Monday, February 15, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 11

This is the eleventh 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.

All goes well for seventy-five days, until Matt Crawford, the ousted former head of the Power Syndicate, returns with a band of Asian pirates, determined to regain control and wreak vengeance on Terris . . .

Chapter XI: Nemesis

"It beats me how he got them to come over here, at that," Mason remarked, when they were within a few miles of their goal.

"Yes, though undoubtedly he promised them the world with a fence around it. And fuel for their return. They'll be heavily armed, too. These pirates have been the terror of the skylanes over there ever since the war and have taken billions in loot from the trade vessels. Thousands of lives have been lost in the many attempts to wipe out their strongholds. Their ships, you know, are converted cruisers of 2212 and they have plenty of the old armament."

"Yes. Pity our cities haven't some sort of protection."

"Oh, it was never necessary over here. The disarmament league would have allowed us such defenses as they did overseas, if we needed them. But, depending on rocket propulsion as they must, none of these pirate ships would dare make the crossing with no hope of refueling; that's why we've always been safe. But with Crawford promising them a free hand, it's different."

"Promises he couldn't keep if they did succeed," Mason grunted. "The people would never give you up to him, and, even without this ship you've armed, we would drive them out eventually."

"Eventually is right. They'd smear several of our cities over the map in the meantime, though. We mustn't let them do it, Arthur."

Lightning flashes ahead revealed suddenly a bank of low-flung storm clouds and the wind-whipped waters of the Potomac below. Mason turned the vessel's nose sharply upward. "We won't let 'em, Scott," he grated. "You do the shooting and I'll run circles around 'em with this ship." He signalled the engine room for full speed ahead.

Scott glanced at the chronometer. It lacked but seven minutes of Crawford's hour. He cut the visiphone in on the open wave band.

The storm raged furiously beneath them as they climbed higher, and the yacht bumped heavily in air-pockets created by the disturbance below. It was a wild night Crawford had chosen for the attack.

Five minutes! Scott pressed the release of the heat ray to try out his weapon. The projector tube sang spitefully clamorous and he saw the swift stabbing pencil of green that marked the path of the ray out there in the night. A harmonic in that portion of the spectrum made the beam visible. Satisfied, he peered through the gloom in the direction of the capital city.

And then the visiphone spoke. No image was pictured in the disc but a familiar voice snarled from the sound mechanism. Crawford! He was using only the voice transmitter on the pirate ship.

* * *

"Three minutes left!" the voice snarled. "Only three minutes in which to save yourselves. I am directly above the northeast landing stage, awaiting the appearance of the upstart Terris. If he's not there on the minute, I keep my word."

"He's down there already," Scott shouted. "Hop to it, Arthur!"

The altimeter showed twelve thousand feet, and the light spot on the chart indicated their position as directly over the city. But the tossing storm clouds hid its vast area from view. There was nothing for it but to make the dive and have it out with the pirate vessel in the midst of the tempest.

"Right-o," Mason sang out cheerily. And he put down the nose of the little ship in a power dive that carried them earthward at terrific speed.

They were in the thick of it then, flying utterly blind, the yacht buffeted and tossed so violently that the great motors aft groaned in lurching waves of sound from the gyroscopic effect. A tremendous flash lighted the control room in a glare that left them blinking and sightless as the very universe crashed in a maelstrom of ear-splitting sound. It was as if they were caught helpless in the very maw of a titanic disrupting force that caved in the sides of the vessel upon them and drove their breath from their lungs in explosive blasts. The air in the control room was charged to such intensity that miniature repetitions of the lightning flash chased from deck to deck and died sputtering in the steel framework of the hull.

And then they were through; the great roof surface of the capital city lay beneath them, the edges of its towering cliffs and the landing stages lighted with the neon glow that marked them for the ships of the air. Hovering over there above the northeast stage was a huge bellied monster with a multitude of topside ports brightly lighted. It was the pirate vessel, as large as one of the transoceanic trade ships, and capable of carrying no less than three thousand fighters.

Mason pulled the little yacht out of the dive with consummate skill, his eyes popping and the veins in his temples swelled to bursting with the effort it cost him. They skimmed the roof surface and zoomed up once more in the pelting rain to get the advantage of altitude.

They had not been observed and Mason nosed the ship down to give Scott the opportunity of getting the pirate vessel on his sights.

Crawford's voice snarled once more in the visiphone. "Time's up!" it announced.

On the second word a vast explosion tore away the great landing stage underneath and left a gaping opening that extended down through at least five of the upper levels. Huge girders and twisted sections of steel plate crashed down again to add to the destruction, and Scott had a momentary glimpse of bodies, ant-like and still, huddled in grotesque piles where the sun-glow of the interior filtered through the wreckage.

He pressed the release of the ray and a furrow of dazzling white cut across the stern of the pirate ship. Huge blobs of molten steel sloughed away and fell sputtering to the roof surface, which sagged and caved in under the incandescent masses.

"Hey!" Scott yelled, "this won't do. We'll have to get 'em out from over the city or we'll do as much damage down there as to them."

His words were drowned out by a terrific thunderclap that came simultaneously with a lightning flash which struck the roof and spread weblike over the surface in tiny rivulets of light that died out as they were grounded in the steel structure.

The pirate vessel lurched heavily from the sudden loss of weight astern. She canted nose down, then leveled off and sped across the city to drop a second bomb.

"Probably mistook your first shot for lightning," Mason gloated. "They haven't sighted us."

"Looks that way. But how the devil will we get them out in the open?" Scott's finger tensed on the trigger of his projector, yet he dared not pull it again. The weight of that enormous vessel crashing below would take a more terrible toll than a dozen of their bombs.

And then the pirate ship turned sharply upward and hurtled off into the night. A sustained lightning flash revealed her dark bulk speeding off over the river where a second large ship drifted lazily toward the city.

"Good Lord!" Mason gasped. "The night liner from Moscow. They'll get her sure."

Quick as a flash he was after them, and Scott sent forth the heat ray in repeated spurts that showed dazzling and dripping punctures of the pirate's hull where they contacted. But he had not reached a vital spot, for the ship of death sped on toward the ill-fated liner. Her nose spouted fire, again and again, and swift-flying light-pencils darted forth to bury themselves in the curving bow of the unarmed and unprotected vessel.

"What needle guns!" Scott groaned. "Must be three inch tubes, at least. They're done for, poor devils."

The bow of the liner mushroomed in brilliant pyrotechnics now, lighting the scene with the intensity of a huge magnesium flare. A moment the great hulk hesitated, staggering, then commenced her swift wabbling dive to the river. Disintegrating before their eyes, her interior a roaring furnace, she spewed forth her passengers and crew in masses of struggling and screaming humans who hurled themselves to their death in the dark waters a half mile below rather than face the more horrible destruction of the searing energy.

Cursing, Mason drove in toward the pirate, and the heat ray traced a wandering, deep-boring pattern on her side as Scott searched for her vitals.

* * *

A flashing shape rose up from the plunging liner, darting straight for the nose of the pirate.

"The captain's yacht!" Scott exclaimed. "Can he be armed?" He withheld his fire as the slim shape whizzed across his sights.

"Armed? It isn't permitted," Mason grunted sarcastically. "Watch him, Scott! What in the --"

There were flashes of the pirate's big needle guns, but that tiny flitting yacht drove in unmindful of their thunderous crackling. One of the energy needles, driving down from above, carried away a section of the hull amidships and the gnat-like attacker reeled drunkenly from its course. But, doggedly persistent in his mad purpose, the captain wrenched his little vessel into the line of fire once more and flung it headlong at his monstrous enemy.

Driven nose on at full speed, the slender steel yacht buried half its length in the control room of the pirate, smashing observation ports and tearing hull plates in the magnificent attempt of the captain to wreak some measure of vengeance for the thing that had been done.

"There's a man!" Scott yelled. "Killed himself trying to cripple them. Probably did it, too."

"No -- look! They're under control." Mason swung the yacht over and into a swift spiral as the pirate turned with suddenly flaring searchlights.

In the dark waters below, the liner was settling to her last berth, a plunging mutilated monster that vanished in the steaming geyser which rose to mark the spot. And, above them in the wreckage of the tiny whip which clung welded to the pirate, her captain lay a formless pulp, his gallant life crushed out in that vain attempt to get at the murderers of those who had trusted their lives to him.

A roaring light-pencil flashed by and Mason was flung forward as the vessel careened violently into the air-pocket that followed in its wake. But he clung to the controls and brought the ship over in a loop to swing in toward the monster once more.

"Not too close," Scott warned him. "I'm trying for the magazine."

The pirate had located them now and was maneuvering to get them in range of her needle guns. As if in shame before the demonstration of man-made power and ferocity below, the storm was scudding off before the wind. The lightning flashes at the horizon seemed but weak imitation of the stabbing flares that spurred from the great ship where Matt Crawford was making his last stand.

But Mason was quick as thought at the controls and the little ship fluttered and dodged in the storm of energy like a thing alive. Clinging to the projector pedestal, Scott kept his finger on the ray release as he bored relentlessly into the pirate.

A huge splash of molten metal came slithering down from the belly of the big ship and washed across the ports before his eyes, sending glass splinters flying, as the windows burst in under the intense heat. A river of the stuff washed in and spattered, the odor of scorched flesh rising in the suddenly stifling air of the control room as both Mason and he were seared.

But ever the green ray bored deeper into the vast circling bulk above them, and Arthur Mason maneuvered the little ship like a veteran dog-fighter of the old days.

Scott yelled as a shining cylinder dropped from a knob-like protuberance on the under-side of the pirate vessel. Mason saw it in the same instant and yanked the yacht out from underneath as the bomb screamed past to burst in the river far beneath them and send a flaming waterspout reaching skyward.

But the green ray was bright on that protuberance now and Scott twisted rapidly at the sighting controls as he strove to hold it there. The knob glowed swiftly white and there came an explosion that lifted the great vessel like a toy and sent forth an eruption of liquid fire and hurtling wreckage that battered them down in its iron hail.

The universe was ablaze in a frightful blast that hammered at their eardrums like the crack of doom. A terrific jolt sent them reeling and clinging to the stanchions for support.

"We're hit, Scott!" Mason gasped. "Two of the motors are dead."

He was tugging at the controls then, pulling up the nose to gain altitude. The little vessel responded feebly with one third of normal power, groaning and shuddering as she climbed slowly to where the pirate hovered foundering. The great searchlights had flickered out and the needle guns ceased firing; the pirate, suddenly without power and with her midsection blown away, was poised for her last dive.

Scott switched on their own lights and they circled to the nose of the stricken vessel. Under the intense glare they could see a mass of men that huddled in the battered control room as the big ship went down by the stern.

"See if Crawford is there!" Mason hissed, following them down.

They drifted in closer until their ports were but a few feet from where those panic-stricken yellow devils crawled around and fought and scrambled to climb through to the outer surface of the hull in the forlorn hope that they might swim away from the wreck when she hit the water.

His finger tensed on the ray release, Scott looked for Crawford. Faster and faster the big ship slipped down into the blackness. Some of those who had crawled out followed the example of the victims on the liner and cast themselves from the doomed ship. Others clung to the projecting girders and flapping sections of the torn hull, fighting off those of their fellows who coveted the points of vantage.

And then Scott saw Crawford; terrified, trembling, and with great beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead, the man stared directly at him. Seeing Terris, he fell to his knees and stretched forth his hands with palms outspread as if to ward off the ray he expected would come. But that avenging beam of green light was not forthcoming; Scott could not find it within himself to press the trigger.

Suddenly the black waters were very near and Mason leveled off to turn upward. But not before they had seen an evil yellow face that grinned horribly as it was pressed close to Crawford's. The flash of a small needle gun, and a flare within the wreck that was quenched in bright bubbles as the waters closed in over all and it was over.

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