The Skylark of Space
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by E. E. Smith, Lee Harkins Garby
Category: Science Fiction
Description: The first of the great "space opera" science fiction novels, The Skylark of Space remains a thrilling tale more than 80 years after its creation. Finding that his government laboratory coworkers do not believe his discovery of a revolutionary power source that will enable interstellar flight, Dr. Richard Seaton acquires rights to his discovery from the government and commercializes it with the aid of his friend, millionaire inventor Martin Crane. When a former colleague tries to steal the invention, not only the future of Dr. Seaton and his allies, but ultimately the entire world hangs in the balance!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1928 1928
eBookwise Release Date: April 2007
38 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [396 KB]
Reading time: 241-338 min.
"With the exception of the works of H. G. Wells, possibly those of Jules Verne--and almost no other writer--it has inspired more imitators and done more to change the nature of all the science fiction written after it than almost any other single work."--Frederik Pohl
The Occurrence of the Impossible
Petrified with astonishment, Richard Seaton stared after the copper steambath upon which he had been electrolyzing his solution of "X," the unknown metal. For as soon as he had removed the beaker the heavy bath had jumped endwise from under his hand as though it were alive. It had flown with terrific speed over the table, smashing apparatus and bottles of chemicals on its way, and was even now disappearing through the open window. He seized his prism binoculars and focused them upon the flying vessel, a speck in the distance. Through the glass he saw that it did not fall to the ground, but continued on in a straight line, only its rapidly diminishing size showing the enormous velocity with which it was moving. It grew smaller and smaller, and in a few moments disappeared utterly.
The chemist turned as though in a trance. How was this? The copper bath he had used for months was gone--gone like a shot, with nothing to make it go. Nothing, that is, except an electric cell and a few drops of the unknown solution. He looked at the empty space where it had stood, at the broken glass covering his laboratory table, and again stared out of the window.
He was aroused from his stunned inaction by the entrance of his colored laboratory helper, and silently motioned him to clean up the wreckage.
"What's happened, Doctah?" asked the dusky assistant.
"Search me, Dan. I wish I knew, myself," responded Seaton, absently, lost in wonder at the incredible phenomenon of which he had just been a witness.
Ferdinand Scott, a chemist employed in the next room, entered breezily.
"Hello, Dicky, thought I heard a racket in here," the newcomer remarked. Then he saw the helper busily mopping up the reeking mass of chemicals.
"Great balls of fire!" he exclaimed. "What've you been celebrating? Had an explosion? How, what, and why?"
"I can tell you the 'what,' and part of the 'how'," Seaton replied thoughtfully, "but as to the 'why,' I am completely in the dark. Here's all I know about it," and in a few words he related the foregoing incident. Scott's face showed in turn interest, amazement, and pitying alarm. He took Seaton by the arm.
"Dick, old top, I never knew you to drink or dope, but this stuff sure came out of either a bottle or a needle. Did you see a pink serpent carrying it away? Take my advice, old son, if you want to stay in Uncle Sam's service, and lay off the stuff, whatever it is. It's bad enough to come down here so far gone that you wreck most of your apparatus and lose the rest of it, but to pull a yarn like that is going too far. The Chief will have to ask for your resignation, sure. Why don't you take a couple of days of your leave and straighten up?"
Seaton paid no attention to him, and Scott returned to his own laboratory, shaking his head sadly.
Seaton, with his mind in a whirl, walked slowly to his desk, picked up his blackened and battered briar pipe, and sat down to study out what he had done, or what could possibly have happened, to result in such an unbelievable infraction of all the laws of mechanics and gravitation. He knew that he was sober and sane, that the thing had actually happened. But why? And how? All his scientific training told him that it was impossible. It was unthinkable that an inert mass of metal should fly off into space without any applied force. Since it had actually happened, there must have been applied an enormous and hitherto unknown force. What was that force? The reason for this unbelievable manifestation of energy was certainly somewhere in the solution, the electrolytic cell, or the steambath. Concentrating all the power of his highly trained analytical mind upon the problem--deaf and blind to everything else, as was his wont when deeply interested--he sat motionless, with his forgotten pipe clenched between his teeth. Hour after hour he sat there, while most of his fellow chemists finished the day's work and left the building and the room slowly darkened with the coming of night.
Finally he jumped up. Crashing his hand down upon the desk, he exclaimed:
"I have liberated the intra-atomic energy of copper! Copper, 'X,' and electric current!
"I'm sure a fool for luck!" he continued as a new thought struck him. "Suppose it had been liberated all at once? Probably blown the whole world off its hinges. But it wasn't: it was given off slowly and in a straight line. Wonder why? Talk about power! Infinite! Believe me, I'll show this whole Bureau of Chemistry something to make their eyes stick out, tomorrow. If they won't let me go ahead and develop it, I'll resign, hunt up some more 'X', and do it myself. That bath is on its way to the moon right now, and there's no reason why I can't follow it. Martin's such a fanatic on exploration, he'll fall all over himself to build us any kind of a craft we'll need ... we'll explore the whole solar system! Great Cat, what a chance! A fool for luck is right!"
He came to himself with a start. He switched on the lights and saw that it was ten o'clock. Simultaneously he recalled that he was to have had dinner with his fiancée at her home, their first dinner since their engagement. Cursing himself for an idiot he hastily left the building, and soon his motorcycle was tearing up Connecticut Avenue toward his sweetheart's home.* * * *CHAPTER IISteel Becomes Interested
Dr. Marc DuQuesne was in his laboratory, engaged in a research upon certain of the rare metals, particularly in regard to their electrochemical properties. He was a striking figure. Well over six feet tall, unusually broad shouldered even for his height, he was plainly a man of enormous physical strength. His thick, slightly wavy hair was black. His eyes, only a trifle lighter in shade, were surmounted by heavy black eyebrows which grew together above his aquiline nose.
Scott strolled into the room, finding DuQuesne leaning over a delicate electrical instrument, his forbidding but handsome face strangely illuminated by the ghastly glare of his mercury-vapor arcs.
"Hello, Blackie," Scott began. "I thought it was Seaton in here at first. A fellow has to see your faces to tell you two apart. Speaking of Seaton, d'you think that he's quite right?"
"I should say, offhand, that he was a little out of control last night and this morning," replied DuQuesne, manipulating connections with his long, muscular fingers. "I don't think that he's insane, and I don't believe that he dopes--probably overwork and nervous strain. He'll be all right in a day or two."
"I think he's a plain nut, myself. That sure was a wild yarn he sprung on us, wasn't it? His imagination was hitting on all twelve, that's sure. He seems to believe it himself, though, in spite of making a flat failure of his demonstration to us this morning. He saved that waste solution he was working on--what was left of that carboy of platinum residues after he had recovered all the values, you know--and got them to put it up at auction this noon. He resigned from the Bureau, and he and M. Reynolds Crane, that millionaire friend of his, bid it in for ten cents."
"M. Reynolds Crane?" DuQuesne concealed a start of surprise. "Where does he come in on this?"
"Oh, they're always together in everything. They've been thicker than Damon and Pythias for a long time. They play tennis together--they're doubles champions of the District, you know--and all kinds of things. Wherever you find one of them you'll usually find the other. Anyway, after they got the solution Crane took Seaton in his car, and somebody said they went out to Crane's house. Probably trying to humor him. Well, ta-ta; I've got a week's work to do yet today."
As Scott left DuQuesne dropped his work and went to his desk, with a new expression, half of chagrin, half of admiration, on his face. Picking up his telephone, he called a number.
"Brookings?" he asked, cautiously. "This is DuQuesne. I must see you immediately. There's something big started that may as well belong to us.... No, can't say anything over the telephone.... Yes, I'll be right out."
He left the laboratory and soon was in the private office of the head of the Washington or "diplomatic" branch, as it was known in certain circles, of the great World Steel Corporation. Offices and laboratories were maintained in the city, ostensibly for research work, but in reality to be near the center of political activity.
"How do you do, Doctor DuQuesne?" Brookings said as he seated his visitor. "You seem excited."
"Not excited, but in a hurry," DuQuesne replied. "The biggest thing in history has just broken, and we've got to work fast if we get in on it. Have you any doubts that I always know what I am talking about?"
"No," answered the other in surprise. "Not the slightest. You are widely known as an able man. In fact, you have helped this company several times in various deal--er, in various ways."
"Say it. Brookings. 'Deals' is the right word. This one is going to be the biggest ever. The beauty of it is that it should be easy--one simple burglary and an equally simple killing--and won't mean wholesale murder, as did that..."
"Oh, no, Doctor, not murder. Unavoidable accidents."
"Why not call things by their right names and save breath, as long as we're alone? I'm not squeamish. But to get down to business. You know Seaton, of our division, of course. He has been recovering the various rare metals from all the residues that have accumulated in the Bureau for years. After separating out all the known metals he had something left, and thought it was a new element, a metal. In one of his attempts to get it into the metallic state, a little of its solution fizzed out and over a copper steam bath or tank, which instantly flew out of the window like a bullet. It went clear out of sight, out of range of his binoculars, just that quick." He snapped his fingers under Brookings' nose. "Now that discovery means such power as the world never dreamed of. In fact, if Seaton hadn't had all the luck in the world right with him yesterday, he would have blown half of North America off the map. Chemists have known for years that all matter contains enormous stores of intra-atomic energy, but have always considered it 'bound'--that is, incapable of liberation. Seaton has liberated it."
"And that means?"
"That with the process worked out, the Corporation could furnish power to the entire world, at very little expense."
A look of scornful unbelief passed over Brookings' face.
"Sneer if you like," DuQuesne continued evenly. "Your ignorance doesn't change the fact in any particular. Do you know what intra-atomic energy is?"
"I'm afraid that I don't, exactly."
"Well, it's the force that exists between the ultimate component parts of matter, if you can understand that. A child ought to. Call in your chief chemist and ask him what would happen if somebody would liberate the intra-atomic energy of one hundred pounds of copper."
"Pardon me, Doctor. I didn't presume to doubt you. I will call him in."
He telephoned a request and soon a man in white appeared. In response to the question he thought for a moment, then smiled slowly.
"If it were done instantaneously it would probably blow the entire world into a vapor, and might force it clear out of its orbit. If it could be controlled it would furnish millions of horsepower for a long time. But it can't be done. The energy is bound. Its liberation is an impossibility, in the same class with perpetual motion. Is that all, Mr. Brookings?"
As the chemist left, Brookings turned again to his visitor, with an apologetic air.
"I don't know anything about these things myself, but Chambers, also an able man, says that it is impossible."
"As far as he knows, he is right. I should have said the same thing this morning. But I do know about these things--they're my business--and I tell you that Seaton has done it."
"This is getting interesting. Did you see it done?"
"No. It was rumored around the Bureau last night that Seaton was going insane, that he had wrecked a lot of his apparatus and couldn't explain what had happened. This morning he called a lot of us into his laboratory, told us what I have just told you, and poured some of his solution on a copper wire. Nothing happened, and he acted as though he didn't know what to make of it. The foolish way he acted and the apparent impossibility of the whole thing, made everybody think him crazy. I thought so until I learned this afternoon that Mr. Reynolds Crane is backing him. Then I knew that he had told us just enough of the truth to let him get away clean with the solution."
"But suppose the man is crazy?" asked Brookings. "He probably is a monomaniac, really insane on that one thing, from studying it so much."
"Seaton? Yes, he's crazy--like a fox. You never heard of any insanity in Crane's family, though, did you? You know that he never invests a cent in anything more risky than Government bonds. You can bet your last dollar that Seaton showed him the real goods." Then, as a look of conviction appeared upon the other's face, he continued:
"Don't you understand that the solution was Government property, and he had to do something to make everybody think it worthless, so that he could get title to it? That faked demonstration that failed was certainly a bold stroke--so bold that it was foolhardy. But it worked. It fooled even me, and I am not usually asleep. The only reason he got away with it, is, that he has always been such an open-faced talker, always telling everything he knew.
"He certainly played the fox," he continued, with undisguised admiration. "Heretofore he has never kept any of his discoveries secret or tried to make any money out of them, though some of them were worth millions. He published them as soon as he found them, and somebody else got the money. Having that reputation, he worked it to make us think him a nut. He certainly is clever. I take off my hat to him--he's a wonder!"
"And what is your idea? Where do we come in?"
"You come in by getting that solution away from Seaton and Crane, and furnishing the money to develop the stuff and to build, under my direction, such a powerplant as the world never saw before."
"Why get that particular solution? Couldn't we buy up some platinum wastes and refine them?"
"Not a chance," replied the scientist. "We have refined platinum residues for years, and never found anything like that before. It is my idea that the stuff, whatever it is, was present in some particular lot of platinum in considerable quantities as an impurity. Seaton hasn't all of it there is in the world, of course, but the chance of finding any more of it without knowing exactly what it is or how it reacts is extremely slight. Besides, we must have exclusive control. How could we make any money out of it if Crane operates a rival company and is satisfied with ten percent profit? No, we must get all of that solution. Seaton and Crane, or Seaton, at least, must be killed, for if he is left alive he can find more of the stuff and break our monopoly. I want to borrow your strongarm squad tonight, to go and attend to it."
After a few moments' thought, his face set and expressionless, Brookings said:
"No, Doctor. I do not think that the Corporation would care to go into a matter of this kind. It is too flagrant a violation of law, and we can afford to buy it from Seaton after he proves its worth."
"Bah!" snorted DuQuesne. "Don't try that on me, Brookings. You think you can steal it yourself, and develop it without letting me in on it? You can't do it. Do you think I am fool enough to tell you all about it, with facts, figures, and names, if you could get away with it without me? Hardly! You can steal the solution, but that's all you can do. Your chemist or the expert you hire will begin experimenting without Seaton's lucky start, which I have already mentioned, but about which I haven't gone into any detail. He will have no information whatever, and the first attempt to do anything with the stuff will blow him and all the country around him for miles into an impalpable powder. You will lose your chemist, your solution, and all hope of getting the process. There are only two men in the United States, or in the world, for that matter, with brains enough and information enough to work it out. One is Richard B. Seaton, the other is Marc C. DuQuesne. Seaton certainly won't handle it for you. Money can't buy him and Crane, and you know it. You must come to me. If you don't believe that now, you will very shortly, after you try it alone."
Brookings, caught in his duplicity and half convinced of the truth of DuQuesne's statements, still temporized.
"You're modest, aren't you, Doctor?" he asked, smiling.
"Modest? No," said the other calmly. "Modesty never got anybody anything but praise, and I prefer something more substantial. However, I never exaggerate or make overstatements, as you should know. What I have said is merely a statement of fact. Also, let me remind you that I am in a hurry. The difficulty of getting hold of that solution is growing greater every minute, and my price is getting higher every second."
"What is your price at the present second?"
"Ten thousand dollars per month during the experimental work; five million dollars in cash upon the successful operation of the first power unit, which shall be of not less than ten thousand horsepower; and ten percent of the profits."
"Oh, come, Doctor, let's be reasonable. You can't mean any such figures as those."
"I never say anything I don't mean. I have done a lot of dirty work with you people before, and never got much of anything out of it. You were always too strong for me; that is, I couldn't force you without exposing my own crookedness, but now I've got you right where I want you. That's my price; take it or leave it. If you don't take it now, the first two of those figures will be doubled when you do come to me. I won't go to anybody else, though others would be glad to get it on my terms, because I have a reputation to maintain and you are the only ones who know that I am crooked. I know that my reputation is safe as long as I work with you, because I know enough about you to send all you big fellows, clear down to Perkins, away for life. I also know that that knowledge will not shorten my days, as I am too valuable a man for you to kill, as you did...."
"Please, Doctor, don't use such language...."
"Why not?" interrupted DuQuesne, in his cold, level voice. "It's all true. What do a few lives amount to, as long as they're not yours and mine? As I said, I can trust you, more or less. You can trust me, because you know that I can't send you up without going with you. Therefore, I am going to let you go ahead without me as far as you can--it won't be far. Do you want me to come in now or later?"
"I'm afraid we can't do business on any such terms as that," said Brookings, shaking his head. "We can undoubtedly buy the power rights from Seaton for what you ask."
"You don't fool me for a second, Brookings. Go ahead and steal the solution, but take my advice and give your chemist only a little of it. A very little of that stuff will go a long way, and you will want to have some left when you have to call me in. Make him experiment with extremely small quantities. I would suggest that he work in the woods at least a hundred miles from his nearest neighbor, though it matters nothing to me how many people you kill. That's the only pointer I will give you--I'm giving it merely to keep you from blowing up the whole country," he concluded with a grim smile. "Good-bye."* * * *
As the door closed behind the cynical scientist, Brookings took a small gold instrument, very like a watch, from his pocket. He touched a button and held the machine close to his lips.
"Perkins," he said softly, "M. Reynolds Crane has in his house a bottle of solution."
"Yes, sir. Can you describe it?"
"Not exactly. It is greenish yellow in color, and I gather that it is in a small bottle, as there isn't much of the stuff in the world. I don't know what it smells or tastes like, and I wouldn't advise experimenting with it, as it seems to be a violent explosive and is probably poisonous. Any bottle of solution of that color kept in a particularly safe place would probably be the one. Let me caution you that this is the biggest thing you have ever been in, and it must not fail. Any effort to purchase it would be useless, however large a figure were named. But if the bottle were only partly emptied and filled up with water, I don't believe anyone would notice the difference, at least for some time, do you?"
"Probably not, sir. Good-bye."
Next morning, shortly after the office opened, Perkins, whose principal characteristic was that of absolute noiselessness, glided smoothly into Brookings' office. Taking a small bottle about half full of a greenish-yellow liquid from his pocket, he furtively placed it under some papers upon his superior's desk.
"A man found this last night, sir, and thought it might belong to you. He said this was a little less than half of it, but that you could have the rest of it any time you want it."
"Thank you, Perkins, he was right. It is ours. Here's a letter which just came," handing him an envelope, which rustled as Perkins folded it into a small compass and thrust it into his vest pocket. "Good morning."
As Perkins slid out, Brookings spoke into his telephone, and soon Chambers, his chief chemist, appeared.
"Doctor Chambers," Brookings began, showing him the bottle, "I have here a solution which in some way is capable of liberating the intra-atomic energy of matter, about which I asked you yesterday. It works on copper. I would like to have you work out the process for us, if you will."
"What about the man who discovered the process?" asked Chambers, as he touched the bottle gingerly.
"He is not available. Surely what one chemist can do, others can? You will not have to work alone. You can hire the biggest men in the line to help you--expense is no object."
"No, it wouldn't be, if such a process could be worked out. Let me see, whom can we get? Doctor Seaton is probably the best man in the country for such a research, but I don't think that we can get him. I tried to get him to work on the iridium-osmium problem, but he refused."
"We might make an offer big enough to get him."
"No. Don't mention it to him," with a significant look. "He's to know nothing about it."
"Well, then, how about DuQuesne, who was in here yesterday? He's probably next to Seaton."
"I took it up with him yesterday. We can't get him, his figures are entirely out of reason. Aren't there any other men in the country who know anything? You are a good man, why don't you tackle it yourself?"
"Because I don't know anything about that particular line of research, and I want to keep on living awhile longer," the chemist replied bluntly. "There are other good men whom I can get, however. Van Schravendyck, of our own laboratory, is nearly as good as either Seaton or DuQuesne. He has done a lot of work on radioactivity and that sort of thing, and I think he would like to work on it."
"All right. Please get it started without delay. Give him about a quarter of the solution and have the rest put in the vault. Be sure that his laboratory is set up far enough away from everything else to avoid trouble in case of an explosion, and caution him not to work on too much copper at once. I gather that an ounce or so will be plenty."* * * *
The chemist went back to his laboratory and sought his first assistant.
"Van," he began, "Mr. Brookings has been listening to some lunatic who claims to have solved the mystery of liberating intra-atomic energy."
"That's old stuff," the assistant said, laughing. "That and perpetual motion are always with us. What did you tell him?"
"I didn't get a chance to tell him anything--he told me. Yesterday, you know, he asked me what would happen if it could be liberated, and I answered truthfully that lots of things would happen, and volunteered the information that it was impossible. Just now he called me in, gave me this bottle of solution, saying that it contained the answer to the puzzle, and wanted me to work it out. I told him that it was out of my line and that I was afraid of it--which I would be if I thought there was anything in it--but that it was more or less in your line, and he said to put you on it right away. He also said that expense was no object; to set up an independent laboratory a hundred miles off in the woods, to be safe in case of an explosion; and to caution you not to use too much copper at once--that an ounce or so would be plenty!"
"An ounce! Ten thousand tons of nitroglycerin! I'll say an ounce would be plenty, if the stuff is any good at all, which of course it isn't. Queer, isn't it, how the old man would fall for anything like that? How did he explain the failure of the discoverer to develop it himself?"
"He said the discoverer is not available," answered Chambers with a laugh. "I'll bet he isn't available--he's back in St. Elizabeth's again by this time, where he came from. I suggested that we get either Seaton or DuQuesne of Rare Metals to help us on it, and he said that they had both refused to touch it, or words to that effect. If those two turned down a chance to work on a thing as big as this would be, there probably is nothing in this particular solution that is worth a rap. But what Brookings says goes, around here, so it's you for the woods. And don't take any chances, either--it is conceivable that something might happen."
"Sure it might, but it won't. We'll set up that lab near a good trout stream, and I'll have a large and juicy vacation. I'll work on the stuff a little, too--enough to make a good report, at least. I'll analyze it, find out what is in it, deposit it on some copper, shoot an electrolytic current through it, and make a lot of wise motions generally, and have a darn good time besides."* * * *CHAPTER IIISeaton Solves the Problem of Power
"Well, Mart," said Seaton briskly, "now that the Seaton-Crane Company, Engineers, is organized to your satisfaction, let's hop to it. I suppose I'd better beat it downtown and hunt up a place to work?"
"Why not work here?"
"Your house? You don't want this kind of experimenting going on around here, do you? Suppose a chunk of the stuff gets away from me and tears the side out of the house?"
"This house is the logical place to work. I already have a complete machine shop and testing laboratory out in the hangar, and we can easily fit up a chemical laboratory for you up in the tower room. You can have open windows on four sides there, and if you should accidentally take out the wall there will be little damage done. We will be alone here, with the few neighbors so thoroughly accustomed to my mechanical experiments that they are no longer curious."
"Fine. There's another good thing, too. Your man Shiro. He's been with you in so many tight pinches in all the unknown corners of the world on your hunting trips and explorations that we can trust him, and he'll probably come in handy."
"Yes, we can trust him implicitly. As you know, he is really my friend instead of my man."
During the next few days, while workmen were installing a complete chemical laboratory in the tower room, Seaton busied himself in purchasing the equipment necessary for the peculiar problem before him. His list was long and varied, ranging from a mighty transformer, capable of delivering thousands of kilovolts down to a potentiometer, so sensitive that it would register the difference of potential set up by two men in shaking hands.
From daylight until dark Seaton worked in the laboratory, either alone or superintending and assisting the men at work there. Every night when Crane went to bed he saw Seaton in his room in a haze of smoke, poring over blueprints or, surrounded by abstruse works upon the calculus and subatomic phenomena, making interminable calculations.
Less than two miles away lived Dorothy Vaneman, who had promised to be his wife. He had seen her but once since "the impossible" had happened, since his prosaic copper steambath had taken flight under his hand and pointed the way to a great adventure. In a car his friend was to build, moved by this stupendous power which he must learn to control, they would traverse interstellar space--visit strange planets and survey strange solar systems.
While he did not forget his sweetheart--the thought of her was often in his mind, and the fact that her future was so intimately connected with his own gave to every action a new meaning--he had such a multitude of things to do and was so eager to get them all done at once that day after day went by and he could not find time to call upon her.
Crane remonstrated in vain. His protests against Seaton's incessant work had no effect. Seaton insisted that he must fix firmly just a few more points before they eluded him, and stuck doggedly to his task.
Finally, Crane laid his work aside and went to call upon the girl. He found her just leaving home, and fell into step beside her. For awhile she tried to rouse herself to be entertaining, or at least friendly, but the usual ease with which she chatted had deserted her, and her false gayety did not deceive the keen-minded Crane for an instant. Soon the two were silent as they walked along together. Crane's thoughts were on the beautiful girl beside him, and on the splendid young genius under his roof, so deeply immersed in his problem that he was insensible to everything else.
"I have just left Dick," Crane said suddenly, and paying no attention to her startled glance. "Did you ever in your life see anyone with his singleness of purpose? With all his brilliance, one idea at a time is all that he seems capable of--though that is probably why he is such a genius. He is working himself insane. Has he told you about leaving the Bureau?"
"No. Has he? Has it anything to do with what happened that day at the laboratory? I haven't seen him since the accident, or discovery, whichever it was, happened. He came to see me at half past ten, when he was invited for dinner--oh, Martin, I had been so angry!--and he told such a preposterous story, I've been wondering since if I didn't dream it."
"No, you didn't dream it, no matter how wild it sounded. He said it, and it is all true. I cannot explain it to you; Dick himself cannot explain it, even to me. But I can give you an idea of what we both think it may come to."
"Well, he has discovered something that makes copper act mighty queer--knocks it off its feet, so to speak. That day a piece went up and never did come down."
"Yes, that is what is so preposterous!"
"Just a moment, please," replied the imperturbable Crane. "You should know that nothing ordinary can account for Dick's behavior, and after what I have seen this last week I shall never again think anything preposterous. As I said, this piece of copper departed, via the window, for scenes unknown. As far as a pair of good binoculars could follow it, it held to a perfectly straight course toward those scenes. We intend to follow it in some suitable vehicle."
He paused, looking at his companion's face, but she did not speak.
"Building the conveyance is where I come in," he continued in his matter-of-fact voice. "As you know, I happen to have almost as much money as Dick has brains, and some day, before the summer is over, we expect to go somewhere. We do not know where, but it will be a long way from this earth."
There was a silence, then Dorothy said, helplessly:
"Well, go on ... I can't understand..."
"Neither can I. All I know is that Dick wants to build a heavy steel hull, and he is going to put something inside it that will take us out into space. Only occasionally do I see a little light as he tries to explain the mechanism of the thing to me."
After enjoining upon her the strictest secrecy he repeated the story that Seaton had told him, and informed her as to the present condition of affairs.
"It's no wonder the other chemists thought he was crazy, is it, Martin?"
"No, especially after the failure of his demonstration the next morning. You see, he tried to prove to the others that he was right, and nothing happened. He has found out since that an electrical machine in another room, which was not running that morning, played a very important part. When the copper refused to act as it had the night before they all took the snap judgment that he had suffered an attack of temporary insanity, and that the solution was worthless. They called him 'Nobody Holme'."
"It almost fits, at that!" exclaimed Dorothy, laughing.
"But if he thought of that," she added, thoughtfully, "if he was brilliant enough to build up such a wonderful theory ... think out such a thing as actually traveling to the stars ... all on such a slight foundation of fact ... I wonder why he couldn't have told me?"
She hadn't meant to utter the last thought. Nobody must know how being left out of it had hurt her, and she would have recalled the words if she could. Crane understood, and answered loyally.
"He will tell you all about it very soon, never fear. His is the mind of a great scientist, working on a subject of which but very few men have even an inkling. I am certain that the only reason he thought of me is that he could not finance the investigation alone. Never think for an instant that his absorption implies a lack of fondness for you. You are his anchor, his only hold on known things. In fact, it was about this that I came to see you. Dick is working himself at a rate that not even a machine can stand. He eats hardly anything, and if he sleeps at all, I have never caught him at it. That idea is driving him day and night, and if he goes on the way he is going, it means a breakdown. I do not know whether you can make him listen to reason or not--certainly no one else can. If you think you can do it, that is to be your job, and it will be the biggest one of the three."
"How well you understand him," Dorothy said, after a pause. "You make me feel ashamed, Martin. I should have known without being told. Then I wouldn't have had these nasty little doubts about him."
"I should call them perfectly natural, considering the circumstances," he answered. "Men with minds like Dick's are rare. They work on only one track. Your part will be hard. He will come to you, bursting with news and aching to tell you all about his theories and facts and calculations, and you must try to take his mind off the whole thing and make him think of something else. It looks impossible to me.
The smile had come back to Dorothy's face. Her head, graced by its wealth of gleaming auburn hair, was borne proudly, and glancing mischief lit her violet eyes.
"Didn't you just tell me nothing is impossible? You know, Martin, that I can make Dicky forget everything, even interstellar--did I get that word right?--space itself, with my violin."
"Trying to beguile a scientist from his hobby is comparable only to luring a drug addict away from his vice ... but I would not be surprised if you could do it," he slowly replied.
For he had heard her play. She and Seaton had been caught near his home by a sudden shower while on horseback, and had dashed in for shelter. While the rain beat outside and while Shiro was preparing one of his famous suppers, Crane had suggested that she pass the time by playing his "fiddle." Dorothy realized, with the first sweep of the bow, that she was playing a Stradivarius, the like of which she had played before only in her dreams. She forgot her listeners, forgot the time and the place, and poured out in her music all the beauty and tenderness of her nature. Soft and full the tones filled the room, and in Crane's vision there rose a home filled with happy work, with laughter and companionship, with playing children who turned their faces to their mother as do flowers to the light. Sensing the girl's dreams as the music filled his ears, he realized as never before in his busy, purposeful life how beautiful a home with the right woman could be. No thought of love for Dorothy entered his mind, for he knew that the love existing between her and his friend was of the kind that nothing could alter, but he felt that she had unwittingly given him a great gift. Often thereafter in his lonely hours he had imagined that dream-home, and nothing less than its perfection would ever satisfy him.
For a time they walked on in silence. On Dorothy's face was a tender look, the reflection of her happy thoughts, and in Crane's mind floated again the vision of his ideal home, the home whose central figure he was unable to visualize. At last she turned and placed her hand on his arm.
"You have done a great deal for me--for us," she said simply. "I wish there were something I could do for you in return."
"You have already done much more than that for me, Dorothy," he answered, more slowly even than usual. "It is hard for me to express just what it is, but I want you to know that you and Dick mean much to me.... You are the first real woman I have ever known, and some day, if life is good to me, I hope to have some girl as lovely care for me."
Dorothy's sensitive face flushed warmly. So unexpected and sincere was his praise that it made her feel both proud and humble. She had never realized that this quiet, apparently unimaginative man had seen all the ideals she expressed in her music. A woman expects to appear lovely to her lover, and to the men who would be her lovers if they could, but here was a man who neither sought nor expected any favors, saying that he wanted some girl as lovely for his own. Truly it was a compliment to be cherished.
After they had returned to the house and Crane had taken his departure, Dorothy heard the purr of a rapidly approaching motorcycle, and her heart leaped as she went to the door to welcome her lover.
"It seems like a month since I saw you last, sweetheart!" he exclaimed, as he lifted her clear from the floor in a passionate embrace and kissed in turn her lips, her eyes, the tip of her nose, the elusive dimple in her cheek, and the adorable curve of her neck.
"It seems longer than that to me, Dicky. I was perfectly miserable until Martin called this afternoon and explained what you have been doing."
"Yes, I met him on the way over. But honestly, Dottie, I simply couldn't get away. I wanted to, the worst way, but everything went so slow...."
"Slow? When you have a whole laboratory installed in a week? What would you call speed?"
"About two days. And then, there were a lot of little ideas that had to be nailed down before they got away from me. This is a horribly big job, Dottie, and when a fellow gets into it he can't quit. But you know that I love you just the same, even though I do appear to neglect you," he continued with fierce intensity. "I love you with everything there is in me. I love you, mind, body and spirit; love you as a man should love the one and only woman. For you are the only woman, there never was and never will be another. I love you morally, physically, intellectually, and every other way there is, for the perfect little darling that you are."
She moved in his embrace and her arms tightened about his neck.
"You are the nearest thing to absolute perfection that ever came into this imperfect world," he continued. "Just to think of a girl of your sheer beauty, your ability, your charm, your all-round perfection, being engaged to a thing like me, makes me dizzy--but I sure do love you, little girl of mine. I will love you as long as we live, and afterward, my soul will love your soul throughout eternity. You know that, sweetheart girl."
"Oh, Dick!" she whispered, her soul shaken with response to his love. "I never dreamed it possible for a woman to love as I love you. 'Whither thou goest ... '"
Her voice failed in the tempest of her emotion, and they clung together in silence.
They were finally interrupted by Dorothy's stately and gracious mother, who came in to greet Seaton and invite him to have dinner with them.
"I knew that Dot would forget such an unimportant matter," she said, with a glint of Dorothy's own mischief in her eyes.* * * *
As they went into the dining-room Dorothy was amazed to see the changes that six days had wrought in Seaton. His face looked thin, almost haggard. Fine lines had made their appearance at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth, and faint but unmistakable blue rings encircled his eyes.
"You have been working too hard, boy," she reproved him gravely.
"Oh, no," he rejoined lightly. "I'm all right, I never felt better. Why, I could whip a rattlesnake right now, and give him the first bite!"
She laughed at his reply, but the look of concern did not leave her face. As soon as they were seated at the table she turned to her father, a cleancut, gray-haired man of fifty, known as one of the shrewdest attorneys in the city.
"Daddy," she demanded, "what do you mean by being elected director in the Seaton-Crane Company and not telling me anything about it?"
"Daughter," he replied in the same tone, "what do you mean by asking such a question as that? Don't you know that it is a lawyer's business to get information, and to give it out only to paying clients? However, I can tell you all I know about the Seaton-Crane Company without adding to your store of knowledge at all. I was present at one meeting, gravely voted 'aye' once, and that is all."
"Didn't you draw up the articles of incorporation?"
"I am doing it, yes; but they don't mean anything. They merely empower the Company to do anything it wants to, the same as other large companies do." Then, after a quick but searching glance at Seaton's worn face and a warning glance at his daughter, he remarked:
"I read in the Star this evening that Enright and Stanwix will probably make the Australian Davis Cup team, and that the Hawaiian with the unpronounceable name has broken three or four more world's records. What do you think of our tennis chances this year, Dick?"
Dorothy flushed, and the conversation, steered by the lawyer into the safer channels, turned to tennis, swimming, and other sports. Seaton, whose plate was unobtrusively kept full by Mr. Vaneman, ate such a dinner as he had not eaten in weeks. After the meal was over they all went into the spacious living-room, where the men ensconced themselves in comfortable Morris chairs with long, black cigars between their teeth, and all four engaged in a spirited discussion of various topics of the day. After a time, the older couple left the room, the lawyer going into his study to work, as he always did in the evening.
"Well, Dicky, how's everything?" Dorothy asked, unthinkingly.
The result of this innocent question was astonishing. Seaton leaped to his feet. The problem, dormant for two hours, was again in complete possession of his mind.
"Rotten!" he snapped, striding back and forth and brandishing his half smoked cigar. "My head is so thick that it takes a thousand years for an idea to filter into it. I should have the whole thing clear by this time, but I haven't. There's something, some little factor, that I can't get. I've almost had it a dozen times, but it always gets away from me. I know that the force is there and I can liberate it, but I can't work out a system of control until I can understand exactly why it acts the way it does." Then, more slowly, thinking aloud rather than addressing the girl:
"The force is attraction toward all matter, generated by the vibrations of all the constituent electrons in parallel planes. It is directed along a line perpendicular to the plane of vibration at its center, and approaches infinity as the angle theta approaches the limit of Pi divided by two. Therefore, by shifting the axis of rotation or the plane of vibration thus making theta vary between the limits of zero and Pi divided by two..."
He was interrupted by Dorothy, who, mortified by her thoughtlessness in getting him started, had sprung up and seized him by the arm.
"Sit down, Dicky!" she implored. "Sit down, you're rocking the boat! Save your mathematics for Martin. Don't you know that I could never find out why 'x' was equal to 'y' or to anything else in algebra?"
She led him back to his chair, where he drew her down to a seat on the arm beside him.
"Whom do you love?" she whispered gayly in his ear.
After a time she freed herself.
"I haven't practised today. Don't you want me to play for you a little?"
"Fine business, Dottie. When you play a violin, it talks."
She took down her violin and played; first his favorites, crashing selections from operas and solos by the great masters, abounding in harmonies on two strings. Then she changed to reveries and soft, plaintive melodies. Seaton listened with profound enjoyment. Under the spell of the music he relaxed, pushed out the footrest of the chair, and lay back at ease, smoking dreamily. The cigar finished and his hands at rest, his eyes closed of themselves. The music, now a crooning lullaby, grew softer and slower, until his deep and regular breathing showed that he was sound asleep. She stopped playing and sat watching him intently, her violin in readiness to play again, if he should show the least sign of waking, but there was no such sign. Freed from the tyranny of the mighty brain which had been driving it so unmercifully, his body was making up for many hours of lost sleep.
Assured that he was really asleep, Dorothy tiptoed to her father's study and quietly went in.
"Daddy, Dick is asleep out there in the chair. What shall we do with him?"
"Good work, Dottie Dimple. I heard you playing him to sleep--you almost put me to sleep as well. I'll get a blanket and we'll put him to bed right where he is."
"Dear old Dad," she said softly, sitting on the arm of his chair and rubbing her cheek against his. "You always did understand, didn't you?"
"I try to, Kitten," he answered, pulling her ear. "Seaton is too good a man to see go to pieces when it can be prevented. That is why I signalled you to keep the talk off the company and his work. One of the best lawyers I ever knew, a real genius, went to pieces that same way. He was on a big, almost an impossible, case. He couldn't think of anything else, didn't eat or sleep much for months. He won the case, but it broke him. But he wasn't in love with a big, red-headed beauty of a girl, and so didn't have her to fiddle him to sleep.
"Well, I'll go get the blanket," he concluded, with a sudden change in his tone.
In a few moments he returned and they went into the living-room together. Seaton lay in exactly the same position, only the regular lifting of his powerful chest showing that he was alive.
"I think we had better..."
"Sh-h-h-h," interrupted the girl in an intense whisper. "You'll wake him up, Daddy."
"Bosh! You couldn't wake him up with a club. His own name might rouse him, particularly if you said it; no other ordinary sound would. I started to say that I think we had better put him to bed on the davenport. He would be more comfortable."
"But that would surely wake him. And he's so big..."
"Oh, no, it wouldn't, unless I drop him on the floor. And he doesn't weigh much over two hundred, does he?"
"About ten or eleven pounds."
"Even though I am a lawyer, and old and decrepit, I can still handle that much."
With Dorothy anxiously watching the proceeding and trying to help, Vaneman picked Seaton up out of the chair, with some effort, and carried him across the room. The sleeping man muttered as if in protest at being disturbed, but made no other sign of consciousness. The lawyer then calmly removed Seaton's shoes and collar, while the girl arranged pillows under his head and tucked the blanket around him. Vaneman bent a quizzical glance upon his daughter, under which a flaming blush spread from her throat to her hair.
"Well," she said, defiantly, "I'm going to, anyway."
"My dear, of course you are. If you didn't, I would disown you."
As her father turned away, Dorothy knelt beside her lover and pressed her lips tightly to his.
"Good night, sweetheart," she murmured.
"'Night," he muttered in his sleep, as his lips responded faintly to her caress.
Vaneman waited for his daughter, and when she appeared, the blush again suffusing her face, he put his arm around her.
"Dorothy," he said at the door of her room, using her full name, a very unusual thing for him, "the father of such a girl as you are hates to lose her, but I advise you to stick to that boy. Believe in him and trust him, no matter what happens. He is a real man."
"I know it, Dad ... thank you. I had a touch of the blues today, but I never will again. I think more of his little finger than I do of all the other men I ever knew, put together. But how do you know him so well? I know him, of course, but that's different."
"I have various ways of getting information. I know Dick Seaton better than you do--better than he knows himself. I have known all about every man who ever looked at you twice. I have been afraid once or twice that I would have to take a hand, but you saw them right, just as you see Seaton right. For some time I have been afraid of the thought of your marrying, the young men in your social set are such a hopeless lot, but I am not any more. When I hand my little girl over to her husband next October I can be really happy with you, instead of anxious for you. That's how well I know Richard Seaton.... Well, good night, daughter mine."
"Good night, Daddy dear," she replied, throwing her arms around his neck. "I have the finest Dad a girl ever had, and the finest ... boy. Good night."* * * *
It was three o'clock the following afternoon when Seaton appeared in the laboratory. His long rest had removed all the signs of overwork and he was his alert, vigorous self, but when Crane saw him and called out a cheery greeting he returned it with a sheepish smile.
"Don't say anything, Martin--I'm thinking it all, and then some. I made a regular fool of myself last night. Went to sleep in a chair and slept seventeen hours without a break. I never felt so cheap in my life."
"You were worn out, Dick, and you know it. That sleep put you on your feet again, and I hope you will have sense enough to take care of yourself after this. I warn you now, Dick, that if you start any more of that midnight work I will simply call Dorothy over here and have her take charge of you."
"That's it, Mart, rub it in. Don't you see that I am flat on my back, with all four paws in the air? But I'm going to sleep every night. I promised Dottie to go to bed not later than twelve, if I have to quit right in the middle of an idea, and I told her that I was coming out to see her every other evening and every Sunday. But here's the dope. I've got that missing factor in my theory--got it while I was eating breakfast this afternoon."
"If you had eaten and slept regularly here and kept yourself fit you would have seen it before."
"Yes, I guess that's right, too. If I miss a meal or a sleep from now on I want you to sandbag me. But never mind that. Here's the explanation. We doped out before, you know, that the force is something like magnetism, and is generated when the coil causes the electrons of this specially treated copper to vibrate in parallel planes. The knotty point was what could be the effect of a weak electric current in liberating the power. I've got it! It shifts the plane of vibration of the electrons!"
"It is impossible to shift that plane, Dick. It is fixed by physical state, just as speed is fixed by temperature."
"No, it isn't. That is, it usually is, but in this case it may be shifted. Here's the mathematical proof."
So saying, Seaton went over to the drafting table, tacked down a huge sheet of paper, and sketched rapidly, explaining as he drew. Soon the two men were engaged in a profound mathematical argument. Sheet after sheet of paper was filled with equations and calculations, and the table was covered with reference books. After two hours of intense study and hot discussion Crane's face took on a look of dawning comprehension, which changed to amazement and then to joy. For the first time in Seaton's long acquaintance with him, his habitual calm was broken.
"By George!" he cried, shaking Seaton's hand in both of his. "I think you have it! But how under the sun did you get the idea? That calculus isn't in any of the books. Where did you get it? Dick, you're a wonder!"
"I don't know how I got the idea, it merely came to me. But that Math is right--it's got to be right, no other conclusion is possible. Now, if that calc. is right, and I know it is, do you see how narrow the permissible limits of shifting are? Look at equation 236. Believe me, I sure was lucky, that day in the Bureau. It's a wonder I didn't blow up the whole works. Suppose I hadn't been working with a storage cell that gave only four amperes at two volts? That's unusually low, you know, for that kind of work."
Crane carefully studied the equation referred to and figured for a moment.
"In that case the limit would be exactly eight watts. Anything above that means instant decomposition?"
Crane whistled, a long, low whistle.
"And that bath weighed forty pounds--enough to vaporize the whole planet. Dick, it cannot be possible."
"It doesn't seem that way, but it is. It certainly makes me turn cold all over, though, to think of what might have happened. You know now why I wouldn't touch the solution again until I had this stuff worked out?"
"I certainly do. You should be even more afraid of it now. I don't mind nitroglycerin or T.N.T., but anything like that is merely a child's plaything compared to this. Perhaps we had better drop it?"
"Not in seven thousand years. The mere fact that I was so lucky at first proves that Fate intended this thing to be my oyster. However, I'll not tempt the old lady any farther. I'm going to start with one millionth of a volt, and will use a piece of copper visible only under a microscope. But there's absolutely no danger, now that we know what it is. I can make it eat out of my hand. Look at this equation here, though. That being true, it looks as though you could get the same explosive effect by taking a piece of copper which had once been partially decomposed and subjecting it to some force, say an extremely heavy current. Again under the influence of the coil, a small current would explode it, wouldn't it?"
"It looks that way, from those figures."
"Say, wouldn't that make some bullet? Unstabilize a piece of copper in that way and put it inside a rifle bullet, arranged to make a short circuit on impact. By making the piece of copper barely visible you could have the explosive effect of only a few sticks of dynamite--a piece the size of a pea would obliterate New York City. But that's a long way from our flying machine."
"Perhaps not so far as you think. When we explore new worlds it might be a good idea to have a liberal supply of such ammunition, of various weights, for emergencies."
"It might, at that. Here's another point in equation 249. Suppose the unstabilized copper were treated with a very weak current, not strong enough to explode it? A sort of borderline condition? The energy would be liberated, apparently, but in an entirely new way. Wonder what would happen? I can't see from the theory--have to work it out. And here's another somewhat similar condition, right here, that will need investigating. I've sure got a lot of experimental work ahead of me before I'll know anything. How're things going with you?"
"I have the drawings and blueprints of the ship itself done, and working sketches of the commercial powerplant. I am working now on the details, such as navigating instruments, food, water, and air supplies, special motors, and all of the hundred and one little things that must be taken into consideration. Then, as soon as you get the power under control, we will have only to sketch in the details of the powerplant and its supports before we can begin construction."
"Fine, Mart, that's great. Well, let's get busy!"