Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 4: Escape from the Dark Star

Continuing our voyage through the ether in Edward E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark of Space.

Dorothy Vaneman, wealthy socialite and fiancée to Dick Seaton, has been abducted by a scientific rival of Seaton's, Marc C. DuQuesne. DuQuense and his thuggish minion Perkins have carried Dorothy off in a spaceship built from plans stolen from Seaton; but an accident during the kidnapping sent the spaceship accelerating out of control.

Now Dorothy, DuQuense, Perkins, and another girl named Margaret Spenser whom Perkins had kidnapped previously -- it's complicated -- are lost in the unknown vastness of space. Worse than that, they have become caught in the gravitational field of a dead star.

It was re-reading this book in college that it occurred to me that this might be the first description in science fiction of a Black Hole. Physicists crunching the numbers in Einstein's General Theory of Relativity were predicting the existence of stars so massive that light could not escape them right around the time "Doc" Smith was writing Skylark. Then again, the way Smith describes the dead star, it is simply a burned out star which no longer emits any light. Regardless of this, the dead star performs the same role as a plot device as a black hole would. It is nearly impossible to detect visually, and even harder to escape.

It is only by desperate maneuvers that DuQuesne is able to prevent his ship from diving directly into the star. They have to scrounge up every ounce of copper on board, including loose change and Dorothy's engagement ring, to add to what little remains of the ship's copper fuel rods.

"I'm glad Seaton's too much of a scientist to buy platinum jewelry," DuQuense comments. He has a peeve -- which I suspect Smith shared -- that platinum was too valuable for it's chemical properties to waste on mere ornamentation.

But although DuQuesne avoids a collision with the star, he cannot escape its gravitational pull. They are now caught in a decaying orbit and have no fuel left to break free. DuQuesne estimates that they have bought themselves as best two days time.

At this point Perkins snaps. He attacks DuQuesne, who clocks him with the butt of his pistol, crushing Perkins's skull and killing him. So much for Perkins. No one mourns him; least of all Margaret, whom Perkins has been terrorizing for weeks.

Things look pretty hopeless. Dorothy is confident that Dick will follow in the Skylark; but she is shaken by DuQuesne's reaction. If Seaton does follow, DuQuesne tells her, he will only be caught in the same trap they are in now. Which would be an unfortunate blow to science.
"Please be logical.... I tried to kill them, yes, because they stood in the way of my development of this new metal. If, however, I am not going to be the one to do it -- I certainly hope Seaton goes ahead with it. It's the greatest discovery ever made, bar none; and if both Seaten and I, the only two men able to develop it properly, get killed it will be lost, perhaps for hundreds of years."
Unaware of this danger, Seaton is already on the way. Despite a frustrating delay in acquiring enough copper to fuel the Skylark, thanks to Crane's connections and diplomacy they've finally scrounged enough to set out on a rescue mission. Using Seatons object-compass -- still fixed on DuQuense -- they are able to track DuQuesne's craft through the depths of space.

DuQuesne is just about to suit up and try scraping what copper he can off the ship's hull with a putty knife, when he hears a tapping coming from outside. It's Seaton, using the Skylark's machine guns to tap a message out in Morse Code.

Just wrap your brain around that for a moment. Isn't that a wonderfully pulp idea? Simultaneously outrageous and awesome. Why has no one mentioned this in the gun control debate? The reason why someone would need a high-capacity magazine for his semi-automatic rifle is in case he needed to use it to shoot in Morse Code. All right. So maybe that would only work in a pulp novel. But it the context of the story, it makes perfect sense.

(And would machine guns work in space? There was some discussion on a gaming board I frequent a while back discussing this very issue. The consensus of those who knew guns was that a revolver would fire in a vacuum because modern ammunition carries an oxidizer mixed in with the powder, so it would still burn. The problem would lie in the gun's lubrication. In a vacuum, the oil used to lubricate the gun's moving parts would evaporate away, and so repeated firing would cause greater wear on those parts. Of course, if the Skylark's guns were inside the ship with only the muzzles poking through fitted gaskets, that might solve that problem.)

The Skylark links up with DuQuesne's craft, and Seaton has him and his passengers come on board. There's a slightly embarrassing moment where Dick hugs the wrong girl in a spacesuit, but that is quickly rectified.
They now need to break away from the dead star as quickly as possible; but there is one piece of unfinished business to take care of first. "Dick, what should we do with this murderer?" Martin hasn't forgotten the security men DuQuesne killed when he and his goons robbed the Crane lab.

Seaton agrees, and is perfectly willing to chuck DuQuesne out into space, but unexpectedly Dorothy comes to his defense:
"Oh, no, Dick!" Dorothy protested, seizing his arm. "He treated us very well, and saved my life once. Besides, you can't become a cold-blooded murderer just because he is. You know you can't."
Well, since she puts it that way, Seaton guesses that he does have some scruples. And he knows that for all DuQuense's ethical shortcomings, he is a man of his word.
He faced DuQuense squarely, grey eyes boring into eyes of midnight black. "Will you give your word to act as one of the party?" 
"Yes." DuQuesne stared back unflinchingly. His expression of cold unconcern had not changed throughout the conversation: it did not change now. "With the understanding that I reserve the right to leave you at any time -- 'escape' is a melodramatic word, but fits the facts closely enough -- provided I can do so without affecting unfavorably your ship, your project then in work, or your persons collectively or individually."
They still have to escape the gravitational pull of the dead star. Seaton and Crane have enough fuel on the Skylark to do the trick; the question is, can they break free without the gravitational forces pulling the ship apart? Working together the three scientists plot a hyperbolic course to whip them around the dead star -- hopefully without reducing the passengers to jelly.

They succeed by the skin of their teeth, but now the Skylark is even farther from home: 46.27 light centuries by Marty's calculation. Once again, fuel becomes a problem. They used most of their copper to escape the dead star. In order to get up to the speed they need to get home within their lifetimes, they'll need more.
They begin searching for copper-bearing planets. Using a spectroscope, they are able to pick out stars with copper in them, under the theory that such suns would have planets with copper in them.

Days pass. Seaton, Crane and DuQuesne take turn manning the controls and searching for useful worlds. And Margaret begins spending a lot of time with Martin, helping him with his shift by recording data for him. Dorothy watches the budding relationship between her new friend and Martin with satisfaction. Crane has been avoiding husband-hunting gold-diggers for years and as a result is actually quite lonely. But since Margaret doesn't know he is M. Reynolds Crane, millionaire industrialist, he can be more relaxed around her, and the two begin to grow closer.

The first planet they land on looks promising. It has a habitable atmosphere and seems similar to what earth was like in the Carboniferous era. In scouting around the landing site, Seaton finds a large hunk of silvery-blue untarnished metal. DuQuesne agrees that it has to be something in the platinum group, and the only metal of that kind with that peculiar color is the X metal. If it is, they have found enough of the X metal to run earth's power plants for several thousand years.

But as Seaton pockets a few loose nuggets of the precious metal, he hears Margaret scream. A large antediluvian beast with an obscene number of teeth has come out of the jungle and is now between them and the Skylark. Seaton is armed, but his gun is loaded with the special X-tipped exploding bullets he devised. At this range, the bullet would destroy both the creature and the Skylark.

Fortunately, DuQuense has made it back to the ship and with the ship's .50-caliber machine guns makes short work of the beast. Once it is dead, more monsters come out of the jungle to scavenge its remains. Seaton decides to give this world a pass for now, but to remember it in the future as a source of X metal.
But he is grateful for DuQuesne's rescue:
Seaton turned to DuQuesne, hand outstretched. "You squared it, Blackie. Say the word and the war's off." 
DuQuesne ignored the hand. "Not on my side," he said evenly. "I act as one of the party as long as I'm with you. When we get back, however, I still intend to take both of you out of circulation." He went to his room.
I admit it. DuQuense is evil, but I can't help liking the guy.

The next planet they find has a chorine atmosphere, so they don't bother trying to land on it. The planet after that, however, seems much more inviting. They see a city on its surface, in the middle of a vast, beautiful plain. But as they approach, the city disappears to be replaced by a range of mountains.

Seaton and company disembark to look around and are confronted by a man who is Seaton's duplicate, right down to his Hawaiian shirt.
"Hello, folks," he said in Seaton's tone and style. "S'prised that I know your language -- huh, you would be. Don't even understand telepathy, or the ether, or the relationship between time and space. Not even the fourth dimension."
The doppelganger changes into Dorothy's form, and then the others, one by one; in each case making disparaging remarks about their intelligence. Yes, this is the great-grandaddy of Q from Star Trek; the first in a long line of obnoxious omnipotent beings of pure intellect. The entity announces that Seaton's gang are so far down the evolutionary ladder that he has no choice but to dematerialize the bunch of them.

To the entity's surprise, Seaton resists; his will to live interferes with the entity's dematerialization. Being a sporting type, it tells Seaton that it will need to analyze the group's sub-nuclear structure, a simple task require only ninety-seven differential equations in ninety-seven dimensions. If Seaton's bunch can prevent him from completing these calculations for one hour, he will allow them to go.

There follows a bizarre psychic arm-wrestling match, which we see from Seaton's point of view as he tries to distract the entity with vigorous heckling. In the end, the entity concedes. "You win.... More particularly, I should say that the DuQuesne of you won." The entity compliments DuQuesne on the nascent qualities of his mind and encourages to keep studying under those eastern masters. He suggests that someday DuQuense might be able to ascend to the ranks of pure intellect himself.

With that, the entity leaves.

Everyone is boggled by that encounter, even the usually unflappable DuQuense. Dick asks him which eastern masters the entity was talking about. "I don't know," DuQuense replies. "I wish I did. I've studied under several esoteric philosophies." He resolves to find out, though, and see if the entity is correct. "...for that, gentlemen, would be my idea of heaven."

NEXT:  Welcome to Osnome; When in Rome, be a Roman Candle; Guests, or prisoners? You want me to attach my brain to what? And Escape from Mardonale!

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