the privilege; the rigors of nature were not to be braved with impunity by those whose bodies were accustomed to the uniform temperature and humidity of the interior, whose eyes were unused to the darkness and ears to the murmuring silence of the outside world.

Scott Terris, that virile and brilliant young physicist, who was chief of the Science Research Bureau, had long made a habit of taking nightly walks along the railed footpath that skirted the edge of the fifteen hundred foot precipice that was the west wall of windowless, steel-cased New York. Here it was that his mind worked at its best; away from the muffled roar and the carefully regulated synthetic existence of the interior, his vast accumulation of scientific deductions of the day's research could be marshalled in orderly array to form the basis of some new theory or discovery that would startle the Americas on the following morning.

Tonight was an exception. The moonlit ripples of the Hudson River, and the sweet-scented breeze that drifted over from the forest lands which extended to the very edge of the Palisades on the Jersey side, had none of their usual soothing effect. A solitary muffled figure, he dallied near the trapdoor that opened into his private laboratory below, his thoughts in an unwonted turmoil of vague unrest.

The pulsating life of the great city made itself felt in the metal plates beneath his feet. Fifty million souls there were, down in that seething hive of industry and idle folly, of hopeless ignorance and scintillating genius, of monotonous routine existence and pleasure-mad lives. Sixty-five levels crammed with those of the gray denim, thirty levels of the soulless mechanicals, and five where the wearers of the purple dwelt in the utmost prodigality of freedom and spaciousness. And everywhere there were the red police. One city of the eight of equal size now housed the entire population of United North America. It was an artificial life; concentration of the inhabitants to the nth degree, and utter waste of the land that lay between.

He was startled from his reverie by a sharp detonation somewhere below -- in his laboratory, it seemed. But the place was deserted; it had been for hours. In the next instant he was at the trapdoor, his eyes straining in the effort to pierce the gloom of the huge workroom.

A sudden blinding light-shaft sprang into being as the door of one of his electric furnaces was opened. There was the momentary glimpse of a muscular arm and a hand that gripped a slender pair of tongs in calloused fingers. There was the withdrawal of a tiny crucible from the white heat of the furnace, and the sliding back of the door, and then the crucible was a dazzling light fleck that danced through the blackness toward one of the workbenches.

Scott slipped down the iron ladder and fumbled for the light button, flooding the laboratory with its normal sun-glow illumination. He could scarcely believe his eyes when they rested on the figure that bent over the sizzling crucible. A powerfully built young fellow, in the gray denim of fifty levels below, straightened up quickly at the coming of the light and faced him, surprised but unafraid.

"What are you doing here?" Terris snapped, his amazement overcome by a rising flood of indignation.

The intruder lay aside his tongs with calm deliberation, grinning suddenly in disarming fashion. "Oh," he said softly, "just working on a little idea of my own. I didn't expect you back for an hour."

"Didn't expect me back!" Scott exploded. "You have your nerve breaking into my place and --"

He was advancing toward the astonishing young fellow in gray, his emotions alternating between deep curiosity as to the meaning of the intrusion and grim determination to deal summarily with the sneaking workman -- to turn him over to the red police. But there was something in the intruder's level gaze that gave him pause.

Remarkably keen gray eyes regarded him from underneath a tousled thatch of flaming red hair. And in those eyes there lurked a fixity of purpose that was overwhelming in its intensity, a hint of the indomitable will of the possessor and of almost fanatical devotion to some great impelling ambition that was the primal urge of his being. Stern eyes, and knowing, yet they smiled into his own. Scott's wrath evaporated.

"Sorry you caught me," his visitor said in even tones, "I had hoped to accomplish something before that happened. And I might tell you that I have done no harm here, nor have I taken anything from the laboratory at any time."

"At any time!" Scott exclaimed blankly. "Then you have been here before -- often perhaps?"

"Oh, yes." He was a strange anomaly, this wearer of the gray, and obviously had risen far above his station. He studied Scott's expression carefully for a moment; then, "I'm Gail Destinn," he said. "Perhaps I'd better explain."

"I think you had," Scott returned, forcing the assumption of what he considered a tone of severity. In spite of himself he was enjoying the encounter; this Destinn was a likable chap, and his self-assurance and poise were so serenely unaffected as to compel respect. It was incredible that one who wore the gray should have developed these qualities; that he should display the scientific knowledge and aptitude evidenced by his nocturnal activities.

"Yes," Destinn was saying thoughtfully, "I owe you an explanation and an apology as well." He hesitated, and his eyes strayed to a corner of the room where a hidden panel was open, revealing the cage of a gravity-control lift. "Mr. Terris," he blurted out, "you look to be a good scout. I wonder if you'd consent to taking a trip down below with me; let me show you something of the life of my kind and of what is going on down there in the lower levels. I can explain much better then, and I'm sure you'll not think the time wasted."

Scott stared in amazement at the open panel in the wall of his supposedly secret retreat. A concealed shaftway connected his laboratory with the lower levels! He saw that his uninvited guest awaited his reply with poorly concealed eagerness. And there was sincerity of purpose and a longing for friendly understanding in his anxious gaze.

"All right, Destinn," he decided, "I'll go with you. And I know I'll enjoy the visit."

* * *

Scott Terris was a man who had given little thought to those who inhabited the lower levels; he had never been below the levels of the mechanicals and had had little contact with those of the gray denim, with the exception of a few menials in his own household and those who tended the mechanicals of the intermediate sections. He knew there was poverty and ignorance among them, of course, and knew of the troubles of the red police when they became unruly down there. But his science was an exacting taskmaster, crowding from his waking thoughts all alien considerations. True, he loved humanity -- collectively -- and strove for its betterment in all things that science could provide. But, as an individual, man had taken little place in his interest.

As the cage of the lift dropped swiftly into the depths of its shaft, he appraised the straight youthful figure of Gail Destinn with something of envy in his heart. Suddenly it came to him that there was much in life that he had missed; much that he was missing. Apparently the gray-clad workers felt less of the monotony of existence than did he; perhaps even his pleasure-mad fellows of the purple were wiser in their pursuits than he had suspected. Certainly, he was thrilling to the novelty of this situation and to the sense of adventure that came with the swift descent into regions unknown.

They stepped out into a narrow corridor, when the lift came to rest, and Scott followed mechanically when his host led the way to a tiny cubicle which proved to be his sleeping quarters. Scott marveled that a human being could live and think sanely in the crowded space.

"Not much of a place, Mr. Terris," Gail Destinn apologized, "but it serves its purpose. Here, sir, you'd better put these on before we go out in the Square."

He grinned engagingly as he tossed a suit of the despised gray denim on the cot; then sat cross-legged on the floor as Scott nodded his understanding.

"You see," he explained, "I want you to observe things as they are, and everyone would shut up like government witnesses if they saw you out there in the purple. I'd like you to listen to some of the conversation in the ways and other public places before I tell you of the experiment I'm working on."

Scott Terris struggled with the buttonless gray shirt, emerging with a grunt of relief when he finally conquered the thing. "Experiment?" he asked. "You were using my laboratory in some research work of your own?" Strange that he could feel no animosity toward this smiling youth who had so calmly invaded his sanctum and then inveigled him into this visit.

"Why yes, of course. That furnace, you see, is the only one in existence that is capable of producing the extreme temperature I need. I simply had to have access to it, and I knew the only way of getting it, was to take it. The forgotten shaftway made it easy."

"I see." Scott frowned in perplexity; he didn't see. That particular furnace was used only for involved research into the structure of the atom. This Destinn couldn't possibly . . .

"What the devil are you up to, Gail?" a gruff voice broke in from the doorway. "I thought you were at work up top."

"I was," Destinn replied suavely, his hand moving to Scott's arm with swift warning pressure. "Had to quit early to meet my friend."

"Oh yeah! And who's he?"

Scott turned to look at the stocky, blue-jowled man who regarded him with suspicion, if not open antagonism. Gail, with a quick movement, had hidden the discarded purple raiment and now faced the newcomer with easy confidence.

"Firmin -- Bill Firmin, from the forty-ninth level," he said evenly. "You've heard me speak of him, Tom. Shake hands, you two. Bill, I want you to know Tom Prouty, our ward leader here."

A flabby hand was stretched there before him, and, as Scott hesitated, he saw Gail Destinn's jaw muscles tense spasmodically. There must be a hidden danger here; this Prouty had a sinister look about him, that was not at all in keeping with the direct frankness of young Destinn. But the younger fellow was afraid of Prouty for some reason; Scott saw those taut jaw muscles relax in a relieved smile when he took the cold limp hand of the politician in his own.

"Glad to know you, Bill," said Prouty. "If you're a friend of Gail's, I suppose you're all right. And, take it from me, big boy, you'd better be right; things are popping pretty soon and you guys in the forties better be with us."

"Bill's the best there is, Tom," Destinn interposed hastily. "I'm taking him over to the Square with me."

"Well, make it snappy," Prouty growled. "May do him some good. Meeting's on, you know, and Sarovin is talking tonight. Afterwards I want to see you in my office alone -- don't bring this guy along."

For a moment Scott thought his young host was about to explode. But Prouty scowled him down; then turned on his heel and was gone.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Terris," Destinn whispered. "I've let you in for something, I'm afraid. Tom's a bad actor, and he's suspicious of you. Guess we'd better get you back up top where you belong."

"You mean I'm to run away?" Scott's blood boiled at the idea of sneaking off in fear of this ignorant bully. "Not on your life!" he grated. "I'm here now, and here I stay until I learn what it's all about. Let's go to this Square of yours."

Young Destinn grinned anew and his fine eyes twinkled. "You are a good scout," he breathed delightedly. "Come on -- Bill."

Responding somehow to the savage call of the danger he saw ahead, Scott Terris followed eagerly when his new friend dashed off down the corridor toward the moving way.

(continue to part 2)

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