The Devolutionist (3)

By: Homer Eon Flint
March 7, 2013

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HILOBROW is pleased to present the third installment of our serialization of Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist. New installments will appear each Thursday for eighteen weeks.

“The Devolutionist” (Argosy All-Story Weekly, July 1921) is the third occult-science-fiction Dr. Kinney story; the others are “The Lord of Death” (June 1919), “The Queen of Life” (August 1919), and “The Emancipatrix” (September 1921). Having learned how to visit other worlds telepathically, without leaving Earth — by means of Venusian technology — Dr. Kinney and his companions enter the minds and share the sensations of the inhabitants of a human-like civilization on other planets. In this story, they visit a double planet: Hafen is the abode of capitalists, Holl of workers. A nearby planet of “cooperative democrats” is in trouble, so Kinney & co. step in.

Cobbler and one-reeler writer Homer Eon Flint (1888–1924) published a number of pulp science fiction stories — including “The Planeteer” (1918; one of the earliest examples of cosmic sci-fi) and The Blind Spot (1921, with Austin Hall) — during the genre’s Radium Age. Everett Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years calls Flint “in many ways the outstanding writer of s-f in the Munsey pulp magazines.” Flint died in a crash near Oakland, Calif., after supposedly stealing a taxi at gunpoint in order to use it in a bank hold-up.

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ALL EXCERPTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 |16 | 17 | 18

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III
SMITH’S MIND WANDERS

Secretly Smith hoped he might find an agent who also was an engineer. He had this in mind all the while he was repeating the Venusian formula, the sequence of thought-images which was necessary to bring on the required state of mind. The formula had the effect of closing his mind to all save telepathic energy, and opening wide the channels through which it controlled the brain.

No sooner had he repeated the words, meanwhile concentrating with all the force of his newly trained will upon the single idea of seeing and hearing what was happening on the unknown, yet quite knowable planet — no sooner had his head sunk on his chest than he became aware of a strange sound.

On all sides unseen apparatus gave forth a medley of subdued jars and clankings. A variety of hissing sounds also were distinguishable. And meanwhile Smith was staring hard, with the eyes he had borrowed along with the ears, at a pair of human hands.

These hands were manipulating a group of highly polished levers and hand-wheels. So long as his borrowed sight was fixed upon that group Smith was entirely ignorant of the surroundings. All he could surmise was that his agents operated some sort of machinery.

Then the agent glanced up; and Smith got his first shock. For he now saw a cluster of indicating dials, such as one may see on the instrument board of any automobile; but the trained engineer found himself absolutely unable to interpret one of them. They were marked with unknown figures!

Nevertheless, the engineer received an unmistakable impression, quite as vivid as though something had been said aloud. “Progress; all safe,” was the thought-image that came to him.

He listened closely in hope of hearing a spoken word. Also, he tried his best to make his agent look around the place. Other people might be within sight. However, for a couple of minutes the oddly familiar hands kept manipulating the unfamiliar instruments.

Then, somewhere quite close at hand, a deep-toned gong sounded a single stroke. Instantly the agent looked up; and Smith saw that he was inspecting the interior of a large engine-room. He had time to note the huge bulk of a horizontal cylinder, perhaps fifty feet in diameter, in the immediate background; also a variety of other mechanisms, more like immensely enlarged editions of laboratory apparatus than ordinary engines. Smith looked in vain for the compact form of a dynamo or motor, and listened in vain for the sound of either. Then, in swift succession, came two strokes on the unseen gong, followed by a shrill whistle.

Smith’s borrowed eyes became fixed upon that group of dials again. Their indicators began to shift, some rapidly, some slowly. Once the agent gave a swift glance through a round window — the place seemed to be lighted by ordinary daylight — and Smith saw something unrecognizable flit by.

A little further progress, and then came three strokes on the gong, followed by a low thrumming. In response to these, the agent deliberately picked out two levers, and pulled them down. When his glance returned to the dials, one of them showed immense acceleration.

By and by came another triple clanging, another pair of levers was pulled down, and instantly the jarring and clanking gave way to a decided rumble, low and distinct, but so powerful that it shook the air. At the same time the agent quit his post and went over to the giant horizontal cylinder.

Now Smith could see that this vast structure was merely part of an engine whose dimensions were quite beyond any former experience. It was a simple affair, being merely a reciprocal machine like the most elementary form of steam engine. But, instead of being operated by steam, it was a chemical machine; Smith’s trained eyes told him that the cylinder was really an enormous retort. And he noted with further perplexity that the prodigious piston-rod not only moved with terrific speed, but in a strictly back-and-forth motion; its far end did not revolve.

The agent seemed satisfied with it all. He turned about and walked — so far as Smith could sense in the usual manner of earth’s humans — back to the dials again. Just then a door opened a short distance away and another man entered.

Smith would have mistaken him for the employee of some garage. He was dressed in a suit of greasy blue overalls; and as he advanced toward the eyes Smith was using, he looked about the room with practiced glance. He merely nodded to Smith’s man, who returned the nod just as silently; and such was the extreme brevity of it all, Smith was afterward unable to describe the man.

His agent, thus relieved of his duty temporarily, strolled out another door, which took him through a narrow corridor and another door, opening on to some sort of a balcony, or deck. Smith fully expected to look upon an ocean.

Instead, he found himself gazing into a sea of clouds. He was in some sort of aircraft!

Next moment, quite as though it had all been prearranged, a large sky-cruiser hove into sight perhaps a quarter of a mile away. It seemed to materialize out of the clouds, and rapidly bore down upon the craft in which the agent stood.

But the practical man of the earth was eying the air-ship in increasing amazement. For it was truly a ship; a huge vessel wonderfully like one of the old-fashioned freighters which used to sail the seas of the earth. What was more, it had four tall, sloping masts, each spread with something remarkably like canvas; and that whole incredible hulk was actually swinging in mid air!

Looking closer, Smith saw that the masts were exceedingly tall; they held enough canvas to propel ten ships. And each stick sloped back at so sharp an angle — much sharper than forty-five degrees — that the wind not only blew the craft along in its course, but actually supported it as well.

It meant a wind which would make a hurricane seem tame. Either that, or air with greater density than any Smith knew about.

Suddenly the cruiser came about into the wind, and at the same instant it began to take in sail, all the sheets furling in unison. Simultaneously great finlike wings shot out of slits in the sides of the hull; and immediately they began to beat the air, back and forth, back and forth, with the speed and motion of swallows.

So this was the meaning of the giant reciprocal engine! Instead of the screw propeller which characterized earth’s aircraft, these vessels employed the true bird principle, combining it with the simple methods of primitive sailing craft.

As soon as the ship stopped its wind-driven rush and began to employ its wings, the speed straightway slackened; and the ships began to descend. About the same time the figures of several people appeared on what might be called the bridge; and assuming that these people were as large as the man whom Smith had seen enter the engine-room — a chap of average height — then that ship, in proportion, was all of a mile long!

But Smith’s awe was not shared by his agent, who turned indifferently away and looked about the sky as though in search of other sights. In doing so, he leaned over the deck’s railing; and Smith saw the sheer sides of the giant ship, extending fore and aft almost indefinitely; while far overhead billowed vast clouds of white cloth. The vessel was now under sail.

About a mile higher up, and almost that distance to one side, the agent’s eyes made out two tiny specks. He watched them closely for a moment as they pitched and tossed queerly about; then darted into the engine-room, secured a pair of binoculars of an old, squat pattern, and swiftly focused upon the nearer of the two.

Smith instantly sensed a disaster. The object was a small air-craft, of a sort entirely strange to the engineer; yet he knew that it was disabled. One of its queer wings was broken and fluttering, as the little machine dropped, tumbling and twisting erratically, in an inexplicably slow fashion toward the unseen ground. Smith glimpsed a single figure, presumably strapped in the seat.

Then the focus changed to cover the other machine. It was of the same type; and Smith saw that it was swooping in a steep spiral, its driver leaning over in his seat, looking down.

Next moment the two were in focus together. Every second they dropped closer and closer to Smith’s borrowed eyes. And in less time than it takes to tell it, they had come so close that when the occupant of the disabled craft lurched heavily to one side, Smith could plainly make out the long, flying hair of a woman.

She was unconscious, and strapped in!

Her craft capsized. At the same time the other driver — a man — maneuvered so as to spiral exactly around the wreck as it fell. When it came right side up again — now only a half a mile away — he drove down so close that his machine nearly grazed the woman’s head. As he did so, he leaned over and tried to unfasten her. But the unsteadiness of her craft prevented this.

He made a second try. This time his own machine narrowly escaped injury; he steered it hastily away from that damaged wing. And then he made a supreme effort.

Bringing his machine directly across the top of the other as it once more righted itself, he touched one of his controls, so that his own flier’s spiral increased in steepness. Straightening up, he poised himself while he coolly measured the distance; and then he calmly leaped a matter of ten or twelve feet, over and down to the top of the other craft.

The shock of his landing steadied it. Clinging fast with one hand, the man bent and unbuckled the woman’s strap. Next instant he had lifted her, a dead weight, into his arms and then over his shoulders.

His own machine was still scooting downward, its speed even greater than that of the broken flier. When the man saw it swinging past and below him, he instantly clambered, burden and all, to the edge of the cockpit. For a second he stood, balancing precariously; and then, half jumping, half diving, he plunged once more.

Man and woman landed in a heap in the sound machine. In a flash the rescuer snatched his controls, and tried with all his might to “straighten out.” But it began to skid; and Smith saw, despite the shakiness with which his excited agent held the binoculars, that the craft was hopelessly out of control. Next instant the man caught sight of the ship, not a hundred yards away; and steered straight for her.

Smith’s agent rushed back to the engine-room, where he immediately located a new group of instruments. Smith recognized a telephone and some wireless apparatus; then found himself staring into some sort of a compound mirror system. Probably it was an illuminated tunnel affair, opening into a long white cabin. Seemingly the place was an emergency-ward.

A moment later the unconscious forms of the two aviators were brought within perhaps twenty feet. Smith could hear nothing; the apparatus seemed made for looking only. But he saw the doctors hurry in, saw restoratives administered, and saw both people revive.

The man was first to become conscious. He looked around, seemed to take in the situation at a glance, and swiftly got to his feet. The doctors laid restraining hands upon him, but he shook them off with a laugh.

He was a powerfully built man, considerably taller than normal and very deep in the chest. He was decidedly blond, and good looking in a cheerful, reckless sort of way.

His concern was for the woman. She regained her senses in half a minute, and shortly was sitting up and looking around. And Smith, ordinarily unobservant of the other sex, found himself staring with all his eyes.

She was young; for that matter, the man was under thirty, also. And the white bandage on her forehead only emphasized the dark eyes and vivid coloring of her face. Smith was half angry that he could not see her more distinctly. He decided that every feature was exquisitely modeled, that he had never seen such delicate lines, nor eyes as large, as appealing and as soft.

Then he was watching the man again. He approached the woman and took her outstretched hand. He was laughing easily; she, smiling tremulously and gratefully. They looked into one another’s eyes quite as though there were no one else in the cabin to be looked at. Next second one of the doctors stepped up brusquely, and Smith saw a swift blush come to the girl’s cheeks. The man reddened, too, and turned away laughing to hide his confusion.

Smith’s connection with his agent ended right there. When he reported to the other three, later on, he had to admit that, so far as he knew, the man and the girl were still holding hands.

***

Stay tuned!

RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.”

HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels (both original and reissued) on HiLobrow, and to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. The following titles can be read in serial form via HiLobrow.com and/or purchased in gorgeous paperback form online or via your local independent bookstore: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. Also serialized on HiLobrow: W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet”, Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist, Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon — 2419 A.D., Jack London’s “The Red One”. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”

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