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   Chapter 4 No.4

Skylark Three By E. E. Smith Characters: 29835

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The Zone of Force Is Tested

Seaton strode into the control room with a small oblong box in his hand. Crane was seated at the desk, poring over an abstruse mathematical treatise in Science. Margaret was working upon a bit of embroidery. Dorothy, seated upon a cushion on the floor with one foot tucked under her, was reading, her hand straying from time to time to a box of chocolates conveniently near.

"Well, this is a peaceful, home-like scene-too bad to bust it up. Just finished sealing off and flashing out this case, Mart. Going to see if she'll read. Want to take a look?"

He placed the compass upon the plane table, so that its final bearing could be read upon the master circles controlled by the gyroscopes; then simultaneously started his stop-watch and pressed the button which caused a minute couple to be applied to the needle. Instantly the needle began to revolve, and for many minutes there was no apparent change in its motion in either the primary or secondary bearings.

"Do you suppose it is out of order, after all?" asked Crane, regretfully.

"I don't think so," Seaton pondered. "You see, they weren't designed to indicate such distances on such small objects as men, so I threw a million ohms in series with the impulse. That cuts down the free rotation to less than half an hour, and increases the sensitivity to the limit. There, isn't she trying to quit it?"

"Yes, it is settling down. It must be on him still." Finally the ultra-sensitive needle came to rest. When it had done so, Seaton calculated the distance, read the direction, and made a reading upon Osnome.

"He's there, all right. Bearings agree, and distances check to within a light-year, which is as close as we can hope to check on as small a mass as a man. Well, that's that-nothing to do about it until after we get there. One sure thing, Mart-we're not coming straight back home from 'X'."

"No, an investigation is indicated."

"Well, that puts me out of a job. What to do? Don't want to study, like you. Can't crochet, like Peg. Darned if I'll sit cross-legged on a pillow and eat candy, like that Titian blonde over there on the floor. I know what-I'll build me a mechanical educator and teach Shiro to talk English instead of that mess of language he indulges in. How'd that be, Mart?"

"Don't do it," put in Dorothy, positively. "He's just too perfect the way he is. Especially don't do it if he'd talk the way you do-or could you teach him to talk the way you write?"

"Ouch! That's a dirty dig. However, Mrs. Seaton, I am able and willing to defend my customary mode of speech. You realize that the spoken word is ephemeral, whereas the thought, whose nuances have once been expressed in imperishable print is not subject to revision-its crudities can never be remodeled into more subtle, more gracious shading. It is my contention that, due to these inescapable conditions, the mental effort necessitated by the employment of nice distinctions in sense and meaning of words and a slavish adherence to the dictates of the more precise grammarians should be reserved for the print...."

He broke off as Dorothy, in one lithe motion, rose and hurled her pillow at his head.

"Choke him, somebody! Perhaps you had better build it, Dick, after all."

"I believe that he would like it, Dick. He is trying hard to learn, and the continuous use of a dictionary is undoubtedly a nuisance to him."

"I'll ask him. Shiro!"

"You have call, sir?" Shiro entered the room from his galley, with his unfailing bow.

"Yes. How'd you like to learn to talk English like Crane there does-without taking lessons?"

Shiro smiled doubtfully, unable to take such a thought seriously.

"Yes, it can be done," Crane assured him. "Doctor Seaton can build a machine which will teach you all at once, if you like."

"I like, sir, enormously, yes, sir. I years study and pore, but honorable English extraordinary difference from Nipponese-no can do. Dictionary useful but ..." he flipped pages dexterously, "extremely cumbrous. If honorable Seaton can do, shall be extreme ... gratification."

He bowed again, smiled, and went out.

"I'll do just that little thing. So long, folks, I'm going up to the shop."

* * *

Day after day the Skylark plunged through the vast emptiness of the interstellar reaches. At the end of each second she was traveling exactly twenty-six feet per second faster than she had been at its beginning; and as day after day passed, her velocity mounted into figures which became meaningless, even when expressed in thousands of miles per second. Still she seemed stationary to her occupants, and only different from a vessel motionless upon the surface of the Earth in that objects within her hull had lost three-sixteenths of their normal weight. Acceleration, too, had its effect. Only the rapidity with which the closer suns and their planets were passed gave any indication of the frightful speed at which they were being hurtled along by the inconceivable power of that disintegrating copper bar.

When the vessel was nearly half-way to "X," the bar was reversed in order to change the sign of their acceleration, and the hollow sphere spun through an angle of one hundred and eighty degrees around the motionless cage which housed the enormous gyroscopes. Still apparently motionless and exactly as she had been before, the Skylark was now actually traveling in a direction which seemed "down" and with a velocity which was being constantly decreased by the amount of their negative acceleration.

A few days after the bar had been reversed Seaton announced that the mechanical educator was complete, and brought it into the control room.

In appearance it was not unlike a large radio set, but it was infinitely more complex. It possessed numerous tubes, kino-lamps, and photo-electric cells, as well as many coils of peculiar design-there were dozens of dials and knobs, and a multiple set of head-harnesses.

"How can a thing like that possibly work as it does?" asked Crane. "I know that it does work, but I could scarcely believe it, even after it had educated me."

"That is nothing like the one Dunark used, Dick," objected Dorothy. "How come?"

"I'll answer you first, Dot. This is an improved model-it has quite a few gadgets of my own in it. Now, Mart, as to how it works-it isn't so funny after you understand it-it's a lot like radio in that respect. It operates on a band of frequencies lying between the longest light and heat waves and the shortest radio waves. This thing here is the generator of those waves and a very heavy power amplifier. The headsets are stereoscopic transmitters, taking or receiving a three-dimensional view. Nearly all matter is transparent to those waves; for instance bones, hair, and so on. However, cerebin, a cerebroside peculiar to the thinking structure of the brain, is opaque to them. Dunark, not knowing chemistry, didn't know why the educator worked or what it worked on-he found out by experiment that it did work; just as we found out about electricity. This three-dimensional model, or view, or whatever you want to call it, is converted into electricity in the headsets, and the resulting modulated wave goes back to the educator. There it is heterodyned with another wave-this second frequency was found after thousands of trials and is, I believe, the exact frequency existing in the optic nerves themselves-and sent to the receiving headset. Modulated as it is, and producing a three-dimensional picture, after rectification in the receiver, it reproduces exactly what has been 'viewed,' if due allowance has been made for the size and configuration of the different brains involved in the transfer. You remember a sort of flash-a sensation of seeing something-when the educator worked on you? Well, you did see it, just as though it had been transmitted to the brain by the optic nerve, but everything came at once, so the impression of sight was confused. The result in the brain, however, was clear and permanent. The only drawback is that you haven't the visual memory of what you have learned, and that sometimes makes it hard to use your knowledge. You don't know whether you know anything about a certain subject or not until after you go digging around in your brain looking for it."

"All set," he reported crisply, and barked a series of explosive syllables at Shiro, ending upon a rising note.

"I see," said Crane, and Dorothy, the irrepressible, put in:

"Just as clear as so much mud. What are the improvements you added to the original design?"

"Well, you see, I had a big advantage in knowing that cerebrin was the substance involved, and with that knowledge I could carry matters considerably farther than Dunark could in his original model. I can transfer the thoughts of somebody else to a third party or to a record. Dunark's machine couldn't work against resistance-if the subject wasn't willing to give up his thoughts he couldn't get them. This one can take them away by force. In fact, by increasing plate and grid voltages in the amplifier, I can pretty nearly burn out a man's brain. Yesterday, I was playing with it, transferring a section of my own brain to a magnetized tape-for a permanent record, you know-and found out that above certain rather low voltages it becomes a form of torture that would make the best efforts of the old Inquisition seem like a petting party."

"Did you succeed in the transfer?" Crane was intensely interested.

"Sure. Push the button for Shiro, and we'll start something."

"Put your head against this screen," he directed when Shiro had come in, smiling and bowing as usual. "I've got to caliper your brains to do a good job."

The calipering done, he adjusted various dials and clamped the electrodes over his own head and over the heads of Crane and Shiro.

"Want to learn Japanese while we're at it, Mart? I'm going to."

"Yes, please. I tried to learn it while I was in Japan, but it was altogether too difficult to be worth while."

Seaton threw in a switch, opened it, depressed two more, opened them, and threw off the power.

"All set," he reported crisply, and barked a series of explosive syllables at Shiro, ending upon a rising note.

"Yes, sir," answered the Japanese. "You speak Nipponese as though you had never spoken any other tongue. I am very grateful to you, sir, that I may now discard my dictionary."

"How about you two girls-anything you want to learn in a hurry?"

"Not me!" declared Dorothy emphatically. "That machine is too darn weird to suit me. Besides, if I knew as much about science as you do, we'd probably fight about it."

"I do not believe I care to...." began Margaret.

She was interrupted by the penetrating sound of an alarm bell.

"That's a new note!" exclaimed Seaton, "I never heard that note before."

He stood in surprise at the board, where a brilliant purple light was flashing slowly. "Great Cat! That's a purely Osnomian war-gadget-kind of a battleship detector-shows that there's a boatload of bad news around here somewhere. Grab the visiplates quick, folks," as he rang Shiro's bell. "I'll take visiplate area one, dead ahead. Mart, take number two. Dot, three; Peg, four; Shiro, five. Look sharp!... Nothing in front. See anything, any of you?"

* * *

None of them could discover anything amiss, but the purple light continued to flash, and the bell to ring. Seaton cut off the bell.

"We're almost to 'X'," he thought aloud. "Can't be more than a million miles or so, and we're almost stopped. Wonder if somebody's there ahead of us? Maybe Dunark is doing this, though. I'll call him and see." He threw in a switch and said one word-"Dunark!"

"Here!" came the voice of the Kofedix from the speaker. "Are you generating?"

"No-just called to see if you were. What do you make of it?"

"Nothing as yet. Better close up?"

"Yes, edge over this way and I'll come over to meet you. Leave your negative as it is-we'll be stopped directly. Whatever it is, it's dead ahead. It's a long ways off yet, but we'd better get organized. Wouldn't talk much, either-they may intercept our wave, narrow as it is."

"Better yet, shut off your radio entirely. When we get close enough together, we'll use the hand-language. You may not know that you know it, but you do. Turn your heaviest searchlight toward me-I'll do the same."

There was a click as Dunark's power was shut off abruptly, and Seaton grinned as he cut his own.

"That's right, too, folks. In Osnomian battles we always used a sign-language when we couldn't hear anything-and that was most of the time. I know it as well as I know English, now that I am reminded of the fact."

He shifted his course to intercept that of the Osnomian vessel. After a time the watchers picked out a minute point of light, moving comparatively rapidly against the stars, and knew it to be the searchlight of the Kondal. Soon the two vessels were almost side by side, moving cautiously forward, and Seaton set up a sixty-inch parabolic reflector, focused upon a coil. As they went on, the purple light continued to flash more and more rapidly, but still nothing was to be seen.

"Take number six visiplate, will you, Mart? It's telescopic, equivalent to a twenty-inch refractor. I'll tell you where to look in a minute-this reflector increases the power of the regular indicator." He studied meters and adjusted dials. "Set on nineteen hours forty-three minutes, and two hundred seventy-one degrees. He's too far away yet to read exactly, but that'll put him in the field of vision."

"Is this radiation harmful?" asked Margaret.

"Not yet-it's too weak. Pretty soon we may be able to feel it; then I'll throw out a screen against it. When it's strong enough, it's pretty deadly stuff. See anything, Mart?"

"I see something, but it is very indistinct. It is moving in sharper now. Yes, it is a space-ship, shaped like a dirigible airship."

"See it yet, Dunark?" Seaton signaled.

"Just sighted it. Ready to attack?"

"I am not. I'm going to run. Let's go, and go fast!"

Dunark signaled violently, and Seaton shook his head time after time, stubbornly.

"A difficulty?" asked Crane.

"Yes. He wants to go jump on it, but I'm not looking for trouble with any such craft as that-it must be a thousand feet long and is certainly neither Terrestrial nor Osnomian. I say beat it while we're all in one piece. How about it?"

"Absolutely," concurred Crane and both women.

The bar was reversed and the Skylark leaped away. The Kondal followed, although the observers could see that Dunark was raging. Seaton swung number six visiplate around, looked once, and switched on the radio.

"Well, Dunark," he said grimly. "You get your wish. That bird is coming out, with at least twice the acceleration we could get with both motors full on. He saw us all the time,

and was waiting for us."

"Go on-get away if you can. You can stand a higher acceleration than we can. We'll hold him as long as possible."

"I would, if it would do any good, but it won't. He's so much faster than we are that he could catch us anyway, if he wanted to, no matter how much of a start we had-and it looks now as though he wanted us. Two of us stand a lot better chance than one of licking him if he's looking for trouble. Spread out a mile or two, and pretend this is all the speed we've got. What'll we give him first?"

"Give him everything at once. Rays six, seven, eight, nine, and ten...." Crane, with Seaton, began making contacts, rapidly but with precision. "Heat wave two-seven. Induction, five-eight. Oscillation, everything under point oh six three. All the explosive copper we can get in. Right?"

"Right-and if worse comes to worst, remember the zone of force. Let him shoot first, because he may be peaceable-but it doesn't look like olive branches to me."

"Got both your screens out?"

"Yes. Mart, you might take number two visiplate and work the guns-I'll handle the rest of this stuff. Better strap yourselves in solid, folks-this may develop into a kind of rough party, by the looks of things right now."

* * *

As he spoke, a pyrotechnic display enveloped the entire ship as a radiation from the foreign vessel struck the other neutralizing screen and dissipated its force harmlessly in the ether. Instantly Seaton threw on the full power of his refrigerating system and shot in the master switch that actuated the complex offensive armament of his dreadnought of the skies. An intense, livid violet glow hid completely main and auxiliary power bars, and long flashes leaped between metallic objects in all parts of the vessel. The passengers felt each hair striving to stand on end as the very air became more and more highly charged-and this was but the slight corona-loss of the frightful stream of destruction being hurled at the other space-cruiser, now scarcely a mile away!

Seaton stared into number one visiplate, manipulating levers and dials as he drove the Skylark hither and yon, dodging frantically, the while the automatic focusing devices remained centered upon the enemy and the enormous generators continued to pour forth their deadly frequencies. The bars glowed more fiercely as they were advanced to full working load-the stranger was one blaze of incandescent ionization, but she still fought on; and Seaton noticed that the pyrometers recording the temperature of the shell were mounting rapidly, in spite of the refrigerators.

"Dunark, put everything you've got upon one spot-right on the end of his nose!"

As the first shell struck the mark, Seaton concentrated every force at his command upon the designated point. The air in the Skylark crackled and hissed and intense violet flames leaped from the bars as they were driven almost to the point of disruption. From the forward end of the strange craft there erupted prominence after prominence of searing, unbearable flame as the terrific charges of explosive copper struck the mark and exploded, liberating instantaneously their millions upon millions of kilowatt-hours of intra-atomic energy. Each prominence enveloped all three of the fighting vessels and extended for hundreds of miles out into space-but still the enemy warship continued to hurl forth solid and vibratory destruction.

A brilliant orange light flared upon the panel, and Seaton gasped as he swung his visiplate upon his defenses, which he had supposed impregnable. His outer screen was already down, although its mighty copper generator was exerting its utmost power. Black areas had already appeared and were spreading rapidly, where there should have been only incandescent radiance; and the inner screen was even now radiating far into the ultra-violet and was certainly doomed. Knowing as he did the stupendous power driving those screens, he knew that there were superhuman and inconceivable forces being directed against them, and his right hand flashed to the switch controlling the zone of force. Fast as he was, much happened in the mere moment that passed before his flying hand could close the switch. In the last infinitesimal instant of time before the zone closed in, a gaping black hole appeared in the incandescence of the inner screen, and a small portion of a ray of energy so stupendous as to be palpable, struck, like a tangible projectile, the exposed flank of the Skylark. Instantly the refractory arenak turned an intense, dazzling white and more than a foot of the forty-eight-inch skin of the vessel melted away, like snow before an oxy-acetylene flame: melting and flying away in molten globes and sparkling gases-the refrigerating coils lining the hull were of no avail against the concentrated energy of that titanic thrust. As Seaton shut off his power, intense darkness and utter silence closed in, and he snapped on the lights.

"They take one trick!" he blazed, his eyes almost emitting sparks, and leaped for the generators. He had forgotten the efforts of the zone of force, however, and only sprawled grotesquely in the air until he floated within reach of a line.

"Hold everything, Dick!" Crane snapped, as Seaton bent over one of the bars. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to put as heavy bars in these ray-generators as they'll stand and go out and get that bird. We can't lick him with Osnomian rays or with our explosive copper, but I can carve that sausage into slices with a zone of force, and I'm going to do it."

"Steady, old man-take it easy. I see your point, but remember that you must release the zone of force before you can use it as a weapon. Furthermore, you must discover his exact location, and must get close enough to him to use the zone as a weapon, all without its protection. Can those ray-screens be made sufficiently powerful to withstand the beam they employed last, even for a second?"

"Hm ... m ... m. Never thought of that, Mart," Seaton replied, the fire dying out of his eyes. "Wonder how long the battle lasted?"

"Eight and two-tenths seconds, from first to last, but they had had that heavy ray in action only a fraction of one second when you cut in the zone of force. Either they underestimated our strength at first, or else it required about eight seconds to tune in their heavy generators-probably the former."

"But we've got to do something, man! We can't just sit here and twiddle our thumbs!"

"Why, and why not? That course seems eminently wise and proper. In fact, at the present time, thumb-twiddling is distinctly indicated."

"Oh, you're full of little red ants! We can't do a thing with that zone on-and you say just sit here. Suppose they know all about that zone of force? Suppose they can crack it? Suppose they ram us?"

"I shall take up your objections in order," Crane had lighted a cigarette and was smoking meditatively. "First, they may or may not know about it. At present, that point is immaterial. Second, whether or not they know about it, it is almost a certainty that they cannot crack it. It had been up for more than three minutes, and they have undoubtedly concentrated everything possible upon us during that time. It is still standing. I really expected it to go down in the first few seconds, but now that it has held this long it will, in all probability, continue to hold indefinitely. Third, they most certainly will not ram us, for several reasons. They probably have encountered few, if any, foreign vessels able to stand against them for a minute, and will act accordingly. Then, too, it is probably safe to assume that their vessel is damaged, to some slight extent at least; for I do not believe that any possible armament could withstand the forces you directed against them and escape entirely unscathed. Finally, if they did ram us, what would happen? Would we feel the shock? That barrier in the ether seems impervious, and if so, it could not transmit a blow. I do not see exactly how it would affect the ship dealing the blow. You are the one who works out the new problems in unexplored mathematics-some time you must take a few months off and work it out."

"Yes, it would take that long, too, I guess-but you're right, he can't hurt us. That's using the old bean, Mart! I was going off half-cocked again, darn it! I'll pipe down, and we'll go into a huddle."

* * *

Seaton noticed that Dorothy's face was white and that she was fighting for self-control. Drawing himself over to her, he picked her up in a tight embrace.

"Cheer up, Red-Top! This man's war ain't started yet!"

"Not started? What do you mean? Haven't you and Martin just been admitting to each other that you can't do anything? Doesn't that mean that we are beaten?"

"Beaten! Us? How do you get that way? Not on your sweet young life!" he ejaculated, and the surprise on his face was so manifest that she recovered instantly. "We've just dug a hole and pulled the hole in after us, that's all! When we get everything doped out to suit us, we'll snap out of it and that bird'll think he's been petting a wildcat!"

"Mart, you're the thinking end of this partnership," he continued, thoughtfully. "You've got the analytical mind and the judicial disposition, and can think circles around me. From what little you've seen of those folks, tell me who, what, and where they are. I'm getting the germ of an idea, and maybe we can make it work."

"I will try it." Crane paused. "They are, of course, neither from the Earth nor from Osnome. It is also evident that they have solved the secret of intra-atomic energy. Their vessels are not propelled as ours are-they have so perfected that force that it acts upon every particle of the structure and its contents...."

"How do you figure that?" blurted Seaton.

"Because of the acceleration they can stand. Nothing even semi-human, and probably nothing living, could endure it otherwise. Right?"

"Yes-I never thought of that."

"Furthermore, they are far from home, for if they were from anywhere nearby, the Osnomians would have known of them-particularly since it is evident from the size of the vessel that it is not a recent development with them, as it is with us. Since the green system is close to the center of the Galaxy, it seems reasonable, as a working hypothesis, to assume that they are from some system far from the center, perhaps close to the outer edge. They are very evidently of a high degree of intelligence. They are also highly treacherous and merciless...."

"Why?" asked Dorothy, who was listening eagerly.

"I deduce those characteristics from their unprovoked attack upon peaceful ships, vastly smaller and supposedly of inferior armament; and also from the nature of that attack. This vessel is probably a scout or an exploring ship, since it seems to be alone. It is not altogether beyond the bounds of reason to imagine it upon a voyage of discovery, in search of new planets to be subjugated and colonized...."

"That's a sweet picture of our future neighbors-but I guess you're hitting the old nail on the head, at that."

"If these deductions are anywhere nearly correct, they are terrible neighbors. For my next point, are we justified in assuming that they do or do not know about the zone of force?"

"That's a hard one. Knowing what they evidently do know, it's hard to see how they could have missed it. And yet, if they had known about it for a long time, wouldn't they be able to get through it? Of course it may be a real and total barrier in the ether-in that case they'd know that they couldn't do a thing as long as we keep it on. Take your choice, but I believe that they know about it, and know more than we do-that it is a total barrier set up in the ether."

"I agree with you, and we shall proceed upon that assumption. They know, then, that neither they nor we can do anything as long as we maintain the zone-that it is a stalemate. They also know that it takes an enormous amount of power to keep the zone in place. Now we have gone as far as we can go upon the meager data we have-considerably farther than we really are justified in going. We must now try to come to some conclusion concerning their present activities. If our ideas as to their natures are even approximately correct, they are waiting, probably fairly close at hand, until we shall be compelled to release the zone, no matter how long that period of waiting shall be. They know, of course, from our small size, that we cannot carry enough copper to maintain it indefinitely, as they could. Does that sound reasonable?"

"I check you to nineteen decimal places, Mart, and from your ideas I'm getting surer and surer that we can pull their corks. I can get into action in a hurry when I have to, and my idea now is to wait until they relax a trifle, and then slip a fast one over on them. One more bubble out of the old think-tank and I'll let you off for the day. At what time will their vigilance be at lowest ebb? That's a poser, I'll admit, but the answer to it may answer everything-the first shot will, of course, be the best chance we'll ever have."

"Yes, we should succeed in the first attempt. We have very little information to guide us in answering that question." He studied the problem for many minutes before he resumed, "I should say that for a time they would keep all their rays and other weapons in action against the zone of force, expecting us to release it immediately. Then, knowing that they were wasting power uselessly, they would cease attacking, but would be very watchful, with every eye fastened upon us and with every weapon ready for instant use. After this period of vigilance, regular ship's routine would be resumed. Half the force, probably, would go off duty-for, if they are even remotely like any organic beings with which we are familiar, they require sleep or its equivalent at intervals. The men on duty-the normal force, that is-would be doubly careful for a time. Then habit will assert itself, if we have done nothing to create suspicion, and their watchfulness will relax to the point of ordinary careful observation. Toward the end of their watch, because of the strain of the battle and because of the unusually long period of duty, they will become careless, and their vigilance will be considerably below normal. But the exact time of all these things depends entirely upon their conception of time, concerning which we have no information whatever. Though it is purely a speculation, based upon Earthly and Osnomian experience, I should say that after twelve or thirteen hours would come the time for us to make the attack."

"That's good enough for me. Fine, Mart, and thanks. You've probably saved the lives of the party. We will now sleep for eleven or twelve hours."

"Sleep, Dick! How could you?" Dorothy exclaimed.

* * *

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