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Indirect Action







From: The Skylark Of Space

The afternoon following the homecoming of the Skylark, Seaton and
Dorothy returned from a long horseback ride in the park. After Seaton
had mounted his motorcycle Dorothy turned toward a bench in the shade of
an old elm to watch a game of tennis on the court next door. Scarcely
had she seated herself when a great copper-plated ball alighted upon the
lawn in front of her. A heavy steel door snapped open and a powerful
figure clad in aviator's leather, the face completely covered by the
hood, leaped out. She jumped to her feet with a cry of joyful surprise,
thinking it was Seaton--a cry which died suddenly as she realized that
Seaton had just left her and that this vessel was far too small to be
the Skylark. She turned in flight, but the stranger caught her in three
strides. She found herself helpless in a pair of arms equal in strength
to Seaton's own. Picking her up lightly as a baby, DuQuesne carried her
over to the space-car. Shriek after shriek rang out as she found that
her utmost struggles were of no avail against the giant strength of her
captor, that her fiercely-driven nails glanced harmlessly off the heavy
glass and leather of his hood, and that her teeth were equally
ineffective against his suit.

With the girl in his arms DuQuesne stepped into the vessel, and as the
door clanged shut behind them Dorothy caught a glimpse of another woman,
tied hand and foot in one of the side seats of the car.

"Tie her feet, Perkins," DuQuesne ordered brusquely, holding her around
the body so that her feet extended straight out in front of him. "She's
a wildcat."

As Perkins threw one end of a small rope around her ankles Dorothy
doubled up her knees, drawing her feet as far away from him as possible.
As he incautiously approached, she kicked out viciously, with all the
force of her muscular young body behind her heavy riding-boots.

The sharp heel of one small boot struck Perkins squarely in the pit of
the stomach--a true "solar-plexus" blow--and completely knocked out, he
staggered back against the instrument-board. His out-flung arm pushed
the speed lever clear out to its last notch, throwing the entire current
of the batteries through the bar, which was pointed straight up, as it
had been when they made their landing, and closing the switch which
threw on the power of the repelling outer coating. There was a creak of
the mighty steel fabric, stressed almost to its limit as the vessel
darted upward with its stupendous velocity, and only the
carefully-planned spring-and-cushion floor saved their lives as they
were thrown flat and held there by the awful force of their acceleration
as the space-car tore through the thin layer of the earth's atmosphere.
So terrific was their speed, that the friction of the air did not have
time to set them afire--they were through it and into the perfect vacuum
of interstellar space before the thick steel hull was even warmed
through. Dorothy lay flat upon her back, just as she had fallen, unable
even to move her arms, gaining each breath only by a terrible effort.
Perkins was a huddled heap under the instrument-board. The other
captive, Brookings' ex-secretary, was in somewhat better case, as her
bonds had snapped like string and she was lying at full length in one of
the side-seats--forced into that position and held there, as the design
of the seats was adapted for the most comfortable position possible
under such conditions. She, like Dorothy, was gasping for breath, her
straining muscles barely able to force air into her lungs because of the
paralyzing weight of her chest.

DuQuesne alone was able to move, and it required all of his Herculean
strength to creep and crawl, snake-like, toward the instrument-board.
Finally attaining his goal, he summoned all his strength to grasp, not
the controlling lever, which he knew was beyond his reach, but a cut-out
switch only a couple of feet above his head. With a series of convulsive
movements he fought his way up, first until he was crouching on his
elbows and knees, and then into a squatting position. Placing his left
hand under his right, he made a last supreme effort. Perspiration
streamed from him, his mighty muscles stood out in ridges visible even
under the heavy leather of his coat, his lips parted in a snarl over his
locked teeth as he threw every ounce of his wonderful body into an
effort to force his right hand up to the switch. His hand approached it
slowly--closed over it and pulled it out.

The result was startling. With the mighty power instantly cut off, and
with not even the ordinary force of gravitation to counteract the force
DuQuesne was exerting, his own muscular effort hurled him up toward the
center of the car and against the instrument-board. The switch, still in
his grasp, was again closed. His shoulder crashed against the levers
which controlled the direction of the bar, swinging it through a wide
arc. As the ship darted off in the new direction with all its old
acceleration, he was hurled against the instrument board, tearing one
end loose from its supports and falling unconscious to the floor on the
other side. After a time, which seemed like an eternity, Dorothy and the
other girl felt their senses slowly leave them.

With four unconscious passengers, the space-car hurtled through empty
space, its already inconceivable velocity being augmented every second
by a quantity bringing its velocity near to that of light, driven onward
by the incredible power of the disintegrating copper bar.

* * * * *

Seaton had gone only a short distance from his sweetheart's home when
over the purring of his engine he thought he heard Dorothy's voice
raised in a scream. He did not wait to make sure, but whirled his
machine about and the purring changed instantly to a staccato roar as he
threw open the throttle and advanced the spark. Gravel flew from beneath
his skidding wheels as he negotiated the turn into the Vaneman grounds
at suicidal speed. But with all his haste he arrived upon the scene just
in time to see the door of the space-car close. Before he could reach it
the vessel disappeared, with nothing to mark its departure save a
violent whirl of grass and sod, uprooted and carried far into the air by
the vacuum of its wake. To the excited tennis-players and the screaming
mother of the abducted girl it seemed as though the great metal ball had
vanished utterly--only Seaton, knowing what to expect, saw the line it
made in the air and saw for an instant a minute dot in the sky before it
disappeared.

Interrupting the clamor of the young people, each of whom was trying to
tell him what had happened, he spoke to Mrs. Vaneman.

"Mother, Dottie's all right," he said rapidly but gently. "Steel's got
her, but they won't keep her long. Don't worry, we'll get her. It may
take a week or it may take a year, but we'll bring her back," and
leaping upon his motorcycle, he shattered all the speed laws on his way
to Crane's house.

"Mart!" he yelled, rushing into the shop, "they've got Dottie, in a bus
made from our plans. Let's go!" as he started on a run for the testing
shed.

"Wait a minute!" crisply shouted Crane. "Don't go off half-cocked. What
is your plan?"

"Plan, hell!" barked the enraged chemist. "Chase 'em!"

"Which way did they go, and when?"

"Straight up, full power, twenty minutes ago."

"Too long ago. Straight up has changed its direction several degrees
since then. They may have covered a million miles, or they may have come
back and landed next door. Sit down and think--we need all your brains
now."

Regaining his self-possession as the wisdom of his friend's advice came
home to him, Seaton sat down and pulled out his pipe. There was a tense
silence for an instant. Then he leaped to his feet and darted into his
room, returning with an object-compass whose needle pointed upward.

"DuQuesne did it," he cried exultantly. "This baby is still looking
right at him. Now let's go--make it snappy!"

"Not yet. We should find out how far away they are; that may give us an
idea."

Suiting action to word, he took up his stopwatch and set the needle
swinging. They watched it with strained faces as second after second
went by and it still continued to swing. When it had come to rest Crane
read his watch and made a rapid calculation.

"About three hundred and fifty million miles," he stated. "Clear out of
our solar system already, and from the distance covered he must have had
a constant acceleration so as to approximate the velocity of light, and
he is still going with full...."

"But nothing can possibly go that fast, Mart, it's impossible. How about
Einstein's theory?"

"That is a theory, this measurement of distance is a fact, as you know
from our tests."

"That's right. Another good theory gone to pot. But how do you account
for his distance? D'you suppose he's lost control?"

"He must have. I do not believe that he would willingly stand that
acceleration, nor that he would have gone that far of his own accord. Do
you?"

"I sure don't. We don't know how big a bar they are carrying, so we
can't estimate how long it is going to take us to catch them. But let's
not waste any more time, Mart. For Cat's sake, let's get busy!"

"We have only those four bars, Dick--two for each unit. Do you think
that will be enough? Think of how far we may have to go, what we may
possibly get into, and what it will mean to Dottie if we fail for lack
of power."

Seaton, though furiously eager to be off, paused at this new idea, and
half-regretfully he replied:

"We are so far behind them already that I guess a few hours more won't
make much difference. It sure would be disastrous to get out near one of
the fixed stars and have our power quit. I guess you're right, we'd
better get a couple more--make it four, then we'll have enough to chase
them half our lives. We'd better load up on grub and X-plosive
ammunition, too."

* * * * *

While Crane and Shiro carried additional provisions and boxes of
cartridges into the "Skylark," Seaton once more mounted his motorcycle
and sped across the city to the brass foundry. The manager of the plant
took his order, but blandly informed him that there was not that much
copper in the city, that it would be a week or ten days before the order
could be filled. Seaton suggested that they melt up some copper cable
and other goods already manufactured, offering ten times their value,
but the manager was obdurate, saying that he could not violate the rule
of priority of orders. Seaton then went to other places, endeavoring to
buy scrap copper, trolley wire, electric cable, anything made of the
ruddy metal, but found none for sale in quantities large enough to be of
any use. After several hours of fruitless search, he returned home in a
towering rage and explained to Crane, in lurid language, his failure to
secure the copper. The latter was unmoved.

"After you left, it occurred to me that you might not get any. You see,
Steel is still watching us."

Fire shot from Seaton's eyes.

"I'm going to clean up that bunch," he gritted through his teeth as he
started straight for the door.

"Not yet, Dick," Crane remonstrated. "We can go down to Wilson's in a
few minutes, and I know we can get it there if he has it. The "Skylark"
is all ready to travel."

No more words were needed. They hurried into the space-car and soon were
standing in the office of the plant in which the vessel had been built.
When they had made their wants known, the iron-master shook his head.

"I'm sorry, Crane, but I have only a few pounds of copper in the shop,
and we have no suitable furnace."

Seaton broke out violently at this, but Crane interrupted him,
explaining their inability to get the metal anywhere else and the
urgency of their need. When he had finished, Wilson brought his fist
down upon his desk.

"I'll get it if I have to melt up our dynamos," he roared. "We'll have
to rig a crucible, but we'll have your bars out just as soon as the
whole force of this damned scrap-heap can make 'em!"

Calling in his foreman, he bellowed orders, and while automobiles
scoured the nearby towns for scrap copper, the crucible and molds were
made ready.

Nearly two days passed before the gleaming copper cylinders were
finished. During this time Crane added to their already complete
equipment every article he could conceive of their having any use for,
while Seaton raged up and down the plant in a black fury of impatience.
Just before the bars were ready, they made another reading on the
object-compass. Their faces grew tense and drawn and their hearts turned
sick as second followed second and minute followed minute and the needle
still oscillated. Finally, however, it came to rest, and Seaton's voice
almost failed him as he read his figures.

"Two hundred and thirty-five light-years, Mart. They're lost, and still
going. Good-bye, old scout," holding out his hand, "Tell Vaneman that
I'll bring her back or else stay out there myself."

"You must be crazy, Dick. You know I am going."

"Why? No use in both of us taking such a chance. If Dottie's gone, of
course I want to go too, but you don't."

"Nonsense, Dick. Of course this is somewhat farther than we had planned
on going for our maiden voyage, but where is the difference? It is just
as safe to go a thousand light-years as only one, and we have power and
food for any contingency. There is no more danger in this trip than
there is in one to Mars. At all events, I am going whether you want me
to or not, so save your breath."

"You lie like a thief, Mart--you know what we are up against as well as
I do. But if you insist on coming along, I'm sure glad to have you."

As their hands met in a crushing grip, the bars were brought up and
loaded into the carriers. Waving good-bye to Wilson, they closed the
massive door and took their positions. Seaton adjusted the bar parallel
with the needle of the object-compass, turned on the coil, and advanced
the speed-lever until Crane, reading the pyro-meters, warned him to slow
down, as the shell was heating. Free of the earth's atmosphere, he
slowly advanced the lever, one notch at a time, until he could no
longer support the increasing weight of his hand, but had to draw out
the rolling support designed for that emergency. He pushed the lever a
few notches farther, and felt himself forced down violently into the
seat. He was now lying at full length, the seat having automatically
moved upward so that his hand still controlled the lever. Still he kept
putting on more power, until the indicator showed that more than
three-quarters of the power was in operation and he felt that he could
stand but little more.

"How are you making it, Mart?" he asked, talking with difficulty because
of the great weight of his tongue and jaws.

"All right so far," came the response, in a hesitating, almost
stammering voice, "but I do not know how much more I can take. If you
can stand it, go ahead."

"This is enough for awhile, until we get used to it. Any time you want
to rest, tell me and I'll cut her down."

"Keep her at this for four or five hours. Then cut down until we can
walk, so that we can eat and take another reading on distance. Remember
that it will take as long to stop as it does to get up speed, and that
we must be careful not to ram them. There would be nothing left of
either car."

"All right. Talking's too darn much work, I'll talk to you again when we
ease down. I sure am glad we're on our way at last."





Next: Lost In Space

Previous: The Trial Voyage



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