Beneath the huge central arch in Cooper Square a meeting was in progress--a gathering of the gray-clad workers of the lower levels of New York. Less than two hundred of their number were in evidence, and these huddled in dejected groups around the pedestal from which a fiery-tongued orator was addressing them. Lounging negligently at the edge of the small crowd were a dozen of the red police.
“I tell you, comrades,” the speaker was shouting, “the time has come when we must revolt. We must battle to the death with the wearers of the purple. Why work out our lives down here so they can live in the lap of luxury over our heads? Why labor day after day at the oxygen generators to give them the fresh air they breathe?”
The speaker paused uncertainly as a chorus of raucous laughter came to his ears. He glared belligerently at a group of newcomers who stood aloof from his own gathering. Seven or eight of them there were, and they wore the gray with obvious discomfort. Slummers! Well, they’d hear something they could carry back with them when they returned to their homes!
“Why,” he continued in rising tones, “do we sit at the controls of the pneumatic tubes which carry thousands of our fellows to tasks equally irksome, while they of the purple ride their air yachts to the pleasure cities of the sky lanes? Never in the history of mankind have the poor been poorer and the rich richer!”
“Yah!” shouted a disrespectful voice from among the newcomers. “You’re full o’ bunk! Nothing but bunk!”
An ominous murmur swelled from the crowd and the red police roused from their lethargy. The mounting scream of a siren echoed in the vaulted recesses above and re-echoed from the surrounding columns--the call for reserves.
All was confusion in the Square. The little group of newcomers immediately became the center of a mêlée of dangerous proportions. Some of the more timid of the wearers of the gray struggled to get out of the crowd and away. Others, not in sympathy with the speaker, rushed to the support of the besieged visitors. The police were, for the moment, overwhelmed.
The orator, mad with resentment and injured pride, hurled himself into the group. A knife flashed in his hand; rose and fell. A scream of agony shrilled piercingly above the din of the fighting.
Then came the reserves, and the wielder of the knife turned to escape. He broke away from the milling combatants and made speedily for the shadows that lay beyond the great pillars of the Square. But he never reached them, for one of the red guards raised his riot pistol and fired. There was a dull plop, and a rubbery something struck the fleeing man and wrapped powerful tentacles around his body, binding him hand and foot in their swift embrace. He fell crashing to the pavement.
A lieutenant of the red police was shouting his orders and the din in the Square was deafening. With their numbers greatly augmented, the guards were now in control of the situation and their maces struck left and right. Groans and curses came from the gray-clad workers, who now fought desperately to escape.
Then, with startling suddenness, the artificial sunlight of the cavernous Square was gone, leaving the battle to continue in utter darkness.
Cooper Square, in the year 2108, was the one gathering place in New York City where the wearers of the gray denim were permitted to assemble and discuss their grievances publicly. Deep in the maze of lower-level ways seldom visited by wearers of the purple, the grottolike enclosure bore the name of a philanthropist of the late nineteenth century and still carried a musty air of certain of the traditions of that period.
In Astor Way, on the lowest level of all, there was a tiny book shop. Nestled between two of the great columns that provided foundation support for the eighty levels above, it was safely hidden from the gaze of curious passersby in the Square. Slumming parties from afar, their purple temporarily discarded for the gray, occasionally passed within a stone’s throw of the little shop, never suspecting the existence of such a retreat amidst the dark shadows of the pillars. But to the initiated few amongst the wearers of the gray, and to certain of the red police, it was well known.
Rudolph Krassin, proprietor of the establishment, was a bent and withered ancient. His jacket of gray denim hung loosely from his spare frame and his hollow cough bespoke a deep-seated ailment. Looking out from behind thick lenses set in his square-rimmed spectacles, the watery eyes seemed vacant; uncomprehending. But old Rudolph was a scholar--keen-witted--and a gentleman besides. To his many friends of the gray-clad multitude he was an anomaly; they could not understand his devotion to his well-thumbed volumes. But they listened to his words of wisdom and, more frequently than they could afford, parted with precious labor tickets in exchange for reading matter that was usually of the lighter variety.
When the fighting started in the Square, Rudolph was watching and listening from a point of vantage in the shadows near his shop. This fellow Leontardo, who was the speaker, was an agitator of the worst sort. His arguments always were calculated to arouse the passions of his hearers; to inflame them against the wearers of the purple. He had nothing constructive to offer. Always he spoke of destruction; war; bloodshed. Rudolph marveled at the patience of the red police. To-day, these newcomers, obviously a slumming party of youngsters bent on whatever mischief they could find, were interfering with the speaker. The old man chuckled at the first interruption. But at signs of real trouble he scurried into the shadows and vanished in the blackness of first-level passages known only to himself. He knew where to find the automatic sub-station of the Power Syndicate.
Returning to the darkness he had created in the Square, he was relieved to find that the sounds of the fighting had subsided. Apparently most of the wearers of the gray had escaped. He skirted the avenue of pillars along Astor Way, feeling his way from one to another as he progressed toward his little shop. Peering into the blackness of the square he saw the feeble beams of several flash-lamps in the hands of the police. They were searching for survivors of the fracas, maces and riot pistols held ready for use. A sobbing gasp from close by set his pulses throbbing. He crept stealthily in the direction from which the sound had come.
“Steady now,” came a whispered voice. “My uncle’s shop is close by. He’ll take you in. Here--let me lift you.”
There was a shuffling on the opposite side of the pillar at which Rudolph had halted; another grunt of pain.
“Karl!” hissed the old man. It was his nephew.
“Uncle Rudolph?” came the guarded response.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
The old man was around the huge base of the column in an instant. He groped in the darkness and his hands encountered human bodies.
“Who is it?” he breathed.
“One of the hecklers, Uncle. A young lad; and of the purple I think. He’s been knifed.”
Together they dragged the inert form into the shelter of the long line of pillars. There was a trampling of many men in the square. That would be a second detachment of reserves. A ray of light filtered through and dancing shadows of the giant columns made grotesque outlines against the walls of the Way. A portable searchlight had been brought to the scene. They must hurry.
Impeded by the dead weight of their burden, they made sorry progress and several times found it necessary to halt in the shadow of a pillar while the red police passed by in their search of the Square. It was with a sigh of relief that Rudolph opened the door of his shop and with still greater satisfaction closed and bolted it securely. His nephew shouldered the limp form of the unconscious youth and carried it to his own bed in one of the rear rooms.
“Ugh!” exclaimed old Rudolph as he ripped open the young man’s shirt, “it’s a nasty cut. Warm water, Karl.”
The gaping wound was washed and bound tightly. Rudolph’s experienced fingers told him the knife had not reached a vital spot. The youth would recover.
“But Karl,” he objected, “he wears the purple. Under the gray. See! It’ll get us in trouble if we keep him.”
He was stripping the young man of his clothing to prepare him for bed. Suddenly there was revealed on the white skin a triangular mark. Bright scarlet it was and just over the right hip. He made a hasty attempt to hide it from the watching eyes of Karl.
“Uncle!” snapped his nephew, “--the mark you call cursed! He has it, too!”
The tall young man in gray was on his knees, tearing the hands of the old man away. He saw the mark clearly now. There was no further use of attempting to conceal it. Rudolph rose and faced his angered nephew, his watery eyes inscrutable.
“You told me, Rudolph, that it was a brand that cursed me. I have seen it on him, too. You have lied to me.”
The old man’s eyes wavered. He trembled violently.
“Why did you lie?” demanded Karl. “Am I not your nephew? Am I not really cursed as you’ve maintained? Tell me--tell me!”
He had the old man by the shoulders, shaking him cruelly.
“Karl--Karl,” begged the helpless ancient, “it was for your good. I swear it. You were born to the purple. That’s what that mark means--not that you’re degraded to the gray, as I said. But there’s a reason. Let me explain.”
“Bah! A reason! You’ve kept me in this misery and squalor for a reason! Who’s my father?”
He flung Rudolph to the floor, where the old man crouched in apprehensive misery.
“Please Karl--don’t! I can explain. Just give me time. It’s a long story.”
“Time! Time! For twenty-odd years you’ve lied to me; cheated me. My birthright--where is it?”
He menaced his supposed uncle; was about to strike him. Then suddenly he was ashamed. He turned on his heel.
“I’m leaving,” he said shortly.
“Karl--my boy,” begged Rudolph Krassin, struggling to his feet. “You can’t! That lad in there--he--”
But Karl was too angry to reason.
“To hell with him!” he raged, “and to hell with you! I’m through!”
He stamped from the room and out into the eery shadows of the Way. Karl was done with his old life. He’d go to the upper levels and claim his rights. Some day, too, he’d punish the man who’d stolen them away. God! Born to the purple! To think he’d missed it all! Probably was kidnaped by the old rascal he’d been calling uncle. But he’d find out. Rudolph didn’t have to explain. Fingerprint records would clear his name; establish his rightful station in life. He dived into a passage that would lead him to one of the express lifts. He’d soon be overhead.
A sergeant of the red police looked up startled from his desk as a tall youth in the gray denim of forty levels below appeared before him.
“Well?” he growled. The stalwart young worker had stared belligerently and insolently, he thought.
“I want to check my fingerprint record, Sergeant.”
“Hm. Pretty cocky, aren’t you? The records for such as you are down below, where you belong.”
“Not mine, I think.”
“So? And who the devil are you?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out. I’ve got a triangle branded on my right hip.”
The amazing youngster had raised his jacket and was pulling at his shirt. The sergeant stared at what was revealed, his eyes bulging as he looked.
“Lord!” he gasped, “a Van Dorn--in the gray!”
Quickly he turned to the radiovision and made rapid connection with several persons in turn--important ones, by the appearance of the features of each in the brilliant disc of the instrument.
Karl was confused by the sudden turn of things. The sergeant talked so rapidly he could not catch the sense of his words. And that name, Van Dorn, eluded him. He knew he had heard it before, in the little shop down there in Astor Way. But he could not place it. He wished fervently that he had paid more attention to the desires of old Rudolph; had studied more and read the books the old man had begged him to read. His new surroundings confused him, too, and he knew that he was the center of some great new excitement.
Then they were in the room; two individuals, one in the red uniform of a captain of police, the other a pompous, whiskered man in purple. Others followed and it seemed to Karl that the room was filled with them, strangers all, and they stared at him and chattered incessantly. He experienced an overwhelming impulse to run, but mastered it and faced them boldly.
A square of plate glass was placed under his outstretched fingers. It was smeared with something sticky and he watched the whiskered man as he held it up to the light and studied the impressions. Then there was more confusion. Everyone talked at once and the pompous one in purple made use of the radiovision, holding the square of glass near its disc for observation by the person he had called. The identification number was repeated aloud, a string of figures and letters that were a meaningless jumble to Karl. The room became quiet while the police captain thumbed the pages of a huge book he had taken from among many similar ones that filled a rack behind the desk.
Karl’s blood froze in his veins at the rumbling swish of a car speeding through the pneumatic tube beneath their feet. His nerves were on edge. Then the captain of police looked up from the book and there was a peculiar glint in his eyes as he spoke.
“Peter Van Dorn. Missing since 2085. Wanted by Continental Government. Ha!”
The words came to Karl’s ears through a growing sensation of unreality. It seemed that the speaker was miles away and that his voice and features were those of a radiovision likeness. Wanted by the great power across the Atlantic! It was unthinkable. Why, he had been but an infant in 2085! What possible crime could he have committed? But the red police captain was speaking again, this time in a chill voice. And the room of the police, thick with the smoke of a dozen cigars, became suddenly stifling.
“Where have you been these twenty-three years, Peter Van Dorn?” asked the captain. “Who have you lived with, I mean?”
Something warned him to protect old Rudolph. And somehow he wished he had not treated the old fellow as he did when he left. His self-possession returned. A wave of hot resentment swept over him.
“That’s my affair,” he said defiantly.
The captain shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, well,” he said, “you needn’t answer--now. We’ll find out when it’s necessary. In the meanwhile we’ll have to turn you over to the Continental Ambassador.”
Two of the red police advanced toward him and the rest drew back.
“You mean I’m under arrest?” asked Karl incredulously.
“Certainly. Of course you’re not to be harmed.”
One of the guards had him by the arm and he saw the glint of handcuffs. They couldn’t do this! If it had been for rioting in the Square it would be different. But this! It meant he was a prisoner of a foreign government, for what reason he could not guess. He lost his head completely.
The captain cried out in amazement as one of his huskiest guards went sprawling under a well-planted punch. This youngster must be as crazy as was his father before him. But he was a whirlwind. Before he could be stopped he had tackled the other guard and with a mighty heave flung him halfway across the room where he fell with a thud that left him dazed and gasping. The pompous little man in the purple crawled under the desk as the sergeant leveled a slender tube at the young giant in gray.
Karl ducked instinctively at sight of the weapon, but the spiteful crackle of its mechanism was too quick for him. A faintly luminous ray struck him full in the breast and stopped him in his tracks. A thrill of intense cold chased up his spine and a thunderbolt crashed in his brain. The captain caught his stiffened body as he fell.
Karl--refusing to think of himself as Peter Van Dorn--came to his senses as from a troubled sleep. His head ached miserably and he turned it slowly to view his surroundings. Then, in a flash, he remembered. The paralyzing ray of the red police! They never used it in the lower levels; but overhead--why, the swine! He sat suddenly erect and glared into a pair of green eyes that regarded him curiously.
A quick glance showed him that he was in a small padded compartment like that of the pneumatic tube cars. At one end there was an amazing array of machinery with glittering levers and handwheels--a control board on which numberless tiny lights blinked and flickered in rapid succession. At these controls squatted the twisted figure of a dwarf. A second of the creatures sat at his side and stared with those horrible green eyes.
“Lord!” he muttered. “Am I still asleep?”
“No,” smiled the dwarf, “you’re awake, Peter Van Dorn.” The misshapen creature did not seem unfriendly.
“Then where am I, and who are you?”
“You’re in one of the Zar’s rocket cars, speeding toward Dorn. We are but two of the Zar’s servants--Moon men.”
“Rocket car? Moon men?” Karl was aghast. He wanted to pinch himself. But a hollow roar to the rear told him he was in a rapidly moving vessel of some sort. Certainly, too, these dwarfs were not figments of his imagination.
“You’ve been kept completely ignorant?” asked the dwarf.
“It--it seems so.” Karl was bewildered. “You mean we are out in the open--traveling in space--to the Moon perhaps?”
The dwarf laughed. “No, I wish we were,” he replied. “But we are about halfway to the capital of the Continental Empire, greatest of world powers. We’ll be there in an hour.”
“But I don’t understand.”
“Stupid. Didn’t you ever hear of the rocket ships that cross the ocean like a projectile, mounting a thousand miles from the surface and making the trip in two hours?”
“No!” Karl was aghast. “Are we really in such a contraption?” he faltered.
“Say! Are you kidding me?” The dwarf was incredulous. “Do you mean to tell me you know so little of your world as that? Have you never read anything? The news broadcasts, the thought exchangers--don’t you follow them at all?”
Karl shook his head in growing wonder. Truly Rudolph had kept him in ignorance. Or was it his own fault? He had refused to dig into the volumes old Krassin had begged him to read. The broadcasts and the thought machines--well, only those of the purple had access to those.
“Hey, Laro!” called the dwarf to his companion, “this mole is as dumb as can be. Doesn’t know he’s alive hardly. And a Van Dorn!”
The two laughed uproariously and Karl raged inwardly. Mole! So that’s what they called wearers of the gray! He clenched his fists and rose unsteadily to his feet.
“Sorry,” apologized his tormentor. “Mustn’t get sore now. It seems so funny to us though. And listen, kid, you’ll never have another chance to hear it all. So, if you’ll sit down and calm yourself a bit I’ll give you an earful.”
Mollified, Karl listened. A marvelous tale it was, of a disgruntled scientist of the Eastern Hemisphere who had conquered that portion of the world with the aid of the inhabitants he had found on the outer side of the Moon; of the scientist who still ruled the East--Zar of the Continental Empire. A horrible war--in 2085, the year of his own birth--depopulated the countries of Asia, Europe and Africa and reduced them to subjection. There was no combatting the destructive rays and chemical warfare of the Moon men. The United Americas, still weakened from a civil war of their own, remained aloof and, for some strange reason, the Zar left them in peace, contenting himself with his conquest of practically all of the rest of the world. Now, it seemed, the two major powers were as separate as if on different planets, there being no traffic between them save by governmental sanction; and that was rarely given.
It grew uncomfortably warm in the compartment as the rocket car entered the lower atmosphere but Karl listened spellbound to the astounding revelations of the Moon man. There came a pause in the discourse of the dwarf as a number of relays clicked furiously on the control board and the vessel slackened its speed perceptibly.
“But,” said Karl, thinking aloud rather than meaning to interrupt, “what has all this to do with me? Why does the government of this Zar want me?”
The dwarf bent close and eyed him cautiously. “Poor kid!” he whispered, “it doesn’t seem right that you should suffer for something that happened when you were born; something you know nothing about. But the Zar knows best. You--”
There came a stabbing pencil of light from over Karl’s shoulder and the green eyes of the dwarf went wide with horrified surprise. He clutched at his breast where the flame had contacted, then slowly collapsed in a pitiful, distorted heap. Karl recoiled from the odor of putrefaction that immediately filled the compartment. He whirled to face the new danger but saw nothing but the padded walls.
Then they were in darkness save for the blinking lights of the control board. He was thrown forward violently and the piercing screech of compressed air rushing past the vessel told him they had entered the receiving tube at their destination and were being retarded in speed for the landing. This much he had gathered from the explanations of the now silenced dwarf.
Laro, the other Moon man, remained mute at the controls. His companion evidently had talked too much.
The vessel had stopped and a section of the padded rear wall of the compartment moved back to reveal a second chamber. There were three other occupants of the ship and Karl knew now at whose hands the talkative Moon man had met his death. One of the three--all wearers of the purple--still held the generator of the dazzling ray in his hands. He decided wisely that resistance was useless and followed meekly when he was led from the ship.
Endlessly they rode upward in a high-speed lift, dismounting finally at a pneumatic tube entrance. A special car whisked them roaring into the blackness. Then they were shot forth into the open and Karl saw the light of the sun for the first time in many years. They were on the upper surface of a great city, Dorn, the capital of the Continental Empire.
The air was filled with darting ships of all sorts and sizes, most of them being pleasure craft of the wearers of the purple. To Karl it was the sudden realization of his dreams. He was one of them. He, too, should be wearing the purple. Then his heart sank as one of his guards prodded him into action. His dream already was shattered for they stood at the entrance to a great crystal pyramid that rose from the flat expanse of the roofs of Dorn. It was the palace of the Zar.
It seemed then that fairyland had opened its gates to the young man in gray denim. He immediately fell under its influence when they traversed a long lane between rows of brightly colored growing things which filled the air with sweet odors. Feathered creatures fluttered about and twittered and caroled in the sheer joy of being alive. It was sweeter music than he had ever believed possible or even imagined as existing. Again he forgot the menace of the imperial edict which had brought him from the other side of the world.
Then rudely, he was brought back to earth. He was in the presence of the mighty Zar and his three escorts were bowing themselves from the huge room in which the wizened monarch sat enthroned. They had finished their duties.
A shriveled face; beady eyes; trembling hands with abnormally large knuckles; a cruel and determined mouth--these were the features that most impressed Karl as he stared wordlessly at this Zar of the Eastern Hemisphere. The magnificence of the royal robe was lost on the young wearer of the gray.
“Well, well, so this is Peter Van Dorn, my beloved nephew.” The Zar was speaking and the chilly sarcasm in which the words were uttered belied the friendliness they otherwise might have implied.
“That’s what I’m told,” replied Karl, “though I didn’t know I’m supposed to be the nephew of so great a figure as yourself.”
Not bad that, for an humble wearer of the gray.
“Oh, yes, yes, indeed. Why else should I have sent for you?”
“I have wondered why--and still wonder.”
“Oh, you wonder, eh?” The Zar inspected him carefully and then broke into a cackle of horrible laughter. “A Van Dorn in gray denim!” he chortled. “A mole of the Americas! And to think that even the Zar has been unable to find him in all these years!”
“Stop!” bellowed Karl. “I’ll not have your ridicule. Come to the point now and have it over with. Kill me if you will, but tell me the story!” He had seen the slender tube in the Zar’s hand.
An expression of surprise, almost of admiration, flickered in the beady eyes of the Zar and was gone. He spoke coldly.
“Very well, I shall explain. You, Peter, are actually my nephew. Your father, Derek Van Dorn, was my brother; he a king of Belravia and I a poor but experienced scientist. He scorned me and he paid, for I learned of the ancient race of the other side of the Moon, the side we can not see from the earth. I went to them and enlisted their aid in warring upon my brother. When we returned to carry on this war I learned that I had a son. So, too, did Derek. But my son was born in obscurity and Derek’s son--you, Peter--in the lap of luxury. The war was short and, to me, sweet. Belravia was first to fall, and I had your father removed from this life by the vibrating death.”
“You monster!” cried Karl. But the slender rod menaced him.
“A moment, my hot-headed nephew. I vowed I’d have your life, Peter, but your father had a few friends and one of these spirited you away. So temporarily you escaped. But now I have you where I can keep that vow. You, too, shall die. By the vibration. But first--ha! ha!--I’ll give you a taste of the purple. Just so the going will be harder.”
Karl kept his temper as best he could. He thought, conscience-stricken, of old Rudolph, that good friend of his father. Then he thought of that youth he had taken from the Square.
“Your son?” he asked gently. “Has he the triangular brand?”
The Zar was taken aback. “He has, yes. Why?” he asked.
“I have seen him in the Americas. He now lies wounded and in peril of his life. What do you think of that?”
Karl was triumphant as the Zar paled.
“You lie, Peter Van Dorn!”
But the beady eyes saw that the young man was truthful. Sudden fury assailed the monarch of the East. A bell pealed its mellow summons and three Moon men entered the Presence.
“Quick, Taru--the radiovision! Our ambassador in the Americas!” The Zar was on his feet, his hard features terrible in fear and anger. “By God!” he vowed, “I’ll lay waste the Americas if harm has come to my son. And you”--turning to Karl--”I’ll reserve for you an even more terrible fate than the vibrating death!”
The radiovision was wheeled in and in operation. A frightened face appeared in its disc: the Zar’s ambassador across the sea.
“Moreau--my son!” snapped the Zar. “Where is he?”
“Majesty! Have mercy!” gasped Moreau. “Paul has eluded us. He was skylarking--in the lower levels of New York. But our secret agents are combing the passages. We’ll have him in twenty-four hours. I promise!”
The rage of the Zar was terrible to see. Karl expected momentarily that the white flame would lay him low, for the anger of the mad ruler was directed first at Moreau, then at himself. But a quick, evil calm succeeded the storm.
“You, Peter,” he stated, in tones suddenly silky, “shall have that twenty-four hours--no more. If Moreau has not produced my son in that time you shall be dismembered slowly. A finger; an ear; your tongue; a hand--until you reveal the whereabouts of the heir to my throne!”
“Never! You scum!” Karl was on the dais in a single bound. He had the Zar by the throat, his fingers twisting in the flabby flesh. Might as well have it over at once. “Fratricide--murderer of my father, I’ll take you with me!”
But it was not to be. The throne room was filled with retainers of the mad emperor. Strong hands tore him away and he was borne, struggling and fighting, to the floor. A sharp pain in his forearm. A deadening of the muscles. He was powerless, save for the painful ability to crawl to his knees, swaying drunkenly. A delicious languor overcame him. Nothing mattered now. He saw that a tall man in the purple had withdrawn the needle of the hypodermic and was replacing the instrument in its case. Ever so slowly, it seemed.
The Zar was laughing. That horrible cackle. But Karl didn’t care. They’d have their sport with him. Let ‘em! Then it’d be over. Lord! If only he had been a little quicker. He’d have torn the old Zar’s windpipe from its place!
“My word,” laughed the Zar. “The sacred word of a Van Dorn. I gave it. He’ll wear the purple for a day. Take him from my sight!”
Karl was walking, quite willingly now. The effects of the drug were altering. His muscular strength returned but his mental state underwent a complete change. Always he’d wanted a taste of the purple. For years he’d listened to the orators of the Square, to the conflicting statements of old Krassin. But now he’d see. He’d know the joys of the upper levels; the pleasure cities, perhaps. For one day. But what did it matter? He found himself laughing and joking with his companion, a heavy-set wearer of the purple. They were in a luxurious apartment. Servants! Moon men all of them, but so efficient. They stripped him of his gray denim; discarded it contemptuously. Karl kicked the heap into a corner and laughed delightedly. His bath was waiting.