Friday, February 12, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 8

This is the eighth 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 . . .

Chapter VIII: Two Months Have Passed

"There's a thousand labor credits in it for you, Conrad."

"Yuh got the needle gun?"

"Yes -- here." Peter McKay shoved the wicked little weapon over the table-top to the low-browed individual who faced him.

"Gimme the thousand."

"When you've finished the job."

"Nothin' doin'. Pay now, or there ain't no job." Con Burdig, once a mighty power in New York's fast dwindling underworld, was not taking any chances. These guys up top were crooks, especially those who lost a couple of million and had to work for a living.

"All right." McKay counted out the paper and handed it over. "There'll be no slips, Conrad?"

"Naw. I get 'em when I go after 'em, Mac." Burdig rose leering exultantly as he stuffed the credits in his pocket and patted the shiny pistol affectionately. "Don't worry about me not gettin' Terris," he grinned. "I'd kill the damn slave driver just to own this gun. I'd kill him for nothin' almost -- he's busted my racket wide open, the lousy robber!"

Peter McKay mused grimly when the man had gone. Set a thief to catch a thief; that was the way to rid the country of this tyrant who had risen up overnight to tear down financial structures that had been centuries in the building and to set up a new structure of his own. Lord, how he had put it over the rabble! And, strangely, on the great majority of his own kind. Fools! Why, there were some of them who'd never done a tap and whose top-level establishments numbered a hundred or more rooms, living in one room now, and working hard. Plugging away at trades; keeping late hours in night school -- doing anything to curry favor with the Classification Bureau.

Not for Peter McKay. He had managed to scrape together a few thousand labor credits by sacrificing his air-yacht and the art objects he had collected for their value but secretly snickered over. Weird things of the past centuries and ugly, he thought them.

Nina, his companion, had gotten a severance decree and tied herself to that opera singer. Good riddance! She'd always been a poor sport anyway. Always wanting to do things that were not being done by the old clique; slumming in the sub-levels, and spending his money on a gang of bums who hung around the charity centers. The oily baritone was welcome to her!

No, he was too wise to fall for this Utopia stuff; he had his few thousand and was biding his time. With Terris out of the way, other lines he had laid could be picked up. What a bombshell he had planted! Terris, the hypocrite, was the wealthiest man in the world for all his smooth talk of equitable distribution. Well, those vast holdings would be redivided in accordance with the man's own laws after that energy needle had gotten in its work.

The schemer leaned back in his chair and a satisfied smile spread over his face as he puffed luxuriously on his cigar. He, Peter McKay, would become a power in the land after that. He was as clever as the next one, and he had friends; influence. His plans could not fail. Perhaps even, he might aspire to the position of Dictator and take to himself all of the things that great power brought. Power -- and greed.

* * *

Attired in the serviceable khaki of a convict laborer, a heavy-set man worked perspiringly diligent with cloth and metal polish on the brass rail that enclosed the high tension switching mechanisms of globe 819. His flesh hung in loose folds about the chin, due to the loss of the obesity he once had carried. He whistled as he worked, and would permit his eyes to wander occasionally to the viewing port where the earth was visible as an enormous ball of mottled green filling the sky in its nearby majestic immensity. He sighed after each such lapse, and the cheerful whistle was stilled for a space.

One would not have recognized in this lowliest of workers the man who had been Arthur Mason but two months ago. Out here, a hundred miles from the surface, where the great sphere drifted under gravity control that kept it at a constant distance and angle over New York, things were vastly different. One did as he was told, and there was no shirking of duty nor talking back to superiors. But one lived; the food was the best synthetic product and was amply supplied. There was every convenience; crude and elemental, of course, where cosmetics and the luxuries of the bath were concerned, but one kept clean and comfortable, and surprisingly fit.

There had been much time in which to think, and Mason had done his share of thinking. It had brought him nowhere, it was true, but he found that he no longer thrilled to certain desires that had flamed in his spirit at first, nor was he as irked over the situation as he had been in the beginning. As a matter of fact, though he would not have admitted it, there was a satisfaction in the convict life aboard the huge transforming and radiating station of the Power Syndicate he had never before experienced. Since the first week or so, when there had been much trouble and a number of casualties in rioting of the prisoners, the life had been singularly peaceful and enlightening. Some of his fellow prisoners were mighty good company, and there were hours of recreation and amusement; opportunities for study -- all one could wish for but freedom.

Most of all he missed contact with the world. There was only one visiphone on board and this was in the Chief Engineer's office, inaccessible to the prisoners. Posted bulletins were few and far between; their information meagre and carefully censored. But it was generally known that conditions were improving back home. Iron Terris was running things to suit himself and with a grip that never loosened. He was relentless and cold; a man who smashed down the old and built up the new. But it seemed that his dictatorship was meeting with growing approval.

An unusual excitement was in the conditioned air of the globe today, for a rocket ship was expected from home. Officers and engineers conversed in low tones not intended for the ears of the prisoners, but news had leaked out that globe 819 was to be relieved of its load by fifty percent and that some of the convicts would be released and returned. Speculation was rife as to who the lucky ones might be.

The call bell rang out, summoning the prisoners to the central assembly hall. Mason saw the blaze of gases as the rocket ship circled the globe, slowing down for a landing in their airlock. A flutter of anxiety came over him; it just might be that he would be one of the releases -- if only he were, he'd get into things back home and use some sense about it. No reason he couldn't rate a fair classification and at least be able to get along.

Special engineers of the Power Syndicate came with their test apparatus, and a detail of the red police. They had a prisoner, a ferret-eyed, dapper youth who looked out at them and at his jailers with assumed jauntiness. They'd soon take that out of him here.

And then the warden was addressing them. He called a number -- 108 -- Mason's. The trembling man stepped forward.

"You are hereby appointed trusty, 108," the warden was saying. "This prisoner, 243, is remanded to your care. Take him and see that he is bathed and uniformed."

Mason's heart sank as he led number 243 away. No release this time! But to be made a trusty; that was something. He straightened unconsciously and his chest swelled.

"What are you in for?" he asked, when the man was dressing after his shower.

"Felonious assault, they called it."

"You tried to kill someone?"

"Yeah -- Terris!"

"The Dictator -- good Lord!"

The new prisoner became voluble; almost it seemed he was glad to be here. "Queer fish, this Terris," he volunteered, "I coulda got him if I half tried. Had him covered with a needle gun and damn if he didn't talk me out of it. Made me lay down the gun -- with those eyes of his. He's a tough guy, all right. Then told me there was a gang of cops watching. Showed me too. There was a dozen of 'em, spread around his apartment. Gets me why he didn't let 'em bump me off."

"Good Lord! Why did you want to kill him?"

"Guy by the name of McKay hired me."

"Peter McKay?"

"Yeah, that's him. Know what that nut done? I squealed when they got me up and that bum took cyanide when they come for him."

"No! McKay killed himself!"

"Sure. No guts; they never have any, these guys that used to be rich. No guts to face the music."

"Lord!" Arthur Mason was only able to stare at the youth, who so calmly told of his crime and so discerningly judged the man who had hired him for his dirty work.

Guts! That was what they had lacked, he and his fellows of the purple.

* * *

Food Company Square in level fifty faced its visitors with a new air of prosperity. Gone were the long lines of gray-clad mendicants who awaited the daily ration of the charity center. And gone were the thousands of loiterers and the little gathering knots where red-faced agitators had been wont to air their views. But a single guard of the red police was in sight.

Over in a corner of the vast enclosure a young man and a girl sat hand in hand on one of the benches. Dressed in the smartly tailored khaki worn now by everyone who was anyone, they were a handsome couple and obviously very much in love. That they were newly mated was evidenced no more by the slender bracelet of the legalized companion that encircled the girl's firm rounded arm than by the adoration with which the lad at her side regarded her.

"Happy, kid?" he might have been heard to ask.

"You bet."

"Not sorry -- for anything?"

"I should say not. Mother was furious at first. She had the old-fashioned idea that every man who wore the purple ever in his life was a scoundrel and a deceiver of women. But she knows better now. I'm afraid she's a little in love with you herself."

The boy laughed and squeezed her arm. "Honestly?" he asked. "Was that the opinion down here -- before? Were we painted as black as all that?"

"Blacker. Why, a girl of the gray who would associate with one of the purple was done for; thrown out of home and ostracized by her friends. She'd have to go bad after that, or become a servant."

"Gosh!" The boy was silent for a time. "Then I sure was in luck," he whispered then.

"Silly! I'm the lucky one."

More silence, broken only by the gentle throb of the city's life and the occasional swishing rush of a pneumatic tube car beneath their feet. An incongruous figure came into view, an uncommonly beautiful girl whose close-cropped golden hair attracted instant attention as did the rather shabby gray denim in which she had clothed her magnificent figure. She walked directly to the small platform alongside the now silent newscast station and mounted it with slow steps.

"Look!" said the man. "There's that girl again."

"Yes. She comes here every night at this time. Funny about her too, Fred. I heard she has a fine position in the Air Conditioning Service, classified high in science. She's a research engineer."

"I know it. Warren told me. And yet she dresses up in the old gray every evening and comes down here to try and get an audience who will listen to her ravings against Terris."

"Wonder why she's so rabid. She's better off than she ever was; and who cares whether he stole this energy idea of his? Fellow by the name of Destinn, isn't it, she says he robbed?"

"Yes. I never heard of him."

"Neither did I. Probably an assistant in the Research Bureau when Terris was chief. But, what's the diff? They always took the credit for inventions of their men in those days."

"Why not? Nobody recognized what a man was really worth then. It would be another matter now."

The slender figure on the platform stood there uncertainly as if waiting. Now and again the girl made as if to raise her voice, but each time thought better of it. There was no one to listen. The only ones within earshot were the young couple on the bench and they were too obviously engrossed in each other to pay attention if she spoke.

"It's odd the police never bother her," whispered the girl on the bench. "Even in the beginning, before the rioting was over, they let her talk as much as she pleased."

"Probably someone higher up is protecting her. She's harmless, anyway. What do you say, honey, we go home?"

"Let's do. I want to hear Cabane; he's on the vid tonight for the first time since his come-back."

Like two happy children they rose and scampered off along the path to the moving ways.

Norine Rosov stood proudly erect on the platform. With the running off of the young lovers went her last hope. What a food she had been! Suddenly her cheeks flared an angry red.

Alone and unheeded she had fought for Gail. Battling a power that was impregnable and invincible. And to what end? Nothing she could do or that anyone else could do would make Gail happier, and no power on earth was able to do more for him than was being done.

That much she conceded to Scott Terris; he had kept his word with regard to the care of the helpless man who had discovered the energy center. But the fame and the power were Scott's, while Gail lay there unheralded and unknown. It wasn't fair!

She had kept things from the sick man on her frequent visits; told him only that which she thought would not upset him. She'd go -- now -- and tell him everything; how Terris had robbed him . . . how . . .

Swift feet and a turmoil of emotions carried her on the way to the secret lift.

No comments: