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.

DuQuesne was in his laboratory, poring over an abstruse article in a foreign journal of science, when Scott came breezily in with a newspaper in his hand, across the front page of which stretched great headlines.

"Hello, Blackie!" he called. "Come down to earth and listen to this tale of mystery from that world-renowned fount of exactitude and authority, the Washington Clarion. Some miscreant has piled up and touched off a few thousand tons of T.N.T. and picric acid up in the hills. Read about it, it's good."

DuQuesne read:


Mountain Village Wiped Out of Existence!
Two Hundred Dead, None Injured!

Force Felt All Over World. Cause Unknown.
Scientists Baffled.

Harper's Ferry. March 26.—At 10: 23 A.M. today, the village of Bankerville, about thirty miles north of this place, was totally destroyed by an explosion of such terrific violence that seismographs all over the world recorded the shock, and that windows were shattered even in this city. A thick pall of dust and smoke was observed in the sky and parties set out immediately. They found, instead of the little mountain village, nothing except an immense, crater-like hole in the ground, some two miles in diameter and variously estimated at from two to three thousand feet deep. No survivors have been found, no bodies have been recovered. The entire village, with its two hundred inhabitants, has been wiped out of existence. Not so much as a splinter of wood or a fragment of brick from any of the houses can be found. Scientists are unable to account for the terrific force of the explosion, which far exceeded that of the most violent explosive known.

"Hm ... m. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it?" asked DuQuesne, sarcastically, as he finished reading.

"It sure does," replied Scott, grinning. "What'd'you suppose it was? Think the reporter heard a tire blow out on Pennsylvania Avenue?"

"Perhaps. Nothing to it, anyway," as he turned back to his work.

As soon as the visitor had gone a sneering smile spread over DuQuesne's face and he picked up his telephone.

"The food did it. That will cure him of sucking eggs!" he muttered. "Operator? DuQuesne speaking. I am expecting a call this afternoon. Please ask him to call me at my house.... Thank you."

"Fred," he called to his helper, "if anyone wants me, tell them that I have gone home."

He left the building and stepped into his car. In less than half an hour he arrived at his house on Park Road, overlooking beautiful Rock Creek Park. Here he lived alone save for an old colored couple who were his servants.

In the busiest part of the afternoon Chambers rushed unannounced into Brookings' private office. His face was white as chalk.

"Read that, Mr. Brookings!" he gasped, thrusting the Clarion extra into his hand.

Brookings read the news of the explosion, then looked at his chief chemist, his face turning gray.

"Yes, sir, that was our laboratory," said Chambers, dully.

"The fool! Didn't you tell him to work with small quantities?"

"I did. He said not to worry, that he was taking no chances, that he would never have more than a gram of copper on hand at once in the whole laboratory."

"Well ... I'll ... be ... damned!" Slowly turning to the telephone, Brookings called a number and asked for Doctor DuQuesne, then called another.

"Brookings speaking. I would like to see you this afternoon. Will you be at home?... I'll be there in about an hour. Good bye."

When Brookings arrived he was shown into DuQuesne's study. The two men shook hands perfunctorily and sat down, the scientist waiting for the other to speak.

"Well, DuQuesne, you were right. Our man couldn't handle it. But of course you didn't mean the terms you mentioned before?"

DuQuesne's lips smiled; a hard, cold smile.

"You know what I said, Brookings. Those terms are now doubled, twenty thousand and ten million. Nothing else goes."

"I expected it, since you never back down. The Corporation expects to pay for its mistakes. We accept your terms and I have contracts here for your services as research director, at a salary of two hundred and forty thousand dollars per annum, with the bonus and royalties you demand."

DuQuesne glanced over the documents and thrust them into his pocket.

"I'll go over these with my attorney to-night, and mail one back to you if he approves the contract. In the meantime, we may as well get down to business."

"What would you suggest?" asked Brookings.

"You people stole the solution, I see...."

"Don't use such harsh language, Doctor, it's...."

"Why not? I'm for direct action, first, last and all the time. This thing is too important to permit of mincing words or actions, it's a waste of time. Have you the solution here?"

"Yes, here it is," drawing the bottle from his pocket.

"Where's the rest of it?" asked DuQuesne as he noted the size of the bottle.

"All that we found is here, except about a teaspoonful which the expert had to work on," replied Brookings. "We didn't get it all, only half of it. The rest of it was diluted with water, so that it wouldn't be missed. After we get started, if you find it works out satisfactorily, we can procure the rest of it. That will certainly cause a disturbance, but it may be necessary...."

"Half of it!" interrupted DuQuesne. "You haven't one-twentieth of it here. When I saw it in the Bureau, Seaton had about five hundred milliliters—over a pint—of it. I wonder if you're double-crossing me again?"

"No, you're not," he continued, paying no attention to the other's protestations of innocence. "You're paying me too much to want to block me now. The crook you sent out to get the stuff turned in only this much. Do you suppose he is holding out on us?"

"No. You know Perkins and his methods."

"He missed the main bottle, then. That's where your methods make me tired. When I want anything done, I believe in doing it myself, then I know it's done right. As to what I suggest, that's easy. I will take three or four of Perkins' gunmen tonight. We'll go out there and raid the place. We'll shoot Seaton and anybody else who gets in the way. We'll dynamite the safe and take their solution, plans, notes, money, and anything else we want."

"No, no, Doctor, that's too crude altogether. If we have to do that, let it be only as a last resort."

"I say do it first, then we know we will get results. I tell you I'm afraid of pussyfooting and gumshoeing around Seaton and Crane. I used to think that Seaton was easy, but he seems to have developed greatly in the last few weeks, and Crane never was anybody's fool. Together they make a combination hard to beat. Brute force, applied without warning, is our best bet, and there's no danger, you know that. We've got away clean with lots worse stuff."

"It's always dangerous, and we could wink at such tactics only after everything else has failed. Why not work it out from this solution we have, and then quietly get the rest of it? After we have it worked out, Seaton might get into an accident on his motorcycle, and we could prove by the state of development of our plans that we discovered it long ago."

"Because developing the stuff is highly dangerous, as you have found out. Even Seaton wouldn't have been alive now if he hadn't had a lot of luck at the start. Then, too, it would take too much time. Seaton has already developed it—you see, I haven't been asleep and I know what he has done, just as well as you do—and why should we go through all that slow and dangerous experimental work when we can get their notes and plans as well as not? There is bound to be trouble anyway when we steal all their solution, even though they haven't missed this little bit of it yet, and it might as well come now as any other time. The Corporation is amply protected, and I am still a Government chemist. Nobody even suspects that I am in on this deal. I will never see you except after hours and in private, and will never come near your offices. We will be so cautious that, even if anyone should get suspicious, they can't possibly link us together, and until they do link us together, we are all safe. No, Brookings, a raid in force is the only sure and safe way. What is more natural than a burglary of a rich man's house? It will be a simple affair. The police will stir around for a few days, then it will all be forgotten and we can go ahead. Nobody will suspect anything except Crane, if he is alive, and he won't be able to do anything."

So the argument raged. Brookings was convinced that DuQuesne was right in wanting to get possession of all the solution, and also of the working notes and plans, but would not agree to the means suggested, holding out for quieter and more devious, but less actionable methods. Finally he ended the argument with a flat refusal to countenance the raid, and the scientist was forced to yield, although he declared that they would have to use his methods in the end, and that it would save time, money, and perhaps lives, if they were used first. Brookings then took from his pocket his wireless and called Perkins. He told him of the larger bottle of solution, instructing him to secure it and to bring back all plans, notes, and other material he could find which in any way pertained to the matter in hand. Then, after promising DuQuesne to keep him informed of developments, and giving him an instrument similar to the one he himself carried, Brookings took his leave.

Seaton had worked from early morning until late at night, but had rigorously kept his promise to Dorothy. He had slept seven or eight hours every night and had called upon her regularly, returning from the visits with ever-keener zest for his work.

Late in the afternoon, upon the day of the explosion, Seaton stepped into Crane's shop with a mass of notes in his hand.

"Well, Mart, I've got it—some of it, at least. The power is just what we figured it, so immensely large as to be beyond belief. I have found:

"First: That it is a practically irresistible pull along the axis of the treated wire or bar. It is apparently focused at infinity, as near-by objects are not affected.

"Second: I have studied two of the border-line regions of current we discussed. I have found that in one the power is liberated as a similar attractive force but is focused upon the first object in line with the axis of the bar. As long as the current is applied it remains focused upon that object, no matter what comes between. In the second border-line condition the power is liberated as a terrific repulsion.

"Third: That the copper is completely transformed into available energy, there being no heat whatever liberated.

"Fourth: Most important of all, that the X acts only as a catalyst for the copper and is not itself consumed, so that an infinitesimally thin coating is all that is required."

"You certainly have found out a great deal about it," replied Crane, who had been listening with the closest attention, a look of admiration upon his face. "You have all the essential facts right there. Now we can go ahead and put in the details which will finish up the plans completely. Also, one of those points solves my hardest problem, that of getting back to the earth after we lose sight of it. We can make a small bar in that border-line condition and focus it upon the earth, and we can use that repulsive property to ward off any meteorites which may come too close to us."

"That's right. I never thought of using those points for anything. I found them out incidentally, and merely mentioned them as interesting facts. I have a model of the main bar built, though, that will lift me into the air and pull me all around. Want to see it work?"

"I certainly do."

As they were going out to the landing field Shiro called to them and they turned back to the house, learning that Dorothy and her father had just arrived.

"Hello, boys!" Dorothy said, bestowing her radiant smile upon them both as Seaton seized her hand. "Dad and I came out to see that you were taking care of yourselves, and to see what you are doing. Are visitors allowed?"

"No," replied Seaton promptly. "All visitors are barred. Members of the firm and members of the family, however, are not classed as visitors."

"You came at the right time," said Crane, smiling. "Dick has just finished a model, and was about to demonstrate it to me when you arrived. Come with us and watch the...."

"I object," interrupted Seaton. "It is a highly undignified performance as yet, and...."

"Objection overruled," interposed the lawyer, decisively. "You are too young and impetuous to have any dignity; therefore, any performance not undignified would be impossible, a priori. The demonstration will proceed."

Laughing merrily, the four made their way to the testing shed, in front of which Seaton donned a heavy leather harness, buckled about his shoulders, body and legs; to which were attached numerous handles, switches, boxes and other pieces of apparatus. He snapped the switch which started the Tesla coil in the shed and pressed a button on an instrument in his hand, attached to his harness by a small steel cable. Instantly there was a creak of straining leather and he shot vertically into the air for perhaps a hundred feet, where he stopped and remained motionless for a few moments. Then the watchers saw him point his arm and dart in the direction in which he pointed. By merely pointing, apparently, he changed his direction at will; going up and down, forward and backward, describing circles and loops and figures of eight. After a few minutes of this display he descended, slowing up abruptly as he neared the ground and making an easy landing.

"There, oh beauteous lady and esteemed sirs," he began, with a low bow and a sweeping flourish—when there was a snap, and he was jerked sidewise off his feet. In bowing, his cumbersome harness had pressed the controlling switch and the instrument he held in his hand, which contained the power-plant, or bar, had torn itself loose from its buckle. Instead of being within easy reach of his hand it was over six feet away, and was dragging him helplessly after it, straight toward the high stone wall! But only momentarily was he helpless, his keen mind discovering a way out of the predicament even as he managed to scramble to his feet in spite of the rapid pace. Throwing his body sidewise and reaching out his long arm as far as possible toward the bar, he succeeded in swinging it around so that he was running back toward the party and the spacious landing field. Dorothy and her father were standing motionless, staring at Seaton; the former with terror in her eyes, the latter in blank amazement. Crane had darted to the switch controlling the coil, and was reaching for it when Seaton passed them.

"Don't touch that switch!" he yelled. "I'll catch that thing yet!"

At this evidence that Seaton still thought himself master of the situation, Crane began to laugh, though he still kept his hand near the controlling switch. Dorothy, relieved of her fear for her lover's safety, could not help but join him, so ludicrous were Seaton's antics. The bar was straight out in front of him, about five feet above the ground, going somewhat faster than a man could run. It turned now to the right, now to the left, as his weight was thrown to one side or the other. Seaton, dragged along like a small boy trying to hold a runaway calf by the tail, was covering the ground in prodigious leaps and bounds; at the same time pulling himself up, hand over hand, to the bar in front of him. He soon reached it, seized it in both hands, again darted into the air, and descended lightly near the others, who were rocking with laughter.

"I said it would be undignified," chuckled Seaton, rather short of breath, "but I didn't know just how much so it was going to be."

Dorothy tucked her fingers into his hand.

"Are you hurt anywhere, Dick?"

"Not a bit. He led me a great chase, though."

"I was scared to death until you told Martin to let the switch alone. But it was funny then! I hadn't noticed your resemblance to a jumping-jack before. Won't you do it again sometime and let us take a movie of it?"

"That was as good as any show in town, Dick," said the lawyer, wiping his eyes, "but you must be more careful. Next time, it might not be funny at all."

"There will be no next time for this rig," replied Seaton. "This is merely to show us that our ideas are all right. The next trip will be in a full-scale, completely-equipped boat."

"It was perfectly wonderful," declared Dorothy. "I know this first flight of yours will be a turning-point or something in history. I don't pretend to understand how you did it—the sight of you standing still up there in the air made me wonder if I really were awake, even though I knew what to expect—but we wouldn't have missed it for worlds, would we, Dad?"

"No. I am very glad that we saw the first demonstration. The world has never before seen anything like it, and you two men will rank as two of the greatest discoverers."

"Seaton will, you mean," replied Crane, uncomfortably. "You know I didn't have anything to do with it."

"It's nearly all yours," denied Seaton. "Without your ideas I would have lost myself in space in my first attempt."

"You are both wrong," said Vaneman. "You, Martin, haven't enough imagination; and you, Dick, have altogether too much, for either of you to have done this alone. The honor will be divided equally between you."

He turned to Crane as Dorothy and Seaton set out toward the house.

"What are you going to do with it, commercially? Dick, of course, hasn't thought of anything except this space-car—equally of course, you have?"

"Yes. Knowing the general nature of the power and confident that Dick would control it, I have already drawn up sketches for a power-plant installation of five hundred thousand electrical horsepower, which will enable us to sell power for less than one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour and still return twenty percent annual dividends. However, the power-plant comes after the flyer."

"Why? Why not build the power-plant first, and take the pleasure trip afterward?"

"There are several reasons. The principal one is that Dick and I would rather be off exploring new worlds, while the other members of the Seaton-Crane Company, Engineers, build the power-plant."

During the talk the men had reached the house, into which the others had disappeared some time before. Upon Crane's invitation, Vaneman and his daughter stayed to dinner, and Dorothy played for awhile upon Crane's wonderful violin. The rest of the evening was spent in animated discussion of the realization of Seaton's dreams of flying without wings and beyond the supporting atmosphere. Seaton and Crane did their best to explain to the non-technical visitors how such flight was possible.

"Well, I am beginning to understand it a little," said Dorothy finally. "In plain language, it is like a big magnet or something, but different. Is that it?"

"That's it exactly," Seaton assured her.

"What are you going to call it? It isn't like anything else that ever was. Already this evening you have called it a bus, a boat, a kite, a star-hound, a wagon, an aerial flivver, a sky-chariot, a space-eating wampus, and I don't know what else. Even Martin has called it a vehicle, a ship, a bird, and a shell. What is its real name?"

"I don't know. It hasn't got any that I know of. What would you suggest, Dottie?"

"I don't know what general name should be applied to them, but for this one there is only one possible name, 'The Skylark.'"

"Exactly right, Dorothy," said Crane.

"Fine!" cried Seaton. "And you shall christen it, Dottie, with a big Florence flask full of absolute vacuum. 'I christen you "The Skylark." BANG!'"

As the guests were leaving, at a late hour, Vaneman said:

"Oh, yes. I bought an extra Clarion as we came out. It tells a wild tale of an explosion so violent that science cannot explain it. I don't suppose it is true, but it may make interesting reading for you two scientific sharps. Good night."

Seaton accompanied Dorothy to the car, bidding her a more intimate farewell on the way. When he returned, Crane, with an unusual expression of concern on his face, handed him the paper without a word.

"What's up, old man? Something in it?" he asked, as he took the paper. He fell silent as he read the first words, and after he had read the entire article he said slowly:

"True, beyond a doubt. Even a Clarion reporter couldn't imagine that. It's all intra-atomic energy, all right—some poor devil trying our stunt without my horseshoe in his pocket."

"Think, Dick! Something is wrong somewhere. You know that two people did not discover X at the same time. The answer is that somebody stole your idea, but the idea is worthless without the X. You say that the stuff is extremely rare—where did they get it?"

"That's right, Mart. I never thought of that. The stuff is extremely rare. I am supposed to know something about rare metals, and I never heard of it before—there isn't even a gap in the Periodic System in which it belongs. I would bet a hat that we have every milligram known to the world at present."

"Well, then," said the practical Crane. "We had better see whether or not we have all we started with."

Asking Shiro to bring the large bottle from the vault, he opened the living-room safe and brought forth the small vial. The large bottle was still nearly full, the seal upon it unbroken. The vial was apparently exactly as Seaton had left it after he had made his bars.

"Our stuff seems to be all there," said Crane. "It looks as though someone else has discovered it also."

"I don't believe it," said Seaton, their positions now reversed. "It's altogether too rare."

He scanned both bottles narrowly.

"I can tell by taking the densities," he added, and ran up to the laboratory, returning with a Westphal balance in his hand. After testing both solutions he said slowly:

"Well, the mystery is solved. The large bottle has a specific gravity of 1.80, as it had when I prepared it; that in the vial reads only 1.41. Somebody has burglarized this safe and taken almost half of the solution, filling the vial up with colored water. The stuff is so strong that I probably never would have noticed the difference."

"But who could it have been?"

"Search me! But it's nothing to worry about now, anyway, because whoever it was is gone where he'll never do it again. He's taken the solution with him, too, so that nobody else can get it."

"I wish I were sure of that, Dick. The man who tried to do the research work is undoubtedly gone—but who is back of him?"

"Nobody, probably. Who would want to be?"

"To borrow your own phrase, Dick, Scott 'chirped it' when he called you 'Nobody Holme.' For a man with your brains you have the least sense of anybody I know. You know that this thing is worth, as a power project alone, thousands of millions of dollars, and that there are dozens of big concerns who would cheerfully put us both out of the way for a thousandth of that amount. The question is not to find one concern who might be backing a thing like that, but to pick out the one who is backing it."

After thinking deeply for a few moments he went on:

"The idea was taken from your demonstration in the Bureau, either by an eye-witness or by someone who heard about it afterward, probably the former. Even though it failed, one man saw the possibilities. Who was that man? Who was there?"

"Oh, a lot of the fellows were there. Scott, Smith, Penfield, DuQuesne, Roberts—quite a bunch of them. Let's see—Scott hasn't brains enough to do anything. Smith doesn't know anything about anything except amines. Penfield is a pure scientist, who wouldn't even quote an authority without asking permission. DuQuesne is ... hm-m ... DuQuesne ... he ... I...."

"Yes. DuQuesne. I have heard of him. He's the big black fellow, about your own size? He has the brains, the ability, and the inclination, has he not?"

"Well, I wouldn't want to say that. I don't know him very well, and personal dislike is no ground at all for suspicion, you know."

"Enough to warrant investigation. Is there anyone else who might have reasoned it out as you did, and as DuQuesne possibly could?"

"Not that I remember. But we can count DuQuesne out, anyway, because he called me up this afternoon about some notes on gallium; so he is still in the Bureau. Besides, he wouldn't let anybody else investigate it if he got it. He would do it himself, and I don't think he would have blown himself up. I never did like him very well personally—he's such a cold, inhuman son of a fish—but you've got to hand it to him for ability. He's probably the best man in the world today on that kind of thing."

"No, I do not think that we will count him out yet. He may have had nothing to do with it, but we will have him investigated nevertheless, and will guard against future visitors here."

Turning to the telephone, he called the private number of a well-known detective.

"Prescott? Crane speaking. Sorry to get you out of bed, but I should like to have a complete report upon Dr. Marc C. DuQuesne, of the Rare Metals Laboratory, as soon as possible. Every detail for the last two weeks, every move and every thought if possible. Please keep a good man on him until further notice.... I wish you would send two or three guards out here right away, to-night; men you can trust and who will stay awake.... Thanks. Good night."