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Bird Beast Or Fish?







From: The Skylark Of Space

"These jewels rather puzzle me, Dick. What are they?" asked Martin, as
the four assembled, waiting for the first meal. As he spoke he held up
his third finger, upon which gleamed the royal jewel of Osnome in its
splendid Belcher mounting of arenak as transparent as the jewel itself
and having the same intense blue color. "I know the name, 'faidon,' but
that's all I seem to know."

"That's about all that anybody knows about them. It is a
naturally-occurring, hundred-faceted crystal, just as you see it
there--deep blue, perfectly transparent, intensely refractive, and
constantly emitting that strong, blue light. It is so hard that it
cannot be worked, cut, or ground. No amount of the hardest known
abrasive will even roughen its surface. No blow, however great, will
break it--it merely forces its way into the material of the hammer,
however hard the hammer may be. No extremity of either heat or cold
affects it in any degree, it is the same when in the most powerful
electric arc as it is when immersed in liquid helium."

"How about acids?"

"That is what I am asking myself. Osnomians aren't much force at
chemistry. I'm going to try to get hold of another one, and see if I
can't analyze it, just for fun. I can't seem to convince myself that a
real atomic structure could be that large."

"No, it is rather large for an atom," and turning to the two girls, "How
do you like your solitaires?"

"They're perfectly beautiful, and the Tiffany mounting is exquisite,"
replied Dorothy, enthusiastically, "but they're so awfully big! They're
as big as ten-carat diamonds, I do believe."

"Just about," replied Seaton, "but at that, they're the smallest Dunark
could find. They have been kicking around for years, he says--so small
that nobody wanted them. They wear big ones on their bracelets, you
know. You sure will make a hit in Washington, Dottie. People will think
you're wearing a bottle-stopper until they see it shining in the dark,
then they'll think it's an automobile headlight. But after a few
jewelers have seen these stones, one of them will be offering us five
million dollars apiece for them, trying to buy them for some dizzy old
dame who wants to put out the eyes of some of her social rivals. Yes?
No?"

"That's about right, Dick," replied Crane, and his face wore a
thoughtful look. "We can't keep it secret that we have a new jewel,
since all four of us will be wearing them continuously, and anyone who
knows jewels at all will recognize these as infinitely superior to any
known Earthly jewel. In fact, they may get some of us into trouble, as
fabulously valuable jewels usually do."

"That's true, too. So we'll let it out casually that they're as common
as mud up here--that we're just wearing them for sentiment, which is
true, and that we're thinking of bringing back a shipload to sell for
parking lights."

"That would probably keep anyone from trying to murder our wives for
their rings, at least."

"Have you read your marriage certificate, Dick?" asked Margaret.

"Not yet. Let's look at it, Dottie."

She produced the massive, heavily-jeweled document, and the auburn head
and the brown one were very close to each other as they read together
the English side of the certificate. Their vows were there, word for
word, with their own signatures beneath them, all deeply engraved into
the metal. Seaton smiled as he saw the legal form engraved below their
signatures, and read aloud:

"I, the Head of the Church and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed
forces of Kondal, upon the planet Osnome, certify that I have this
day, in the city of Kondalek, of said nation and planet, joined in
indissoluble bonds of matrimony, Richard Ballinger Seaton, Doctor
of Philosophy, and Dorothy Lee Vaneman; Doctor of Music; both of
the city of Washington, District of Columbia, United States of
America, upon the planet Earth, in strict compliance with the
marriage laws, both of Kondal and of the United States of America.

TARNAN."

Witnesses:
ROBAN, Emperor of Kondal.
TURAL, Empress of Kondal.
DUNARK, Crown Prince of Kondal.
SITAR, Crown Princess of Kondal.
MARC C. DUQUESNE, Ph. D., Washington, D. C.

"That is SOME document," remarked Seaton. "Probably a lawyer could find
fault with his phraseology, but I'll bet that this thing would hold in
any court in the world. Think you'll get married again when we get back,
Mart?"

Both girls protested, and Crane answered:

"No, I think not. Our ceremony would be rather an anticlimax after this
one, and this one will undoubtedly prove legal. I intend to register
this just as it is, and get a ruling from the courts. But it is time for
breakfast. Pardon me--I should have said 'darprat,' for it certainly is
not breakfast-time by Washington clocks. My watch says that it is
eleven-thirty P. M."

"This system of time is funny," remarked Dorothy. "I just can't get used
to having no night, and...."

"And it's such a long time between eats, as the famous governor said
about the drinks," broke in Seaton.

"How did you know what I was going to say, Dick?"

"Husbandly intuition," he grinned, "aided and abetted by a normal
appetite that rebels at seventeen hours between supper and breakfast,
and nine hours between the other meals. Well, it's time to eat--let's
go!"

* * * * *

After eating, the men hurried to the Skylark. During the sleeping-period
the vessel had been banded with the copper repellers: the machine guns
and instruments, including the wonderful Osnomian wireless system, had
been installed; and, except for the power-bars, she was ready for a
voyage. The Kondalian vessel was complete, even to the cushions, but was
without instruments.

After a brief conversation with the officer in charge, Dunark turned to
Seaton.

"Didn't you find that your springs couldn't stand up under the
acceleration?"

"Yes, they flattened out dead."

"The Kolanix Felan, in charge of the work, thought so, and substituted
our compound-compensated type, made of real spring metal, for them.
They'll hold you through any acceleration you can live through."

"Thanks, that's fine. What's next, instruments?"

"Yes. I have sent a crew of men to gather up what copper they can
find--you know that we use practically no metallic copper, as platinum,
gold, and silver are so much better for ordinary purposes--and another
to erect a copper-smelter near one of the mines which supply the city
with the copper sulphate used upon our tables. While they are at work I
think I will work on the instruments, if you two will be kind enough to
help me."

Seaton and Crane offered to supply him with instruments from their
reserve stock, but the Kofedix refused to accept them, saying that he
would rather have their help in making them, so that he would thoroughly
understand their functions. The electric furnaces were rapidly made
ready and they set to work; Crane taking great delight in working that
hitherto rare and very refractory metal, iridium, of which all the
Kondalian instruments were to be made.

"They have a lot of our rare metals here, Dick."

"They sure have. I'd like to set up a laboratory and live here a few
years--I'd learn something about my specialty or burst. They use gold
and silver where we use copper, and platinum and its alloys where we use
iron and soft steel. All their weapons are made of iridium, and all
their most highly-tempered tools, such as their knives, razors, and so
on, are made of opaque arenak. I suppose you've noticed the edge on your
razor?"

"How could I help it? It is hard to realize that a metal can be so hard
that it requires forty years on a diamond-dust abrasive machine to hone
a razor--or that once honed, it shaves generation after generation of
men without losing in any degree its keenness."

"I can't understand it, either--I only know that it's so. They have all
our heavy metals in great abundance, and a lot more that we don't know
anything about on Earth, but they apparently haven't any light metals at
all. It must be that Osnome was thrown off the parent sun late, so that
the light metals were all gone?"

"Something like that, possibly."

The extraordinary skill of the Kofedix made the manufacture of the
instruments a short task, and after Crane had replaced the few broken
instruments of the Skylark from their reserve stock, they turned their
attention to the supply of copper that had been gathered. They found it
enough for only two bars.

"Is this all we have?" asked Dunark, sharply.

"It is, your Highness," replied the Kolanix. "That is every scrap of
metallic copper in the city."

"Oh, well, that'll be enough to last until we can smelt the rest," said
Seaton. "With one bar apiece we're ready for anything Mardonale can
start. Let 'em come!"

The bars were placed in the containers and both vessels were tried out,
each making a perfect performance. Upon the following kokam, immediately
after the first meal, the full party from the Earth boarded the Skylark
and accompanied the Kofedix to the copper smelter. Dunark himself
directed the work of preparing the charges and the molds, though he was
continually being interrupted by wireless messages in code and by
messengers bearing tidings too important to trust into the air.

"I hope you will excuse all of these delays," said Dunark, after the
twentieth interruption, "but...."

"That's all right, Dunark. We know that you're a busy man."

"I can tell you about it, but I wouldn't want to tell many people. With
the salt you gave us, I am preparing a power-plant that will enable us
to blow Mardonale into...."

He broke off as a wireless call for help sounded. All listened intently,
learning that a freight-plane was being pursued by a karlon a few
hundred miles away.

"Now's the time for you to study one, Dunark!" Seaton exclaimed. "Get
your gang of scientists out here while we go get him and drag him in!"

* * * * *

As Dunark sent the message, the Skylark's people hurried aboard, and
Seaton drove the vessel toward the calls for help. With its great speed
it reached the monster before the plane was overtaken. Focusing the
attractor upon the enormous metallic beak of the karlon, Seaton threw on
the power and the beast halted in midair as it was jerked backward and
upward. As it saw the puny size of the attacking Skylark, it opened its
cavernous mouth in a horrible roar and rushed at full speed. Seaton,
unwilling to have the repellers stripped from the vessel, turned on the
current actuating them. The karlon was hurled backward to the point of
equilibrium of the two forces, where it struggled demoniacally.

Seaton carried his captive back to the smelter, where finally, by
judicious pushing and pulling, he succeeded in turning the monster flat
upon its back and pinning it to the ground in spite of its struggles to
escape.

Soon the scientists arrived and studied the animal thoroughly, at as
close a range as its flailing arms permitted.

"I wish we could kill him without blowing him to bits," wirelessed
Dunark. "Do you know any way of doing it?"

"We could if we had a few barrels of ether, or some of our own poison
gases, but they are all unknown here and it would take a long time to
build the apparatus to make them. I'll see if I can't tire him out and
get him that way as soon as you've studied him enough. We may be able to
find out where he lives, too."

The scientists having finished their observations, Seaton jerked the
animal a few miles into the air and shut off the forces acting upon it.
There was a sudden crash, and the karlon, knowing that this apparently
insignificant vessel was its master, turned in headlong flight.

"Have you any idea what caused the noise just then, Dick?" asked Crane;
who, with characteristic imperturbability, had taken out his notebook
and was making exact notes of all that transpired.

"I imagine we cracked a few of his plates," replied Seaton with a laugh,
as he held the Skylark in place a few hundred feet above the fleeing
animal.

Pitted for the first time in its life against an antagonist, who could
both outfly and outfight it, the karlon redoubled its efforts and fled
in a panic of fear. It flew back over the city of Kondalek, over the
outlying country, and out over the ocean, still followed easily by the
Skylark. As they neared the Mardonalian border, a fleet of warships rose
to contest the entry of the monster. Seaton, not wishing to let the foe
see the rejuvenated Skylark, jerked his captive high into the thin air.
As soon as it was released, it headed for the ocean in an almost
perpendicular dive, while Seaton focused an object-compass upon it.

"Go to it, old top," he addressed the plunging monster. "We'll follow
you clear to the bottom of the ocean if you go that far!"

There was a mighty double splash as the karlon struck the water, closely
followed by the Skylark. The girls gasped as the vessel plunged below
the surface at such terrific speed, and seemed surprised that it had
suffered no injury and that they had felt no jar. Seaton turned on the
powerful searchlights and kept close enough so that he could see the
monster through the transparent walls. Deeper and deeper the quarry
dove, until it was plainly evident to the pursuers that it was just as
much at home in the water as it was in the air. The beams of the lights
revealed strange forms of life, among which were huge, staring-eyed
fishes, which floundered about blindly in the unaccustomed glare. As the
karlon bored still deeper, the living things became scarcer, but still
occasional fleeting glimpses were obtained of the living nightmares
which inhabited the oppressive depths of these strange seas. Continuing
downward, the karlon plumbed the nethermost pit of the ocean and came to
rest upon the bottom, stirring up a murk of ooze.

"How deep are we, Mart?"

"About four miles. I have read the pressure, but will have to calculate
later exactly what depth it represents, from the gravity and density
readings."

As the animal showed no sign of leaving its retreat, Seaton pulled it
out with the attractor and it broke for the surface. Rising through the
water at full speed, it burst into the air and soared upward to such an
incredible height that Seaton was amazed.

"I wouldn't have believed that anything could fly in air this thin!" he
exclaimed.

"It is thin up here," assented Crane. "Less than three pounds to the
square inch. I wonder how he does it?"

"It doesn't look as though we are ever going to find out--he's sure a
bear-cat!" replied Seaton, as the karlon, unable to ascend further,
dropped in a slanting dive toward the lowlands of Kondal--the terrible,
swampy region covered with poisonous vegetation and inhabited by
frightful animals and even more frightful savages. The monster neared
the ground with ever-increasing speed. Seaton, keeping close behind it,
remarked to Crane:

"He'll have to flatten out pretty quick, or he'll burst something,
sure."

* * * * *

But it did not flatten out. It struck the soft ground head foremost and
disappeared, its tentacles apparently boring a way ahead of it.

Astonished at such an unlooked-for development, Seaton brought the
Skylark to a stop and stabbed into the ground with the attractor. The
first attempt brought up nothing but a pillar of muck, the second
brought to light a couple of wings and one writhing arm, the third
brought the whole animal, still struggling as strongly as it had in the
first contest. Seaton again lifted the animal high into the air.

"If he does that again, we'll follow him."

"Will the ship stand it?" asked DuQuesne, with interest.

"Yes. The old bus wouldn't have, but this one can stand anything. We can
go anywhere that thing can, that's a cinch. If we have enough power on,
we probably won't even feel a jolt when we strike ground."

Seaton reduced the force acting upon the animal until just enough was
left to keep the attractor upon it, and it again dived into the swamp.
The Skylark followed, feeling its way in the total darkness, until the
animal stopped, refusing to move in any direction, at a depth estimated
by Crane to be about three-quarters of a mile. After waiting some time
Seaton increased the power of the attractor and tore the karlon back to
the surface and into the air, where it turned on the Skylark with
redoubled fury.

"We've dug him out of his last refuge and he's fighting like a cornered
rat," said Seaton as he repelled the monster to a safe distance. "He's
apparently as fresh as when he started, in spite of all this playing.
Talk about a game fish! He doesn't intend to run any more, though, so I
guess we'll have to put him away. It's a shame to bump him off, but it's
got to be done."

Crane aimed one of the heavy X-plosive bullets at the
savagely-struggling monster, and the earth rocked with the concussion as
the shell struck its mark. They hurried back to the smelter, where
Dunark asked eagerly:

"What did you find out about it?"

"Nothing much," replied Seaton, and in a few words described the actions
of the karlon. "What did your savants think of it?"

"Very little that any of us can understand in terms of any other known
organism. It seems to combine all the characteristics of bird, beast,
and fish, and to have within itself the possibilities of both bisexual
and asexual reproduction."

"I wouldn't doubt it--it's a queer one, all right."

The copper bars were cool enough to handle, and the Skylark was loaded
with five times its original supply of copper, the other vessel taking
on a much smaller amount. After the Kofedix had directed the officer in
charge to place the remaining bars in easily-accessible places
throughout the nation, the two vessels were piloted back to the palace,
arriving just in time for the last meal of the kokam.

"Well, Dunark," said Seaton after the meal was over, "I'm afraid that we
must go back as soon as we can. Dorothy's parents and Martin's bankers
will think they are dead by this time. We should start right now,
but...."

"Oh, no, you must not do that. That would rob our people of the chance
of bidding you goodbye."

"There's another reason, too. I have a mighty big favor to ask of you."

"It is granted. If man can do it, consider it done."

"Well, you know platinum is a very scarce and highly useful metal with
us. I wonder if you could let us have a few tons of it? And I would like
to have another faidon, too--I want to see if I can't analyze it."

"You have given us a thousand times the value of all the platinum and
all the jewels your vessel can carry. As soon as the foundries are open
tomorrow we will go and load up your store-rooms--or, if you wish, we
will do it now."

"That isn't necessary. We may as well enjoy your hospitality for one
more sleeping-period, get the platinum during the first work-period, and
bid you goodbye just before the second meal. How would that be?"

"Perfectly satisfactory."

The following kokam, Dunark piloted the Skylark, with Seaton, Crane, and
DuQuesne as crew, to one of the great platinum foundries. The girls
remained behind to get ready for their departure, and for the great
ceremony which was to precede it. The trip to the foundry was a short
one, and the three scientists of Earth stared at what they
saw--thousands of tons of platinum, cast into bars and piled up like
pig-iron, waiting to be made into numerous articles of every-day use
throughout the nation. Dunark wrote out an order, which his chief
attendant handed to the officer in charge of the foundry, saying:

"Please have it loaded at once."

Seaton indicated the storage compartment into which the metal was to be
carried, and a procession of slaves, two men staggering under one ingot,
was soon formed between the pile and the storage room.

* * * * *

"How much are you loading on, Dunark?" asked Seaton, when the large
compartment was more than half full.

"My order called for about twenty tons, in your weight, but I changed it
later--we may as well fill that room full, so that the metal will not
rattle around in flight. It doesn't make any difference to us, we have
so much of it. It is like your gift of the salt, only vastly smaller."

"What are you going to do with it all, Dick?" asked Crane. "That is
enough to break the platinum market completely."

"That's exactly what I'm going to do," returned Seaton, with a gleam in
his gray eyes. "I'm going to burst this unjustifiable fad for platinum
jewelry so wide open that it'll never recover, and make platinum again
available for its proper uses, in laboratories and in the industries.

"You know yourself," he rushed on hotly, "that the only reason platinum
is used at all for jewelry is that it is expensive. It isn't nearly so
handsome as either gold or silver, and if it wasn't the most costly
common metal we have, the jewelry-wearing crowd wouldn't touch it with a
ten-foot pole. Useless as an ornament, it is the one absolutely
indispensable laboratory metal, and literally hundreds of laboratories
that need it can't have it because over half the world's supply is tied
up in jeweler's windows and in useless baubles. Then, too, it is the
best thing known for contact points in electrical machinery. When the
Government and all the scientific societies were abjectly begging the
jewelers to let loose a little of it they refused--they were selling it
to profiteering spendthrifts at a hundred and fifty dollars an ounce.
The condition isn't much better right now; it's a vicious circle. As
long as the price stays high it will be used for jewelry, and as long as
it is used for jewelry the price will stay high, and scientists will
have to fight the jewelers for what little they get."

"While somewhat exaggerated, that is about the way matters stand. I will
admit that I, too, am rather bitter on the subject," said Crane.

"Bitter? Of course you're bitter. Everybody is who knows anything about
science and who has a brain in his head. Anybody who claims to be a
scientist and yet stands for any of his folks buying platinum jewelry
ought to be shot. But they'll get theirs as soon as we get back. They
wouldn't let go of it before, they had too good a thing, but they'll let
go now, and get their fingers burned besides. I'm going to dump this
whole shipment at fifty cents a pound, and we'll take mighty good care
that jewelers don't corner the supply."

"I'm with you, Dick, as usual."


Soon the storage room was filled to the ceiling with closely-stacked
ingots of the precious metal, and the Skylark was driven back to the
landing dock. She alighted beside Dunark's vessel, the Kondal, whose
gorgeously-decorated crew of high officers sprang to attention as the
four men stepped out. All were dressed for the ceremonial leave-taking,
the three Americans wearing their spotless white, the Kondalians wearing
their most resplendent trappings.

"This formal stuff sure does pull my cork!" exclaimed Seaton to Dunark.
"I want to get this straight. The arrangement was that we were to be
here at this time, all dressed up, and wait for the ladies, who are
coming under the escort of your people?"

"Yes. Our family is to escort the ladies from the palace here. As they
leave the elevator the surrounding war-vessels will salute, and after a
brief ceremony you two will escort your wives into the Skylark, Doctor
DuQuesne standing a little apart and following you in. The war-vessels
will escort you as high as they can go, and the Kondal will accompany
you as far as our most distant sun before turning back."

For a few moments Seaton nervously paced a short beat in front of the
door of the space-car.

"I'm getting more fussed every second," he said abruptly, taking out his
wireless instrument. "I'm going to see if they aren't about ready."

"What seems to be the trouble, Dick? Have you another hunch, or are you
just rattled?" asked Crane.

"Rattled, I guess, but I sure do want to get going," he replied, as he
worked the lever rapidly.

"Dottie," he sent out, and, the call being answered, "How long will you
be? We're all ready and waiting, chewing our finger-nails with
impatience."

"We'll soon be ready. The Karfedix is coming for us now."

Scarcely had the tiny sounder become silent when the air was shaken by
an urgently-vibrated message, and every wireless sounder gave warning.





Next: The Invasion

Previous: An Osnomian Marriage



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