TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
A SHADY DEAL
“EXCUSE ME, sir. Are you Mr. Swift?”
Tom Swift looked up from his ravioli dinner at the young girl in the baby-blue waitress outfit. “That’s me,” he replied, wondering who had recognized him.
The waitress smiled prettily. “That man over there wanted me to ask you if you could drop by his table. His little boy would really like an autograph.” She nodded toward a table across the restaurant dining room, where a family sat enjoying a night out—a father and mother and their two children, a teenage girl and a boy who looked to be about ten years old.
“I’ll be happy to,” Tom said. “I was done with my meal anyway.”
The waitress bent closer to Tom’s ear. “Um, I hope you won’t mind my asking, but—are you somebody famous?” She stifled an embarrassed giggle. “Are you, like—on television?”
Tom shook his head. “I’m just well-known in my business, that’s all.”
The waitress seemed to lose interest. “Uh-huh. And you look so young, too. I thought you were just another teenager, like we get around here.”
In truth, Tom Swift was a teenager, eighteen years old. He was also something of an inventing prodigy, bearer of a famous name in science and invention—his great-grandfather’s. But already he had begun to make a name for himself, with daring and spectacular trips through the air, under the sea, and even into outer space, all during a period of months.
Strangely enough, outside his home town of Shopton in the state of New York, Tom usually went unrecognized. His best friend Bud had opined that Tom “looked like everybody’s next door neighbor,” not like an international celebrity. And that theory was as good as any.
Now, however, it seemed he had been spotted. Drawing a pen from his jacket, Tom rose and approached the indicated table, smiling.
But to his great surprise, the woman and the two children filed past him on the way. The man was left sitting alone as Tom reached the table.
“I, er, understood your son wanted― ”
Tom stopped in mid-sentence, at a loss for words. The man at the table gave him a friendly glance and then resumed eating, vaguely gesturing that Tom should have a seat.
One of the chairs slid out a few inches. The man was pushing it with his foot. Uneasily, Tom sat himself down.
“Tom Swift,” said the man, gazing first at a meatball and then up at Tom. “Thank you for joining me. It was evidenced you had finished your dinner.”
“Yes,” Tom said. “Didn’t your son—?”
The man interrupted him. “An actor. I found him at a local dinner theater. He’s got quite a singing voice. The girl and the woman are actors too. I paid union scale, by the way.”
Tom frowned. “What’s this all about?”
A grin creased the man’s heavy, leathery face. “Distraction. I thought if you recognized me right off, you’d make for the door.”
“I don’t recognize you.”
“I’m Nicholas Stennard. How does that grab you?”
“It doesn’t,” responded the young inventor. “Have we met?”
Stennard laughed. “You’d better hope we haven’t! But I’m better known by my nom de penitentiary, Nicky Ammo.”
Tom gasped involuntarily. Nicky Ammo!
“Yeah,” the man continued, “big bad Nicky Ammo, the gangster.”
Tom drew back in his seat. “I’m not sure we ought to be talking, Mr. Ammo,” he said.
“We probably shouldn’t be,” agreed Nicky. “But here we are, Tom.”
“I thought you were― ”
“In the pen? I was. Eight years. Put on some weight, lost some hair. Then the governor of the state in which I was unjustly incarcerated saw the light and commutered my sentence.”
Tom nodded, grimly ironic. “I’ll bet you have persuasive friends.”
“Let’s cease lobbing bon mots and get on with business.” Nicky leaned back, fixing Tom in an icy gaze. “There’s something I want you to do for me, Tom. Name your price.”
“I doubt that there’s any sort of business Swift Enterprises could engage in with you,” Tom coolly observed.
Nicky nodded slowly, calmly, seeming completely unruffled. “And yet—you do love nosing out scientific discoveries. And this thing has science written all over it, kid. Plus, let me assuage you, what I’m about to ask you—what you’re going to accept—is completely legal, moral, ethical. Whatever. It’s even nice.” As Tom studied him, Ammo added: “Now, can you deny you’re a little interested?”
The blond, slender youth sighed. “What do you want with me, Mr. Ammo?”
The mobster now flashed a self-satisfied smile. “I want you to get a certain monkey off my back, kid. Namely, a dead one!”
“I guess I don’t understand mob lingo.”
“Oh, I mean it like I say it. I’m being haunted. I want you to make it go away.”
Tom glanced around the dining room. Who among these innocent-looking people worked for Nicky Ammo—and could pose a problem if Tom tried to bolt for the exit? “Mr. Ammo, the problem you’re having sounds more medical than scientific.”
The man took a deep breath. His face assumed a peculiar expression, a sort of ironic smile that reached only about halfway across his lips—a chilling effect. “Perhaps you’ll do me the courtesy of hearing me out. Fair enough?”
“All right then. You should realize that it’s not only the law that sometimes can’t tell the innocent from the guilty. It also happens to guys on the other side. Now I’m a pleasant sort of guy, myself. I happen to have a family, a real family, nothing like those rented refugees from old TV you saw earlier. But a person in my line of work gets a reputation. Sometimes it helps to play up that reputation, to let people think you’re a little bit wild—henceforth the nickname, which I bestowed upon myself. Gives me respect.”
“I’ll bet,” said Tom.
“And the point is that some of my. . . business competitors . . . have got it into their heads that when one of their colleagues goes missing—permanently—I must be to blame. You see how unfair life can be to the poor businessman?”
Tom nodded. “I’ve often thought so.”
“Which is why I got sent up. But that’s water over the bridgework, you know? I say, let bygones be. Okay?”
“There was this poor slob I knew, name of Pins Zoltan. One of life’s losers. Had himself an accident about ten years ago.”
“The permanent kind?”
Nicky chuckled. “So who knows? It’s only been ten years. But I tell you frankly, I suspect he’s re-entered the food chain through the cellar door, if you catch my drift. Now I hear tell some of Pins’s buddies are nursing a grudge against me, ’cause when Pins vacated this good green world of ours, he took some information with him that would be of profit to those boys.”
“They may even imagine that you acquired the information from Pins prior to his departure,” said Tom.
“You know, kid, I think you just may be right about that,” replied Nicky. “Anywise, they got this grudge. And I happen to think that’s behind these phenomenoleum.”
The gang boss leaned forward. “I’ll tell you, it’s weird stuff. I’m drivin’ along, see, not even thinking about the late Pins Zoltan—if he is late, that is—when, bang! I see him!”
Tom shook his head impatiently. “See him how?”
“How do you see things?” snorted Nicky. “I see him with my eyes, these two eyes that I got!”
“Then I guess he’s not dead after all.”
“Oh, he’s—my intuitions tell me he’s quite the deceased. And beside that, he’s not acting like a live person anyway. He floats in the air in front of my car!”
There was silence for a moment as Nicky Ammo chased down, speared, and swallowed a meatball.
After a moment Tom inquired, “How does he look—other than dead?”
“Don’t you get patronizing with me, Swift!” Nicky growled. “From what I can see, old Pins looks pretty good, just like himself. Here I am, doin’ fifty or sixty or whatever, and there he is, just floatin’ along about thirty feet ahead, up in the middle of the air. No wings on him, but he sure keeps the pace.”
“Does he say anything?”
“Naw, not a peep. He just stands there, facin’ me, sort of looking me in the eye. Maybe five, ten seconds, and then he’s just not there—gone wit’ the wind!”
“I see,” said the young inventor, intrigued despite himself. “I don’t really believe in ghosts, but some reports of paranormal sightings are hard to account for. How often has this happened?”
“Hey, now we’re talking!” exclaimed Nicky. “I seen him maybe six times over the last year or so.”
“Different places, but always when I’m driving, and always at night. Generally speaking, it’s over in the next county, where I got my home. And by the way, it’s not just in one car, but several different ones—even one I rented.”
“That’s a clue.” Tom nodded thoughtfully. “It’s not some kind of gimmick inside your car, then.”
The man shook his head. “You think I didn’t think of that? Nothin’! And it’s happened twice when somebody’s been along with me, and they saw it too!”
Tom gaped at this. “Others have seen it?”
“Like I said.” Nicky drummed his fingers on the tabletop. The rough tough mobster was frightened! “So that’s the deal, Tommy Swift. You investigate this thing with your science detectors and your cameras and stuff. And then exterminate it! Do that, and I’ll give you a million bucks, maybe two—plus expenses.”
“And if I don’t?”
Ammo leaned forward again, ominously.
THE RESTAURANT in which this amazing exchange was taking place was called the Tenderly Neapolitan Kitchen, and the small town that boasted the establishment was called Tenderly, New Mexico.
Tom Swift had come to New Mexico on scientific business, to test out a remarkable new invention. The response-locus controller, or relotrol, was an electronic “brain” capable of learning from changing conditions. Linked to a remote-control setup, the relotrol was crucial to Tom’s current project, the development of an ultra-strong walking robot to be used in environments of intense radiation. As the relotrol would be built into the body of the robot, it was necessary to test whether the device could function in spite of the heavy radioactive emissions that would jam or knock out ordinary control equipment.
For experiments of this sort, Swift Enterprises’ newest facility, an isolated nuclear research station in the New Mexico desert, seemed made to order. The gray, sprawling complex, primarily structured of concrete and steel, had received the nickname the Citadel even before completion. Tom had a small apartment on the facility grounds, and had been staying there for several days. This evening he had decided to drive the nineteen miles to Tenderly, the nearest settlement, for dinner—as a result running into this baffling ghost story.
“So what do you say, kid?” asked Nicky Ammo.
“First tell me how you figured I’d be here tonight,” demanded Tom. “What made you sure enough to hire those actors?”
Ammo laughed softly. “Sure? I wasn’t sure. But I happen to have a lot of fiduciary fertilizer to spread around, know what I mean? So when I got word from some of my old friends that this big-deal-ious kid inventor was having a sojourn at that cement city out in the desert, I got my act together. Me and my crew sat down here just a few minutes ago; that’s how long it took to go around and pick up my pre-selected family after Raul—he’s the guy over at the register—paged me. I figured you’d come into town eventually.”
“Clever,” Tom commented. “That is, if you’re the sort of person who’ll do anything to avoid just asking in the normal way. But anyway, I suppose I’m interested enough to look into it.” Ammo’s face settled into a self-satisfied look which dropped away when Tom added: “But there are a few conditions.”
“First, no pressure—from you, or anyone else. I’m in the middle of working on a project, and nothing must interfere with that.”
Ammo frowned but said, “Fair enough.”
“Second, I insist that you let our chief of plant security, Harlan Ames, investigate what you’re up to. That may mean nothing more than contacting the authorities. But I won’t be a party to anything― ”
“Sounds like you don’t exactly trust me, kid,” Ammo interrupted. “But that’s good. I wouldn’t trust me either. So it’s okay. Anything else?”
Tom nodded. “One thing. Don’t call me kid, Nicky!”
Tom left the restaurant bearing Nicky Ammo’s promise that he would telephone Tom at the Citadel, or in Shopton, and arrange for a suitable time for the two of them to get together to examine Ammo’s several cars, and the stretches of road on which the mysterious figure had been seen. As he approached his small sports car, he noticed the young waitress standing a ways away and nodded at her. On impulse, Tom called out:
“Great performance! I was completely convinced!”
She returned a toothy smile. “You should see me down at the Nugget Grill and Family Theatre!”
As Tom drove the lonely stretch back to the Citadel, he went over the conversation in his mind. What would it be like, he wondered, if I saw something floating ahead in the headlight beams?
The next morning, as Tom walked across the grounds of the Citadel toward the facility’s airstrip, a distant figure waved at him and came trotting his way.
“Bud!” Tom called out with pleasure. “Not staying in San Francisco?”
Athletic, dark-haired Bud Barclay, Tom’s closest pal, had been spending a week with his parents in the city by the bay, where he had grown up. “Got tired of it,” he replied. “Too much charm! And now they tell me you’re hitting the stratosphere before breakfast!”
“I’ve already had breakfast,” Tom laughed, “and where I’m heading—and you too, if you want to—is the ionosphere.”
The two friends strolled through the already-warm morning sunshine to a small high-altitude jet that had been made ready for Tom’s use.
“Haven’t flown one of these before,” Bud remarked.
“Which is exactly why I’m taking the controls this time,” said Tom. Knowing how avidly Bud loved flying, Tom added apologetically, “Besides, flyboy, I need some time behind the stick too, or I’ll lose my edge.” Bud nodded but gave Tom an airy look that seemed to say, Okay—but I’ll be watching you!
Soon the little craft was charging its way higher and higher into the bright New Mexico sky.
“Hey, Tom, take it easy! We can stand only so many G’s, you know.”
“We? I feel just fine,” responded the young inventor suavely. “But if you insist.” He pushed forward on the wheel of the sharply climbing jet plane, flattening its steep arc. He had just climbed through the relatively thick air of the troposphere, home of the clouds, and was now above the lower edge of the stratosphere. Leveling off the V-winged craft, Tom grinned at the protesting voice from his friend seated directly behind him. “What’s the matter, pal? Seventy thousand feet too much for you?”
“Hey, that’s nothing when you’ve been halfway to the moon!” Bud joked. “But I think my stomach has gotten a little wimped-out on that rich San Francisco food.”
“It’s all for science,” Tom said, chuckling.
Bud knocked a knuckle against Tom’s flight helmet. “Next time you’re taking the high road to try out a gimmick for that giant robot of yours, why don’t you take the old rivet-head himself along?”
“Smile when you call my robot names,” Tom growled back with mock ferocity.
Both boys looked like well-padded fullbacks with oversized helmets. Inside their flight gear, however, they were quite different. Tom, lean, tall, and with a perpetually ragged blond crewcut, had a serious look in his deep-set blue eyes as he scanned the horizon. Bud was only a shade taller than Tom, but he had shoulders like a hammer thrower and the open, frank face of an athlete who liked to play for fun.
“The worst is over,” Tom called back through his mike. “But keep that tender stomach buckled in tight in your protective suit. We’ve got quite a bit more climbing to do before we cross into the ionosphere, where we’ll get hit harder by cosmic rays. It’ll be a better test of the effect of radiation on the relotrol.”
Tom glanced up at a black metal box bracketed firmly inside a translucent dome above him. If the relotrol brain inside it were to successfully direct the robot, which was designed for working in areas where the radiation would be fatal to human beings, it would have to be immune to the deadly rays.
“How did your gimmick react when you went up the other day, Tom?” Bud asked.
“Not good. I had to make some changes. Under really stiff radiation the relotrol would foul up the radio orders to the robot.”
Bud grinned at the image. “You mean Mr. Robot wouldn’t know what to do? He’d sort of go berserk?”
“Right. And until the unit can handle this lesser degree of radiation, I don’t want to risk putting the robot itself anywhere near the Citadel’s main reactor.”
As they flew high, Tom checked the instruments that were monitoring the relotrol’s functioning. His face fell. “Well, we might as well head back down.”
“The relotrol is doing even worse on this test than yesterday’s. I’ll have to try another approach.” Tom nosed the plane down in the direction of the Citadel’s airfield, now beyond the horizon. “But at least I have something in mind. As soon as we land, Bud, I’m heading for the electronics lab,” Tom said, looking downward through the heat shimmer.
But Bud’s eyes were not on the distant ground below. They were following a black dot that had suddenly appeared against the dark violet strato-sky above the horizon.
“Something’s coming at us from three o’clock high,” he said. “It’s too small to be a plane.”
The speck quickly increased in size.
“It’s a bird!” said Bud in amazement. “A big black crow.”
“Above us? At this altitude? Couldn’t be!” But Tom descended a few hundred feet to avoid hitting it, then cut the jet’s speed. As the bird winged across the backdrop of midday stars high above the cockpit, he craned his neck and said, “That’s too big for a crow. It’s larger than an eagle.”
“But it is a crow!” cried Bud.
Tom looked again and caught his breath. The bird was immense! It was shaped exactly like a crow but was far larger than a vulture—or any flying creature the boys had ever heard of. The monstrous bird glided majestically across the sky, then wheeled.
“Maybe we’ve discovered a new species,” Bud said excitedly. “Let’s get a close look at him.”
“I’m not sure that would be safe,” Tom replied warily. “The bird might panic and fly into one of our control surfaces.”
He banked away from it. The bird, however, flew even closer to the plane, diving rapidly through air that was far too cold and thin to support any normal feathered flyer.
Fascinated, Tom put the jet on autopilot and swiveled to take a closer look. It was definitely a bird, and Tom had to agree that, but for its size, it had the characteristic form of a common crow. Though the silhouette of its flapping wings and tail showed the zigzag outline of feathers, its body was black as soot and revealed few details. Its claws and beak were visible, but its most eerie feature was a pair of beady eyes that seemed to glow like red coals in a brazier.
How can it keep up with us? Tom thought. They were traveling at nearly the speed of sound!
“I’m going to get a picture of it,” Bud said, slipping one arm free of his parachute harness and reaching for a digital camera he had noticed in a forward compartment. “May be a prize shot. Put her into a slow circle and hold her steady, Tom.”
“Steady as she goes,” Tom replied, his earlier qualms forgotten.
Loosening his chute still further, Bud peered through the range finder and focused the lens on the crow. He was about to trip the shutter when he gave a shout and suddenly lurched violently. “Tom!”
“I see it!” yelled Tom, almost breathless with wonder—and something akin to horror.
The monster crow was splitting apart like an amoeba!
Smaller crows—each one still of mammoth size—were peeling off in all directions from the main body of the creature. As they split away into the air they seemed to find their bearings immediately, all of them continuing to streak in the direction of the jet.
“For the love of Mike,” Bud exclaimed fearfully, “what’s going on?”
“I’m trying to figure it out,” was Tom’s terse, and equally fearful, reply. “Sit tight!”
Tom began a series of increasingly desperate aerial maneuvers, veering and diving in a frantic attempt to leave the crows behind.
Nothing worked. Within seconds the deadly flock, now multiplied to dozens, would smash head-on into the speeding jet!
THE HEADLESS GIANT
TOM AND BUD watched helplessly as the monstrous crows bore down upon them. The ebon forms stretched out their claws toward the jet and opened their beaks wide. Out darted long forked tongues, like those of a rattlesnake. The eyes of the creatures seemed to burn redly with sheer hate.
Then the youths gasped in unison.
Like the flicking-off of a light, the crows had vanished completely!
“Tom…” Bud whispered hoarsely into his helmet microphone. “Wh-where did they go?”
Tom was silent for several moments. Then he said, “Back where they came from.”
“Let’s get back to base,” Tom said, shakily.
They landed safely without further discussion. Tom immediately proceeded to scrutinize the cockpit with a variety of instruments, paying particular attention to the material of the transparent viewpanes. Lastly, he examined the visors of the pressure suits they had worn
“Anything?” Bud asked.
Tom shook his head.
Bud squatted down on the tarmac next to his friend. “Never heard of anything like it,” he said.
“But I have,” Tom retorted. “Last night, in fact.” He now told Bud of his encounter with Nicky Ammo, and the strange ghost story that had emerged.
“You think there’s a connection, Tom?” inquired Bud.
“It seems likely. What we saw in the sky had some of the characteristics of what Nicky saw floating in front of his car—especially the way the phenomenon seemed to keep pace with the vehicles.”
“Say, I just thought of something!” Bud exclaimed. “Maybe Nicky is causing the ‘crow ghosts’ somehow, so you’ll be drawn into staying here in New Mexico and working on his mystery!”
Tom smiled wanly at Bud’s idea. “Maybe. But why? And how’s he doing it?” Tom rose to his feet, squinting into the New Mexico sun. “I suppose the first thing to do is to get in touch with the people who are supposed to be keeping tabs on our Mr. Ammo—the local FBI!”
Back in his personal quarters, Bud at his side, Tom put through a call to Harlan Ames at Swift Enterprises in Shopton. After giving an account of the events of the last two days, he asked to be put in touch with whichever Federal authorities had a special interest in the doings of Nicky Ammo.
“Will do,” the security chief replied. “I’ll have them call you at your private number.”
Less than fifteen minutes later, Tom was speaking to Sam Valdrosa, an agent of the FBI field office in Albuquerque.
“Nicky’s my boy, all right,” said Valdrosa. “We have authorization to monitor his activities, including his telephone calls—‘probable cause’ has been well established at this point. Last night, Tom, there were agents in a car next to the restaurant. If you two had come out together in a way that suggested a kidnapping, we would have taken him down in about ten seconds.”
“Do you know what he was doing over the last couple hours?” Tom asked.
“Sure,” responded the agent. “He got up, sat with his wife on his patio drinking breakfast, and went swimming in his pool with his son Jarret. No phone calls, no sign of anything unusual.”
After conversing with the FBI agent for a few more minutes, Tom thanked him and hung up.
“He mentioned contacting the Federal Aviation Authority, but I think I downplayed our incident enough to have made him think twice. I’d rather have some freedom of action right now,” Tom explained to Bud.
“Me too,” agreed the young airman. “Do you still think Nicky’s involved?”
“Yes,” Tom replied. “But not necessarily as the perpetrator. Maybe as the victim.”
“The victim of ghosts!” Bud looked uneasy. “Just how do you handle something like that?”
Tom’s brows knitted together in concentration. “I’m not yet willing to believe this is anything supernatural,” he said.
“I just wish I’d been able to snap a photo,” remarked Bud. “But when I saw that thing splitting up, I forgot― ”
“Wait a sec, Bud,” Tom interrupted. “Are you absolutely sure you didn’t click the button? You were startled and jerked back― ”
Bud’s eyebrows rose. “Say, you’re right! Maybe I did get a shot after all, by accident!”
The two rushed to the hangar where the little jet had been berthed. Tom opened up the cockpit and pulled the camera out of its compartment, where Bud had stowed it during the plane’s descent.
“The indicator registers one exposure!” Tom cried triumphantly. With Bud peering over his shoulder, he triggered the inbuilt video panel on the camera.
The shot showed the edge of the cockpit viewpane and the starry sky beyond—and nothing else. “I don’t get it,” said Bud in disappointment. “I guess I wasn’t aiming right.”
“Look here,” Tom said, pointing to one corner of the viewscreen. “See that?”
“A lens flare?”
“I’m not so sure. It’s not the right shape or position for that. But it does match where the big crow was located in the sky!”
“Yeah—except no crow,” objected Bud. “What you and I saw wasn’t just a little smudge of light.”
Tom agreed. “Let’s take the camera back to the lab. Maybe we can extract a little more data from the image.”
“Great!” exclaimed Bud. “Then I’ll get a chance to see if Robo Boy has found a head yet!”
Robo Boy was Bud’s characteristic nickname for Tom’s giant robot, which was presently under construction and incomplete from the neck up. The bulky mechanical form had been shipped to the Citadel from Swift Enterprises so that Tom could continue to experiment with it while perfecting the relotrol that would control it.
“He’s still headless.” Tom grinned. “But from his neck down he works well. And I happen to know he can’t wait to see you—to tell you to stop calling him Rivet-Head!”
Bud followed his pal to the cube-shaped lab building next to Tom’s apartment. Using an electronic code-key they entered Tom’s warehouse-sized metallurgy and electronics laboratory, filled with motors, workbenches, and lathes. In a corner stood the giant lifelike robot.
Even without its “head,” the looming automaton stood more than eight feet tall. A special coating partly composed of Tomasite, the wonder plastic developed by Tom and his father, covered every part of its frame except the joints. This resilient radiation-resistant sheathing was a dark olive-green in color, appearing almost black to the eye, and contrasted with the bright silver hues of the joints. Eventually these were to be enclosed in protective “sleeves” of overlapping bands, which stretched and contracted with the movements of the joints.
“I suppose the antenna for the relotrol will be in the head, right?” Bud remarked.
“Right, along with the light-emitting ‘eyes’ and radar ‘ears.’ After Robo Boy’s head is on, he’ll be remotely controlled. Right now I have to use a direct control and monitoring method.” Tom pointed to a long cable protruding from the back of the robot’s cylindrical neck and running to a mobile operator console.
“What can your giant do so far?” asked Bud, eyes gleaming with fascination. “When I left last week, you were trying to get him to lift his arms.”
“Oh, now he can walk, and do almost anything with his hands, as long as I ‘aim’ him properly. Want to see him thread a needle?”
“I’d rather watch him walk.”
“Okay. Here goes.” Tom selected the “walking” function on the control panel and slipped in a high-density data disk. He explained that there were several of these magnetic disks, each encoding specific instructions for certain complex modes of action. “It’s safer to store the data separately from the robot’s body, so there’s no chance of it becoming corrupted by radiation,” he explained.
The young inventor inserted a simple key in the back of the robot and turned it to open the relay circuits. The giant’s machinery began to hum. At the same time, its body broke out into a dazzling blaze of colored pinpoint-sized lights, dotted across the robot’s chest and clustered at every joint.
Bud chortled with laughter. “A real light show! What are they for?”
“To tell me how the circuits and mechanical units are working,” Tom explained as he snapped off the laboratory lights.
“Looks like a Christmas tree.”
“But who ever saw a walking Christmas tree?” Tom grinned. “Watch this!”
He advanced the large control dial on the board a few notches. Slowly the robot lifted his oversized right foot. The foot moved forward, paused, and came down with a crunch. The computer in the control panel registered this motion and, finding it adequate, sent a signal to the other foot, swinging it forward with an awkward stride. Step by step, the automaton clumped forward.
Tom stepped up the speed and the giant began to advance rapidly across the long laboratory floor.
“Whoa!” Bud warned. “Robo Boy’s going to run away.”
Tom chuckled. “If he gets going faster than the control setting calls for, a damper will automatically slow him down.”
The robot was almost running now.
“Tom, he’s going to walk into that vacuum furnace!” cried Bud nervously.
Laughing, Tom quickly threw a switch for a coordinated turn. The giant stopped and pivoted stiffly.
Bud looked relieved. Tom explained, “When we have the head in place and the relotrol is operational, he’ll be able to detect and avoid barriers on his own.”
The robot now headed for the closed door leading to the building corridor. Again he was going at breakneck speed. Bud held his breath but Tom seemed confident. Working quickly, he inserted another action disk into a second drive slot in the control console. The metal body paused, raised its right arm, and extended the hand. With Tom “fine tuning” the action, long metal fingers reached out, gripped the doorknob, and turned it slowly.
Stepping forward, the giant pushed it open. The arm mechanism dropped and the robot paused.
“Watch me take him through the doorway without hitting the frame,” Tom said, manipulating the controls. Bending slightly—for even without a head he was almost too tall for the human-sized doorway—Tom’s giant stepped neatly through and strode into the silent corridor.
Suddenly Tom and Bud froze as an unearthly shriek sounded in the hall and echoed through the laboratory!
“Robo Boy must’ve run over someone!” Bud gasped.
A REJECTED SUITOR
“QUICK, Tom! Stop him!” Bud yelled in fear.
Tom frantically slammed down a switch on the control board to halt the robot. As the giant hesitated just beyond the doorway, Tom and Bud rushed in front of him. A stupefied man stood there, his mouth wide open.
“Brand my li’l ole panhandle!” he choked out breathlessly. “I thought I’as bein’ massacred by the ghost of my old potbellied cookstove!”
“Chow!” roared Tom, a broad smile of relief spreading over his face. “You old coyote cooker! When did you ride into town?”
“Jest tumbled in—an’ I don’t recollect you ever eatin’ any o’ my coyote cutlets, Tom Swift!”
Chow Winkler, the stout former chuck-wagon cook who tended the galley on Tom’s Flying Lab and went along on many of Tom’s journeys, mopped his high and shiny forehead with a large red neckerchief. “Whew!” he said. “Feller can’t even come t’holler hey at ya without gettin’ skeered half to death.”
“You mean you haven’t met Tom’s new cook?” Bud teased. “Where have you been, Chow?”
“Aw, jest flew in last night from Shopton with Mr. Swift’s atomic specializers. Woulda stayed, too, if I’d knowed I was goin’ to bump into this here monster.” His fear fading, Chow approached the robot and poked his chest cautiously. “Feels like the padded dashboard on my old pickup,” he said. Then his eyes narrowed and he turned toward Tom. “This thing really s’posed to make like a cook, Boss?”
“We’re a long long way from being able to mechanize your special talents, Chow,” said Tom soothingly. “Robo Boy here is my new project, a super-strong mechanical workhorse to do tasks in places too dangerous for us puny humans.”
“I heard tell you ’as working on somethin’ like that,” Chow commented, stuffing his kerchief back into his pocket. He cast a withering glance in Bud’s direction. “Reckon Buddy Boy here was makin’ one o’ his so-called jokes.”
“Sorry, pard,” Bud apologized. “What I said was a joke, but we didn’t mean to startle you.”
Warily Chow moved closer to the robot. “That’s okay. Weren’t skeered none,” he drawled. Eying its immensity, he snorted, “Glad I don’t have to cook fer this here giant. Say, maybe you-all could rig up one o’ these come roundup time next year in Texas. My friends sure could use a mee-chanical cowpuncher for ropin’ an’ brandin’.”
“I’ll do better than that, Chow,” said Tom, laughing. “How about my entering one in the Southwest Rodeo for you? I can fix the controls so he’ll never get thrown by any bronc!”
“That’s right nice o’ you, Tom,” said Chow, grinning. “Tell you what. He kin wear my new red-an’-yellow plaid shirt. He’d sure look more civilized that way.”
“But we’ll wait until he has a head,” said Tom. “I’d hate to scare your cowboy friends.”
“Ye-ah, some o’ them folks ’as got a nervous dispersition, all right,” nodded the Texan. “Anyway, I came t’see if you folks had lunch yet. Hows ’bout a bowl of my rattlesnake soup?” he asked jokingly.
“No, thanks,” said Tom. “I’d rather be bitten by a new idea. That I could use!”
“Reckon I could cook up most ever’thing but that!”
While Chow prepared a substantial lunch of hamburgers and onions, Tom and Bud tried to analyze the image captured by the digital camera, but to no avail. “This model just isn’t sensitive enough,” complained Tom. “All I can say for sure is that whatever’s causing that blob of light isn’t inside the camera mechanism.”
“Guess that’s what dear-departed crows look like when you try to take their picture,” Bud commented.
The boys were continuing to talk about the baffling problem when Chow arrived again with lunch. He demanded to know what they were discussing, and Tom gave him a brief account.
“Spirit-stuff!” the cook exclaimed. “Bet I know some’n who could tell you all about it!”
Tom’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Who? Somebody around here?”
“Why, somebody I’m gonna be payin’ a call on this evening, matter of fact,” said Chow, unconsciously taking off his ten-gallon hat, as if in respect. “A lady, name of Jessee Thunder Lake.”
“Is that her real name?” asked Bud.
Chow looked offended. “Shore is! She’s full-blooded Arapajo.”
“No offense,” Bud added hastily. “But when did you meet her, Chow?”
“Buddy Boy, you fergit this here New Mexico desert is where I lived since I moved over from good ol’ Texas a-way back when.”
“That’s right,” Tom interjected. “Dad and I met Chow back when the Citadel was being built, a few years ago. You were working at the Bar-Double-R Ranch on the other side of Tenderly.”
“That I was,” Chow said. “I ’as the cook, and you, Tom, were a skinny kid who liked hangin’ around and askin’ questions.”
“Okay,” Bud said. “Now tell us about this Mrs. Thunder Lake.”
“It’s Miss Thunder Lake,” Chow corrected. “Mighty fine woman. That’s why I ast her t’marry me.”
Tom and Bud gasped as one, almost choking on their meal. “Chow!” Tom cried.
“That’s m’name,” he responded calmly. “Asked her not jest once, neither, but four times now! First time—I was a young sprig with lots o’ hair, jest visitin’—she was engaged to somebody else. Filled me up with pain an’ sorrow, and I went back t’ Texas fer a few years. But she never did marry that ol’ poke Winton Blaisnell. So when I found that out I came back t’ stay fer good, an’ ast her agin.”
Bud tried to look sympathetic. “But nothing doing?”
“Whatter you think?” snorted Chow. “Seems Blaisnell had run off, and she was all ‘pain-and-sorrow’ herself and wouldn’t think of anybody else. So she gave me one o’ them woven blankets and sent me on my way.”
Tom stifled a laugh—barely!—and said, “But still, you tried again.”
“I did. I waited one square year, and then I cornered her at a dance. Really thought I had a chance, too, all fixed up like I was. But nope. She said she was gonna move up north to Finch River, Alaska, and teach school, and she didn’t think I’d take to th’ move—prob’ly right. So she gave me one o’ them little round rugs and that was that.”
“You poor cowpoke!” Bud exclaimed.
Chow sighed and shook his head. “Ain’t over yet, neither. Years an’ years go by, and now I’m a mite older, with a mite less hair. One o’ the ranch hands tells me Jessee’s back in Tenderly, workin’ at the library. So I get all duded up and I go to pay a call― ”
“Let me guess,” Bud interjected. “A bath towel?”
“A shawl!” snorted Chow disgustedly. “Fer keepin’ me warm in my old age, I guess.”
“Pard, do you really think it’s—er, wise to try again?” Tom asked quietly.
“You mean tonight?” The cook chuckled. “Naw, that’s all over with. Jest gonna say hello, since I’m in the area again. But listen, Jessee Thunder Lake knows a whole lot about the Arapajo and the spirits of th’ desert and such. She jest may have somethin’ to tell you boys about that status-peer spook you seen!”
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Bud pulled on a pair of trunks and decided to sun himself on the lawn next to the employee cafeteria. He begged Tom to join him, but the young inventor waved him off, explaining that he needed to test a new idea he had for his relotrol device.
“You think you can make it less sensitive to those atomic rays?” Bud asked, standing at the lab door with his outer clothes bundled under one arm.
“That’s the idea,” Tom replied, grinning. “If we can figure out how to protect your leathery hide, Budworth, I’m sure we can devise some super-sunscreen for our metal man here!”
Tom worked alone through the bright afternoon and into the evening, little noting the passage of time. One angle after another was cast into material form—and then cast aside, a failure. Tom’s broad workbench was littered with bits of circuitry, computer chips, and ragged patches of antiradiation shielding.
The answer’s here somewhere, he said to himself, gazing at the scattered detritus of a day’s labors. I just know it!
But finally, at the height of frustration, he began to make some progress. He had just cobbled together a promising new model when he was interrupted by the ring of the laboratory telephone.
“This here’s Chow, Boss,” came a familiar twang. “You an’ Buddy Boy had that dinner I left for you?”
Tom was slow on the uptake. “Dinner?”
“Figgered you’d fergit,” the cook remarked. “So now I want you two to head over to Darlita’s Rancho Patio, and pronto! I got Jessee Thunder Lake with me, and blamed if she doesn’t know a thing ’r three about big black crows that disappear!”
GHOST OR LEGEND?
TOM AND BUD were very familiar with the Mexican restaurant Chow had named, as Darlita’s was the only eating establishment between the Citadel and the town of Tenderly, and was frequented by Swift employees seeking a change from cafeteria food.
The boys were met in front by Chow, dressed in his sharpest western-wear, and Jessee Thunder Lake, who turned out to be an attractive motherly woman of middle years, decked out in colorful scarves and copper jewelry.
“So very pleased to meet you two,” she said, extending her hand. “Charles has said so much about you and your adventures.” Tom and Bud took to her immediately.
After chatting lightly over a fine dinner, Jessee brought up the mysterious stratosphere sighting, which Chow had described to her.
“We don’t know what to make of it,” Tom said. “But Chow mentioned that you might know something about it, or something like it.”
Jessee nodded modestly. “Indeed I do, if it will be of any help. Not that I’ve seen such things myself, you understand. I’ve always thought these old legends were just so much moonshine. But now—I wonder.”
“What does the legend say?” asked Bud.
“It’s one of the old stories of my ancestors, the Arapajo Nihavi, as we are called. I remember my grandfather telling me the stories when I was a little girl.”
“An’ that’s quite a ways back!” Chow blurted out. Then he blushed, realizing what he had said. But Jessee ignored the faux pas.
“The stories are about different kinds of birds,” she continued. “They are the forms taken by our tribal gods and our ancestor-spirits. The Crow-Black-As-Night-Shadow is named Oi-Pah, the spirit of vengefulness. The spirit always watches, always listens; and when a father wishes vengeance against a father, or a son against a son, he must light a cottonwood branch on a night of no moon and call out to Oi-Pah, who will fly above him in the shape of a crow big as a horse.”
“What does this crow look like?” Tom inquired.
“Very much like what you have described,” the woman replied. “As I say, very big and completely dark, but with red-burning eyes and silver talons. His tongue is like the tongue of the great desert snake.”
Tom and Bud exchanged startled glances. This detail of their encounter had not been mentioned to Chow!
Jessee took a sip of water and went on. “Oi-Pah flies to your enemy and brings punishments and evil fortune with him. He has ninety-nine children that dwell secretly within his feathers, and when he finds whom he seeks, they all burst out like seeds and fall upon the enemy as a swarm, doing whatever is just. And then they disappear like a flame put out.”
Bud gave what would have been a low whistle if he had been able to wet his lips. “This is unreal!”
“Has anyone ever claimed to have actually seen the crow?” Tom questioned.
Jessee smiled. “Oh, you know how it is—someone always knows someone whose uncle knew someone who said—and so on.” She took a few bites of her salad. “I don’t really believe these tribal urban legends. I’m a librarian!”
Tom now described Nicky Ammo’s several experiences, taking care not to mention the man’s name. “Have you ever heard of anything like that in connection with the old stories?”
“Oh yes,” Jessee responded. “Oi-Pah himself could do it. Once he is called to vengeance, he can take on any shape he likes. But that is a power he shares with one other thing.”
“What’s that?” asked Chow, his eyes wide.
Driving back to the Citadel over long dark roads, Tom and Bud talked excitedly of Jessee Thunder Lake’s story—though in strangely hushed tones.
“Tom, there really couldn’t be anything to it,” Bud observed. Then he glanced nervously at his pal. “Could there be?”
“We both saw it,” Tom responded. “I’m not one for telling the universe what it can and can’t do. But it’ll take a lot of convincing to make me believe you and I and Nicky Ammo are up against a crow with revenge on his mind.”
“Yeah,” said Bud. “Still… know what we need?”
“A ghost scarecrow!”
The boys slept uneasily that night. But the next day, as the sun burned its way high into the midday sky, Bud piloted the high-altitude jet into the ionosphere, with the newest version of the relotrol mounted above him, and Tom strapped in behind.
“Any problems yet, genius boy?” Bud asked Tom.
“Not a one,” answered Tom happily, “and we’re well above yesterday’s altitude mark. I’d say the new system works like a charm.”
“And it seems to be a lucky charm, too—no crows anywhere,” Bud observed. “So what kind of sunscreen did you smear on your machine?”
After a chuckle, Tom explained: “I guess you could say I’ve invented a ‘smart’ sun block that reformulates itself as conditions change! Seriously, I’m using a new form of double-redundant digital encoding that responds almost instantly to altered radiation conditions and adjusts itself accordingly.”
Bud flew the jet higher and higher, and the radia-tector instruments began to show dangerous levels of background radiation streaming down from space. But still the relotrol performed flawlessly.
“Nothing like success to take a person’s mind off magical mystery menaces,” joked Bud.
“You can take ’er down now,” Tom said. “The next step is to try exposing the new relotrol to some serious hard radiation from the main reactor.”
But back on the ground in the Citadel, Tom received disappointing news. The main reactor core had been powered-down that very morning to perform some routine maintenance required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“Some day Robo Boy himself—or his offspring—will do those inspections,” Tom remarked to Bud. “But for now we’ve got a holdup of several days.”
Bud grinned. “Want to join me in nature’s tanning salon?”
Tom laughed but replied, “Actually, I was thinking of hitching a ride back to Enterprises, along with the robot. If I’m going to set the relotrol aside for awhile anyway, there are some parts of the main machine that need attention.”
Tom and Bud set about arranging for the giant robot to be freighted by jet to Shopton. They would all travel back aboard the same Swift Construction Company craft that had brought Chow to the Citadel. “I imagine Chow will be going back, too. He won’t want to stay away from his customized kitchen for too long.”
“And besides,” Bud added with a twinkle, “he’s probably got Jessee Thunder Lake out of his system for at least a while!”
Late in the afternoon, as Tom was in his apartment making notes in his computerized journal log, the front office put through a telephone call with Tom’s consent.
“Hello,” said a pleasant but unfamiliar voice, “this is Richard Hermosillo. Forgive me if I’m disturbing you.”
“Not at all,” Tom responded. “What can I do for you?”
“A great deal, perhaps. I’m a professor of archaeology out of the University of Albuquerque, and right now I’m working on a ‘dig’ out on Purple Mesa, about eighteen miles or so northeast of your plant.”
“I believe I’ve seen it,” said Tom.
“It’s a fairly striking land formation. I’m engaged in special, rather delicate work here, and—well, I’m not quite sure how to put this…”
“Do you need some technical assistance?”
“No,” replied Professor Hermosillo. “I need help of a rather different sort. You see, Purple Mesa is a sacred spot for one of the local tribes, and some of their leaders object to our digging up here. Normally that would end things right there; but this tribe, the Arapajo, has never been officially recognized—it’s regarded as part of another tribe, and these local leaders have no clear authority over the university’s activities.”
The Arapajo—Jessee Thunder Lake’s tribe! Tom had to smile at this latest coincidence. “I know an Arapajo, as it happens,” he commented. “But how can I help you?”
“Well,” Hermosillo continued, “the whole situation is kind of up in the air, and our funding sources are getting nervous. I know you folks have a lot of contacts in the governmental scientific establishment, and― ”
“You thought I might put in a word or two,” Tom concluded. “I’d be happy to, but my father and I have always agreed that science and invention ought to be respectful of human values. If what you’re doing really offends the Arapajo, I’m not sure Swift Enterprises would want to get involved.”
“I see.” Professor Hermosillo was clearly disappointed, and as a fellow scientist Tom felt sympathy for his predicament.
“Tell you what,” said the young inventor. “I’m flying back to Shopton, New York, for a few days; I expect to return here by midweek. If you won’t mind, I’ll make some inquiries about your project, and also speak with my father. Perhaps those who are objecting don’t fully understand what you intend to do. It may take a few weeks, but if we can help, all things considered—we will.”
“We’d all be most grateful,” Hermosillo said, relieved. “I’ll contact my colleagues at the university and have them transmit our project proposal to you, and other background information.”
After exchanging some further details, Tom hung up. Then he contacted the plant switchboard and asked to be put through to Chow, who had said he would be “whuppin’ up” some experimental dishes in the facility’s kitchen.
“Chow, I wanted to ask Jessee a few questions,” Tom said when the cook came on the line. “Would you mind giving me her phone number?”
“Wouldn’t mind, Tom,” Chow replied. “But if’n you aim t’call her right now, it wouldn’t do any good—she’s workin’ at the library in Tenderly. Got that number, too.”
“Thanks, Chow.” Tom then proceeded to call the small town library, where Miss Thunder Lake presided over the reference section. When she answered, Tom apologized for calling her at work and asked what she had heard about the archaeological operations on Purple Mesa.
“Oh, that!” she said with a ladylike laugh. “Tom, most of my people couldn’t care less about it. That mesa was never a burial ground and has no real significance to the Arapajo Nihavi, except that it was once used as a lookout point. But I know where the trouble is coming from.”
“A man named Joseph Cloud Bear and his grandson Kevin. They run an auto detailing shop just outside Tenderly, on Highway 380. Old Joseph’s decided he’s a tribal shaman, and he’s been writing to the government, getting up petitions, and so on. Now he’s got Purple Mesa stuck in his craw. Everyone I know just laughs at him, and if I were you I’d do the same.”
Tom thanked her for her help and hung up the phone, wondering if he should call Professor Hermosillo back immediately and offer his support. But he decided to wait until he had discussed the matter with his father.
That evening Tom, Bud, and Chow were airborne, jetting eastward with the red sunset at their backs and Robo Boy securely stowed in the cargo hold.
As Bud and Chow began a game of cards, Tom reclined his seat and found himself starting to drift off to sleep. Suddenly he was aware of excited voices and a hand shaking his shoulder.
He wearily opened one eye, and saw the jet’s co-pilot standing next to him.
“It’s happening, Tom!” the young man cried excitedly. “Up ahead, above us!”
Tom shook his head, trying to come to full wakefulness. “What’s up ahead, Jack?”
“The crow—the monster crow!”
A MECHANICAL COMEDIAN
TOM LEAPT to his feet, all drowsiness dissipated.
“Did you see it? Where?” he demanded.
Not answering, the co-pilot turned and sprinted up the aisle. Joined by Bud and Chow, Tom followed.
Bursting into the cockpit, Tom saw that the pilot, Ed Mills, had gone rigid with fear. Wordlessly he pointed through the forward viewpane, and Tom worked his way forward to get a better angle.
A huge, black object, flapping like a bird, was circling in front of the jet!
Despite his earlier experience, Tom could scarcely believe his eyes. Again he took note of the dead-black feathers, the lighter beak and claws—which he now realized were silvery in color—and the eyes that glowed red.
From behind him Tom heard a gasp. “Great day an’ dishpans! It is a crow!”
“Sure is, pard!” came Bud’s voice, awestruck.
Tom placed a calming hand on Mills’ shoulder. “Got anything on the scope, Ed?”
“Not a thing!” the man exclaimed. “It’s just not there—but we see it!”
“Keep your eye on it,” Tom directed.
“It’s got its eyes on us!” said Jack Vincenzo, the co-pilot.
The mammoth crow wheeled around in a spiralling motion, effortlessly keeping pace with the jet and slowly descending. Maybe we can get another photo! Tom thought excitedly.
But even as this crossed his mind, everyone gave a shout. The crow had vanished! Not a trace was left in the darkening vault of stars.
After a shocked silence, Jack said:
“Man alive, I’m sure glad you spread the word about this thing, Tom. I’d’ve thought I was losing my marbles.”
“That’s the way Tom and I felt, Jack,” said Bud quietly.
“Brand my high-flyin’ fritters!” breathed Chow. “I shore wish Jessee’d been on hand t’ see that Oweee-paw of hers!” As Tom turned, the cook looked him in the eye, worriedly. “Boss, this means some cayuse has got you marked fer vengeance!”
Tom did not reply. He double-checked the instrument readings, then returned, troubled and thoughtful, to his seat.
Some hours later the jet roared down to a smooth landing on the brightly-lit main runway of Swift Enterprises. As Tom and the others debarked, Tom’s father drove up in a jeep. He greeted his son warmly.
“It’s good to have you here safe,” said Damon Swift. “So there’s been another incident involving that phantom crow, eh?”
“And we’re no closer to figuring it out,” Tom confirmed. “What do you think, Dad?”
“Obviously, it’s a hoax of some kind,” he responded. “As to how it’s done…” His voice trailed off in a verbal shrug.
“Say there, I got me an idee!” said Chow, who was standing nearby. “Mebbe them Martian pals o’ yours is behind it! Seems like they can do jest about anything!”
Earlier in the year a small automated space missile had plunged into the grounds of Swift Enterprises, bearing an array of symbols that seemed to represent concepts in the universal language of mathematics. Not yet announcing the event to the public, Tom and his father had tentatively deciphered much of the message. It appeared to have originated with friendly scientists who maintained a base on nearby Mars. Subsequently Tom had been able to exchange simple messages with these beings by means of a video-oscillograph transmitter.
Tom smiled. “I guess you could be right, Chow,” he said. “But why our space friends would want to get involved with the likes of Nicky Ammo is anybody’s guess!”
“Nevertheless, it might be worth the attempt to contact them,” Damon Swift commented. “I’ll spend some time tomorrow trying to construct an inquiry in the space-symbol language.”
The young inventor went home for a much-needed night’s sleep. He was late for breakfast the next morning, but his mother, his sister Sandy, and their friend Bashalli Prandit were enjoying cocoa and doughnuts from The Glass Cat, the Shopton coffee house where Bashalli worked, and having a lively discussion.
“Good morning, all,” Tom said, kissing his mother and giving each of the girls an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Hi, Bash! How’s tricks?”
“I would say tricks are at their worst, Tom. That’s why I’m here. You are just the very person to save the day.”
Tom sat down, dug a spoon into half a grapefruit, and grinned a boyish grin. “Bash, you’re making a hero out of me even before I know why. What’s the story?”
Bashalli, a pretty girl with dark hair and large brown eyes, had come to Shopton from Pakistan. In the short span of time since he had met her, just prior to his trip to South America in his Flying Lab, she had become a good family friend and was always Tom’s date at parties, with Sandy and Bud usually completing the wholesome foursome. Sometimes the four young people would go off together on scientific outings led by Tom. Sandy was an excellent pilot, and Bashalli had a flare for sketching which many times had come in handy.
“It has to do with the entertainment tomorrow night,” Sandy explained.
Bashalli continued, “You do remember, to raise money for the hospital?” Tom nodded. He recalled that the girls were on the fund committee. “Well, our best act has been washed out—washed down, that is. We’ve got to substitute something in a hurry. It’s against the rules to engage a professional—only amateurs can be in it.”
Tom gave the girls a look of mock horror. “You’re not hinting that I become a song-and-dance man, I hope!”
Sandy winced. “Please, big brother—what I’ve heard echoing from behind the shower curtain is not singing!”
Bash laughed. “Not you, Thomas, but your new wonderful robot,” she replied.
The young inventor stared in disbelief. “What! Bash, that would be a major operation! It would take hours and hours of― ”
“Tom,” Mrs. Swift spoke up, “is what the girls are asking an impossibility?”
“No, but― ”
“If you worked at it today and tomorrow after hours, with Bud and others helping, you could do it?”
“Yes, Mother. But― ”
“Then I want you to do it,” Mrs. Swift said softly but firmly. “So far as I know, you’ve never used your scientific talents for charitable purposes.” She smiled. “Unless saving whole cities could be called working for humanity. Tom, I’d like you to do your share for the show tomorrow night.”
Tom knew he had lost the argument. “All right, Mom. I suppose I can put something together. It might even be a useful test. But I’ll need Sandy’s and Bashalli’s help.”
“Wonderful!” the two girls cried. “When do we start?”
“Come down to the lab at four tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have the robot prepped by then.” Tom picked up a maple-frosted doughnut and sniffed it suspiciously.
“Do you smell something?” asked Bashalli.
“Yes,” Tom replied. “A set-up!”
All day and the next morning Tom, Bud, and three engineers combined Tom’s planned work on Robo Boy with the unexpected new project. Bud Barclay, plastered with special sensors that allowed the control computer to register his movements, served as the live model for a sort of crude song and dance routine. Song after song was tried and discarded before the mechanical man’s steps and gestures synchronized with the music. In truth, the problem was less the robot’s lack of ability than Bud’s lack of rhythm!
In the meantime, modelmaker Arvid Hanson had been working on a makeshift head to render Robo Boy more presentable to an audience. By the time Sandy and Bashalli arrived, the robot appeared as a deadpan, comical-faced creature whose eyes roved from side to side.
“Meet Herbert,” Tom said. “That’s Robo Boy’s stage name.” As the girls giggled, the robot bowed stiffly. “I’ll give you a demonstration,” the young inventor went on, “then show you just how to work these dials. It’s as simple as running a CD player.”
After some practice, Herbert went through his performance perfectly. “Definitely ready for prime time!” Bud pronounced.
The four young people had an early supper at the Enterprises plant and at six thirty left for the converted armory in Shopton where the entertainment was to take place.
The girls had dutifully spread the word, and by eight o’clock the auditorium was packed to overflowing, and the show began. Since the robot performance was to be the last number, Tom and Bud remained behind the scenes, carefully guarding the canvas-covered figure and the control panel until the curtain rang down on the preceding act.
Then the boys wheeled the robot to the center of the curtained stage and took off the cover. Tom quickly reviewed the instructions for operating Herbert and turned the panel over to the girls. Then he and Bud took their places in the center of the second row in the audience.
Bud hid a secret smile. He and Hank Sterling, Enterprises’ chief engineer, had covertly made a few additions to the mechanical man’s repertoire. They had rigged up a remote data-disk drive that would cut into the robot’s main circuit at a signal from a micro-transmitter in Bud’s pocket. When the girls finished their show, he planned to make the robot do a few tricks that were not on the program!
The master of ceremonies walked out. “And now,” he said, “we present a surprise number in place of the one originally scheduled, by the world renowned vaudeville trio: The Three Swifties!”
The band struck up a corny “show-biz” tune. The curtains parted and an amber spotlight revealed the inanimate Herbert standing between the two costumed girls. Bashalli bowed, then Sandy, and then the mechanical man broke out in a rash of colored light and bowed as well, delighting the audience. As the audience broke into applause, the girls hurried to the wings to take over the controls.
Herbert began to jig across the stage, provoking uproarious laughter. With the girls working the regulating dials, the robot launched into a series of disjointed acrobatics. His lights blinked on and off, and his big eyes rolled from side to side. The response was deafening.
“Now we’ll make him sing,” whispered Sandy, and turned on the tape for this part of the act.
Herbert’s voice was surprisingly like that of a notorious pop star, making the audience laugh all the louder as the robot imitated the singer’s well-known cool gestures and fancy footwork.
Amid tremendous hand clapping the curtain went down. Then, as it arose again for a second bow from Herbert, Bud clicked the button in his pocket signaler. Instead of the expected bow, the robot seemed to waver uncertainly on stage, his empty head slowly turning as if inspecting the audience. The attendees fell silent. Abruptly Herbert began to move. He walked to the front of the stage and stumped down the wooden steps toward the audience. Bud’s plan was to give people in the first row a little scare, then leap up and point Herbert back to the stage like a misbehaving puppy.
As he drew closer, the humanoid machine looked menacing. Had he gone out of control? the audience wondered. Would he harm someone?
“Oh!” cried a girl in the front row, shrinking back in her seat.
Bud decided that the time had come to end his joke. He rose to his feet and clicked a second button that would cause Herbert to reverse and march back up the steps to the stage.
But to the boy’s consternation, Herbert continued to advance. Something had gone wrong!
In a panic, Bud double-clicked the activator button on the signal device, which was supposed to immobilize the robot in case of an emergency. But Herbert continued to advance menacingly toward the front row.
“Tom!” Bud cried. “Let me get past! I’ve got to stop him!”
By this time, Herbert, clawed arms stretched before him like a Frankenstein monster, was stalking for the side of the hall, where town officials were seated. The robot headed directly for the mayor of Shopton!
Bud was frantic. “Tom, do something!” he pled. “I’m not strong enough to tackle him by myself!”
To Bud’s amazement, his friend did not seem to be the least bit upset. Abruptly Herbert stopped, took a bow, then turned back and calmly sauntered in his awkward way up the stage steps. Here he bowed again, then walked to the wings, with the audience going into raptures of thunderous applause as the curtain descended.
Tom hurried backstage with Bud at his heels. Sandy and Bashalli stood speechless. “Wh-what happened?” they babbled, their voices overlapping.
Bud was about to confess his part when Tom replied, “Didn’t you like it? Bud and I thought we’d have some fun. We programmed him for an extra-surprise finale.”
“Well, I think you might have told us,” said Sandy, while Bud’s jaw dropped open in amazement. He realized now that Tom had discovered the additional drive he and Hank had rigged up in the control console and had installed one of his own!
“Good grief!” said the young pilot after the girls had stepped away, giving Tom a playful punch on the arm. “Nobody ever gets the better of you, genius boy!”
Tom laughed and was about to make a joking reply when suddenly a shout rose from somewhere in the auditorium, immediately joined by others in a swelling chorus of alarm.
He and Bud ran to the curtain, where they collided with Sandy and Bashalli, who were running backstage in a panic.
“Tom! Bud! The auditorium’s on fire!”
TOM WHIPPED open the curtain and looked out into the auditorium. Thick smoke was pouring down from a ceiling vent. As he watched, he could begin to make out orange-yellow flames behind the vent grating.
The vent was situated above the main exit door, which led into the lobby. The overflow audience was trying to back up into the auditorium again, but the patrons were squeezed ever tighter together and mass panic was setting in.
Suddenly the shouts became a terrified roar. An entire section of the ceiling collapsed downward in a rush of sparks, and the audience surged backwards in fear of their lives.
“Everyone! Listen!” cried a commanding voice. It was Tom’s father! “Walk up onto the stage and through the back door! Just walk—remain calm.”
This seemed to help the situation. Tom and Bud boosted the thronging audience members onto the stage at either side of the central steps, and Sandy and Bashalli herded them toward the backstage exit.
Suddenly a woman’s shrill scream ripped the air! “Linda! Oh no!”
Clambering up on the stage, Tom saw the cause instantly. The falling ceiling had set an entire section of seats aflame. Next to the wall, beyond the blazing seats, a little girl huddled paralyzed with fear. She was trapped between the fire and the unyeilding wall!
Too terrified to cry out, the little girl, Linda, pushed herself closer to the auditorium wall, shrinking back from the heat. The flames were leaping halfway to the roof, and there was no place to run.
Suddenly, as if a new nightmare had commenced, a huge eerie shadow seemed to pass through the hedge of flame! The monstrous shadow, ten feet tall, staggered forward and stretched out a pair of tremendous arms—arms which terminated in great vicelike claws. But the claws were safely closed, and the arms scooped the little girl up off the floor and held her high, carrying her over the hungry flames and setting her down gently on the stage next to her tearful mother.
Tom Swift stepped away from Robo Boy’s control console. “Is she all right?” he asked.
Too overcome to speak, the mother could only nod gratefully.
Sandy hugged her brother with tears in her eyes, and Bashalli kissed his cheek and whispered, “You see, you are a hero!”
“Not me,” returned Tom. “Robo Boy!”
Predictably, the Shopton Evening Bulletin was ablaze with news of the event the morning following. The story included the Mayor’s words of thanks, and photos of Tom, the robot, and little Linda. It was also disclosed that the Fire Department had attributed the fire to a short-circuit in the air conditioning system.
“And not a ghost in sight!” remarked Tom, showing the front page to Bud as they sat in Tom’s laboratory at Swift Enterprises.
“Yeah,” Bud retorted, “but remember, Skipper, you can’t always see a ghost!”
Robo Boy stood against the wall, his exterior newly cleaned of soot and his charred “head” discarded. Tom had swung open the hinged plates covering the robot’s thick arms and legs, revealing a complicated assemblage of cylinders that slid into one another telescope-fashion.
Bud eyed Robo Boy’s insides with curiosity. “His insides look as complicated as a real person’s! So what are you working on, Tom?”
“His muscles, basically,” the young inventor responded. “I want to see if I can give him smoother, stronger, quicker movements.”
“You’ll make a ballet star of him yet!” Bud chuckled. “How do his muscles work, anyway? Those tubes look more like hydraulics than electric motors.”
“Let me show you,” said Tom, motioning for Bud to stand still. Tom walked across the lab to a counter, the top of which was partially blocked from view. His hands now out of sight, Tom called: “Okay, pal—shake!”
With a quizzical look Bud extended a hand—and then took a startled step backward. A white, tubular “stalk” snaked forth from the hidden top of the workbench, stretching like an elastic arm. The featureless, rounded column was about eight inches in diameter, somewhat broader at its base and tapering toward the fore-end approaching the youth’s outstretched hand. It curved through the air in an arch-shape, and as the nearer end slowly drew close to Bud he could see four stubby fingers and a thumb. This “hand” paused inches from Bud’s, as if waiting.
“Well?” teased Tom.
Bud hesitantly grasped the pseudo-hand and shook it. The whole stalk rippled up and down.
“Feels—strange,” he commented. “A little warm, and smooth—but not sticky. What is it, some kind of plastic?”
“Yep,” Tom replied. The eerie arm now slowly retracted the way it came until it was out of sight. “It’s another variation of Tomasite, compounded with some of the so-called ‘rare earth’ elements that are used in semiconductors. Our materials-science engineers have been working on it for some time now.”
Bud looked at his empty hand. Seeing it was perfectly clean, he scratched his head. “What do you do, pressurize it to make it expand like that?”
Tom shook his head. “No, it’s an entirely different principle. As you know, a basic hydraulic system works because water is almost incompressible; if you push it down here, it bulges up there. That means you can use it to multiply force, just as a lever does.”
“Now tell me this, flyboy. Why can’t a person pump sand, or other powders, in the same manner as you pump water?”
Bud’s forehead crinkled. “I suppose it’s obvious… but I don’t know the answer!”
Tom laughed. “Well, basically because of two factors. First, the grains don’t adhere to one another very well, whereas water molecules inter-lock together, almost forming one big continuous molecule. The second reason is that the shape of the individual grains keeps them from fitting tightly together, so that a pile of sand, for example, is extremely porous.”
“If you spill a soda onto it, the liquid just runs right through.”
“Yes, and the result is that you can’t get enough suction going with sand, or most other powders, to overcome their internal friction and pump them.”
Bud smiled. “But Swift chemical magic has conquered that detail, right?”
“You just saw the result,” Tom confirmed. “It was basically a mass of plastic powder, made up of separate grains. But the new substance has unique electrical and mechanical characteristics. It conducts electricity with very low resistance—but only in one plane, along one direction, more or less. At right angles to the flow, it’s an almost perfect insulator. You could make a high-power cable of this stuff and hold it safely in your hand, with no insulation covering it.”
“Furthermore, a current causes it to structure itself into fibrils, like little threads, all along its length. The fibrils slide freely along one another, which makes the mass extremely elastic. But the individual fibrils are incompressible and hug closely, so it holds together—and you can pump it like water and use it for a hydraulic-like pressure system in the robot’s ‘muscles.’ See?”
“Hey, of course!” Bud joked. “But what did you do to give it a shape and grow fingers?”
“Just something I rigged up to test its capabilities,” the other replied, gesturing toward the lab counter. “I have a sort of ‘sleeve’ back there with special sensors that modulate the current in the plastic, so that it imitates both the movement and general shape of my hand and arm.”
“That’s great, Tom,” Bud said wonderingly. “What do you guys call the plastic powder?”
Tom looked slightly embarrassed. “It has a big, long chemical name, but—don’t laugh—we’ve nicknamed it Herculesium!”
“I wouldn’t laugh, pal,” Bud remarked. “After all, my real name is Budworth!”
Tom gestured toward a sliding door in the wall of the lab. “Inside that cubicle is a big, deep vat of the stuff, almost like a well. I built it into one of the pressure tanks, because I wanted to have a fair amount ready-made and onhand for experimentation. What I’m going to do is give Robo Boy a kind of ‘transfusion,’ replacing an earlier formula plastic with the latest batch, which is far superior. You can help me if you like.”
“Sure,” Bud replied. “Will we need to put on any protective gear?”
“No, that’s part of the beauty of Herculesium. The particles won’t bond with living cells at all, inside or outside. It hardly sticks to anything; you can just brush it off.”
The two close friends worked together for hours, barely taking a break to wolf down Chow’s luncheon of sandwiches and sodas. Then, as the shadows began to deepen across Swift Enterprises, Bud reminded Tom that they had promised to meet the girls for dinner at TinCanz, a new restaurant and dance club on the Lake Carlopa shoreline.
“Why don’t you go on ahead, pal,” said Tom, his mind still on his work. “You drove in separately, anyway. I’ll shower and change here at the plant and meet up with you three later on.”
“Okay,” Bud responded, adding: “But don’t pull the absent-minded-professor routine and show up late—Bashalli might bean you with a jar of coffee beans!”
Seeing that he was near the end of the meticulous “transfusion,” Tom worked for another half hour, then closed-up and secured the access panels on his machine man and left the lab, locking it with his electronic key. The ridewalk—a conveyor-belt transport system that criss-crossed the four-mile-square plant—had carried Tom almost a mile toward the administration building when he suddenly groaned. He had forgotten to have Robo Boy lie flat on the lab floor to help the newly injected Herculesium powder “settle” evenly.
“Man, maybe I am getting absent-minded!” he muttered, stepping across to the adjacent ridewalk, which moved in the opposite direction.
Back inside the lab, he activated the control console, inserted the appropriate disk, and manipulated the control dials. The headless robot obediently crouched down, then smoothly rocked back and flattened himself against the tiled floor.
“Good boy!” Tom whispered affectionately, approaching the recumbent form.
Just then there came a slight sound—the faint scuff of a shoe against the floor. A cloth, reeking of chemicals, was whipped across Tom’s mouth and nostrils by arms that came from behind him. He gasped, twice, and then collapsed helplessly, legs like rubber. Unconsciousness passed across him like the shadow of a cloud.
Tom’s eyes fluttered open.
He seemed to be standing upright in a warm darkness that pressed against him from all sides.
What in the world…? came his confused thoughts.
His arms were at his sides. He tried to move them and discovered that they were unbound. Yet they moved against a strange, molasses-like resistance, which the young inventor could also feel against the rest of his body up to his jaw. And as his arms moved, he seemed to sink down further into the yielding material. Now it was almost touching his lower lip.
Suddenly he understood!
He was suspended upright in the vat of Herculesium powder in the cubicle that adjoined the lab. The ultrafine substance was acting like quicksand, and Tom was sinking fast!
AN INTERRUPTED EVENING
TOM TRIED shouting for help loud and long, with little expectation that it would do any good. He quickly determined, from the echo of his voice, that the cubicle door panel had been shut. No one would be able to hear him.
His brain churning furiously, he tried to remember every detail of the lab, the cubicle, and the vat. Was there something that could help him haul himself free of the powder before he suffocated?
By effort of will he calmed himself, taking care to keep all movement to a minimum. Tom remembered that thrashing and struggling would only cause him to be pulled down by suction all the faster.
If only I had my Televoc pin! he thought. But in his mind’s eye he could see his personal super-miniaturized communications device resting on the nightstand next to his bed at home. Despite every effort, he left home without it all too often.
Tom visualized the accumulation vat. It was a good six feet in diameter, the cuplike bottom about seven feet below the surface of the plastic powder. The tank sides, of polished titanium, extended a further yard upward. Even if he could manage to touch the sides, his grasping fingers would simply slide.
Abruptly he slipped several inches further toward the bottom. The powder now covered his mouth completely! He slowly arched his back and lifted his jaw, forcing his lips into the open air—but only slightly.
Had his attacker emptied his pockets? It was very likely. But with aching slowness Tom pressed against his pants pockets with his right hand.
To his surprise he felt coins, his ring of keys, his billfold—even the small electronic key device, about the size of a credit card, that gave access to the various secured sections of Swift Enterprises. The guy must have been in a real hurry, Tom thought. Not that any of this stuff will get me out of here!
He then pressed against his left-hand pants pocket and felt the outline of a small squared-off bulk. At first he couldn’t remember what it was; then it came to him in a rush. The midget remote-control signal device that Bud had used the night before! He recalled now that Bud had handed it to him earlier, when Tom had expressed curiosity about what Bud and Hank Sterling had put together.
I wish I’d examined it right away, he thought ruefully. He’d only glanced at it before dropping it into his pocket while reading the morning paper. However, Tom did recall noticing that Hank had adapted and modified an auxiliary remote-controller that Tom had been using weeks before, while experimenting with the earliest versions of his robot apparatus. He wouldn’t be able to transmit sophisticated commands with the crude device, but—!
Tom gently worked his hand into his pocket and slowly withdrew the transmitter unit. He knew he would have to get it clear of the Herculesium, for the powder’s electrical properties would interfere with the signal. He inched his hand upward toward the surface, and then—
The remote-control unit slipped from his grasp. He had forgotten that the powder acted like a slick lubricant!
Trembling, Tom felt around in the dry fluid. Almost immediately his fingers touched the signaler. The Herculesium was viscous enough to keep the lightweight device floating in place!
Struggling to keep his nostrils above the surface, Tom was finally able to push the controller into the open air. He clicked the main activator switch, which Bud had demonstrated. He could hear no sound from beyond the chamber wall, and could only hope that Robo Boy had stirred to life.
The young inventor reviewed the preset routines on the disk that he had left in the drive. He knew he would be able to have the robot rise to his feet, but couldn’t recall whether other basic movements, such as walking, had been recorded on the disk for convenience. He could only make the attempt.
The controller was configured somewhat like a hand-calculator, with 24 buttons on its face. By pressing the right sequence, Tom could access different routines. He knew the code sequence for “get up,” and activated it. In a moment, through slitted eyelids, he saw wisps of colored light reflecting through the cubicle’s window from glass and metal in the lab. Robo Boy was active and on his feet!
Unsure of the codes for the other routines, Tom could only make reasonable guesses. Several times he could hear, very faintly, the sound of crashing and breakage as the giant robot blundered around helplessly. Once he actually saw Robo Boy stalk past the quartz view window, heading off in the wrong direction. But finally a loud thud announced that the automaton had successfully zeroed-in on the transmitter and, having gotten his bearings, was on the other side of the door panel.
It would not be possible for Tom to direct the robot to punch the buttons that would cause the panel to unlock. But Tom had another plan. He had Robo Boy slide his claw-hands to either side of the panel, so that they were pressed against the doorway frame.
Now to test those new muscles! Tom said to himself, starting to gasp for air. He signaled the metal man to open his arms wide against the frame, gradually increasing the pressure. The robot obeyed! With an unearthly screech the strong metal frame began to bend, a change that Tom could make out only faintly. The frame bent more—more—and suddenly the door panel tumbled inward, almost landing flat on Tom’s upturned face. He instantly grasped the edge of the panel and shakily forced himself upward out of the vat.
In a moment Tom was lying on the lab floor, panting and covered with blue-white powder. “Thanks, pal!” he rasped, as Robo Boy stood motionless, awaiting his next command.
Miles away, TinCanz was alive with music and the aroma of festive foods. Bud sat trying to maintain an increasingly strained line of amusing chatter, his light sportcoat only enhancing his broad shoulders and athletic build. Sandy Swift and Bashalli Prandit smiled politely at their table companion, but their smiles had begun to droop—Tom was already an hour late.
“I wonder if you shouldn’t try calling again,” said Bashalli to Bud.
“I’ve already called the lab, his office, and the house,” Bud replied helplessly.
“Tom may be a super genius,” fumed Sandy, “but sometimes I think his brain-antenna doesn’t pull in all the channels! I wonder who he’s off rescuing now!”
Bud began to reassure her. “Look, I’m sure he’s― ”
“He’s here!” cried Bashalli.
Tom made his way across the restaurant floor, handsome and striking in blue-toned sportcoat and slacks. “Hi, folks,” he said. His face assumed a pitiable expression. “Guess I’m a little late—ran into some last minute problems back at Enterprises!”
“We’ve been living on bread and water for an hour,” Sandy said with a frown. But then she relented and smiled. “You look awful nice, though, Tom—for a big brother.”
Tom grinned his thanks and the table ordered dinner. Meanwhile Bud kept eyeing Tom with suspicion, and when the girls stepped away he leaned over and said quietly, “I know that expression on your face, Tom. Something’s up.”
Tom nodded and briefly described what had occurred. “I alerted Harlan Ames right away,” he concluded, “and then I showered and changed and sped over here with pedal to the metal. But I don’t want to spoil the girls’ evening; not after all the drama last night at the armory.”
Bud agreed to say nothing about the incident. Soon the foursome were enjoying a good meal and the usual bad jokes, now and then pausing to appreciate the moonlight falling on Lake Carlopa.
Over dessert Bud remarked, “You know, Tom, it’s been months since we’ve played tennis. Not that I blame you! I seem to remember I was pretty good at it.”
Tom smiled slyly and winked in Bashalli’s direction. “How about tomorrow—around three?”
“Sure! At the high school courts, or the country club?”
“Neither,” said Tom. “Just meet me at Enterprises. Come for me at my lab—you know, just in case I forget!”
Further comment, including a tart retort by Bashalli, was interrupted by the appearance of a server who told Tom there was a telephone caller awaiting him on the restaurant phone. “Be right back,” Tom said to the others.
“I doubt it,” was Sandy’s breezy comment.
In the lobby Tom was directed to the telephone alcove. He picked up the receiver and identified himself.
“Yes,” said the man on the other end, “I recognize your voice. They said at your home where you’d gone for the evening.”
Tom was mystified. “Who is this?”
“My name is Marco Gallanan. I’m calling to apologize and try to explain why I did what I did.”
“Why you did what?”
The response left Tom thunderstruck. “I’m the one who knocked you out this evening, and put you in that tank!” Before Tom could say a word, Gallanan went on: “Please, if I have your word that you won’t have me arrested—not until I’ve said what I have to say—I’ll lead you to the person who is back of all your troubles—the man who’s after your giant robot!”
These unexpected words startled Tom. Perhaps the mystery was about to be unraveled! “You could have killed me!” exclaimed Tom angrily.
“I’m afraid that was the idea,” was the man’s lame reply. “I was greatly relieved when I saw you get in your car and drive away. I’d had a change of heart. Now I need to confess everything.”
“How soon can you be at my office?” Tom asked.
“I—I don’t dare come to the plant again, Tom,” the trembling voice whispered in reply. “I’m afraid that someone—he—might see me.”
“Why did you do it, Marco?” Tom asked, trying to draw the man out while he was in contact with him.
“He—he hypnotized me. He put me under a—a spell, so I had to help him.”
“Who put you under a spell?”
“Please, Tom,” the man pleaded. “I don’t want to say any more over the telephone. I’m terribly afraid. I’m sorry if I’ve done you or your father any harm. You’re both good Americans, and I admire the two of you! I’ll do anything to make it up.”
Tom checked his wristwatch. “Go to the York Hotel in downtown Shopton,” he instructed. “Take a room there and wait for me. I’ll be up at eleven o’clock.”
“Right, Tom. Of course. I’ll do just that,” the man quavered. “But you mustn’t let them see what you’re doing! They’ll kill to get what they want!”
TOM BROKE the connection and signaled the operator that he wished to place a conference call. Soon he had Harlan Ames on one line and Ames’s assistant Phil Radnor on another.
“I’m not absolutely sure that this ‘Marco’ is on the level,” Tom said after reporting his conversation. “For all we know, it could be another ambush—since they failed the first time.”
“Do you think they’d risk an attack on a public street?” Radnor asked.
“Maybe, maybe not,” commented Ames. “It depends on how desperate they are, Rad.”
“Just the same,” Tom broke in, “I’m pretty desperate to find out what’s going on. I don’t want to let this opportunity get away.”
“If we’re dealing with some of Nicky Ammo’s old associates, I wouldn’t put anything past them!” Ames declared grimly.
“Still, I want to draw them out,” Tom said.
After some further discussion, it was agreed that Tom would park his car and walk one block to the hotel, Ames and Radnor following him.
“We’ll meet where I park and you two amble along behind me,” Tom instructed. “In that way we’ll be ready for any attack.”
Tom returned to the table and told Bud and the girls that a technical problem had come up which required his immediate presence.
Sandy gave a skeptical look, but Bashalli said, “I understand, Thomas—science is very demanding. It is worse than two wives!”
Bud tried to draw Tom aside, but Tom left quickly. He didn’t want to put his best friend at risk this time. Tom hastily bid them all goodbye and left.
The rendezvous with Harlan and Phil was timed accurately and Tom’s every move was covered precisely according to plan. There were no attempts on Tom during the walk to the York Hotel. He entered the lobby through a revolving door and reached the room-clerk’s desk without being stopped.
Lagging well behind, Ames and Radnor followed him up a stairway to Marco’s room but remained in the corridor. At Tom’s knock, a voice from within told him to enter quickly. As Tom did so, Ames held the toe of one shoe against the door to keep it from closing completely and latching.
Marco was a rather heavyset, seedy looking man of late middle age. He wore a cheap toupe. The man was near tears and almost cringed as he began the tale of his misdeeds.
“I met him at a bar over in Millville. I’m a salesman—just returning home. He mesmerized me, that’s what he did! Talked on and on in a low voice till he had me in a trance. I couldn’t help carrying out his commands. When I started obeying him I couldn’t stop. Till now, that is. I’m through with him.”
“Who is this person?” Tom asked.
“Raymond Turnbull. That’s what he calls himself, anyway.”
The name meant nothing to Tom.
Marco continued. “He was waiting outside my house one night when I got home. I live alone, you know. Didn’t even remember giving him my address. He came every night after that and we talked. I’d get sleepier and sleepier. I could only see his eyes.
“Somehow I fell under his power. Turnbull made me come here to Shopton and live out of a motel room. I was supposed to hang around and try to get to know some of your Enterprises employees. I did it well—I’m a good salesman, I guess. He wanted information about where you were traveling, and especially about your robot project. Every night I’d make a tape of what I’d uncovered, and once a week I’d bring the tapes to him at a boarding house in town.
“Then this afternoon he called me, and—I think he said some word that put me under. I don’t remember too clearly, but I was to lie in wait in your laboratory until you returned, even over night, and then—do what I did!”
“But how did you get onto the plant grounds without being detected?” Tom demanded skeptically. “How did you get into the lab, and then leave again?” The entire Swift Enterprises facility was protected by a high-tech electronic security system.
Marco began to shake. “I—I really don’t know. It’s all vague in my mind. Maybe what I picked up from your employees allowed him to set something up... I think I had something in my pocket that I was supposed to get rid of afterwards.”
“All right, all right,” Tom said. “We’ll piece it together later. What’s the address of the boarding house?”
The salesman thought for a moment. “I can’t seem to remember—I think it’s Bond Street. But I can take you there. It’s on the outskirts of town, the south tip a couple blocks back from the lake.”
“We’ll go there at once,” Tom decided, ignoring Marco’s quivering protests.
When the two came out of the room, Ames and Radnor had withdrawn around the hallway corner, but the shadowing arrangement continued as soon as they all left the hotel.
The salesman and Tom drove directly to the neighborhood where the boarding house was located. At Bond Street they turned into a quiet residential area, which boasted many old multistory homes from early in the last century.
Driving more than a block behind, Ames and Radnor kept a sharp lookout for signs of a trap.
It was exceptionally dark and they had to depend on a few street lights, spaced at wide intervals, for illumination. Tom instinctively slowed down as he approached the house, which had a porch across the front. At Marcos’ request he let the man out at the curb. “The landlady stays up late, and she knows me,” he explained. After watching him go inside, Tom pulled a little forward and listened carefully. He saw Phil strolling casually up the block on the other side and glimpsed Harlan concealed in the shadows of trees and houses. There was no sound except that of his friends’ muffled footsteps.
Then the stillness was broken by a high-pitched scream. It seemed to have come from the boarding house!
“It sounded like a woman!” Tom hissed, then called softly, “Harlan, you and Phil stay under cover till I signal you.”
Ames and Radnor darted for concealment into some bushes across the street. They heard the front door of the boarding house slam shut and saw a porch light flash on as hurried footfalls echoed down the wooden steps.
A moment later Marco had run up to the window of Tom’s car. “Look, Tom, I tried!” he exclaimed. “But when I spoke to the landlady about Turnbull she became hysterical and forced me to leave. She claims Turnbull’s gone and she wants nothing more to do with any of it!”
“Maybe I can help,” Tom said. “You wait here next to the car, Marco.” The salesman nodded meekly.
Tom rapped on the boarding house door in a polite manner and called out: “May I speak to you, ma’am? This is Tom Swift of Swift Enterprises.”
The woman peered at him from behind a curtain in the hall window. Then, evidently recognizing the young inventor from newspaper pictures, she opened the door and warily invited her caller into her living room. “But don’t bother a-settin’ down!” she said firmly.
Tom gave her his identification and explained that he was looking for Raymond Turnbull, who was suspected of trying to interfere with one of his projects.
“Wouldn’t s’prise me one bit!” she declared huffily, adding that her name was Mrs. Riley. “But I can’t tell you where he is.” She apologized for her hysteria and explained, “I’ve been terribly upset by what’s happened. When Mr. Turnbull first took the room he told me he was writing a book. I never paid much attention to him. He spent all his time with his papers and studies. I thought he was a fine gentleman.
“Then—well! He began to have callers. One night a pitiful-looking man with rheumy eyes came by. A little light went on in my brain, telling me he was a bad sort. Days after, I kept thinking he looked familiar. Then the other morning I remembered seeing his picture in a Sunday supplement. He was a member of that Briggin gang. The one they call Slick.”
Mrs. Riley held her handkerchief to her nose and began to sniffle. “Oh, I was so upset! I started to call the police. Just then, one of my other boarders told me Mr. Turnbull had left in the middle of the night. I was so relieved to have him gone that I didn’t bother to notify the police. Didn’t expect I’d ever have to look at him again.”
She was interrupted by the sound of screeching tires out in the street, and the roar of an engine fading off with distance. “My land!” cried Mrs. Riley. “This used to be such a quiet and respectable neighborhood!”
Now the engine growl came again, as if the car had whisked around the block. Tom’s eyes were riveted on a metal picture frame that hung opposite one of the opened living-room windows. As he stared, the frame began to quiver slightly.
Tom’s eyes widened with alarm! “Quick!” he shouted, as the picture glass suddenly shattered with a loud crack. “Hit the floor!” He clutched the landlady’s sleeve and pulled her down next to him.
Suddenly the radio, television set, wall thermostat, and every lightbulb in the room burst forth with a shower of sparks and a puff of white smoke. The acrid smell of ozone filled the room.
The car peeled away, this time for good, and the danger seemed over. One of the ornate lampshades was smoldering; Tom quickly put it out and made certain that Mrs. Riley was unhurt.
“You pushed me down purty hard, young man,” she replied. “But I suppose I’ll live.”
Now pounding footsteps were heard on the porch, and the front door was flung open.
“It’s all right, Mrs. Riley,” Tom said quickly. “These men work for me at Swift Enterprises.”
“Marco’s gone!” exclaimed Harlan Ames disgustedly. “A van sped by with the side door open and he jumped aboard. Then they circled back once and drove off.”
“But what happened in here?” asked Phil Radnor, noticing the pall of smoke in the air and the darkness in the main room.
“Just a guess,” said Tom. “I think our enemies have some kind of short-circuit inducer that they beamed our way. From the way it affected the metal frame, it must use an electromagnetic principle.” Then, reflecting on the words he had just used, he snapped his fingers. “Short-circuit! Guys—that must be what happened at the armory last night! It wasn’t just an accident!”
“Well, it’s what I’d expect,” scolded Mrs. Riley. “What call have you boys t’be hanging around with Slick the gangster anyway?”
Tom stared at her. “What do you mean, ma’am?”
“Well, you come here with him in the middle of― ”
Harlan Ames interrupted her. “Do you mean to tell us― ”
Tom asked unbelievingly, “Mrs. Riley, the man who came in just before me― ”
“Why, that was Slick!” she said. “Who’d you think it was?”
THE FBI was very interested to learn that “Slick” Steck, a member of the notorious Briggin gang and an old cohort—and rival—of Nicky Ammo, had surfaced in Shopton.
“We figured he was still alive, somewhere,” said Sam Valdrosa over the phone. “Our trail petered out in Central America around the time we took Nicky into custody.”
It was the following day. Tom’s father had called a meeting of Swift security personnel in his office, with Tom and Bud also present. At Tom’s suggestion they had included Agent Valdrosa, in Albuquerque, via speaker-phone.
“Of course, I remember reading about the Briggin gang,” commented Damon Swift. “Bank robbers, weren’t they?”
“Bank robbery, extortion, all sorts of mischief back in their heyday,” replied Valdrosa. “When old man Briggin died, the gang pretty well fell apart, and the four main men—Nicky, Steck, ‘Pins’ Zoltan, and Maurice ‘Flash’ Ludens—decided to hang separately rather than hang together, if you know what I mean. Zoltan is dead and buried—involuntarily!—and we’ve got Nicky closely watched. Steck and Ludens were the wild cards.”
“Why would these mobster-types have an interest in Tom’s giant robot?” asked Bud.
Phil Radnor answered before Valdrosa could. “Just imagine what a superstrong robot could do, knocking over a bank!”
“Right,” added Valdrosa. “No fingerprints! Seriously, who knows? We haven’t yet established a connection between these attacks on Tom and the ghost-stuff here in New Mexico.”
“That’s true,” said Mr. Swift. “Perhaps attacking Tom in the robot lab was just a coincidence.”
“Except Marco—that is, Slick—mentioned the robot in connection with that fancy fairy tale he made up,” Tom noted. “Sam, there are obviously several others involved in this plot, according to the landlady.”
“I’ve read the fax of her statement,” said the agent. “None of the men she described match anyone in particular. Of course, they are pretty vague. Incidentally, D.C. has already had agents over to the boarding house to check for prints, but the rooms were wiped clean quite efficiently—even the stairway banister.”
Bud asked, “So what was last night all about, anyway?”
“Here’s what I think,” responded Tom. “After I stubbornly didn’t die in my lab, someone must have had second thoughts and decided I was more valuable alive. Slick Steck may have thought he could kidnap me when I went to meet him, but—sorry, guys!—they saw Harlan and Phil, which scotched that plan. So Slick’s accomplices used the kidnap van to get Slick away from us.”
“The attack with the electronic device may have been intended as a momentary distraction, to ensure the getaway,” Mr. Swift suggested.
After a silence, Harlan Ames spoke up. “How about this ‘Raymond Turnbull’? An alias?”
“Probably,” responded Valdrosa. “For what it’s worth, Nicky Ammo says he’s never heard of him. And he demands Federal protection against Steck and Ludens.”
“Did Ludens also disappear?” Tom asked.
“He had a heart condition, and we’ve assumed he died while in hiding. But maybe not.”
As the meeting was breaking up, Mr. Swift called out to Tom to wait a moment. “I just wanted to tell you that I received a transmission from our space friends this morning through the experimental magnifying antenna. As you know, I sent my message to them yesterday.”
“Have you been able to translate their response, Dad?” Tom asked eagerly.
“Not entirely,” the elder Swift replied. “But the gist of it is clear. They deny engaging in any unannounced activity within our atmosphere since the missile landed.”
“Another lead down the drain,” remarked Bud sourly.
For the next several hours the youthful scientist buried himself in work, finishing a number of tasks that the security meeting had interrupted and seeing no one but Chow. The cook hovered over Tom like a fretful hen, seeing to it that the absorbed young inventor had enough food and reminding him of the need to get a proper amount of rest. Tom accepted the advice with a polite smile—and politely ignored it.
At three o’clock on the dot, Bud Barclay came banging on Tom’s laboratory door, with Sandy and Bashalli in tow. They were dressed in their bright tennis whites and had racquets in hand. Tom answered via the intercom on the wall by the door. “Come on in!”
The three entered, surprised to find the lab in complete darkness. “Pull the door closed, will you?” called out Tom. They did so, and immediately the darkness was swept aside by arrays of tiny, intense colored lights clustered in two places across the room.
“Is that the robot?” asked Sandy, her eyes not yet accustomed to the dimness.
“Not robot,” came Tom’s voice, switching on the overhead lights. “Robots!”
Two identical giant robots stood side by side against the wall!
“Oh!” cried Bashalli. “The machine has multiplied!”
“And not only that, it’s grown a head!” observed Bud with a surprised laugh.
Now assembled in final form, the two automatons were a spectacular, and somewhat eerie, sight to behold. They stood a hulking ten feet tall, almost brushing the ceiling, like suits of armor decked out with twin galaxies of tiny lights, glittering from a newly glazed “skin” that reflected light like polished chrome. Thickly proportioned and powerful looking, the robots had the appearance of overmuscled body-builders. Their hands sported three extra-long, triple-jointed fingers, with stubby ball-tipped “thumbs” at both ends of the contoured disks that served as palms. The extensible double thumbs could close in like a vice.
But the most arresting features of the twin giant robots were their new heads. Though somewhat drum-shaped, the heads extended backwards a ways and were flattened on top and in front, the result resembling a futuristic computer monitor mounted on a gimbaled neck. There were circular domelike bulges in place of “ears,” and slender crystalline rods extending forward in place of “eyes.” There was even a sort of “mouth” in the form of a series of narrow vertical slots at the lower front of the heads, like a grillwork.
“Look at that big mouth!” laughed Bashalli. “And will they provide snappy patter and witty sayings, like the robots do on television?”
“Not this model, Bash,” replied Tom. “Those slots are intake and exhaust vents for the cooling system.”
He young inventor spent several minutes explaining how the robots’ mechanical muscles worked, as he had to Bud the other day. Then he moved on to an account of the automatons’ sensory apparatus. “Those little domes on either side of the heads are radomes—transmitter-receivers for a mini radar system that allows the robots to map obstacles perfectly. And those two rods sticking out from the front― ”
“Lasers?” interjected Bud.
“You’re close,” Tom responded. “They’re multifrequency photon-drivers—you can think of them as the robots’ headlights. The special light they emit is mostly above and below the optical range, so we only see it as a faint glow inside the rods themselves. But it gives our guys unusually minute visual input, through small photo-receptors on their shoulders which constitute their real ‘eyes’—in stereo, too! They also have a sort of sense of touch—there are edge detectors and pressure sensors built into the hands and fingers.”
Tom now operated the control console and had one of the robots bow down. “They’re so tall it’s hard to see from our angle, but there’s a little stubby antenna on top of each head which links the internal relotrol to the control panel here. No cable is needed anymore, and I’m working up a handheld remote.”
“When did you make the second one, Tom?” Sandy inquired. “And which one is our stagestruck star Robo Boy?”
“I’ve had a second body under construction all along, sis,” was Tom’s answer. “But there was no need to ship it along to the Citadel. As for which one is which—Robo Boy is on the left—I think.” Tom laughed. “They’re completely identical. Now that they’re finished, I’ve given them both more dignified names, stamped on their backs.”
Tom had the robots turn around and face the lab wall. On the backs of the mechanical men, the words ATOR and SERMEK were inscribed in small block letters.
“Those names are dignified?” asked Bud doubtfully. “Sounds like basic Martian!”
Tom explained that Ator stood for atomic robot, and Sermek was a tribute to the science of servo-mechanics. “And now, Budworth,” continued Tom, “how about joining me in a game of robot tennis?”
“Have you gone off your rocker?” Bud cried.
Tom laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m okay. My two giants are ready for a co-ordination test. I need your help. Not scared, are you?” He turned to Sandy and Bashalli. “You two can keep score—and make sure Bud doesn’t pull any fast ones.”
“A game of tennis between two giant metal magillas! You couldn’t keep me away, genius boy!” Bud whooped.
“But Tom,” Sandy piped up, “it’s not fair! Bud hasn’t mastered the remote-controller.”
Tom grinned broadly. “It’s not as bad as you think. The relotrol computer has recorded and ‘coded’ a number of tennis games already—Arv Hanson’s been doing the recording down at the country club courts. The robots already ‘understand’ all the basic moves, so the human controller’s task is pretty easy. You can pick it up with just a few practice runs.”
The six of them, four human and two robotic, stepped out into the bright sunshine. Tom had arranged for two portable control outfits, tuned to different frequencies, to be set up at each side of a makeshift tennis court in an open space near the lab.
“My controls are going to need some pretty fast reflexes,” Bud grinned. “Score will be 6-0 in my robot’s favor!”
“You’re on!” Tom laughed as he placed his racquet in the metal fingers of Ator, his robot. He eyed the windows behind them. “If my giant overcorrects,” he warned, “we’re in for some broken-window bills!”
After some practice, awkward enough to afflict the girls with fits of giggles, the boys seemed ready to proceed.
“Toss you for first serve,” Bud called, adjusting the magnitude-and-action blending controls. Sermek took a vicious slash at the ball.
Tom laughed. “Net ball!”
His robot took a swing. The ball bounded back across the court. The game was on!
The extraordinary sight of two metal automatons whacking a tennis ball, darting for rebounds, and charging the net, drew a large audience of plant workers. They cheered and whistled each time a ball was missed or a clever drive completed. Bashalli led the cheers for Tom, Sandy for Bud.
“Brand my hoppin’ horsehide!” cried Chow Winkler. “This sure is the confoundin’est game I ever did see!”
Tom’s robot, Ator, had trouble gauging the service line, while Bud’s kept slamming out of the court on overhand returns. The boys’ hands flew from hand control to foot-angle directors and the robots’ Herculesium muscles were constantly reversing.
At first the giants tended to exaggerate their motions, with the result that the game was clumsy and far from professional. As the game progressed, however, the automatons learned from repeated input to the relotrols. They grew more adept and play became subtle and fine.
Suddenly Bud shouted, “Tom, this is for the time you took over Herbert in the skit!” Sermek drove a slashing ball to the corner of the court. Tom was unable to direct his robot to return it.
In the end, Bud’s robot won the game, which had gone to deuce five times. Tom made Ator jump the net to congratulate the winning giant and the audience roared its appreciation of the show.
Tom was pleased with the coordination of his metal men and told Bud and the girls that few things remained to be done now before the giants would be ready for shipment to the Citadel and their tests in the fury of the reactor chamber. “In fact,” he said, “I’m thinking we might fly out early tomorrow.”
At this announcement Bashalli and Sandy exchanged conspiratorial glances. Bash stepped forward.
“Tom, we wish to place before you a non-negotiable demand.”
“We want you to take us both along with you on your flight!”
Tom started to shake his head, and Sandy burst out, “Oh, Tom, don’t be so stodgy! We won’t get in the way, and Bashalli has never seen the American southwest.”
When Tom seemed to hesitate, Bashalli added cunningly, “You see, we have already secured the okay from mother and father Swift, who are most enthused. So do not bother to resist!”
“I give up!” growled Tom humorously. He shot a dark glance at Bud. “Did you know about this?”
But Bud only strolled away, twirling his racquet.
Sandy gave her brother a peck on the cheek. “Thanks, Tomonomo! Do you think we’ll be able to see that ghostly-ghastly crow on the flight?”
“No, I don’t, Sandy,” the young inventor replied, as he directed the two robots back into the laboratory building.
Then Tom added mysteriously:
“But I bet I do!”
THE EASTERN sky was barely turning pale the next morning when two jetcraft hit the air above Swift Enterprises.
The more notable of them—by a longshot—was Tom’s mighty Flying Lab, the three-decker Sky Queen. Bigger than an airliner, the sleek skyship rose vertically into the chilly air on its glowing jet lifters to an altitude of 14,000 feet before cutting in its rear engines for forward flight.
The Sky Queen was followed almost immediately by a much-smaller conventional cargo jet of the kind manufactured by the Swift Construction Company, which was owned by the Swift family. This jet followed along in the wake of the Queen for some time, their courses finally diverging over central Illinois.
The spacious Flying Lab had Sandy, Bashalli, Chow, Tom’s father, and several technicians as passengers. The robot Ator had been carefully crated and packed into the craft’s hangar hold on the lowermost deck.
Tom and Bud were riding in the cargo jet, which was piloted by Slim Davis, an experienced pilot who worked many assignments for both the Swift Construction Company and Swift Enterprises. The second giant robot, Sermek, was stowed in the rear of the jet.
“I understand why you want to fly the robots on two separate planes,” remarked Slim. “I guess it makes good sense—sort of ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’ right?”
“That’s it,” Tom confirmed. “We wouldn’t let Sandy and Bashalli go along if we thought there was any likelihood of real danger, but the possibility can’t be totally eliminated.”
“Okay, but tell me this,” Slim continued, his eyes glued to the cockpit instrument panel. “What makes you so certain we’re going to run into the phantom spirit-crow again? And why do you think the Flying Lab won’t?”
Bud spoke up. “Tom’s got it all figured out, Slim!”
“Not exactly all, but something,” responded Tom with his usual modesty. “You see, I started thinking about exactly where we had seen the crow. I was able to re-create the approximate position of the first sighting, when we were testing the relotrol. And of course the flight recorder gave us our exact position when we had the second encounter. Both times, we were almost exactly over Purple Mesa!”
Slim glanced at Tom in evident surprise. “Purple Mesa? Isn’t that where that scientist is doing his digging?”
“Yep,” said Tom; “Professor Hermosillo. Not that I suspect him of any personal involvement. Dad and I found out that he’s very well respected in his field.”
“Then what’s the connection?”
Tom wagged a finger. “First rule in a science experiment—get the raw data before you start to interpret it!”
“Which is the Tom Swift way of saying, we don’t know!” Bud observed jokingly.
“At any rate, the Sky Queen will be going the long way around, but we’ll be passing right over the Mesa. Be prepared for a little bird-action!” Tom said. “Fortunately, whatever the crow really is, it doesn’t seem able to cause any harm.”
“Yeah, unless it gives me heart failure!” the pilot retorted.
Zooming westward at a supersonic pace, the jet was scarcely allowing the sun to rise into the sky. It still seemed early morning when Slim announced that they had crossed over into the state of New Mexico.
“The automatic cameras are ready to roll,” said Bud excitedly. “We can’t help getting some good shots this time around!”
Presently Tom asked Slim, “How far are we from the Mesa?”
“Less than forty miles,” he replied. “As the crow flies!”
The seconds ticked away. “There’s Purple Mesa up ahead,” said Bud. “I wonder—wait!”
Tom squinted his eyes against the slowly-increasing glare from the desert below. “What do you see?”
“Not sure,” Bud answered. “A flash of light, like a reflection…”
Then Slim Davis cried out, “Radar blip! Two o’clock!” The jet banked sharply, and the engines up-throttled. “I’ll try to shake it.”
The miles fled beneath the transonic craft, which had switched to a northerly heading. Tom craned his neck, looking over Slim’s shoulder at the radarscope instrument panel. “Good gosh, it’s closing fast, like a― ”
The rest of his words were blown away by a sharp jolt that rattled the plane from nose to tail!
“Loss of lift on the left wing,” grated Slim, fighting to remain calm. “Trying to compensate, but I’m not—whoa!”
The jetcraft bucked a second time! Tom, who was on his feet, was almost dashed against the cockpit wall. Bud swung around in his seat and flung out his arms toward his friend, trying to yank him back.
Tom steadied himself, but gasped out: “Slim!”
Thrown violently against his safety restraints, the pilot’s helmeted head was lolling down on his chest!
“He’s out!” Bud cried. “We’re going down!” He frantically took over the controls and tried to smooth the jet’s sudden descent, but he was only partially successful. The ground was rushing up at them through the cockpit viewpane. “Tom, you’ve got to strap yourself in!”
Tom managed to wedge himself into a relatively protected position behind the seats. “Don’t worry!” he called out.
An instant later the jet was bouncing and rumbling across the barren desert floor, raising a huge plume of dust and dirt on all sides. The landing gear, partially extended, was ripped away and sent tumbling over the windswept wilderness.
Finally, with a last groan of metal, the battered cargo jet skidded to a stop, the tip of one wing jammed deeply into the hardpacked earth. Then all was silent.
Minutes passed. Then the cockpit door was kicked open. Tom jumped down and staggered out into the morning sunlight, still obscured by the dusty haze of their landing. Bud followed him.
“How’re you doing?” Bud asked, noting scratches and bruises on Tom’s face and neck.
Tom leaned up against the torn fuselage. “I’m okay. But Slim—I don’t like the way he looks.”
“I never did,” said Bud. “Sorry—bad time for humor. Slim was pretty well strapped in. What do you think could be wrong?”
Tom coughed, trying to catch his breath. “I—I saw blood—from the corner of his mouth. I’m afraid he might be hemorhaging internally. Bud—Slim could be—!”
“Then we’ll get him help,” said Bud firmly. The young pilot swung himself back up into the cockpit. After a few moments he called down, “Radio’s dead. So’s the emergency signal beacon. But they’ll be out looking for us, and we’re easy to spot from the air.”
“They won’t come looking for us right away,” Tom pointed out, “and we were flying low, so we wouldn’t have been tracked on the Citadel’s air radar. Plus Slim took the jet dozens of miles off course. It may be a couple hours, and I’m not sure Slim has a couple hours!”
“Then what should we do, Skipper?”
Feeling stronger, Tom looked off into the distance. There was no sign of habitation anywhere. He slowly turned his gaze—and paused. “Bud! Are those railroad tracks?”
Bud shaded his eyes and whooped. “They sure are!” He jumped down and trotted off toward the tracks, which passed within one hundred yards of the crashed jet. Minutes later, he returned.
“What did you see?” asked Tom.
“Looks like they haven’t been used for a while,” Bud replied in a discouraged voice. “Not in bad shape, but pretty rusty. Bet they were used for ore shipments from one of the mines they closed down a few years back.”
“Probably,” Tom agreed. He thought for a few moments, then asked Bud to boost him up into the plane again. Inside he examined Slim carefully, then took a quick inventory of the forward compartment. Tom then worked his way back toward the cargo hold.
“The door’s jammed,” he called down to Bud shortly. “I was able to force it open an inch or two, but no more. As far as I can tell, Sermek’s crate is undamaged. But the hull around the loading hatchway is pushed in pretty badly. It’ll take special machinery to get into the hold.”
“I wish Sermek’s controller weren’t in the cargo hold with him,” Bud remarked as Tom rejoined him. “We could use his mighty muscles. Hey, maybe he could carry Slim all the way to the nearest town!”
Tom ignored Bud’s comment. “Slim looks worse—his heartbeat is irregular. I’d risk moving him if we had any place to move him to.”
Bud gazed idly at the twin gray rails. Then an idea seized him. “Tom! How about a little train travel!”
The young inventor frowned. “Got a locomotive in your pocket?”
“Nope,” said Bud. “But the jet has a handtruck cargo-carrier with nice big tires and adjustable axles!”
Tom perked up. “Sure—we could adjust the width of the axels so the tires would ride low on the inner edges of the rails. And now, genius boy, how do you plan to make it go? Or is it all downhill from here on?”
“Doesn’t have to be,” Bud laughed. He rapped on the jet’s fuselage. “We have all the go-power we need right here!”
Tom looked more than slightly skeptical. “So, what, mount one of the jet engines on the handtruck?”
“Why not? I know these babies, Tom. Swift Construction makes them modularly—it’s a selling point! We don’t need the outer cowling and main manifold; we could lift out the innards of engine two, and use an empty storage drum as a low-pressure fuel tank. The ground has already siphoned off the heat.”
“And… we do have the reserve avionics batteries,” Tom mused. His eyes began to gleam. “With anybody else it would be half a day of work. But with the team of Swift and Barclay—!”
It took forty minutes; plus time to lower the unconscious Slim Davis—still strapped securely to his detachable seat—onto the platform. And then another ten minutes to lug the bulky contraption over to the rails and get it situated properly between them.
The Ghostland Express, as the boys had named it, was simply a flat platform on wheels, with a handrail at the rear. To this handrail they had strapped the mass of feedpipes and fuel-pump apparatus they had extracted from the jet engines, attached to one of the small drums, which they had filled with jet fuel. A flared coupling would serve them as a makeshift thrust-deflector.
“Ready, pal?” Tom asked as they took their places. “You’ll have to hold tight to these strap-ends, like a commuter on a packed subway.”
Bud gulped. “I… guess so. Tom—what if this thing just, sort of—blows up?”
Wearing insulated gloves, Tom picked up the two wire leads from the batteries. “Well, then we’ll get there all the faster!” He pressed the leads together, and there was a shower of sparks—and an explosive roar.
Ten seconds later the Ghostland Express, sputtering, creaking, and wobbling, but not faltering, was zooming along the metal rails!
“M-MAN oh man!” Bud managed to choke out. “Slim’s lucky to be unconscious!”
In actual fact, the makeshift transport wasn’t traveling very fast at all. But it shimmied and vibrated and rocked like a ship at sea, and the jet thruster—only a wan shadow of its normal self—growled and bellowed like an elephant in mating season, leaving behind a curdled trail of thick black smoke.
“You won’t have to take much more of this,” Tom shouted over the cacophony of wind and machinery. “The fuel’s almost half gone already! I’m afraid the Ghostland Express isn’t the most efficient way to travel.”
At first the tracks were almost completely level. But a few minutes in, the boys found they were mounting a shallow incline as they neared a low ridge between some hills—and steadily slowing.
I just hope we’ve got enough oomph to make it over that ridge, Bud thought desperately.
As they neared the summit, the vehicle had slowed considerably, and the engine was already showing the first signs of fuel starvation.
“I’d tell you to open up the throttle, Tom,” cried Bud. “But there isn’t any!”
Suddenly they were over the high point, and Tom and Bud shouted with glee and relief. The buildings of a small crossroads settlement lay directly ahead, about two miles distant. Even as the engine suddenly sputtered out, they were picking up speed on the downhill slope. Soon they were gliding along parallel to a two-lane highway, waving at the occasional curious driver.
Stopping was easy. Tom braced a length of metal against the rear handrail and angled it down to the earth next to the tracks. It dug into the dirt, and in seconds the short but heroic career of the Ghostland Express had come to an end.
Two hours later, Tom, sunburned and bandaged, sat with Bud inside his living quarters at the Citadel, regaling his father and sister, and Bashalli Prandit, with his survival story. “The state highway patrol called an ambulance, which carted Slim off to the nearest major hospital, which is in Roswell. I hear he’s doing fine, and a complete recovery is expected.”
“But only because you boys acted with such ingenuity,” observed Damon Swift. “We had barely begun the aerial search when the patrolmen put you through to us.”
“Tom—Bud—we were all very frightened,” said Bash in a quavering voice. “We could not imagine what had become of you.”
“Oh, we could imagine, all right!” Sandy broke in. “We thought you’d all been gobbled up by crows!”
“As usual, it’s not quite clear that what happened had anything to do with ‘Oi-Pah’,” said Tom. “There was no apparition this time. And the other times, the whatever-it-was did no harm.”
Bud gave a skeptical snort. “Skipper, we were attacked just where you thought we’d be—as we got near Purple Mesa!”
“True,” said Tom. Then he grinned. “On the other hand, we have been wrong occasionally when we jumped to conclusions with both feet!”
“Both state and federal law enforcement swarmed over the mesa when we alerted them that your jet was overdue,” Mr. Swift pointed out. “They turned up nothing—just what was left from Professor Hermosillo’s archaeological dig, and nothing more recent. It’s fairly inaccessible, you know. Oh, and incidentally,” the elder Swift continued, “our Washington contacts say they see no difficulty in giving Hermosillo the go-ahead, based upon our comments.”
“I’m glad for his sake,” Tom responded.
After a hero-sized lunch prepared by a much-relieved Chow Winkler, Tom puttered about in his laboratory, anxiously awaiting the news that Sermek had been retrieved from the wrecked plane by a crew from the Citadel. But the news that eventuated was startling.
“The robot is gone!” said the crew foreman over his mobile cellphone.
“Gone!” exclaimed Tom in angry dismay. “But how—?”
“When we pulled up next to the jet we could see right away that the outer cargo hatch had been mechanically forced open,” he replied. “The crate is gone too, as well as the relotrol unit and control panel.”
“Were there fresh tire tracks in the dirt?”
“We looked for that. But no, not a sign. I could almost believe― ”
Tom interrupted him brusquely. “Don’t say it! They must have landed in a chopper and flown off again, probably hugging the ground.”
Tom immediately reported the theft to Sam Valdrosa, and then to his father, who shared his dismay. “Tom, will this outrage set back your timeline?”
“Not much,” replied the young inventor. “I won’t allow it to! I’ll just make Ator the primary test subject. Thank goodness we flew him in on the Sky Queen.”
A fleeting thought crossed Tom’s mind—had it been unwise to bring Sandy and Bashalli out to the Citadel as if it were a vacation resort? He would have been doubly concerned had a known that, while he was dealing with these matters, the two girls had been conspiring with Bud Barclay to take a trip out to Purple Mesa.
“I don’t know how I get into these things,” Bud protested in mock despair. “The two Swifts’ll skin me alive!”
“Nonsense!” declared Bashalli. “This is just your male protective hormones kicking in. I have had enough of that from my relatives!”
“You heard Daddy say the whole place had been picked-over just a few hours ago,” Sandy noted. “We just want to look around a little and collect a few rocks.”
In the end Bud promised the girls that he would help them explore Purple Mesa for the rest of the afternoon. After lunch he had the Skeeter, Tom’s compact jet-thrust helicopter, rolled out of the hangar-hold of the Sky Queen and on to the airfield. Bud Barclay was well-known as Tom’s close friend and personal pilot, and no questions were asked.
“Just log this as a sight-seeing trip around the desert,” Bud radioed the Citadel control tower. Well, that’s pretty true, he said to himself, feeling guilty.
Bud helped Tom’s sister and Bashalli aboard while the ground crew checked the fuel supply. Through the Skeeter’s wide windows, the crew could see Sandy loading her camera. Bash, her sketching pad under her arm, waved happily in anticipation of the day’s fun.
Bud climbed into the pilot’s seat. The scythe-like jet-rimmed rotor blades began to whirl, slowly at first, then with tremendous speed. The jetrocopter rose slowly through the cloud it had stirred up, making a gay picture as it sailed off with the sightseers.
Soon the plucky little craft was riding the canyon updrafts. Under Bud’s skillful handling, the chopper covered many miles of scenic eroded rock, hovered like a hummingbird in front of grotesque pink cliffs, and whirled around jagged, fiery-orange stone formations. He grinningly ducked the craft under a natural limestone arch while Sandy snapped pictures and Bashalli drew quick sketches for later elaboration in oils.
Turning north they passed over Indian pueblo dwellings that were still in daily use. The adobe skyscrapers, layered one atop another, rose like rock-tiered tables out of the loam. Through binoculars Sandy could plainly see the bright-colored blankets that the Indians used for doors.
“Very modern Indians,” commented Bashalli. “I see a satellite dish.”
After passing over a stretch of rolling land dotted with sagebrush, Purple Mesa rose up ahead like a solid fortress in the lighter-colored landscape.
“We’re almost there!” called Sandy excitedly, as the huge mass loomed before them.
“It’s still a number of miles off,” Bud observed. “Distances are deceiving out here.”
The mesa was indeed several minutes’ flying time away. Alone and brooding, it seemed to bear down upon them as they approached.
“Why, it isn’t purple at all!” exclaimed Bash. “It seems to be rust-colored.”
“Wait until sunset,” Bud remarked.
“We won’t be here then,” Bashalli retorted, a note of disappointment in her voice. “You made us promise to be back by suppertime.”
Bud smiled at this reminder of his one minor victory. “I’ll take the Skeeter up. We’ll hover over the top and look for a landing place,” said Bud.
The helicopter rose alongside the sheer wall of Purple Mesa.
“It is steep,” gasped Sandy, “and craggy. No wonder the tourists haven’t sifted all through it looking for treasure!”
The cliff’s edges had been filed into sharp and fantastic shapes by the countless desert sandstorms. Bud carefully spiraled the Skeeter in for a landing on the flat top of the mesa. “We’ll have to be careful not to disturb Professor Hermosillo’s work,” Bud cautioned sternly.
“Oh, look!” cried Bashalli. “Here comes a nice family of vultures. They must nest on the mesa.”
As Bud held the ship steady, he glanced over his shoulder and up into the sky, which was already turning a deeper blue with the first early touch of evening.
Then he gave a startled yelp. The birds were not vultures but an aerial battalion of jet-black crows, each of monster size!
The girls shrieked as they realized what they were seeing—and the shrieks were redoubled as, suddenly, the chopper was buffeted around.
“Wh-what’s the matter with the Skeeter?” Sandy cried. “Is it the birds?”
“Updrafts from the cliff!” yelled Bud. He kicked desperately at the control pedals, but it was no use. The rotor compensator was out of control and the cabin began to spin.
“Hang on, we’re gonna crash!” Bud shouted in warning.
The jetrocopter dropped, clipped the edge of the mesa, and plummeted over the side!
MAROONED ON THE MESA
THE SKEETER thudded hard and hung on a crag at the edge of the precipice, a momentary respite.
“Kick the window!” Bud yelled. Sandy’s foot flew against the viewdome’s large pane of safety glasstic. A section popped free and Sandy tumbled out onto a broad angled ledge a few yards below the top of the mesa. Bashalli scrambled after her just as the helicopter tipped and started to skid down the steep cliff wall.
The girls watched in horror as the craft grated noisily down the incline. Bud was still trapped inside!
A rotor blade snapped off and went spinning away. A moment later a formation of upjutting rocks about a hundred feet down caught the Skeeter like a giant outstretched hand. The girls stared blankly at the wreckage, hoping against hope that Bud was still alive. As they waited, frantic because they could not help, the seconds seemed like centuries.
Suddenly Sandy grabbed Bash’s arm. She had heard a faraway creaking sound. Slowly the twisted door of the helicopter was being forced open. Bud staggered out, seemingly uninjured. The girls called down to him.
“I feel like a one-wheeled tricycle!” Bud yelled. The wind whooshed and his voice was barely audible to the girls. “Pretty banged up but all in one piece. Ya know— I’m seriously thinking of giving up air travel!”
Sandy and Bashalli sighed in relief but their elation was short-lived. Bud was still trapped! Hanging precariously midway down the cliff, he could neither climb down to the base nor locate any footholds for an ascent.
Realizing the near futility of his situation, Bud knew he must not become panicky. Settling back against the helicopter, he surveyed the scene. A descent was out of the question. The cliff walls rose in a sheer line from the desert floor. One slip and he would be battered against broken boulders that fanned out at the base.
Yet even as he stood thinking, the unsteadily perched Skeeter shifted and a bit of Bud’s little shelf crumbled and tumbled. He didn’t dare stay put and wait. His only chance was to risk a climb. He would have to do it without the assistance of caulked climbing shoes or a pickax.
But one essential he could not do without was a rope. There was none aboard the Skeeter. There were, however, wires and power leads, some thick as cables. These were built into the fuselage, and might be pulled out and tied together. Bud waved at the girls above, then turned back to approach the rear service panel of the jetrocopter.
Suddenly another cascade of small boulders and loose dirt rumbled down the cliffside, and the Skeeter swiveled violently. Out of sight behind the tail boom, Bud gave a startled cry, cut off short as the swinging tail slapped against him. Then the stricken chopper broke free and somersaulted wildly down the rock wall, landing far below with a shattering crash.
There was no sign of Bud anywhere!
“Oh no, oh no!” Sandy shrieked tearfully. “Oh, Bashi, he’s gone!”
Bashalli comforted Sandy, her sharp artist’s eyes searching below for some sign of life. But there was nothing to see. “Sandy, he may just be knocked out in the shadow of those rocks,” she murmured. “We didn’t see him falling.”
Sandy dried her tears. “When Tom gets here, he’ll search every inch of that cliff,” she said.
The two spent several minutes calling out to Bud. But their voices soon grew hoarse, and the air was becoming cool. “We’d better move away from the edge,” urged Bashalli, guiding Sandy upward to the summit.
For the first time, the girls noticed that the flat top of the mesa was perforated by narrow shafts marked with stakes and brightly colored strips of plastic. “It’s that... that professor’s work,” said Sandy listlessly.
Just then Bashalli grabbed Sandy’s sleeve. “I heard something!”
They instinctively looked skyward. Were the crows returning to finish their work?
The sound came again, and now both girls could here it. “Hey! Hey!”
“It’s Bud!” cried Sandy joyfully. “But where in the world is he?”
Bashalli stood next to one of the shafts and looked downward. “You know,” she said, “I do think it is coming from in here!”
Sandy dashed over to the shaft and yelled down “Bud!” at the top of her lungs.
“Yeah,” rose the faint reply, “it’s me, San. The chopper whapped me into some kind of crack in the cliff. There’s a shaft going up. I can see you way above me against the light.”
“It’s the archaeological dig,” Sandy yelled.
“That’s what I thought,” Bud responded. “It looks like they’ve scooped out some places here and there in the rock that I can use for hand and foot holds, all the way up.”
For ten minutes they heard the young pilot huffing and groaning with the effort of the climb. Then, finally, they could make out the top of his head, and a minute later they were able to reach down and pull him up to the surface.
“Thank goodness!” both girls cried, hugging him in their relief.
Bud grinned, but he was too physically exhausted to make one of his usual wisecracks. He lay down flat, panting, his hands badly scraped and bruised.
It was many minutes before the full import of the situation dawned on them. Hours would pass before they were reported missing and a rescue party sent after them—and the sun was beginning to dip low in the sky. Soon the hot desert day would turn to shivering night.
“At least we’re all safe,” Sandy remarked philosophically.
“But the crows may return,” Bashalli worried.
Bud shook his head. “They’ve done their work for today. They don’t seem to like coming back for an encore.” Approaching the edge of the mesa he looked down at the badly mangled helicopter and thought of how close they had come to total disaster and tragedy.
Their situation, nevertheless, was far from pleasant. They were without food or supplies. The chance of a stream on this barren mesa was nil. Should they have to remain past sundown, they would suffer from the night’s intense cold, since they were not warmly dressed.
“It will be hard on you two,” Bashalli commented jokingly. “There is no television!”
Bud, realizing the urgent need for psychology to keep the girls from becoming frightened, sprawled out casually on the ground and scooped up a handful of earth. “Do you think that the legend about buried Indian treasure on Purple Mesa could be true?” he mused aloud.
“Is there a legend?” asked Bashalli.
“I’m sure it’s true,” said Sandy, brightening. “The legend says its fabulous,” she added. “There are supposed to be hundreds of hand-carved necklaces, solid-silver brooches, and bracelets set with precious stones. I read about it!”
“Then let’s start looking around,” Bud urged, relieved that he had been able to divert the girls’ minds from their plight. “We may not be coming back any time soon. —I hope!”
Bash and Sandy eagerly discussed the most likely spot to search.
“If I were an Indian I’d bury the treasure near that mark on the rock,” said Bud, indicating an uneven discoloration in the ground. “That way I’d have a marker and know just where to find it.”
Bashalli did not agree. “No wise Indian would do that. It would be too obvious.”
Using small loose rocks as tools, the trio began digging for the legendary treasure. Each one chose a different area to explore.
By sundown there were a dozen miniature foxholes on the mesa top. The girls were beginning to tire. “Maybe we’d better rest for a time, huh?” Bud suggested.
“No way, Buddo!” said Sandy. She tossed a scoopful of earth over her shoulder and continued to dig. “Think of all that treasure!” she said.
Bud grinned, shaking his head helplessly at what his pretense had led to. “Carry on, girls. I’ll just supervise for a while.”
He sat on a flat rock and watched, sore and aching, as the girls plowed up the surface of Purple Mesa. Suddenly a shriek of joy sent him leaping to his feet. Fifty yards away, Bash was jumping up and down, shouting, “We found the treasure! We found it!”
“What!—?” Boggling, Bud dashed over to where the young Pakistani was holding an object aloft. After she had wiped the clinging earth from it, Bud whistled in amazement. It was a turquoise-and-silver ring!
“I can’t believe it!” he said in astonishment. “Let me have one of those rocks!”
In no time he too had forgotten that the trio were cut off from civilization. For another hour the three clawed at the earth, digging one hole after another. The sky turned scarlet, then magenta. Finally the weary searchers were forced to give up as a chilling dusk came on. The treasure hunt was at an end with only one ring to reward their efforts.
Now Purple Mesa took on a rather eerie aspect as lengthening shadows of lavender and violet crept across its surface. Deeper purple hues cast an unreal pallor on their faces. The bone-deep cold of the desert night began to make itself felt.
“If only we had a fire!” moaned Bashalli, her teeth chattering.
“If only we had a railroad track and a jet engine!” Bud retorted wryly.
“I’m getting hungry,” Sandy said wistfully.
Bud’s eyes watched the ever-darkening skies for some hopeful sign of a rescuer.
“Tom will be here,” he said. “When we don’t return on schedule, he won’t waste a minute in starting a search.”
Bud was right. As the last ray of daylight filtered out, the powerful beams of the Sky Queen’s landing lights appeared on the horizon. The huge ship thundered toward them until it was directly overhead. The Flying Lab hovered high over the mesa and began to descend.
The three marooned below waved frantically, pinned in the crystal-column beam of the Swift Searchlight. Tom, relieved to see them alive and safe, blinked his lights in answer. He held the ship motionless in the air, keeping the intense blast of the jet lifters away from the trio on the mesa.
The Flying Lab would have to keep hovering; a landing on the sandstone table would be impossible. As the ship’s several personnel hatches were all in the area of the superhot jet lifters, extending a boarding ladder was equally impossible.
Tom’s solution to the rescue problem soon became apparent. He rotated the Sky Queen and maneuvered her until the blast of the lifters was beyond the rim of the precipice, with the aft underhull above the mesa top. An opening appeared as Tom raised the deck of the hangar-hold on its pistons until it nearly touched the hold’s ceiling. Appearing in the broad gap, Tom and a crewman hurled a ladder of nylon cord down to the castaways. On the third try Bud caught it and managed to hold it taut while first Bashalli, then Sandy, scrambled up to the safety of the Sky Queen.
Now left with no one to anchor the ladder, Bud realized that as soon as his feet left the ground the ladder would swing forward under the belly of the Sky Queen and expose him to the intense heat and air blast of the jet lifters. Though the trailing end would slow the swing, he had been weakened by his climb up the shaft, and he wondered if he would be able to climb up, hand over hand, fast enough to escape being shaken off the ladder by the rush of the jetwash. It was a chance he would have to take.
Stepping onto the first rung, Bud felt the ladder start to drag along. Quickly he reached up and grasped the next rung, and the next and the next as the end of the ladder scraped across the rocky ground.
“Hurry!” cried Sandy from the bay.
But speed on the twisting, swaying ladder was out of the question. It was all Bud could do to hang on. Sudden terror in his eyes, he looked at the lifters, then shrunk back from the glare.
The next moment, the ladder was swept toward the fiery blast!
THE PROPHET OF TENDERLY
EVEN AS Bud Barclay was facing the cruel blast of the lifters, the skyship executed a maneuver Tom had devised before slinging out the ladder. The crewman at the controls in the flight cabin gave a short burst of the forward engines, while simultaneously commanding the Queen’s supergyros to dip the tail slightly. In response the ladder swung backward away from the jet lifters, with Bud playing the role of the plumb-weight on a pendulum.
Instantly Tom, the two girls, and another crewman yanked the ladder into the hangar hold at top speed. In seconds Bud was catapulted into waiting arms.
“P-permission—to come—aboard—sir!” the young pilot gasped, sinking down on his knees.
“Granted!” Tom exclaimed gratefully. Then he added: “Though I ought to skin you alive for taking the girls to― ”
“Please!” said Bashalli imperiously. “As if we couldn’t take care of ourselves. And look, Thomas.” She held up the turquoise ring she had uncovered.
Tom looked at it curiously, then glanced at his sister. “This looks just like the ring Dad brought back for you last month.”
Sandy flushed with embarrassment. “Bashalli—I—well, I― ”
Bash gave her a friendly squeeze. “I know, Sandra. I saw you plant it! I did not wish to spoil the fun you and Bud were having, pretending there was a treasure to be found.”
This admission raised a hearty laugh all around.
Hot showers, supper, and a good night’s sleep did wonders to return everyone to a semblance of normality. After breakfast the next morning, Tom informed his father that he was ready to test Ator in the reactor core. “I don’t see any reason to wait,” he said.
“Nor I,” Mr. Swift agreed.
Tom had the controller equipment installed in the reactor blockhouse. He then activated his mechanical man and marched him across the grounds and into one of the service corridors, lined with lead and Tomasite. The exterior door was shut and sealed, and the interior door to the corridor was electrically opened.
In the blockhouse, Tom manipulated the control panel, switching on Ator’s “eyes” and “ears.” On the screen in front of him, divided into two segments, he could see both visual details of the inner corridor, amazingly sharp and clear, and a radar-generated schematic of the same area. A separate monitor nearby received a feed from videocams mounted along the corridor walls. The screen showed the robot titan standing immobilely.
The “walking” disk still in its drive, Tom eased forward the master control dial. Instantly Ator began to move. The image from his camera-eyes rocked back and forth as he ambled slowly along the corridor toward the hatchway to the reactor chamber.
“Quite a bit of wobble,” murmured Damon Swift, nodding toward the screen.
“Yes,” Tom responded. “I’m already working up an image-compensator routine to cancel it out.”
Ator neared the chamber door. Tom twisted back on the dial, and the robot paused. The young inventor selected the disk in the alternate drive. Ator smoothly extended an arm, one finger pointing; then he deftly punched in a sequence on the keypad next to the hatch.
Mr. Swift flashed a proud smile at his son. “Now that was very smooth!”
The heavy motorized door swung inward. Immediately various lights on Tom’s control panel became illuminated with flares of red, and meter needles darted to the right. Ator was receiving his first blast of hard radiation!
“No problem so far,” Tom commented. He directed the robot to step over the raised hatchway threshold and enter the chamber. But to his disappointed surprise the metal man refused to obey!
“What’s gone wrong?” Tom’s father asked after Tom had transmitted his command several times.
The young inventor shook his head. “I’m pretty sure it’s not a signal problem,” he replied. “The relotrol is working fine. It’s as if his muscles have seized-up.”
After the reactor door was closed tight by remote control, technicians in protective gear cautiously entered the corridor and carted the frozen giant off to the rad-decontamination room, where his entire chassis was carefully scrubbed with chemical solvents prior to receiving a new Tomasite coating..
“Decontamination will take some time,” muttered Tom restlessly. “But I can’t investigate the problem until Ator is clean.”
“Then investigate something else, Tom,” said Damon Swift. “Perhaps you and Bud could drive into town and meet that ‘prophet’ Chow’s friend told you about—the one who had raised objections to the dig on Purple Mesa. We have yet to understand the connection between the mesa and these other attacks, you know.”
“All right, Dad,” Tom responded. “I’ll ask Chow and Jessee along with us—Jessee said she had a day off from the library.”
In the company car available to Tom, he and Bud drove into Tenderly, with Chow occupying about two-thirds of the back seat. After picking up Jessee Thunder Lake at the house trailer she lived in, they were guided by Jessee to the town limits, pulling to a stop at an ancient gas station that had been converted into an auto detailing shop.
A teenage boy stood nearby as the four got out of the car, holding a paint sprayer. The embroidery on his grease-smeared once-white shirt read Kevin.
“Hello, Kevin,” said Jessee. The response was a nod that was barely polite. “Is your grandpa inside?”
The youth frowned, and for a moment it seemed he would refuse to answer. “Ye-ahh,” he finally drawled. “Pretty busy though.”
“Of course, with all this booming business,” Jessee responded. The lot was almost empty.
Kevin scowled but said nothing more as they entered the dimly lit office. After a moment a door opened and a skeletal old man with long stone-colored hair entered the room. He glared at the four of them through smudged glasses with thick black frames.
“S’prised to see you here, Jessee Thunder Lake,” he said brusquely. “But I see you’ve taken up keepin’ company with the outsiders.”
“Oh, hush!” she scolded. She turned to the others. “This is Joe Cloud Bear. We grew up together here in this town. He’s only been addled the last few years.”
“Now, you can say what you please, Jessee,” said the man with an injured dignity, “but I have read the signs and spoken with the cloud-spirits, and they have touched my forehead and made me iy-hoolchan for our scattered people.”
“That means shaman, or medicine-man, in the old language,” commented Jessee. “Not that Joe’s pronouncing it right.”
“Aw, you allus was the stuck-up one,” he retorted.
Chow stepped forward menacingly. “Say there, I’d watch my tone in front of this here lady!”
Joe Cloud Bear snorted. “No business o’ yours, you hat-wearer! I hear she turned you down about as many times as they’s moons in the sky to a firewater drinker.”
Before Chow could puzzle out the meaning of this expression, Tom intervened. “Mr. Cloud Bear, we’re not here to be disrespectful. We just thought you might be able to help us with some information.”
“Oh, I’ll bet th’ farm on that.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “I know who y’are, Tom Swift. You and your pa own that big atom ranch that’s eatin’ up the ground out by Darlita’s. That land is ours, y’know.”
“Not according to the government,” said Bud. Cloud Bear’s hostile attitude was beginning to grate on him.
“Like I care what th’ occupation gov’mint has to say about things.” The old man turned his back on them contemptuously and began to restock some shelves.
Tom took a stab in the dark. “I understand you know Oi-Pah, sir.”
The man continued to work, but more slowly. After a moment he said, “And jus’ what would you know of the Crow-Black-As-Night-Shadow?”
“Just that he’s an ancient, powerful spirit; and some say you’ve seen him yourself.” Tom paused strategically. “But—I suppose it’s just foolish talk.”
Joseph Cloud Bear turned about angrily. “Sure I seen him! Kevin an’ I, we both seen him up against the stars. That’s how we know we’ve been chosen for the revelation! That, and—well, I got my ways.”
Tom approached cautiously. “Sir, I believe what you say. But I think there may be others, bad people, who are trying to take advantage of you. I’ve already had attempts made on my life, and you—and your grandson—could be in real danger.”
This seemed to sink in. “If you are a true-hearted seeker o’ knowledge, I won’t hold it back. What do you want t’know?”
“Can you tell me exactly why you’ve been trying to prevent Professor Hermosillo from completing his work up on Purple Mesa?”
The old man stood silently for a long moment, then seemed to decide to cooperate. “Okay, I’ll tell you. Why shouldn’ I? While back, months ago, a man came into this shop. He was a man of my race, a good dark man, dark eyes, dark hair. He told me he was a Bocotyeh. Now, do you know, Tom Swift, of the Bocotyeh?”
As Tom started to shake his head, Chow spoke up. “I heard o’ them. Second cousin to the old Aztecs, they said.”
“That’s right, Charles,” remarked Jessee. “But the last living Bocotyeh died in—let me see now—1791. The tribe is extinct.”
“Bah! He was Bocotyeh!” Joseph Cloud Bear wheezed defensively. “I know because of what he had with him. He showed it to me.”
“What did he have?” Tom inquired.
“Many old parchment documents, on paper yaller with age, hard t’ read. You could smell the age on ’em!”
Bud murmured to Tom, “Not exactly carbon dating!” Mr. Cloud Bear seemed not to hear.
“I read ’em up. These old parchments told of treaties between the Bocotyeh village and the Spaniards, and they mentioned the Arapajo. They said the Arapajo spirit-summoners had a sacred place on the top of Ni-Eeya-Ro, which you outsiders call Purple Mesa.
“This man, he said he worked in a guv’mint office and had discovered that the bone-diggers planned t’ drill into the mesa, to holler it out and drive away the cloud-spirits.” He drew himself up sternly. “And then what becomes of the Arapajo? We will be feathers in the wind.”
“I understand,” Tom said. “And is that when Oi-Pah started to come to you?”
The man nodded, suspicion still burning in his eyes.
“We went to Ni-Eeya-Ro, my grandson and I, to sit through the night and talk t’spirits. We saw Oi-Pah circle above, against the stars. We saw the fire in his eyes! We saw his children fly out from his feathers! Then they all was gone. Since then we seen him many times. So have those who b’lieve, who have come along to see.”
“I have seen him too,” said the young inventor in a solemn voice. “But have you considered that the man who came here might have been a fake? There are criminal gangs mixed up in this.”
The old man looked down and was silent.
Finally he said, “I am not a durn fool, Tom Swift. The man wouldn’t show me identification or tell me his name, and he took the papers away with ’im. Said he had to return them before anyone knew they were missing. But now you tell me, boy—how could any man, even a gangster, fake the great black crow flying through the air?” He speared Tom in a steely glance.
As Tom shook his head, unable to answer, Jessee said, “Oh, Joseph, you always were a little short on common sense! But come over one of these days—we’ll have supper like we used to.”
“Jessee, Jessee,” Mr. Cloud Bear replied quietly, “you jus’ don’t want t’see how much this matters. It’s for our people. And listen,” he exclaimed, turning again to Tom, “I know you got the feds t’give that professor the go-ahead, but there’s more believers everyday, and we know how to write letters—and some of us look purty good on TV, too! We’ll protect that mesa any way we can!”
Those last words of Joseph Cloud Bear were still ringing in Tom’s head during the drive back to the Citadel. From all evidence it seemed Mr. Joseph Cloud Bear and his Arapajo followers weren’t the only ones determined to keep prying eyes—and probing shovels—away from Purple Mesa!
AT EARLY-MORNING breakfast on the following day, Chow surprised Tom and Bud by accompanying the usual ham and eggs with an unusual suggestion.
“Boys, whyn’t we go ridin’ while it’s still early and purt-near cool?”
“Riding?” Bud exclaimed. “You mean on horses?”
“Wa-aal, I don’t mean armadillers!” the cook snorted. “I know you know how to ride, Tom, ’cause you and your sister ride the trails back home all the time. Now as fer you, Buddy Boy― ”
“Oh, I know how!” exclaimed Bud defensively. Then he continued in meeker tones, “Or at least I’m learning. Can you get a horse with training wheels?”
Tom laughed but said, “Chow, I’d like to, but I have a lot of work to do on the robot.”
The cook gave Tom a humorously stern look. “That ole Ator won’t get mad if he has to wait a few hours. Now look, I heard tell you got ideas fer that rocket ship o’ yours when you let Bud talk you into goin’ out on the lake in a rowboat. Seems t’me I deserve equal time!”
Tom raised his hands. “Okay, ya got me, pardner!”
“But let’s not tell the girls,” Bud put in. “You know, they tend to get into trouble!”
“They couldn’t come anyway. They’re already off to Albuquerque for a day of shopping with Myra Spenthorpe and her boyfriend,” Tom said.
Chow had arranged for three “well-broke” steeds at a nearby ranch whose owner was an old friend of his. He even supplied protective ten-gallon hats for the boys. Soon the three horsemen were trotting briskly across the morning desert, which still bore a vanishing trace of the night’s crispness.
“So what’s our destination, Chief?” Tom called out to Chow.
“Thought we might head over t’ that mesa and see if all them police-folk missed any clues,” the Texan replied. “Jest at th’ bottom, I mean, not up on top.”
“Good idea,” said Bud.
After a time Bud and Tom pulled off their T-shirts, rubbed on some heavy-duty sunblock, and worked to diminish their east coast pallor.
“Don’t you want a tan too, Chow?” Tom called out.
“Naw,” he replied. “The shadows’d make it look funny.”
Bud looked up. “Shadows? There’s not a cloud in the sky!”
Chow shook his head. “Not up there,” he said. He pointed to the overhang of his ample waist. “Down here!”
The sun was mounting high and hot when Chow, Tom, and Bud finally reined-in at the base of mighty Purple Mesa. Here they dismounted for a time, grateful for its cooling shade.
“Well, here we are,” Bud remarked. “Looks like Oi-Pah’s decided to take the morning off.”
“It don’t figger,” said Chow. “How come he gets so all fired-up when planes come close, but not when folks come by ground?”
“It doesn’t just make air-approaches, Chow,” Tom pointed out. “Joseph Cloud Bear was on the ground just like us. And don’t forget what Nicky Ammo saw.”
Tom reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small object, about the size of a fliptop cigarette lighter. At a touch, it unfolded—in two directions—and became a mobile cellphone.
Chow shook his head disgustedly. “Aw, Boss, you’re not in the spirit o’ the thing!”
Tom smiled. “Have to keep in touch with the office, you know. Besides, I have it set on ‘vibrate’ so as not to rattle the rattlesnakes!”
Bud and Chow drank from their canteens and relaxed for a time while Tom conferred with the switchboard at the Citadel, and then with his father. He clicked off after a few minutes. “Nothing going on,” he said.
The three riders rode on around the broad rocky skirt of the upthrusting mesa, stopping again at the poignant wreckage of the Skeeter.
Tom looked over the twisted hulk in silence. Bud put a hand on his pal’s shoulder. “Sorry, Tom,” he said simply.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Tom replied. “In fact, it’s likely that you were a victim of that short-circuit beamer our enemies use. It may have knocked out your stabilizer controls. I’ll build another jetrocopter—a better one!”
The three of them were alert to the possibility of clues, examining not only the ground, but the side of the cliff, with binoculars. But nothing was evident.
“They had to have launched those missiles from somewhere!” grumbled Bud. “It sure looked to me like they were coming from right around here.”
“You’re probably right, but that doesn’t mean they used a fixed launcher,” Tom observed. “If they used a chopper to land by the cargo jet and take Sermek, they could have shot missiles from the same chopper.”
“Guess you’re right.”
Tom flipped the cellphone back and forth in his hand, thinking. “What I’d really like to know is how our pals are working their magic crow act.”
“You suppose it could be a robot, like yours?” Bud suggested.
“I don’t see how,” Tom answered thoughtfully. “The way it changes shape and disappears, the way it keeps up with fast-moving vehicles—it’s more likely some kind of optical phenomenon, like a projection.”
“Wa-aal,” said Chow, “that’d explain a lot, wouldnit?”
“In what way?” Tom asked.
“Think about it, Boss. We see ’em when it’s dark, don’t we? An’ a movie theater’s got t’be dark if you wanna see th’ movie.”
Bud gave Chow a superior look. “But it isn’t always seen when it’s dark, cowpoke. The first time Tom and I had a run-in, it was morning. And the other day in the Skeeter, it was still afternoon.”
Seeing Chow’s face fall, Tom clapped him on his wide back. “Actually, I think you may be on to something,” he declared. “Even if it wasn’t really dark out, the crow is always seen against a fairly dark background. The sky in the stratosphere is pretty dark blue; and the air is so dry and clear around these parts that a big stretch of the sky can start darkening in the later afternoon, when the sun’s still high up.”
“Yep, that’s so,” said the cook, brightening. “You can see a fair amount o’ stars even at four o’ the PM.”
Bud sought out a face-saving rejoinder. “Okay. But you’d need a mighty big and powerful projector, wouldn’t you? Not to mention some kind of screen!”
“You’re right, flyboy,” Tom conceded. “We’ve looked all over and never seen a trace of the kind of equipment that― ” He broke off his comment. Bud glanced up and saw his friend staring intently at his cellphone.
“Good vibrations?” Bud asked.
Tom nodded. “The best kind!” He held up the telephone unit. “This long-distance company doesn’t use ordinary cell relay towers. They use a whole string of low-orbit satellites!”
“Sure,” Bud responded. “Launched by that German mega-conglomerate.”
“Now just suppose,” Tom went on, “some of those little satellites carried stowaways!”
Chow looked skeptical. “You mean, crows?”
“No, pard—crow makers!” Tom grinned at this new idea. “Oi-Pah doesn’t just need a dark background, but two other things. He’s always appearing against the sky—that’s why we see him up above the level of the plane. And he’d only be able to show up when the right satellite was above the horizon. Remember, these are not geosynchronous satellites that are always in the same position.”
Bud snapped his fingers. “I get it now! It’s like a laser, beaming down from a satellite!”
“More specifically, a laser hologram in the form of a little ‘film loop,’ projected more or less directly toward the viewer. And if you’re not at exactly the right angle with just the right speed of film, you’d only see a little spot of light if you tried to photograph it.” Tom turned excitedly to Chow Winkler, who was straining to keep up with this dialogue. “Chow, I can’t thank you enough!”
“Fer what, Boss?” Chow asked.
“For this ride! It did inspire me after all!”
Chow beamed. “Why, o’ course it did!”
Braving the heat, the range riders headed back to the Citadel forthwith, where Tom got in touch with Sam Valdrosa and told him of his conclusions.
“Very interesting,” commented the agent. “And it violates a slew of federal and international laws if that’s what’s been going on. My guess is the German corporation, DKZ-Konkordat, doesn’t have a thing to do with it—someone managed to plant the equipment on board the satellites without their knowledge.”
Tom agreed, and added: “I’m working out a way to test my idea, Sam. We’ll see!”
Tom now plunged into other problems—those involving his giant robot Ator. Tom had already determined that Ator had been immobilized the previous day by a failure in his powder-pumped muscles brought about by radiation exposure.
“We never expected a Tomasite shield of that thickness to keep out all the hard radiation,” Tom pointed out to his father. “But we thought a slight degree of exposure would be harmless, as it was for the earlier Herculesium formula.”
“What’s your solution, son?” Mr. Swift inquired. “Thicker shielding?”
“No; I don’t want the robot to become too heavy and bulky,” responded Tom. “I’m thinking in terms of a slight reformulation of the powder.”
“That shouldn’t be necessary. I believe I can force the ‘antidote’ compound through the full cylinders under pressure. The process should only take a few hours; then we’ll be ready for another test in the reactor.”
By mid-afternoon Ator was again positioned in the reactor access corridor, awaiting the relotrol command to move forward to the reactor hatchway.
“This is the easy part,” commented Tom, sending Ator the signal to begin walking.
The lumbering giant took one step—two steps—and began a third. Suddenly the image from the robot’s cameras tilted sideways, and the corridor videocams showed that the huge figure had ceased to advance and was leaning against the wall like a dizzy drunkard.
Tom groaned. “Now what?” He checked the various dials and sensor-instruments. His inner voice grew puzzled. Nothing obviously wrong, he thought. Muscles are functioning. Relotrol signal OK…
“I’m going in there to examine Ator where he stands,” Tom said to Mark Soren, the technician who was assisting him. The young inventor quickly slipped on an anti-rad protective suit—for the entire corridor was “hot” with residual radiation—and crossed over to the looming reactor dome.
Inside the corridor, Tom approached the leaning robot and began to look him over without touching him. He noticed for the first time that a small cluster of indicator lights were blinking red, a sign of equipment failure. Using a special tool Tom opened a service panel in the metal man’s torso and pulled out a drawer-like circuit frame. The action released a tiny puff of white smoke.
Tom muttered to himself, “Well, I’m getting close to― ”
The thought remained unfinished. There was a thunderous roar from overhead and the corridor heaved and buckled, throwing Tom off his feet. An instant later, as the ceiling fractured, his prone form was showered with shards of concrete!
“MR. SWIFT! Mr. Swift!” came the urgent voice over the intercom, mixing with the wail of sirens and the shrill clang of alarm bells.
In his office, Damon Swift flicked the intercom switch, putting him in direct touch with the switchboard of the Citadel.
“I’m here!” he cried. “Where was the― ”
“In Access Corridor 5,” said the communications operator. “Sir, your son was inside trying to― ”
Tom’s father didn’t wait for the rest of the sentence; he was off in a run toward the reactor dome, where a small, excited crowd had gathered.
Spotting one of the engineers, he asked, “What do we know so far, Dr. Mantova? Anything?”
The man shook his head. “I know nothing. I heard a sound and came running― ”
Bud Barclay, white-faced, dashed up breathlessly. “Tom!—any word about—?”
“Come on,” Mr. Swift cried. He and Bud made for the reactor blockhouse, where they found Tom’s assistant at the relotrol controller panel.
Mark knew they were concerned about Tom. “He went into the corridor to fix Ator, Mr. Swift,” he explained worriedly. “I’ve been trying to get an image, but the corridor videocams are all out.”
“What about radiation?” demanded the elder Swift.
“No leakage so far, thank heaven,” Mark replied. “Reactor levels are normal.”
Damon Swift sat down in front of the control panel. The view from Ator’s camera eyes, at a slant, showed only the reactor end of the corridor. After Mark had explained the general nature of the difficulty Tom had been having with the machine, Mr. Swift extended Ator’s right arm and pushed against the corridor wall. The image straightened immediately.
“He’s upright,” Mr. Swift said. He swiveled the robot’s twin shoulder-lenses, bringing in a view of the area near his feet. A mound of dust and debris was heaped-up over the floor!
“Tom’s buried in that stuff!” Bud cried. He pivoted on one heel. “I’m getting him― ”
“No!” ordered Mr. Swift. He gestured at a plant security guard standing near the door. “Guard, make sure this young man doesn’t leave the room!”
Mr. Swift had Ator crouch down and probe the debris with his hands, applying only a gentle pressure. After a minute, Mr. Swift said, “He’s not there.” He had the robot stand upright again, and added without looking Bud’s way, “Sorry, Bud—I had to stop you. The corridor is full of residual radiation.”
“I understand, sir.”
There was a pause as Mr. Swift had the robot scan the length of the corridor with his radar mapping system. “Some motion at the other end, by the door. Maybe I can get the machine to turn a little that way, even if he can’t walk.”
In a moment the giant robot had zeroed-in on the end of the corridor that led to the outside.
“There he is!” Bud exclaimed. A figure in orange protective garb, covered in flourlike cement-dust, sat at the base of the door. Every few moments a weak hand was raised into view. “He’s trying to reach the control keypad!”
“It’s not functioning,” said Mark Soren. “The inner door is jammed solid, though we’ve forced the outer door open. And I’m afraid there’s another problem.”
Mr. Swift met his eyes. “What?”
“There’s fluid leaking down from the reactor coolant ducts—you can see that it’s starting to spread across the floor. Tom will be in real danger when it reaches those exposed cables!”
“We’ve got to get him out!” Bud choked. “Can’t we shut down the power?”
Damon Swift shook his head. “No. We have to power down gradually, over hours, or we risk the reactor going critical. There’s a better way, Bud.”
Tom, weak and reeling at the bottom of the escape door panel, reacted with a start to the distinctive sound of a knock against the corridor wall to his rear. With painful effort he changed position and saw Ator knocking delicately with his robotic muscles.
It’s Dad! the young inventor thought with relief. Can he see me?
Tom waved twice in the direction of the robot, and Ator knocked twice in the same rhythm. Communication had been established!
Now Ator began to make other hand signals—short, choppy horizontal motions.
“I get it,” Tom said aloud, seeking the comfort of his own voice. “I should move aside.” He did so, trying to get out of the way. As he moved he became aware of the coolant fluid that was slowly turning the concrete dust below to mud. He also took note of sparking cables hanging down from the ruptured ceiling at the other end of the corridor.
Good night! When the liquid touches the cable-end… Thanks to his anti-rad suit Tom was protected against electrocution. However, he knew the electrical current would react with the chemicals and release a powerful, corrosive gas—a combustible gas that would quickly fill the corridor. Tom looked frantically about for a shielded spot, but there was none to be had.
Ator was moving in a peculiar manner that Tom found hard to comprehend. Finally, he understood!
“That’s great, Dad!” he yelled, as if his father could hear him.
Mr. Swift had realized that the robot’s difficulty only involved forward walking. His other muscular functions seemed fully intact and unaffected. His solution was to cause the machine to walk backwards up the corridor towards Tom. Although his camera eyes were facing the wrong way, Ator’s radar ears, on either side of his head, were able to scan the corridor in both directions.
Moving slowly and carefully, Ator approached Tom and the door to the corridor antechamber.
Suddenly Tom was distracted by a loud hissing and popping sound. Looking back he saw that the creeping fluid had reached the exposed cables and was boiling furiously, releasing its deadly explosive vapor into the air.
Tom rapped loudly on Ator’s right-side radome, which he could only reach with difficulty, on tip-toes. He knew this action would be noted immediately at the control station. Sure enough, Ator paused.
Waving a hand for attention, Tom wobbled into camera view, and scrawled a message on the wall with mud.
VAPOR – EXPLOSION – DANGER
There was a long pause as the robot stood unmoving as a giant redwood. Then Ator stooped, dipped the end of his claw-hand in the mud, and scratched a message on the wall next to Tom’s.
FACE DOOR – ROBOT SHIELD
Trusting but not fully understanding, Tom worked his way to the other side of Ator and stood facing the door panel. Pushing the wall with his hands, the robot forced itself to pivot awkwardly until it faced the same direction as Tom. Then it leaned forward by means of its inner gyros and gently folded its powerful arms around the young inventor, shielding him, its bulk between Tom and the corridor.
They stood this way for several minutes as the air became thick with the steamy vapor.
There was a crackling sound from behind, and—
The corridor exploded!
A fiery fury blasted past Tom and Ator. Tom could feel the robot being thrust forward against the thick door panel, which Ator was leaning against with his forearms. The force was tremendous, as if the robot had been swatted with a huge baseball bat—a home-run swing. The force was transmitted through the robot directly into the door, and the door bowed and snapped forward in its frame.
In the middle of the smog of the blast, a narrow slit had appeared at the edge of the door panel! Ator worked his hand into the space and opened-out his dual thumbs. The door creaked open a bit wider, then suddenly gave completely. Tom tumbled limply into the antechamber, into the light of day.
For a long time he knew only confusion. Then he saw familiar faces clustered around him—Chow, Bud, his father. He realized he was lying on a cot in the facility’s infirmary.
“Oh!” he groaned. “How long have I been out?”
“About an hour, son,” Mr. Swift answered, patting his hand. “You’ve been in and out, but you don’t remember.”
“That Doc said you’ll be good as new,” Chow said, his voice thick with emotion. “But brand my yoo-ranium rabbits, don’t scare us like that!”
Tom forced a grin. “I’ll try not to.” He turned to his father. “Dad, that was amazing, using Ator as a shield, and the blast as a lever! Did he make it through all right?”
Bud laughed. “Genius boy almost gets converted to loose atoms—and he’s worried about the robot!”
Mr. Swift patted his son’s shoulder. “The robot is in perfect shape, and is being decontaminated.”
“Do we know what caused the original blast, Dad?”
“We do now,” Damon Swift replied. “The reactor coolant pumps failed, bursting the conduits. As you know, they pass over the corridor in a group.”
Tom’s brow furrowed incredulously. “It’s crazy! We’re required by federal licensing to have three independent backup systems for every safety feature involving the reactor. That means four levels of system would have had to have failed at the same moment!”
Bud nudged him. “I can see your brain’s working alright!”
“You’re absolutely right,” agreed Mr. Swift. “And we think the initial cause of the failure was― ”
“A short-circuit!” Tom guessed. “They used the beamer device!”
“Izzat what knocked out your robot man’s legs, Tom?” asked Chow.
“No,” the young inventor replied. “That was just human error—and I’m the human. It looked like I hadn’t ‘seated’ one of the transponder chips properly, and it overheated.”
“Which jest goes t’show,” commented the cook, “yuh are only human!”
After some further medical tests, Tom was released from the infirmary, the presiding doctor urging him—somewhat hopelessly—to get some rest.
The sun was half below the horizon as Tom walked across the facility grounds, Bud at his side.
“That beam-machine must be pretty powerful to penetrate all that lead shielding and concrete,” Bud remarked.
“Not to mention alternating layers of Tomasite,” Tom added. “Furthermore, they seem to be able to focus the beam very intensely. I don’t see how that could be done over a distance of miles—much less from a space-satellite.”
“Maybe it’s mounted on their helicopter,” Bud suggested.
“Maybe. They obviously have a small portable unit. But Bud, the Citadel operates under federal security conditions. Even if their chopper has some kind of radar-trapping device, like the security amulets we wear, they could hardly make it invisible and inaudible. The movement-sensitive perimeter cameras would have caught it. Nothing could get close.”
“All too true,” nodded the dark-haired pilot. “And then there’s those,” Bud added, pointing to several lights roving across the sky, accompanied by a faint growl of engines. Like the Swift rocket base on Fearing Island in the Atlantic, the Swift Enterprises Nuclear Research Facility was constantly circled by miniature drone jets, pilotless craft equipped with Tom’s landing-forcer machine that would safely bring down any intruding aircraft.
“Yes,” said Tom in a faraway voice. “But you know― ”
Tom stopped walking, forcing Bud to backtrack. “The landing-forcers were designed at Enterprises, but our purchasing department ordered the standard components from the supplier offering the best deal. And for the last year or so, that supplier was DKZ-Konkordat!”
Bud raised an eyebrow. “We were just talking about them, weren’t we?”
“Right,” said Tom. “The German company that owns the long-distance system we use—and the satellites that we think might have the hologram projector on board!”
“So what’s the idea?” asked Bud, puzzled.
Tom stroked his chin. “It may be that one of our enemies has worked his way into a position at their manufacturing plant in Germany. He not only planted the projectors, but somehow inserted something in the ultra-specialized antenna units we use in the landing-forcers. He’d know they were being shipped here to the Citadel, for the drones—which would put a key component of the beamer right over our heads!”
Bud gulped. “Tom, we’ve got to have the drones grounded immediately!”
With quick resolve Tom broke away from Bud and dashed toward the nearest facility phone. He spoke first to his father about his concerns, then to the head of security at the Citadel, Genevieve Taine.
“Say the word and I’ll bring the drones in,” she declared.
“No,” replied Tom. “If we do that, I’m sure the enemy will guess right away that we’re on to them. I recommend keeping them in the air, but moving them out to a more distant perimeter.”
“Good plan, Tom. And we can fly them lower to the ground, too, which should make for a narrower transmission window.”
Tom had a light supper in his quarters with Bud, his father, and the girls, who were chagrined at all they had missed during their uneventful shopping trip. Intending to retire early, he said goodnight to the others at the finish of dessert. He was reaching for the lamp switch when the telephone rang with an outside call. It was Joseph Cloud Bear!
“Mr. Swift, I need to see you right away. Can’t wait.”
“You can’t tell me over the phone?”
“Naw, better not,” the man said apologetically. “But you don’t need to come t’ town. How about I meet you in the parkin’ lot at Darlita’s?”
Tom hesitated, wondering if the rendezvous was another ruse. “Mr. Cloud Bear, I’m a little skittish about putting myself in danger. I hope you― ”
“Sure, sure, I understand. I don’t mind if you have people foller you. It’s just that our talkin’ needs t’be private—it’s somethin’ personal.”
Tom agreed to the meeting, and the time was set. Then, after a moment’s thought, he called Sam Valdrosa and punched in the private code that forwarded the call to the agent’s mobile phone.
After Tom had outlined the situation, Valdrosa said: “Tell you what, Tom. Just go meet the old gent, and don’t worry. I’ll have a couple of my boys keep an eye on you, from a distance. Don’t worry if you don’t see them—you’re not supposed to!”
The New Mexico stars were glittering thickly across the sky when Tom pulled in to the parking lot. He saw Joseph Cloud Bear’s battered pickup truck parked at the far end of the lot. The old man was leaning against it, dressed in a clean shirt and tie, as was his grandson, Kevin. Tom approached and greeted them. Mr. Cloud Bear shook Tom’s hand, his expression unreadable; the boy looked away.
There was a long moment. Then Joseph Cloud Bear gave his grandson a gentle nudge. “I think you got somethin’ t’say, Kevin.”
Kevin Cloud Bear cleared his throat. “Yeah, I—I gotta say—Mr. Swift, I got something to explain to you.” He looked up at Tom, a stricken expression on his face. “Please don’t blame this on my gramps, okay?”
“I won’t blame anybody for the truth,” responded Tom in a reassuring voice.
“Thanks.” The boy swallowed hard and looked away again. “Well, you remember what gramps said—about that man who came t’ the shop, with those papers?”
“The thing is, I—I saw him again!”
Tom tried to keep his face expressionless. “You did? Where?”
“In town, a few days later. He knew I went t’ school, and I think he ’as waiting for me. He was sittin’ in his car.”
“What did he want?”
“He told me—he’d done some checking, or somethin’, about those old papers, and they were fakes! All of ’em!”
Tom gasped quietly, glancing at Joseph Cloud Bear’s face. The man nodded, grimly.
Kevin continued. “The man didn’t wanna talk. He said he just wanted my grandfather to know, and he was too ashamed to face him. He said somebody had stuck th’ bogus papers in where they knew he’d find them, just to make trouble. He gave me the papers, and said he was sure sorry—and he drove away pronto.”
“But you didn’t tell your grandfather.” Kevin shook his head, obviously deeply ashamed. Tom tried to soften his words. “And I guess I know why, Kevin.”
The boy looked up at Tom. “Ya do?”
“I think so. You knew how much all this meant to him, and you didn’t want to take that away.”
Kevin’s voice cracked with feeling. “You shoulda seen th’ difference in him, Mr. Swift! All those people listenin’ to him for once, respecting him…”
“But it was wrong!” muttered the grandfather.
“Still, you saw Oi-Pah—didn’t you?” Tom asked.
“I said I did, and I did!” declared Mr. Cloud Bear with great dignity. “Kevin saw him too—so did others. Go ask ’em!”
“Then your story was basically correct, sir,” Tom said. “Except for a few details.”
The old man brightened a bit and rested an arm on his grandson’s shoulder. “Guess ya could say that,” he responded.
Tom confirmed a few further details, then thanked Joseph Cloud Bear and Kevin and returned to his car, amazed and thoughtful.
Maybe it’s starting to make sense after all, he mused. Someone’s going to a lot of trouble to keep people away from the mesa. But what about Nicky Ammo? And why did they steal the robot?
Tom unlocked the car door. Suddenly a pair of powerful headlights swept across the lot and a large car pulled up next to him, the rear window lowered.
“Evening, Swift,” said a voice from within. “Mind stepping over here for a second?”
Speak of the devil—Nicky Ammo!
TOM’S CROW CATCHER
“SORRY IF I startled you, kid,” said Nicky suavely. “Oh, I mean—young man!”
Tom stepped nearer, his heart pounding. “You didn’t startle me, Mr. Ammo. I know I don’t need to be worried. I’ve got people looking out for my welfare.”
“Sure, Hal and Burt. Two good men.” He waved off into the distance, jauntily. “Surprised I know these guys? Sam’s had them on my tail for years now. That makes us buddies, you know? We’re simplicato.”
“Uh-huh.” Tom gave Ammo a look that suggested calm toughness—he hoped. “So, out for a little night air?”
“Naw,” responded the ex-mobster. “Don’t believe in it. To use a farce de parfait, a little bird told me you’d be here, and I thought I’d extend to you a personal invite to come visit me and look over those cars, the ones I saw Pins Zoltan floating up in front of. I recommenced that you wanted to see them.”
“Have you seen him again?”
“Not lately,” he replied. “But it sorta lays on my mind, see? I’m getting a tad jittery. And then I got the FBI asking about my old con-padres, Slick Steck and Flash Ludens. This whole thing is stirring up a veritable pot of hornet’s nests, to mix metabolisms. So let’s say my place, tomorrow. Noon?”
“I’m sorry, but I told you my current project would have to be given top priority,” said the young inventor. “It’ll have to be on my schedule.”
“Why sure, Tom, that’s reasonable.” Nicky gestured to his driver to pull away. “Take care then. Tell Sandy I said hi.”
“Sandy?” Tom could feel the blood rushing to his face, and to his muscles. “What about Sandy?”
“Oh, I saw her just this afternoon, over in Albuquerque. Shopping, wasn’t she? With that foreign girl, and another girl, and a young man. Looks like they bought out a shopping mall between ’em.”
Nicky Ammo chuckled. It was all Tom could do to hold himself back. “Are you threatening me, Mr. Ammo?”
“Aw, gimme a break, pal!” he responded. “I’m not allowed to threaten anybody these days. And if I did, I sure wouldn’t go for the corny old ‘so how’s your sister’ routine. That’s as bad as askin’ if you got your health insurance paid up! Naw, I’d do something subtle and tasteful.” He flicked a small card out the window, which landed at Tom’s feet. “Just in case your schedule opens up tomorrow.”
The car rolled away and off down the road. Tom crouched down and retrieved the card. It appeared to be directions to Ammo’s home.
Using his car phone Tom again contacted Sam Valdrosa.
“That’s Nicky Ammo for you,” Valdrosa commented after the story was told. “It’s a hard life for him, having to play nice.”
“Do you think my sister’s in danger?”
“No, Tom, I don’t,” responded the agent. “It’s all just bluster. Nicky’s got too much to lose to fall back on old habits. But I’ll alert my surveillance team. Meanwhile—maybe your Shopton visitors should stick with large groups when they want to go out.”
Tom told of his conversation with Joseph Cloud Bear and his grandson. Then he asked, “By the way, Sam, do you happen to know if Flash Ludens had any family or other connections in Germany?”
Valdrosa snorted. “He sure did! His father emigrated to the U.S. after World War Two, and both sides of Flash’s family still have plenty of relations back there. Are you thinking this has to do with the Konkordat stuff?”
“It could,” Tom replied. “Maybe Flash himself is hiding with relatives in Germany.”
Valdrosa promised to alert the German authorities and signed off.
Tom slept away what was left of the night, and awoke reinvigorated, his mind seething with ideas. He took breakfast in his laboratory workshop, and within hours he contacted Bud about piloting him to the haunted skies above Purple Mesa.
“Are you sure, Tom?” asked Bud ruefully. “Lately me and flying seem to make a bad-luck combination!”
“That’s okay, Bud—I’ll pack an extra parachute!” Tom joked.
Soon they were arcing through the stratosphere in the same high-altitude jet they had used before.
“So what’s the agenda, Skipper?” Bud asked, eyeing the tip of a small tubular device that Tom had mounted under one of the wings. “Another part of the robot?”
“Nope,” said Tom with a grin. “It’s a genuine Swift crow-catcher!”
“Cool! But how does― ” Bud broke off as Tom’s hand gripped his shoulder from behind.
“Caw-caw!” exclaimed Tom. “And right on schedule.”
A flapping black shape had appeared against the dark blue of the stratospheric sky!
“What about the short-circuit beamer?” asked Bud nervously.
“We’re prepared for that,” responded Tom confidently; “and for Oi-Pah!”
The crow-black-as-night-shadow flashed closer, like the image in a zoom lens. Tom made some adjustments on the control box that rested in his lap.
Suddenly a flare of light burst from the tube on the wing. It streaked in the general direction of the ghost-crow.
“Missed him!” Bud said. “You aimed too high, pal!”
“Watch,” Tom retorted.
The small ember of light, barely visible, began to turn back. Its course became an upward-coiling spiral which slowly straightened on a skyward heading. In a moment it was lost to sight.
Meanwhile the crow had “split” into an angry flock, bearing down upon the cockpit. Bud had to keep reminding himself that it was only a projected illusion—according to Tom Swift.
Then, without warning, Oi-Pah and his children seemed to come undone, the images shattering into a million flickering shards of light which faded from view almost instantly!
“Whoa!” Bud cried. “How’d you do that, genius boy?”
“Tell you in a sec,” said Tom. Bud could hear the tension in Tom’s voice, as well as an electrical crackling sound that seemed to suffuse the cabin.
After a few seconds, the sound dropped out.
“Tom—blip on the scope!”
“Right, one of their mini-missiles,” Tom remarked calmly. “Don’t worry, it won’t be able to track our movements, thanks to our Tomasite coating. But give us some distance, pal.”
Bud banked the jet and turned into a shallow dive. They saw the missile very briefly, off to starboard. Then the jet vibrated with the shock of an explosion.
“I didn’t think they’d let it fall to the ground for us to examine,” Tom explained. “Hopefully they’ll write it off to equipment failure. Back to base, Bud.”
Bud complied, changing course. But he was bursting with curiosity. “So talk! What did you do?”
Tom laughed. “Nothing too fancy. My ‘crow-catcher’ is a little missile of my own, about the size of a grenade.”
“No point in that—Oi-Pah’s a mighty cold ghost. But I was able to adapt the robot’s photoreceptor setup to a new use. The drone missile’s mighty eyes are able to make a sensitive analysis of the frequency and angle of propagation of the laserlike beam that creates the hologram.”
“You mean the beam from the satellite? But we haven’t been able to see it, except the image part of it,” Bud objected.
“Right. I’d guessed our foes were using a paired-beam phase-interlocked approach, and I was right. But even in the stratosphere the air contains tiny floating particles of everything from ice to dust to plant spores—even some of your good California smog, Bud. There will always be a weak side-reflection, and the scientific problem was to detect it against the background glare. My optical system is able to do that.”
“I see,” Bud remarked. “Like amplifying a weak signal mixed in with a lot of static. But how did the missile knock off the crow?”
“By blocking the beams that were creating it. After locking onto the beams, it squirted out a cloud of Herculesium particles formulated to acquire an electrical charge from the ultraviolet light that’s so strong up here. The random particles scattered and ‘de-phased’ the incoming beams. No more crow!”
Now it was Bud who laughed in triumph. “Your cloud-spirits were stronger than Oi-Pah’s!”
“Yep! As for the short-circuit machine, I made use of the technique I used to make the relotrol invulnerable to radiation,” Tom continued. “You know—my ‘smart sunblock.’ A flat antenna, like a tape, runs the length of the fuselage. At the first sign of an electromagnetic buildup, it begins to interact with the waves at the proper phase and frequency, producing a neutralizing effect.”
As the Citadel came into view, Tom concluded by explaining that he would be installing the anti-attack antenna beneath Ator’s body armor as soon as they landed. “We’ll also install it at various critical points around the reactor dome. Tomorrow—finally!—I hope to let Ator get his feet wet inside the chamber.”
Later in the day, Tom told Bud that he planned to drive out to Nicky Ammo’s home some fifty miles distant.
“Not without me!” Bud exclaimed. “I have a few words to say to him about trying to bring Sandy into all this.”
Chow Winkler, who had brought the boys a snack, now spoke up. “Say there, Boss, how ’bout I head out there too?”
“How come, Chow?” Tom asked.
“Wa-aal, I never seen one o’ them gangsters close-up,” he replied. “I wanna see if’n he talks like they did in that movie!”
At a quarter to five, a utility van from the Citadel made its way down the curve of the long driveway from the road to Nicky Ammo’s home. An automatic gate swung open for them.
“Thought we’d have to call him on the intercom,” said Tom, who was driving. “For a guy who wants protection, his security is mighty sloppy.”
They pulled up and parked in front of the rather gaudy, two-story house.
“That pool looks purty nice,” commented Chow. “Mebbe he’ll invite us in.”
“Wouldn’t mind that,” said Bud. “Long as he doesn’t fit us with cement shoes.”
The three walked up the brick steps to the double-door, and Tom extended a finger to ring the bell. But then he paused.
“Look,” he said quietly. “The door—it isn’t even latched.”
“Something’s wrong here,” Bud said.
Suddenly they heard the mounting roar of an engine behind them. A small sports car was streaking up the driveway toward them at top speed.
“Ambush!” cried Chow.
BULL IN A CHINA SHOP
THE SPORTS car, a silver-hued foreign job, skidded to a screeching halt so close to them that Tom, Bud, and Chow almost dived for cover.
The door banged open and Nicky Ammo sprang forth. He barely gave the three a glance, throwing open the house double-doors and stalking inside.
“Luscious! Where are you, Luscious?” Ammo called from within. Then he appeared at the door again. “Where is she?”
“Your guard dog?” Bud inquired.
The gangster scowled. “Luscious—my wife!” He disappeared from view, now calling loudly for Jarret. Tom knew this was the name of Ammo’s son.
After a minute Ammo’s voice fell silent, and Tom and his companions entered the house cautiously. They found their host in the living room, his arm on the mantlepiece. He looked at them emotionlessly.
“What’s wrong?” Tom asked. “What’s happened?”
Ammo said nothing. He pressed against part of the mantle with the palm of his hand and it swung down on a hinge. A small drawer was revealed. He drew out a compact but evil-looking pistol and aimed it coldly at Tom.
“You’re violating the terms of your release, Nicky,” said Tom calmly. “Put it down.”
“I’ll violate your forehead—kid!” snarled Ammo. “Now tell me where you stashed my wife and my boy.”
Tom stood with his hands at his sides. “We have nothing to do with it. You invited me here, remember?”
The gangster leered. “Remember? I’ll give you bums a remembrance you’ll never forget. Upstairs!” He herded the three up the elegant stairway and made them detour through several rooms. They ended up in the master bedroom, dominated by a huge oval bed and a wall-mounted television.
Ammo waved his gun menacingly, and Tom and the others backed away until they bumped against the mattress. “Okay,” he grunted. “I got a mental countdown going on, and ‘blast-off’ makes specific reference to this little beauty in my hand. Let’s commence a bit of discourse—starting at your end!”
“We don’t have the ghost of an idea what you’re talking about,” said Tom.
“Yeah? Well, pardonez-mui if I beg to differ,” the gangster responded. “You get me riled up, Swift, and I’ll make up for lost target practice on this porcilene cowboy here.”
“Huh!” snorted Chow. “No call t’ insult me, whatever thet there word meant.”
Before Nicky could answer, a strange sound was heard through the open window, evidently coming from below on the brick walkway. It was a loud, steady clomp-clomp-clomp with a metallic ring.
“Whazzat?” demanded Nicky. “You got someone else in that van?” Tom shrugged.
The sound grew louder, and it was easy to imagine something making its way up the front steps. Then came a sharp, splintering bang—metal against wood.
“That’s my front door!” cried Nicky.
“Was your front door,” Tom corrected.
The clomping sounds now morphed into peculiar bangs and clatters, some so loud that the bedroom floor seemed to shake beneath their feet.
Nicky Ammo looked panicky, hardly able to keep his gun aimed. “Something’s loose down there! What is it, Swift, one of your machines?”
“My newest one,” replied Tom with a smile. “A giant robot named Ator. He’s ten feet tall in his bare feet, and—by the way, I noticed that nice crystal chandelier in the entrance hall. About eight feet off the floor? Nine feet?”
The house echoed with a shattering crash, followed by a cascade of glassy tinkles.
“Never mind,” Tom said.
“That was an expensive chandelier!” snarled Nicky. “Genuine Venetian crystal, straight from Vienna! You’re gonna pay for― ”
His voice was lost beneath a new sound, a tearing and crunching sound.
“Guess Ator couldn’t find the door to the kitchen,” Tom explained, “so he just went through the wall.”
“The kitchen?” repeated Ammo weakly.
A dozen clangs and crashes suggested a rampage through the pantry and china hutch.
“The kitchen,” Tom confirmed laconically.
Ammo pointed his pistol. “Switch it off!” he demanded.
“Afraid I can’t do that, Nicky,” was Tom’s reply. “Ator sort of has a mind of his own. He got lonely and came looking for us, you see. He’ll keep tromping around and walking through walls until he sees we’re all okay and smiling.” The floor shook again. “I just hope your house’ll be standing by then!”
The gangster’s eyes narrowed to cruel slits. “Take your hand out of your pocket, kid.” When Tom did so, Ammo nodded at Chow. “Okay, cowpoke, show me what he’s got in there. Quick!”
Chow reluctantly reached into Tom’s pocket and drew out a small rectangular control unit, studded with buttons.
“I thought so,” said Ammo. He stretched out his free hand. “Give it over. I’ll shut the thing down myself.”
Chow started to hand the control to their captor. At the last moment, he flicked it upward toward Ammo’s face with his fingers. Ammo jerked backwards, and Chow darted forward and plucked the gun from his grasp.
“Not s’ bad, eh?” Chow chuckled. He started to aim the pistol—then frowned. “Hey! Brand my sagebrush sausages! This thing ain’t a gun at all!”
Nicky Ammo shook his head. “Of course not. It’d violate my release conditions. But it does shoot bubbles if you fill it up.” He scooped up the control unit and began to push the buttons wildly.
The television blared on.
“And that thing isn’t a robot controller at all,” Tom grinned. “It’s your TV remote—it was lying on the bedspread.”
The sound of a heavy robotic tread now seemed to be coming up the stairwell.
“Ator’s found the stairs,” Bud remarked. “I give your banister about sixty seconds, Nick.”
The gangster sighed heavily and bitterly. “Okay, okay. Call it off. We’ll sit down and have ourselves a pow-wow.”
Tom nodded in Chow’s direction. The cook reached up, lifted his cowboy hat, and removed the midget controller-box taped inside it. Chow handed it to Tom and, one button-click later, all was quiet.
“Homing device,” Tom commented. “Now why don’t you tell us your troubles, Mr. Ammo.”
Tom, Bud, and Chow relaxed on the edge of the bed as Ammo paced the floor in front of them. “I got a call from my grounds-keeper—that’s what I call ’im—saying he thought he’d seen some kind of big van pull off the road down by the rise, at the far end of my property—which is very expansive, you know. Then he got cut off! So I told Lush and Jarret to lay low, and I took off in the sports car. And whataya think I found, huh? Nothing!
“Even Albert was gone. The whole thing stunk, you know? So I come zoomin’ back here, and the gate’s open, and here you are with this van, standing in front of my door—with my wife and kid missing! What was I s’posed to think, huh, boys?”
“The door was unlatched when we got here,” Tom said. “Whoever took them must have driven across the backside of your property.”
Bud spoke up. “This may be a stupid question, Nick, but—do you have any enemies?”
Ammo looked at him scornfully. “Whadda you think, pal? I got enemies from the other world, as if this one weren’t bad enough!”
“That ghost you saw is just a projection,” remarked Tom. “I proved it earlier today. But it shows your enemy, and mine, is a scientist.”
“I don’t know anybody like that.” Ammo picked up the bedroom phone. “I’m calling Sam Valdrosa. Maybe his watchdog boys saw something.” Then he threw down the phone in disgust. “It’s dead!”
“Musta cut the wires!” cried Chow.
“Naw, there ain’t no wires—it’s a cellphone. They must have knocked out the relay transmitters for a mile around!”
“You should try our long-distance service,” Tom commented sarcastically. “We use satellites!” He clambered to his feet. “They have a machine that short-circuits electrical equipment. We can forget about calling in the cavalry for now.”
“All right, look, Tom,” exclaimed Nicky Ammo. “I believe you now. You’ve got to help me find Lush and Jarret! If some of my old gang is behind it—man, they get a little over-enthused at times, you know?”
“We’ll try following them in the van,” Tom agreed. “We can’t let the trail get cold.”
They ran down the stairs, Nicky Ammo pausing with wide eyes next to Ator, who stood motionlessly at the end of a trail of random destruction. Tom activated the robot and marched him downstairs and into the van. In moments they were speeding up the main highway.
Tom put in a call to Sam Valdrosa from the satellite-linked phone in the van. “Holy Toledo, what you’re telling me explains a lot,” cried the agent. “My two men, Hal and Burt, haven’t checked in for half an hour—they must be knocked out, or worse!”
“Right, along with Nicky’s employee,” said Tom. “Do you have any clue as to where whoever it is might have taken Mrs. Ammo—I mean, Mrs. Stennard—and their son?”
“Perhaps I do,” Valdrosa replied. “We monitored some radio ‘traffic’ in the area a few nights back that attracted our attention because it mentioned the word ammo. The phrase was, RT wants the ammo at the villa rey. That’s what it sounded like, at least; pretty hard to make out.”
Tom gasped with excitement. “RT—Raymond Turnbull! That’s the name of the man Slick Steck was working with in Shopton!”
“And isn’t Villa Rey a Spanish name for a rancho or something?” asked Bud.
“Naw, Buddy Boy,” Chow interjected. “It’s not pernounced that way. Sounds to me more like initials—V. L. A.”
Tom glanced back at Chow, a startled expression on his face.
“So what does that mean?” demanded Ammo. “A person?”
“No!” Tom exclaimed. “Not a person—a place!” He slammed on the brakes and made a hairpin U-turn in the van. “The Very Large Array at the National Radio-Astronomy Observatory out near Datil. Just the sort of place an electronics engineer would feel at home!”
Sam Valdrosa promised to alert the authorities in nearby Socorro, and to contact security at the Observatory facility itself. But with Nicky Ammo urging him on, Tom refused to turn back.
“I want to be there when this Turnbull guy is taken into custody,” said the young inventor. “Besides, the anti-short-circuit antenna in Ator may come in useful.”
“Suit yourself,” said Sam Valdrosa.
At top speed the van hurtled down the highway toward whatever strange danger awaited them!
HEAVY METAL COMBAT
“NOW WHAT, Skipper?” asked Bud Barclay.
The van from the Citadel sat in the desert a mile off the highway. Ahead, several miles distant across the dry, flat San Agustin Plain, the Very Large Array awaited them in the fading red of sunset. Tom knew that the kidnap victims, and his mysterious enemy, were ensconced somewhere within the perpendicular tracks that bore the dish-shaped radio-telescope antennas that listened expectantly to the silence of deep space.
“I hope you amateurs have enough of the servoire flaire to not go in by the front door,” declared Nicky Ammo.
“We won’t,” Tom confirmed. “What I’d like to do is follow the route taken by the other vehicle.”
Chow scratched his ample head. “Nice idea, Boss. But it’d take a good ole Indian tracker to figger where they went across. I shore don’t see anything.”
Tom smiled. “How about giving a mechanical Indian a chance?”
Tom brought Ator to life and had him slide out of the back of the van and stand next to it, facing the desert. He then positioned himself before the screen on the controller console and signaled the robot to swivel his head, slowly panning the plain. Despite the dusky gloom outside, the screen revealed a bright and astonishingly detailed view of the desert floor.
“Robo-vision!” Bud whispered to Ammo.
Tom carefully adjusted the various mixes of contrast and brightness as the robot scanned back and forth. Suddenly he stabbed a button and pointed in triumph. “Look!” he cried.
Two parallel streaks had appeared on the screen, standing out darkly against the blank of the desert.
“How ’bout that!” breathed Chow appreciatively. “Them the tracks from t’other van?”
Tom nodded. “Pretty sure they are. Looks like they run straight from the road onto the station. Let’s see where they go.” Magnifying the screen image, the viewers could see that the tracks passed through a ragged break in the facility’s security fence and led on to one of the antenna blockhouses.
Chow squinted at the screen image. “Brand my rusty gateposts, sure ain’t no Swift Enterprises—run down as a blame ghost town!”
“It is a ghost town,” commented Tom thoughtfully. “According to the map, this is the old, disused portion of the facility. The newer section, which is currently in use, is several miles to the west. I’d guess security is pretty minimal here—Turnbull would almost have the place to himself, if he were careful.”
“I think I see the van parked there!” Bud said.
“Right,” Tom responded. Making a mental note of the layout of the scene, Tom had Ator climb back aboard and shut him down. Then they began a slow trek across the plain, lights off.
They rumbled through the gap in the perimeter fence and found themselves among the semi-abandoned antennas, which had been bunched closely together.
“There it is,” Tom muttered. The other van was parked around the side of the antenna immediately ahead, partly out of sight. Tom pulled to a stop at the base of an adjacent structure about 200 feet away and cut the engine. The four climbed out quietly, speaking in whispers.
But they had been detected despite their caution. “We’ve been expecting you, Tom Swift!” boomed a shrill voice from a dozen public-address loudspeakers all around them.
Nicky Ammo started to charge forward like an ox, but Tom held out a hand to restrain him. “Not yet!” he said quietly.
“No, not yet!” echoed the disembodied voice. “First, the game!”
On cue, a large section of ground in front of the other antenna began to swing upward like a camouflaged trap door, its flat underside glistening like glass. Upon becoming vertical the rectangular section, almost twenty feet high by eight feet wide, began to turn slowly on a pivot until the crystalline side squarely faced the party.
“Whatsat? Some kinda TV screen?” speculated Chow, puzzled.
Now the rectangular plate began to glow—dark blue, purple, red, orange, and finally a silver-tinted yellow which grew in intensity.
Tom startled the group by abruptly hissing, “Back! Quick!” He led them around behind the cinderblock shed that adjoined the base of the nearer antenna structure.
“What is that thing?” demanded Ammo.
“It’s a weapon—one banned by international law,” said Tom. “A thermic concentrator!”
“A heat ray!” Bud cried. Under the deadly glare, the small weeds in the patch of ground between the two telescopes were beginning to smoke!
Heedless of the danger, Tom darted out from behind the shed, heading toward the van. Got to get Ator and the controller! he muttered to himself, a fiercely hot wind hitting his face. He staggered slightly, and a pair of muscular arms held him up.
“Race you, genius boy!” grinned Bud.
They clambered into the van, already sizzling hot. Tom turned the key that activated the robot, and then used the auxiliary handheld unit, relayed through the main control console, to direct Ator to safety behind the cinderblock wall. But the main controller itself was large and bulky, and Tom was grateful for Bud’s muscles.
The trip back, lugging the console between the two of them, was nightmarish for the boys. Sweat drizzled off their foreheads, and the ground itself seemed to have been turned into a hot griddle.
But they made it, panting. In the next instant, the windshield of the van shattered, and the paint began to blacken and curl. Then, with a shout of thunder and a flash of flame, the vehicle exploded!
Peering cautiously around the corner of the shed, the foursome observed an awe-inspiring and terrible scene. The ground was dotted with small flames. A haze of smoke rose into the air, the vista dominated by the fire-bright glow of the thermic device, which looked like the open door of a foundry furnace.
Suddenly there was movement at the shed under the further antenna. A door was flung open, through which lumbered a massive, crouching figure. It took a few steps and then stood erect to its height of ten feet.
“Sermek!” cried Tom.
The giant robot now stepped forward into the inferno, casting an eerie black shadow as he stood, unharmed, in front of the thermic concentrator, a dark silhouette with fiendishly glowing eyes.
The metal man began to stride forward. Tom worked feverishly at the control console, trying to block the enemy signals that had turned his creation into a foe. But Sermek did not pause.
“Boss! He’s gettin’ mighty close!” Chow warned.
In desperation Tom abandoned his struggle to control Sermek, realizing there was only one remaining chance: Ator!
Tuning to the robot’s control frequency, Tom sliced down a series of knife switches, spun the dials, and Ator strode into action, bearing down upon the other giant robot.
Sermek—or his unseen operator—seemed to sense the impending danger. The mechanical giant clanked to a halt, snapping his head twenty degrees to the right, his photon-rods pointing at the challenger emerging into view.
Turning slightly, Sermek advanced to meet Ator. The manlike automatons circled each other warily. Sermek’s right hand contracted into the equivalent of a fist and his arm stiffened into a lance. He charged as Ator braced his feet against the fiery earth.
The giants collided with a deafening crash that resounded across the grounds. Tom fully realized the gravity of the situation. The hidden hand manipulating Sermek seemed bent on an all-out battle without regard for the possible destruction of both robots. Somehow he must deactivate Sermek’s controls, without permanent damage to either robot, if possible. But if not possible, it was essential that Ator triumph as the survivor of the combat!
Sermek backed off and began to stalk his opponent, looking for an opening. Then, pivoting quickly, he lunged forward. Ator sidestepped, but not far enough to avoid a smash in the face that damaged his control circuits, stiffening the joints in one leg. The robot jockeyed awkwardly for position. Two more blows shook his receptor-eyes.
Tom worked frantically to compensate for the distortion that resulted. If Ator were to win now, Tom knew, the battle would have to end rapidly.
Eyes glued to the relotrol output, he switched to wrestling techniques. The robots came together again, and a clanging din filled the air as each giant fought for a hold on the other’s vulnerable head mechanism. A contest of strategy, not strength, was exactly what Tom wanted. Now he could use scientific tactics based on his knowledge of the robot’s structural operations.
For a moment Sermek had the advantage. He broke a full nelson with a thrust that sent Ator reeling back against the cinderblock wall. But Ator recovered quickly and sprang forward again. Leaping into the air, he lunged at Sermek, and with one hand tore the stubby antenna from atop the giant’s head. His emergency override circuits activated, Sermek froze in mid-stride—and majestically toppled backward to the ground like a felled tree.
Ator had won!
Tom now turned the robot in the direction of the thermic weapon. He had to disable the device if he and his companions were to be able to charge the opposing antenna shed. But before Ator had taken three steps, the thermic concentrator began to dull its fire and pivot away.
“A good game, Tom Swift!” came the amplified voice. “I can learn from you.”
The device, cooling rapidly, now folded back down into the ground.
“Come forward, all of you. I welcome you!”
“My robot comes with me,” said Tom evenly, motioning for the others to follow him as he picked up the handheld controller, leaving the console active.
across the still-smoldering ground toward the doorway from which Sermek had
appeared, Bud to his right, Ator to his left, and Chow and Nicky Ammo close
THEY ENTERED into a cramped room in the cinderblock shed, Ator poised just outside the open doorway. The room was filled with electronic equipment of various kinds. Tom immediately recognized the missing controller unit, its gauges flashing red. There was also a rifle-sized device of coils and rings which Tom guessed was the portable short-circuit projector.
In the middle of the room stood a lanky, balding man in overalls, looking more like a farmer than a scientist. He had an odd, sheepish grin on his face that contrasted with the revolver in his hand, which was pointed at Tom.
“You pull that trigger,” Ammo warned gruffly, “and that robot’s gonna dissemble you.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” said the man pleasantly. “No, no. But at any rate, I don’t think I’ll need to shoot today. No, not today.”
Tom stepped closer, his thumb poised on the controller’s activator switch. “Raymond Turnbull?” he asked.
“Robert Turnbull,” replied the man. “Raymond is my brother, my identical twin brother. Identical physically, yes—but with an oddly distinct world-view, I’m afraid. He had reservations about my recent work, and so I have had to… to keep him in a controlled environment.” He nodded toward a door at the other side of the room. “Mental illness—such a tragedy, you know. But until he recovers, I’ve taken his place in the world.”
“You got my wife and son in there?” demanded Ammo.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, Mr. Ammo,” Turnbull answered. “Restrained but unharmed, along with your grounds employee Albert, and two men I came across in a car near your property, who are named Hal and Burt. Everyone well and in surprisingly good spirits.”
“Do you mind if we see for ourselves?” asked Tom in a mild tone.
Turnbull shrugged. “Not really. I’ll have them come out. I’m afraid it’s a bit cramped in that little storage room. Their legs are free; I need only open the door.” He went to the door, unlocked it, and pulled it open. “You may come out now,” he said.
They came out one by one with varying degrees of fear on their faces, their hands tied behind their backs. First was Ammo’s buxom wife Luscious, followed by his overweight son Jarret, whom Tom recognized as Ammo’s driver of the other night. Then came a glaring, wiry man with beady eyes, whose skin disclosed a good deal of time in the sun. Last came two middle-aged men in white shirts and ties.
“Plug ’em, Chief!” snarled the wiry man, nodding at the last two men.
“How come, Albert? Hal and Burt are old friends!”
“Friends? Friends?” Albert snorted derisively. “I heard all about it. They got turned! They’ve been feeding info to Slick Steck and Flash Ludens for months now!”
The two men started to protest, but Turnbull silenced them. He turned to Ammo. “Albert is right. Which shows that money can even buy friendship.”
Nicky Ammo glared at the men. “You two are a disgrace to the FBI!” He then turned to his wife. “How are ya, Lush?”
“Oh, Nicky,” she whimpered. “This, this man just walked right into the house waving a gun at us!”
“We’re okay, Poppy,” said young Jarrett.
“So where’s the other one?” Bud asked. “Where’s your brother?”
Turnbull sighed. “He’s a bit shy. Come along, Raymond, don’t dawdle, please!”
Tom wouldn’t have been surprised if no one at all appeared. But the person who actually came stumbling from the room was the biggest surprise yet.
“Well, well!” Tom exclaimed. “Slick Steck!”
“No,” said Turnbull with a frown. “This is Raymond. You do see the resemblance?”
“The guy’s crazy, Swift!” babbled Steck. “He thinks I’m his twin brother or somethin’!”
Robert Turnbull shook his head sadly. “Poor Raymond. He doesn’t know his own mind. Most of this was his idea, you know—including the abduction of Mrs. Stennard and this fine young man. I think he has an obsession regarding you, Mr. Ammo.”
“Yeah, why am I not surprised!” Nicky retorted. “What’s it all about, Slick? You and Flash still digging around that mesa for old man Briggin’s pot of gold?”
“Wouldn’t you, Nick?” Steck demanded. “A microchip with a list of ex-spies in East Germany! An’ now that there ain’t no more East Germany, some of those guys are in the government and’ll pay plenty for it. It’s not just a gold pot, it’s a gold mine!”
“I get it now,” Bud exclaimed. “So there really is a ‘lost treasure’ inside Purple Mesa!”
“You want some of it?” whined Steck. “Briggin stuck it in one of those big cracks. You help us get out of here and find it, and we’ll split it with ya.”
Tom couldn’t help smile in admiration at the ingenuity and complexity of the plot. “I gather the idea was to manipulate the local Arapajos—Joseph Cloud Bear, mainly—into blocking Professor Hermosillo’s archaeological digs on the mesa. Hence, the crow.”
“Yeah, sure,” Steck confirmed. “Not like we could put out a contract on some university guy. So we hired Turnbull here. He had quite a crime rep before he fried his brain cells.”
“I resent that,” commented Robert Turnbull. “I happen to be born a natural prodigy, just like our young Mr. Swift here. It wasn’t right that I should be compelled to labor by day on these foolish radio-telescopes while you, Raymond, were free, utterly free.”
“So how much did hirin’ this guy set you back, Slick?” asked Ammo.
“Not a penny, I’d bet,” Tom interjected. “My guess is the only thing Turnbull asked for was help in getting his hands on my robot.”
“A masterful piece of work, by the way,” said Turnbull. “I plan to take it apart, lovingly. I really must learn how the parts fit.” He walked over to one of his banks of instruments. “But we’ve had enough talking for now. My head is splitting.” He flicked some switches and brought up an image on a monitor screen.
Chow’s eyes widened. “Tom, that’s—!”
“Yes, yes,” cried Turnbull languidly. “The concrete balloon, the energy farm—your Citadel, Tom. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, atoms to atoms!”
Turnbull pressed a button and began to cackle. “We can’t quite hear the sound and fury from here, I’m afraid. But my hidden bombs are marvels of efficiency. As you can see on the screen, the Citadel is now nothing more than fire and light, a nuclear memory!”
The monitor screen showed, not Turnbull’s fantasy, but the familiar image of a black crow, wings flapping, diving and whirling endlessly.
They became aware of sirens approaching from a distance. In a few moments the state police had swarmed through the doorway, pushing past Ator, weapons drawn.
“Sorry it took us a while, folks,” said the lead officer. “Seems something shorted out the security and communications equipment all across the station. We had to figure out where you all were!”
“Treat Mr. Turnbull gently, officers,” urged Tom quietly. Turnbull seemed barely aware of their presence.
“Sure,” added Chow. “This dude’s crazy as a loon!”
By the start of the week following, the bizarre plot was only a memory. Turnbull was in custodial psychiatric care; the turncoat agents Hal and Burt were incarcerated, as was Slick Steck; and Flash Ludens had been picked up by the German authorities. The enemy micro-helicopter had been located in a camouflaged hangar in the desert near Purple Mesa.
“So Robert Turnbull never did have a twin?” asked Damon Swift.
“Yes and no,” his son replied. “The child who would have been Raymond Turnbull, Robert’s identical twin, was born dead. The doctors think Robert has some sort of progressive cranial disease, a deformation of the bone that put pressure on his temporal lobe, leading to delusional psychosis. It may be reversible.”
“Then do explain this, Thomas,” Bashalli Prandit said. “What was the purpose of making your gangster friend Ammo believe he was being haunted?”
“Just a test of the machinery, Bash,” Bud put in. “Of course, Slick didn’t mind making Nicky sweat a little in the process. They used old photographs of that Zoltan guy to rig up a phony image.”
“My,” said Bashalli, “one can do anything these days with special effects!”
They were all gathered together at the Citadel for the debut of Tom’s robot Ator inside the reactor core. The much-postponed day had arrived at long last.
Tom had arranged for his mother to fly out with a planeload of officials from Swift Enterprises. High government dignitaries and representatives of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission were present as observers, as were Professor Hermosillo, Jessee Thunder Lake, Joseph and Kevin Cloud Bear, and Sam Valdrosa—whom Tom and Mr. Swift were meeting for the first time after so many telephoned conferences.
When the audience was seated before a large television screen, Tom and his father entered the reactor control house. Mr. Swift verified that the reactor was functioning at optimum levels, its inner chamber a holocaust of heat and radiation. Then Tom accessed the disks that would guide Ator through the newly repaired service corridor and into the presence of the atomic pile itself.
His hands on the relotrol-linked instrument panel, Tom glanced up at his father. “Dad, I feel like I’ve spent half my life pushing this button.”
“This time I have a strong intuition it will work without a hitch,” responded Mr. Swift confidently.
Ator made his way to the end of the tunnel and opened the reactor hatchway, stepping over the threshold into its deadly nimbus of light. Through the camera eyes of Tom’s great invention the viewers saw the robot slide the nuclear quenching rods into place, smoothly regulating the rate of chain-reaction conversion.
“It’s a complete success!” Bud cried enthusiastically.
“And not a crow in the sky!” remarked Joseph Cloud Bear dryly.
Tom and his father emerged from the building and joined the onlookers.
“Oh, Tom, I’m so proud of you,” Bash said, her eyes shining.
Mrs. Swift glowed with happiness as she looked at her husband and son.
In impressive speeches, the government officials lauded the Swifts and pointed out the tremendous advances in medicine, industry, and national defense which the products of the pile would make possible.
“And let us take account not only of these gifts of the atom, but the wonderful things that will come of Tom Swift’s breakthrough in robotics,” concluded one of the more flowery speechifiers.
“Can’t we see Ator?” Sandy asked.
Tom explained soberly that the now-radioactive robot would never leave the concrete-shielded pile to mingle with mere mortals. He would remain forever as a willing servant of the mighty atom, the purpose for which he had been created.
“I reckon he’s happy there,” Chow reasoned. “It’s home to him.” The cook grinned broadly. “An’ he can do his own cookin’ on the ‘oven’!”
“What’s your next brain child going to be, Tom?” Bud asked with a grin. “So far you’ve gone up into the air, way up into space, deep into the ocean, and into the atomic nucleus—in a way. You’re running out of directions!”
Tom smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Guess there’s no place to go but straight down,” he replied, thinking of the project awaiting him at Swift Enterprises. But Tom was unaware at the moment that his Atomic Earth Blaster would lead him into one of the strangest adventures of his life.
As the crowd finally dispersed, Tom and Bud noticed that Chow and Jessee Thunder Lake had strolled off to the side and were engaged in earnest conversation. The cook had removed his customary ten-gallon hat and held it in his hands, meekly.
Bud nudged Tom. “Hey!... Do you think Chow’s—?”
“Maybe,” Tom grinned. “We’ll see.”
That evening the boys cornered Chow in the galley of the Sky Queen, where he was silently intent upon cooking a dinner to be enjoyed during the flight back to Shopton.
Bud whistled. “Man, those are great pot-holders, pard! Hand woven, aren’t they?”
Chow cast a dark look at Bud, then another at Tom. Then he sighed. “Don’t care t’ hear another word about it!” he said. “But let me tell you, buckaroos, there’s times when bein’ a mee-chanical robot don’t sound like sech a bad bargain!”