Monday, February 8, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 4

This is the fourth 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 shoots him with an energy weapon. Destinn is severely wounded, and Sarovin is killed. Terris is joined by a girl named Norine Rosov, and together they carry Destinn away to the elite level of the city while a workers' revolt erupts behind them. They learn that Destinn has been permanently paralyzed by Prouty's weapon, and promise to carry on Destinn's work: perfecting an atomic fusion process that will break the stranglehold of the despotic Power Syndicate . . .

Chapter IV: Accomplishment

Vaguely disturbed by a realization of his growing concern over this girl who had come into his life under such trying circumstances, Scott set himself half-heartedly to the task of arranging his apparatus for the work that he must do. She was the companionate mate of Gail Destinn, the paralyzed man had admitted, but it seemed apparent that the relationship was a one-sided arrangement. Certainly Destinn had not exhibited the depth of emotion one would have expected in the fortunate possessor of so beautiful and talented a companion.

Norine, on the other hand, was deeply and madly in love. That was quite evident from her bearing. She'd fight for her man like a tigress, if occasion demanded, and stick to him through thick and thin. To her it would not matter that he was no longer able to protect her; that his marvelous vitality of body had been taken from him in that horrible instant when the needle-energy struck him down. To a girl like that, the union was a permanent and sacred thing; a responsibility not to be cast aside. And yet she was, above all, a woman . . . primitive in her emotions and a creature of strange caprice. Intoxicating the senses in her exotic allure . . . chilling them to sub-zero frigidity in the next instant with her aloof disapproval . . .

Scott shook his head angrily and turned his eyes to the fluorescent screen of the radio-microscope. He'd have to keep his mind free of such thoughts. There was work to be done, important work, and he needed his every faculty under control.

The laboratory visiphone buzzed an insistent call and he flipped the lever that illuminated its disc. An anxious face appeared there, the face of his first assistant at the Research Bureau.

"When will you be at the Bureau offices?" the white lips asked.

"Not today, Warren," Scott returned impatiently. "I've something to do here. May shut myself in for a week."

"But -- but say! President Owens has called a conference. The devil's to pay, Terris. You'll have to come down."

"Can't. Tell 'em I'm sick; dead, if you want to -- anything."

His eyes had strayed to the green-lit screen of the super-microscope, where a dazzling light-burst showed for an instant in the path of the theta rays, and then was gone. A single atom of helium created! The process was successful in its initial stage.

"But, Terris," the visiphone was pleading, "Crawford has returned. He's fighting mad, and he wants you to --"

"Oh, damn Crawford! Tell him I refuse!" The visiphone disc went dark and the panicky voice broke off as he slammed the lever back.

So Matt Crawford was taking up the challenge of the gray-clad multitude -- and wanting him to do some of his dirty work of reprisal, Scott thought grimly. This was to be war all right; the civil war Destinn had predicted, with bloodshed and misery -- the Lord only knew what might happen with Crawford's diabolical mind at work. And Scott was in the middle, he knew; he'd be cast off by his fellows of the purple for his defection, and scorned by those of the gray on account of his wealth and position.

A second flash of light showed there before him and all else was forgotten as he saw that it persisted in its uncanny swelling brilliance. He increased the generation of theta rays and watched breathlessly as a twin star was formed there in the microcosmos that whirled on the screen. They fused together then, those two newly born atoms, joining forces in a violent accession of energy.

"The theta ray should be further concentrated," a cool, crisp voice spoke at his elbow.

He had not noticed the girl's presence in the laboratory, so engrossed was he in the miracle that was taking place within the tiny capsule of hydrogen.

"Yes, close to iota intensity," he replied in professional tones. "I believe that is what Gail said."

"That's right." The girl refocused the view on the screen as he adjusted the ray generator. She was an ideal assistant.

The magnification now was less than a million diameters, and still the man-made energy center was brilliantly visible and growing larger. It was taking on mass with the capture of new electrons.

"You have the primary screen?" the girl asked.

"Over there, with the small crucible he left here last night." Scott drew a quick breath as the energy burst forth with trebled vigor, and his fingers trembled on the control of the ray generator.

"We'll need it shortly," the girl said, returning with a shiny cylinder which she placed beside him.

"And the secondary screens? They are in the laboratory of the fifty-third level?" he asked.

"Yes. In the keeping of the Council of Five. I'll go for them whenever you are ready."

"You have notified the Council, I presume. Gail said you were to do so." Scott slipped the primary screen in over his hydrogen capsule, and the radiation of the energy center was dimmed momentarily to a dull, sputtering red.

"I have, and they approve of what we are doing," the girl replied. She was busy with the calculating machine, determining the rate of mass increase of the energy center.

"Then why can't they send those secondary screens up here?" Scott asked gruffly.

"Sarovin's crowd has spies watching them. It would be too risky."

"How about the risk to yourself in going down there?"

"No risk at all," the girl sniffed. "I can twist them around my finger, any of them."

Scott was not so sure; they were a desperate bunch, these who had been followers of the defunct agitator, and would stop at nothing now. Especially if Crawford had started something.

A rapid flare-up of the energy center made haste imperative. He cut back slightly into the theta ray band. "Can't be helped, I guess," he growled. "You'd better go now, Miss Rosov. Be careful, though."

"Of course." She slipped a sheet of calculations into his hand and was gone by way of the secret lift.

Remarkable girl, that. Scott checked her figures rapidly and found they were correct. It was incredible that the rate of energy increase should have reached so enormous a value. Why, in less than an hour they'd be radiating sufficient power to operate the entire pneumatic tube system of the city! . . . If it could be used.

The energy center was visible now with not more than a thousand diameters of magnification. He slipped the cylindrical screen and its precious contents out of the microscope and transferred it to the wave reflector of his spectrometer.

For the first time he gave attention to the imperative call of the visiphone. Its buzzer had shrilled for many minutes unnoticed. Matt Crawford probably -- in person. He reached for the activating lever, then changed his mind and rang for the head caretaker instead.

"Wilson," he said when the man came in, "take this call on the library extension, and, if it's Matt Crawford, tell him I can't be interrupted. I'll not talk to him."

"Yes, sir, very well, sir." Wilson backed out with horrified amazement written large on his wrinkled countenance. The master must be out of his mind, snubbing the kilowatt king; bringing the crippled radical from the fighting in the sub-levels. And the girl! But he hastened to do as he was bidden.

* * *

The spectrometer readings showed that the radiations of the energy center held steady within a fraction of one per cent of the frequency selected from the cosmic rays by the globes of the Power Syndicate.

He returned the screened capsule to the stream of exciting rays and saw immediately that the energy center was now visible without the aid of the super-microscope. It was a pulsating pinpoint of light, the germ of a latent energy that would become so enormous in potentiality that cold calculation of the values was staggering to contemplate.

The open panel of the secret lift reminded him that the girl had been away for a much longer time than the trip should have required. A cold fear gripped him as the vibrating energy within that tiny screen sent forth an audible note. If those devils down there had harmed a hair of her head, he'd rend the sub-levels asunder with an atomic blast that would be heard around the world!

"Mr. Terris, sir, I beg pardon." Wilson stood there, pale and shaken -- apologizing.

"What is it, man? Have it out."

"It -- it was Mr. Crawford, sir, and he was furious. He said he was coming here at once, sir."

"You'll not admit him, Wilson. You understand?"

"Yes, sir. That is, no sir, I'll not." The old fellow turned, trembling, to leave. But he straightened his shoulders as he passed throught the door and Scott knew that the main entrance to the apartment would remain bolted.

The hydrogen capsule had vanished utterly and the energy center now hung suspended and enormously enlarged in the hollow cylindrical screen. A sputtering light-ball of the size of a food pellet, it cast a circle of such intense brilliance on the metal ceiling that the sunglow illumination was dim by comparison. Alternately expanding and contracting like a living breathing thing, it was radiating thousands of horsepowers of energy into space even now.

And still Norine had not returned. Scott cut back still further on the theta rays and strode to the open panel of the secret shaft, where he listened anxiously for the lift. But all was silence in the blackness down there. He dashed from the laboratory and into the room where Destinn lay.

"Norine went for the secondary screens," he groaned, "and she's been gone for more than an hour. Tell me where to find her, Gail."

The nurse remonstrated with him for exciting her patient, but he waved her away.

"She'll be all right, Terris," the sick man said calmly. "Never fear for that girl's safety."

"But if she isn't -- if something has happened to her!" Beads of perspiration glistened on Scott's brow.

But Destinn coolly ignored his excitement. "Nothing will happen," he whispered confidently. "How far have you progressed?"

"A stable energy center now glows in the primary screen. Radiations are increasing as the ninety-first power every ten seconds."

"Good Lord, Terris!" Destinn's weak voice betrayed excitement now and the nurse tried frantically to silence him. "She must return soon," he moaned, despite the woman's efforts, "else it will get beyond control. The primary screen . . . Terris . . . "

And then Gail Destinn fainted.

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