Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 7

This is the seventh 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. Terris introduces sweeping reforms to end the distinctions between the workers and the elite . . .

Chapter VII: Progress

In New York City, where the concentration of wealth was greatest, the President's message was at first received by the pleasure-seekers and idlers of the upper levels with languid amusement. This was only another of Crawford's clever moves to still the clamor of the gray-clad multitude and to further enrich the coffers of those of the purple, a holding out to the workers of the bait of increased compensation for increased industry and ability, when all knew that he would only squeeze and bleed them the harder under the guise of this new scheme that was designed only to deceive them into superhuman effort in his behalf. For themselves, stockholders and directors of the many corporations he controlled, there was not the slightest cause for anxiety.

But, when they discovered that their corporation credits were no longer honored in payment for commodities or service, when they learned of the issuance of new paper by the government that was known as labor credit and could only be obtained in exchange for useful productive or directive effort, such a howl was raised as to put to shame the feeble demonstrations of the sub-levels. Suddenly it was brought home to them that this thing was no joke; they were virtual paupers, and might actually starve if drastic action were not taken.

In Central Square, the huge crystal-domed recreation center of the upper levels, there gathered as choice as assemblage of the ultra-elite as had ever congregated in a public place. In the great amphitheatre, where nightly they were accustomed to parade their finery in attendance upon the performances of the opera, they collected in angry sputtering groups in the case of the younger set and in pompous sneering aloofness where those of great power and influence met.

What was particularly amazing and abhorrent to their sensibilities was the presence of the red police in unprecedented force -- an unwarrented and inexcusable invasion of their privileged immunity from such interference. It was incredible that Crawford would permit this indignity to come to them. Where was Crawford, anyway? President Owens had said he resigned from the Power Syndicate in favor of this scientist, Scott Terris. Was this, after all, the truth and not a blind? What right had Terris, who had never strayed into the realm of politics and industry from his commendable research work, to take upon himself this position of authority he seemed to have usurped? They must communicate with Crawford immediately.

Someone ferreted out Arthur Mason, Crawford's close confidant and nominal President of the Water Supply Syndicate, and was forcing a way to the stage, where gray-clad employees of the Newscasting Corporation were completing the erection of one of the raucous-throated and flickering-screened apparatuses of the public information system. Another high-handed invasion of their rights!

Mason, his massive features apoplectic in hue, and his vast bulk aquiver with righteous indignation, raised a shrill voice to address them. A semblance of quiet came then in the huge gathering-place and the red police could be observed drawing in their lines. Incredible that they should be watched like the common herd in the sub-levels! But Mason would be worth listening to; he would surely know something of what had really transpired -- at least he might be expected to have knowledge of the whereabouts of Matt Crawford.

"Folks!" he shouted, "this is an outrage! Why -- why, do you know they have actually refused to recognize my enormous credit. My very household has deserted me -- the servants will not accept corporation credit in payment for their service. There is not sufficient food, even, in the larders of Arthur Mason. Imagine it! Something must be done."

"Yah!" a disrespectful voice sang out from the crowd. "You're not the only one, Mason. Tell us what to do if you're so smart. What about Crawford?"

"Crawford!" the great man yelled. "He's out, just as Owens said; deserted us -- gone! This young whelp, Terris, has taken things in his own hands. And the government backs him up. It's a gigantic steal -- robbery! We must organize and fight him in Congress."

"Congress, hell!" the same scornful voice retorted. "They passed the necessary legislation this morning. You should know how those things are forced through, Mason -- you've done it enough times."

There was instant commotion in the section from which that voice had come. An exchange of quick blows of wrathful bellowings as the man was attacked by the aroused mob. A police whistle shrilled and a dozen of the red-coated minions of the law were on the spot. Maces fell resounding on unprotected skulls and the disturbers were dragged off amid the swelling protest of the astounded audience.

Mason paled visibly. This was the real thing; this Terris had laid his plans well. From some mysterious source he had support that was making him a power in the land. Raising his voice anew, Mason yelled hoarsely in a futile attempt to shout down the rising din of the chattering, milling crowd. Like animals, they were, each intent on his own problem, each fighting for his own real or fancied wrongs and jabbering of his troubles to his neighbor. A siren shrieked and the reserves rushed into the Square to quell the incipient riot. Exactly like the rabble of the sub-levels, it was! In disgust he turned from the sight and found himself staring at a grinning workman of the Newscast crew.

"Boo!" yelled the fellow in gray, wriggling his fingers derisively at his nose. "How do you like it, you fat slob?"

Arthur Mason had never been so addressed in his life. Shaking his fists and screeching impotent rage, he advanced on the laughing workman. The screams of women and the hoarse shouts of men battling for their lost lives of luxury rose in a monstrous unthinkable babble in his ears. His world of affluence and ease was toppling there before him.

And still that workman grinned. He'd have the satisfaction, at least, of trouncing the fellow soundly. Swinging awkwardly and with stiff joints, he drove a blubbery fist into the pit of the man's stomach. That would put him in his place. But, quick as light, the slim youngster struck out, still smiling, and hard knuckles crashed home to the point of Arthur Mason's jaw.

After that there was confusion. Somehow he had slumped to the floor and an infernal hubbub surged there around him, whirling madly and interspersed with bright specks that floated and danced in the haze. A friend bent over him -- Warner Merkel in the full regalia of his office.

"Help me out of this, Merks," he whined.

But the grim face drifting there was unsympathetic. "Sorry, old man," its lips seemed to whisper, "It's no go. I have to place you under arrest."

Truly, the world had gone topsy-turvy.

* * *

Eight levels below, a little knot of young men and women worked swiftly at the master controls of a humming foundry section of the mechanicals. Some of them there were who wore the purple and some the gray, but they thought and planned and labored together as a unit with no hint of the old class distinction or the turmoil in the public places of the city. These workers were in harmony, believing in the ultimate success of the change that was creating such a disturbance both above and below, accepting as their due the new independence which had come to them as individuals with their classification as capable, intelligent operatives.

All around them were the soulless, brainless mechanicals, busily engaged in the tasks to which they were assigned by the operatives. Massive man-made creatures of copper and steel, which labored at furnace and forge, at press and rolling mill in fabricating the conical secondary screens for this new energy, which the Power Syndicate was to adopt.

"They're tearing things apart down in the thirties, I heard," a bright-eyed lass in gray denim remarked to the serious youth in purple, who worked at the adjoining control board. Her nimble fingers flashed over the buttons as she spoke and the quick lightning of return signals apprised her of the proper performance of the duties of the eighty mechanicals she supervised.

"Yes, and in Central Square up top," her neighbor replied. "They arrested Mason himself when he got up to speak. Crawford's old buddy, can you beat it? And a hundred others of the fools were shipped off with him to globe 819. They'll work there."

"He's a terror, this Scott Terris," said the girl in an awed voice. "Did you know him?"

"Only by sight. I worked under Warren in the Research Bureau, a political appointment, you know. Got my goat, that job -- nothing to do and nobody caring." The lad puckered his brow in a puzzled frown. "Funny thing, too," he said. "I used to see Terris around. He wasn't that kind. A hard worker himself, but easy on his force. Not at all the fire-eater he has turned out to be lately."

"Bet there's a woman behind it, somewhere."

"Lord no! He wouldn't look at a woman."

"Oh yeah? Neither did Napoleon."

"Anyway," the lad in purple maintained stoutly, "I'm for him. He may be tough and hard-boiled, but the way things are going now, we'll be better off. Why can't the others see it?"

"They'll come around -- when they're hungry. I've been hungry and I know."

"You have? Good Lord!" The boy was silent after that.

He stole a furtive look at the girl after a while and marveled at the flush of excitement that mantled her pretty cheeks at each new move of the huge creatures she controlled. Power! That was it; she was thrilling to the sense of it that surged through her new being.

* * *

Over across the Hudson River a gang of laborers worked swiftly with power-saw and block and tackle, clearing away a section of woodland on the Palisades to make way for one of the new projector towers of the Power Syndicate. Many of them were breathing the outside air for the first time; some had never viewed the sun save in the travelogues of the visiphone programs. All of them worked with a will.

Only one wore the purple, a man of middle age, stoop-shouldered and hollow of eye. The others had given him a wide berth from the beginning; he seemed so out of place, resentful, rather, in the aloof manner he maintained. But, as time went on, the foreman took notice of number 91. he was a conscientious worker and minded his business, which some of the others didn't. And now he was taking on new color; his back was straightening, and the furtive look of him was leaving. Already his first sullen manner was brightening. Once he burst forth in song, a swift snatch of sonorous baritone that rose with thrilling power and clarity, then broke off short -- abashed.

Tom Carey, the foreman, walked over to where number 91 was working and consulted his payroll list before addressing him.

"Your name's Cabane, isn't it?" he inquired gruffly.

Number 91 did not look up. "Yes," he replied mumbling.

"Mine's Carey."

"I know."

Tom Carey scratched his head. Queer bird, this one. And then he remembered. "Used to sing in the opera, didn't you?" he blurted out, and then was sorry.

The man drew himself suddenly erect and fire flashed from his eye. "I was Manuel Cabane," he said proudly. And then his eyes dropped and his shoulders sagged.

"Booze, wasn't it?" Carey asked softly. He expected number 91 to turn on him then, but the man only nodded.

A moment Tom Cary stood thinking. Then, "Like your job?" he inquired. He was curious about this fellow who had been somebody.

"I love it!" Manuel Cabane threw his head back and stared out over the river at the great steel wall that gleamed over there, hiding its millions from view. "It provides an outlet for Cabane, an outlet for those feeling that smoulder here!" He thumped his chest. "I had too much money," he continued, "and was a great fool. Now that this wealth I did not know how to use has been taken from me, I shall become a new man. I shall return once more to the opera, and this time I shall have wisdom. This devil of a Terris is an angel in disguise. They are dying over there in the city, some of them, and they say he is killing them. If so, it is for the best. Iron Terris, they are calling him -- the fools. He has restored the mind of Cabane, as well as of others." And then number 91 raised his voice in all its richness and power.

Power! Hand in hand with beauty and art. Regeneration.

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