Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 6

This is the sixth 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. While Terris creates a stable energy center, Rosov returns to the lower levels to retrieve a vital component.

Rosov returns with the component and reports that the lower levels have been plunged into darkness and anarchy, and that she has been forced to kill Prouty. Shortly afterwards, Matt Crawford, head of the Power Syndicate, tries to have Terris arrested. Instead, Terris uses the energy center to drive off Crawford's guards, and forces the man to hand over control of the Power Syndicate to him . . .

Chapter VI: The Old Order Changes

Within two hours Scott Terris sat facing the President in the secret room of the executive chambers in Washington. He had laid down the law in no uncertain words and was regarding through eyes that were narrowed to slits, the vacillating politician who had been the catspaw of the old money-oiled machine.

Matt Crawford had departed without baggage on an extended tour of the pleasure cities of southern Europe. His letter of credit, though more limited than he would have wished, bore the official seal of the government of United North America. It was his decree of banishment.

"But, Terris," the President remonstrated mildly, "what you are doing is the acme of high-handedness. This is a republic; the people will not stand for it."

"Tommyrot! We haven't been a republic, excepting in name, for more than a century, and you know it. The people will stand for anything, provided they are moderately prosperous. They believe they would like to rule themselves, but they're incapable -- they've proved it time and again all through our history and the history of the rest of the world. The best form of government for them is an absolute monarchy, and that is what we will now become. I am the absolute monarch, though I shall assume no title as such, and my word is to be the law of the land as truly as was that of the czars and emperoros of old. You understand?"

President Owens dropped his tired old eyes before the flinty orbs that bored into his very soul. "You'll do nothing rash, I hope?" he quavered, glad in his heart that a strong man was taking the reins.

"Nothing at all; excepting to turn the entire country topsy-turvy and reorganize society and industry. Nothing rash, I assure you."

"Good Lord!" the President gasped.

"You haven't heard anything yet," Scott grinned. "Listen --"

He talked for more than an hour, rapidly and forcefully, and when he finished, it seemed that the President had shed twenty years of his age. There was a healthier color in his gaunt cheeks and smile wrinkles appeared at the corners of his eyes.

"Terris," he beamed, "the thing will work. I know it will work. And, six months hence, our country will be envied by the entire world. I'll call the special session of Congress immediately."

"Oh, that formality," Scott sniffed. "After the newscast speech, Mr. President, after that has had time to sink in."

"Yes, yes." President Owens fluttered about, adjusting his cravat and smoothing his hair, for all the world like a little old lady preening and primping for a Sunday stroll in the ozone promenade.

For the first time during his two terms of office he was about to make a speech that would add to his self-respect. Under the magic of Scott's persuasion he had completely forgotten that he was still no more than the mouthpiece of another and greater man.

* * *

After giving his orders to the Newscasting Corporation heads, Scott Terris retired to the room he had chosen for his own in the huge executive suite. The ether would be entirely cleared of traffic on the newscast wave band so that all public and private visiphones must respond to the special message of the President.

He then cut his own instrument in on the private hand of the police network, calling an immediate visiphone conference of the Chiefs of Police in all cities. There were other and less public instructions to be given, and these he would take care of personally.

One by one the department heads reported in until all eight faced him in the bright disc. Merkel, of New York, he knew personally, but all of the others were strangers to him. He had greeted each in turn with a curt nod, noting with satisfaction that their bearing was subservient and respectful. The word had gone out through the secret agents of the machine and they had accepted the new Dictator without cavil. Power! He knew the secret of it, at last.

"Men," he said, "you know who I am and what has happened, so I will eliminate all preliminaries. It is sufficient for the present that you understand that all orders as to the policies and activities of the red police will come from me. I am open to suggestion, but when I have made a decision it is final -- there is no appeal. Is this clear to all of you?"

He watched them keenly as they replied in the affirmative, some with quick eagerness as welcoming the change, others dubious and hesitant, yet not daring to dissent.

"Fine," he went on. "And now for the first general order. You will immediately re-allocate your men so that the upper levels are as fully patrolled in accordance with the density of population as the sub-levels. From this time forth, you are not to discriminate one whit between those of the purple and those who wear the gray. One is as liable to arrest and punishment as the other, for the slightest infraction of the law. Starting at once, and during the next twenty-four hours, all furloughs are cancelled. Reserves are to be concentrated in all public squares and along the Ways to break up any and all disturbances that may follow the President's speech. And -- get this -- you are to arrest all agitators and objectors, regardless of class, and mobilize them on the roof surfaces for immediate transportation to the space globes of the Power Syndicate, where they will be sentenced to labor for an indefinite period of time -- without bail. That is all for the present; good day, gentlemen."

"But, Mr. Terris," expostulated Shapley of San Francisco, "there will be trouble."

"Hm, a police chief worried about trouble! Of course there'll be trouble -- and plenty of it. That's your job, Shapley, to face trouble and fight it."

He flicked the lever and the disc went blank. That preliminary was over, and Scott had not the slightest doubt that his orders would be carried out.

* * *

A special frequency band was assigned to him by the Radio Bureau in order to avoid interference on the newscast wave. He glanced at his watch -- Owens' speech would be on the air in ten minutes.

In quick succession he obtained connectioins with headquarters offices of the Power Syndicate, the Food Company, and the Air Conditioning Bureau, snapping out orders that left their officials aghast and palpitating but submissive withal. The under-cover men must have done their work well, spreading the reputation of this new Dictator as a hell-raiser. Scott permitted himself a sardonic smile.

He had his first assistant, Warren, on the air then and promoted that amazed individual to his old position as chief of the Research Bureau. Before the man could stammer his thanks, he was instructing him minutely in the matter of the energy center, which was to be duplicated in huge quantities at once, including spectroscopic analyses of the primary and secondary screens so that their materials might be reproduced, and plans for the projectors in which the new energy source was to be used. Power! His very words vibrated with it. Warren, a clever lad and ambitious, was quick to absorb the astounding knowledge that was imparted so unexpectedly and swiftly by his superior. Again Scott was confident of the results -- they would be more than satisfactory. Warren was one chap who would get ahead.

Biting the end from his first cigar that day, he settled back comfortably to listen to the message that would create such turmoil that the customary labor troubles, even the more serious recent ones, would pale into insignificance in the annals of the country.

He observed that the President was speaking with confidence and that his entire bearing was that of a man who believed in his subject. Power! Something of its meaning had taken hold of the little man. He positively radiated it.

The "Ladies and Gentlemen" part was over with and Owens' eyes sparkled as he got at the meat of the thing. "We are about to embark on an experiment, a most noble one," he stated crisply; "an experiment that will not meet with approval on all sides. Yet it has become a thing of grave necessity and I ask the United Americas to support the administration as it has never done before. A new era will result, an era of happiness and prosperity, I promise you, such as the world has never known."

Scott grunted. That old political ballyhoo, it would persist!

But the next was good: "We are changing our entire social and economic structure, let the axe fall where it may. For centuries we have functioned on a basis that was entirely wrong, a basis where wealth and influence determined a man's status regardless of his real worth as a member of society. All that is to be changed; beginning this day, the government will confiscate all wealth, all individual and corporate holdings, this wealth to be controlled and redistributed by a new Department of Finance that will be headed by Scott Terris, former chief of the Science Research Bureau. All wage scales are to be readjusted in accordance with the real value of the individual in the economic scheme, the individual ratings to be determined by the Boards of Education and Industrial Training in the various centers. No man or woman, from this day on, will receive more or less compensation than his or her ability merits. This will result in advancement to the ambitious and able; conversely, in demotion for the indolent and inept. A grading process, as it were, that will give every individual an opportunity as great as that of his neighbor. He will have free admission to the educational and vocational institutions, and any mental or bodily deficiency that might handicap him will be cured by our great medical and surgical men, who, in these times, are balked by nothing."

The President hesitated, wetting his lips. Scott thought with a sudden pang of Gail Destinn. But he threw off the feeling; it was not to be allowed that sentiment creep in now to interfere with straight thinking. Besides, Owens was carrying on with his message:

"Every man will have his chance; no man the advantage. The day of unemployment and economic depression is past. With the elimination of concentrated wealth and the institution of the twenty-hour working week which is likewise a part of the plan, such situations, as that now existing, will become impossible. There will be work for everyone, and all must work in order to live. The fluctuations in supply and demand will be met by reducing or increasing the labor turnout of the mechanicals, who require no compensation or food, only power to keep them alive. And power, incidentally, is to be plentiful and cheap. This, our most vital commodity, is the crux of the situation and is to undergo a radical change in its manner and cost of production. A new process, that produces energy directly from minute and inexpensive quantities of matter, has been developed by Scott Terris, who, in addition to his other duties, has taken over the leadership of the Power Syndicate from Matt Crawford, who has resigned."

Scott grinned appreciatively. Owens was doing the thing to a turn; he hadn't thought it was in the old man, after some of his weak parrot-like speeches that Crawford had inspired.

More was to follow, but the main facts had been covered. The rest was mere detail. Scott cut back to his private frequency band and requested a sound-vision flash of the Food Company Square in level fifty, New York. About time for the fireworks to begin, and somehow he felt an especial interest in the reactions of the workers in that particular gathering place.

The sound mechanism burst forth in a terrific din when the connection was established. The remainder of the President's message would go unheard by that frantic mob. In the great central rotunda, a howling, singing group milled about and voiced their jubilation with irrepressible ardor. At other points there were gatherings of angry and disgruntled workers who formed little circles around long-haired agitators who spouted invective against the government. But the red police were on the job. They swiftly broke up such crowds, making free use of mace and riot pistol.

He looked for the place where Sarovin had died and saw that a makeshift platform had been erected over the gaping opening in the floorplates. Here centered the most violent demonstration he had observed, hemmed in by the red police and fighting desperately against their rushing tactics. And, on that platform stood Norine Rosov -- aflame with passion and shouting her defiance over the heads of her listeners.

A fervent prayer that he might not be too late escaped his lips as he cut back to the police wave band. He must get Merkel instanter. Oh God -- Norine! He'd never forgive himself if they harmed her.

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