Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 2: Corporate Raiders

We started last week reading E.E. "Doc" Smith's classic 1928 space opera, The Skylark of Space.

Richard Seaton, a scientist working at the Rare Metals Laboratory in Washington, DC, has made an amazing discovery: an unknown isotope which, reacting with copper, releases a tremendous amount of energy. He wants to use this X Isotope to build a spaceship, and so teams up with his best friend, millionaire industrialist and engineer Martin Crane.

Another scientist at the lab, Marc C. DuQuesne, wants to use Seaton's discovery for his own purposes, and tries to enlist the aid of World Steel Corporation, a powerful conglomerate where DuQuesne has connections. Brookings, one of Steel's executives, sends a minion to burgle the lab where Crane and Seaton are working and steal a quantity of the X Isotope; but cuts DuQuesne out of the deal.

In a remote corner of West Virginia, a tremendous explosion occurs, obliterating the small town of Bankerville (population 200) and leaving nothing but a hole in the ground a couple miles in diameter. According to the news, scientists are baffled as to what could have caused it. DuQuesne has a pretty good idea, though; he guesses that World Steel had a laboratory up in Bankerville where they were experimenting with their stolen sample of Seaton's X solution, and that the experiment went wrong.

His surmise is confirmed when Brookings of World Steel arranges to meet with him. Steel is now willing to meet DuQuesne's price -- which has doubled since they first turned him down. "The Company expects to pay for its mistakes," Brookings says handing over a contract.

Fortunately, only a small quantity of the stolen formula was in the Bankerville lab at the time of the catastrophe; Brookings has the rest of it. But the bottle he has is far smaller than the one DuQuesne knows Seaton had. The thief had pilfered half of the vial he found in Crane's lab and topped it off with colored water so that the theft would not be immediately discovered; but he had missed the main bottle with the bulk of the solution.

DuQuesne had argued from the beginning that they needed to steal the entire amount and kill Seaton -- and possibly Crane too -- but Brookings is too squeamish to act that drastically. He agrees to another burglary attempt, but not to the murder. Not yet.

Meanwhile, Seaton has been figuring out how X works. It causes a complete conversion of matter into energy expressed as force. It acts as a catalyst and is not consumed by the reaction, which is convenient since he has precious little of the stuff to spare. He's also worked out a couple of what he calls "borderline cases" where the reaction creates either an attractive or a repulsing force -- the grandfather of Star Trek's "tractor beams". Crane realizes that the attractor could be used as an "object compass"; by focusing the attractive beam on the earth, say, they would always be able to find their way home.

Dick has also rigged up a proof-of-concept model which he demonstrates for Martin and for Dorothy, his fiancée, and her father who have dropped by for a visit. He has a quantity of X and a bit of copper fuel in a small tube, attached by a cable to a harness to which is attached the various other pieces of apparatus he needs to control the effect. The X allows him to fly into the air and do a couple simple acrobatic maneuvers; but when he tries showing off a bit more for Dorothy, he accidentally increases the power on the tube and finds himself being dragged around Martin's airstrip. He manages to regain control of his device, but not without the loss of some dignity.

Seaton declares that they're ready to build the real deal: an honest-to-Gernsbeck spaceship powered by X. Dorothy's father is impressed, but wants to know if the boys are going to do anything more practical with Seaton's discovery. Martin assures Mr. Vaneman that he is also has technicians working on commercial applications, power plants capable of producing energy at a minute fraction of the cost of conventional plants. Much later on in the series, we get a brief glimpse of earth transformed by an era of cheap, limitless energy, but only a glimpse; like Seaton, "Doc" Smith was more interested in exploring the cosmos than working out sociological and economic ramifications of his gadgets.

Dorothy is more interested in the spaceship. "What are you going to call it?" Dick really hadn't thought about naming the craft; he's just been calling it "the spaceship." Dorothy decides for him. "There's only one possible name for her: the Skylark."

As the Vanemans leave, Dorothy's father pulls a newspaper out of his pocket and points out an article Dick and Martin might be interested in: the story of the Bankerville explosion.

Seaton immeadiately realizes what caused the blast. "It's X all right.... Some poor devil tried it without my rabbit's foot in his pocket." But where did it come from? As far as Dick knows, he has the only sample of the stuff on earth. He and Crane check back at their lab and discover the theft. But who could have stolen it? Someone at the lab who had witnessed his earlier failed demonstration must have figured out the truth.
"Oh, a lot of people came around at one time or another, but your specifications narrow the field to five men --Scott, Smith, Penfield, DuQuesne, and Roberts. Hmmm, let's see -- if Scott's brain was solid cyclonite, the detonation wouldn't crack his skull; Smith is a pure theoretician; Penfield wouldn't dare quote an authority without asking permission; DuQuesne is ... umm ... that is DuQuesne isn't ... I mean, Du --" 
"Du Quesne, then, is suspect number one." 
"But wait a minute! I didn't say ..." 
"Exactly. That's what makes him suspect number one."
Crane calls a private security firm and hires extra guards to protect his lab. He also has the firm put DuQuesne under surveillance. This is precisely the situation DuQuesne wanted to avoid by hitting Seaton hard and quick. Now that Seaton and Crane are on their guard, DuQuesne's campaign to gain a monopoly of X becomes a cat-and-mouse game. Steel's goons make another attempt to rob Cranes lab, but are thwarted by the security men and Crane's manservant, Shiro. "That Jap, he's chained lightning on greased wheels..." one of the surviving goons says.

Yes, a word or two about that "Jap." Shiro is another of the uncomfortably dated aspects of the novel. We first met him when he answered the door at Crane's estate and was baffled by Seaton's rapid-fire colloquial greeting. But later on, when Crane is talking about setting up a board of directors for their partnership, he suggests that Shiro have a chair on the board. Does this mean that Crane recognizes his business acumen, or that Crane regards him as someone who can be counted on to vote in his boss's interest? Considering Shiro's shaky grasp of the English language -- which, to Smith's credit, is only suggested and not spelled out for laughs -- I regret to say the answer is the latter. Shiro is extremely loyal to Crane, and apparently a competent martial artist as well; but we never see much of him beyond a stereotyped Japanese houseboy.

DuQuesne decides to supervise the next robbery attempt personally. While Seaton and Crane are away from the lab at a testing range, he and a team of thugs land at the Crane airfield in a helicopter resembling Cranes. The security men are caught off-guard, and DuQuesne and his goons kill them and badly wound Shiro. DuQuesne blows open the safe in Crane's lab and steals all the papers and blueprints he can find and the small vial of the X solution. The rest of it, DuQuesne realizes, must be in the deepest, most secure vault in the country. He'll have to content himself with the smaller quantity and the spaceship plans.

When Seaton and Crane return to the lab that evening, after a day testing explosive X-tipped bullets at a firing range, they find Shiro bleeding and left for dead. Fortunately, his wounds were not that serious, but the other guards were not so lucky. Seaton is sure that DuQuesne is behind it, and sets up an object-compass focused on him so that they can track DuQuesne's movements. With the aid of the object-compass, the detective is able to discover how DuQuense leaves his house without being spotted; and more importantly, learns that he is meeting with Brookings of World Steel. The detective shares the bad news with Crane and Seaton:
"I've bucked Steel before. They account for half my business, and for ninety-nine percent of my failures. The same thing goes for all the other agencies in town. The cops have hit them time after time with everything they've got, and simply bounced. So has the F.B.I. All any of us has been able to get is an occasional small fish."
The news is even worse than Seaton realizes. Crane explains that Steel is supplying the heavy forgings and plates for the Skylark. Seaton examines some of the parts they've already received and sure enough, they contain minor flaws.
"Strong enough to stand shipment and fabrication, and maybe a little to spare -- perhaps one G of accelleration while we're in the air. Any real shot of power, though, or any sudden turn, and pop! She collapses like a soap bubble."
Crane has a plan. If they reject the faulty parts, Steel will just try something else. He proposes they continue building the spaceship as is, but secretly build a second ship through different contractors. Crane has contacts in the industry and knows of a small independent steel mill that can handle the job as well as a top flight engineer.

Meanwhile, Brookings and DuQuense are regrouping. DuQuesne is working on developing the X isotope using the notes he stole from Crane's lab; but Steel won't be able to properly exploit Seaton's discovery until Seaton and Crane are out of the way. Brookings suggests calling in Perkins, who runs a restaurant in downtown D.C. which serves as the headquarters for Steel's criminal activities. I hear the cannoli there is to die for. Perkins was also in charge of the earlier failed burglary attempts at Crane's lab, but DuQuense admits that the man is good at what he does. "It's on execution he's weak , not planning."

Perkins suggests kidnapping Seaton's girlfriend in a spaceship build from the stolen plans. They can hide her someplace safe -- "say with the Spencer girl" -- and tell Seaton they have her on Mars or something. Seaton will pay anything to get her back; and if he tries following in his own defective spaceship, so much the better. This is our first mention of the Spencer girl; she'll become relevant later. DuQuesne and Brookings like the idea. It is agreed that DuQuesne will carry it out with Perkins's assistance.

NEXT:  Into space! A desperate chase; trapped by a dead star; and the Skylark to the rescue!

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