Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Power" by Harl Vincent, part 9

This is the ninth 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 IX: Changeover

On the seventy-fifth day following the President's message the new energy projectors of the Power Syndicate were pronounced ready for the change-over from cosmic ray power. Twelve steel towers with their titanic energy charges surrounded each of the eight great cities, ready to radiate power that would replace that of the twelve hundred globes out there in the stratosphere.

The entire cost of the project was scarcely greater than that of one of the huge globes, and, there being no necessity for attendance at the projectors, one hundred and twenty thousand men and women were to be released from their duties aloft to more pleasant tasks at home. Electric power, the most essential of all the requirements of modern civilization, was to be produced henceforth for less than five per cent of its former cost. Due to the savings effected in reorganization of the industry, the cost to the consumer was to be reduced in still greater proportion.

And the vast investment in the globes was not to be wasted, for they were to be returned to earth and their materials and machinery used in the construction of the ninth city already being planned to relieve congestion, which, even with the subdividing of the large apartments of the former wearers of the purple, was acute.

A new era was about to be ushered into being and Scott Terris was at the main control switchboard in Washington in person. His hand was to throw the lever that would set into motion the automatic switches and relays which would provide for the progressive withdrawing of the secondary screens that surrounded the new energy centers. And with him were the President, the members of the new Cabinet, and many prominent personages of the new regime. It was a momentous occasion.

At the main control panel of the vast system of receiving screens that spread over the roof surface of New York in a network of gleaming metallic filaments, sat Ralph Warren, chief of the Science Research Bureau. Members of his staff and heads of the several departments of the city administration were grouped around him before the disc of the visiphone where was pictured the scene in Washington.

"Terris looks tired," whispered Warner Merkel, who stood at his elbow. "The job is telling on him."

"It isn't the job, Merks," Warren returned gravely. "Something else is eating him. He's been up to some secret experimenting with a new air yacht he had constructed. Been coming over to New York every night and hiding himself in his hanger on the west roof stage; working all night sometimes. And he's been asking me for the craziest things. He has installed a small energy projector on the ship, I am certain, and a lot of experimental apparatus. Something has gone wrong there quite recently and he's been uncommunicative as the devil."

"Hm-m." Chief Merkel had some ideas of his own on the subject but dared not voice them. He thought he knew more about what was wrong with Iron Terris than did Warren, but he wasn't certain at all. Some hidden weakness of the Dictator would crop out sooner or later, perhaps. It hadn't been evidenced as yet, that was sure.

"Look!" Warren exclaimed. "He has thrown the switch." All eyes turned to the huge panel, when one hundred fifty small indicating lamps glowed brightly, each showing that one of New York's power supply globes was in operation.

A group of lamps dimmed slowly and flickered out. The master wattmeter showed no change in the total city load. But more than ten million kilowatts had been transferred from the old supply source to the new. They saw Terris smile as the frequency meter showed not a flicker of variation.

All over the country the same thing was happeneing; without a hitch or a single interruption of the flow of power the great change-over went forward. Within the hour more than two billion kilowatts, roughly three billion horsepower, would have been transferred to the new system.

"817, 818, 819, 820," an assistant intoned as others of the lamps flickered out on the New York panel.

"Arthur Mason is on globe 819," Merkel remarked. "I got his release order from Washington only this morning."

"Is he classified?" young Warren asked, his eyes glued to the face of the master wattmeter.

"No, but there have been good reports on him from out there. He is to report personally to Terris."

Ralph Warren whistled. "That's unusual, isn't it, Merks?"

"First time it's happened."

There was silence then in the control room, save for the clicking of relays and the calling off of globe numbers by the assistant.

"Say!" Merkel hissed, as the thought struck him. "I wonder what's become of Matt Crawford. There hasn't been a word about him since he left. And Matt wasn't one to give up without a struggle."

Warren stared. That was an idea. He'd like to mention it to Terris when next he saw him. But he'd not dare; no one dared approach him these days -- on a subject like that.

Later that same day, Iron Terris made his first appearance before the public, speaking briefly over the newscast system. And, all over the land, the people in their homes and at their tasks, in the public squares and ways, turned eyes and ears to the visiphone. Not one who had reached the age of reason would have missed the event; they waited with bated breath for the stern lips to open.

When he spoke it was with a smile, and it was afterwards said by many that the smile came as a benediction, by others that it was a satiric and sneering thing which belied the worded intent of the speech. But all were in agreement as to the greatness of the man. In more than two centuries, the students of history said, there had not been a greater in American public life and politics.

They had not expected him to speak as he did, simply and humbly in his sincerity, yet with a hint of the inward strength which had given him the mighty power he wielded.

"Citizens," he had said, "I come before you to tell you of what is unquestionably the greatest accomplishment of modern times. We have succeeded in harnessing some of the energy of the atom to turn the wheels of industry, to light our cities and purify the water we drink and the air we breathe. Many changes have preceded the accomplishment between the time of its inception and of its completion; more will follow. And you will agree, I am sure, that the trend of these changes has been and is toward the greatest betterment of the lives of the greatest number of our people. This new power, which will come to you plentifully and cheaply, is the thing which has brought about all of these changes, and it is a thing for which we are indebted to a man of whom little or nothing is known. The man of whom I speak discovered the basic principle that has been used in the development, and in his efforts was so unfortunate as to meet with an accident which has made of him a life-long invalid -- helpless and uncomplaining.

"This man's name is Gail Destinn. Probably not a hundred of you are living today know who this man is, or care. Nevertheless, he is our greatest benefactor and we are honoring him by christening the new energy with his name. No longer will you hea of the Power Syndicate, but of Destinn Power, as the cooperative organization which has risen from the ashes of the old syndicate will be known by that name in the future. In addition to this, the Department of Finance had today conferred upon the inventor a life income of then thousand credits a month. My only wish otherwise in furtherance of his welfare is that his lost health might be restored, so that he might take over the position now held by me as head of the great industry that will bear his name.

"That wish being impossible of fulfillment, I must carry on in the work. However -- and I leave you with this thought -- Gail Destinn must receive his full measure of reward, either in this world or elsewhere. Many of us in these days give little thought to the personal Deity whose name we take in vain, or to the after life that was so real an expectation to our remote ancestors. But, as surely as I stand here facing you, there is a Higher Power we do not understand and can never hope to approach. Whatever that Power is, it is something that takes the souls of men and lifts them to the heights or lets go and allows them to fall to the depths. And, it is to such a Power that I ask you to send prayers for the soul of Gail Destinn. Farewell, citizens, and may you prosper and gain happiness in the new order of things."

That was all, yet it left the hearers prey to emotions they had not experienced in their lifetimes -- and uncertainties that confused them and left them to wonder as to the manner of man who had spoken.

* * *

When darkness had come to the east coast cities, Scott Terris arrived in New York on one of the fast intercity liners. Several of the "800" globes already had drifted in from the positions they had maintained in the stratosphere for periods of time up to a half century. They lay, great dark mounds over against the skyline in the forests on the Jersey side, their outlines vast blurs in the hazy night and the many lighted ports gleaming tiny blue-white dots in the gloom.

But Scott gave little thought to the unusual beauty of the sight, nor heeded the spell of the night. His mind was too filled, and his heart, with memories of that moment of tempestuous passion when Norine Rosov had melted into his embrace as if she belonged there and would forever remain. The lawful companion of another man, yet belonging to him in that swift yielding as surely as was he certain that the flame had burned itself out in that one mad instant of hers and left her despising him and herself for the lapse.

He had power that would enable him to take anything save the one thing he wanted most of all. He had ridden roughshod and unfeeling over others who had stood in his way, but to do the one thing that might enable him to take her was impossible -- unthinkable.

Possessed of the opportunity to make happiness possible for others, he was utterly helpless to provide it for himself.

But he would visit Destinn this very night; advise him in person of the success of the new energy and of the recognition he had been given. That much he could do for the poor devil, at least. He had not seen him in weeks and rather looked forward to the meeting, hoping yet fearing he might find Norine at the bedside. The sight of the girl, hating him as she did, would bring intense pain, but there would be pleasure in that pain . . . the chance to drink in her unattainable loveliness and to think . . . of what might have been . . .

Wilson beamed when he admitted him to the apartment that now was maintained solely for the comfort of Gail Destinn. The old fellow had become the proudest servitor of the upper level since his master came to be so eminent a personage.

"H'lo Wilson," Scott greeted him brusquely. "How's the patient?"

The old man's face fell. "Not so well, sir, I fear," he said.

"What! Why, Mowry has been reporting satisfactory progress."

"Yes sir, begging your pardon, sir," Wilson quavered. "But Miss Norine was here about two weeks ago and it seems she excited him unduly. He has been sinking ever since, the nurse tells me."

"Norine has not seen him in two weeks?"

"No sir. And it's odd, sir; she came frequently before."

"I know." Scott was filled with strange foreboding; come to think of it, he had had no reports from his agents on the girl in about that length of time. He stepped into the sickroom.

Gail lay there immobile and with eyes closed as when he had last seen him. Almost one would have thought that life had left the stricken body, so white was the man and so utterly inert.

The nurse warned him with a quick gesture. "He's sleeping, Mr. Terris," she said, "and must not be awakened. The least excitement would be certain to cause his death."

Scott looked down at the man whose once virile features were so pinched and still. Certainly his life hung by a thread. What if he were to awaken him and shout out his love for Norine? The nurse had said that any excitement . . . . And with the power that now was his no man would be the wiser . . . she could be silenced -- the nurse . . . and there would be Norine. He'd take her, whether or no.

Great beads of cold perspiration stood out on his brow as the battle raged furiously within. The man was completely in his power -- and the girl who had been his mate. So simple, the thing would be. He groaned in agony of spirit and breathed a silent plea for strength to that Power he had spoken of in the afternoon.

Turning then with sudden decision he beckoned the nurse into the corridor. "What's all this?" he hissed. "Tell me what's wrong." He trembled as with the ague from the stress of emotion that had torn him. But he had himself under control; his senses had returned.

The nurse paled. "It is not for me to say, sir," she whispered nervously.

"You know?" he snapped, eyeing her keenly.

"Y-yes, but I dare not tell. Please don't ask me to, sir."

"I command it!" Afraid of her job, just as in the old days, he realized. These damned ethics of the medical profession, how they did hold on in spite of everything.

"You -- you'll protect me with the registrar?"

"Of course," impatiently. "Out with it, nurse."

"It -- it's Doctor Mowry. Oh, I shouldn't be telling you, but he is not all that he has been considered. In fact, he's been derated by the Medical Classification Board. And, his treatment has been all wrong. Oh, it's terrible, Mr. Terris -- Destinn is dying, when he might well have been saved." The woman wrung her hands in agitation.

What was this? The great Mowry not what he had been cracked up to be! And here Scott had thought Gail was getting the best there was in attention, when actually he was being neglected. The devil take Mowry! Perhaps wrong in his first diagnosis; poor old Destinn might have been made well and strong -- in proper hands.

He rushed to the library and bellowed hoarsely into the visiphone for the wave channel of the Medical Center. Doctor Travis and young Bedworth -- the best there were -- he'd have them all in consultation. Right here, in his own apartment, without delay!

A half hour later he hunched nerveless in his chair from the reaction. Yes, Travis would operate. It was a delicate adjustment, but there was every chance that Destinn would be restored to normal health and strength. A miracle, almost!

And to think he had been on the point of causing Gail's death! To have considered it even for a moment was horrible -- horrible.

Scott shuddered.

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