The Devolutionist and the Emancipatrix
Chapter IX: The Stagnant World
Smith entered the mind of his Capellan agent at a moment when he was clearly off duty. In fact, the engineer of the Cobulus was at the time enjoying an uncommonly good photoplay.
Smith had arrived too late to see the beginning of the picture; but he found it to be a more or less conventional society drama. And for a while he was mainly interested in the remarkably clear photography, the natural coloring and stereoscopic effect that the doctor had already noted through young Ernol. Smith nearly overlooked the really fine music, all coming from a talking machine of some kind.
And then the picture came to an end, and a farce-comedy began. It was an extraordinarily ingenious thing, with little or no plot; afterward Smith could not describe it with any accuracy. However, Mrs. Kinney, down-stairs, plainly heard him laughing as though his sides would give way.
The picture over, Smith’s man got up and left the place; and once outside he glanced at his watch and took up a position on the curb, much as Smith had often done when a younger man. The Capellan seemed to know a good many of the people who came out of the playhouse; and meanwhile Smith took note of something of extreme importance.
The playhouse did not have any advertising whatever in sight, except for a single bulletin-board, like the bill of fare of a cafeteria. Moreover--and this is the significant thing--there was no box-office, neither was any one at the door to take tickets.
The place was wide open to the world. It was located on a very busy street in what appeared to be a good-sized city; but, to all appearances, any one might enter who chose to.
“Free amusements,” thought Smith, “to keep the boobs happy.”
Shortly his agent stepped down the street, which seemed to be greatly like one in any city on the earth, except that there was remarkably little noise. Perhaps it was due to the total lack of street-cars and surface machinery in general. Certainly the space between the sidewalks was used for little else than the parking of flying-machines. The buildings housed a variety of stores, all built on a large scale. There were no small shops at all.
Smith’s agent quickly reached his own flier, a small two-seater ornithopter finished in dull gray--Smith’s favorite color, incidentally--and in a minute or two he was well under way. Smith had a chance to watch, at close range, the distorted S-motion of the machine’s wings. But the flight lasted only a few minutes, and presently the craft was again at rest.
This time it was parked under a tremendously long shed, which Smith afterward saw was really a balcony, one of a tier of ten. Opposite the spot was a large building, like a depot; and over its roof Smith saw the huge bulk of an airship.
It was, of course, the Cobulus; and it was when Smith’s agent passed through a checking-in room that his name was heard for the first time. “All right, Reblong,” was the way it came, from the official who punched his time-card. And Reblong, with Smith making eager use of his eyes, went directly through a hatch in the side of the great ship, and thence down a corridor to his engine-room.
Smith got little opportunity to study the machinery. Reblong gave the place a single sweeping glance, then strode to a short, black-bearded chap who stood near the instrument board.
“Everything as usual, my friend?” He had a pleasant voice, as Smith learned for the first time.
“Yes--as usual!” The man’s voice was bitter. “That’s just what’s wrong! There’s never any improvement; it’s always--as usual! Say, Reblong; no offense, but I think we are fools to put up with what we are given!”
Smith’s man complacently seated himself in front of the instruments. “Personally, I think we are mighty lucky, instead of foolish.”
“Lucky!” The other man snorted. “I wish Ernol could hear you say that! He’d have a fit!”
Reblong was not at all disturbed. “By the way, what’s become of the chap? I haven’t seen him around for weeks?”
“Don’t know, exactly,” with some uneasiness. “He went back to Calastia, and that’s the last I heard of him.”
“Calastia? I saw an item in the paper last night, to the effect that Calastia was under quarantine. All news cut off.”
The man instantly smelled a mouse. “Quarantine! Why should that cause the news to be cut off? There’s something more than quarantine the matter, Reblong!” He began to pace the room excitedly. “I say it again, we’re fools to believe everything the commission tells us. I think they’ve been hoodwinking us about long enough!”
Reblong suppressed a yawn. “I don’t care if they do, old man. I’m willing to leave it up to them to run the government.”
“And that’s exactly what’s the matter!” cried the other. “You and every other chap except those Ernol has taught, thinks that the commission is God-given and can do no wrong!”
“Yes?” politely. “Maybe so; only, you can’t blame us for thinking pretty highly of a government that has done this.” Reblong checked the items off on his fingers, meanwhile eying his companion steadily: “It has done away with the liquor traffic; it has fully protected women in industry; it has put an end to child labor; it has abolished poverty; it has abolished war; and”--with considerable emphasis for so quiet a man--”it has provided you and me and everybody else with a mighty fine education, free of charge!”
Reblong’s manner, by its very emphasis, had the effect of making the other man suddenly quite cool. “Correct; I admit them all. And at the same time I want to show you that the commission has accomplished all this, not primarily for our benefit, but in the interests of the owners.
“They gave us prohibition because drinking was bad for business; no other reason, Reblong! And that’s why the women are protected, too; a protected, contented woman brings in better dividends to the owners than one who is worked to death.