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   Chapter 3 No.3

Skylark Three By E. E. Smith Characters: 18398

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Skylark Two Sets Out

"Say, Mart, I just got conscious! It never occurred to me until just now, as Dunark left, that I'm as good an instrument-maker as Dunark is-the same one, in fact-and I've got a hunch. You know that needle on DuQuesne hasn't been working for quite a while? Well, I don't believe it's out of commission at all. I think he's gone somewhere, so far away that it can't read on him. I'm going to house it in, re-jewel it, and find out where he is."

"An excellent idea. He has even you worrying, and as for myself--"

"Worrying! That bird is simply pulling my cork! I'm so scared he'll get Dottie, that I'm running around in circles and biting myself in the small of the back. He's got a hen on, you can bet your shirt on that-what gravels me is he's aiming at the girls, not at us or the job."

"I should say that someone had aimed at you fairly accurately, judging by the number of bullets stopped lately by that arenak armor of yours. I wish that I could take some of the strain, but they are centering all their attacks upon you."

"Yes-I can't stick my nose outside our yard without somebody throwing lead at it. It's funny, too. You're more important to the power-plant than I am."

"You should know why. They are not afraid of me. While my spirit is willing enough, it was your skill and rapidity with a pistol that frustrated four attempts at abduction in as many days. It is positively uncanny, the way you explode into action. With all my practice, I didn't even have my pistol out yesterday until it was all over. And besides Prescott's guards, we had four policemen with us-detailed to 'guard' us-because of the number of gunmen you had to kill before that!"

"It ain't practice so much, Mart-it's a gift. I've always been fast, and I react automatically. You think first, that's why you're slow. Those cops were funny. They didn't know what it was all about until it was all over-all but calling the wagon. That was the worst yet. One of their slugs struck directly in front of my left eye-it was kinda funny, at that, seeing it splash-and I thought I was inside a boiler in a riveting shop when those machine-guns cut loose. It was hectic, all right, while it lasted. But one thing I'll tell the attentive world-we're not doing all the worrying. Very few, if any, of the gangsters they send after us are getting back. Wonder what they think when they shoot at us and we don't drop?

"But I'm afraid I'm beginning to crack, Mart," Seaton went on, his voice becoming grimly earnest. "I don't like anything about this whole mess. I don't like all four of us wearing armor all the time. I don't like living constantly under guard. I don't like all this killing. And this constant menace of losing Dorothy, if I let her out of my sight for five seconds, is driving me mad. To tell you the real truth, I'm devilishly afraid that they'll figure out something that'll work. I could grab off two women, or kill two men, if they had armor and guns enough to stock a war. I believe that DuQuesne could, too-and the rest of that bunch aren't imbeciles, either, by any means. I won't feel safe until all four of us are in the Skylark and a long ways from here. I'm sure glad we're pulling out; and I don't intend to come back until I get a good line on DuQuesne. He's the bird I'm going to get, and get right-and when I get him I'll tell the cock-eyed world he'll stay got. There won't be any two atoms of his entire carcass left in the same township. I meant that promise when I gave it to him!"

"He realizes that fully. He knows that it is now definitely either his life or our own, and he is really dangerous. When he took Steel over and opened war upon us, he did it with his eyes wide open. With his ideas, he must have a monopoly of 'X' or nothing; and he knows the only possible way of getting it. However, you and I both know that he would not let either one of us live, even though we surrendered."

"You chirped it! But that guy's going to find he's started something, unless I get paralysis of the intentions. Well, how about turning up a few R. P. M.? We don't want to keep Dunark waiting too long."

"There is very little to do beyond installing the new instruments; and that is nearly done. We can finish pumping out the compass en route. You have already installed every weapon of offense and defense known to either Earthly or Osnomian warfare, including those ray-generators and screens you moaned so about not having during the battle over Kondal. I believe that we have on board every article for which either of us has been able to imagine even the slightest use."

"Yes, we've got her so full of plunder that there's hardly room left for quarters. You ain't figuring on taking anybody but Shiro along, are you?"

"No. I suppose there is no real necessity for taking even him, but he wants very much to go, and may prove himself useful."

"I'll say he'll be useful. None of us really enjoys polishing brass or washing dishes-and besides, he's one star cook and an A-1 housekeeper."

* * *

The installation of the new instruments was soon completed, and while Dorothy and Margaret made last-minute preparations for departure, the men called a meeting of the managing directors and department heads of the "Seaton-Crane Co., Engineers." The chiefs gave brief reports in turn. Units Number One and Number Two of the immense new central super-power plant were in continuous operation. Number Three was almost ready to cut in. Number Four was being rushed to completion. Number Five was well under way. The research laboratory was keeping well up on its problems. Troubles were less than had been anticipated. Financially, it was a gold mine. With no expense for boilers or fuel, and thus with a relatively small investment in plant and a very small operating cost, they were selling power at one-sixth of prevailing rates, and still profits were almost paying for all new construction. With the completion of Number Five, rates would be reduced still further.

"In short, Dad, everything's slick," remarked Seaton to Mr. Vaneman, after the others had gone.

"Yes; your plan of getting the best men possible, paying them well, and giving them complete authority and sole responsibility, has worked to perfection. I have never seen an undertaking of such size go forward so smoothly and with such fine co-operation."

"That's the way we wanted it. We hand-picked the directors, and put it up to you, strictly. You did the same to the managers. Everybody knows that his end is up to him, and him alone-so he digs in."

"However, Dick, while everything at the works is so fine, when is this other thing going to break?"

"We've won all the way so far, but I'm afraid something's about due. That's the big reason I want to get Dot away for a while. You know what they're up to?"

"Too well," the older man answered. "Dottie or Mrs. Crane, or both. Her mother-she is telling her goodbye now-and I agree that the danger here is greater than out there."

"Danger out there? With the old can fixed the way she is now, Dot's a lot safer there than you are in bed. Your house might fall down, you know."

"You're probably right, son-I know you, and I know Martin Crane. Together, and in the Skylark, I believe you invincible."

"All set, Dick?" asked Dorothy, appearing in the doorway.

"All set. You've got the dope for Prescott and everybody Dad. We may be back in six months, or we may see something to investigate, and be gone a year or so. Don't begin to lose any sleep until after we've been out-oh, say three years. We'll make it a point to be back by then."

Farewells were said; the party embarked, and Skylark Two shot upward. Seaton flipped a phone set over his head and spoke.

"Dunark!... Coming out, heading directly for 'X'.... No, better stay quite a ways off to one side when we get going good.... Yes, I'm accelerating twenty six point oh oh oh.... Yes. I'll call you now and then, until the radio waves get lost, to check the course with you. After that, keep on the last course, reverse at the calculated distance, and by the time we're pretty well slowed down, we'll feel around for each other with the compasses and go in together.... Right.... Uh-huh.... Fine! So long!"

In order that the two vessels should keep reasonably close together, it had been agreed that each should be held at an acceleration of exactly twenty-six feet per second, positive and negative. This figure represented a compromise between the gravitational forces of the two worlds upon which the different parties lived. While considerably less than the acceleration of gravitation at the surface of the Earth, the Terrestrials could readily accustom themselves to it; and it was not enough greater than that of Osnome to hamper seriously the activities of the green people.

Well clear of the Earth's influence, Seaton assured himself that everything was functioning properly, then stretched to his full height, wreathed his arms over his head, and heaved a deep sigh of relief.

"Folks," he declared, "This is the first time I've felt right since we got out of this old bottle. Why, I feel so good a cat could walk

up to me and scratch me right in the eye, and I wouldn't even scratch back. Yowp! I'm a wild Siberian catamount, and this is my night to howl. Whee-ee-yerow!"

Dorothy laughed, a gay, lilting carol.

"Haven't I always told you he had cat blood in him, Peggy? Just like all tomcats, every once in a while he has to stretch his claws and yowl. But go ahead, Dickie, I like it-this is the first uproar you've made in weeks. I believe I'll join you!"

"It most certainly is a relief to get this load off our minds: I could do a little ladylike yowling myself," Margaret said; and Crane, lying completely at ease, a thin spiral of smoke curling upward from his cigarette, nodded agreement.

"Dick's yowling is quite expressive at times. All of us feel the same way, but some of us are unable to express ourselves quite so vividly. However, it is past bedtime, and we should organize our crew. Shall we do it as we did before?"

"No, it isn't necessary. Everything is automatic. The bar is held parallel to the guiding compass, and signal bells ring whenever any of the instruments show a trace of abnormal behavior. Don't forget that there is at least one meter registering and recording every factor of our flight. With this control system we can't get into any such jam as we did last trip."

"Surely you are not suggesting that we run all night with no one at the controls?"

"Exactly that. A man camping at this board is painting the lily and gilding fine gold. Awake or asleep nobody need be closer to it than is necessary to hear a bell if one should ring, and you can hear them all over the ship. Furthermore, I'll bet a hat we won't hear a signal a week. Simply as added precaution, though, I've run lines so that any time one of these signals lets go, it sounds a buzzer on the head of our bed, so I'm automatically taking the night shift. Remember, Mart, these instruments are thousands of times as sensitive as the keenest human senses-they'll spot trouble long before we could, even if we were looking right at it."

"Of course, you understand these instruments much better than I do, as yet. If you trust them, I am perfectly willing to do the same. Goodnight."

* * *

Seaton sat down and Dorothy nestled beside him, her head snuggled into the curve of his shoulder.

"Sleepy, cuddle-pup?"

"Heavens, no! I couldn't sleep now, lover-could you?"

"Not any. What's the use?"

His arm tightened around her. Apparently motionless to its passengers, the cruiser bored serenely on into space, with ever-mounting velocity. There was not the faintest sound, not the slightest vibration-only the peculiar violet glow surrounding the shining copper cylinder in its massive universal bearing gave any indication of the thousands of kilowatts being generated in the mighty intra-atomic power-plant. Seaton studied it thoughtfully.

"You know, if that violet aura and copper bar were a little different in shade and tone of color, they'd be just like your eyes and hair," he remarked finally.

"You burn me up, Dick!" she retorted, her entrancing low chuckle bubbling through her words. "You do say the weirdest things at times! Possibly they would-and if the moon were made of different stuff than it is and had a different color, it might be green cheese, too! What say we go over and look at the stars?"

"As you were, Rufus!" he commanded sternly. "Don't move a millimeter-you're a drive fit, right where you are. I'll get you any stars you want, and bring them right in here to you. What constellation would you like? I'll get you the Southern Cross-we never see it in Washington."

"No, I want something familiar; the Pleiades or the Big Dipper-no, get me Canis Major-'where Sirius, brightest jewel in the diadem of the firmament, holds sway'," she quoted. "There! Thought I'd forgotten all the astronomy you ever taught me, didn't you? Think you can find it?"

"Sure. Declination about minus twenty, as I remember it, and right ascension between six and seven hours. Let's see-where would that be from our course?"

He thought for a moment, manipulated several levers and dials, snapped off the lights, and swung number one exterior visiplate around, directly before their eyes.

"Oh.... Oh ... this is magnificent, Dick!" she exclaimed. "It's stupendous. It seems as though we were right out there in space itself, and not in here at all. It's ... it's just too perfectly darn wonderful!"

Although neither of them was unacquainted with interstellar space, it presents a spectacle that never fails to awe even the most seasoned observer: and no human being had ever before viewed the wonders of space from such a coign of vantage. Thus the two fell silent and awed as they gazed out into the abysmal depths of the interstellar void. The darkness of Earthly night is ameliorated by light-rays scattered by the atmosphere: the stars twinkle and scintillate and their light is diffused, because of the same medium. But here, what a contrast! They saw the utter, absolute darkness of the complete absence of all light: and upon that indescribable blackness they beheld superimposed the almost unbearable brilliance of enormous suns concentrated into mathematical points, dimensionless. Sirius blazed in blue-white splendor, dominating the lesser members of his constellation, a minute but intensely brilliant diamond upon a field of black velvet-his refulgence unmarred by any trace of scintillation or distortion.

As Seaton slowly shifted the field of vision, angling toward and across the celestial equator and the ecliptic, they beheld in turn mighty Rigel; The Belt, headed by dazzlingly brilliant-white Delta-Orionis; red Betelguese; storied Aldebaran, the friend of mariners; and the astronomically constant Pleiades.

Seaton's arm contracted, swinging Dorothy into his embrace; their lips met and held.

"Isn't it wonderful, lover," she murmured, "to be out here in space this way, together, away from all our troubles and worries? I am so happy."

"It's all of that, sweetheart mine!"

"I almost died, every time they shot at you. Suppose your armor cracked or something? I wouldn't want to go on living-I'd just naturally die!"

"I'm glad it didn't-and I'm twice as glad that they didn't succeed in grabbing you away from me...." His jaw set rigidly, his gray eyes became hard as tempered drills. "Blackie DuQuesne has something coming to him. So far, I have always paid my debts.... I shall settle with him ... IN FULL."

"That was an awfully quick change of subject," he continued, his voice changing instantly into a lighter vein, "but that's one penalty of being human. We can't live in high altitudes all our lives-if we could there would be no thrill in ascending them so often.

"Yes, we love each other just the same-more than anybody else I ever heard of." After a moment she eyed him shrewdly and continued:

"You've got something on your mind besides that tangled mop of hair, big boy. Tell it to Red-Top."

"Nothing much...."

"Come on, 'fess up-it's good for the soul. You can't fool your own wife, guy; I know your little winning ways too well."

"Let me finish, woman; I was about to bare my very soul. To resume-nothing much to go on but a hunch, but I think DuQuesne's somewhere out here in the great open spaces, where men are sometimes schemers as well as men; and if so, I'm after him-foot, horse, and marines."

"That object compass?"

"Yes. You see, I built that thing myself, and I know darn well it isn't out of order. It's still on him, but doesn't indicate. Ergo, he is too far away to reach-and with his weight, I could find him anywhere up to about one and a half light-years. If he wants to go that far away from home, where is his logical destination? It can't be anywhere but Osnome, since that is the only place we stopped at for any length of time-the only place where he could have learned anything. He's learned something, or found something useful to him there, just as we did. That is certain, since he is not the type of man to do anything without a purpose. Uncle Dudley is on his trail-and will be able to locate him pretty soon."

"When will you get that new compass-case exhausted to a skillionth of a whillimeter or something, whatever it is? I thought Dunark said it took five hundred hours of pumping to get it where he wanted it?"

"It did him-but while the Osnomians are wonders at some things, they're not so hot at others. You see, I've got three pumps on that job, in series. First, a Rodebush-Michalek super-pump[A] then, backing that, an ordinary mercury-vapor pump, and last, backing both the others, a Cenco-Hyvac motor-driven oil pump. In less than fifty hours that case will be as empty as a flapper's skull. Just to make sure of cleaning up the last infinitesimal traces, though, I'm going to flash a getter charge of tantalum in it. After that, the atmosphere in that case will be tenuous-take my word for it."

"I'll have to; most of that contribution to science being over my head like a circus tent. What say we let Skylark Two drift by herself for a while, and catch us some of Nature's sweet restorer?"

[A] J. Am. Chem. Soc. 51: 3, 750.

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