The Devolutionist (10)
April 25, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the tenth 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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A RIPPLE IN THE POOL
It seemed as though he were right. The whole great pool of humanity which comprised Capellette was still, quiescent, stagnant. Was there nothing to arouse it, no ripple in the pool?
The doctor had this question uppermost in his mind when he located young Ernol. He found him getting ready to accompany his father, who seemed about to take advantage of the freedom Powart had conditionally given him. There was no doubt about it; the radical was going straight back to his revolutionary teaching.
He was saying, “Of course, my boy, I can’t compel you to stay at home.” The doctor delighted in the vigorous, frank manner and powerful voice of the man; they belonged perfectly with his black hair and bristling beard, his flashing eyes and aggressive nose. “I’d rather you stayed out of this; at the same time, I’d be a proud man if you didn’t!”
The student calmly finished his dressing. “What time did you tell the men to come?” was all he said; and the father chuckled, then sighed.
The two took flight in a small two-seater. It was night, and the doctor took note of the planet’s system of signal lights. Within five minutes, however, the flight ended with a landing in some sort of a deep depression; the doctor called it a ravine.
Climbing from the machine, the two apostles stepped a few paces in total darkness; then the elder man produced a small electric torch, which he wig-wagged above his head. There was a series of answering flashes at a distance; and next moment a door, let into the side of the ravine, opened right in front of the pair.
They stepped in and closed the door after them, then turned their light down a long corridor. Reaching the end of this the doctor noted a loophole in the wall, from which projected something suspiciously like the muzzle of a machine gun. He had no difficulty in imagining the consequences should someone open that hidden door without first giving the signal.
Much as one might enter a lodge-room, the two radicals showed their faces at a port-hole in a door, after which they passed guards with mask-like helmets. In a few seconds they found themselves in a brilliantly lighted hall, very large and commodious except for the heavy pillars which supported its low ceiling. It was half filled with men.
The elder Ernol had no use for formality. After brief greetings to some kind of a committee, he took his place on a platform; while his son unconsciously gratified the doctor by looking over the crowd. Presumably they were all workers; and in one way they were all alike; the habitual contentment in their faces had been momentarily replaced by excitement. However, they were quiet and well behaved enough.
“Comrades,” began the radical without delay, “I appreciate your coming here at all, under the circumstances. The commission plainly warned me that any further teaching would be disastrous. I am not sure, but I imagine they would arrest both myself and those found with me. If there is any one who feels that he would rather not take the risk, now is the time for him to go.”
There was a moment’s pause; then, in the back of the hall, two men who had been sitting together got up and hurriedly went out. Ernol waited, but there was no further exodus.
“I will lose no time then, but proceed to give you the proofs regarding the commission.” He produced a small parcel of photographs. “These pictures are the most dangerous things I have ever carried on my person. I took them in the dead of night, by flashlight, in the library of the University of Calastia.
“They are”— he paused portentously —“reproductions of pages from the secret census!”
To most of the men this meant something highly significant. They cranned their necks in their excitement.
“I am going to pass them around, negatives and all. You see where I have checked off the most important items. They prove to any one with reason that the commission has been lying to us; that the workers are being taxed more heavily than the owners; that the owners are being favored in every way. I don’t care whether you agree with my ideas or not; these photographs”— his voice shook the hall —“prove that the commission is not even giving you what you thought you were getting!”
He took a single step down from the platform, his hand outstretched, about to pass the parcel to the man in the nearest seat. At that instant all the lights were extinguished.
There was a moment’s stunned silence; then the place broke into an uproar. Yells of fright and anger, the crashing of chairs, screams of pain; all these young Ernol heard without himself giving voice. He was sprinting down one side of the hall.
Suddenly there came a flash of light straight ahead. Ernol had reached the outer corridor. And the doctor heard a great commotion going on outside the door in the ravine; a smashing and thudding, which filled the corridor with noise. Next second the door gave way, and simultaneously young Ernol leaped into the niche behind the thing which the doctor thought a machine gun. Another second, and he had the device in operation.
From its muzzle shot a thin stream of fire, which extended the whole length of the corridor. It lighted up everything with a bluish-white glare, revealing a mob of men at the door. They fell back, yelling with pain, some of them dropping in their tracks. And all the while the apparatus was dealing, not a shower of bullets, but a streak of liquid fire, which hissed and screamed like the blast from an oxygen blow-pipe.
But it was all over in a second or two. A noise from behind, and young Ernol started up suddenly, only to find himself in the grip of a veritable giant of a man. His struggles were simply useless. In a moment he was being carried bodily back into the hall, which the doctor saw was now lighted as before.
On one side, lined up amid a mass of wrecked chairs, stood most of the workers at bay. On the other were four men with small boxlike devices, such as Billie had already seen in the hands of Powart’s guards, and which were kept trained threateningly upon the crowd. On the platform stood Ernol, now quite helpless in the grasp of two stalwart fellows.
The mob from the door poured in. Immediately they made captors of all the workers, who had precious little to say. Apparently they had been warned. The doctor also concluded that the capture was a piece of treachery, in which bribery had been employed.
Two minutes later young Ernol was placed in a large passenger flier, which the doctor labeled “Black Maria.” Presumably the elder radical was taken in another; at any rate after another flight in the darkness, father and son shortly found themselves together again.
They were now in the drawing-room of some private residence, concluded the doctor. This puzzled him somewhat until, after a brief wait under the eyes of a half-dozen guards, the two radicals were taken into another room.
Here, lying on a couch, was a man whom the doctor soon identified. He was none other than Mona’s patient, Eklan Norbith, the commission’s deputy in Calastia. He was a burly, dark-featured fellow; and even though rigid in his plaster cast, he looked competent and formidable.
“Ernol,” said he in a heavy, domineering voice, “there is no need to state the case to a man of your intelligence. You gave your word to stop your teachings; you have been caught in the act. Frankly, I rather thought you would do it; that is why I am here tonight. I want — to deal with you personally.”
He paused for breath, and then went on, still ignoring the student, “Ernol, you know what I want. I want those photographs; and what is more, I am going to have them. You must have passed them to some one who escaped in the confusion; they have not been located on any one who has been captured, nor were they hid in the hall. Now I will give you exactly ten seconds [Footnote: For the sake of clearness, the Capellan second, whose actual length is of course unknown, is used here as though it were uniform with Earth standards.] to tell me what you did with them.”
He eyed a clock on the wall.
The radical, whose hands were tied behind him, nevertheless managed to strike a defiant pose. “I don’t intend to tell you, Norbith. It is true that I handed them to one of my comrades; but I shall not tell you which one.”
“Your time is up,” said the man with the silver heart evenly. “Will you tell?”
Ernol contented himself with a contemptuous shake of the head. The man of the couch, for the first time conceding young Ernol’s presence, now ordered him brought forward.
“I know,” he told the father, “that it would be useless to work with YOU. You are just fool enough to imagine that suffering means martyrdom.
“But I told you that I must have those photographs. I meant it. I shall have that information if I have to torture you until I get it!”
“Go right ahead!” taunted the revolutionist; but his face was white.
Norbith turned to the boy’s guards. “Strap him into this chair!”
It was done in half a minute. The doctor had no way of seeing how the boy took it, except that he studiously avoided his father’s eyes, and that he made no sound.
“Now move him under that clock!”
One of the guards gave a low exclamation, instantly checked at a cold stare from Norbith. And meanwhile the boy was being placed just below, and a little to one side of the big clock.
“Remove the lower half of the clock-case!”
It was done in a few seconds. The instrument’s pendulum now vibrated freely in the air, its weight swinging almost to the boy’s head where he sat.
“Move him until I drop my hand,” said Norbith.
A slight push, and instantly the doctor became aware that the heavy pendulum of the clock, on reaching the outward extremity of its swing, was now gently tapping at the boy’s left temple. TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP it went, with the peculiar quickness due to the planet’s powerful gravity.
“Keep him there until I tell you to move him.”
The tapping continued. To the doctor, of course, the thing was entirely devoid of pain. It made much the same noise the dentist makes with his mallet, only it went on and on, until perhaps two minutes had passed.
Instantly the boy was moved away. The student said nothing; neither did the father. Yet the doctor noticed something which meant volumes to his trained senses.
The boy’s gaze was no longer clear. Instead, dancing lights appeared wherever he looked; tiny flashes of violet and orange, which shimmered before his pupils even though he closed his lids.
“Will you ask your father to tell?” inquired Norbith.
“No — damn you!”
It was the first thing the boy had said. And it came through set teeth, in a voice which the doctor scarcely knew.
“Move him back; a little further this time.”
The tapping began again. This time the boy’s head got more of the force of the swing; the tapping was more like a blow. THUD-THUD-THUD came the sound now; and in a few seconds the boy could see nothing for the shivering flames. He gave a faint groan.
“Ready to talk now?”
“Damn you — no!” in a voice that shook with pain.
“Move him closer!”
The thud became a pound. The doctor looked for the skull to give way at any moment; he tried his best to control the subconscious, but the boy’s agony was too great. The dancing lights had become a continuous flare; the lad moaned steadily.
And then quite without warning, the boy broke down and gave out a terrible shriek. Norbith ordered the guards to move him away from the clock.
“Ready now?” he inquired calmly.
The boy’s answer was a snarl. “No!”
The thud-thudding began again, and now it had a sharp sound which the doctor instantly recognized. In a moment the boy was shaking the air with cries of such awful agony that the doctor —
“Stop!” cried the father convulsively, his face streaming with tears. “God — the boy doesn’t — know! Don’t torture him — like that!”
The man with the metal heart said: “Will you tell now?”
“Don’t do it father!” the boy whispered through palsied lips. But no Capellan heard him.
The father was saying to Norbith, “I gave the whole outfit to —”
And then that crashing and smashing came to an end. The boy had fainted.
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”