Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third 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 a twenty-third century society divided between the gray-clad workers and the purple-clad elite, Scott Terris is a physicist and a member of the elite. One night he finds one of the workers carrying out an experiment in his laboratory. The worker, Gail Destinn, invites Terris to see the lower levels of New York City, and Terris agrees. He meets Destinn's unpleasant ward leader, Tom Prouty, and joins Destinn as he travels to a gathering in the Square.

A demagogue named Sarovin rouses the workers to revolution. When Destinn attempts to stop him, Prouty tries to kill him with an energy weapon. Destinn is severely wounded, and Sarovin is killed. Terris is joined by a girl named Norine, and together they carry Destinn away to the elite level of the city while a workers' revolt erupts behind them . . .

Chapter III: Judgment

Doctor Mowry shook his head gravely. "Your friend will live, Scott," he said, "but as a hopeless paralytic. He'll never walk again, nor will he be able to lift a finger to the simplest task. Normal nerve currents, you see, were blocked by the energy -- permanently."

"You're sure there's no chance, Doc?" Sick at heart, Scott was grasping at straws. He had waited many hours in fearful anticipation of this verdict, but now he was unwilling to abide by it.

"Not a chance," the doctor asserted. "The usual experience in 2212, you'll recall. Even when they escaped the extreme penalty of the vicious needle energy, slightly wounded combatants were doomed to this living death of inactivity and impotence."

"God! No wonder we abolished war and jettisoned all stocks of the needle guns." Scott sat thinking bitterly for a long time after the doctor left. He'd like to lay hands on this Prouty -- a cowardly blackguard who would use one of the forbidden weapons on a man like Gail Destinn! Probably stole the thing from a museum and . . .

The voice of the newscast announcer droned from the sound mechanism of his private visiphone. Colby, another of the cabinet members, had been assassinated. President Owens closely guarded in fresh outbreaks from sub-levels of Washington. Matt Crawford fleeing in a rocket car to one of his cosmic energy globes out there in the stratosphere. Another coward!

Snorting his disgust with conditions in general, Scott arose from his easy chair and made his way to the room where Destinn lay.

The girl Norine started noticeably at his entrance and moved from the bedside. Her eyes were red with weeping, but she tossed her head and averted her gaze when Scott addressed her.

"Has Gail been told?" he asked her gently.

A nod of grim assent was the girl's only reply, but the sick man answered in a tense whisper through lips that were white and pinched, "Yes, Terris, they told me."

He was silent then, but his eyes shone bright with that same indomitable spirit they had held when Scott first encountered him as an intruder in the laboratory.

"It's a tough break for me," he continued, "but my work isn't finished yet. Terris, I'd like you to help me."

"I'll do anything I can," Scott assured him, shakily.

"Norine, will you please leave us alone?" came from the pinched lips as the bright eyes caressed the drooping girl.

She left silently and the sick man looked long and earnestly at the famous scientist of the upper levels. "You've done much for me, Terris," he said then, "More than I can tell you. And, somehow, I feel that you'll do more -- for the real Cause."

"You mean that of the gray multitude?"

"I mean the cause of true Democracy; not what you saw exemplified last night. You know now that the workers are a class gone crazy under the oppression of the purple-clad minority -- or rather I should say, of the capitalistic system. Yet they are fools, Terris, and so easily swayed as to make their foolishness dangerous. But I need not tell you of that; you saw for yourself. Already their mistaken and misled zeal is manifest in the carnage which has started and which may end in widespread disaster. It is to prevent such disaster that I am asking for your assistance."

"You speak of the alternative you mentioned when you shut off Sarovin down there."

"Yes. And to explain further I will tell you what you must recognize of your own knowledge. Terris, our country is at the mercy of the Power Syndicate; Matt Crawford is the man who runs it to suit himself and his greedy associates. There is no true representation of the people in the government; even you who wear the purple must perforce do as Crawford dictates. And it pleases him to favor you who live up top; it adds to his own personal glory. But he and his 'yes-men' have nothing but contempt for those of the sub-levels; that and starvation wages, and the persecution of the red police is their lot. Am I right?"

"I hadn't thought much about it, Gail," Scott returned. "That is, not until last night. My interest, as you know, is wrapped up in science, but I'm beginning to see certain things in a new light. Go on with your story -- if you can stand it."

"Oh, I'm all right; for talking, at least." The courageous lips actually twisted themselves into a smile. "The whole thing is wrong in principle, Terris. It goes back to the dark ages when first the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few became evident. We are not socialistic in these days; we know of the failure of the Soviets in the twentieth century, and we know why they failed. Men are not created equal, and to those of superior aggression and mentality there must come superior reward. But not to the extent that now exists; and a disproportionate reward must not come to the undeserving through the efforts of others who are starved into submission. Do you follow me?"

"Sure." Scott was deeply interested; he never had approved of the grasping methods of the Power Syndicate. "Forget the preliminaries," he said. "Let's come to this plan for a peaceable solution of the problem."

"Attaboy!" Destinn approved. "Since you put it that way, the idea is this: Crawford controls the power supply of United North America today. With the passing of the use of natural fuels, we were forced to turn to the cosmic rays of outer space for our power. Our very existence depends on this vast industry which Crawford acquired by inheritance and later financial manipulation. Were he to cut off the energy supply radiated to our cities from his globes that float out there in the stratosphere, we should perish. Our synthetic foods could not be produced, our artificial sunlight would die out; our heat, the essential labors of the mechanicals -- all would stop. Everything we wear and use in this life to which we have become accustomed would automatically cease to exist for us as replaceable and renewable necessities. We should revert to a savage state and be compelled to venture out into the wilderness where most of us would perish. It is our vital need for power that gives Crawford the whip hand over us all."

"And to remedy that you propose --"

"Another and simpler source of power. Cheap and unlimited energy as the emancipator of our modern slaves. The death of this tyranny, and the return to a true republican form of government." The stricken idealist closed his lids and a blissful expression spread over his features.

Scott's interest as a scientist overcame any possible exception he might otherwise have taken. "This new energy," he suggested, "is to be obtained from the atom?"

"Yes, but not by its disruption. All we have ever accomplished by destroying the atom is further destruction -- of life or of other matter. Witness the subatomic energy of the needle gun."

Scott looked hastily away from the pain that came to replace the enthusiasm which had radiated from those fine eyes. But Destinn shook off the black mood instantly and continued:

"Terris, I can produce usable energy in inconceivable amounts by a building-up of atoms rather than by their disintegration. The method provides a virtual reproduction of cosmic ray energy. The birth of atoms radiates a tremendous force that we have learned how to use and control. Think of it! By building up only four grams of helium -- about a seventh of an ounce -- from hydrogen atoms, we release nuclear energy equivalent to a million horsepower for an hour. Duplicate the natural processes of outer space that give rise to the birth of atoms; force the hydrogen nuclei to combine with electrons to form helium nuclei and the vast energy release is effected. We manufacture our own cosmic rays, and our own energy, from practically nothing!"

"Yes, but try and do it." Scott was frankly skeptical.

"Terris, I can do it; I have done it! Listen!"

And Scott Terris listened while the sick man, in enthusiastic if somewhat weakening voice, expounded his theories and told of his hopes; explained the plans of the Council of Five, and detailed the results of the experiments already conducted.

* * *

An hour later, convinced and marveling, he stepped forth into the corridor to come face to face with Norine Rosov.

In his excitement he failed to notice that the girl's finely chiseled features had regained their normal composure and that her color had returned. He did observe that the close-cropped golden hair gleamed with the lustre imparted by a recent smoothing; that there was something less strained in her attitude. She was more at ease in his presence than she had been since their first meeting.

"He has talked with you of his plans?" she inquired.

"Indeed he has, Miss Norine. And, since you are so deeply concerned in the important matter, I feel we should have an understanding without delay. Will you come into my library?"

There was no hesitation on the girl's part when she preceded him into the spacious and luxurious room, where it was his wont to retire in privacy for his studies. But there was a haunting something in her wide stare when she seated herself across from him, a hint of some fear of himself or of the surroundings, that she could not quiet down. Her slim, white fingers trembled noticeably as she lighted a cigarette.

"Gail has asked that you be permitted to help me," he said in a strained voice he could not have accounted for. "He tells me that you have helped him in the work and that you know a great deal about what he has done. Of course, you know that he wants me to go ahead with the experiments?"

"Yes; he told me. And you consented?"

"I did. I likewise agreed to use your knowledge and assistance in the work, providing, of course, this is satisfactory to you."

The girl frowned. "You are doing this," she asked, "for what purpose? Surely you have not espoused the cause of the gray-clad workers?"

"I'm doing it in the interest of science," he returned stiffly, "and of the general good to humanity that is involved. You need have no fear that it will work to the disadvantage of your comrades."

"You'll not betray us -- betray Gail, I mean -- to the Power Syndicate?" The girl's expression was dubious.

"Certainly not!" Scott flushed uncomfortably. It was impossible that he come out flatly in support of the gray multitude; too many of them were of the type of Tom Prouty or the one who had been known as Savorin. Nor could he fully approve of the opposite side -- his own fellows of the upper levels. There was justice and injustice, both up top and down below, with the wearers of the gray getting somewhat the worse of existing conditions. But how to explain this attitude of mind to this beauteous and imperious girl who regarded him with such open suspicion if not with actual dislike. How to . . .

"Gail trusts you," she broke in then, with a quick half-smile. "And, that being the case, I suppose I can. We start work at once?"

Surprised, Scott jumped to his feet with alacrity. It would be great to have the girl around, at that. "Right away!" he exclaimed. "And you'll make your home here?" Then, aghast at his own temerity, "To be near Gail, of course," he finished lamely.

"Yes -- to be near Gail." The girl rose unsteadily and swift tears came trembling on her long lashes. An hysterical sob caught in her throat. "Poor, poor Gail," she moaned.

And Scott, moving with soft steps in deference to her feeling, made his way toward the laboratory.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

This story is reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Any evidence that Mr. Vincent was inspired by the movie?

Johnny Pez said...

I was struck by the similarity too. It seems highly probable that he was, but there's very little information about Vincent out there. He retired from writing back when SF was still an unregarded niche genre, and he died over forty years ago. Forrie Ackerman apparently knew him pretty well, but he's dead too. I suppose Fred Pohl might know, since his fandom days go back to the Gernsback Era.