Chapter 1: The Occurrence of the Impossible
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 fiancée 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.