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.

The great steel forgings which were to form the framework of the Skylark finally arrived and were hauled into the testing shed. There, behind closed doors, Crane inspected every square inch of the massive members with a lens, but could find nothing wrong. Still unsatisfied, he fitted up an electrical testing apparatus in order to search out flaws which might be hidden beneath the surface. This device revealed flaws in every piece, and after thoroughly testing each one and mapping out the imperfections he turned to Seaton with a grave face.

"Worse than useless, every one of them. They are barely strong enough to stand shipment. They figured that we would go slowly until we were well out of the atmosphere, then put on power—then something would give way and we would never come back."

"That's about the right dope, I guess. But now what'll we do? We can't cancel without letting them know we're onto them, and we certainly can't use this stuff."

"No, but we will go ahead and build this ship, anyway, so that they will think that we are going ahead with it. At the same time we will build another one, about four times this size, in absolute secrecy, and...."

"What d'you mean, absolute secrecy? How can you keep steel castings and forgings of that size secret from Steel?"

"I know a chap who owns and operates a small steel plant, so insignificant, relatively, that he has not yet been bought out or frozen out by Steel. I was able to do him a small favor once, and I am sure that he will be glad to return it. We will not be able to oversee the work, that is a drawback. We can get MacDougall to do it for us, however, and with him doing the work we can rest assured that there will be nothing off color. Even Steel couldn't buy him."

"MacDougall! The man who installed the Intercontinental plant? He wouldn't touch a little job like this with a pole!"

"I think he would. He and I are rather friendly, and after I tell him all about it he will be glad to take it. It means building the first interplanetary vessel, you know."

"Wouldn't Steel follow him up if he should go to work on a mysterious project? He's too big to hide."

"No. He will go camping—he often does. I have gone with him several times when we were completely out of touch with civilization for two months at a time. Now, about the ship we want. Have you any ideas?"

"It will cost more than our entire capital."

"That is easily arranged. We do not care how much it costs."

Seaton began to object to drawing so heavily upon the resources of his friend, but was promptly silenced.

"I told you when we started," Crane said flatly, "that your solution and your idea are worth far more than half a million. In fact, they are worth more than everything I have. No more talk of the money end of it, Dick."

"All right. We'll build a regular go-getter. Four times the size—she'll be a bear-cat, Mart. I'm glad this one is on the fritz. She'll carry a two-hundred-pound bar—Zowie! Watch our smoke! And say, why wouldn't it be a good idea to build an attractor—a thing like an object-compass, but mounting a ten-pound bar instead of a needle, so that if they chase us in space we can reach out and grab 'em? We might mount a machine-gun in each quadrant, shooting X-plosive bullets, through pressure gaskets in the walls. We should have something for defense—I don't like the possibility of having that gang of pirates after us, and nothing to fight back with except thought-waves."

"Right. We will do both those things. But we should make the power-plant big enough to avert any possible contingency—say four hundred pounds—and we should have everything in duplicate, from power-plant to push-buttons."

"I don't think that's necessary, Mart. Don't you think that's carrying caution to extremes?"

"Possibly—but I would rather be a live coward than a dead hero, wouldn't you?"

"You chirped it, old scout, I sure would. I never did like the looks of that old guy with the scythe, and I would hate to let DuQuesne feel that he had slipped something over on me at my own game. Besides, I've developed a lot of caution myself, lately. Double she is, with a skin of four-foot Norwegian armor. Let's get busy!"

They made the necessary alteration in the plans, and in a few days work was begun upon the huge steel shell in the little mountain steel-plant. The work was done under the constant supervision of the great MacDougall, by men who had been in his employ for years and who were all above suspicion. While it was being built Seaton and Crane employed a force of men and went ahead with the construction of the space-car in the testing shed. While they did not openly slight the work nearly all their time was spent in the house, perfecting the many essential things which were to go into the real Skylark. There was the attractor, for which they had to perfect a special sighting apparatus so that it could act in any direction, and yet would not focus upon the ship itself nor anything it contained. There were many other things.

It was in this work that the strikingly different temperaments and abilities of the two men were most clearly revealed. Seaton strode up and down the room, puffing great volumes of smoke from his hot and reeking briar, suggesting methods and ideas, his keen mind finding the way over, around, or through the apparently insuperable obstacles which beset their path. Crane, seated calmly at the drafting-table, occasionally inhaling a mouthful of smoke from one of his specially-made cigarettes, mercilessly tore Seaton's suggestions to shreds—pointing out their weaknesses, proving his points with his cold, incisive reasoning and his slide-rule calculations of factors, stresses, and strains. Seaton in turn would find a remedy for every defect, and finally, the idea complete and perfect, Crane would impale it upon the point of his drafting pencil and spread it in every detail upon the paper before him, while Seaton's active mind leaped to the next problem.

Not being vitally interested in the thing being built in the shed, they did not know that to the flawed members were being attached faulty plates, by imperfect welding. Even if they had been interested they could not have found the poor workmanship by any ordinary inspection, for it was being done by a picked crew of experts picked by Perkins. But to make things even, Perkins' crew did not know that the peculiar instruments installed by Seaton and Crane, of which their foreman took many photographs, were not real instruments, and were made only nearly enough like them to pass inspection. They were utterly useless, in design and function far different from the real instruments intended for the Skylark.

Finally, the last dummy instrument was installed in the worthless space-car, which the friends referred to between themselves as "The Cripple," a name which Seaton soon changed to "Old Crip." The construction crew was dismissed after Crane had let the foreman overhear a talk between Seaton and himself in which they decided not to start for a few days as they had some final experiments to make. Prescott reported that Steel had relaxed its vigilance and was apparently waiting for the first flight. About the same time word was received from MacDougall that the real Skylark was ready for the finishing touches. A huge triplane descended upon Crane Field and was loaded to its capacity with strange looking equipment. When it left Seaton and Crane went with it, "to make the final tests before the first flight," leaving a heavy guard over the house and the testing shed.

A few nights later, in inky blackness, a huge shape descended rapidly in front of the shed, whose ponderous doors opened to receive it and closed quickly after it. The Skylark moved lightly and easily as a wafted feather, betraying its thousands of tons of weight only by the hole it made in the hard-beaten earth of the floor as it settled to rest. Opening one of the heavy doors, Seaton and Crane sprang out into the darkness.

Dorothy and her father, who had been informed that the Skylark was to be brought home that night, were waiting. Seaton caught up his sweetheart in one mighty arm and extended his hand past her to Vaneman, who seized it in both his own. Upon the young man's face was the look of a victorious king returning from conquest. For a few minutes disconnected exclamations were all that any of the party could utter. Then Seaton, loosening slightly his bear's hold upon Dorothy, spoke.

"She flies!" he cried exultantly. "She flies, dearest, like a ray of light for speed and like a bit of thistledown for lightness. We've been around the moon!"

"Around the moon!" cried the two amazed visitors. "So soon?" asked Vaneman. "When did you start?"

"Almost an hour ago," replied Crane readily; he had already taken out his watch. His voice was calm, his face quiet, but to those who knew him best a deeper resonance in his voice and a deeper blue sparkle in his eyes betrayed his emotion. Both inventors were moved more than they could have told by their achievement, by the complete success of the great space-cruiser upon which they had labored for months with all the power of their marvelous intellects. Seaton stood now at the summit of his pride. No recognition by the masses, no applause by the multitudes, no praise even from the upper ten of his own profession could equal for him the silent adulation of the two before him. Dorothy's exquisite face was glorified as she looked at her lover. Her eyes wonderful as they told him how high he stood above all others in her world, how much she loved him. Seeing that look; that sweet face, more beautiful than ever in this, his hour of triumph; that perfect, adorable body, Seaton forgot the others and a more profound exaltation than that brought by his flight filled his being—humble thankfulness that he was the man to receive the untold treasure of her great giving.

"Every bit of mechanism we had occasion to use worked perfectly," Crane stated proudly. "We did not find it necessary to change any of our apparatus and we hope to make a longer flight soon. The hour we took on this trip might easily have been only a few minutes, for the Lark did not even begin to pick up speed."

Shiro looked at Crane with an air of utter devotion and bowed until his head approached the floor.

"Sir," he said in his stilted English. "Honorable Skylark shall be marvelous wonder. If permitting, I shall luxuriate in preparing suitable refreshment."

The permission granted, he trotted away into the house, and the travelers invited their visitors to inspect the new craft. Crane and the older man climbed through the circular doorway, which was at an elevation of several feet above the ground. Seaton and Dorothy exchanged a brief but enthusiastic caress before he lifted her lightly up to the opening and followed her up a short flight of stairs. Although she knew what to expect, from her lover's descriptions and from her own knowledge of "Old Crip," which she had seen many times, she caught her breath in amazement as she stood up and looked about the brilliantly-lighted interior of the great sky-rover. It was a sight such as had never before been seen upon earth.

Inside the Skylark.
In the exact center of the huge shell was a spherical network of enormous steel beams. Inside this structure could be seen a similar network which, mounted upon universal bearings, was free to revolve in any direction.

She saw a spherical shell of hardened steel armor-plate, fully forty feet in diameter; though its true shape was not readily apparent from the inside, as it was divided into several compartments by horizontal floors or decks. In the exact center of the huge shell was a spherical network of enormous steel beams. Inside this structure could be seen a similar network which, mounted upon universal bearings, was free to revolve in any direction. This inner network was filled with machinery, surrounding a shining copper cylinder. From the outer network radiated six mighty supporting columns. These, branching as they neared the hull of the vessel, supported the power-plant and steering apparatus in the center and so strengthened the shell that the whole structure was nearly as strong as a solid steel ball. She noticed that the floor, perhaps eight feet below the center, was heavily upholstered in leather and did not seem solid; and that the same was true of the dozen or more seats—she could not call them chairs—which were built in various places. She gazed with interest at the two instrument boards, upon which flashed tiny lights and the highly-polished plate glass, condensite, and metal of many instruments, the use of which she could not guess.

After a few minutes of silence both visitors began to ask questions, and Seaton showed them the principal features of the novel craft. Crane accompanied them in silence, enjoying their pleasure, glorying in the mighty vessel. Seaton called attention to the great size and strength of the lateral supporting columns, one of which was immediately above their heads, and then led them over to the vertical column which pierced the middle of the floor. Enormous as the lateral had seemed, it appeared puny in comparison with this monster of fabricated steel. Seaton explained that the two verticals were many times stronger than the four laterals, as the center of gravity of the ship had been made lower than its geometrical center, so that the apparent motion of the vessel and therefore the power of the bar, would usually be merely vertical. Resting one hand caressingly upon the huge column, he exultantly explained that these members were "the last word in strength, made up of many separate I-beams and angles of the strongest known special steel, latticed and braced until no conceivable force could make them yield a millimeter."

"But why such strength?" asked the lawyer doubtfully. "This column alone would hold up Brooklyn Bridge."

"To hold down the power-plant, so that the bar won't tear through the ship when we cut her loose," replied Seaton. "Have you any idea how fast this bird can fly?"

"Well, I have heard you speak of traveling with the velocity of light, but that is overdrawn, isn't it?"

"Not very much. Our figures show that with this four-hundred-pound bar"—pointing to the copper cylinder in the exact center of the inner sphere—"we could develop not only the velocity of light, but an acceleration equal to that velocity, were it not for the increase in mass at high velocities, as shown by Einstein and others. We can't go very fast near the earth, of course, as the friction of the air would melt the whole works in a few minutes. Until we get out of the atmosphere our speed will be limited by the ability of steel to withstand melting by the friction of the air to somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five thousand miles per hour, but out in space we can develop any speed we wish, up to that of light as a limit."

"I studied physics a little in my youth. Wouldn't the mere force of such an acceleration as you mention flatten you on the floor and hold you there? And any sudden jar would certainly kill you."

"There can't be any sudden jar. This is a special floor, you notice. It is mounted on long, extremely heavy springs, to take up any possible jar. Also, whenever we are putting on power we won't try to stand up, our legs would crimple up like strings. We will ride securely strapped into those special seats, which are mounted the same as the floor, only a whole lot more so. As to the acceleration...."

"That word means picking up speed, doesn't it?" interrupted Dorothy.

"The rate of picking up speed," corrected Seaton. "That is, if you were going forty miles per hour one minute, and fifty the next minute, your acceleration would be ten miles per hour per minute. See? It's acceleration that makes you feel funny when you start up or down in an elevator."

"Then riding in this thing will be like starting up in an elevator so that your heart sinks into your boots and you can't breathe?"

"Yes, only worse. We will pick up speed faster and keep on doing it...."

"Seriously," interrupted the lawyer, "do you think that the human body can stand any such acceleration as that?"

"I don't know. We are going to find out, by starting out slowly and increasing our acceleration to as much as we can stand."

"I see," Vaneman replied. "But how are you going to steer her? How do you keep permanent reference points, since there are no directions in space?"

"That was our hardest problem," explained Seaton, "but Martin solved it perfectly. See the power-plant up there? Notice those big supporting rings and bearings? Well, the power-plant is entirely separate from the ship, as it is inside that inner sphere, about which the outer sphere and the ship itself are free to revolve in any direction. No matter how much the ship rolls and pitches, as she is bound to do every time we come near enough to any star or planet to be influenced by its gravitation, the bar stays where it is pointed. Those six big jackets in the outer sphere, on the six sides of the bar, cover six pairs of gyroscope wheels, weighing several tons each, turning at a terrific speed in a vacuum. The gyroscopes keep the whole outer sphere in exactly the same position as long as they are kept turning, and afford us not only permanent planes of reference, but also a solid foundation in those planes which can be used in pointing the bar. The bar can be turned instantly to any direction whatever by special electrical instruments on the boards. You see, the outer sphere stays immovably fixed in that position, with the bar at liberty to turn in any direction inside it, and the ship at liberty to do the same thing outside it.

"Now we will show you where we sleep," Seaton continued. "We have eight rooms, four below and four above," leading the way to a narrow, steep steel stairway and down into a very narrow hall, from either side of which two doors opened. "This is my room, the adjoining one is Mart's. Shiro sleeps across the hall. The rest of the rooms are for our guests on future trips."

Sliding back the door, he switched on the light and revealed a small but fully-appointed bedroom, completely furnished with everything necessary, yet everything condensed into the least possible space. The floor, like the one above, was of cushioned leather supported by springs. The bed was a modification of the special seats already referred to. Opening another sliding door, he showed them an equally complete and equally compact bathroom.

"You see, we have all the comforts of home. This bathroom, however, is practical only when we have some force downward, either gravitation or our own acceleration. The same reasoning accounts for the hand-rails you see everywhere on board. Drifting in space, you know, there is no weight, and you can't walk; you must pull yourself around. If you tried to take a step you would bounce up and hit the ceiling, and stay there. That is why the ceilings are so well padded. And if you tried to wash your face you would throw water all over the place, and it would float around in the air instead of falling to the floor. As long as we can walk we can use the bathroom—if I should want to wash my face while we are drifting, I just press this button here, and the pilot will put on enough acceleration to make the correct use of water possible. There are a lot of surprising things about a trip into space."

"I don't doubt it a bit, and I'm simply wild to go for a ride with you. When will you take me, Dicky?" asked Dorothy eagerly.

"Very soon, Dottie. As soon as we get her in perfect running condition. You shall be the first to ride with us, I promise you."

"Where do you cook and eat? How do you see out? How about the air and water supply? How do you keep warm, or cool, as the case may be?" asked the girl's father, as though he were cross-examining a witness.

"Shiro has a galley on the main floor, and tables fold up into the wall of the main compartment. The passengers see out by sliding back steel panels, which normally cover the windows. The pilot can see in any direction from his seat at the instrument-board, by means of special instruments, something like periscopes. The windows are made of optical glass similar to that used in the largest telescopes. They are nearly as thick as the hull and have a compressive resistance almost equal to that of armor steel. Although so thick, they are crystal clear, and a speck of dust on the outer surface is easily seen. We have water enough in tanks to last us three months, or indefinitely if we should have to be careful, as we can automatically distill and purify all our waste water, recovering absolutely pure H2O. We have compressed air, also in tanks, but we need very little, as the air is constantly being purified. Also, we have oxygen-generating apparatus aboard, in case we should run short. As to keeping warm, we have electric heating coils, run by the practically inexhaustible power of a small metal bar. If we get too near the sun and get too warm, we have a refrigerating machine to cool us off. Anything else?"

"You'd better give up, Dad," laughingly advised his daughter. "You've thought of everything, haven't you, Dick?"

"Mart has, I think. This is all his doing, you know. I wouldn't have thought of a tenth of it, myself."

"I must remind you young folks," said the older man, glancing at his watch, "that it is very late and high time for Dottie and me to be going home. We would like to stay and see the rest of it, but you know we must be away from here before daylight."

As they went into the house Vaneman asked:

"What does the other side of the moon look like? I have always been curious about it."

"We were not able to see much," replied Crane "It was too dark and we did not take the time to explore it, but from what we could see by means of our searchlights it is very much like this side—the most barren and desolate place imaginable. After we go to Mars, we intend to explore the moon thoroughly."

"Mars, then, is your first goal? When do you intend to start?"

"We haven't decided definitely. Probably in a day or two. Everything is ready now."

As the Vanemans had come out in the street car, in order to attract as little attention as possible, Seaton volunteered to take them home in one of Crane's cars. As they bade Crane goodnight after enjoying Shiro's "suitable refreshment" the lawyer took the chauffeur's seat, motioning his daughter and Seaton into the closed body of the car. As soon as they had started Dorothy turned in the embrace of her lover's arm.

"Dick," she said fiercely. "I would have been worried sick if I had known that you were way off there?"

"I knew it, sweetheart. That's why I didn't tell you we were going. We both knew the Skylark was perfectly safe, but I knew that you would worry about our first trip. Now that we have been to the moon you won't be uneasy when we go to Mars, will you, dear?"

"I can't help it, boy. I will be afraid that something terrible has happened, every minute. Won't you take me with you? Then, if anything happens, it will happen to both of us, and that is as it should be. You know that I wouldn't want to keep on living if anything should happen to you."

He put both arms around her as his reply, and pressed his cheek to hers.

"Dorothy sweetheart, I know exactly how you feel. I feel the same way myself. I'm awfully sorry, dear, but I can't do it. I know the machine is safe, but I've got to prove it to everybody else before I take you on a long trip with me. Your father will agree with me that you ought not to go, on the first trip or two, anyway. And besides, what would Madam Grundy say?"

"Well, there is a way...." she began, and he felt her face turn hot.

His arms tightened around her and his breath came fast.

"I know it, sweetheart, and I would like nothing better in the world than to be married today and take our honeymoon in the Skylark, but I can't do it. After we come back from the first long trip we will be married just as soon as you say ready, and after that we will always be together wherever I go. But I can't take even the millionth part of a chance with anything as valuable as you are—you see that, don't you, Dottie?"

"I suppose so," she returned disconsolately, "but you'll make it a short trip, for my sake? I know I won't rest a minute until you get back."

"I promise you that we won't be gone more than four days. Then for the greatest honeymoon that ever was," and they clung together in the dark body of the car, each busy with solemn and beautiful thoughts of the happiness to come.

They soon reached their destination. As they entered the house Dorothy made one more attempt.

"Dad, Dick is just too perfectly mean. He says he won't take me on the first trip. If you were going out there wouldn't mother want to go along too?"

After listening to Seaton he gave his decision.

"Dick is right, Kitten. He must make the long trip first. Then, after the machine is proved reliable, you may go with him. I can think of no better way of spending a honeymoon—it will be a new one, at least. And you needn't worry about the boys getting back safely. I might not trust either of them alone, but together they are invincible. Good-night, children. I wish you success, Dick," as he turned away.

Seaton took a lover's leave of Dorothy, and went into the lawyer's study, taking an envelope from his pocket.

"Mr. Vaneman," he said in a low voice, "we think the Steel crowd is still camping on our trail. We are ready for them, with a lot of stuff that they never heard of, but in case anything goes wrong, Martin has written between the lines of this legal form, in invisible ink A-36, exactly how to get possession of all our notes and plans, so that the company can go ahead with everything. With those directions any chemist can find and use the stuff safely. Please put this envelope in the safest place you can think of, and then forget it unless they get both Crane and me. There's about one chance in a million of their doing that, but Mart doesn't gamble on even that chance."

"He is right, Dick. I believe that you can outwit them in any situation, but I will keep this paper where no one except myself can ever see it, nevertheless. Good-night, son, and good luck."

"The same to you, sir, and thank you. Good-night."