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.

They descended rapidly, directly over a large and imposing city in the middle of a vast, level, beautifully-planted plain. While they were watching it, the city vanished and the plain was transformed into a heavily-timbered mountain summit, the valleys falling away upon all sides as far as the eye could reach.

"Well, I'll say that's SOME mirage!" exclaimed Seaton, rubbing his eyes in astonishment. "I've seen mirages before, but never anything like that. Wonder what this air's made of? But we'll land, anyway, if we finally have to swim!"

The ship landed gently upon the summit, the occupants half expecting to see the ground disappear before their eyes. Nothing happened, however, and they disembarked, finding walking somewhat difficult because of the great mass of the planet. Looking around, they could see no sign of life, but they felt a presence near them—a vast, invisible something.

Suddenly, out of the air in front of Seaton, a man materialized: a man identical with him in every feature and detail, even to the smudge of grease under one eye, the small wrinkles in his heavy blue serge suit, and the emblem of the American Chemical Society upon his watch-fob.

"Hello, folks," the stranger began in Seaton's characteristic careless speech. "I see you're surprised at my knowing your language. You're a very inferior race of animals—don't even understand telepathy, don't understand the luminiferous ether, or the relation between time and space. Your greatest things, such as the Skylark and your object-compass, are merely toys."

Changing instantly from Seaton's form to that of Dorothy, likewise a perfect imitation, the stranger continued without a break:

"Atoms and electrons and things, spinning and whirling in their dizzy little orbits...." It broke off abruptly, continuing in the form of DuQuesne:

"Couldn't make myself clear as Miss Vaneman—not a scientific convolution in her foolish little brain. You are a freer type, DuQuesne, unhampered by foolish, soft fancies. But you are very clumsy, although working fairly well with your poor tools—Brookings and his organization, the Perkins CafĂ© and its clumsy wireless telephones. All of you are extremely low in the scale. Such animals have not been known in our universe for ten million years, which is as far back as I can remember. You have millions of years to go before you will amount to anything; before you will even rise above death and its attendant necessity, sex."

The strange being then assumed form after form with bewildering rapidity, while the spectators stared in dumb astonishment. In rapid succession it took on the likeness of each member of the party, of the vessel itself, of the watch in Seaton's pocket—reappearing as Seaton.

"Well, bunch," it said in a matter-of-fact voice, "there's no mental exercise in you and you're such a low form of life that you're of no use on this planet; so I'll dematerialize you."

A peculiar light came into its eyes as they stared intently into Seaton's, and he felt his senses reel under the impact of an awful mental force, but he fought back with all his power and remained standing.

"What's this?" the stranger demanded in surprise, "This is the first time in history that mere matter—which is only a manifestation of mind—has ever refused to obey mind. There's a screw loose somewhere."

"I must reason this out," it continued analytically, changing instantaneously into Crane's likeness. "Ah! I am not a perfect reproduction. This is the first matter I have ever encountered that I could not reproduce perfectly. There is some subtle difference. The external form is the same, the organic structure likewise. The molecules of substance are arranged as they should be, as are also the atoms in the molecule. The electrons in the atom—ah! There is the difficulty. The arrangement and number of electrons, as well as positive charges, are entirely different from what I had supposed. I must derive the formula."

"Let's go, folks!" said Seaton hastily, drawing Dorothy back toward the Skylark. "This dematerialization stunt may be play for him, but I don't want any of it in my family."

"No, you really must stay," remonstrated the stranger. "Much as it is against my principles to employ brute force, you must stay and be properly dematerialized, alive or dead. Science demands it."

As he spoke, he started to draw his automatic pistol. Being in Crane's form, he drew slowly, as Crane did; and Seaton, with the dexterity of much sleight-of-hand work and of years of familiarity with his weapon, drew and fired in one incredibly rapid movement, before the other had withdrawn the pistol from his pocket. The X-plosive shell completely volatilized the stranger and hurled the party backward toward the Skylark, into which they fled hastily. As Crane, the last one to enter the vessel, fired his pistol and closed the massive door, Seaton leaped to the levers. As he did so, he saw a creature materialize in the air of the vessel and fall to the floor with a crash as he threw on the power. It was a frightful thing, like nothing ever before seen upon any world; with great teeth, long, sharp claws, and an automatic pistol clutched firmly in a human hand. Forced flat by the terrific acceleration of the vessel, it was unable to lift either itself or the weapon, and lay helpless.

"We take one trick, anyway!" blazed Seaton, as he threw on the power of the attractor and diffused its force into a screen over the party, so that the enemy could not materialize in the air above them and crush them by mere weight. "As pure mental force, you're entirely out of my class, but when you come down to matter, which I can understand, I'll give you a run for your money until my angles catch fire."

"That is a childish defiance. It speaks well for your courage, but ill for your intelligence," the animal said, and vanished.

A moment later Seaton's hair almost stood on end as he saw an automatic pistol appear upon the board directly in front of him, clamped to it by bands of steel. Paralyzed by this unlooked-for demonstration of the mastery of mind over matter, unable to move a muscle, he lay helpless, staring at the engine of death in front of him. Although the whole proceeding occupied only a fraction of a second, it seemed to Seaton as though he watched the weapon for hours. As the sleeve drew back, cocking the pistol and throwing a cartridge into the chamber, the trigger moved, and the hammer descended to speed on its way the bullet which was to blot out his life. There was a sharp click as the hammer fell—Seaton was surprised to find himself still alive until a voice spoke, apparently from the muzzle of the pistol, with the harsh sound of a metallic diaphragm.

"I was almost certain that it wouldn't explode," the stranger said, chattily. "You see, I haven't derived that formula yet, so I couldn't make a real explosive. I could of course, materialize beside you, under your protective screen, and crush you in a vise. I could materialize as a man of metal, able to stand up under this acceleration, and do you to death. I could even, by a sufficient expenditure of mental energy, materialize a planet around your ship and crush it. However, these crude methods are distasteful in the extreme, especially since you have already given me some slight and unexpected mental exercise. In return, I shall give you one chance for your lives. I cannot dematerialize either you or your vessel until I work out the formula for your peculiar atomic structure. If I can derive the formula before you reach the boundaries of my home-space, beyond which I cannot go, I shall let you go free. Deriving the formula will be a neat little problem. It should be fairly easy, as it involves only a simple integration in ninety-seven dimensions."

Silence ensued, and Seaton advanced his lever to the limit of his ability to retain consciousness. Almost overcome by the horror of their position, in an agony of suspense, expecting every instant to be hurled into nothingness, he battled on, with no thought of yielding, even in the face of those overwhelming mental odds.

"You can't do it, old top," he thought savagely, concentrating all the power of his highly-trained mind against the intellectual monster. "You can't dematerialize us, and you can't integrate above ninety-five dimensions to save your neck. You can't do it—you're slipping—you're all balled up right now!"

For more than an hour the silent battle raged, during which time the Skylark flew millions upon millions of miles toward Earth. Finally the stranger spoke again.

"You three win," it said abruptly. In answer to the unspoken surprise of all three men it went on: "Yes, all three of you got the same idea and Crane even forced his body to retain consciousness to fight me. Your efforts were very feeble, of course, but were enough to interrupt my calculations at a delicate stage, every time. You are a low form of life, undoubtedly, but with more mentality than I supposed at first. I could get that formula, of course, in spite of you, if I had time, but we are rapidly approaching the limits of my territory, outside of which even I could not think my way back. That is one thing in which your mechanical devices are superior to anything my own race developed before we became pure intellectuals. They point the way back to your Earth, which is so far away that even my mentality cannot grasp the meaning of the distance. I can understand the Earth, can visualize it from your minds, but I cannot project myself any nearer to it than we are at present. Before I leave you, I will say that you have conferred a real favor upon me—you have given me something to think about for thousands of cycles to come. Good-bye."

Assured that their visitor had really gone, Seaton reduced the power to that of gravity and Dorothy soon sat up, Margaret reviving more slowly.

"Dick," said Dorothy solemnly, "did that happen or have I been unconscious and just had a nightmare?"

"It happened, all right," returned her lover, wiping his brow in relief. "See that pistol clamped upon the top of the board? That's a token in remembrance of him."

Dorothy, though she had been only half conscious, had heard the words of the stranger. As she looked at the faces of the men, white and drawn with the mental struggle, she realized what they had gone through, and she drew Seaton down into one of the seats, stroking his hair tenderly.

Margaret went to her room immediately, and as she did not return, Dorothy followed. She came back presently with a look of concern upon her face.

"This life is a little hard on Peggy. I didn't realize how much harder for her it would be than it is for me until I went in there and found her crying. It is much harder for her, of course, since I am with you, Dick, and with you, Martin, whom I know so well. She must feel terribly alone."

"Why should she?" demanded Seaton. "We think she's some game little guy. Why, she's one of the bunch! She must know that!"

"Well, it isn't the same," insisted Dorothy. "You be extra nice to her, Dick. But don't you dare let her know I told you about the tears, or she'd eat me alive!"

Crane said nothing—a not unusual occurrence—but his face grew thoughtful and his manner, when Margaret appeared at mealtime, was more solicitous than usual and more than brotherly in its tenderness.

"I shall be an interstellar diplomat," Dorothy whispered to Seaton as soon as they were alone. "Wasn't that a beautiful bee I put upon Martin?"

Seaton stared at her a moment, then shook her gently before he took her into his arms.

The information, however, did not prevent him from calling to Crane a few minutes later, even though he was still deep in conversation with Margaret. Dorothy gave him an exasperated glance and walked away.

"I sure pulled a boner that time," Seaton muttered as he plucked at his hair ruefully. "It nearly did us.

"Let's test this stuff out and see if it's X, Mart, while DuQuesne's out of the way. If it is X, it's SOME find!"

Seaton cut off a bit of metal with his knife, hammered it into a small piece of copper, and threw the copper into the power-chamber, out of contact with the plating. As the metal received the current the vessel started slightly.

"It is X! Mart, we've got enough of this stuff to supply three worlds!"

"Better put it away somewhere," suggested Crane, and after the metal had been removed to Seaton's cabin, the two men again sought a landing-place. Almost in their line of flight they saw a close cluster of stars, each emitting a peculiar greenish light which, in the spectroscope, revealed a blaze of copper lines.

"That's our meat, Martin. We ought to be able to grab some copper in that system, where there's so much of it that it colors their sunlight."

"The copper is undoubtedly there, but it might be too dangerous to get so close to so many suns. We may have trouble getting away."

"Well, our copper's getting horribly low. We've got to find some pretty quick, somewhere, or else walk back home, and there's our best chance. We'll feel our way along. If it gets too strong, we'll beat it."

When they had approached so close that the suns were great stars widely spaced in the heavens, Crane relinquished the controls to Seaton.

"If you will take the lever awhile, Dick, Margaret and I will go downstairs and see if we can locate a planet."

After a glance through the telescope, Crane knew that they were still too far from the group of suns to place any planet with certainty, and began taking notes. His mind was not upon his work, however, but was completely filled with thoughts of the girl at his side. The intervals between his comments became longer and longer until they were standing in silence, both staring with unseeing eyes out into the trackless void. But it was in no sense their usual companionable silence. Crane was fighting back the words he longed to say. This lovely girl was not here of her own accord—she had been torn forcibly from her home and from her friends, and he would not, could not, make her already difficult position even more unpleasant by forcing his attentions upon her. Margaret sensed something unusual and significant in his attitude and held herself tense, her heart beating wildly.

At that moment an asteroid came within range of the Skylark's watchful repeller, and at the lurch of the vessel, as it swung around the obstruction, Margaret would have fallen had not Crane instinctively caught her with one arm. Ordinarily this bit of courtesy would have gone unnoticed by both, as it had happened many times before, but in that heavily-charged atmosphere it took on a new significance. Both blushed hotly, and as their eyes met each saw that which held them spellbound. Slowly, almost as if without volition, Crane put his other arm around her. A wave of deeper crimson swept over her face and she bent her handsome head as her slender body yielded to his arms with no effort to free itself. Finally Crane spoke, his usually even voice faltering.

"Margaret, I hope you will not think this unfair of me ... but we have been through so much together that I feel as though we had known each other forever. Until we went through this last experience I had intended to wait—but why should we wait? Life is not lived in years alone, and you know how much I love you, my dearest!" he finished, passionately.

Her arms crept up around his neck, her bowed head lifted, and her eyes looked deep into his as she whispered her answer:

"I think I do ... Oh, Martin!"

Presently they made their way back to the engine-room, keeping the singing joy in their hearts inaudible and the kisses fresh upon their lips invisible. They might have kept their secret for a time, had not Seaton promptly asked:

"Well, what did you find, Mart?"

A panicky look appeared upon Crane's self-possessed countenance and Margaret's fair face glowed like a peony.

"Yes, what did you find?" demanded Dorothy, as she noticed their confusion.

"My future wife," Crane answered steadily.

The two girls rushed into each other's arms and the two men silently gripped hands in a clasp of steel; for each of the four knew that these two unions were not passing fancies, lightly entered into and as lightly cast aside, but were true partnerships which would endure throughout the entire span of life.

A planet was located and the Skylark flew toward it. Discovering that it was apparently situated in the center of the cluster of suns, they hesitated; but finding that there was no dangerous force present, they kept on. As they drew nearer, so that the planet appeared as a very small moon, they saw that the Skylark was in a blaze of green light, and looking out of the windows, Crane counted seventeen great suns, scattered in all directions in the sky! Slowing down abruptly as the planet was approached, Seaton dropped the vessel slowly through the atmosphere, while Crane and DuQuesne tested and analyzed it.

"Pressure, thirty pounds per square inch. Surface gravity as compared to that of the Earth, two-fifths. Air-pressure about double that of the Earth, while a five-pound weight weighs only two pounds. A peculiar combination," reported Crane, and DuQuesne added:

"Analysis about the same as our air except for two and three-tenths per cent of a gas that isn't poisonous and which has a peculiar, fragrant odor. I can't analyze it and think it probably an element unknown upon Earth, or at least very rare."

"It would have to be rare if you don't know what it is," acknowledged Seaton, locking the Skylark in place and going over to smell the strange gas.

Deciding that the air was satisfactory, the pressure inside the vessel was slowly raised to the value of that outside and two doors were opened, to allow the new atmosphere free circulation.

Seaton shut off the power actuating the repeller and let the vessel settle slowly toward the ocean which was directly beneath them—an ocean of a deep, intense, wondrously beautiful blue, which the scientists studied with interest. Arrived at the surface, Seaton moistened a rod in a wave, and tasted it cautiously, then uttered a yell of joy—a yell broken off abruptly as he heard the sound of his own voice. Both girls started as the vibrations set up in the dense air smote upon their eardrums. Seaton moderated his voice and continued:

"I forgot about the air-pressure. But hurrah for this ocean—it's ammoniacal copper sulphate solution! We can sure get all the copper we want, right here, but it would take weeks to evaporate the water and recover the metal. We can probably get it easier ashore. Let's go!"

They started off just above the surface of the ocean toward the nearest continent, which they had observed from the air.