Petrified with astonishment, Richard Seaton stared after the copper steam-bath upon which he had been electrolyzing his solution of "X," the unknown metal. For as soon as he had removed the beaker the heavy bath had jumped endwise from under his hand as though it were alive. It had flown with terrific speed over the table, smashing apparatus and bottles of chemicals on its way, and was even now disappearing through the open window. He seized his prism binoculars and focused them upon the flying vessel, a speck in the distance. Through the glass he saw that it did not fall to the ground, but continued on in a straight line, only its rapidly diminishing size showing the enormous velocity with which it was moving. It grew smaller and smaller, and in a few moments disappeared utterly.
The chemist turned as though in a trance. How was this? The copper bath he had used for months was gone--gone like a shot, with nothing to make it go. Nothing, that is, except an electric cell and a few drops of the unknown solution. He looked at the empty space where it had stood, at the broken glass covering his laboratory table, and again stared out of the window.
He was aroused from his stunned inaction by the entrance of his colored laboratory helper, and silently motioned him to clean up the wreckage.
"What's happened, Doctah?" asked the dusky assistant.
"Search me, Dan. I wish I knew, myself," responded Seaton, absently, lost in wonder at the incredible phenomenon of which he had just been a witness.
Ferdinand Scott, a chemist employed in the next room, entered breezily.
"Hello, Dicky, thought I heard a racket in here," the newcomer remarked. Then he saw the helper busily mopping up the reeking mass of chemicals.
"Great balls of fire!" he exclaimed. "What've you been celebrating? Had an explosion? How, what, and why?"
"I can tell you the 'what,' and part of the 'how'," Seaton replied thoughtfully, "but as to the 'why,' I am completely in the dark. Here's all I know about it," and in a few words he related the foregoing incident. Scott's face showed in turn interest, amazement, and pitying alarm. He took Seaton by the arm.
"Dick, old top, I never knew you to drink or dope, but this stuff sure came out of either a bottle or a needle. Did you see a pink serpent carrying it away? Take my advice, old son, if you want to stay in Uncle Sam's service, and lay off the stuff, whatever it is. It's bad enough to come down here so far gone that you wreck most of your apparatus and lose the rest of it, but to pull a yarn like that is going too far. The Chief will have to ask for your resignation, sure. Why don't you take a couple of days of your leave and straighten up?"
Seaton paid no attention to him, and Scott returned to his own laboratory, shaking his head sadly.
Seaton, with his mind in a whirl, walked slowly to his desk, picked up his blackened and battered briar pipe, and sat down to study out what he had done, or what could possibly have happened, to result in such an unbelievable infraction of all the laws of mechanics and gravitation. He knew that he was sober and sane, that the thing had actually happened. But why? And how? All his scientific training told him that it was impossible. It was unthinkable that an inert mass of metal should fly off into space without any applied force. Since it had actually happened, there must have been applied an enormous and hitherto unknown force. What was that force? The reason for this unbelievable manifestation of energy was certainly somewhere in the solution, the electrolytic cell, or the steam-bath. Concentrating all the power of his highly-trained analytical mind upon the problem--deaf and blind to everything else, as was his wont when deeply interested--he sat motionless, with his forgotten pipe clenched between his teeth. Hour after hour he sat there, while most of his fellow-chemists finished the day's work and left the building and the room slowly darkened with the coming of night.
Finally he jumped up. Crashing his hand down upon the desk, he exclaimed:
"I have liberated the intra-atomic energy of copper! Copper, 'X,' and electric current!
"I'm sure a fool for luck!" he continued as a new thought struck him. "Suppose it had been liberated all at once? Probably blown the whole world off its hinges. But it wasn't: it was given off slowly and in a straight line. Wonder why? Talk about power! Infinite! Believe me, I'll show this whole Bureau of Chemistry something to make their eyes stick out, tomorrow. If they won't let me go ahead and develop it, I'll resign, hunt up some more 'X', and do it myself. That bath is on its way to the moon right now, and there's no reason why I can't follow it. Martin's such a fanatic on exploration, he'll fall all over himself to build us any kind of a craft we'll need ... we'll explore the whole solar system! Great Cat, what a chance! A fool for luck is right!"
He came to himself with a start. He switched on the lights and saw that it was ten o'clock. Simultaneously he recalled that he was to have had dinner with his fiancee at her home, their first dinner since their engagement. Cursing himself for an idiot he hastily left the building, and soon his motorcycle was tearing up Connecticut Avenue toward his sweetheart's home.
Dr. Marc DuQuesne was in his laboratory, engaged in a research upon certain of the rare metals, particularly in regard to their electrochemical properties. He was a striking figure. Well over six feet tall, unusually broad-shouldered even for his height, he was plainly a man of enormous physical strength. His thick, slightly wavy hair was black. His eyes, only a trifle lighter in shade, were surmounted by heavy black eyebrows which grew together above his aquiline nose.
Scott strolled into the room, finding DuQuesne leaning over a delicate electrical instrument, his forbidding but handsome face strangely illuminated by the ghastly glare of his mercury-vapor arcs.
"Hello, Blackie," Scott began. "I thought it was Seaton in here at first. A fellow has to see your faces to tell you two apart. Speaking of Seaton, d'you think that he's quite right?"
"I should say, off-hand, that he was a little out of control last night and this morning," replied DuQuesne, manipulating connections with his long, muscular fingers. "I don't think that he's insane, and I don't believe that he dopes--probably overwork and nervous strain. He'll be all right in a day or two."
"I think he's a plain nut, myself. That sure was a wild yarn he sprung on us, wasn't it? His imagination was hitting on all twelve, that's sure. He seems to believe it himself, though, in spite of making a flat failure of his demonstration to us this morning. He saved that waste solution he was working on--what was left of that carboy of platinum residues after he had recovered all the values, you know--and got them to put it up at auction this noon. He resigned from the Bureau, and he and M. Reynolds Crane, that millionaire friend of his, bid it in for ten cents."
"M. Reynolds Crane?" DuQuesne concealed a start of surprise. "Where does he come in on this?"
"Oh, they're always together in everything. They've been thicker than Damon and Pythias for a long time. They play tennis together--they're doubles champions of the District, you know--and all kinds of things. Wherever you find one of them you'll usually find the other. Anyway, after they got the solution Crane took Seaton in his car, and somebody said they went out to Crane's house. Probably trying to humor him. Well, ta-ta; I've got a week's work to do yet today."
As Scott left DuQuesne dropped his work and went to his desk, with a new expression, half of chagrin, half of admiration, on his face. Picking up his telephone, he called a number.
"Brookings?" he asked, cautiously. "This is DuQuesne. I must see you immediately. There's something big started that may as well belong to us.... No, can't say anything over the telephone.... Yes, I'll be right out."
He left the laboratory and soon was in the private office of the head of the Washington or "diplomatic" branch, as it was known in certain circles, of the great World Steel Corporation. Offices and laboratories were maintained in the city, ostensibly for research work, but in reality to be near the center of political activity.
"How do you do, Doctor DuQuesne?" Brookings said as he seated his visitor. "You seem excited."
"Not excited, but in a hurry," DuQuesne replied. "The biggest thing in history has just broken, and we've got to work fast if we get in on it. Have you any doubts that I always know what I am talking about?"
"No," answered the other in surprise. "Not the slightest. You are widely known as an able man. In fact, you have helped this company several times in various deal--er, in various ways."
"Say it. Brookings. 'Deals' is the right word. This one is going to be the biggest ever. The beauty of it is that it should be easy--one simple burglary and an equally simple killing--and won't mean wholesale murder, as did that...."
"Oh, no, Doctor, not murder. Unavoidable accidents."
"Why not call things by their right names and save breath, as long as we're alone? I'm not squeamish. But to get down to business. You know Seaton, of our division, of course. He has been recovering the various rare metals from all the residues that have accumulated in the Bureau for years. After separating out all the known metals he had something left, and thought it was a new element, a metal. In one of his attempts to get it into the metallic state, a little of its solution fizzed out and over a copper steam bath or tank, which instantly flew out of the window like a bullet. It went clear out of sight, out of range of his binoculars, just that quick." He snapped his fingers under Brookings' nose. "Now that discovery means such power as the world never dreamed of. In fact, if Seaton hadn't had all the luck in the world right with him yesterday, he would have blown half of North America off the map. Chemists have known for years that all matter contains enormous stores of intra-atomic energy, but have always considered it 'bound'--that is, incapable of liberation. Seaton has liberated it."
"And that means?"
"That with the process worked out, the Corporation could furnish power to the entire world, at very little expense."
A look of scornful unbelief passed over Brookings' face.
"Sneer if you like," DuQuesne continued evenly. "Your ignorance doesn't change the fact in any particular. Do you know what intra-atomic energy is?"
"I'm afraid that I don't, exactly."
"Well, it's the force that exists between the ultimate component parts of matter, if you can understand that. A child ought to. Call in your chief chemist and ask him what would happen if somebody would liberate the intra-atomic energy of one hundred pounds of copper."
"Pardon me, Doctor. I didn't presume to doubt you. I will call him in."
He telephoned a request and soon a man in white appeared. In response to the question he thought for a moment, then smiled slowly.
"If it were done instantaneously it would probably blow the entire world into a vapor, and might force it clear out of its orbit. If it could be controlled it would furnish millions of horsepower for a long time. But it can't be done. The energy is bound. Its liberation is an impossibility, in the same class with perpetual motion. Is that all, Mr. Brookings?"
As the chemist left, Brookings turned again to his visitor, with an apologetic air.
"I don't know anything about these things myself, but Chambers, also an able man, says that it is impossible."
"As far as he knows, he is right. I should have said the same thing this morning. But I do know about these things--they're my business--and I tell you that Seaton has done it."
"This is getting interesting. Did you see it done?"
"No. It was rumored around the Bureau last night that Seaton was going insane, that he had wrecked a lot of his apparatus and couldn't explain what had happened. This morning he called a lot of us into his laboratory, told us what I have just told you, and poured some of his solution on a copper wire. Nothing happened, and he acted as though he didn't know what to make of it. The foolish way he acted and the apparent impossibility of the whole thing, made everybody think him crazy. I thought so until I learned this afternoon that Mr. Reynolds Crane is backing him. Then I knew that he had told us just enough of the truth to let him get away clean with the solution."
"But suppose the man is crazy?" asked Brookings. "He probably is a monomaniac, really insane on that one thing, from studying it so much."
"Seaton? Yes, he's crazy--like a fox. You never heard of any insanity in Crane's family, though, did you? You know that he never invests a cent in anything more risky than Government bonds. You can bet your last dollar that Seaton showed him the real goods." Then, as a look of conviction appeared upon the other's face, he continued:
"Don't you understand that the solution was Government property, and he had to do something to make everybody think it worthless, so that he could get title to it? That faked demonstration that failed was certainly a bold stroke--so bold that it was foolhardy. But it worked. It fooled even me, and I am not usually asleep. The only reason he got away with it, is, that he has always been such an open-faced talker, always telling everything he knew.
"He certainly played the fox," he continued, with undisguised admiration. "Heretofore he has never kept any of his discoveries secret or tried to make any money out of them, though some of them were worth millions. He published them as soon as he found them, and somebody else got the money. Having that reputation, he worked it to make us think him a nut. He certainly is clever. I take off my hat to him--he's a wonder!"
"And what is your idea? Where do we come in?"
"You come in by getting that solution away from Seaton and Crane, and furnishing the money to develop the stuff and to build, under my direction, such a power-plant as the world never saw before."
"Why get that particular solution? Couldn't we buy up some platinum wastes and refine them?"
"Not a chance," replied the scientist. "We have refined platinum residues for years, and never found anything like that before. It is my idea that the stuff, whatever it is, was present in some particular lot of platinum in considerable quantities as an impurity. Seaton hasn't all of it there is in the world, of course, but the chance of finding any more of it without knowing exactly what it is or how it reacts is extremely slight. Besides, we must have exclusive control. How could we make any money out of it if Crane operates a rival company and is satisfied with ten percent profit? No, we must get all of that solution. Seaton and Crane, or Seaton, at least, must be killed, for if he is left alive he can find more of the stuff and break our monopoly. I want to borrow your strong-arm squad tonight, to go and attend to it."