The Skylark of Space, E. E. "Doc" Smith, Amazing Stories August, September and October 1928. Note: The copyright for this magazine short fiction has expired in the United States and was not renewed, thus, The Skylark of Space now resides in the public domain.

Seaton and Crane drove the Skylark in the direction indicated by the unwavering object-compass with the greatest acceleration they could stand, each man taking a twelve-hour watch at the instrument board.

Now, indeed, did the Skylark justify the faith of her builders, and the two inventors, with an exultant certainty of their success, flew out beyond man's wildest imaginings. Had it not been for the haunting fear for Dorothy's safety, the journey would have been one of pure triumph, and even that anxiety did not prevent a profound joy in the enterprise.

"If that misguided mutt thinks he can pull off a stunt like that and get away with it, he's got another think coming," asserted Seaton, after making a reading on the other car after several days of the flight. "He went off half-cocked this time, for sure, and we've got him foul. We'd better put on some negative pretty soon hadn't we, Mart? Only a little over a hundred light-years now."

Crane nodded agreement and Seaton continued:

"It'll take as long to stop, of course, as it has taken to get out here, and if we ram them—GOOD NIGHT! Let's figure it out as nearly as we can."

They calculated their own speed, and that of the other vessel, as shown by the various readings taken, and applied just enough negative acceleration to slow the Skylark down to the speed of the other space-car when they should come up with it. They smiled at each other in recognition of the perfect working of the mechanism when the huge vessel had spun, with a sickening lurch, through a complete half-circle, the instant the power was reversed. Each knew that they were actually traveling in a direction that to them seemed "down," but with a constantly diminishing velocity, even though they seemed to be still going "up" with an increasing speed.

Until nearly the end of the calculated time the two took turns as before, but as the time of meeting drew near both men were on the alert, taking readings on the object-compass every few minutes. Finally Crane announced:

"We are almost on them, Dick. They are so close that it is almost impossible to time the needle—less than ten thousand miles."

Seaton gradually increased the retarding force until the needle showed that they were very close to the other vessel and maintaining a constant distance from it. He then shut off the power, and both men hurried to the bottom window to search for the fleeing ship with their powerful night-glasses. They looked at each other in amazement as they felt themselves falling almost directly downward, with an astounding acceleration.

"What do you make of it, Dick?" asked Crane calmly, as he brought his glasses to his eyes and stared out into the black heavens, studded with multitudes of brilliant and unfamiliar stars.

"I don't make it at all, Mart. By the feel, I should say we were falling toward something that would make our earth look like a pin-head. I remember now that I noticed that the bus was getting a little out of plumb with the bar all this last watch. I didn't pay much attention to it, as I couldn't see anything out of the way. Nothing but a sun could be big enough to raise all this disturbance, and I can't see any close enough to be afraid of, can you?"

"No, and I cannot see the Steel space-car, either. Look sharp."

"Of course," Seaton continued to argue as he peered out into the night, "it is theoretically possible that a heavenly body can exist large enough so that it could exert even this much force and still appear no larger than an ordinary star, but I don't believe it is probable. Give me three or four minutes of visual angle and I'll believe anything, but none of these stars are big enough to have any visual angle at all. Furthermore...."

"There is at least half a degree of visual angle!" broke in his friend intensely. "Just to the left of that constellation that looks so much like a question mark. It is not bright, but dark, like a very dark moon—barely perceptible."

Seaton pointed his glass eagerly in the direction indicated.

"Great Cat!" he ejaculated. "I'll say that's some moon! Wouldn't that rattle your slats? And there's DuQuesne's bus, too, on the right edge. Get it?"

As they stood up, Seaton's mood turned to one of deadly earnestness, and a grave look came over Crane's face as the seriousness of their situation dawned upon them. Trained mathematicians both, they knew instantly that that unknown world was of inconceivable mass, and that their chance of escape was none too good, even should they abandon the other craft to its fate. Seaton stared at Crane, his fists clenched and drops of perspiration standing on his forehead. Suddenly, with agony in his eyes and in his voice, he spoke.

"Mighty slim chance of getting away if we go through with it, old man.... Hate like the devil.... Have no right to ask you to throw yourself away, too."

"Enough of that, Dick. You had nothing to do with my coming: you could not have kept me away. We will see it through."

Their hands met in a fierce clasp, broken by Seaton, as he jumped to the levers with an intense:

"Well, let's get busy!"

In a few minutes they had reduced the distance until they could plainly see the other vessel, a small black circle against the faintly luminous disk. As it leaped into clear relief in the beam of his powerful searchlight, Seaton focused the great attractor upon the fugitive car and threw in the lever which released the full force of that mighty magnet, while Crane attracted the attention of the vessel's occupants by means of a momentary burst of solid machine-gun bullets, which he knew would glance harmlessly off the steel hull.

After an interminable silence, DuQuesne drew himself out of his seat. He took a long inhalation, deposited the butt of his cigarette carefully in his ash tray, and made his way to his room. He returned with three heavy fur suits provided with air helmets, two of which he handed to the girls, who were huddled in a seat with their arms around each other. These suits were the armor designed by Crane for use in exploring the vacuum and the intense cold of dead worlds. Air-tight, braced with fine steel netting, and supplied with air at normal pressure from small tanks by automatic valves, they made their wearers independent of surrounding conditions of pressure and temperature.

"The next thing to do," DuQuesne stated calmly, "is to get the copper off the outside of the ship. That is the last resort, as it robs us of our only safeguard against meteorites, but this is the time for last-resort measures. I'm going after that copper. Put these suits on, as our air will leave as soon as I open the door, and practically an absolute vacuum and equally absolute zero will come in."

As he spoke, the ship was enveloped in a blinding glare and they were thrown flat as the vessel slowed down in its terrific fall. The thought flashed across DuQuesne's mind that they had already entered the atmosphere of that monster globe and were being slowed down and set afire by its friction, but he dismissed it as quickly as it had come—the light in that case would be the green of copper, not this bluish-white. His next thought was that there had been a collision of meteors in the neighborhood, and that their retardation was due to the outer coating. While these thoughts were flickering through his mind, they heard an insistent metallic tapping, which DuQuesne recognized instantly.

"A machine-gun!" he blurted in amazement. "How in...."

"It's Dick!" screamed Dorothy, with flashing eyes. "He's found us, just as I knew he would. You couldn't beat Dick and Martin in a thousand years!"

The tension under which they had been laboring so long suddenly released, the two girls locked their arms around each other in a half-hysterical outburst of relief. Margaret's meaningless words and Dorothy's incoherent praises of her lover and Crane mingled with their racking sobs as each fought to recover self-possession.

DuQuesne had instantly mounted to the upper window. Throwing back the cover, he flashed his torch rapidly. The glare of the searchlight was snuffed out and he saw a flashing light spell out in dots and dashes:

"Can you read Morse?"

"Yes," he signalled back. "Power gone, drifting into...."

"We know it. Will you resist?"


"Have you fur pressure-suits?"


"Put them on. Shut off your outer coating. Will touch so your upper door against our lower. Open, transfer quick."

"O. K."

Hastily returning to the main compartment, he briefly informed the girls as to what had happened. All three donned the suits and stationed themselves at the upper opening. Rapidly, but with unerring precision, the two ships were brought into place and held together by the attractor. As the doors were opened, there was a screaming hiss as the air of the vessels escaped through the narrow crack between them. The passengers saw the moisture in the air turn into snow, and saw the air itself first liquefy and then freeze into a solid coating upon the metal around the orifices at the touch of the frightful cold outside—the absolute zero of interstellar space, about four hundred sixty degrees below zero in the every-day scale of temperature. The moisture of their breath condensed upon the inside of the double glasses of their helmets, rendering sight useless.

The Rescue.

DuQuesne seized her and tossed her lightly through the doorway in such a manner that she would not touch the metal, which would have frozen instantly anything coming into contact with it.

Dorothy pushed the other girl ahead of her. DuQuesne seized her and tossed her lightly through the doorway in such a manner that she would not touch the metal, which would have frozen instantly anything coming into contact with it. Seaton was waiting. Feeling a woman's slender form in his arms, he crushed her to him in a mighty embrace, and was astonished to feel movements of resistance, and to hear a strange, girlish voice cry out:

"Don't! It's me! Dorothy's next!"

Releasing her abruptly, he passed her on to Martin and turned just in time to catch his sweetheart, who, knowing that he would be there and recognizing his powerful arms at the first touch, returned his embrace with a fierce intensity which even he had never suspected that she could exert. They stood motionless, locked in each other's arms, while DuQuesne dove through the opening and snapped the door shut behind him.

The air-pressure and temperature back to normal, the cumbersome suits were hastily removed, and Seaton's lips met Dorothy's in a long, clinging caress. DuQuesne's cold, incisive voice broke the silence.

"Every second counts. I would suggest that we go somewhere."

"Just a minute!" snapped Crane. "Dick, what shall we do with this murderer?"

Seaton had forgotten DuQuesne utterly in the joy of holding his sweetheart in his arms, but at his friend's words, he faced about and his face grew stern.

"By rights, we ought to chuck him back into his own tub and let him go to the devil," he said savagely, doubling his fists and turning swiftly.

"No, no, Dick," remonstrated Dorothy, seizing his arm. "He treated us very well, and saved my life once. Anyway, you mustn't kill him."

"No, I suppose not," grudgingly assented her lover, "and I won't, either, unless he gives me at least half an excuse."

"We might iron him to a post?" suggested Crane, doubtfully.

"I think there's a better way," replied Seaton. "He may be able to work his way. His brain hits on all twelve, and he's strong as a bull. Our chance of getting back isn't a certainty, as you know." He turned to DuQuesne.

"I've heard that your word is good."

"It has never been broken."

"Will you give your word to act as one of the party, for the good of us all, if we don't iron you?"

"Yes—until we get back to the earth. Provided, of course, that I reserve the right to escape at any time between now and then if I wish to and can do so without injuring the vessel or any member of the party in any way."

"Agreed. Let's get busy—we're altogether too close to that dud there to suit me. Sit tight, everybody, we're on our way!" he cried, as he turned to the board, applied one notch of power, and shut off the attractor. The Skylark slowed down a trifle in its mad fall, the other vessel continued on its way—a helpless hulk, manned by a corpse, falling to destruction upon the bleak wastes of a desert world.

"Hold on!" said DuQuesne sharply. "Your power is the same as mine was, in proportion to your mass, isn't it?"


"Then our goose is cooked. I couldn't pull away from it with everything I had, couldn't even swing out enough to make an orbit, either hyperbolic or elliptical around it. With a reserve bar you will be able to make an orbit, but you can't get away from it."

"Thanks for the dope. That saves our wasting some effort. Our power-plant can be doubled up in emergencies, thanks to Martin's cautious old bean. We'll simply double her up and go away from here."

"There is one thing we didn't consider quite enough," said Crane, thoughtfully. "I started to faint back there before the full power of even one motor was in use. With the motor doubled, each of us will be held down by a force of many tons—we would all be helpless."

"Yes," added Dorothy, with foreboding in her eyes, "we were all unconscious on the way out, except Dr. DuQuesne."

"Well, then, Blackie and I, as the huskiest members of the party, will give her the juice until only one of us is left with his eyes open. If that isn't enough to pull us clear, we'll have to give her the whole works and let her ramble by herself after we all go out. How about it, Blackie?" unconsciously falling into the old Bureau nickname. "Do you think we can make it stop at unconsciousness with double power on?"

DuQuesne studied the two girls carefully.

"With oxygen in the helmets instead of air, we all may be able to stand it. These special cushions keep the body from flattening out, as it normally would under such a pressure. The unconsciousness is simply a suffocation caused by the lateral muscles being unable to lift the ribs—in other words, the air-pumps aren't strong enough for the added work put upon them. At least we stand a chance this way. We may live through the pressure while we are pulling away, and we certainly shall die if we don't pull away."

After a brief consultation, the men set to work with furious haste. While Crane placed extra bars in each of the motors and DuQuesne made careful observations upon the apparent size of the now plainly visible world toward which they were being drawn so irresistibly, Seaton connected the helmets with the air-and oxygen-tanks through a valve upon the board, by means of which he could change at will the oxygen content of the air they breathed. He then placed the strange girl, who seemed dazed by the frightful sensation of their never-ending fall, upon one of the seats, fitted the cumbersome helmet upon her head, strapped her carefully into place, and turned to Dorothy. In an instant they were in each other's arms. He felt her labored breathing and the wild beating of her heart, pressed so closely to his, and saw the fear of the unknown in the violet depths of her eyes, but she looked at him unflinchingly.

"Dick, sweetheart, if this is good-bye...."

He interrupted her with a kiss.

"It isn't good-bye yet, Dottie mine. This is merely a trial effort, to see what we will have to do to get away. Next time will be the time to worry."

"I'm not worried, really ... but in case ... you see ... I ... we ..."

The gray eyes softened and misted over as he pressed his cheek to hers.

"I understand, sweetheart," he whispered. "This is not good-bye, but if we don't pull through we'll go together, and that is what we both want."

As Crane and DuQuesne finished their tasks, Seaton fitted his sweetheart's helmet, placed her tenderly upon the seat, buckled the heavy restraining straps about her slender body, and donned his own helmet. He took his place at the main instrument board, DuQuesne stationing himself at the other.

"What did you read on it, Blackie?" asked Seaton.

"Two degrees, one minute, twelve seconds diameter," replied DuQuesne. "Altogether too close for comfort. How shall we apply the power? One of us must stay awake, or we'll go on as long as the bars last."

"You put on one notch, then I'll put on one. We can feel the bus jump with each notch. We'll keep it up until one of us is so far gone that he can't raise the bar—the one that raises last will have to let the ship run for thirty minutes or an hour, then cut down his power. Then the other fellow will revive and cut his off, for an observation. How's that?"

"All right."

They took their places, and Seaton felt the vessel slow down in its horrible fall as DuQuesne threw his lever into the first notch. He responded instantly by advancing his own, and notch after notch the power applied to the ship by the now doubled motor was rapidly increased. The passengers felt their suits envelope them and began to labor for breath. Seaton slowly turned the mixing valve, a little with each advance of his lever, until pure oxygen flowed through the pipes. The power levers had moved scarcely half of their range, yet minutes now intervened between each advance instead of seconds, as at the start.

As each of the two men was determined that he would make the last advance, the duel continued longer than either would have thought possible. Seaton made what he thought his final effort and waited—only to feel, after a few minutes, the upward surge telling him that DuQuesne was still able to move his lever. His brain reeled. His arm seemed paralyzed by its own enormous weight, and felt as though it, the rolling table upon which it rested, and the supporting framework were so immovably welded together that it was impossible to move it even the quarter-inch necessary to operate the ratchet-lever. He could not move his body, which was oppressed by a sickening weight. His utmost efforts to breathe forced only a little of the life-giving oxygen into his lungs, which smarted painfully at the touch of the undiluted gas, and he felt that he could not long retain consciousness under such conditions. Nevertheless, he summoned all his strength and advanced the lever one more notch. He stared at the clock-face above his head, knowing that if DuQuesne could advance his lever again he would lose consciousness and be beaten. Minute after minute went by, however, and the acceleration of the ship remained constant. Seaton, knowing that he was in sole control of the power-plant, fought to retain possession of his faculties, while the hands of the clock told off the interminable minutes.

After an eternity of time an hour had passed, and Seaton attempted to cut down his power, only to find with horror that the long strain had so weakened him that he could not reverse the ratchet. He was still able, however, to give the lever the backward jerk which disconnected the wires completely—and the safety straps creaked with the sudden stress as, half the power instantly shut off, the suddenly released springs tried to hurl five bodies against the ceiling. After a few minutes DuQuesne revived and slowly cut off his power. To the dismay of both men they were again falling!

DuQuesne hurried to the lower window to make the observation, remarking:

"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."

"Only because you're so badly bunged up. One more notch would've got my goat," replied Seaton frankly as he made his way to Dorothy's side. He noticed as he reached her, that Crane had removed his helmet and was approaching the other girl. By the time DuQuesne had finished the observation, the other passengers had completely recovered, apparently none the worse for their experience.

"Did we gain anything?" asked Seaton eagerly.

"I make it two, four, thirteen. We've lost about two minutes of arc. How much power did we have on?"

"A little over half—thirty-two points out of sixty possible."

"We were still falling pretty fast. We'll have to put on everything we've got. Since neither of us can put it on we'll have to rig up an automatic feed. It'll take time, but it's the only way."

"The automatic control is already there," put in Crane, forestalling Seaton's explanation. "The only question is whether we will live through it—and that is not really a question, since certain death is the only alternative. We must do it."

"We sure must," answered Seaton soberly.

Dorothy gravely nodded assent.

"What do you fellows think of a little plus pressure on the oxygen?" asked Seaton. "I think it would help a lot."

"I think it's a good idea," said DuQuesne, and Crane added:

"Four or five inches of water will be about all the pressure we can stand. Any more might burn our lungs too badly."

The pressure apparatus was quickly arranged and the motors filled to capacity with reserve bars—enough to last seventy-two hours—the scientists having decided that they must risk everything on one trial and put in enough, if possible, to pull them clear out of the influence of this center of attraction, as the time lost in slowing up to change bars might well mean the difference between success and failure. Where they might lie at the end of the wild dash for safety, how they were to retrace their way with their depleted supply of copper, what other dangers of dead star, planet, or sun lay in their path—all these were terrifying questions that had to be ignored.

DuQuesne was the only member of the party who actually felt any calmness, the quiet of the others expressing their courage in facing fear. Life seemed very sweet and desirable to them, the distant earth a very Paradise! Through Dorothy's mind flashed the visions she had built up during long sweet hours, visions of a long life with Seaton. As she breathed an inaudible prayer, she glanced up and saw Seaton standing beside her, gazing down upon her with his very soul in his eyes. Never would she forget the expression upon his face. Even in that crucial hour, his great love for her overshadowed every other feeling, and no thought of self was in his mind—his care was all for her. There was a long farewell caress. Both knew that it might be goodbye, but both were silent as the violet eyes and the gray looked into each other's depths and conveyed messages far beyond the power of words. Once more he adjusted her helmet and strapped her into place.

As Crane had in the meantime cared for the other girl, the men again took their places and Seaton started the motor which would automatically advance the speed levers, one notch every five seconds, until the full power of both motors was exerted. As the power was increased, he turned the valve as before, until the helmets were filled with pure oxygen under a pressure of five inches of water.

Margaret Spencer, weakened by her imprisonment, was the first to lose consciousness, and soon afterward Dorothy felt her senses leave her. A half-minute, in the course of which six mighty surges were felt, as more of the power of the doubled motor was released, and Crane had gone, calmly analyzing his sensations to the last. After a time DuQuesne also lapsed into unconsciousness, making no particular effort to avoid it, as he knew that the involuntary muscles would function quite as well without the direction of the will. Seaton, although he knew it was useless, fought to keep his senses as long as possible, counting the impulses he felt as the levers were advanced.

"Thirty-two." He felt exactly as he had before, when he had advanced the lever for the last time.

"Thirty-three." A giant hand shut off his breath completely, though he was fighting to his utmost for air. An intolerable weight rested upon his eyeballs, forcing them backward into his head. The universe whirled about him in dizzy circles—orange and black and green stars flashed before his bursting eyes.

"Thirty-four." The stars became more brilliant and of more variegated colors, and a giant pen dipped in fire was writing equations and mathematico-chemical symbols upon his quivering brain. He joined the circling universe, which he had hitherto kept away from him by main strength, and whirled about his own body, tracing a logarithmic spiral with infinite velocity—leaving his body an infinite distance behind.

"Thirty-five." The stars and the fiery pen exploded in a wild coruscation of searing, blinding light and he plunged from his spiral into a black abyss.

In spite of the terrific stress put upon the machine, every part functioned perfectly, and soon after Seaton had lost consciousness the vessel began to draw away from the sinister globe; slowly at first, faster and faster as more and more of the almost unlimited power of the mighty motor was released. Soon the levers were out to the last notch and the machine was exerting its maximum effort. One hour and an observer upon the Skylark would have seen that the apparent size of the massive unknown world was rapidly decreasing; twenty hours and it was so far away as to be invisible, though its effect was still great; forty hours and the effect was slight; sixty hours and the Skylark was out of range of the slightest measurable force of the monster it had left.

Hurtled onward by the inconceivable power of the unleashed copper demon in its center, the Skylark flew through the infinite reaches of interstellar space with an unthinkable, almost incalculable velocity—beside which the velocity of light was as that of a snail to that of a rifle bullet; a velocity augmented every second by a quantity almost double that of light itself.