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The Rescue







From: The Skylark Of Space

Seaton and Crane drove the Skylark in the direction indicated by the
unwavering object-compass with the greatest acceleration they could
stand, each man taking a twelve-hour watch at the instrument board.

Now, indeed, did the Skylark justify the faith of her builders, and the
two inventors, with an exultant certainty of their success, flew out
beyond man's wildest imaginings. Had it not been for the haunting fear
for Dorothy's safety, the journey would have been one of pure triumph,
and even that anxiety did not prevent a profound joy in the enterprise.

"If that misguided mutt thinks he can pull off a stunt like that and get
away with it, he's got another think coming," asserted Seaton, after
making a reading on the other car after several days of the flight. "He
went off half-cocked this time, for sure, and we've got him foul. We'd
better put on some negative pretty soon hadn't we, Mart? Only a little
over a hundred light-years now."

Crane nodded agreement and Seaton continued:

"It'll take as long to stop, of course, as it has taken to get out here,
and if we ram them--GOOD NIGHT! Let's figure it out as nearly as we
can."

They calculated their own speed, and that of the other vessel, as shown
by the various readings taken, and applied just enough negative
acceleration to slow the Skylark down to the speed of the other
space-car when they should come up with it. They smiled at each other in
recognition of the perfect working of the mechanism when the huge vessel
had spun, with a sickening lurch, through a complete half-circle, the
instant the power was reversed. Each knew that they were actually
traveling in a direction that to them seemed "down," but with a
constantly diminishing velocity, even though they seemed to be still
going "up" with an increasing speed.

Until nearly the end of the calculated time the two took turns as
before, but as the time of meeting drew near both men were on the alert,
taking readings on the object-compass every few minutes. Finally Crane
announced:

"We are almost on them, Dick. They are so close that it is almost
impossible to time the needle--less than ten thousand miles."

Seaton gradually increased the retarding force until the needle showed
that they were very close to the other vessel and maintaining a constant
distance from it. He then shut off the power, and both men hurried to
the bottom window to search for the fleeing ship with their powerful
night-glasses. They looked at each other in amazement as they felt
themselves falling almost directly downward, with an astounding
acceleration.

"What do you make of it, Dick?" asked Crane calmly, as he brought his
glasses to his eyes and stared out into the black heavens, studded with
multitudes of brilliant and unfamiliar stars.

"I don't make it at all, Mart. By the feel, I should say we were falling
toward something that would make our earth look like a pin-head. I
remember now that I noticed that the bus was getting a little out of
plumb with the bar all this last watch. I didn't pay much attention to
it, as I couldn't see anything out of the way. Nothing but a sun could
be big enough to raise all this disturbance, and I can't see any close
enough to be afraid of, can you?"

"No, and I cannot see the Steel space-car, either. Look sharp."

"Of course," Seaton continued to argue as he peered out into the night,
"it is theoretically possible that a heavenly body can exist large
enough so that it could exert even this much force and still appear no
larger than an ordinary star, but I don't believe it is probable. Give
me three or four minutes of visual angle and I'll believe anything, but
none of these stars are big enough to have any visual angle at all.
Furthermore...."

"There is at least half a degree of visual angle!" broke in his friend
intensely. "Just to the left of that constellation that looks so much
like a question mark. It is not bright, but dark, like a very dark
moon--barely perceptible."

Seaton pointed his glass eagerly in the direction indicated.

"Great Cat!" he ejaculated. "I'll say that's some moon! Wouldn't that
rattle your slats? And there's DuQuesne's bus, too, on the right edge.
Get it?"

As they stood up, Seaton's mood turned to one of deadly earnestness, and
a grave look came over Crane's face as the seriousness of their
situation dawned upon them. Trained mathematicians both, they knew
instantly that that unknown world was of inconceivable mass, and that
their chance of escape was none too good, even should they abandon the
other craft to its fate. Seaton stared at Crane, his fists clenched and
drops of perspiration standing on his forehead. Suddenly, with agony in
his eyes and in his voice, he spoke.

"Mighty slim chance of getting away if we go through with it, old
man.... Hate like the devil.... Have no right to ask you to throw
yourself away, too."

"Enough of that, Dick. You had nothing to do with my coming: you could
not have kept me away. We will see it through."

Their hands met in a fierce clasp, broken by Seaton, as he jumped to the
levers with an intense:

"Well, let's get busy!"

In a few minutes they had reduced the distance until they could plainly
see the other vessel, a small black circle against the faintly luminous
disk. As it leaped into clear relief in the beam of his powerful
searchlight, Seaton focused the great attractor upon the fugitive car
and threw in the lever which released the full force of that mighty
magnet, while Crane attracted the attention of the vessel's occupants by
means of a momentary burst of solid machine-gun bullets, which he knew
would glance harmlessly off the steel hull.

* * * * *

After an interminable silence, DuQuesne drew himself out of his seat. He
took a long inhalation, deposited the butt of his cigarette carefully in
his ash tray, and made his way to his room. He returned with three heavy
fur suits provided with air helmets, two of which he handed to the
girls, who were huddled in a seat with their arms around each other.
These suits were the armor designed by Crane for use in exploring the
vacuum and the intense cold of dead worlds. Air-tight, braced with fine
steel netting, and supplied with air at normal pressure from small tanks
by automatic valves, they made their wearers independent of surrounding
conditions of pressure and temperature.

"The next thing to do," DuQuesne stated calmly, "is to get the copper
off the outside of the ship. That is the last resort, as it robs us of
our only safeguard against meteorites, but this is the time for
last-resort measures. I'm going after that copper. Put these suits on,
as our air will leave as soon as I open the door, and practically an
absolute vacuum and equally absolute zero will come in."

As he spoke, the ship was enveloped in a blinding glare and they were
thrown flat as the vessel slowed down in its terrific fall. The thought
flashed across DuQuesne's mind that they had already entered the
atmosphere of that monster globe and were being slowed down and set
afire by its friction, but he dismissed it as quickly as it had
come--the light in that case would be the green of copper, not this
bluish-white. His next thought was that there had been a collision of
meteors in the neighborhood, and that their retardation was due to the
outer coating. While these thoughts were flickering through his mind,
they heard an insistent metallic tapping, which DuQuesne recognized
instantly.

"A machine-gun!" he blurted in amazement. "How in...."

"It's Dick!" screamed Dorothy, with flashing eyes. "He's found us, just
as I knew he would. You couldn't beat Dick and Martin in a thousand
years!"

The tension under which they had been laboring so long suddenly
released, the two girls locked their arms around each other in a
half-hysterical outburst of relief. Margaret's meaningless words and
Dorothy's incoherent praises of her lover and Crane mingled with their
racking sobs as each fought to recover self-possession.

DuQuesne had instantly mounted to the upper window. Throwing back the
cover, he flashed his torch rapidly. The glare of the searchlight was
snuffed out and he saw a flashing light spell out in dots and dashes:

"Can you read Morse?"

"Yes," he signalled back. "Power gone, drifting into...."

"We know it. Will you resist?"

"No."

"Have you fur pressure-suits?"

"Yes."

"Put them on. Shut off your outer coating. Will touch so your upper door
against our lower. Open, transfer quick."

"O. K."

* * * * *

Hastily returning to the main compartment, he briefly informed the girls
as to what had happened. All three donned the suits and stationed
themselves at the upper opening. Rapidly, but with unerring precision,
the two ships were brought into place and held together by the
attractor. As the doors were opened, there was a screaming hiss as the
air of the vessels escaped through the narrow crack between them. The
passengers saw the moisture in the air turn into snow, and saw the air
itself first liquefy and then freeze into a solid coating upon the metal
around the orifices at the touch of the frightful cold outside--the
absolute zero of interstellar space, about four hundred sixty degrees
below zero in the every-day scale of temperature. The moisture of their
breath condensed upon the inside of the double glasses of their helmets,
rendering sight useless.


doorway in such a manner that she would not touch the metal, which would
have frozen instantly anything coming into contact with it.]

Dorothy pushed the other girl ahead of her. DuQuesne seized her and
tossed her lightly through the doorway in such a manner that she would
not touch the metal, which would have frozen instantly anything coming
into contact with it. Seaton was waiting. Feeling a woman's slender form
in his arms, he crushed her to him in a mighty embrace, and was
astonished to feel movements of resistance, and to hear a strange,
girlish voice cry out:

"Don't! It's me! Dorothy's next!"

Releasing her abruptly, he passed her on to Martin and turned just in
time to catch his sweetheart, who, knowing that he would be there and
recognizing his powerful arms at the first touch, returned his embrace
with a fierce intensity which even he had never suspected that she could
exert. They stood motionless, locked in each other's arms, while
DuQuesne dove through the opening and snapped the door shut behind him.

The air-pressure and temperature back to normal, the cumbersome suits
were hastily removed, and Seaton's lips met Dorothy's in a long,
clinging caress. DuQuesne's cold, incisive voice broke the silence.

"Every second counts. I would suggest that we go somewhere."

"Just a minute!" snapped Crane. "Dick, what shall we do with this
murderer?"

Seaton had forgotten DuQuesne utterly in the joy of holding his
sweetheart in his arms, but at his friend's words, he faced about and
his face grew stern.

"By rights, we ought to chuck him back into his own tub and let him go
to the devil," he said savagely, doubling his fists and turning swiftly.

"No, no, Dick," remonstrated Dorothy, seizing his arm. "He treated us
very well, and saved my life once. Anyway, you mustn't kill him."

"No, I suppose not," grudgingly assented her lover, "and I won't,
either, unless he gives me at least half an excuse."

"We might iron him to a post?" suggested Crane, doubtfully.

"I think there's a better way," replied Seaton. "He may be able to work
his way. His brain hits on all twelve, and he's strong as a bull. Our
chance of getting back isn't a certainty, as you know." He turned to
DuQuesne.

"I've heard that your word is good."

"It has never been broken."

"Will you give your word to act as one of the party, for the good of us
all, if we don't iron you?"

"Yes--until we get back to the earth. Provided, of course, that I
reserve the right to escape at any time between now and then if I wish
to and can do so without injuring the vessel or any member of the party
in any way."

"Agreed. Let's get busy--we're altogether too close to that dud there to
suit me. Sit tight, everybody, we're on our way!" he cried, as he turned
to the board, applied one notch of power, and shut off the attractor.
The Skylark slowed down a trifle in its mad fall, the other vessel
continued on its way--a helpless hulk, manned by a corpse, falling to
destruction upon the bleak wastes of a desert world.

"Hold on!" said DuQuesne sharply. "Your power is the same as mine was,
in proportion to your mass, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"Then our goose is cooked. I couldn't pull away from it with everything
I had, couldn't even swing out enough to make an orbit, either
hyperbolic or elliptical around it. With a reserve bar you will be able
to make an orbit, but you can't get away from it."

"Thanks for the dope. That saves our wasting some effort. Our
power-plant can be doubled up in emergencies, thanks to Martin's
cautious old bean. We'll simply double her up and go away from here."

* * * * *

"There is one thing we didn't consider quite enough," said Crane,
thoughtfully. "I started to faint back there before the full power of
even one motor was in use. With the motor doubled, each of us will be
held down by a force of many tons--we would all be helpless."

"Yes," added Dorothy, with foreboding in her eyes, "we were all
unconscious on the way out, except Dr. DuQuesne."

"Well, then, Blackie and I, as the huskiest members of the party, will
give her the juice until only one of us is left with his eyes open. If
that isn't enough to pull us clear, we'll have to give her the whole
works and let her ramble by herself after we all go out. How about it,
Blackie?" unconsciously falling into the old Bureau nickname. "Do you
think we can make it stop at unconsciousness with double power on?"

DuQuesne studied the two girls carefully.

"With oxygen in the helmets instead of air, we all may be able to stand
it. These special cushions keep the body from flattening out, as it
normally would under such a pressure. The unconsciousness is simply a
suffocation caused by the lateral muscles being unable to lift the
ribs--in other words, the air-pumps aren't strong enough for the added
work put upon them. At least we stand a chance this way. We may live
through the pressure while we are pulling away, and we certainly shall
die if we don't pull away."

After a brief consultation, the men set to work with furious haste.
While Crane placed extra bars in each of the motors and DuQuesne made
careful observations upon the apparent size of the now plainly visible
world toward which they were being drawn so irresistibly, Seaton
connected the helmets with the air-and oxygen-tanks through a valve upon
the board, by means of which he could change at will the oxygen content
of the air they breathed. He then placed the strange girl, who seemed
dazed by the frightful sensation of their never-ending fall, upon one of
the seats, fitted the cumbersome helmet upon her head, strapped her
carefully into place, and turned to Dorothy. In an instant they were in
each other's arms. He felt her labored breathing and the wild beating of
her heart, pressed so closely to his, and saw the fear of the unknown in
the violet depths of her eyes, but she looked at him unflinchingly.

"Dick, sweetheart, if this is good-bye...."

He interrupted her with a kiss.

"It isn't good-bye yet, Dottie mine. This is merely a trial effort, to
see what we will have to do to get away. Next time will be the time to
worry."

"I'm not worried, really ... but in case ... you see ... I ... we ..."

The gray eyes softened and misted over as he pressed his cheek to hers.

"I understand, sweetheart," he whispered. "This is not good-bye, but if
we don't pull through we'll go together, and that is what we both want."

As Crane and DuQuesne finished their tasks, Seaton fitted his
sweetheart's helmet, placed her tenderly upon the seat, buckled the
heavy restraining straps about her slender body, and donned his own
helmet. He took his place at the main instrument board, DuQuesne
stationing himself at the other.

"What did you read on it, Blackie?" asked Seaton.

"Two degrees, one minute, twelve seconds diameter," replied DuQuesne.
"Altogether too close for comfort. How shall we apply the power? One of
us must stay awake, or we'll go on as long as the bars last."

"You put on one notch, then I'll put on one. We can feel the bus jump
with each notch. We'll keep it up until one of us is so far gone that he
can't raise the bar--the one that raises last will have to let the ship
run for thirty minutes or an hour, then cut down his power. Then the
other fellow will revive and cut his off, for an observation. How's
that?"

"All right."

* * * * *

They took their places, and Seaton felt the vessel slow down in its
horrible fall as DuQuesne threw his lever into the first notch. He
responded instantly by advancing his own, and notch after notch the
power applied to the ship by the now doubled motor was rapidly
increased. The passengers felt their suits envelope them and began to
labor for breath. Seaton slowly turned the mixing valve, a little with
each advance of his lever, until pure oxygen flowed through the pipes.
The power levers had moved scarcely half of their range, yet minutes now
intervened between each advance instead of seconds, as at the start.

As each of the two men was determined that he would make the last
advance, the duel continued longer than either would have thought
possible. Seaton made what he thought his final effort and waited--only
to feel, after a few minutes, the upward surge telling him that DuQuesne
was still able to move his lever. His brain reeled. His arm seemed
paralyzed by its own enormous weight, and felt as though it, the rolling
table upon which it rested, and the supporting framework were so
immovably welded together that it was impossible to move it even the
quarter-inch necessary to operate the ratchet-lever. He could not move
his body, which was oppressed by a sickening weight. His utmost efforts
to breathe forced only a little of the life-giving oxygen into his
lungs, which smarted painfully at the touch of the undiluted gas, and he
felt that he could not long retain consciousness under such conditions.
Nevertheless, he summoned all his strength and advanced the lever one
more notch. He stared at the clock-face above his head, knowing that if
DuQuesne could advance his lever again he would lose consciousness and
be beaten. Minute after minute went by, however, and the acceleration of
the ship remained constant. Seaton, knowing that he was in sole control
of the power-plant, fought to retain possession of his faculties, while
the hands of the clock told off the interminable minutes.

After an eternity of time an hour had passed, and Seaton attempted to
cut down his power, only to find with horror that the long strain had so
weakened him that he could not reverse the ratchet. He was still able,
however, to give the lever the backward jerk which disconnected the
wires completely--and the safety straps creaked with the sudden stress
as, half the power instantly shut off, the suddenly released springs
tried to hurl five bodies against the ceiling. After a few minutes
DuQuesne revived and slowly cut off his power. To the dismay of both men
they were again falling!

DuQuesne hurried to the lower window to make the observation, remarking:

"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."

"Only because you're so badly bunged up. One more notch would've got my
goat," replied Seaton frankly as he made his way to Dorothy's side. He
noticed as he reached her, that Crane had removed his helmet and was
approaching the other girl. By the time DuQuesne had finished the
observation, the other passengers had completely recovered, apparently
none the worse for their experience.

* * * * *

"Did we gain anything?" asked Seaton eagerly.

"I make it two, four, thirteen. We've lost about two minutes of arc. How
much power did we have on?"

"A little over half--thirty-two points out of sixty possible."

"We were still falling pretty fast. We'll have to put on everything
we've got. Since neither of us can put it on we'll have to rig up an
automatic feed. It'll take time, but it's the only way."

"The automatic control is already there," put in Crane, forestalling
Seaton's explanation. "The only question is whether we will live through
it--and that is not really a question, since certain death is the only
alternative. We must do it."

"We sure must," answered Seaton soberly.

Dorothy gravely nodded assent.

"What do you fellows think of a little plus pressure on the oxygen?"
asked Seaton. "I think it would help a lot."

"I think it's a good idea," said DuQuesne, and Crane added:

"Four or five inches of water will be about all the pressure we can
stand. Any more might burn our lungs too badly."

The pressure apparatus was quickly arranged and the motors filled to
capacity with reserve bars--enough to last seventy-two hours--the
scientists having decided that they must risk everything on one trial
and put in enough, if possible, to pull them clear out of the influence
of this center of attraction, as the time lost in slowing up to change
bars might well mean the difference between success and failure. Where
they might lie at the end of the wild dash for safety, how they were to
retrace their way with their depleted supply of copper, what other
dangers of dead star, planet, or sun lay in their path--all these were
terrifying questions that had to be ignored.

* * * * *

DuQuesne was the only member of the party who actually felt any
calmness, the quiet of the others expressing their courage in facing
fear. Life seemed very sweet and desirable to them, the distant earth a
very Paradise! Through Dorothy's mind flashed the visions she had built
up during long sweet hours, visions of a long life with Seaton. As she
breathed an inaudible prayer, she glanced up and saw Seaton standing
beside her, gazing down upon her with his very soul in his eyes. Never
would she forget the expression upon his face. Even in that crucial
hour, his great love for her overshadowed every other feeling, and no
thought of self was in his mind--his care was all for her. There was a
long farewell caress. Both knew that it might be goodbye, but both were
silent as the violet eyes and the gray looked into each other's depths
and conveyed messages far beyond the power of words. Once more he
adjusted her helmet and strapped her into place.

As Crane had in the meantime cared for the other girl, the men again
took their places and Seaton started the motor which would automatically
advance the speed levers, one notch every five seconds, until the full
power of both motors was exerted. As the power was increased, he turned
the valve as before, until the helmets were filled with pure oxygen
under a pressure of five inches of water.

Margaret Spencer, weakened by her imprisonment, was the first to lose
consciousness, and soon afterward Dorothy felt her senses leave her. A
half-minute, in the course of which six mighty surges were felt, as more
of the power of the doubled motor was released, and Crane had gone,
calmly analyzing his sensations to the last. After a time DuQuesne also
lapsed into unconsciousness, making no particular effort to avoid it, as
he knew that the involuntary muscles would function quite as well
without the direction of the will. Seaton, although he knew it was
useless, fought to keep his senses as long as possible, counting the
impulses he felt as the levers were advanced.

"Thirty-two." He felt exactly as he had before, when he had advanced the
lever for the last time.

"Thirty-three." A giant hand shut off his breath completely, though he
was fighting to his utmost for air. An intolerable weight rested upon
his eyeballs, forcing them backward into his head. The universe whirled
about him in dizzy circles--orange and black and green stars flashed
before his bursting eyes.

"Thirty-four." The stars became more brilliant and of more variegated
colors, and a giant pen dipped in fire was writing equations and
mathematico-chemical symbols upon his quivering brain. He joined the
circling universe, which he had hitherto kept away from him by main
strength, and whirled about his own body, tracing a logarithmic spiral
with infinite velocity--leaving his body an infinite distance behind.

"Thirty-five." The stars and the fiery pen exploded in a wild
coruscation of searing, blinding light and he plunged from his spiral
into a black abyss.

* * * * *

In spite of the terrific stress put upon the machine, every part
functioned perfectly, and soon after Seaton had lost consciousness the
vessel began to draw away from the sinister globe; slowly at first,
faster and faster as more and more of the almost unlimited power of the
mighty motor was released. Soon the levers were out to the last notch
and the machine was exerting its maximum effort. One hour and an
observer upon the Skylark would have seen that the apparent size of the
massive unknown world was rapidly decreasing; twenty hours and it was so
far away as to be invisible, though its effect was still great; forty
hours and the effect was slight; sixty hours and the Skylark was out of
range of the slightest measurable force of the monster it had left.

Hurtled onward by the inconceivable power of the unleashed copper demon
in its center, the Skylark flew through the infinite reaches of
interstellar space with an unthinkable, almost incalculable
velocity--beside which the velocity of light was as that of a snail to
that of a rifle bullet; a velocity augmented every second by a quantity
almost double that of light itself.





Next: Through Space Into The Carboniferous

Previous: Lost In Space



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