This is the tenth installment of "Power", an early science fiction story by pioneering writer Harl Vincent, and the middle story of a trilogy that began with "Gray Denim" and finished with "Master Control". "Power" was originally published in the January 1932 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, and has never been reprinted until now.
The story so far:
In the twenty-third century, the cities of the world are divided between the gray-clad workers and the purple-clad elite. One member of the elite, the physicist Scott Terris, finds a worker named Gail Destinn secretly conducting an experiment in his laboratory. Destinn has discovered a new source of limitless energy, one that will end the tyrannical rule of the Power Syndicate. When Destinn is paralyzed during a workers' revolt, Terris promises to continue his work. Assisted by Destinn's wife, Norine Rosov, Terris perfects the new energy source. He uses his newly-gained power to seize control of United North America, introducing sweeping reforms to end the distinctions between the workers and the elite . . .
Chapter X: Ultimatum
The visiphone broke in on his thoughts with its shrill clamor. It was Warner Merkel. What could he be wanting at this hour?
"Sorry to bother you," the Police Chief apologized, "but you asked me to notify you immediately when Arthur Mason reported with his release. Mason is here, Mr. Terris."
Might as well see Mason at once. It would be something to occupy his mind while he awaited the report from Travis on the operation.
"Good," he returned. "Bring him right over, Merkel."
Excellent reports he had had on Mason. Most surprising of any of the cases of individual adaptation to extreme reverses which had come to his attention. A model prisoner, he had applied himself to his duties and to self-imposed studies with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy. Worked himself to the position of trusty; then covered himself with glory by saving the warden's life from that same young maniac whom McKay had hired to assassinate Scott. Actually broke the fellow's neck with his hands when he dragged him from the strangle hold he had on the warden. Stout fellow, Mason! He'd have to do something for him; perhaps he might give him a little the better in classification by attending to it personally.
Thirty pounds lighter and looking fifteen years younger, Arthur Mason came to him as a distinct surprise even when he fully considered his record. It was an astounding transformation.
"Any hard feelings, Mason?" he asked, when Merkel brought him in.
"None." The man faced him with sparkling eyes. "I have only thanks to give you, Terris, for what this thing has done for me and mine -- and for millions of others."
"Your son, too?"
"Surest thing, you know. Fred wasn't worth a whoop in the job I wangled out of you for him in the Research Bureau. They classified him in the mechanical controls and he's making good; a foreman already. And, would you believe it, he has mated up with a wonderful girl and settled down. A little black-eyed thing who thinks he's a god and is as clever and pretty as she can be. They met me at headquarters when I came in. Imagine this, Terris; her father was a worthless scamp, one of those who never would work and always yelled his head off about conditions. A professional dissenter. Got mauled fierce in the early uprisings and finally went to work in the pneumatic tube service -- best he could do. But the girl worked herself up out of it to the same sort of job Fred's first classification set him at. She came up and he down -- to meet. And now they're working up together."
This was the sort of thing that renewed Scott's belief in the thing he had done. Sometimes he was aghast at the bloodshed and the privation of those first mad days, but a case like this brought new faith and a warm glow of satisfaction.
"That's great, Mason," he grinned. "And now, how about yourself? Where would you like to be classified?"
The man drew himself up proudly. "I'm willing to take my chances with the others," he averred. "Whatever classification the Board sees fit to give me is the one I want. And I'll make good, Terris."
Merkel smiled broadly and winked at Scott. Here was something with which to silence the objectors, and a man who could do it, if given the chance.
"We'll see, Arthur, we'll see," Scott said absently. The call of the visiphone had rung out and he reached quickly for the lever. Must be Travis, to tell him of Gail's chances.
But the face that appeared in the disc was not the doctor's. It came as a shock, that countenance imaged there a distorted and fear-ridden thing. Carpenter, President Owens' private secretary, it was.
"You!" Scott gasped. "Speak up, man, what is it?"
"The President, Mr. Terris! He's been killed, and the executive chambers are in ruins. Bombs, sir, from the air."
A brilliant flash then and a deafening roar as Carpenter's agonized face was blasted from the disc. The visiphone went dead.
* * *
"I knew it!" Scott shouted. "Bound to happen, sooner or later. Get me some volunteers, Merkel -- quick! Crew for my yacht." He was half out of his robe and reaching for his khaki coat in quick energy.
"Right!" Chief Merkel put in an emergency call for headquarters. "But, Terris, good Lord! This is impossible -- what the devil is it?"
"Crawford, as sure as you were born. My men lost track of him two months ago in Cannes. I've been suspicious ever since. But I hardly expected it this soon."
"But he had little means. What could he do?"
"Pirates, man. Plenty of them in the mountain fastnesses of Asia. Don't you see? He promised them the privilege of looting our cities if they'd help him take his old place here. Hell, it's as plain as day to me -- but the President! I hadn't counted on that . . . somehow."
Merkel was speaking rapidly to his local captain, who nodded in quick understanding. "Need a pilot?" he asked, turning to Scott.
"Yes. I'll have other duties," grimly. "A good one, Merks, and three engineers."
"I can pilot your yacht," Mason broke in eagerly.
"You!" Scott saw he was white with excitement.
"Sure, I had my own license as a private owner. And, Terris, I hate to think of Matt getting away with this."
"Good stuff! Let's go."
"Only the engineers, then?" Merkel asked, holding his connection.
"Yes. Have 'em on the west landing stage, midtown, in fifteen minutes," Terris flung back from the doorway.
And then he was gone, Mason following on his heels. Warner Merkel stared after them, thinking of his conversation with Ralph Warren that afternoon. It all fitted in to perfection -- excepting the girl of the lower levels. The weakness of Iron Terris had not yet come to light; perhaps it never would.
The calamitous tidings were already on the newscasts when the two reached the pneumatic tube and were whirled rapidly downtown. Every tongue babbled of the incredible thing Crawford had done. Aligned himself with the cutthroats of the Himalayas, he had; bringing them to prey upon the defenseless cities of America. And murdered Owens in his bed first thing. Destroyed three of the new energy towers, leaving Washington short of power; then shot skyward in the pirate vessel and calmly cut in on the visiphone system, laying down the law to the people of United North America.
Mason turned meaning eyes to Scott as a girl in the aisle of the car repeated the story of the ultimatum issued by Crawford. Good thing the Dictator was unrecognized by his fellow-passengers. There would have been a delay -- possibly worse.
Crawford demanded that Terris be given up to him as the price of immunity from further attacks, the girl said. He was giving to the American people exactly one hour in which to comply with his demand and was awaiting official visiphone reply. Failing in this, they were to be subjected to a murderous bombardment of all eastern cities. The destruction of the new energy towers would leave them in utter darkness and without means of transportation while the slaughter went on. He was certain, however, that the American people were far too intelligent to refuse his demand. He fully expected them to have this tyrant Terris under guard on the roof surface of Washington well within the prescribed time. And he, Crawford, would then return to the position from which he had been ousted and they, the people, would benefit by his restoration of conditions to their former desirable state.
"Nice program," Scott muttered, "for him. If he were able to carry it out."
But the crowded car was in an uproar when they alighted at the station beneath the midtown stage. Opinion was divided and feelings ran high. Where was Terris, anyway? He would be able to do something. Wasn't it better to give him up and return to the old ways than be murdered in their beds and in darkness? Mighty tough though to give up what some of them had gained. Terris was a wizard; he had the right idea of the way to run things. But he was a hard master. Enriched himself, too, while he was about this reorganization of the country. Vehemently, the lie was given to that last remark and a fight had started when the car doors were opened.
They were out then, on the great stage, he and Mason. Scott ran swiftly to where the slim tapered cylinder which was his yacht rested in its cradle.
"I'll see him in an hour, all right," he grated, jerking open the steel door, "But he'll not see me, Arthur. Give him a chance to let loose those devils in our cities, and to upset the work of the past eleven weeks? I guess not!"
"You have weapons?" Mason inquired, when they were in the control room. "Weapons of sufficient power?"
"And then some. Look here!"
Scott uncovered a gleaming cylinder that poked its nose through the vessel's bow after the fashion of one of the ancient needle guns of the largest calibre.
The engineers trooped in then, interrupting, and Scott directed them aft. Immediately the rising whine of the main motors apprised him of their activity in the engine room. Destinn Power, radiated to the sky lanes for regular traffic requirements, was being converted to their own uses aboard. In a moment the anit-gravity force lightened the vessel and she rocked gently as she drifted from her berth. Mason grinned delightedly as he turned her nose skyward.
* * *
The metamorphosed financier proved himself an excellent pilot and a cheerful shipmate. He pushed the vessel to her utmost in following the radio beacon lane to Washington, while Scott busied himself with the ray projector he had developed during his mysterious visits to New York. The reaction tubes astern throbbed steadily under the continuous emission of their repelling rays.
"How does that weapon work?" Mason asked.
"It's the most amazing thing, Arthur, and I discovered it quite by accident. Curiously, it utilizes the new energy, though the radiations have no power in themselves of destroying matter at any distance. The frequency is too great, and must be converted before we can even use it for power. But I stumbled on a principle that derives from it a most destructive force. It's simple, too. An energy center is at work in the tube, and its radiations are projected along a carrier beam that is of ultra-violet frequency and so adjusted as to heterodyne the Destinn wave. A harmonic of the resulting heat frequency is in the infra-red range at the most intense peak, and we thus have the heat ray; a tremendous blast that will fuse the hardest metals instantly."
"Oh, I see." Arthur Mason laughed. "For all the camouflage of big words," he said, "I take it the thing is a heat ray. That ought to be enough for me to absorb at one sitting."
"There'll be plenty for the fellow at the business end of the ray to absorb, you can bet." Scott opened the breech of the weapon and withdrew the secondary screen from a fully developed energy center, slamming the block home vigorously to confine it.
He saw Mason pale at the sight of the weirdly roaring thing whose emanations set every metallic object in the control room in shrieking vibration in the brief instant of exposure. But his hands were as steady at their tasks as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
Scott marveled anew at the change in the man, and at his composure in the face of the thing they had set out to do.
"You realize what this trip means, don't you, Mason?" he said, after regarding him for a moment. "You know we are going out to kill your old buddy -- unless he should get us first."
"Sure, I know." Mason stared out through the forward port into the blackness. "It doesn't bother me, either, Scott. Strange thing about it is that I've practically no feeling in the matter personally. I used to eat out of his hand -- before. Thought he was my best friend and I his. But something has come over me to change all that; it is as if he were a total stranger, an enemy. He is an enemy, Scott -- the worst the country has ever had. And if he gets us before we get him (which he won't) it will be an unthinkable disaster. Not for ourselves; we'd be out of it, but think what would happen down there. We've got to get him, Terris."
"Glad you feel that way."
From the tone of Mason's voice and the glitter in his eye, Scott knew well that he had a pilot in whom he could trust.