The Devolutionist (14)
May 23, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the fourteenth 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.
UNDER MARTIAL LAW
Van Emmon was pretty cross because Billie, through Mona, had told Fort about Powart’s game. More than once he protested hotly, “You shouldn’t have done that! It’s all their affair, not ours!”
And Billie usually returned, just as warmly, “I don’t care! I think Powart is a scoundrel!” And it was in the midst of one of these tiffs that the doctor interrupted, exactly as though the telepathy was telephony:
“Quiet, you two. Fort has called at the prison, and is being introduced to young Ernol. He —”
“I’ve been talking with your father,” Fort was saying to the son. The guard had left them alone in the cell. “But he isn’t interested in my ideas. He seems to think he’s done all that needs to be done in getting himself imprisoned.”
The boy nodded. “He considers himself a martyr, Mr. Fort; and I guess he’s satisfied like everybody else.” He spoke bitterly.
All Fort’s own youthful enthusiasm returned with a rush. “You’re just the chap I’m looking for! If you’re genuinely ambitious to do the people a great service, now’s your chance!”
And he went on to tell the boy about Powart’s frame-up. He gave every detail of Mona’s strange disclosure, and the boy believed him absolutely.
“I might have known there was some trick about it!” cried the lad. “Alma isn’t that kind of a planet! By Heaven, Powart deserves to be assassinated!”
“Nothing doing,” replied the athlete promptly, his eyes sparkling with the old light. “The first thing is to get you out of here; you, and the other hundred and fifty who were put in at the same time.”
Whereupon he proceeded to outline a scheme such as would look utterly incredible in the mere planning. Perhaps it is best to relate the thing as it happened, instead.
Two nights after Fort’s call on Ernol, Fort again presented himself to Reblong. This time it was at the engineer’s apartments.
“I was hoping to find you about to go on duty. I’ve been wondering how your engines control the steering.” He was eying Reblong steadily. “Some time when it is convenient I wish you would show me all over the ship, and explain everything.” He turned as though to leave.
“Oh, that’s all right, Mr. Fort,” Reblong hurried to assure him. “I’d just as soon accommodate you right now as at any time. The ship is always open to me.”
Reblong had said exactly what Fort had hoped and planned that he would say. Fifteen minutes later the two men were inside the big air-cruiser, alone except for a few cleaners, who were finishing the usual work of preparing the ship for its next cruise. But Reblong could not know that Fort had carefully made sure of this fact beforehand.
The engineer took the athlete from one end of the cruiser to the other, showing him how the pilot was able to control its motions with the utmost delicacy, thanks to automatic mechanism in the engine-room, electrically connected with the bridge.
“Suppose I was the pilot now,” commented Fort, standing on the bridge and looking up at the stars. “All I need to do is to set these dials”— indicating the pilot’s instruments —“to ‘ascend,’ and the engine-room would do the rest automatically. Is that it?”
Reblong said this was practically true, and led the way back to the engine-room. The place was full of a gurgling sound, now, due to the fuel being run into the tanks. Reblong glanced at the indicating tube. “We’ve already got enough,” he estimated, “to take the ship a thousand miles.”
And next instant Fort had leaped upon him. Reblong staggered back in his surprise, stumbled against a chair, and sat down heavily, helpless as a child in the athlete’s iron grip.
“Sorry, old man,” remarked Fort, meanwhile pushing him, chair and all, toward the instrument-table. “But it’s simply got to be done.” Like a flash he let go the engineer and snatched a strap from the table — where he had of course previously placed it — and again threw himself upon his man before Reblong recovered from his surprise. In a second he was strapped tight in his chair; and not until then did he think to use his feet. Another strap put an end to his kicking.
“Surprised you, didn’t I?” The athlete was enjoying himself hugely.
“Now —I must remind you that I’m taking a big chance in doing this. If you make a noise, I shall treat you as any desperate man would treat you!” There was a look in his eyes which clinched the matter.
Immediately he disappeared in the direction of the nearest cleaners. Reblong heard sounds of struggling from time to time; and evidently he implicitly believed that Fort would take vengeance upon him if he called for help; for he kept perfectly quiet. After perhaps twenty minutes the athlete returned, breathing heavily, but happy.
“The last one almost spilled my beans,” said he — to use the expression Smith employed. “He happened to see me shutting another one into a closet, and jumped me from behind. I had to lay him out.”
Reblong must have looked alarmed. “Oh, no harm done. They’ll all live to tell about it for the next twenty years.”
Next he made certain adjustments in the engine-room mechanism. Then he went to the telephone, and located the man in charge of the depot. “Hello —Mr. Fort speaking; Reblong isn’t able to come to the phone.” He winked at the man in the chair. “There’s something wrong with the fuel indicator. Shut off the supply for a while, will you?”
The gurgling soon stopped. Reblong watched in continued silence as Fort disappeared again, this time taking the elevator to the bridge. He was back again in a couple of minutes.
“Now, old man,” addressing the engineer, “you can guess what I’m up to. I’m going to navigate this cruiser alone!”
“I’ve set everything for the ascent. You see what I’ve done; if I’ve made any mistakes, it means good-by for the Cobulus, for me, and — for you!
“I leave it to your good sense to tell me if there’s anything I’ve overlooked.” And he laid his hands on the starting-levers.
Reblong said nothing so far, such was his chagrin and wonder. But now he evidently considered seriously what Fort had said.
“I see you mean it, Mr. Fort. And — you ought to know that once you’ve cleared the landing-dock, you’ll have a hard time to keep her level unless you’re up on the bridge. That is, while you’re shifting the wing-angle. But you ought to be down here to do that; and, meanwhile, she might nose down and slam into something, and —” Reblong shuddered.
“I see.” The athlete pondered for a moment. Then he lifted the engineer bodily, chair and all, and moved him over nearer the instrument. Next he loosened one of Reblong’s hands, just enough to permit him to reach certain of the levers. He also did some more tying of knots and shifting of buckles, roped the chair to a stanchion, and made sure that Reblong could not undo himself.
“It’s up to you,” said Fort with the new light in his eyes. “You run this thing as it ought to be run, and you’re safe. Trick me in any way, and I’ll get you!”
Reblong took a single look at those eyes. “I understand,” said he, in a low voice; and without further ado the athlete went to the elevator.
In less than a minute the order came to “cast off.” The engineer did not hesitate, but threw the levers and turned the wheels which Fort had expected to operate himself. Another second and the great craft was rising from its seat.
Shouts, muffled and faint because of the ship’s double windows, sounded from outside. Reblong saw the sheds sinking rapidly below him. In thirty seconds the vessel was free of the dock.
“First gear ahead,” came the signal; and again Reblong obeyed. Practically he had no choice. Another man, of nobler training, might have preferred to be loyal at all costs. But Reblong, the representative Capellan workman, saw the lights of the sheds shift slowly to the rear, then go out of sight as the speed increased. He saw one or two fliers preparing to pursue, but he knew that the cruiser would easily outstrip the best of them.
The Cobulus had got clear away!
It was an hour later that the four, this time through the doctor and young Ernol, learned the sequel to Fort’s daring feat. The boy was alone in his cell, awake in the darkness, when one of the guards marched up to his door and unlocked it.
“Come out,” he ordered; and Ernol preceded him down the corridor, up a flight of stairs, through another corridor and thence into the exercise grounds. On the other side of this was a small building, with no opening save one door, now bright with light. Inside, Ernol found the other men who had been arrested with him, closely watched by a dozen of the prison guards. His father was not there; apparently they were waiting for him to be brought.
“It worked all right,” whispered the man at Ernol’s right, as the boy was lined up. Ernol only nodded slightly, keeping his eyes fixed upon the door. A moment later, the elder Ernol arrived, accompanied by a man whom the doctor instantly recognized.
It was Eklan Norbith, the man whose infernally ingenious use of the clock’s pendulum had wrung the truth about the secret photographs from the boy’s father. He looked even more cruel and repellant now, than he had that night on the couch. Apparently quite recovered, he made a truly forbidding figure.
He had evidently been sent for by the warden; for, with a slow, malignant stare at the row of prisoners, he stated the case in his heavy, ominous tones:
“You are all supposed to know the rules. One of you has been smuggling drugs into the prison; we have found specimens in each cell. It only remains to learn which of you is the guilty party; and that, I propose to uncover within one minute!”
He paused, and glared around again. The stillness was unbroken for a moment; then one prisoner coughed nervously. This started half the rest to doing the same; and under cover of the noise, Ernol whispered to the man on his right:
“No sight of him yet! I’m afraid you showed the drug too soon.”
“I waited until I heard the clock strike,” protested the other; and then both stood on their guard as the commission’s deputy went on with his arraignment:
“It is my duty to inform you, although you probably already know it, that this building is made of iron. Floor, walls, and ceiling are the same.” The doctor saw that the prisoners’ feet were all bare. “And the whole place is heavily wired with high-power electricity!
“The guards and I will now leave you to yourselves.” His teeth showed in an evil smile. “We will give you a few kilowatts as a starter, and shut it off after ten seconds. If you are not ready by that time to tell me which of you is guilty, I will then let you have the current twice as strong!”
The prisoners looked at each other anxiously. Ernol threw back his head defiantly.
“Don’t weaken!” he exclaimed. “The juice can’t hurt you!”
Immediately the guards backed out, keeping their weapons trained on the crowd. Norbith was the last to go. He left the door open; and from where the boy stood he could plainly watch the man as he worked the switches, just outside.
Instantly the place was in an uproar. Of course, the doctor felt nothing of the prickling, nerve-shaking pain that gripped every one of those barefoot men. They leaped and darted here and there, bluish sparks flashing wherever they touched the iron; or they fell after a step or two and writhed on the floor, shrieking and cursing with the exquisite torture of that awful current. Ernol alone kept from shouting; he stood and took it, trembling like a leaf.
But it lasted only a moment or two. The uproar ceased. Norbith stepped back into the room.
“Well?” The slow smile again. “Want to tell now?”
For answer the boy clapped his hand to his mouth and blew a shrill whistle. Norbith stared in astonishment. Then, all of a sudden, a tremendous thing happened.
A veritable hurricane swooped down upon the place. There was a vast rush of wind, accompanied by a thunderous noise, like breakers. Then two huge masses of metal clanged against the sides of the building; there was a grinding crash, and the whole structure rocked and swayed as though in the grasp of some supernatural monster. Next second the lights went out; the wires had snapped.
“All aboard; look out, below!” sang out a voice. It was Fort, calling from far overhead.
And then, slowly at first but with quickening speed, the iron building rose into the air; arose, and floated away like a toy balloon. It was fast in the grip of the Cobulus’s grappling-irons!
Norbith was the only officer left in the room. He regained his senses with lightning speed. Out came his electric torch; he trained it on the prisoners.
“By God!” he cursed. “You’ll not get away, you —” And he fumbled with the weapon in his belt.
It was one of the boxlike machine guns. Young Ernol hesitated only an instant. Then he dashed forward.
The box spat fire. The boy threw his weight against the deputy, so that the man lost his balance and toppled out the door into the arms of the guards below.
And the doctor brought his own mind back to his body not one second before the lad, burnt through and through by the flame of the man’s weapon, fell back into the room — dead.
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”