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 spent some time developing the object-compass. Crane made a number of these instruments, mounted in gymbals, so that the delicate needles were free to turn in any direction whatever. They were mounted upon jeweled bearings, but bearings made of such great strength, that Seaton protested.

"What's the use, Mart? You don't expect a watch to be treated like a stone-crusher. That needle weighs less than half a gram. Why mount it as though it weighed twenty pounds?"

"To be safe. Remember the acceleration the Lark will be capable of, and also that on some other worlds, which we hope to visit, this needle will weigh more than it does here."

"That's right, Mart, I never thought of that. Anyway, we can't be too safe to suit me."

When the compasses were done and the power through them had been adjusted to one-thousandth of a watt, the lowest they could maintain with accuracy, they focused each instrument upon one of a set of most carefully weighed glass beads, ranging in size from a pin-head up to a large marble, and had the beads taken across the country by Shiro, in order to test the sensitiveness and accuracy of the new instruments. The first test was made at a distance of one hundred miles, the last at nearly three thousand. They found, as they had expected, that from the weight of the object and the time it took the needle to come to rest after being displaced from its line by a gentle tap of the finger, they could easily calculate the distance from the compass to the object. This fact pleased Crane immensely, as it gave him a sure means of navigation in space. The only objection to its use in measuring earthly distances was its extreme delicacy, the needle focused upon the smallest bead in the lot at a distance of three thousand miles coming to rest in little more than one second.

The question of navigation solved, the two next devoted themselves to perfecting the "X-plosive bullet," as Seaton called it. From his notes and equations Seaton calculated the weight of copper necessary to exert the explosive force of one pound of nitro-glycerin, and weighed out, on the most delicate assay-balance made, various fractions and multiples of this amount of the treated copper, while Crane fitted up the bullets of automatic-pistol cartridges to receive the charges and to explode them on impact.

They placed their blueprints and working notes in the safe, as usual, taking with them only those notes dealing with the object-compass and the X-plosive bullet, upon which they were still working. No one except Shiro knew that the original tracings, from which the blue-prints had been made, and their final, classified notes were always kept in the vault. They cautioned him and the three guards to keep a close watch until they returned. Then they set out in the biplane, to try out the new weapon in a lonely place where the exploding shells could do no damage.

They found that the X-plosive came fully up to expectations. The smallest charge they had prepared, fired by Crane at a great stump a full hundred yards away from the bare, flat-topped knoll that had afforded them a landing-place, tore it bodily from the ground and reduced it to splinters, while the force of the explosion made the two men stagger.

"She sure is big medicine!" laughed Seaton. "Wonder what a real one will do?" and drawing his pistol, he inserted a cartridge carrying a much heavier charge.

"Better be careful with the big ones," cautioned Crane. "What are you going to shoot at?"

"That rock over there," pointing to a huge boulder half a mile away across the small valley. "Want to bet me a dinner I can't hit it?"

"No. You forget that I saw you win the pistol trophy of the District."

The pistol cracked, and when the bullet reached its destination the great stone was obliterated in a vast ball of flame. After a moment there was a deafening report—a crash as though the world were falling to pieces. Both men were hurled violently backward, stumbling and falling flat. Picking themselves up, they looked across the valley at the place where the boulder had stood, to see only an immense cloud of dust, which slowly blew away, revealing a huge hole in the ground. They were silent a moment, awed by the frightful power they had loosed.

"Well, Mart," Seaton broke the silence, "I'll say those one-milligram loads are plenty big enough. If that'd been something coming after us—whether any possible other-world animal, a foreign battleship, or the mythical great sea-serpent himself, it'd be a good Indian now. Yes? No?"

"Yes. When we use the heavier charges we must use long-range rifles. Have you had enough demonstration or do you want to shoot some more?"

"I've had enough, thanks. That last rock I bounced off of was no pillow, I'll tell the world. Besides, it looks as though I'd busted a leg or two off of our noble steed with my shot, and we may have to walk back home."

An examination of the plane, which had been moved many feet and almost overturned by the force of the explosion, revealed no damage that they could not repair on the spot, and dusk saw them speeding through the air toward the distant city.

In response to a summons from his chief, Perkins silently appeared in Brookings' office, without his usual complacent smile.

"Haven't you done anything yet, after all this time?" demanded the magnate. "We're getting tired of this delay."

"I can't help it, Mr. Brookings," replied the subordinate. "They've got detectives from Prescott's all over the place. Our best men have been trying ever since the day of the explosion, but can't do a thing without resorting to violence. I went out there myself and looked them over, without being seen. There isn't a man there with a record, and I haven't been able so far to get anything on any one of them that we can use as a handle."

"No, Prescott's men are hard to do anything with. But can't you...?" Brookings paused significantly.

"I was coming to that. I thought one of them might be seen, and I talked to him a little, over the phone, but I couldn't talk loud enough without consulting you. I mentioned ten, but he held out for twenty-five. Said he wouldn't consider it at all, but he wants to quit Prescott and go into business for himself."

"Go ahead on twenty-five. We want to get action," said Brookings, as he wrote an order on the cashier for twenty-five thousand dollars in small-to-medium bills. "That is cheap enough, considering what DuQuesne's rough stuff would probably cost. Report tomorrow about four, over our private phone—no, I'll come down to the café, it's safer."

The place referred to was the Perkins Café, a high-class restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, heavily patronized by the diplomatic, political, financial, and sporting circles of upper-class Washington. It was famous for its discreet waiters, and for the absolutely private rooms. Many of its patrons knew of its unique telephone service, in which each call went through such a devious system of relays that any attempt to trace it was hopeless; they knew that while "The Perkins" would not knowingly lend itself to any violation of law, it was an entirely safe and thoroughly satisfactory place in which to conduct business of the most secret and confidential character; a place from which one could enjoy personal conversation with persons to whom he wished to remain invisible and untraceable: a place which had never been known to "leak." For these reasons it was really the diplomatic and political center of the country, and over its secret wires had gone, in guarded language, messages that would have rocked the world had they gone astray. It was recognized that the place was occasionally, by its very nature, used for illegal purposes, but it was such a political, financial, and diplomatic necessity that it carried a "Hands Off" sign. It was never investigated by Congress and never raided by the police. Hundreds of telephone calls were handled daily. A man would come in, order something served in a private room, leave a name at the desk, and say that he was expecting a call. There the affair ended. The telephone operators were hand-picked, men of very short memories, carefully trained never to look at a face and never to remember a name or a number. Although the precaution was unnecessary, this shortness of memory was often encouraged by bills of various denominations.

No one except Perkins and the heads of the great World Steel Corporation knew that the urbane and polished proprietor of the café was a criminal of the blackest kind, whose liberty and life itself were dependent upon the will of the Corporation; or that the restaurant was especially planned and maintained as a blind for its underground activities; or that Perkins was holding a position which suited him exactly and which he would not have given up for wealth or glory—that of being the guiding genius who planned nefarious things for the men higher up, and saw to it that they were carried out by the men lower down. He was in constant personal touch with his superiors, but in order to avoid any chance of betrayal he never saw his subordinates personally. Not only were they entirely ignorant of his identity, but all possible means of their tracing him had been foreseen and guarded against. He called them on the telephone, but they never called him. The only possible way in which any of his subordinates could get in touch with him was by means of the wonderful wireless telephone already referred to, developed by a drug-crazed genius who had died shortly after it was perfected. It was a tiny instrument, no larger than a watch, but of practically unlimited range. The controlling central station of the few instruments in existence, from which any instrument could be cut out, changed in tune, or totally destroyed at will, was in Perkins' office safe. A man intrusted with an unusually important job would receive from an unknown source an instrument, with directions sufficient for its use. As soon as the job was done he would find, upon again attempting to use the telephone, that its interior was so hopelessly wrecked that not even the most skilled artisan could reproduce what it had once been.

At four o'clock Brookings was ushered into the private office of the master criminal, who was plainly ill at ease.

"I've got to report another failure, Mr. Brookings. It's nobody's fault, just one of those things that couldn't be helped. I handled this myself. Our man left the door unlocked and kept the others busy in another room. I had just started to work when Crane's Japanese servant, who was supposed to be asleep, appeared upon the scene. If I hadn't known something about jiu-jutsu myself, he'd have broken my neck. As it was, I barely got away, with the Jap and all three guards close behind me...."

"I'm not interested in excuses," broke in the magnate, angrily. "We'll have to turn it over to DuQuesne after all unless you get something done, and get it done quick. Can't you get to that Jap some way?"

"Certainly I can. I never yet saw the man who couldn't be reached, one way or another. I've had 'Silk' Humphreys, the best fixer in the business, working on him all day, and he'll be neutral before night. If the long green won't quiet him—and I never saw a Jap refuse it yet—a lead pipe will. Silk hasn't reported yet, but I expect to hear from him any minute now, through our man out there."

As he spoke, the almost inaudible buzzer in his pocket gave a signal.

"There he is now," said Perkins, as he took out his wireless instrument. "You might listen in and hear what he has to say."

Brookings took out his own telephone and held it to his ear.

"Hello," Perkins spoke gruffly into the tiny transmitter. "What've you got on your chest?"

"Your foot slipped on the Jap," the stranger replied. "He crabbed the game right. Slats and the big fellow put all the stuff into the box, told us to watch it until they get back tonight—they may be late—then went off in Slats' ship to test something—couldn't find out what. Silk tackled the yellow boy, and went up to fifty grand, but the Jap couldn't see him at all. Silk started to argue, and the Jap didn't do a thing but lay him out, cold. This afternoon, while the Jap was out in the grounds, three stick-up men jumped him. He bumped one of them off with his hands and the others with his gat—one of those big automatics that throw a slug like a cannon. None of us knew he had it. That's all, except that I am quitting Prescott right now. Anything else I can do for you, whoever you are?"

"No. Your job's done."

The conversation closed. Perkins pressed the switch which reduced the interior of the spy's wireless instrument to a fused mass of metal, and Brookings called DuQuesne on the telephone.

"I would like to talk to you," he said. "Shall I come there or would you rather come to my office?"

"I'll come there. They're watching this house. They have one man in front and one in back, a couple of detectaphones in my rooms here, and have coupled onto this telephone.

"Don't worry," he continued calmly as the other made an exclamation of dismay. "Talk ahead as loud as you please—they can't hear you. Do you think that those poor, ignorant flat feet can show me anything about electricity? I'd shoot a jolt along their wires that would burn their ears off if it weren't my cue to act the innocent and absorbed scientist. As it is, their instruments are all registering dense silence. I am deep in study right now, and can't be disturbed!"

"Can you get out?"

"Certainly. I have that same private entrance down beside the house wall and the same tunnel I used before. I'll see you in about fifteen minutes."

In Brookings' office, DuQuesne told of the constant surveillance over him.

"They suspect me on general principles, I think," he continued. "They are apparently trying to connect me with somebody. I don't think they suspect you at all, and they won't unless they get some better methods. I have devices fitted up to turn the lights off and on, raise and lower the windows, and even cast shadows at certain times. The housekeeper knows that when I go to my library after dinner, I have retired to study, and that it is as much as anyone's life is worth to disturb me. Also, I am well known to be firmly fixed in my habits, so it's easy to fool those detectives. Last night I went out and watched them. They hung around a couple of hours after my lights went out, then walked off together. I can dodge them any time and have all my nights free without their ever suspecting anything."

"Are you free tonight?"

"Yes. The time-switches are all set, and as long as I get back before daylight, so they can see me get up and go to work, it will be all right."

Brookings told him briefly of the failures to secure the solution and the plans, of the death of the three men sent to silence Shiro, and of all the other developments. DuQuesne listened, his face impassive.

"Well," he said as Brookings ceased. "I thought you would bull it, but not quite so badly. But there's no use whining now. I can't use my original plan of attack in force, as they are prepared and might be able to stand us off until the police could arrive."

He thought deeply for a time, then said, intensely:

"If I go into this thing, Brookings, I am in absolute command. Everything goes as I say. Understand?"

"Yes. It's up to you, now."

"All right, I think I've got it. Can you get me a Curtiss biplane in an hour, and a man about six feet tall who weighs about a hundred and sixty pounds? I want to drive the plane myself, and have the man, dressed in full leathers and hood, in the passenger's seat, shot so full of chloroform or dope that he will be completely unconscious for at least two hours."

"Easy. We can get you any kind of plane you want in an hour, and Perkins can find a man of that description who would be glad to have a dream at that price. But what's the idea?... Pardon me, I shouldn't have asked that," he added, as the saturnine chemist shot him a black look from beneath his heavy brows.

Well, within the hour, DuQuesne drove up to a private aviation field and found awaiting him a Curtiss biplane, whose attendant jumped into an automobile and sped away as he approached. He quickly donned a heavy leather suit, similar to the one Seaton always wore in the air, and drew the hood over his face. Then, after a searching look at the lean form of the unconscious man in the other seat, he was off, the plane climbing swiftly under his expert hand. He took a wide circle to the west and north.

Soon Shiro and the two guards, hearing the roar of an approaching airplane, looked out and saw what they supposed to be Crane's biplane coming down with terrific speed in an almost vertical nose-dive, as though the driver were in an extremity of haste. Flattening out just in time to avert destruction it taxied up the field almost to the house. The watchers saw a man recognizable as Seaton by his suit and his unmistakeable physique stand up and wave both arms frantically, heard him shout hoarsely "... all of you ... out here," saw him point to Crane's apparently lifeless form and slump down in his seat. All three ran out to help the unconscious aviators, but just as they reached the machine there were three silenced reports and the three men fell to the ground. DuQuesne leaped lightly out of the machine and looked narrowly at the bodies at his feet. He saw that the two detectives were dead, but found with some chagrin that the Japanese still showed faint signs of life. He half drew his pistol to finish the job, but observing that the victim was probably fatally wounded he thrust it back into its holster and went on into the house. Drawing on rubber gloves he rapidly blew the door off the safe with nitro-glycerin and took out everything it contained. He set aside a roll of blueprints, numerous notebooks, some money and other valuables, and a small vial of solution—but of the larger bottle there was no trace. He then ransacked the entire house, from cellar to attic, with no better success. So cleverly was the entrance to the vault concealed in the basement wall that he failed to discover it.

"I might have expected this of Crane," he thought, half aloud, "after all the warning that fool Brookings persisted in giving him. This is the natural result of his nonsense. The rest of the solution is probably in the safest safe-deposit vault in the United States. But I've got their plans and notes, and enough solution for the present. I'll get the rest of it when I want it—there's more than one way to kill any cat that ever lived!"

Returning to the machine, DuQuesne calmly stepped over the bodies of the detectives and the unconscious form of the dying Japanese, who was uttering an occasional groan. He started the engine and took his seat. There was an increasing roar as he opened the throttle, and soon he descended upon the field from which he had set out. He noted that there was a man in an automobile at some distance from the hangar, evidently waiting to take care of the plane and his still unconscious passenger. Rapidly resuming his ordinary clothing, he stepped into his automobile and was soon back in his own rooms, poring over the blueprints and notebooks.

Seaton and Crane both felt that something was wrong when they approached the landing field and saw that the landing-lights were not burning, as they always were kept lighted whenever the plane was abroad after dark. By the dim light of the old moon Crane made a bumpy landing and they sprang from their seats and hastened toward the house. As they neared it they heard a faint moan and turned toward the sound, Seaton whipping out his electric torch with one hand and his automatic pistol with the other. At the sight that met their eyes, however, he hastily replaced the weapon and bent over Shiro, a touch assuring him that the other two were beyond the reach of help. Silently they picked up the injured man and carried him gently into his own room, barely glancing at the wrecked safe on the way. Seaton applied first-aid treatment to the ghastly wound in Shiro's head, which both men supposed to be certainly fatal, while Crane called a noted surgeon, asking him to come at once. He then telephoned the coroner, the police, and finally Prescott, with whom he held a long conversation.

Having done all in their power for the unfortunate man, they stood at his bedside, their anger all the more terrible for the fact that it was silent. Seaton stood with every muscle tense. He was seething with rage, his face purple and his eyes almost emitting sparks, his teeth clenched until the muscles of his jaws stood out in bands and lumps. His right hand, white-knuckled, gripped the butt of his pistol, while under his left the brass rail of the bed slowly bent under the intensity of his unconscious muscular effort. Crane stood still, apparently impassive, but with his face perfectly white and with every feature stern and cold as though cut from marble. Seaton was the first to speak.

"Mart," he gritted, his voice husky with fury, "a man who would leave another man alone to die after giving him that, ain't a man—he's a thing. If Shiro dies and we can ever find out who did it I'll shoot him with the biggest explosive charge I've got. No, I won't either, that'd be too sudden. I'll take him apart with my bare hands."

"We will find him, Dick," Crane replied in a level, deadly voice entirely unlike his usual tone. "That is one thing money can do. We will get him if money, influence, and detectives can do it."

The tension was relieved by the arrival of the surgeon and his two nurses, who set to work with the machine-like rapidity and precision of their highly-specialized craft. After a few minutes, the work completed, the surgeon turned to the two men who had been watching him so intently, with a smile upon his clean-shaven face.

"Merely a scalp wound, Mr. Crane," he stated. "He should recover consciousness in an hour or so." Then, breaking in upon Seaton's exclamation, "It looks much worse than it really is. The bullet glanced off the skull instead of penetrating it, stunning him by the force the blow. There are no indications that the brain is affected in any way, and while the affected area of the scalp is large, it is a clean wound and should heal rapidly. He will probably be up and around in a couple of days, and by the time his hair grows again, he will not be able to find a scar."

As he took his leave, the police and coroner arrived. After making a thorough investigation, in which they learned what had been stolen and shrewdly deduced the manner in which the robbery had been accomplished, they departed, taking with them the bodies. They were authorized by Crane to offer a reward of one million dollars for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer. After everyone except the nurses had gone, Crane showed them the rooms they were to occupy while caring for the wounded man. As the surgeon had foretold, Shiro soon recovered consciousness. After telling his story he dropped into a deep sleep, and Seaton and Crane, after another telephonic conference with Prescott, retired for the rest of the night.