TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
ATOMIC EARTH BLASTER
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
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
ATOMIC EARTH BLASTER
“MAN, look at this earth blaster go to town!” yelled Bud Barclay from the cab of a big tractor trailer.
Tom Swift, standing on the ground next to the vehicle’s wide tractor-treads, looked up from his notebook in good-humored surprise. “Bud—we haven’t started it yet.”
“Oh, I know. Just practicing.” He joined in his best pal’s laughter. “I mean, hey, it’s a Tom Swift invention. It’ll work like a charm!”
The blond, rangy young scientist and his muscular, dark-haired pal were testing Tom’s latest invention—an atomic-powered earth-digging machine, nested in a cradle of cushioned brackets in the oversize truck-bed. Tom hoped to use his invention for road and bridge construction work and for drilling tunnels.
The young inventor had obtained permission from a farmer to dig on a vacant section of partially wooded land adjacent to the right of way for a water conduit. Tom had chosen this spot, a quarter of a mile off the highway near Shopton, because its rocky formation would provide a better test than the loamy ground of Swift Enterprises, where Tom and his father developed the astonishing inventions that had brought worldwide fame to the Swift family and the little town of Shopton, New York. Tom and Bud had spent the first hour of their morning checking out the various controls and mechanisms of the earth blaster to make certain it had not suffered from its fifteen-minute road trip. Now it was time to test the device in action.
Bud raised the machine from the truck-bed using a portable derrick clamped to the body of the tractor-truck. He swiveled the derrick crane and gently lowered the earth blaster to ground level, dipping its nose so that it rested upon the ground. The machine looked like a ten-foot torpedo and was comprised of three main parts. The main body of the gleaming steel cylinder housed a compact atomic pile to power the implement. Extending forward from the cylinder was a slightly narrower shaft, containing transmission gears to convey the atom-powered strength of the device to its business end. This narrow “neck” could be pivoted smoothly in any direction, as flexible as an earthworm. The nose of the earth blaster was a tapering segment armed with a cluster of twenty forward-thrusting spikes—the “teeth” of the ingenious machine—which could chew into the hardest rock as they pulsed and vibrated at hypersonic speed.
At Tom’s signal Bud gunned the electrokinetic engines concealed within the main chassis of the device. The grinding hum of the earth blaster burst forth in an ear-shattering roar that rose to a high-pitched whine as the penetrator vanes approached their prescribed vibratory rate. The nose of the machine blurred into a haze of motion.
Bud let out the cables that attached the earth blaster to its crane, and the machine bored into the ground. As Bud eased the big truck forward on its treads, a clean furrow seemed to materialize around the blaster as if by magic.
Bud gave a happy thumbs-up to his friend, who was jogging along next to the cab. Tom’s atomic earth blaster was a success!
As the heavy truck rumbled along, the machine was dragged forward and plowed a deep trench in the ground. A steady stream of dirt and rock, pulverized almost to dust, spewed out of the rear of the main cylinder into a wide flexible hose which whisked the suspended debris into a holding container in the truck-bed.
After traveling along for a few dozen yards there was a moment of hesitation, as if the blaster had encountered an obstacle in the ground. Then with no more warning than that, Tom and Bud were jolted by a loud clash of metal on metal. A split second later a geyser of water shot up one hundred feet into the air!
Hastily Bud jammed the truck into reverse and backed away from the drenching outburst, shutting down the earth blaster. But it was too late—the damage was done!
“We’ve hit an aqueduct!” Tom shouted, as he drew up alongside. “Hand me the cellphone!”
In stunned silence, Bud grabbed the portable unit off the cab shelf behind him and tossed it down to Tom. Quickly Tom made contact with Swift Enterprises.
“We’ve had an accident,” he explained to Munford Trent, the two Swifts’ secretary. “The digging machine broke a conduit. Phone the water company right away, and—also see if Hank Sterling can get a repair crew out here pronto!”
“Will do, Tom,” Trent responded. “You boys all right?”
“For the moment,” Tom replied. He added wryly: “Ask me again after we’ve had to face Mr. Greenup!”
Within minutes an emergency crew from the Enterprises plant had arrived on the scene. It was headed by Hank Sterling, square-jawed chief engineer for Swift Enterprises projects and general trouble shooter for the outfit. A young man, only a handful of years older than Tom and Bud, he had become a close friend.
By now, however, the geyser had stopped, indicating that the water company had either shut off pressure at the pumps or closed a valve somewhere in the system.
As Tom pointed out the damage, other vehicles began to pull up at the scene—two police cars, several fire trucks, and a number of private cars containing curious townspeople who had glimpsed the column of water.
While Hank supervised the unloading of a section of replacement pipe from the repair truck, Tom turned his attention to the police and firemen, who were doing their best to keep the growing crowd in check.
“Think you can handle the situation?” asked the burly chief in charge of the fire trucks.
“I’m quite sure we can,” Tom said. “Sorry you had to call out all this fire equipment.”
“Don’t worry about that,” replied the fire chief. “Makes for good practice, and it’s safer that way.”
“Maybe you won’t find it so easy to handle Old Man Greenup,” remarked a uniformed police sergeant. He jerked his thumb toward a long, black car which had just pulled up. A man with iron-gray hair climb out of the car. Frowning, he hurried toward them with decisive strides.
Bud jumped down from the truck cab. “Who’s he?” Bud asked in a low voice.
“The president of the water company,” Tom said quietly, keeping his eyes fixed on the newcomer. He knew he was in for trouble, and hoped he could avoid involving his father and Swift Enterprises.
Greenup’s face was calm and composed, but streaked with angry red.
“Well, here’s the young man who’s responsible for this mess!” he snapped at Tom.
“It was strictly an accident, Mr. Greenup,” explained Tom respectfully. “I’m sorry if we caused any inconvenience, but it— ”
“Inconvenience?” Greenup interrupted. “Is that what they call it out at that big installation of yours—an inconvenience? That must be a scientific term I never learned back in college.”
“Sir, if— ”
“Do you realize that that was the principal transmission line you burst? We had to stop the pumps and shut off water to the whole community! Suppose a bad fire broke out—what would the fire department do for water? And what about the Shopton Hospital—suppose they need water there?”
Sensing trouble, and grateful for it, the spectators crowded closer.
“I understand all that, sir,” Tom said, trying to keep his voice steady. “I realize that an accident of this kind could lead to a mighty serious situation. But our men will soon have the main repaired, and I can promise you that Swift Enterprises will pay for any damage.”
Greenup nodded noncommittally. “How did it happen in the first place?”
“It was my new earth-digging machine,” explained Tom. “We accidentally plowed into the water main.”
“I see. Just a little accident.” Greenup looked off into the distance. “And you accidentally decided to dig around without concerning yourself with our city water mains.” As his voice became quieter, it grew even more menacing. “I know what you’re up to. I know what your company’s trying to do. As for you, in my opinion you’re a public menace. Your father should be hailed into court for not keeping you under better control!”
Bud Barclay shouldered his way forward. Tom saw that his friend was about to blaze back angrily, and put a firm hand on Bud’s muscular arm. “Listen—Sir!” Bud exclaimed. “If it weren’t for the Swifts this town would still be a way-station for watering horses!”
“Bud!” Tom warned in a quiet voice. “Mr. Greenup, please keep my father out of this.” The man began to edge away. “If you think my inventions haven’t benefited anyone, that’s your privilege.”
Greenup paused and looked back. “You’re right, young man. It is my privilege.”
Hearing Greenup’s angry voice, Hank Sterling left the repair crew and stepped over. “We’ll have your pipe fixed in half an hour,” he said.
Greenup snorted. “Oh? Fine. Our water situation is bad enough even when we don’t have to cope with trouble like this! The water reserve was already dangerously low. We need at least fifty percent more capacity, especially during this dry spell of ours.”
Tom recalled that a town order recently had been issued banning the sprinkling of lawns during the peak hours of the day.
After a few more grumbling remarks, Mr. Greenup wandered off to inspect the work of the repair crew. The men, stripped to the waist, were dripping with sweat as they labored under the hot Autumn sun.
“Say, pal, I’m sorry I got you into all this,” Bud apologized, an embarrassed look on his face.
“Forget it,” Tom replied. “Greenup’s been ticked at Swift Enterprises for quite a while. He tried to make trouble for Dad at the last meeting of the Town Council.”
Bud continued, “I don’t get what happened. I followed the map provided by the water company as carefully as I could. You looked it over too—we weren’t anywhere near where the conduits were marked!”
“Let’s go back and take a second look,” Tom suggested. The youths turned back towards the earth blaster truck.
“I left the map behind— ” Bud broke off abruptly, a concerned expression on his face. “Hey, we’ve got a tourist!”
A man, whose face was unknown to Tom and Bud, had climbed up on the tractor-treads and was panning the earth blaster from end to end with what appeared to be a hand-held camera. Having evidently completed this task, he then climbed up further, entering the cab. It seemed he wanted an unobstructed top-view image of the machine.
“Hey there!” Tom called out mildly. He was not especially alarmed by the fact that some townsperson wanted to photo-record his new invention, only curious and slightly concerned for the man’s safety.
But the man’s response was anything but reassuring. He glanced expressionlessly in Tom and Bud’s direction, then shinnied across the seat of the cab and out the door on the far side.
“I think I want to talk to that guy,” Bud muttered. Before Tom could comment he was off like a shot, loping around the truck with Tom at his heels.
“Hightailed it into the woods,” exclaimed Bud in disgust. “I’d say that counts as suspicious behavior.”
“Why don’t you go off left, and I’ll work my way up towards the farmhouse,” suggested Tom in response. Bud nodded, and Tom plunged into the thick underbrush that divided this unworked section of the farm from the rest of it.
Between the scrubby fall-colored trees, among clumps of coarse grass, Tom spied marks of heavy heelprints and crumpled stalks just beginning to spring back, showing that they had been underfoot only moments before. He followed the trail without any thought that danger might lie ahead.
A minute later the young inventor came in sight of the man himself, hunched over and scurrying through the trees in the general direction of the road that served as a driveway to the farmhouse.
“Hey, you!” shouted Tom angrily. “What’s the big idea?”
The stranger looked up with a startled expression, then jerked himself sideways. He made a dash for a densely wooded area, but Tom quickly caught up with him and grabbed him by the coat collar.
As the tall stranger spun around, Tom saw that he was gaunt and hollow-cheeked. His green eyes glittered with contempt and glaring determination. One hand whipped inside his coat and came out again clutching a snub-nosed blue-steel automatic of unusual design.
Tom was shocked at this reaction, but he had seen the move in time. With his left hand he grabbed the man’s wrist. The stranger tried desperately to wrench his gun hand free.
For a moment the two struggled furiously. Tom, though not so tall as his opponent, had the wiry, muscular strength of a well-trained gymnast. He twisted the man’s wrist further and further until he gasped in pain and dropped the weapon to the ground.
“Now you’re going to tell me what this is all about!” Tom growled angrily. “And then I’m— ”
His words were choked off as he was grabbed from behind. Turning his head, he glimpsed that his assailants were two rough-looking men.
Tom fought desperately, but resistance ended when each man held one of his arms tightly.
“What’ll we do with him?” one of the captors asked, breathing hard from the effort to hold the prisoner still. “Know who this is? It’s the Swift boy himself.” The other man had clamped one hand over Tom’s mouth to prevent his calling for help.
“Rope—in the auto,” panted the gunman in a deep voice touched with a murky accent. “Hold him. We’ll tie him to that tree.”
A moment later he returned with the rope. Tom was shoved back against the tree and lashed tightly to the trunk. As one of the men knotted the rope, the other gagged the young inventor with a bandanna handkerchief.
“Good! Now we get out of here!” said the man with the foreign accent. With his two henchmen at his heels, he ran back into the woods. In seconds the sound of an engine told Tom that the three men had made their escape.
In helpless fury, completely bemused by this strange and violent turn of events, Tom struggled to free himself. But he was helpless!
TOM WRITHED and twisted to free himself from his bonds. But instead of loosening the ropes, his desperate efforts only made them cut more painfully into his arms.
Failing in this attempt, Tom concentrated on working the gag out of his mouth. By pushing the bandanna with his tongue, he tried to force it out from between his teeth. But again his efforts were futile.
Almost three-quarters of an hour after the young inventor had been taken, he heard voices shouting his name. Then came the sound of snapping twigs in the underbrush. A few moments later Tom’s heart pounded with relief as Bud Barclay sprinted toward him, followed by one of the Enterprises repair crew.
“For the love of Mike!” Bud exclaimed, as he ripped away the bandanna. “What happened to you?”
“Get these ropes off me first!” said Tom, who was filling his lungs with deep breaths of fresh air.
The repair crewman pulled out a jackknife and handed it to Bud. “Here, use this,” he said. “It cost ninety-four dollars! I’ll go tell the others we’ve found him.”
As Bud cut the ropes he said, “You really got us nervous, genius boy! At first I figured you were just trailing the guy all over the map, but finally I decided it was time to trail you.”
“It’s a good thing you did. I was nearly choked.” By the time Bud finished unwinding the rope from Tom’s legs and arms, others from Swift Enterprises had come up through the brush, having parked a company jeep on the nearby roadway. Among them were Hank Sterling and Harlan Ames, chief security officer at Enterprises, who had driven out to investigate the strange accident.
Tom quickly told them everything that had happened.
“That foreigner you saw, the one with the camera— ” questioned Ames, “what did he look like?”
“He was very tall,” Tom said. “Must have been well over six feet. And he was gaunt and lanky. But the queerest thing about him was his eyes.”
“In what way?”
“They were light green, a weird shade—sinister-looking.” He looked grim as he recalled the attack. “Boy, I’ll never forget the look he gave me when I grabbed him by the collar!”
“Crazed?” asked Bud.
Tom shook his head. “Not exactly. Like a man on a mission who’d do anything to reach the goal.”
Tom then described the two other assailants, remembering that one man had a slight scar over his left eyebrow and that the other wore a fancy stone-studded belt buckle.
Harlan Ames reached inside his coat and pulled out a small photo. “See if you recognize this picture,” he said, handing it to Tom.
“That’s the guy I grabbed!” Tom exclaimed. “The ‘tourist’ with the camera.” He glanced at Ames with a puzzled expression. “Who is he? And why are you carrying his picture?”
“He’s a dangerous foreign agent,” said Ames. “This photograph was circulated to all law-enforcement agencies by the FBI. He was tagged in Barcelona for meeting with a suspected terrorist group that was under surveillance, and then he was recognized entering the U.S. through Miami about three weeks ago, but the trail went cold. They suspect Bronich of trying to buy United States defense secrets for the Kranjovian government.”
“What kind of defense secrets?” Tom asked, concerned about this new aspect of the mystery.
“Top atomic secrets,” Ames replied. “Space weapons under development for Strategic Defense Initiative projects.”
Bud gave a low whistle. “Tom! No wonder this Bronich dude was so anxious to get the low-down on your earth blaster!”
“I still don’t get it,” Tom demurred. “It’s true that the blaster is powered by atomic energy. But there’s nothing very secret about that. Every nation on earth knows how to construct an atomic pile by this time—even the veranium type used in the earth blaster.”
“Maybe so,” agreed Ames, “but none of them knows how to harness atomic energy in the form of an earth-digging machine like yours.”
“But think of what you’re saying, Harlan. This is just a glorified rock drill, not a death-ray or missile,” Tom protested. “It’s not a weapon that could be used for fighting a war.”
When Ames pointed out that the blaster might be adapted to military uses, Bud added: “Besides, from what I’ve read about the Kranjovians, those rats would steal the tin cup from a blind man if they figured it might help them!”
“And it’s not the first time we’ve come up against them,” Ames added soberly.
Kranjovia, a collectivist dictatorship in north-eastern Europe shouldering the Baltic Sea, had not emerged from the shadow of Soviet communism despite the downfall and reform of their patrons to the east. The government had been connected with a number of plots against America, as well as the other nations of Europe. Within the preceding year, they had been linked to a scheme to illegally exploit the uranium resources of the South American country of Montaguaya, an intrigue foiled by Tom and his Flying Lab.
“I guess you’re right,” Tom agreed in a troubled voice. “We have to assume they have a reason to study my invention.”
“The question is, what are we going to do about it?” Bud pondered.
Tom thought for a moment but had no answer. “How about that break in the water main? Is it repaired yet?”
“All fixed,” said Hank. “Old Greenup had nothing more to gripe about, so he went back to town.”
“Thanks, Hank. You and your men return to the plant. The rest of us will try to pick up a lead on Bronich and his two henchmen.”
Sterling gave a humorous salute and left. Tom, with the help of Bud and Ames, trekked to the small farm road in a search for clues. But there was nothing to see but a few drops of oil marking the spot where the getaway vehicle must have stood waiting.
“I’d guess they had a fourth person ready in the car,” commented Ames. “Tom, was there anything noteworthy about the camera Bronich was using?”
“No,” the young inventor replied. “Just a compact digital videocam. It’s widely available—I’ve seen that model in catalogs.”
“Not much hope of catching them now,” muttered Bud. “They’re probably miles away, and you never did actually see the car.”
“There is one more thing to look at, flyboy. Though it may have nothin’ to do with nothin’, I’d still like to examine that map you were using,” Tom said with half-hearted hope.
“The map from Shopton Water? How does that figure in?” asked the young pilot.
“Maybe not at all,” was the response.
They returned to the truck-tractor and pulled out the map, which Bud had downloaded from the company’s public website. Nothing was obviously amiss—except that it was, obviously, inaccurate.
“Don’t worry,” Tom said grimly. “They won’t get away with this. I’ll find Bronich and look him right in the eye. I’ll see his determination and raise him one!”
The others shared grins, knowing that Tom’s words were no idle threat. In the adventures that had become known as Tom Swift and His Flying Lab and Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship, the youthful inventor had turned the tables on other foreign agents seeking to harm the western world, and in Tom Swift and His Jetmarine he had brought to justice a gang of modern pirates and kidnappers. His most recent exploit, Tom Swift and His Giant Robot, concerned outwitting a crazed scientist bent on capturing Tom’s robot and destroying his father’s atomic energy research plant in New Mexico.
Tom drove the earth blaster back to Swift Enterprises, with Bud and Ames as his escort.
“I’ll alert the FBI and the police right away,” the security chief said to Bud as the gate, activated by the coded signal of an electronic transponder, shut behind them.
With the new invention safely housed in the huge underground hangar that doubled as Tom’s experimental laboratory and workshop, the two boys took the plant’s moving walkway system, the ridewalk, to the office Tom shared with his father in the high-rise administrative building.
“This is a pretty alarming development, son,” said Damon Swift after hearing the story in detail. “If this Ivor Bronich is involved with professional terrorists, the threat could extend to many others beyond you and I and Bud.”
Just then Munford Trent stuck his head in the office door. “Mr. Swift—both of you—Lewis just called from the geophysics lab. The lithosonde readings are ready.”
“Have him transmit them to the digi-fax here in the office,” Mr. Swift directed him. He turned back to Tom. “A little light reading for tonight at home!”
“I’ve heard Tom mention the lithosonde experiments,” Bud remarked. “But I never had a chance to ask genius boy for his usual dumbed-down explanation—which is the only kind my brain can absorb!”
They shared a laugh and Tom said, “It’s pretty simple this time around, pal.”
Damon Swift’s eyes twinkled as he added, “All we’re doing is listening to rocks.”
“They say it’s good to keep your ear to the ground,” Bud wisecracked. “What do you mean, listening to rocks? Real rocks?”
“The deep, deep underground kind,” Tom said. “You’ve seen those cutaway diagrams of the earth, haven’t you? The ones that show the different layers of things?”
“Oh sure,” Bud replied.
“Ever wondered how they get that info?”
“Not especially. I suppose they drill a hole and drop in a camera. Or—ask a gopher?”
“They use the shockwaves generated by earthquakes, or, sometimes, by underground H-bomb tests,” Tom said. “The waves are reflected or distorted as they travel through the earth, just like sonar.”
“Or like the sonograms they take in hospitals,” continued Mr. Swift.
“Got it,” Bud noted with a smile. “It’s like taking a sonogram of the whole earth.”
“Exactly,” said Tom approvingly. “But those big waves are hard to bring into focus. Our photos of the insides of Mother Earth are pretty blurred. We only really know about the main layers—the thin outer crust we walk around on, the thick mantle underneath that, and the core, which seems to be divided into an outer core of liquid iron and what they call the inner core, which is probably iron compressed into solid form despite the super-high temperatures.”
“Okay. So what’s this new ‘ear’ all about?”
“It really is all about listening,” replied Damon Swift. “We pick up higher-frequency vibrations—sounds—generated within the depths of the planet and use them to assemble a more detailed image, using computers.”
Bud looked puzzled. “Guess I’m missing something. What’s causing those vibrations you’re listening to? Don’t tell me you’ve been setting off atomic bombs under Shopton!”
“Believe it or not, the vibes are caused by the sun and the moon,” Tom said. “As the earth turns, the sun and moon create tides in the solid parts of the earth just as they do in the oceans—they’re just not as easy to notice, because we ride on top of ’em. As the tides pass, the earth eases back into place. But the uneven stresses produce the vibrational patterns that our sensors pick up. That’s why we call the system a lithosonde, which means rock-sound.”
Bud nodded sagely. “I knew that, of course. So now you’re going to take the output home to have a look, Mr. Swift?”
“Precisely,” he replied.
At home that evening, Tom ate a late meal by himself. The rest of the family had finished dinner some time earlier, and Tom’s father was engaged in studying the readings from the lithosonde.
Rather than sit alone in the dining room, Tom preferred to eat in the big, cheerful kitchen of the Swift residence. As his dainty, attractive mother served the food she had been keeping warm on the kitchen range, Tom’s seventeen-year-old sister Sandra plied him with questions about the day’s events.
“Does this mean your earth blaster is ruined?” the blond, blue-eyed girl inquired anxiously. “Does taking videos count as spy-sabotage?”
“Not so far, sis,” said Tom. “It’s just another factor, since we have no idea why they were doing it.”
“Maybe they plan to dig a big hole underneath the Pentagon,” Sandy speculated whimsically.
“Then they made a good choice, because the blaster could do it!” Tom came back. As he went on to explain the details of his invention, Mrs. Swift smiled at her son proudly. Even though most of the time she did not follow the technical aspects of Tom’s and his father’s work—though she herself had a degree in molecular biochemistry—Anne Swift always listened attentively when they “talked shop” at home.
After supper Tom rejoined his father. Mr. Swift was seated in his comfortable private den, a large room on the first floor of the house, which opened onto a terrace through French doors.
“Any word yet from Harlan about that atomic spy?” Tom asked.
“Not yet. But the State Police and all sorts of alphabetical Federal agencies have joined in the search, so it should be only a matter of time.”
“I sure would like to find out why that fellow Bronich wants the scoop on the earth blaster!” Tom went on. “But anyway, Dad, how did the lithosonde readings come out? Any sign of monsters at the earth’s core?”
“Not in the first batch of data,” chuckled Damon Swift. “But it’s clear we’re getting a sharper picture of the earth’s interior than ever before. Look over the readouts yourself if you want, Tom. You know how to interpret them.”
At eighteen Tom had inherited the Swift family’s scientific genius and resembled his father physically as well. Both had the same keen, deep-set blue eyes, but Tom was the taller of the two.
“By the way,” remarked the elder inventor, “Uncle Jake is coming over tonight. He wants to talk over plans for manufacturing your earth blaster. He said he had some problems to take up concerning our jet production, too—materials problems.”
A few minutes later they heard the sound of a car on the graveled side drive.
“That must be Uncle Jake now!” Tom exclaimed, jumping up from his chair. “I’ll go let him in.”
Jake Aturian was his father’s oldest and most loyal friend. He was also the business manager and chief of operations of the Swift Construction Company, which had expanded to nationwide importance under his guiding hand. He, Damon Swift, and Hank Sterling’s deceased father had all struggled together to make the Construction Company’s high-tech offshoot, Swift Enterprises, into a renowned scientific installation.
Tom met Uncle Jake at the front door and led him back to Mr. Swift’s den. The two old friends greeted each other warmly. When Uncle Jake was seated in a comfortable chair, he turned to the younger Swift with a grin in his eye. “I hear you had a slight brush with Mr. Greenup.”
Tom grimaced. “I just hope it doesn’t lead to trouble with the Town Council.”
“You let me worry about that,” Uncle Jake replied, and added with a chuckle, “I’ve handled that old curmudgeon before.”
“What is it he has against Dad and me anyway?” Tom asked. “He seemed to be alluding to something, but it wasn’t clear.”
Jake settled back, shaking his head. “It’s not clear to anybody, Tom—maybe not to Herb Greenup himself. Over the last few years he’s gotten kind of eccentric. At the last meeting he came up with this off-the-wall charge that Enterprises was throwing its weight around unfairly.”
“To what end?”
“He thinks we’re maneuvering to take advantage of the drought situation to win a contract with the city to pump water in from the Fennisville reservoir through Pine Hill,” Uncle Jake explained. “He thinks we’re going to drum up public support by rolling out some sort of high-tech approach to the problem.”
“Oh man!” Tom groaned. “Inventing the earth blaster just feeds his paranoia.”
“That, and today’s accident. Just the same, this water problem is getting serious,” said Mr. Swift. “If the water company doesn’t find an answer pretty soon, we may have to curtail operations at the plant!”
The two older men discussed this situation and other production problems facing the Swift Construction Company. Tom submitted an occasional remark, but directed his attention to the lithosonde data.
“In my opinion,” remarked Jake Aturian, “the worst problem facing the technological industries in this country is a threatened shortage of good iron ore. Without ore, the world’s mills can’t produce steel. And that could lead to a dangerous dependence on sources in some countries that don’t wish us well.”
“What about the Ungava range up in Labrador?” asked Tom, not looking up.
“Almost played out,” was the response. “Going the way of the Mesabi ore strike.” He puffed thoughtfully on his pipe, then said, “Tom, since you’ve got your earth-borer machine up and running, can’t you figure out a new source of high-grade iron ore?”
The young inventor was staring intently off into space. It wasn’t the first time that he had given thought to this particular problem.
“I don’t have to figure it out,” he said at last, almost dreamily. “I can name you a source of pure iron right now, one that’s never been tapped.”
“The center of the earth.”
Uncle Jake’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Impossible! No one could tap that!”
Tom disagreed. An amazing idea had just occurred to him.
“I think I could do it,” he said quietly.
TOM’S quietly confident statement amazed Jake Aturian, but Tom’s father only smiled indulgently and shut his eyes. He and his son had debated the issue before.
“Are you serious?” Uncle Jake asked.
“Very much so,” Tom replied.
“Serious about what?” put in a girl’s lively voice.
“Oh, come on in, Sandy. You too, Mom.” Sandy and Mrs. Swift had come to join the others. Instantly Tom drew up a chair for his mother, while Sandy perched on the arm of Mr. Swift’s chair.
“Tom was just telling us he has an idea for tapping pure iron from the center of the earth,” Uncle Jake explained. “I must say it seems a little farfetched, even from Tom.”
“Tom likes farfetched ideas!” Sandy declared. “That’s how he exercises.”
“That’s the truth, Sandy,” Tom said, grinning.
“What is it you have in mind, dear?” Mrs. Swift inquired.
“Well, to begin with,” Tom said, “scientists are agreed that the center of the earth is molten iron.
“The entire core of the earth is molten iron, isn’t it?” Uncle Jake asked.
“No one knows for sure,” Tom replied. “However, based on slight deformations in the shape of the earth and theories about earth’s magnetic field, most scientists think the inner core is solid iron, with a layer of molten liquid in between that and the earth’s mantle, as they call it.”
“You’re right,” Mr. Swift agreed thoughtfully. “That theory agrees with most estimates of heat at the earth’s core.”
“Anyhow,” Tom went on, “it’s certain that if we burrow down far enough, we’ll strike molten iron.”
“Goodness, it sounds as if you’d have to go miles down!” his mother exclaimed.
Tom nodded. “That’s true. But there’s one place where I believe the molten iron is much closer to the surface than anywhere else on earth.”
“Where’s that?” Sandy asked. She was listening eagerly, her chin cupped in her hands and her eyes wide with interest.
“At the South Pole,” Tom replied.
There was a stir of surprise as the young inventor went on to explain his reasons.
“For one thing, it shows up in the ground temperature. You see, up in the north polar regions, the soil is covered with a solid layer of permafrost all year round. But down south, in the Antarctic, you find spots that are warm and free from snow.”
“Those are pretty good arguments,” Mr. Swift conceded. “Your ‘theory’ is perfectly reasonable. But your mother is still right. Even at the South Pole, that molten iron must be a couple thousand miles down from the surface. And that would take a lot of digging, even for your atomic earth blaster.”
“It would leave quite a pile of dirt to clean up, too, I’d think,” put in Sandra with a laugh.
Mr. Swift pulled open the drawer in an ornate desk nearby. “Tom and I hashed over his idea just last week, and I still have our figures. Let’s see now. Suppose you dug a pit just three feet in diameter,” he continued. “For every hundred miles you went down, you’d haul up enough dirt to cover an area six city blocks square, piled three times as high as the Empire State Building!”
“Golly!” Sandy gasped, and her expression showed that for the first time she felt some doubts about her brother’s plan.
But Tom had a solution. “We could get around that by using a more advanced version of the earth blaster that I’ve been working on.”
“How?” Jake Aturian asked.
“Instead of using the atomic energy to power the penetrator vanes, we could tap it for a sort of external atomic ‘blast furnace’, making it a real earth-blaster. The process would release gaseous oxygen from the vaporized rock. And the superheated gas in turn would billow up the shaft and disperse. No dirt pile! And then the molten iron would shoot up to the surface like an oil gusher.”
Mr. Swift tugged at his lower lip and nodded thoughtfully. Though he dissented from Tom’s conclusion and thought the project infeasible, he was proud of his son nevertheless. But Uncle Jake shook his head.
“Even if your general idea is sound, think of the tremendous expense involved in setting up a mining operation in Antarctica. I’m afraid we could never finance such a venture.”
“I’m sure that the government would help out on the cost,” said Tom. “Especially if we invite their scientists to go along on the expedition.”
“There’s another objection, Tom,” his father put in. “Suppose you did strike that molten iron. You’d have every government that ever staked a claim at the South Pole insisting the ore belonged to them too. Various United Nations resolutions effectively internationalized the whole region, you know.”
Frowning, Tom got up and paced around the room. “Well, Dad, that’s a question the United States government would have to settle. But one thing I’m sure of. No government that hasn’t staked a claim at the South Pole should be allowed to interfere!”
“You mean like Kranjovia, for instance?” asked Sandy.
There was a long silence. It seemed even Jake Aturian and Damon Swift were swept away by Tom’s bold vision. But then Mr. Swift shook his head, as if returning to reality.
“Sorry, Tom, I just don’t see how it could work. The heat, the pressure at that depth—it’s impossible.”
Tom’s eyes took on a gleam. “You’d pretty much convinced me of that, Dad. Until this evening!”
“What do you mean?” Mr. Swift asked, surprised.
Tom walked back to his chair and picked up the lithosonde readouts he had been studying. “I saw it right away in the middle of all the other data. According to this, there’s a narrow vein of molten iron that comes much closer to the surface than anyone ever suspected!”
“Less than two thousand miles?”
“Less than two hundred!”
At that moment there was a loud buzz, accompanied by a whining, growling sound, as though a pack of watchdogs had suddenly caught a scent of danger. “The alarm system!” cried Sandy, jumping up from her chair. “Someone must be trying to break into the house!”
“You and Mother stay here!” Tom declared.
With the two older men, he made a dash to check on all doors and windows.
The entire house and grounds were surrounded by a magnetic detector field originally devised by Tom’s great-grandfather, the first Tom Swift. Any person entering this field disrupted its flux balance and automatically set off the alarm system, unless provided with some kind of deactivator mechanism.
The Swift family and their friends all wore little neutralizer coils in their wrist watches for this purpose. But prowlers or unexpected visitors unknowingly signaled their presence by touching off the alarm.
Tom flicked a switch near the front door and immediately the grounds were flooded by the glare of powerful spotlights, arranged to cover every bit of the property.
“This should flush out anybody hiding in the shrubbery,” Tom said. He went outside by a side door, poking around the bushes with his father and Uncle Jake. The young inventor found several sets of partial footprints on the grass, but they faded out and led nowhere.
“Let’s use the bloodhounds,” Mr. Swift said. The two dogs, Caesar and Brutus, were kept in kennels behind the garden. Straining at the leash under Tom’s and his father’s control, they made a complete circuit of the house and grounds.
But even the bloodhounds failed to locate the intruder. Puzzled and uneasy, Tom and the two older men returned to the house. Mrs. Swift and Sandra were waiting for them in the den.
“Who was it?” asked Sandra.
“I don’t know. He got away,” Tom replied in a worried tone of voice. “Maybe just some kids.”
When they resumed their interrupted conversation, Uncle Jake asked for more details about Tom’s plan.
Suddenly Mrs. Swift gave a startled gasp. Someone was tapping on the study window!
“Take it easy, Mumsy.” Tom was hoping to reassure her, but he himself felt uneasy as he got up to open the Venetian blind and look out.
The window tapper was Bud Barclay!
Tom gave an inward sigh of relief. “Come around back to the terrace!” he told Bud. “I’ll let you in through the French doors.”
“Hope I didn’t startle you folks,” said Bud, entering the room. “It was awfully stupid of me, but I forgot that my wrist watch is broken and I’d left it, with its neutralizer, at home. Thought I’d better show myself before things went nuclear.”
“What!” Tom cried.
Bud looked at his friend in surprise. “For Pete’s sake, don’t get bent out of shape—anyone can make a mistake!”
“You don’t understand,” Tom said. “The alarm system didn’t go off this time!”
“Huh?” Bud stared. “You mean I didn’t set off the alarm, even though I wasn’t wearing the coil?”
“That’s right,” said Tom. “And the funny thing is, the alarm did go off about twenty minutes ago, but we couldn’t find anyone.”
“We’d better investigate further,” Mr. Swift said, rising.
Meanwhile Tom pulled open the concealed master control box for the detector setup and was performing some diagnostic tests with it. “There’s your answer,” he announced grimly. “The whole alarm system is dead!”
Everyone present exchanged glances that bespoke concern and anxiety. What—or who—had wrecked the alarm system? Was it accidental, or a case of deliberate sabotage? Was the Swift home about to be the target of a terrorist attack?
The young inventor continued to run various diagnostic routines. In a few minutes he had the answer. “It was sabotage, all right. Someone shorted out the main dispersion solenoid. And in my opinion, it was done by a clever technician—someone who knew exactly what he was doing!”
“Bronich!” exclaimed Bud.
Suddenly Uncle Jake stood up, his face turning pale. “Tom, if the system is dead—he could have broken into the house. He could be hiding inside right now!”
“Let’s not talk ourselves into a panic,” said Tom’s mother with forced calmness. “You can make the rounds again with the bloodhounds—just to play safe,” she said. “And this time, start out inside the house!”
They split up into two teams. Tom and Bud covering the grounds again with Caesar, while Mr. Swift and Uncle Jake searched the interior with Brutus.
“Anything?” Tom asked his father when he reentered.
“Nothing,” Damon Swift replied. “And I’ve done a sweep for listening devices, too.” Tom and his father quickly repaired the detector system.
A short time later Uncle Jake and Bud said goodnight and left. Soon Tom’s mother and sister retired to their rooms upstairs. After they had gone, Mr. Swift turned to his son. “I’m going to have a guard sent over from the plant, at least for a night or two. And I’ll call Ames at home and give him a full report.”
Finally, hours later, Tom and his father were able to snatch a few hours’ uneasy sleep. But their first thoughts upon waking had the same theme as their last thoughts upon falling asleep.
Could they defend family and friends against a determined agent like the Kranjovian known as Ivor Bronich?
If only they could be sure!
OVER A LATE breakfast the next morning, Tom and his father talked again about the possibility of a South Pole expedition in search of iron. Overnight Damon Swift had come around to his son’s way of thinking and was now excited about the possibility of Swift Enterprises participation.
“I have to fly to Washington late today, anyhow,” Mr. Swift announced. “While I’m there, I’ll sound out the authorities about government backing.”
“I sure hope you can sell them on the idea!” Tom said. “In the meantime, I’ll get back to work on the earth blaster. I have some further ideas on making a much more powerful machine to penetrate the earth’s crust.”
After breakfast father and son drove to Swift Enterprises. Here, in a cluster of buildings and airstrips sprawled over a four-mile-square enclosure, their astounding dream would see the light of day—if it proved to be possible at all!
Tom said goodbye to his father at the main gate and hurried to one of his auxiliary laboratories, this one in a lab complex next to the main administration building. To get in, he took an electronic key from his pocket and beamed it at the lock. The coded signal was recognized and the heavy door popped open into the wide hallway.
In a cradle in the middle of the clean, gleaming room was the cylindrical form of the new-version earth blaster, which Tom had been working on since the first version had been substantially finished.. The machine was mostly incomplete as of yet, and its power was drawn from thick cables. The veranium atomic pile would not be installed until a further point in its development.
Seated on a stool in front of his 30-foot workbench, Tom quickly applied his thoughts to the job of altering and improving his original blaster design. Where to begin?
The first hurdle was the problem of heat. Tom had decided to try adapting the cooling system he had invented for his giant robot. This system used a highly paramagnetic gas which was alternately magnetized and demagnetized at the same high rate as the characteristic emission frequency of radiant heat waves. The gas was circulated through tubular interstices in the robot’s “skin” to maintain its ideal working temperature of 96.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
A similar system would be needed to protect the instruments in the earth blaster from destruction. Similar—but far stronger. At only one hundred miles down the blaster would already be coping with temperatures of several thousand degrees—hot enough to shrivel a human being to ashes in seconds!
But how could the robot’s system be made more effective? “We could convert the excess thermal energy in the coolant directly to electricity by a thermocouple arrangement,” mused Tom. He made some calculations and sketches, and wrote notes to himself in his ever-present notebook.
“She’ll need a gyroscope, too.” He smiled at the thought of what might happen if the machine ever veered off course. “It might burrow into some other country’s territory and swipe their ore—and the Old Man Greenups of the world wouldn’t care much for that!”
Two hours later, while Tom was busy with his design-simulator flatscreen working out structural details of the new blaster adaptations, he became aware of muffled voices in the hall outside the laboratory door.
One voice was that of Bud Barclay, the other, as recognizable as fingerprints, was Chow Winkler’s. Chow was a Texas-born former chuck-wagon cook whom Tom and his father had virtually adopted as their personal chef and good friend.
“I know yuh’re just yankin’ my lassoo, Buddy Boy,” Chow was saying. “They’s no way y’can walk around in soft dirt without leavin’ footprints.”
“It’s true, Chow,” insisted Bud. Tom could imagine the look of mischievous innocence on his friend’s face. “He’s got it all worked out—special spy shoes that don’t leave a mark. They don’t even sink into water!”
“Nngh, now I know yuh’re bluffin’ me,” the Texan replied. “I may be past my prime—an’ fat—and a little bit bald— ”
“You want me to stop you when I disagree?”
“Stupido, I ain’t!” Chow concluded smugly.
There was a knock, and Tom unlocked the door remotely with the electri-key. A picture of offended dignity, the roly-poly cook marched into the lab, Bud following. “Boss, this here cayute is tryin’ to tell me— ”
“I heard, Chow,” said Tom. “But he’s just passing along our cover story.”
Chow nodded suspiciously. “Cover story, huh?” He glanced skeptically at Bud, then back at Tom. “I know what that is—whatcha tell folks when you think you got a problem with spies, right?”
“That’s right,” Tom confirmed. “But since you’re our partner and pal, I’ll tell you the real story.”
Chow was placated by the praise. “Okay, then!”
“We’re going to the South Pole pretty soon, to drill to the center of the earth with my new invention, in search of iron. But we don’t want to let it out to the public—it’s very hush-hush. There’s international diplomacy involved.”
“I get it, Tom.” Chow nodded sagely. “Yep. South Pole. S’all covered with ice, so’s you can’t leave footprints no-way anyway.”
Tom flashed an affectionate grin that was matched by Bud from behind Chow’s broad back. “That’s good figgerin’, pard!”
Chow left, promising to return with a mid-morning snack. At the door he glanced back at Bud. “That’ll learn ya, Bud,” he said. “Cain’t bluff a bluffer.” He pushed the door shut behind him.
“Nice save, Skipper,” Bud said. “Thought I’d stop by on my way to the control tower in case you needed my advice on any new inventions.”
“Advice is always welcome, Isaac Newton,” chuckled the young inventor.
Bud strolled over to the earth blaster chassis and knocked on it. “This the new baby?”
“That’s it—version two. Destination, the earth’s core!”
“Or thereabouts, huh.” Bud had been told of the audacious project. “Looks like you’re changing the digging spikes.”
The cluster of twenty sharp spikes of various lengths which had adorned the nose of the first model had been completely removed. Instead, each of the two intake ports at the fore-end of the cylinder was bordered by a pair of tapering vanes that shone like polished gold, with a fifth vane of slightly greater length and thickness extending forward from the center of the unit. A pair of conical cowlings now flared from the rear of the blaster at the ends of the inner conduits.
“These its new teeth? They look like snail antennas, Tom—and don’t look very sharp.”
“Don’t have to be,” retorted the young inventor. “They’ll never touch rock at all.”
Bud gave his pal a half-smile. “Well, we ran into ghost crows in New Mexico—now it’s ghost teeth!”
Tom laughed and explained. “Those vanes are electrodes of a special design. An electric current—more like an electrical fireball—will arc from the big central electrode to each of the others around the perimeter.”
“Little lightning bolts, huh?”
“Yes, but continuous. And it’s going to be a little warm—warmer than your California sunshine in summer, flyboy.”
“In Fahrenheit, try 4800 degrees!”
Bud gulped. “Not sweater weather! But seriously, how can the machine withstand heat like that?”
“I doubt it could, even with the new cooling system,” replied Tom. “But that temperature is inside the electric arc-field. The arc itself won’t even touch the metal hull, and it won’t be nearly as hot where it contacts the electrodes.”
Bud nodded his understanding and asked, “So what did you mean about never touching rock?”
Tom walked over to the blaster control panel and tapped it absent-mindedly. “Bud, anything the arc-field touches—dirt, rock, metal, anything—will be vaporized instantly. The temperature is as great as that on the surface of the sun! We’ll be melting our way down into the earth.”
“Man alive, that’s— ”
“Bud! Don’t move! Not a muscle!”
The impact of Tom’s unexpected command brought Bud to a complete stop, as if frozen in place. “Skipper, wha— ”
“No!” hissed Tom in a forceful whisper. “Don’t talk—and don’t move!”
His heart beginning to pound, Bud waited immobilely for his friend to explain.
Barely audible, Tom continued. “Just listen. If either of us moves, we’re dead! You can’t even twitch or turn your head… It’s the electrodes on the blaster. I’m looking right at the monitor dial—they’re powering up! Must’ve been going on for several minutes now; it takes time. But they’ve passed the redline, the danger indicator. I—I don’t see how it could have happened…”
Tom’s tense voice trailed off for just a moment; his throat had gone dry. Then he resumed the strained whispering. “Here’s the problem. This lab has a special ventilation system to suppress currents of air and maintain a constant temperature. It’s the only thing keeping us alive right now! Any disturbance of the air—even a slight one caused by somebody shifting an arm, say, or a loud noise—creates a moving pressure differential. The electrodes will arc along that differential all the way across the lab, and into any good conductors—like the human body. We’ll be incinerated!”
Bud made a soft sound in his throat, as if he wanted to speak. “Go ahead,” said Tom. “Softly, like me.”
“Okay,” whispered Bud in a strangled voice. “There’s a screwdriver on the counter about three feet away. Maybe I could edge over to it at snail-speed and toss it— ”
Tom interrupted him. “I know what you’re thinking. But tossing a screwdriver won’t divert the arcing effect away from us. It wouldn’t be grounded. We’re not grounded very well on this floor, but the arc will flash to the best conductors around, and we’re it! Besides, there’s no time to sidle up to the counter: the electrodes are still powering up. In a minute it won’t matter whether we move or not!”
“Then I—I—maybe— ”
At the corner of his eye Tom saw Bud’s muscles clenching under his T-shirt.
“Don’t!” Tom ordered sharply. “You’d be throwing your life away, and it wouldn’t make any difference—whatever hits you gets me too. We’ve got to think; and one minute to go!”
Just then came the clop of boots and the sound of a twangy voice in the lab building hallway. “Hey, George, Marty—in the mood for some fancy early eatin’? Give ’em a try!”
“Chow!” breathed Bud in despair. “Tom—did you lock the door?”
“Then when he opens it— ”
“We’re cooked!” Tom finished. “Literally!”
PERSPIRATION trickled down Tom’s face as he thought harder—and faster—than he ever had in any moment of his life, knowing that this could well be the last moment of his life!
He carefully shifted his gaze downward to the top of the workbench on which the earth blaster controls had been mounted. The kill switch, which would cut all power to the machine, was more than two feet distant. Too far! But only a few inches separated the tips of his right-hand fingers from a small battery-powered soldering iron in the shape of a thick colored drafting pencil.
He sensed, somehow, that the soldering iron was the solution. His subconscious had begun to work the problem through, the final result not yet displayed to his mind’s eye. But he could already feel his muscles aching to move toward the implement and switch it on.
His hand, trembling, inched through the air as slowly as the rising mercury in a thermometer tube. He barely heard Chow knocking on the lab door, so intent was he on his task; barely heard the metallic click of the door latch as his fingers brushed the activator button and he stabbed down hard. One chance! he said to himself.
The soldering iron took a second or two to heat up. If Chow were to barge on in—!
But even before the seconds had elapsed, the tip of the iron had begun to glow orange with heat. When Tom had pressed the button, he had gently nudged the device forward along the workbench a half-inch or so, forcing its tip against the fold in a blueprint. Now, almost instantly, a single minute spark of flame puffed up from the paper.
What followed was a split second of chaos!
A spray of water jetted down from the overhead sprinklers. Before it even reached the floor, the lab was rocked by blinding flashes of light and a series of high-pitched cracks like the roaring of a machine gun. Chow, beginning to open the lab door, flinched backwards with a shriek of alarm.
As if mesmerized, Tom saw bizarre fireworks erupting in midair, like blazing snakes striking upward toward the ceiling. And at almost the same moment, a powerful force thundered against his side and slammed him down to the lab floor. Bud had tackled him like a training dummy!
“Down, boy!” gasped Bud next to Tom’s ear. The thudding of Bud’s heart kept time with his own.
“The kill switch!” Tom choked. He wormed his way out from beneath his friend’s heavy muscular bulk and felt blindly around the top of the bench. Finally he found the kill switch and depressed it.
He and Bud sighed with relief. The lightning display was over.
“Boss?” came Chow’s cautious voice. “What’re you boys doin’? One o’ your experiments?”
Water still spraying down from the ceiling sprinklers, the two drenched youths were grateful to be alive. The air was full of steam, smoke, and the pungent odor of electrical fire. The sprinkler above the nose of the earth blaster was blackened, smoking—and partially melted.
“Whataya mean, Chow?” panted Bud, struggling to his feet. “Nothing going on in here!”
“Brand my bunsen burner!” exclaimed the rotund westerner. “All this fuss made me drop my snack tray!”
It was a half-minute after the explosive arc-burst before Tom, dazed and shaken, managed to pick himself off the floor. His face stung and smarted. Groggily, the young inventor brushed one hand across his cheek. When he brought it away, it was streaked with blood.
“You brought me down pretty hard, Bud,” Tom murmured.
At that moment Hank Sterling burst into the lab, accompanied by several plant workmen.
“Holy snark!” Hank exclaimed. “What’s going on in here?”
“You two young’uns all right?” Chow demanded anxiously.
“Still in one piece,” said Tom. “But I guess we could do with a little cleaning up. Hank, m-maybe you could… tell maintenance… to shut off the f-fire sprinklers...” Tom’s voice was weak and hesitant.
Both Tom and Bud had suffered slight burns from the flying droplets of flash-melted metal, and their clothing was splattered with a wet sooty mixture, but otherwise they were uninjured.
Damage to the laboratory was also slight. Other than the ruined sprinkler system plus some broken test tubes and other minor chemical equipment, little would need replacing. The sturdy earth blaster had suffered no damage at all.
After leaving orders to have the debris cleaned up, Tom accompanied Bud to the Swift Enterprises infirmary, where their cuts were treated by the company nurse. Then they adjourned to the spacious private office in the main building which Tom shared with his father.
Tom’s half of the office displayed models of Tom’s most important inventions, hand tooled by Arvid Hanson, chief modelmaker of Swift Enterprises. Among them was a large, perfectly scaled model of his Flying Lab the Sky Queen, a silver replica of Tom’s rocket ship resting on its fins with its nose pointing skyward, and a copy of his jetmarine, the Nemo, in blue plastic. The largest item in the collection was a model of Tom’s giant robot.
Tom and Bud showered and changed in the bath connected to the office. Over a tasty lunch of soup and sandwiches, which Chow brought them, the boys recounted the horrific experience to Tom’s father and Hank Sterling. Tom was able to explain the sequence of events.
“The safety sprinkler setup uses a purely optical detector,” he said. “There’s no need for hot air or fumes to reach the sensor in the ceiling—it ‘sees’ the wavelength of fire and opens the valves immediately.”
“It sure does!” Hank commented. “It’s gone off twice over in my shop at just a tiny spark. Very irritating!”
“And so you allowed the spray of water to disturb the air,” prompted Mr. Swift.
“Yep—but up above the electrodes. The discharge arc followed the droplets back to their source.”
Sterling nodded. “From lesser to greater conductive density.”
“Right,” said the young inventor. “Now we’ve got one melted sprinkler head, instead of two vaporized employees!”
Tom’s father looked thoughtful and uncharacteristically troubled. “We never would have known what had happened,” he said slowly. “What caused the accident, do you think?”
Tom had to smile. “Mr. Greenup does a whole routine when you say ‘accident’.”
“I don’t care about Greenup!” Damon Swift said sharply. “Was this an accident? Or a terrorist act orchestrated by Bronich?”
“I guess I don’t know,” Tom admitted. “I can’t figure how the electrode system could power up by itself like that.”
“If it was sabotage, it just shows how little the Kranjovians care about human life,” Bud declared grimly. “Not that we didn’t know that already!”
Hank Sterling suggested that he examine the control circuits and try to identify the source of the malfunction. Mr. Swift was just thanking Hank when the office door opened and Harlan Ames strode into the room. “Big news!” he exclaimed.
“What’s up?” Tom asked the security chief.
“Looks like they’ve nailed those two thugs working with Bronich—the ones who tied you up! The State Police caught two men today who answer the description! Captain Rock wants you to identify them.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere!” Bud exclaimed. “Let’s go, Tom.”
Twenty minutes later Police Captain Rock greeted them in his office in downtown Shopton police headquarters. “Sit down and I’ll have the men brought in. They were picked up breaking into a convenience mart that had closed for lunch.”
Their wrists handcuffed, the two men entered the room with a husky state trooper as guard.
“How about it, Tom?” said Captain Rock. “Are these the men?”
Tom got up from his chair and went over to study the prisoners closely.
“No doubt about it,” he announced. “I can identify this fellow by the small scar over his left eyebrow. And the other one was wearing the same belt he has on now.” The belt was unmistakable.
“Not too swift on the concept of disguising yourself, huh guys?” Bud mocked.
“All right Bank, and you too Dutt,” Captain Rock said. “Start talking. And you’d better make it as convincing as your police records!”
“Just put us in our cell, man,” mumbled Bank, the one with the scar.
Bud clenched his fists. “Maybe you two would like the same kind of a going-over you gave my pal!”
“Take it easy, Bud,” Tom said, putting a restraining hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s true they tied me up, but they didn’t try to rough me up.”
The prisoners shot him a grateful glance as the young inventor continued speaking.
“Look,” he said to them, “there’s no sense in taking the rap for someone else. I’m fairly sure the whole thing wasn’t your idea, anyhow. So why not tell us who put you up to it?”
“It was just some guy,” said Dutt with a nervous glance at his crony.
“It’s too bad if you can’t help us. Because that gunman with the video camera is a foreign agent. If you want to cover up for him, you may both end up in prison on charges of treason and espionage—and aiding and abetting terrorism!”
The prisoners looked at each other apprehensively, then back at Tom and Captain Rock.
“What do you want to know?” growled Bank.
“Who hired you?” asked Tom.
“The dude you were just talkin’ about. He picked us up at a bar down in Meadowview. Guess he knew we had records.”
“Where can we find him?”
The man shrugged. “Search me. He wouldn’t even tell us his name.” Bank paused and shifted his weight uncomfortably. Dutt stared at the floor.
Come on, speak up!” snapped Captain Rock. “We haven’t got all day!”
“Yeah? I thought this was your day job!” sneered Bank.
“Well, there is one thing I can tell you,” Dutt said. “I heard him gabbin’ on a cellphone once. Most of the time he was jabberin’ away in some foreign lingo I couldn’t understand. Like Russian er somethin’, you know?”
“That’s all you can tell us?” pressed Captain Rock.
“Look,” said Bank, “he said he was gonna rob a couple driller boys at a construction site, that’s all. Never mentioned Swift-boy here. Said he might need a little help if they got feisty, and we were s’posed to wait outside the car and watch for him to come out through the bushes and wave if he needed us. That’s the whole bit.”
Bud shook his head. “No it isn’t. How about the fourth guy, the one driving the car?”
A wave of surprise passed across the two men’s faces. “How did— ” Dutt began, but Bank cut him off.
“Let me. Okay, yeah, there was this one other guy. Never seen him before and he never said a word. All he did was drive. Kind of a short, dumpy middle-aged dude—nothin’ special.”
“I resent that. Okay, take them back to their cells,” the police chief said to the guard.
Bank was led through the door. Just before he exited the office, Dutt turned to Tom. “95 Western Drive,” he said in a terse whisper, obviously not wanting Bank to hear him.
As soon as the prisoners were led away, Captain Rock ordered two of his men to Western Drive.
“Wait a minute, Captain,” Tom said. “Two uniformed police in a squad car might tip off the man we want. Let me take Bud here and Harlan Ames to scout the place. We’ll report back to you.”
The captain agreed. “Harlan’s a good man. He’ll handle it well.”
Western Drive was a broad, spacious thoroughfare that wound through Shopton and along the shore of Lake Carlopa. Tom and Bud met up with Ames a block away from their destination.
“Mighty nice afternoon to get incinerated!” Bud joked, gazing at the blue, sparkling lake waters as they walked along toward the address. “But they say smoking’s hazardous to your health!”
Harlan Ames was watching the numbers of the houses and apartment buildings. Suddenly he exclaimed, “Look! There’s the place!”
Both boys gaped in astonishment. The building which bore the address of 95 Western Drive was the Excelsis Club, a favorite haunt of wealthy sportsmen and their wives! Its front faced the street and the rear of the property backed onto the lake shore.
“Now what would Bronich be doing in a place like this?” Bud exclaimed. “Isn’t it a little rich for a spy’s blood?”
Harlan Ames smiled. “Must be one of those elegant, upper-crust-type spies.”
“Let’s inquire inside,” Tom said. “At least we can find out if anyone knows him.”
At that moment a man emerged from a cluster of cars in the club’s private parking lot and headed toward a side door of the building. Just before entering, he turned his head for a glance at the lake, and Tom caught a brief glimpse of his face.
“That’s Bronich!” Tom hissed. “I’m sure of it!”
Tom made a dash for the side entrance. Bud and Ames followed.
The heavy door, marked PRIVATE, had already slammed shut by the time they reached it. Tom and his friends pounded on it loudly and rattled the handle but got no response. The three hurried back around the corner of the building and ran up the flagged walk.
Under a striped awning, a towering doorman in a gold-braided uniform stood guard at the entrance. As Ames and the boys tried to rush past him, he stuck out his right arm to bar the way.
“May I see your cards, please?”
“Hang it all,” Ames said impatiently, not quite in those words. “We have no cards, but we’re here on very important business!”
The doorman assumed a frozen, supercilious expression.
“I am sorry, sir,” he replied firmly, “but my orders are to admit no one to the Excelsis Club except regular members—in proper attire!”
Fuming with impatience, Harlan Ames told the doorman who he and the boys were, and demanded to see the manager.
The doorman looked Tom up and down. “The famous Tom Swift, hmm? We’re honored. As to the manager, he’s not available,” the man said icily.
“We’re trailing someone who’s wanted by the police!” Tom explained. “He’s a dangerous foreign agent and we saw him enter this club through the side door!”
“Sorry, sir, but I have my orders.” A smirk touched his lips. “Perhaps one of your inventions could help you—Mr. Swift.”
At a nod from Tom, Bud and Ames followed the young inventor in a search of some other means of entrance to the club. “That frozen-faced doorman!” raged Bud, as they circled the building. “We should’ve grabbed him by the seat of his plush pants and tossed him in the lake!”
“Never mind him,” Tom said. “The important thing is to collar Bronich before he can slip away again. Listen, I think I might be able to work my way down to the side patio from the bridge over there. Harlan, maybe you could work on gently persuading that uniformed goon that it’d be in everybody’s best interest to cooperate.”
“A pleasure, Tom,” Ames nodded.
“I have an idea,” Bud said. “In back there’s a big overhang—that part of the building is up on stilts ’cause of the way the beach slopes. Bet there’s a door or something underneath for access to the beach area!”
The three separated. Trying not to be noticed, Bud made his way to the shoreline. He saw that there was a private bathing beach for club members behind a fence—deserted for the moment.
Barclay, you’re on to something, Bud told himself. He made his way into the deep shadow of the overhang—and stopped dead.
Directly in front of him a door was propped open, with a flight of steps leading upward!
Bud, said his inner voice, I think you just made the club!
THE FLIGHT of steps opened at the top onto a long windowless hallway of polished wood and indirect lighting. No one was in sight. Bud made his way forward along the plush carpet until he came alongside a pair of swinging doors. Opening one a crack, he could hear the sound of showers running and locker doors slamming.
Say, that’s right, he thought. The Excelsis Club has a health spa, a gym, and a restaurant!
He pushed the door open further and edged his way inside—only to beat an immediate and red-faced retreat. “Sorry, ladies!” he murmured through gritted teeth.
Further along, the hallway took a hard left. Beyond this was another swinging double-door. Inside Bud found the men’s locker room and men’s shower area. Though the locker room seemed empty he heard a mutter of voices near the showers and tried to creep closer without being seen. Quickly darting behind a row of metal lockers, a wall mirror afforded Bud a glimpse of two towel-clad men—one tall, one short—ambling toward the showers, talking softly.
Bud recognized the taller man immediately—Bronich!
He realized he would have to get much closer to the pair. All the lockers were unlocked when not in use, as members were expected to provide their own locks. Bud quickly pulled off his clothes and stuffed them into a vacant locker, whipping a towel off a shelf nearby and wrapping it about his waist. As he passed the wall mirror, he paused. Hmm, he told himself, flexing his muscles. A natural athlete! Then he cautiously entered the shower area.
As he did so, two showers began to hiss somewhere ahead. The room was large and L-shaped, divided into dozens of showers by chest-high tiled partitions. Bud realized that the moment he stepped round the corner, he would be in full view. Even if Spy Guy doesn’t recognize me, ten to one they’ll both shut up in front of a stranger, he thought.
Suddenly he noticed a steam-cloaked glass door marked STEAM SAUNA, leading into a square cubicle with walls of redwood planks with narrow spaces between them from which wisps of steam were rising. Entering, he made his way through the cloud of steam and pressed his cheek against the wall nearest his quarries.
Over the sounds of the showers, Bud could hear the two men talking back and forth in a guttural language he could not understand. He strained to catch what he could of the foreign words.
“Must be Russian,” said a close-by voice, and Bud jumped. The sauna was occupied!
“Oh, uh… guess so,” Bud murmured quietly to the man seated further down. “Just curious.”
“Then again, we do have some Norwegian members,” the man continued. “I’m—wait now, haven’t we met?”
Bud half-turned and groaned inwardly. His comrade-in-steam was Mr. Greenup!
The young pilot brushed a lock of his dark hair down across his forehead and hoarsened his voice. “No, no, but I was just leaving,” he rasped, heading sideways toward the door and pushing through it.
He tiptoed toward the other section of the shower room. The showers were still running, though he could no longer hear any conversation.
Well, he told himself, right now they’re both about as vulnerable as a person can be! He tensed his muscles and strode forward.
The two shower stalls were empty! The showerheads had been left running—probably to muffle the men’s stealthy escape.
Bud ran light-footedly back to the locker room, quickly looking down each aisle in turn. Then, alerted by a slight noise, he turned and saw two towel-draped figures, side by side, exiting the locker room into the hallway. One was tall, the other short!
Bud hurdled a bench, sprinted across the concrete floor, and grabbed both men’s towels from behind, trying to pull them back.
“Gentlemen!” Bud exclaimed, ripping the towels from around their waists and spinning them both around to face him.
There were three gasps and a shocked pause. Then Bud choked out: “Mr. Martinberry! How great to, um—see you!” The tall man was the head librarian of the Shopton Public Library!
“Barclay, isn’t it?” responded Mr. Martinberry, thoroughly perplexed and thoroughly unclad. “Have you—that is— ” He paused, staring at the towels in Bud’s hand. “This is Mr. Byrnes. Tyler Byrnes.”
Byrnes gave a broad grin and stuck out a hand obviously accustomed to glad-handing. “Howarya, Barclay. Ty Byrnes, Apex Real Estate. Say, you own or rent?”
“Rent!” Bud replied as he tossed the men their towels and backed away toward the door.
“On our way to massage,” Byrnes continued. “Why don’t you— ”
“Nice. Pleasure. Bye!” Bud stammered, pushing past them and out into the hallway.
On the floor above, Harlan Ames was engaged in vigorous conversation with the manager of the Excelsis Club. Next to Ames stood Tom, who had found access to the building through the terrace.
“Let’s all keep our voices down, please,” said the manager nervously. “These are very serious matters.”
“You bet they’re ‘serious,’ you lump-nosed pencil pusher!” fumed Ames. “We can have this club of yours shut down in a minute if— ”
“Mr. Keiverlav,” Tom said, “we’re trying to be reasonable. This man Bronich was seen entering your building by the side door just minutes ago. You say you don’t recognize him?”
The man shook his head. “I can’t be expected to recognize all our members by sight. Furthermore, he might be a guest—members can sign in personal guests, you know.”
Suddenly the man’s eyes widened. Tom and Ames spun around.
“Bud!” Tom cried. “What—where— ”
“Sir!” Keiverlav said coldly to Bud. “You must be properly dressed to walk about on this floor!”
“Properly dressed?” Bud gave him a woozy grin. “Hey, this is one of your own towels!” He pointed to the embroidered logo.
As the manager tried to block him from the sight of the curious public, Bud related his adventures on the floor below. “So I guess I lost ’em,” he finished ruefully.
“Young man, you really must put some clothes on!” demanded Keiverlav.
“Oh, yeah.” Bud winked at Tom. “Lemme see now. I know I put them someplace…”
An hour later, after the police had searched the Club thoroughly and Mr. Keiverlav had retired to his office in search of sedation, Tom, Bud, and Ames sat on a bench in front of the building discussing the strange affair as Bud made notes in Tom’s notebook.
“This is the best I can do,” said Bud, handing the notebook to Tom. “Those words sounded something like this, phonetically spelled. At least that’s all I can remember.”
“Thanks, pal,” said Tom. “We didn’t find Bronich and his friend, but at least we’ve got this to play around with.”
“Well, I’m going to follow a few hunches back at Enterprises,” Harlan Ames said, rising to his feet. “If you two know anybody who speaks Kranjov, maybe you can make something out of all this.”
As Ames walked away, Tom frowned thoughtfully. “You know, flyboy—weren’t we talking about somebody who spoke Kranjov a few weeks ago? When we got back from New Mexico?”
“Say, that’s right!” Bud thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “I remember! Bash was telling us about that woman she babysits for. She was born in Kranjovia!”
Pakistan-born Bashalli Prandit was a close friend of Tom, Bud, and the Swift family. She and Tom frequently double-dated with Bud and Sandy.
Without waiting the boys drove to The Glass Cat, the Shopton coffee house where Bashalli worked. She brightened as they walked in.
“Ah, the scientific rover boys!” was Bash’s humorous greeting. “In the mood for a Danish?”
“No,” Bud replied, “a Kranjovian!”
Tom briefly explained their need for a translator, taking care not to go into detail about his project or the threat against his family and friends.
“Well, Mrs. Zalvonyov is very nice,” said Bashalli. “I imagine she’d like to help you. Her story is quite dramatic, how she escaped from Kranjovia with her son and little granddaughter. Let me telephone her.”
Mrs. Zalvonyov was agreeable. Within minutes Tom and Bud were ringing for entrance at her rented house at the edge of town.
She proved to be a small, white-haired woman with a very determined manner and a fairly dense accent. She ushered them into a parlor decorated with photographs and memorabilia from her homeland, and bade them sit down on a threadbare sofa. “Alright now,” she said brusquely. “For me, what do you have?”
Tom pulled out the notebook sheet of phonetically-spelled words and phrases and handed it to her. “We assume it’s in the Kranjov language, ma’am. Bud had to spell it as it sounded, but we thought you might make something of it.”
“It’s a conversation between two men,” Bud added. “I couldn’t remember who said what, though.”
Mrs. Zalvonyov put on a pair of bifocals and examined the sheet. “This—nonsense, gibberish!”
“I did the best I could,” responded Bud in an apologetic tone.
“Not very good,” she said. “Like little Latvian boy in school trying to learn, eh?”
“Is there anything at all that— ” Tom began. But Mrs. Zalvonyov interrupted him with a dismissive wave.
“I do not say there is nothing. Only that it is bad.” She studied the paper closely for a minute, nodding now and then. “Okay, okay, now I tell you what it means—at least in teeny bits.”
Tom gave an appreciative smile. “That would be a great help, ma’am.”
“Yaa, yaa. Okay, I think someone says ‘too cold is the water’ and someone says ‘so you turn handle’ and someone says ‘be strong-trunk’—that is how we say, what?—get used to it. Our way of saying. So someone says ‘good wish, to have easy-handle for cold in weather.’ Then I think they are making vulgar jokes. Blah-blah. Now, what? Something about—I think it’s a name, Detar. Common name.” Mrs. Zalvonyov paused and looked up. “They do not say it with formal politeness, but as if he is a friend. See?”
Tom nodded. “I understand.”
“Not much more I can understand. Soap; say hello; some foreign word ek-sell…”
Bud looked embarrassed. “Great—Excelsis! I should have noticed.”
“Means nothing, eh-eh,” said their translator. “Last part here, something about going under a cap of glass.”
“Is that a Kranjov idiom—an expression?” asked Tom.
“Not as I have ever heard,” Mrs. Zalvonyov replied. “But there is a sound-like word, would make even less sense. Word for…what is it?…” She moved her palm back and forth parallel to the floor, as if it were sliding across a smooth, flat surface. “When top of pond is frozen hard. Ice!”
“‘Cap of ice,’ huh.” Bud’s face fell with disappointment. “Maybe one of the guys was getting a headache. Guess all I heard was a lot of chit-chat.”
Tom was silent, and Bud glanced his way. The young inventor looked tense and thoughtful—and alarmed! “What is it, genius boy?”
“Don’t you get it, Bud?” asked Tom evenly, not wanting to provoke any hard-to-answer questions from their hostess. With a feigned smile he leaned over closer to Bud’s ear. “Cap of ice—icecap! As in Antarctica!”
Somehow their deadly adversaries had learned of the Swift Enterprises plan to drill deep into the earth from the South Polar region—placing the entire massive operation in danger!
IT WAS LATE in the afternoon when Tom and Bud were able to sit down with Harlan Ames in his office and discuss what they had discovered.
“It seems we just can’t manage to keep a secret around here,” commented Ames wryly.
“I suppose we can’t be absolutely sure that Mrs. Zalvonyov got the translation right,” Tom reminded him. “She did say it could be either ‘ice’ or ‘glass’.”
“And I was trying to hear it over the sound of a shower, anyway,” added Bud.
Ames made a dismissive gesture. “Okay. But ‘ice’ sure fits in with all that other talk about cold—doesn’t it? So let’s be smart and assume for the moment that Bronich and his buddies have a very up-to-date source of information about what we’re doing here behind these walls. How are they working it?”
Bud pointed out, “We’ve had turncoat employees here before, you know. Maybe Enterprises is skimping on someone’s dental plan!”
Tom and Ames laughed. “If they just knew about the second version of the blaster—I can see how that might have leaked out,” said the young inventor. “But the Antarctic project is only known to a few of us.”
“Most of them here in this room,” commented Ames. “Plus your family and Chow Winkler, and Jake Aturian over at the Construction Company.”
“Hey!” exclaimed Bud. “I forgot about Uncle Jake. Maybe he’s let it get around among his employees—or maybe his office is bugged!”
Ames shook his head negatively. “Ever since some of our recent problems, I’ve had my people do sweeps of both plants on an almost daily basis with long-range detectors. I’m confident any listening devices on the premises would be located right away.”
“Guess you’re right,” Bud admitted. “That’s why we had to stop using the televocs.”
The televocs were ingenious private communication links allowing near-range person-to-person transmission. Unfortunately, Ames had concluded that it would be too easy for a technologically sophisticated enemy to tap into them, endangering Enterprises security. He had persuaded the Swifts to discontinue their use for the present.
“And Uncle Jake told me just an hour ago that he hadn’t needed to mention the project—he calls it Project X—to anyone over there. He’s sure he hasn’t let it slip to anybody.” Tom’s voice expressed the confidence he felt in the Swift circle of family and friends.
“Your father is meeting with a Congressional subcommittee right about now, Tom. It’s supposed to be a closed, confidential environment—but that’s not something we can count on,” Ames noted. “However, that couldn’t explain what’s already leaked out.”
“So far, the only key we have to all this is the Excelsis Club,” Bud reminded them. “They say they’ve never heard of Bronich, and the police couldn’t find a trace of him and his friend, but I don’t trust those hoity-toity club types. For all we know, Old Man Greenup could be involved in all this.”
“By the way, Bud, that reminds me of something,” Ames said. “Did you see that second man, the shorter guy, in enough detail to have a police sketch artist draw him?”
The young pilot shrugged. “Maybe. It was just a glimpse, but I have a pretty good memory for faces. Want to try it?”
Ames nodded and said, “I’ll have someone out here tomorrow.”
The informal meeting broke up on an inconclusive note, Ames mentioning that he might bring in a security consultant with whom he was personally familiar.
The next day Tom was at work at Swift Enterprises when he received a call from Ames. “I was finally able to get a reliable list of the Excelsis Club membership.”
“Nothing in particular—on the surface,” replied the security chief. “But it seems they also note the names of guests for a period of one year. I’d like you to look it over. Maybe you or Bud will recognize a name.”
“Will do, Harlan.”
Just as Tom was passing the news along to Bud, Sandy and Bashalli Prandit walked into the laboratory dressed attractively in shorts and nautical garb.
“Well, are you two all set to go?” asked Sandy gaily. “But aren’t you going to change clothes?”
“Go where?” said Bud blankly.
“Oh, Tom! Didn’t you tell him?” Sandy turned to her brother with a puzzled frown.
“Gosh, Sandy, I’ve been so busy that it slipped my mind!”
Bashalli rolled her eyes. “We should have known, Sandra. Like water through a sieve!”
Bud looked from brother to sister to Bashalli. “So don’t keep it a secret. What’s up?”
“Sandy cooked up a double date for us,” explained Tom. “We were all supposed to go sailing on the lake this afternoon in the Mary Nestor.”
The Mary Nestor was Sandy’s sleek new sailboat, named in honor of the wife of the first Tom Swift, Sandy’s and Tom’s great-grandmother.
“I want to try it out for speed,” she said, turning to Bud. “You see, the yacht club in hosting the final race of the season is next Saturday, and I’ve signed up. This’ll be my last chance for a trial run before the race.”
“Wonderful!” Bud exclaimed. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!” The dark-haired young flier, whose parents lived in San Francisco, loved all forms of outdoor sports but was especially fond of sailing.
Tom, however, held back. “I’m sorry, gang, but I have a million things to do! I’m afraid I’ll have to beg off this time.” He caught Sandy’s eye and gave her a special look, reminding her not to mention the drilling project in front of Bashalli.
The girls let out a wail of protest.
“Tom, you can’t let us down like this, after Bashi and I have been counting on you!” Sandy protested. She hastily pulled a copy of the racing announcement out of her shoulder bag and added: “Just look at all the people who’ve signed up for the race! It’s not just members of the Yachting Society, but all sorts of local clubs and organizations. We won’t stand a chance against competition like that unless you figure out the angles for us!”
“And I have no doubt half of them will be out on the lake this morning practicing,” commented Bashalli entreatingly. “Do you wish us to look like also-runners, Thomas?”
Tom looked helplessly at Bud. “Did Einstein have to put up with this?”
“Don’t know,” Bud responded. “Did Einstein have a sister?”
In Bud’s convertible, the four young people were soon on their way to the Shopton Yachting Society on Lake Carlopa. As they drove past the Excelsis Club, the boys exchanged veiled glances but said nothing.
The Mary Nestor was moored in the club’s boat basin. She was a graceful little craft with a gleaming hull and sleek lines.
As they hoisted sail and got under way, Tom settled himself in front and prepared to scan the lake with his field glasses. Sandy and Bashalli were to captain the craft and control the tiller, Tom and Bud serving as front-seat advisers.
It was a perfect day for sailing, with a hot sun sparkling down on the water and a brisk, spanking breeze. As predicted, the lake was dotted with sailboats, skimming across the blue like graceful white sea birds.
“They think they’re so smart,” Sandy said. “Well!—just wait.”
As Sandy handled the tiller, Tom, with his glasses, studied the occupants of every craft that came into view. Not that Bronich is the boating type, he thought. But you never know!
The Mary Nestor picked up speed, and soon they were breezing along past one craft after another, and the girls noted more than a few envious glances.
“That was Heather Quinn,” Sandy whispered gleefully. “The girl next to her—with the bad hair—that’s Lauren Desmars. Did you see those expressions? You just know they’d give an arm to have a boat like this.”
“Maybe,” commented Bashalli smoothly. “Or boyfriends like these!”
They sailed lithely further out into the middle of the lake, where they would have more space for a speed test without contending with the other boaters.
Suddenly Tom lowered the field glasses as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, and then looked again.
“Someone you know, Tom?” Bashalli inquired.
Tom did not answer, but wordlessly handed the glasses to Bud, pointing.
“Bash, let Bud take the tiller!” Tom commanded breathlessly. “Hurry!”
“Tom, what in the world—?” gasped Sandy.
Tom spat out a single word. “Torpedoes!”
Trails of white foam—the wakes of five surface-cruising torpedoes—were rapidly converging on the Mary Nestor!
“They’re homing in on us, Skipper!” Bud cried. “Abandon ship?”
“They’d plow right over us,” responded Tom with a negative head-shake. “Or they might home in on anything in the area.”
Sandy touched her brother’s arm. “About how long before— ”
“Less than a minute,” he said. “They’re still a ways off.”
“But there’s no way we can outrun them in a sailboat,” Bud said quietly. “I just might get us around the first one, but the rest—we’re sitting ducks.”
Having no alternative, the four watched in horrified resignation as the first torpedo bore down upon the Mary Nestor.
Abruptly Bashalli called out, “Tom, Bud—look!”
With a roar, a highspeed motorboat jetted past them to portside, going into a smooth arc that took it across the bow. A figure rose to a standing position in the prow, cradling something in his arms.
“A shotgun!” Tom exclaimed.
The boat pilot braced himself and took careful aim at the nose of the first torpedo. The crack of a shot split the air—and the torpedo seemed to swerve out of control.
Bashalli cheered. “Direct hit!”
The torpedo tumbled wildly stern over stem, finally gouging into the waves as it headed for the lake bottom.
The other four were now closing in as a group. The powerful gun roared four times in rapid succession, and for a moment the calm waters of Lake Carlopa were stirred to a froth by the death throes of the destructive engines. Two of the torpedoes collided, and suddenly the air was full of hot spray and spinning fragments of metal as a thudding explosion rolled over the lake from one end to the other.
“He’s got ’em all!” Tom cried in happy astonishment. “But who is it?”
The small, swift cruiser slowed and executed a lazy figure-eight, puttering up close to the Mary Nestor. Their rescuer could now be seen more clearly—a compact figure in sunglasses, a dark tank-top shirt, and a cap pulled down low. He carefully set down his gun and bent down, reaching behind the seat.
“Mister, where did you come from?” called Sandy gratefully. “You saved the day!”
“That was great shooting, pal!” Bud added.
But the man didn’t acknowledge any of this. Without a word he reared back and tossed a small shiny object in their direction.
Bashalli shrieked. “It’s a grenade!”
TOM DUCKED down and lunged for the object, which was bouncing across the deck beneath their feet, intending to bat it overboard. But when he stood upright again, it was to nervous laughter.
“Just a pop bottle!” he said disgustedly.
Meanwhile the powerboat had throttled up again and straightened its course. As Tom and his friends watched in bewildered amazement, it skimmed away at top speed toward the far end of Lake Carlopa. In minutes it was lost to sight.
“What was that?” Bud demanded. “Some kind of sick gag? I was ready to shake hands with Davy Jones!”
Without warning Sandy began to sob. “I—I can’t stop shaking!” she whispered. Bud threw a comforting arm around her.
“Are you all right, Bash?” Tom asked.
“I am shaking on the inside,” she replied. “But at least we are still boating on the lake, not the River Styx.”
“Those torpedoes were plenty real,” Tom declared. “And my guess is they were launched from someplace close to the Excelsis Club!”
“But why would a high-class club try to sink us?” quavered Sandra.
Bud essayed a joke. “Maybe they’ve declared war on the Yachting Society!”
As Sandy and Bashalli guided the Mary Nestor back to berth, Tom contacted the lakefront authorities by cellphone.
“So that’s the story,” said the woman who answered. “In the last five minutes we’ve been swamped with calls!”
Tom asked, “Did anyone report seeing where the torpedoes came from, anything about a strange motorboat?”
“Not so’s I can tell,” she answered. “But it’s all pretty confusing. Torpedoes in Lake Carlopa! If the report didn’t come from one of you Swifts, I’d hang up on you.”
After docking the sailboat, Tom put in further calls, first to Captain Rock of the Shopton Police, then to Harlan Ames.
“Mighty dangerous stuff,” whistled Ames. “I suggest you get the wind in your sails and get back to Enterprises right away.”
Arriving at the Swift Enterprises parking lot, Bud let Sandy and Bashalli off at Sandy’s car, then promised Tom he’d follow behind to see that they got home without further incident. “Thanks, pal,” responded Tom with gratitude. “I’m worried that they may be too shook up to drive safely.”
Bud snorted. “Like I’m not?”
It was after noon when Tom entered the grounds of the sprawling experimental station by the small side-gate. In the main building, Munford Trent bustled up to Tom and said, “Your father just got back from Washington. He’d like to see you at once!”
Tom hurried to their private office.
“That was a quick flight, Dad!” he exclaimed, in response to his father’s greeting.
“Tom, I have great news!” announced Mr. Swift. “That’s why I flew back to Shopton immediately. The government officials I talked to are very much interested in your proposed expedition to the South Pole.”
The young inventor was thrilled. “Have they given us the go-ahead?”
“They have indeed; even granted permission for us to survey any part of the Antarctic under United States oversight to determine its suitability as a site. And Uncle Sam will also lend us funds to help finance the expedition, provided we take along several government scientists, just as you proposed!”
Tom gave a whoop of delight and pumped his arm up and down in a burst of joyful enthusiasm. “Dad, that’s wonderful! Let’s start planning for the trip right now!”
Mr. Swift smiled at his son’s excitement. He fully shared Tom’s reaction to the promise of high adventure. But he added a note of caution. “Don’t forget this will be a tremendous undertaking. And it all depends on your perfecting the new model of your atomic earth blaster!”
Then he pressed the switch of his intercom. “Trent, please phone Mr. Aturian at the Swift Construction Company. Ask him to set up a teleconference call with us as soon as possible!” Both Swift facilities contained special teleconference rooms providing a lifelike video link between the locations.
While they walked down to the teleconference room, Tom told his father about the latest developments in the case of Bronich and the hired thugs, ending with the morning’s incredible occurrences on Lake Carlopa. He also described the progress he had made earlier in the morning on the new blaster, including some new ideas about its onboard guidance system.
“Fantastic work, son!” Mr. Swift congratulated him. “At this rate, your new blaster may be ready for testing even sooner than we’d expected.”
Shortly after that, Uncle Jake appeared by electronic magic in the teleconference room, as if seated at the same polished mahogany table as the Swifts—though he was miles away.
The three got down to business. First Mr. Swift gave a detailed report of the news from Washington. Knowing well the Swift reputation, the members of the subcommittee had been almost as wildly enthusiastic as Tom had been. But Uncle Jake reserved judgment until he had time to study the details of their proposed arrangement with Swift Enterprises.
“There are some conditions,” Mr. Swift explained. “In order for them to be willing to waive the usual bidding procedures, the government will substantially control the ore-processing station once it is established. Long-term management will be contracted out, and most of the profits will go to the Federal Treasury—as we anticipated. Enterprises is in this for the science, and to open up a better source of steel.”
The expedition was discussed from all angles. Tom frankly pointed out the hazards they would be facing. Uncle Jake drew up a rough estimate of the total cost. Even with government financial backing for the expedition, it would amount to a staggering sum!
Uncle Jake and Damon Swift faced each other soberly across the table. The risk was tremendous. But finally they came to a decision. They agreed to undertake the South Pole expedition, with the investment of large sums of money and equipment from both the Swift Construction Company and Swift Enterprises!
“It’s only fair to warn you, Tom,” Uncle Jake added, “that we’re staking everything on the hope of success. If your project fails, our firms will be ruined!”
Tom’s heart pounded, but he managed to reply calmly, “I’ll do my best to make sure the expedition succeeds, Uncle Jake!”
Tom realized that success of his venture would necessarily mean the loss of the blaster, which would disintegrate upon striking the vein of molten iron. But this loss would be only a fraction of the value of the endless source of pure iron obtained!
“And that’s not all,” continued the young inventor. “We’ll be opening up, to scientific investigation, a whole new world—our own!”
At the conclusion of the teleconference, Tom went to one of his laboratories to finally eat lunch and change out of his sailing clothes and into something more suitable for the rest of the workday.
“Got lunch right here!” announced Chow, meeting him at the lab. “A nice cool cucumber soup, and an ex-perimental sandwich!”
“What kind of sandwich?” Tom asked in mock suspicion.
“You’ll never guess, boss,” replied the Texan. “Marinated Penguin!”
Tom gave him a startled look.
“Naw, boss, jest a-kiddin’,” Chow said. “It’s tuna—what they call dolphin-friendly tuna!”
As Tom changed out of his clothes in the bathroom, something in one of the deep side pockets of his shorts bumped against his leg.
That’s right! said Tom to himself. That stupid pop bottle the guy tossed at us!
He held up the bottle in the light and looked at it closely for the first time. The top was open and there was no drink inside—yet there was something within it after all. Tom shook the bottle and it slid out into his hand. It was a piece of white paper, carefully folded into a thin packet.
Tom finished dressing, then unfolded the sheet, a single sheet with lettering printed neatly in the center. The sheet of paper appeared to be a business letterhead, though Tom noticed immediately that the printed name at the top was subject to smearing, as if it had just been freshly manufactured by a computer-printer. At the top was—
DR. MONTROY SNEFFELS,
SHOPTON, NEW YORK
—followed by a local telephone number. The message read:
YOU HAVE DONE MANY THINGS FOR THIS COUNTRY. I HAVE TO DISCLOSE TO YOU THE GREAT DANGER YOU ARE FACING. PLEASE ARRANGE TO MEET WITH ME SECURELY IN YOUR OWN OFFICE. I HAVE ABSOLUTE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOUR PROBING BENEATH THE CRUST OF EARTH THREATENS ALL HUMAN LIFE! YOU MUST BELIEVE ME!
DR. MONT. SNEFFELS
“OH MAN!” Tom muttered to himself in a tone that suggested—correctly—his internal eye-rolling.
After some thought and hesitation, Tom let his curiosity get the best of him and called the number.
The ringing phone was promptly answered, “Hello—Mr. Swift?” Tom knew then that the phone number had been established for his use only.
“Hello, Dr. Sneffels,” Tom said. “I received your message, of course. Kind of an unconventional way to deliver it.”
“Yes,” the man replied. “I apologize, but it was absolutely necessary for my personal safety, and yours. No one must know of this connection between us.”
“You don’t think playing shooting-gallery with torpedoes on Lake Carlopa might excite some interest?” Tom commented dryly.
“That was unavoidable,” he said. “I saw that your sister had entered the Yacht Society race, and I’d been watching for days for her to go out on the lake in her sailboat. I planned to motor up to her and pass the message to her that way, to be passed along to you, Tom. Admit it, if you had received such a message in the mail, you’d have thrown it away—if it got to you in the first place.”
“That’s true, I suppose,” Tom conceded. “But what do you mean when you say— ”
“Not over the phone,” Dr. Sneffels interrupted. “Even this dedicated line may be unsafe. Let me meet you somewhere within your installation, Swift Enterprises. You have your ways to check-out visitors, I know. I’ll be disguised, but we’ll both feel secure.”
Tom couldn’t help sighing. “Very well. Tomorrow?”
“I was hoping for this evening. You can alert your security staff that a visitor is to be expected. I will give them my name; I presume they can be trusted.”
“I’m afraid the question is whether you can be trusted,” Tom replied. “But all right.”
To Tom’s surprise Dr. Sneffels hung up the phone immediately without a time having been set. We’ll see if he shows, Tom thought, and informed Harlan Ames of the note, the call, and the visit.
As Tom finished changing clothes and re-entered the lab, he suddenly broke out laughing. “Chow! Were you waiting for me all this time?”
“Sure was!” said the Texan ominously. “Specially when I saw’d you hadn’t taken a nibble ’r bit o’ your sandwich!”
Tom apologized. “Sorry, Chow—I thought I’d change my clothes first, and I guess I got sidetracked, and—I forgot!”
“I’ll get you some fresh soup,” Chow said. As he turned Tom thought he heard him murmur, “Water through a sieve, shore ’nuff.”
The young inventor worked hard on various aspects of the earth blaster all through the rest of the day, summarizing his progress in his electronic journal, which his father had access to. Dad will be pleased at how far I’ve gotten, Tom said to himself.
A knock on the door announced the arrival of Bud Barclay. “Feel like dinner in town tonight?” Bud asked.
“Sure,” his pal replied. “But you may have to wait a while. I’m expecting a mystery visitor sometime after six.”
Bud glanced at his watch. “Almost seven now.”
Tom was surprised at how the time had flown. He quietly gave Bud a brief account of the telephone conversation with Dr. Sneffels, and showed him the message.
“Shall I leave?” Bud asked. “Sounds like he may be antsy with others in the room.”
Tom shook his head. “Let him be. I’d like you here, flyboy—you may have to help me toss the guy out!”
At seven-sixteen the gate guard informed Tom that his guest had arrived, and presently he was shown into the lab by plant security.
“Just buzz if you need anything, Tom,” said the security staffer meaningfully.
Tom shook hands with Dr. Sneffels, who was wearing a white toupee and large thick-framed eyeglasses, which he removed with a glance at Bud. “Dr. Sneffels, this is— ”
“I know who he is,” said the man.
“Thanks for the rescue yesterday,” Bud offered as they shook hands.
“I’m a fair marksman; it’s a hobby,” Sneffels responded. “Along with boating, and—but I’ll get to that.”
Tom asked him to take a seat and bade him go ahead with his story.
“And quite a story it is,” said the man. “You won’t want to believe it. But I’m absolutely sincere.
“I’m something of an amateur spelunker—a cave explorer. Done it since I was a young boy. Pretty good at it, too. Tom—Bud—have you ever run across the Great Pawnauck Mountain Mystery?”
“Did the Hardy Boys solve that one?” cracked Bud.
“I’ve heard of it,” Tom answered.
“A reporter wrote a book about it some forty years ago. There was a little flap—then it was forgotten. Everyone assumes it was just a hoax. The man talked about old legends going back to the 1800’s concerning the area of Pawnauck Mountain in the Appalachians. There were sightings of mystery lights, half-seen figures that disappeared, mining operations that were plagued by unexplained disasters. A whole village of miners supposedly vanished overnight—twenty-two families, men, women, children.”
“What you’re describing sounds like a typical urban legend,” Tom commented.
The man nodded. “Of course, yes. The reporter said he’d had a strange experience of his own while exploring the area. He claims he was exploring deep in one of the natural caves when a landslip opened up a new extension, which he entered. Inside he claims he found a huge sealed room, obviously artificial, lit by a weird light-green luminance. In niches along the walls were the mummified corpses of…”
He paused and Bud almost fell forward from his chair. “Of what?”
“Of strange creatures. Like nothing ever seen on earth. You can read the book for a description.”
“Were these ‘creatures’ supposed to have been intelligent beings?” inquired Tom.
“They were all wrapped in some sort of metallic drapery, like a cloth of metal.”
Bud had resumed a skeptical attitude. “And I suppose this guy lost the cave and couldn’t get back again, right?”
“No,” Sneffels responded. “He deliberately blocked up the entrance and returned to the surface to get scientific help. But when he and his team went back down again, that whole extension of the cave had collapsed. Digging through the blockage was impractical.”
“And then he wrote his book, and made a nice profit,” Tom commented.
“He’s been dead for a good many years now, Tom.” The man paused; he was ready to move on to the next episode. “As a teenager in Lexington I read the book. It made an impression on me. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I took a notion to do some exploring in that same area, the Pawnauck cave system.” He took note of Bud’s wide eyes and smiled. “No, I didn’t find the legendary lost room. What I found, though, were preserved, calcified track-marks—footprints, in other words.
“They were not made by anything I’ve ever heard of. And, boys, they were in strata that hadn’t been touched for millions of years—I’m sure about that!”
“Do you have plaster castings? Photographs?” asked Tom. “Or shall we go right to the conclusion, Dr. Sneffels—where you ask Swift Enterprises to fund an investigation, to be headed up by you?”
But the man shook his head. “Not at all. I destroyed my photos and the negatives, burned my notes, and did my best to forget the whole thing!”
“The dreams!” Sneffels said with intense feeling. “They began the very night of my discovery, and continued intermittently for months.”
“Call them night visions,” he replied. “Or weird, invasive obsessions. I can’t really describe them, but I had an overwhelming impression of something ominous and deadly existing deep within the earth—subterranean intelligences disturbed by our actions on the crust and ready to emerge and wipe us out!”
Bud was transfixed again. “B-but it’s just a dream—right?”
“Is it?” was the rhetorical response. “From my studies since then I’ve become convinced that Earth could support an entirely separate ecosystem, one based on silicon rather than carbon. Life of that sort could evolve deep within the crust, in the region of paradoxical densities we call the Moho Discontinuity.”
Without taking his gaze off Dr. Sneffels, Tom said to Bud, “That’s what they call the border between the crust and the mantle, Bud. It averages about 10 miles beneath the sea bed and 30 miles beneath the continents.”
“Doctor, what did you mean—our actions disturbing the silicon guys?” Bud asked breathlessly.
“I presume the worst would be our underground H-bomb tests, which may do significant damage to their habitats,” he answered. “Lifeforms can be affected by unfamiliar vibrations—think of the harm done to whales by the Navy’s sonar experiments, for instance. But then, consider those lost miners. The Terranoids—I call them that—may regard any significant ground penetration as a threat. And they have the power to protect themselves!”
“Or at least, that’s what came to you in your dreams,” commented the young inventor.
Sneffels did not react to this, but simply added, “To them the surface of the crust is an alien environment, like the moon is to us. I think they were shocked to discover life up here…
“That’s my message, Tom. Probe too deeply underground, and I fear what could happen—not just to you and your scientists, but to our whole surface world!”
Dr. Sneffels fell silent. Bud let out his breath and slowly eased back from the edge of his chair.
Tom said, “Do you want me to say I believe you?”
“No,” he replied. “It’s too incredible. I just want you to consider it. Try not to let your suspicions blind you.”
“Tell me this, Doctor. What leads you to believe that Swift Enterprises is planning any sort of deep-earth activity?”
Sneffels met Tom’s eyes. “It’s obvious. I was one of those people that stopped to watch the other day, when your digging machine broke the water main. Your earth-boring invention evidently works on some new principle, and nothing can stop you from pushing on to new depths. It’s the way of science—isn’t it?”
Tom rose from his chair to indicate the end of the meeting, using the telephone keypad to buzz for the security officer to accompany Dr. Sneffels out. “I’ve thought about the possibility of silicon-based life, though mostly in terms of other planets, not inside this one.”
“For all practical purposes, deep-earth is another planet,” Sneffels said as the guard entered.
He rose and they shook hands all around, Tom promising to consider his warning carefully. As Sneffels was led out, Tom added: “By the way, just what is your area of specialization, Dr. Sneffels?”
The man paused at the door. “D.D.S.—I’m a dentist. Why?”
Tom tried to keep a straight face. “Just asking, sir. Goodbye.”
After the door closed, Tom and Bud exchanged glances, not quite knowing whether to shiver—or break out laughing. “What do you think, genius boy?” Bud asked.
“I think there are a lot of suspicious elements in that story of his—to say the least!” declared the young inventor. “That business about ‘stop the H-bomb blasts’ comes right out of old flying saucer ‘contactee’ accounts and 1950’s sci-fi movies. And his ‘night visions’ sound to me exactly like paranoid obsession—a psychiatric condition.”
“Yeah,” Bud agreed. “But the story sure had a haunting quality. Maybe he’s had one too many whiffs of the ol’ ‘twilight sleep’ gas!”
Tom laughed. Then he said: “Of course it could be a deliberate hoax to steer the South Pole expedition off course somehow. I wonder what his real name is.”
Bud Barclay was surprised at Tom’s comment. “I thought that was his real name!”
With a grin, Tom shook his head. “It couldn’t fool a true Jules Verne fan! In A Journey to the Center of the Earth, the explorers descend down the inside of Mount Sneffels, a dead volcano in Iceland. Given his underground theme, ‘Mont. Sneffels’ was pretty obviously a phony name. The DDS may be real, though.”
As Tom prepared to leave for dinner with Bud, the dark-haired young pilot said, “Oh, by the way—that police sketch artist came up with a pretty good likeness of the guy I saw.”
“Yup,” confirmed Bud. “In fact, Harlan was going to fax it to all the offices here at the plant, as well as to Captain Rock and our FBI contacts.” He pointed at the digi-fax on the other side of the lab. “Bet it’s waiting in the tray right now, Tom.”
Curious to see the look of the fourth accomplice in the attack on him, Tom strode over to the fax and pulled the copied sketch from amid a pile of sheets. As he looked at it, his eyebrows elevated in surprise.
“Bud!—I know this guy!”
“YOU DO?” cried Tom’s pal in disbelief. “Does he work here at Enterprises?”
“Nothing like that,” Tom replied. “But I had some pretty serious dealings with him earlier in the year—me and Hank Sterling.” Tom explained that the sketch was a close likeness of Dr. Drurga Leeskol, a European scientist known to be peddling his services to various anti-democratic forces throughout the world.
“Sure, the guy who held you and Hank in that cellar during the run-up to the South America trip,” Bud said excitedly, referring to events recorded in Tom’s Flying Lab adventure. “Wasn’t he supposed to have been working for Kranjovia?”
“That’s what we figured. He slipped out of the U.S. before the Feds could nab him.”
“He must’ve been behind the high-tech stuff we’ve been victim to, like sabotaging your magnetic alarm system and the electrodes on your new-version blaster!”
Hank Sterling’s investigation of the earth blaster’s control circuitry had revealed no defect. This indicated that the act of sabotage had been accomplished in some subtle manner—which pointed further to the involvement of a high-level scientific mind.
“I’ll phone Harlan Ames after dinner and bring him up to speed,” Tom declared. Then he picked up some further sheets from the fax tray. “Speaking of Harlan, here’s that list of members and guests of the Excelsis Club.”
“Anybody named Leeskol? Or Bronich?”
Tom read down the list. “Nope. Not that our enemies would make it that easy for us!” He flashed Bud a thoughtful expression. “You know, our friend the spelunking dentist is probably on this list under his real name.”
“Why do you think that, Tom?”
“Well, think about the various things he said tonight—little slips he didn’t intend. For example, here’s a guy who’s a long-time cave explorer, a fantastic marksman, and a mighty slick powerboat pilot to boot. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty good description of a sportsman!”
Bud nodded enthusiastically. “The kind of person who belongs to the Excelsis Club!”
“Furthermore, that boat of his was a pretty upscale model, and he claims he has enough free time to spend days hanging around Lake Carlopa on the offchance he’ll catch Sandy practicing in the Mary Nestor. Doesn’t sound like a guy earning his living day to day as a struggling dentist, does it? I’d guess he’s more than rich enough to afford the Club dues—which are big—or at least to have a friend in the Club.”
“Yeah. Maybe friends like our pals Bronich and Leeskol.” Suddenly a new thought struck Bud and he grabbed Tom’s wrist. “Hey!—he’s got to be in the Club!”
“How come, flyboy?”
“Cause otherwise how’d he know in the first place that Sandy had signed up for the race? I know the Shopton Evening Bulletin hasn’t published a list, but San mentioned to me that all the participating clubs had received a complete roster the day after the entry deadline.”
“So he could have seen a list posted at the Excelsis Club—which would also have been a great place to hang out watching the lake,” Tom said in agreement. “Of course, he might just belong to another club, you know.”
“Naw, can’t be,” Bud grinned. “Know why? Cause that would make my guess wrong, and I’m due to play hero, that’s why!”
Tom grinned back and said, “Man, you’re my hero anyway, any day! But let’s look over this list of members and guests.”
Almost immediately, Tom noted the name of a guest followed by the honorific initials “D.D.S.”
“That could be our boy,” he pronounced. “Jerry Landis! We’ll investigate—but not tonight, pal. I’m hungry!”
At Bud’s favorite burgers ’n fries joint in Shopton, the two friends quietly discussed the plans for the upcoming South Pole expedition.
“We should be able to leave in the Sky Queen by next Wednesday,” Tom said. “All aspects of the operation are going forward nicely.”
“Has Enterprises stocked up on parkas?” Bud asked with a grin.
“We’ll have ’em,” replied the young inventor, his eyes alight with the vision of new challenges. “But we’ll need more than fur suits. Anyone who might need to come close to the blaster will have to wear clothing that’s radiation-proof.”
“Won’t the atomic pile be sheathed in Tomasite?” Bud referred to the remarkable plastic-like substance developed by Tom and his father. Though malleable and lightweight, it possessed amazing anti-radiation properties and had previously been used to enclose the similar veranium atomic pile used in Tom’s jetmarine.
“Sure,” Tom nodded. “But remember, one thing we don’t know about ‘deep-earth space’ is the general distribution of radioactive ores down there. Veranium itself was a paradoxical surprise—there may be more to come! We have to be prepared for whatever comes rushing up that tunnel.”
“Got it,” Bud said. “So are we wearing those bulky anti-rad monkey-suits, like you use at the Citadel?” This was the Swifts’ atomic research facility in New Mexico.
Tom took a bite of his burger. “Those aren’t monkey-suits, pal—more like football padding for gorillas! We’ve got the materials-science section putting together something lighter and more flexible, with its own air supply and electric heating unit.”
“That’s good to hear,” Bud commented. “Just how cold does it get down there, anyhow?”
“Mighty cold. Some places the temperature never rises above five degrees even in midsummer. And in winter it drops down to a hundred below zero!”
“Man! I didn’t know zero had a ‘hundred below,’ joked Bud. “How’s the surfing in Antarctica?”
The young inventor grinned. “If you can hang-ten on a snowboard, it’s great.”
Bud burst out laughing.
“You’re gonna test this mole-machine before we get down to the land of ice and snow, aren’t you?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you a secret, Bud,” Tom replied, leaning forward across the table. “I’m going to offer to dig that tunnel through Pine Hill for the extra water supply Shopton needs—the tunnel the City Council knows is necessary but can’t afford.”
Bud was startled by the news. “Fantastic! But that’ll just confirm Old Man Greenup’s suspicions, won’t it?”
Tom looked thoughtfully at the french fry in his hand. “Yes—and he could cause a lot of problems for Dad and Uncle Jake. They both want me to just go ahead with it, but I’m going to try to soften the impact by talking to Mr. Greenup personally.”
“Bowl him over with charm, huh?”
“Charm—and the fact that Swift Enterprises is willing to do the job absolutely gratis. It’ll give me a chance to put my earth blaster through a real workout and at the same time benefit the whole community. That should make— ”
Tom halted his sentence as Bud abruptly made a sharp motion with his hand, which was resting on the table-top, visible to Tom alone. Obeying the gesture Tom glanced to his right and noticed an attractive girl, about the same age as the youths, standing a few yards away as if reading the wall-mounted menu. The loud background music had just fallen silent, and Tom suddenly realized that his last few comments would have been audible to anyone with sharp ears.
The girl responded to Tom’s glance with a smile—a shy one.
“Sorry, you guys,” she said, approaching the table. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but you sort’ve caught my ear when you mentioned Old Man Greenup.”
“I know the guy pretty well,” Bud said. “Just the other day we were getting steamed together!”
“Is that right?” she said. Then she turned to Tom. “You’re Tom Swift, aren’t you? I figured as much when you started talking about drilling through the hill. Your offer sounds really generous. I think I might be able to help you with Mr. Greenup.”
Tom was baffled. “Really? Do you know him?”
“Well, I ought to,” said the girl. “See, ‘Old Man Greenup’ is my father!”
TWO MOUTHS—Tom couldn’t help thinking of them as big mouths—dropped open.
“I’m terribly embarrassed,” Tom choked. “We just—that is— ”
Bud reddened. “It was just three minutes of steam. We barely chatted!”
The girl gave forth a pretty laugh. “Oh please, don’t apologize. I call him Old Man Greenup myself—in my head, at least!”
At Tom’s invitation she sat down next to Bud. “I’m Liz Greenup. Elise, that is.”
After some small talk, Tom discussed his encounter with Mr. Greenup of the other day.
“That’s Dad, all right,” Liz commented. “When I was growing up he was the kindest, sweetest man in the world. The accident changed him—you know about the accident, don’t you?”
“I don’t think I do,” replied Tom, who was struck by the word “accident” in connection with Mr. Greenup. “When did it happen?”
“It was three years ago last June 3rd.”
“That summer I was traveling with my father,” Tom explained.
Bud added, “And I hadn’t moved out to Shopton yet. I was still living in San Francisco.”
Liz nodded very soberly. “Well, it was in the local papers. Just a simple traffic accident. Dad was hardly hurt at all, but my older brother Eric… we lost him.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tom sincerely. “That would change anyone’s attitude toward life.”
“Yes, well—ever since, Dad’s been suspicious of everyone and everything. He doesn’t want to trust anymore.” She lowered her eyes.
“If there’s anybody on earth worth trusting, though, it’s Tom Swift,” Bud said.
“I believe that.” Liz gave a smile to Bud and Tom. “If you’ll tell me about this water-drilling thing, I’ll see if I can win Dad over to your side.”
Tom briefly described his atomic earth blaster and his proposal to drill a tunnel through Pine Hill. Liz Greenup seemed entranced. “It’s a marvelous idea!” she exclaimed. “I’ll be glad to present it to Dad. Will it be—dangerous at all?”
Tom declared with firmness, “I’ll see to it that it won’t be.”
Liz said goodnight then, promising again to speak to her father and urge him to call Swift Enterprises the next day.
As the following day dawned, Tom was in a jubilant mood. After lunch he drove to the Construction Company plant where he conferred with the engineers about some construction details concerning the new-version blaster, which was eventually to be mass-produced. Then he stopped at Uncle Jake’s office to tell him about the surprising developments in the Pine Hill project.
“Do you think it will be safe, in view of what you and Bud faced in your lab the other day?” Mr. Aturian asked.
“Part of that problem was that the electrodes hadn’t been completely installed,” explained Tom. “By the Pine Hill operation the blaster will be outfitted with all my new design features, giving me a chance to test them out—except the veranium pile. Instead of carrying its power along with it, it’ll trail power cables along behind. We’ll run it off a dynamo in the truck.”
Later that afternoon Tom was in the blaster laboratory at Swift Enterprises with Bud Barclay. Work was over for the day, and the two boys were discussing the expedition to the Antarctic.
Suddenly the phone buzzed. Bud held up crossed fingers as Tom picked up the receiver. “Yes? All right, put him through.” Tom shot Bud a grinning thumbs-up. “Hello, Mr. Greenup. Yes… Yes, it was quite a coincidence, running into her… Oh? That’s very flattering… Please, it’s easy to get off on the wrong foot… I’ll be glad if we can help ease the water problem, sir.” There was a pause. “I’ll pass it on to Mr. Aturian and my father, and I’ll be there too, of course… I appreciate that very much. Goodbye, Mr. Greenup.” Tom hung up.
“Sounds good!” cheered Bud—cautiously.
“Sure is! Mr. Greenup is going to urge the City Council’s Water Commission to approve our proposal! We just need to make an appearance at a special meeting tomorrow night to give them all the details.”
As Tom informed everyone involved of the outcome of the call, Bud silently waved goodbye and left the lab. He had been asked to pilot Phil Radnor, Harlan Ames’s capable assistant, down to Fearing Island, the Enterprises rocket facility off the southern coast. Bud would not be returning until mid-evening.
Later, as Tom was making his way to the office he shared with his father, the elder Swift stepped out of the door to Harlan Ames’s office and waved Tom over. Inside sat Harlan and another man whom Tom had not met before.
“Tom Swift, this is my cousin Steve Ames,” Harlan Ames said. As Tom and Steve were shaking hands, the young inventor noticed that the visitor bore a resemblance to the Enterprises security chief, though his hair was blond.
“Steve is the consultant I said I was considering bringing in,” Harlan explained. “He’s on leave from his usual job with JANIG.”
Steve Ames grinned in a friendly way. “You heard it right—JANIG. Know what that stands for?” Tom shook his head. “One of those government agencies. It was started just after World War Two as the Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Group. Now it’s just five little letters that don’t stand for anything in particular. Think of it as having one foot in the FBI and the other in the CIA—details classified!”
As Tom seated himself he noticed that Damon Swift had pulled the office door shut. Evidently they were about to discuss something requiring a high degree of confidentiality.
“Tom, Steve has some thoughts he’d like to share with you,” Tom’s father said. The mood in the room had suddenly turned very somber, puzzling Tom. “Go ahead, Steve.”
Steve Ames looked at Tom, his face as serious as a block of granite. “Tom, cousin Harl here asked me to review the details of the recent attempt on your life, and some of the other occurrences that have happened here since you began testing your digging machine. I already knew about the South Pole project—I was briefed by the subcommittee that approved the operation.”
“I see,” Tom said.
“This subject is a little difficult for all of us,” Steve resumed. “You’re not going to want to hear what I have to say, and I don’t like having to say it. But I’m obligated to do so.”
Tom shifted his gaze to the others in the room, who wouldn’t meet his eyes. What’s going on here? he wondered.
Pausing until Tom looked back at him, Steve Ames said: “Tom—just how well do you know this fellow Bud Barclay?”
The young inventor was taken aback. “Bud? He’s my closest friend! He’s saved my life—and I’d give my life for him!”
The JANIG agent shook his head. “That’s not what I’m asking. How well do you know him? How well do you know his background, for example?”
“Would it surprise you if I told you that this good pal of yours has done time in juvie for robbing a gas station?”
“What!” Tom cried. “That can’t be true!”
Steve nodded. “It isn’t. I just made it up. But for a split second—just a split second—you had a moment of doubt. I read it in your eyes. The fact is, you don’t know—absolutely and for sure—about Bud’s past; which means you don’t necessarily know everything about his present, either.
“Look, I’ve seen it happen before. I know a couple young guys, best buddies just like you and Bud. Sometimes those attachments can blind a person. I was amazed—dismayed is the word—when I discovered Barclay hadn’t been subject to the kind of thorough background check you’ve required of all other Swift employees.”
As Tom looked at the JANIG agent in blank astonishment, Steve’s cousin said defensively, “Bud came aboard as a personal friend of the Swift family. There was never the slightest suspicion— ”
“Maybe there should have been,” Steve said grimly.
“Is—is Bud suspected of something?” Tom asked in perplexed disbelief.
“Look at it as I do,” Steve replied. “The fact is, Barclay has been present for each one of the several incidents that have taken place. He’s the common denominator. He was with you when you were attacked and tied-up—he’s the one who found you; matter of fact, he’s the one who hit the water main with your machine, right? Your alarm field is sabotaged—he shows up tapping on your window. The electrode thing happened while he was with you in the lab. Likewise the attack on the lake. True?”
“Pardon me, but it’s—ridiculous!” exclaimed the young inventor. “Bud was in danger as much as I was!”
“So it seems,” Steve responded. “But was he really? Do you know for certain? Let’s blue-sky it a little. If he’s collaborating with Drurga Leeskol, he might have been given some kind of device to protect him from the electrical discharge. On the lake, maybe he had arranged to get himself pulled out of the water after the torpedo hit the sailboat—by someone who would take care that you and the two girls never made it back to shore alive.”
Tom turned to his father angrily. “Dad!—you don’t believe this, do you?”
Mr. Swift gave a slight shrug. “Let’s just hear him out for now, son.”
“There are a million ways to induce a good guy to ‘turn’,” Steve said. “Maybe he has a psychological weak spot. Maybe he’s being blackmailed over something the rest of us would never guess. Maybe he can be tempted by money—lots of money. Maybe the bad guys make threats against his family, or somehow convince him that his best friend has betrayed him. I’ve even seen— ”
But Tom Swift leapt to his feet. “I’m ashamed of myself—ashamed I didn’t walk out that door five minutes ago! I refuse to hear any more of this!”
“Tom,” said Harlan pleadingly, “all we’re asking for now is that you keep Bud at a distance from the project, that’s all. To spare his feelings, you could assign him to something else.”
Said Mr. Swift, “Don’t think we agree with Steve, Tom. We don’t. You know we consider Bud another member of the family. But we owe it to ourselves to— ”
“Owe? I owe Bud Barclay my life!” Tom stalked across the office and paused with his hand on the door handle. “Harlan, you’re the head of security. Dad, you’re the boss. You guys do whatever you think is necessary. But don’t expect me to be a part of betraying Bud like that.”
Tom bolted out the door. As he turned to push it closed, he said with forced, unsmiling politeness:
“Nice to meet you, Steve.”
Tom would have slammed the office door behind him. But the design of the door prevented it.
HEARTSICK, Tom did everything possible to avoid his father for the next twenty-four hours, insisting that their conversations be limited to matters concerning the polar expedition and the upcoming meeting on the water drilling project. During the intervening night, he was unable to sleep.
But the thing that Tom found most disturbing was the fact that he was also avoiding Bud Barclay.
I just can’t face him right now, he thought, not knowing what’s going on behind the scenes.
But was that the only reason? Or was he worried, in some small corner of his mind, that the accusations against Bud might be true? That was a possibility he recoiled from—yet because it persisted, he was engulfed in shame and a sense of torn loyalties.
When the young pilot did drop by, Tom’s face lit up for a moment—then he begged off awkwardly, using as an excuse that he had to prepare for the evening’s meeting with the City Water Commission.
He knew his pal didn’t buy the explanation.
That evening, not one minute early, Tom joined his father and Jake Aturian in the meeting room, which also served as the meeting room for the Shopton City Council.
“We’re ready to begin,” said Miriam DiCorvo, who was a close friend of Tom’s mother and was chairing the meeting.
The representatives from Enterprises made a concise audiovisual presentation of their proposed operation, stressing the safety features built in to the new-model earth blaster.
“Glad to see this,” said Herb Greenup wryly. “We don’t want to have any more of those ‘accidents,’ now do we.” His voice was a bit sheepish, and Tom followed Mr. Greenup’s gaze into the audience. Liz Greenup was in attendance, and the look she gave her father spoke volumes.
There was no formal opposition to the Swift proposal, and after a few questions and a favorable opinion from the city attorney, the Commission voted its unanimous approval and adjourned.
“Shortest meeting we’ve ever had,” beamed Mrs. DiCorvo.
The Commissioners left the room, and the crowd drifted away, Liz giving Tom a wave and Tom returning a smile that expressed his gratitude.
Suddenly a loud, angry voice burst out: “Which one of you is Tom Swift?”
Startled, the three turned to look at the speaker, who had come up behind them. He was a burly, red-faced individual in a rumpled tan suit and a Panama hat. A half-chewed cigar protruded from one corner of his mouth.
“Well, speak up! I asked which one of you is Tom Swift?” He took out his cigar and jabbed it in Tom’s direction. “Guess it must be you—the cub!”
“I’m Tom Swift,” the teenage inventor replied coolly. “What can I do for you?”
“Do for me?” roared the stranger. “You’ve done enough as it is, you meddling pipsqueak! Is it true you’ve offered to punch that tunnel through Pine Hill for nothing?”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed and he shook a ham-like fist in Tom’s face. “By thunder, I oughta whale the tar out of you right here and now!”
Tom Swift’s jaw jutted out in a surge of anger at the man’s hectoring manner and insulting words.
“Watch where you wave that fist of yours, mister,” he said, “or someone may shove it down your throat—and out the other end!”
From the way he stepped forward and doubled up his fists, it was clear that Tom meant business. With his lithe build and muscular arms he was more than a match for the blustering stranger, but Damon Swift quickly interposed himself.
“I’ll handle this, son.” Turning to the stranger, he said, “Just who are you?”
“Picken—that’s who I am! Charles Picken, head of Picken Engineering. We had the tunnel job all wrapped up before you guys came down from your ivory tower to compete with us, and now this kid with his big-kahuna company has cheated us out of a mega-million-dollar contract!”
“Tom Swift never cheated you or anyone else out of anything!” exploded an angry voice from a darkened corner of the room. It was Bud! “The Water Commission was mighty grateful for Tom’s offer, and so is every other civic-minded person in this town!”
Holding back his anger, Tom said, “I have my own reasons—scientific reasons—for taking on this project. Besides, Shopton needs water badly, and I’m quite sure I can drive this tunnel much faster than you could possibly handle the job.”
“Yeah, kid—‘scientific reasons’! And I got a payroll to make!” Picken sneered. “But I’ll see to it that you never do complete this tunnel. I got a lotta friends here in this town. Take it from me, you’re in for trouble!” He turned away sharply and steamed out of the meeting room, trailing cigar smoke.
“Tom, that guy is spoiling for a fight,” muttered Bud, rushing up. “I think we should have settled this right here and now. He was sure asking for it!”
Uncle Jake answered for Tom, who found himself struggling with many emotions at once. “That wouldn’t solve anything, Bud. Let him go.”
“You made a fine presentation, Tom,” said Mr. Swift, laying a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “We’re not competing unfairly with anyone. Picken has had years to put something together.”
But Tom only gave a nod and hurried from the room, leaving Bud and Mr. Aturian perplexed and his father saddened and helpless.
Nevertheless, when Tom arrived at Swift Enterprises early the following morning, he knew it was his duty to report the threat to Harlan Ames.
“I’ve heard of Picken,” said the security chief. “He has a bad reputation all over the state for using unscrupulous tactics against business competitors. We’ll keep an eye on him!” Ames hesitated. Then he added: “You might like to know that Steve has gone back to Washington. We didn’t need any more advice from him.”
“Thanks for telling me,” responded the young inventor sullenly.
In his private laboratory, Tom tried to lose himself in work on the South Pole blaster. A new idea had occurred to him for improving the efficiency of the electrodes.
Using a small calculator, Tom quickly worked out a number of equations. His mental estimates had been right. By making an innovative redesign, he should be able to make the blaster operate at anywhere from twenty-five to fifty percent higher speeds than he had first planned—perhaps much more. Unfortunately the new design would not be completed in time for testing in action during the Pine Hill dig.
He was interrupted by word from Trent that the three government scientists who had been assigned to accompany the polar expedition had arrived at Swift Enterprises. They had been invited to the facility days early to observe the atomic earth blaster on its first real test at Pine Hill.
The scientists were conducted to the laboratory where the blaster was being completed. In the absence of Mr. Swift, who was away on business at the Citadel, Tom and Bud acted as a greeting committee for the three visitors.
The oldest member of the trio was Dr. Anton Faber, a world-famous zoologist. He was a tall, slender, gray-haired man, with keen, steel-gray eyes peering out through thick-lensed glasses.
“Allow me to introduce my two companions,” he said, after shaking hands with Tom and Bud. “On my right is Daryl Blake, a brilliant young botanist—so he describes himself!—who was most eager to volunteer for this trip.”
Blake, a husky, red-haired chap with a grinning, freckled face, promptly stuck out his hand and gave each of the boys a warm handclasp.
“Thanks for the orchids, Doc. But it really is true about my being all ‘het up’ over this assignment. I’m mighty anxious to experiment with some of those unique Antarctic plants I’ve only read about.”
“I didn’t even know they had plants at the South Pole,” said Bud.
“Yes, indeed,” replied Blake, “and interesting ones, too. Some of them are no bigger than a pinhead because they have only a few hours of direct sunlight every year in which to grow.”
Dr. Faber interrupted with a smile. “Tut-tut, my dear chap. If you get started on your favorite subject, we may all be standing here till midnight. And I have yet to introduce the third member of our party—Mr. Harold Voorhees.”
Voorhees was a materials-science engineer who specialized in extreme low-temperature applications. A big, handsome, powerfully built fellow, with blond hair and light-blue eyes, he had a smug, self-satisfied air which caused Bud to take an instant dislike to him.
“Rather young to be engaged in this type of work, aren’t you?” he said, smiling at the boys in a patronizing manner.
Bud drawled mischievously, “We have signed permission slips from our parents! But tell you what, Hal, old man. Maybe you’d like to take a look and see if we’re dry behind the ears yet.”
Voorhees’s smile faded abruptly. “I’m afraid that remains to be seen. Incidentally, I would prefer not to be called Hal. It’s a nickname I’ve never cared for.”
“Hmm,” Bud replied. “What nickname would you prefer?”
To smooth over the awkward moment, Tom suggested that they have lunch immediately, then return to the laboratory for a look at the nearly completed blaster. “I’m having a duplicate blaster made over at the Swift Construction Company,” he added. “You never know what can happen.”
“No,” said Voorhees. “You never do—do you.”
Returning later that afternoon after a sumptuous western-flavored lunch prepared by Chow Winkler, Daryl Blake remarked, “Say, guys, if your atomic pile ever goes on the blink, you can probably run the machine off one of those shirts that cook of yours seems to favor.” Chow’s shirt of the day had been a bizarre jumble of gold, indigo, and magenta in a pattern resembling a fight to the death among schools of fish.
“We’ve thought of it,” Bud laughed.
“If he’s going along on the expedition, I presume he’s been cleared by your security,” said Voorhees—a remark that gave Tom an inner chill. He quickly changed the subject.
“This one,” Tom announced, gesturing at the partially-opened blaster, “is the model I plan to use for digging the tunnel day after tomorrow. Unlike the final version we’ll use to penetrate the ice cap, this one will operate through unreeling power cables. The atomic pile will be installed as a separate module just before we leave.”
Voorhees was scrutinizing the section in which the small atomic pile would later be installed. “I can tell you right now that you’re way off the beam on this part,” he scoffed. “The thickness of these heat-transfer walls is entirely inadequate. Of course the correct design depends on certain thermodynamic formulas with which you probably aren’t familiar.”
“Are these the ones you mean?” asked Tom politely, pulling out his notebook and rapidly jotting down a number of formulas.
With a startled look, Voorhees glanced at them and admitted grudgingly that they were indeed the ones he had been referring to.
“Perhaps we’d better check them right now,” suggested Tom. “If I have made a mistake, I certainly want to clear it up as soon as possible.”
Using pocket calculators and a handbook of tables borrowed from one of the company engineers, Tom and Voorhees proceeded to work out the formulas.
Tom was the first to finish. A few minutes later Voorhees also completed his calculations. As he compared his answer with Tom’s, his face flushed a dull red.
“Well—hmm—I—uh—seem to have spoken too soon. Your figures seem to be quite correct after all.”
Bud clapped Voorhees on the back and laughed. “Don’t take it hard, Hal old boy; even the greatest minds have an off-day once a millennium or so!”
As Dr. Faber coughed loudly, and Daryl Blake turned away to hide a smile, Voorhees glared at Bud over the thinnest smile imaginable.
Two days later, the new-version blaster was ready to operate. The hour had arrived for the crucial test at Pine Hill.
The news that Tom Swift’s new invention would begin tunneling at nine o’clock that morning had been blazoned across the front page of the Shopton Evening Bulletin the night before. It had also been announced on all radio and television newscasts. As a result, the area around Pine Hill was so crowded with people that the police had to be called to hold back the spectators.
All three of the government scientists—Dr. Faber, Blake, and Voorhees—were on hand to watch the proceedings. Damon Swift, his business at the Citadel concluded, was also present, along with Hank Sterling, Uncle Jake, and Chow. Tom showed them a diagram of the proposed tunnel layout.
“The blaster will start from here,” he explained, “proceeding at a downward slope of twenty degrees. Then the machine will level off and continue on a straight course to the center of the hill, where we’ll pause it and back it out due to safety limitations on the length of the power cables. Then we repeat the same operations on the other side of the hill, with the two tunnels joining in the middle.”
Chow raised a timid hand. “Kin I ask a question, Tom?”
“If that there digger’s goin’ sideways instead o’ straight down, what keeps her movin’? You gonna push ’er along with a long poker, or somethin’?”
The young inventor pointed at the earth blaster, which was resting in its launch cradle next to the hillside. “See those big spiked wheels mounted above and below? Each one has a little motor inside, and the spikes will dig into the rock. We won’t be using it on our—on the next project.”
“If you’re in a question-answering mood, I’ve got one too,” declared Daryl Blake, gesturing toward several rows of big tubes neatly stacked for use. “What are they for?”
“As the blaster digs into the hill, those sections of tubing will be connected, one by one, to form a single, long, flexible tube,” replied the young inventor. “The Tomasite tubing weighs very little, and the blaster will be able to pull the sections along behind it, each one snapping into place. The fumes and rock-dust will be blown out through it, into that receiving filter over there. Eventually a standard water conduit will be laid inside the tubing.”
A handpicked crew of workers from Swift Enterprises was standing by, waiting for operations to begin. The blaster was now rolled forward with its electrode nose pressed against the hillside, several sections of tubing already hooked on.
About twenty yards from the blaster, on level ground, was Tom’s control shack, mounted on a movable dolly. The powerful generator and huge reel of power cables was positioned on a truck bed nearby.
Signaling for the workers to start the generator Tom walked to the shack and climbed inside. His heart was hammering with excitement. He knew that everything depended on the outcome of today’s test. Glancing at Bud, who was standing with the others and beaming proudly, Tom felt a stab of regret. If only everything were all cleared up by now, he told himself. Then he banished it from his mind.
Through the window of the control shack, Tom looked at the foreman of the work crew and received an “All Clear” signal in reply.
Taking a deep breath, Tom slammed on the activator switch, then pushed down a lever. Instantly the blaster crackled to life with a thunderous boom and a flash of blinding white light that settled down into a sunlike corona floating in front of the forward electrodes.
Tom activated the wheel motors and inched the machine forward. To the fanfare of a peculiar hissing-whistling roar the earth blaster plunged into the hillside through a halo of bright fire and black smoke!
Realizing that the long-needed tunnel was at last under way, the crowd broke into a wave of spontaneous cheers and applause. But the noise could scarcely be heard above the din of the blaster, which slowly diminished as it moved deeper into the earth and rock.
In a matter of seconds, the machine had burrowed twice its length into Pine Hill on a downward slant.
The power cables were slowly payed out, and the plastic conduits dragged forward section by section.
One minute had passed; then three… five…
Suddenly a violent tremor rocked the hillside as a spray of fire, smoke, and rock blasted from the tunnel opening!
SCREAMS AND CRIES arose from the spectators as rocks and dirt pelted down on them. Tom’s shack was deluged by the debris and enveloped in thick smoke.
Tom, white-faced and shaken, killed all power to the earth blaster and leapt outside. Angry shouts greeted him on all sides.
“That crazy machine might have killed every one of us!” bellowed a fat, middle-aged man, wiping dirt and soot from his face.
And a woman screamed, “It’s a public danger! The police should arrest him!”
Gritting his teeth, Tom tried to ignore the roiling remarks. While Bud summoned an ambulance, he proceeded to give first aid to all who needed it, with the help of Dr. Faber and Daryl Blake. Fortunately, the injuries amounted to no more than slight cuts and bruises—and clothing badly in need of emergency laundering.
“What in the world happened, Tom?” asked his father.
“I don’t know,” was the terse response.
After the victims had been taken care of, Tom turned to the sergeant in charge of the police detail. “Would you please have your men dear this area? I’d like to make a complete investigation of what happened before we continue.”
“Before you continue?” exclaimed an outraged citizen.
“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” put in Voorhees. “Your blaster was improperly designed, just as I suspected all along. When it hit real bedrock, it couldn’t penetrate any farther. The result was a pressure blowback, naturally.”
The police sergeant seemed impressed with this line of reasoning. But Tom shook his head. “I’m quite sure this incident was not the fault of the blaster.”
“Meaning what?” Voorhees asked.
“Meaning someone set a contact bomb to ruin our work here, and perhaps blow me up at the same time!”
“Sounds like that guy Picken to me,” commented Bud. “I saw one of his trucks parked up on a rise—great view!”
“Could be,” Tom said in a low voice. “We’ll investigate all the possibilities just to play safe. But I think this job was planned by Bronich and Leeskol. By making the blaster look dangerous or defective, he may hope to have the government call off our South Pole expedition.”
Anton Faber nodded thoughtfully. The gray-haired scientist and his two associates had already been told about Bronich’s activities.
“Look at this!” called out Hank Sterling. He was holding up a shard of blackened, twisted metal.
One of the police officers examined the piece closely as Tom and the others approached. “I recognize this from my Army training,” the man declared. “It’s part of a bomb!”
“Brand my landmines, you sure called that one right, boss!” Chow exclaimed. “D’you reckon they’s more of ’em in that hill?”
Tom shrugged. “We don’t dare proceed until we know for certain.”
“Tell you what,” said Hank. “I’ll head back to the plant and bring over one of the portable TeleTecs. I think it has enough penetrating power. We can run it right off the generator.” The TeleTec was an amazing Swift invention that allowed long-distance X-ray-type security sweeps.
Tom did not respond. “Tom?—is that okay?” Hank asked.
“Go ahead, Hank,” said Mr. Swift.
Bud rested a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “You all right, Skipper? Didn’t get beaned by a rock, did you?”
Tom abruptly backed away, turning toward the control cabin. “I’m okay, Bud.”
For two hours Swift employees and members of the police bomb squad probed the prospective route of the blaster through Pine Hill. Nothing further was found. Meanwhile Tom had drawn back the blaster into the open air and examined it. He finally announced that it appeared to be unharmed.
“That’s a good sign, young man,” commented Dr. Faber. “Your sturdy machine has passed its trial by fire, I would say.”
Chow added, “Jest shows Tom Swift don’t know the meaning of shoddy merchandise!”
Bud turned to Harold Voorhees. “So what do you think, Hal? Do we have your approval to go ahead?”
Voorhees gave an eloquent shrug. “It’s not my decision to make.”
“Well, I think the rest of us have a few things to say,” grumbled a man in the watching crowd. “First his fool machine busts the water main, now this! Getting water sure ain’t a good enough reason to send folks to the hospital!”
Bud frowned fiercely and began to stalk toward the man. But before he had taken three steps, an amplified voice boomed out over the crowd.
“May I have your attention, everyone!” It was Herb Greenup, who had borrowed a bullhorn from one of the policemen. “There’s something important I need to say!”
Tom moaned inwardly. What now?
“I—I need to let you all know something about that water-main accident of the other day. I’m ashamed to say that—I was responsible!”
The crowd gasped and muttered in stunned surprise.
“It’s true,” continued Greenup, his pallid face streaked with perspiration, his voice sorrowful and wavering. “I posted an altered map on the Water Company’s website, knowing that it would lead Tom astray. I somehow convinced myself that I was acting in the best interests of our city, but I know now I was completely wrong. His digging machine is fine. But I—am not.” He lowered the bullhorn and Liz rushed up and embraced him.
“Y’cain’t never tell what’s gonna happen next around these parts!” Chow gaped.
Tom walked up to Mr. Greenup and shook his hand warmly in full view of the public—a moment captured by the news cameras. “That confession took real courage, sir,” Tom declared. “Thank you.”
Ten minutes later the earth blaster had been reinserted in its tunnel. Once again it was activated, and this time it performed flawlessly. In the space of half an hour Tom was able to announce that it had reached its stopping point in the middle of Pine Hill.
The digger was pulled out again and trucked to the other side of the hill for the second half of the operation. As Tom’s monitoring instruments revealed that the machine was nearing the terminus of the other tunnel, the crowd—which now seemed to fill a square block—became tense and hushed.
“Half these people are afraid it’s going to set off another blast,” whispered Daryl Blake to Bud Barclay.
“Yeah,” Bud responded ruefully; “and the other half is afraid it won’t!”
At that moment Tom appeared in the doorway of his control cab. “Everyone—we’re there! The tunnels are connected!” The crowd began to whoop and cheer.
A sealed floodgate, operated by remote control, prevented the reservoir water from prematurely flooding the tunnel, as it was necessary to first remove the earth blaster. But when this was accomplished, Tom allowed a small amount of water to gush through to the other side of the hill before sealing the tunnel again.
“There’s a wonderful sight!” came the voice of Mrs. DiCorvo over Tom’s cellphone hookup. “Tom, Shopton’s got a great new drinking fountain, thanks to you and your invention!”
Her remarks relayed to the crowd over a loudspeaker, the frenzied cheering was redoubled. Chow Winkler, however, looked on sourly. He had not forgotten that only a short time before many of these same people had been calling his beloved young boss a public menace.
“This here world would be a great place,” Chow muttered, “if’n it wasn’t fer the people!”
Later in the week, as the date of departure for Antarctica drew near, Tom held a meeting in his shared private office with Blake, Faber, and Voorhees, to talk over final plans for the expedition. Mr. Swift was also present, as were Hank Sterling and Arvid Hanson.
“Shall we get started?” asked Damon Swift.
“Not yet,” Tom said. “We’re not all here.”
A moment later Bud Barclay hustled through the door. “Now we’re ready,” Tom declared with a pointed look at his father.
“You realize, I hope,” said Voorhees in a condescending voice, “that we senior scientists must take along a good deal of equipment. And as representatives of the Federal government, our things will have top priority over all other cargo. Now then, how will this equipment be transported?”
Tom exchanged an amused glance with Bud before answering. “I’m sure there’ll be ample cargo space on our planes, Mr. Voorhees. But I’m glad you brought up the matter. I suggest that you give me a complete list of your equipment as soon as possible, so we can start mapping out our stowage arrangements.”
“Blake and I have our equipment all boxed and ready,” Dr. Faber announced quietly. “Here is a list of everything we’re taking. I trust there will still be room for your atomic earth blaster?”
His gray eyes twinkled behind their thick-lensed spectacles. Tom grinned as he realized that this distinguished scientist considered Voorhees something of a stuffed shirt—just as he and Bud did!
“As you know, the Flying Lab will be our main transport. Since it already has compartments set up for your types of work, I believe you two may as well fly with me on the Sky Queen,” Tom told Faber and Blake. He also decided that Voorhees would ride with Bud Barclay on one of the jet cargo planes.
As the meeting continued, Bud wrote a note on a piece of paper that Tom alone could see. You got a great sense of humor, pal!!
The young inventor smiled. “By the way, the cargo planes will be equipped with two sets of landing wheels. One will be the regular landing gear, and the other will be a special set of wheels armed with metal cleats for landing on ice. The planes will also carry ski runners for landing or taking off on snow.”
“Have you figured out how many planes to take on the expedition?” asked Arv Hanson.
“Four altogether, I think. Besides the Sky Queen and Bud’s craft, there will be two more jet cargo planes. I’m putting Bud in charge of those, as well as his own ship.” Tom avoided looking at his father.
Tom went on to explain that the cargo jets would carry extra clothing and food supplies, machines for creating several “ice domes” for various storage needs, other tools of use in the frigid environment, and air conditioners for warming and ventilating the domes, tractors and snowmobiles; and last but not least, the extra blaster.
“What’s that for?” inquired Bud.
“Safety precaution. There’s always a chance the main blaster may be crushed or pinned by a sudden shift in the earth’s crust. Or the shaft might be blocked off. Either way, we’d be stymied without a spare machine on hand.”
“I see what you mean,” said Bud. He drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the desk before resuming the conversation. “You know, Skipper, I’ve been wondering if it might not be smart to take along some huskies and dogsleds on this picnic. They could take us anywhere—places we couldn’t go even in a snowmobile. And dogs don’t stall or freeze up on you.”
“I may be able to make a contribution on that subject,” Hanson interjected. “You know, my mother and father have retired to Alaska—we Swedes are a mighty hardy bunch! I think they’ll be able to connect you to a veteran dog-team trainer from their neighborhood.”
Tom nodded. “An excellent idea, Arv.”
As the meeting broke up, it was decided to fly to Alaska the following day to purchase huskies and sleds. “We can take Sandy and Bashalli along, and make it a day’s outing,” Tom suggested. “If that’s all right, Dad.”
As Mr. Swift nodded, Bud exclaimed. “Now you’re talking like a real genius, pal! Let’s give the girls a call this very minute!”
At nine o’clock the next morning the Sky Queen was lifted from the underground hangar on its huge elevator platform. When it was ready for take-off, Tom, Bud, Arv, and the girls boarded the three-decker silver skyship.
Tom gunned the powerful engines into life. As he poured power into the jet lifters, the huge ship rose into the air.
Sandy and Bash sat up front in the pilot’s cabin with the others. “This is just what I needed, big brother,” Sandy said. Tom knew what she was referring to. Despite all efforts she and Bashalli had failed to place in the sailboat race over the weekend, and their spirits needed a lift.
“We are becoming great sailors of the skies, at least,” Bashalli remarked.
“Where in Alaska do you plan to buy your huskies?” Sandy asked Arv Hanson as they streaked across the continent at a speed faster than sound.
“From an acquaintance of my folks, an Indian named Colonel George Eagle Friend,” replied Hanson.
“Goodness, that’s quite a name!”
“He’s quite a man, from what my Dad tells me. Colonel Eagle Friend has a wonderful military record, and now he makes a business of breeding sled dogs. He and my Dad were in the service together.”
At noontime Tom eased the huge plane down on the airfield at Fairbanks, Alaska. It was strange to feel the abrupt bite of winter in the air when they stepped from the plane.
While Arvid Hanson visited his parents, the younger foursome ate lunch at a local restaurant, then took a taxi to the kennels, which were located a short distance from town.
Colonel Eagle Friend, a full-blooded Alaskan Indian, greeted them with delight. Over sixty years of age, he was a splendid figure of a man, tall and straight as an arrow, with a shock of blue-black hair and black eyes that sparkled with love of life.
“Klahowya! Welcome to Alaska!”
When they were comfortably seated inside his rambling log bungalow, Tom explained the reason for their visit, which he had only touched upon over his initial telephone call. “We’d like to buy a good dog team and all the necessary equipment. You see, we’re planning a scientific expedition to the South Pole.”
The colonel’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Another one, eh?”
Tom was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“What I meant was, I just sold an outfit to another fellow who’s going there,” the Indian explained. “Maybe you know him.”
“What’s his name?” Tom asked, startled by the news.
“He called himself Mr. Brown,” the Indian replied, “but I doubt that’s his real name. He had a heavy accent.”
“Brown equals Bronich, I’ll bet!” Bud groaned, as Tom quickly gave Colonel Eagle Friend a description of their nemesis.
“That’s the man!” the Indian said. “I’m afraid he’s got a head start on you!”
GEORGE EAGLE Friend shared in the dismay of his guests. “I take it you’ve crossed his trail before!”
“Most of the time, he’s been crossing ours!” Bud declared.
“He’s actually an agent of the Kranjovian government,” explained Tom, “wanted by the FBI for espionage and on several other counts. Now it looks as if he’s trying to beat us to the South Pole!”
Obtaining a promise to keep the matter secret, the young inventor told the colonel about his atomic earth blaster and his plans for tapping iron from deep within the earth.
“Well, at least I can outfit you with a good team of huskies,” said the Indian. “I’ll give you the best dogs in my kennel.”
Slipping on their coats again, the four young people accompanied their host out to the back of his cabins where the huskies were kept in wire-enclosed runs.
At Colonel Eagle Friend’s approach, the dogs set up a loud, eager barking, jumping up against the wire and wagging their tails frantically. They were of various sizes and mostly black, white, or wolf gray in color. All had slant eyes and a thick ruff of fur around their necks, as well as curling, bushy tails.
“How big a team do you want?” inquired the colonel, turning to Tom.
“What do you advise?”
The Indian thought for a moment. “Well, nine dogs are enough even for the heaviest loads. But I’ll give you two more dogs for spares. Then, if you like, you can split them into two smaller teams for light hauling.”
Opening a gate, he went into one of the runs and brought out a small, wiry husky with a mask of silver-white fur around the eyes and muzzle, outlined by blackish fur on the head and ears.
“This is my sweetheart Klootch,” he announced. “She’ll be your lead dog.”
“I thought lead dogs were supposed to be big and powerful,” Bud said.
“It’s more important to have one that’s smart and fast. And Klootch is all of that.”
So that the boys might accustom themselves to handling a dog team, Colonel Eagle Friend hitched up two outfits—one for Tom and one for Bud.
The boys mounted the sled runners and grasped the handle bars. After some instruction, the colonel called, “All set?”
“Sure.” Bud grinned. “But now what? Don’t tell me you kick-start ’em!”
“Watch and learn,” replied the Indian. With a crack of his long rawhide whip, he shouted, “Mush!” Instantly the dogs strained against the harness and the sleds glided away.
“Hey, this is almost as much fun as jockeying a jet!” yelled Bud to Tom. “Let’s make it a race, chum!”
“You’re on! Winner buys the next round of whale-blubber!”
Picking up the whips from their sleds, the boys cracked them in the air and shouted words of encouragement to their teams. The dogs put on speed, stretching their legs farther and faster with every stride. Soon the sleds seemed to be flying over the snow! Cheeks red from the stinging wintry air, the boys laughed and yelled back and forth.
Neither was aware that the huskies were gradually getting out of hand. The sleds carried no loads, and the dogs sensed the inexperience of their drivers.
Soon they came to a dip in the terrain, where a high, steep hillside sloped down to a frozen creek bed.
“Look out, Bud!” Tom shouted. “Whoa! Whoa, you huskies!”
Tom had suddenly realized that the teams were running away with them. Bud, too, tried frantically to stop his team. But the dogs paid no heed. At headlong speed, they went racing down the slope.
A moment later one of Bud’s sled runners hit a boulder. The jarring jolt caused the sled to flip over, throwing Bud against a nearby tree trunk!
Rocketing down the hill at breakneck speed, Tom, too, lost his footing on the sled runners. As his legs spun out from under him, his hands slipped from the bars. Over and over he tumbled down the icy hillside like a human snowball.
At the bottom, he lay dazed for a minute or two before struggling painfully to his feet. “Bud!” Tom cried. Halfway up the hillside, the dark-haired pilot was sprawled, motionless at the foot of a tree. Tom scrambled to his friend’s side and crouched down beside him, gently placing his hand beneath the youth’s parka. When Tom pulled his hand back, it was smeared with bright scarlet!
Overwhelmed with fear for Bud’s life—all secret suspicions momentarily forgotten—Tom began to chafe his wrists, speaking Bud’s name over and over as if to call him back to consciousness. Then another dog team came into view. The colonel was riding the sled. He halted his dogs on the brow of the hill, and, jumping from the runners, hurried toward the boys. When he saw that Bud’s forehead bore a darkening bruise and a nasty cut, he said: “I was afraid this might happen when I saw you start racing. That’s why I followed.”
Bud soon revived and grinned sheepishly at his own plight. “Looks as if huskies are even trickier to handle than a jet!” he muttered under his breath.
“Especially on loops and wingovers,” remarked the Indian, as the corners of his mouth twitched in a faint smile. Turning away, Tom sighed his relief.
After the dog breeder had recovered the runaway teams, the boys drove them carefully back to the cabin.
As Tom and Bud were washing up and treating their scrapes and bruises with antiseptic, Bud remarked, “Doggone, that old Eagle Eye is a real swell Joe. I wish he could come with us on the expedition!”
“Great minds run in the same channel!” Tom grinned. “I was just wishing the same thing. Why don’t we ask him?”
Over a tasty snack which Mrs. Eagle Friend prepared for her guests before their departure, Tom broached the question. In reply, the Indian said: “I’ve been hoping you’d ask me ever since I heard about the expedition! But, of course, my answer is not for me alone to give. My wife must give her approval.”
Tom nodded in understanding. “When do you plan to ask her?”
“Oh, about an hour ago!” he grinned. “She said, ‘George—go! You’re not getting any younger!’”
Everyone laughed, and Sandy added, “I think it’s wonderful that you’re going along on the expedition, Colonel Eagle Friend! Now I feel better about these two roughnecks going, too, because I’m sure you’ll keep an eye on them!”
“I must tell you, Colonel—neither of them can stand too many more hits on the head!” Bashalli remarked.
“My dearest Klootch and I will look after them both,” chuckled the colonel.
Leaving the care and feeding of the remaining huskies in his wife’s capable hands, the Indian drove his four young companions to the airport. They rode in a rickety old sedan with a huge trailer hitched in back, carrying the eleven dogs and equipment selected for the expedition.
At sight of the Sky Queen, Colonel Eagle Friend muttered in awe, “Skookum kallakalla!”
“Come again?” Bud said, blinking.
“In the Chinook tongue that means mighty bird,” explained the colonel. “And never have I seen a plane which more deserved the title!”
Tom showed him the cargo stowage space on the first deck. Then, with Sandy and Bashalli, he went topside to contact Shopton via short-wave radio.
“What do you plan on doing with the dogs?” Bud asked the colonel. “Just turn ’em loose here in this cargo compartment?”
The Indian snorted. “They’d be at each other’s throats the moment you did so. These dogs are powerful fighters! I think the safest plan is to partition them off in separate stalls.”
Using lumber which he had brought along in the trailer, he proceeded to put together some crude wooden stalls, one for each dog. With Bud helping him, the job was quickly completed.
Meanwhile, Tom had made radio contact with his father back at Swift Enterprises. He told him of Bronich’s visit to Colonel Eagle Friend. Damon Swift reported, “We’re in good shape to leave ahead of schedule, son. Hank Sterling says the alterations on the blaster’s electrodes should be ready for testing tomorrow.”
“That’s great news, Dad! In the meantime, how about contacting Washington for final clearance?”
Mr. Swift promised to do so immediately, and Tom signed off. A short time later the huge plane headed back to Shopton.
Following a successful test of the new electrodes the next day, Tom informed his crew that their departure for the South Pole was imminent. He then directed the loading of the two earth blasters into their cradles in the Queen’s aerial hangar deck.
“Hank did a fine job installing the atomic pile modules,” Tom told his father. “I see no reason why we can’t take off as soon as we’ve purchased the last of our subzero-weather gear.”
The elder Swift smiled. “If that’s the only holdup remaining, it’s already been solved. Harriman over in the purchasing department was able to let it get around—discreetly—that Enterprises was mounting a scientific trip to the polar regions. A national sporting goods chain donated several big crates of just about everything one can think of, from ski poles to long underwear. They’ll be delivered tomorrow.”
Tom gave a low cheer at the news, relishing the first moment of closeness between himself and his father since the day of Steve Ames’s visit.
A knock on the office door heralded the arrival of Harlan Ames. His face bore a guarded expression. “Sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but I just got off the phone with our congressional point man in DC. I’m afraid I have bad news. You’ll have to call off your South Pole trip!”
THE TWO Swifts were stunned by Ames’s announcement.
“I can’t believe it!” Tom cried in dismay. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
The security chief paused for a moment in sympathetic silence—then broke out in a laugh! “I am kidding, you guys! I was just playing the same prank on you two that was played on me five minutes ago.”
As Tom and his father breathed their relief, Ames continued: “Actually, there was a bit of concern for about a day. Our senator apparently received quite a pile of letters, telegrams, and emails protesting the trip as a threat to the environment.”
Mr. Swift was amazed. “But there’s been no public announcement! Do you think someone here at the plant leaked the information?” Tom’s muscles tensed, knowing that both his father and Ames would wonder—for a moment at least—if the source had been Bud Barclay.
But Ames explained. “When the authorities investigated a bit further, it turned out that most of the handwriting was similar, and most of the typed sheets showed signs of having come from the same typewriter. We think it all originated with one person.”
“Any idea who?” Tom asked.
“Well, let me put it this way,” Ames replied with a grin. “You know that sporting goods chain that just donated all that stuff? The president turns out to be the ex-brother-in-law of a certain prominent Shopton dentist.”
The young inventor gave forth a humorous groan. “Don’t tell me!—good old Jerry Landis, DDS.”
“Right the first time. Your crackpot pal with the obsessions. Though he hasn’t actually broken any laws, the police did go to his home to question him, but it appears he’s left town. But the happy ending to my story is that the Feds gave final approval—so get going!” ordered Ames.
For the next day and a half, all hands worked furiously in making final preparations for the take-off. The Sky Queen was checked and double-checked from nose to tail. The two blasters and other equipment were carefully inspected. Then the job of loading the three support jets began.
Tom decided that one of the jet cargo planes would piloted by Arvid Hanson, the other by Slim Davis. Both men, like Bud Barclay, were expert fliers familiar with Swift Construction Company jetcraft. Slower than the majestic Flying Lab, the three planes would take a slightly different route for safety’s sake.
On board the Sky Queen, Tom would carry Blake, Faber, Voorhees—who was adamant about his right to a comfortable flight along with his tools and instruments—, Chow, Colonel Eagle Friend and a crew of five technicians including Hank Sterling. Bud, Hanson, and Davis would carry two crewmen each on their jets.
The evening before departure a small farewell party was held at the Swift home, attended by Bud and Hank Sterling’s family, as well as Bashalli Prandit. There were gay decorations, rousing songs, and other entertainments of indescribable wholesomeness. But there was an underlying note of sadness in the air.
“Do you think you can be home by Christmas, son?” Mrs. Swift asked, trying hard to keep her voice cheerful.
“I’m afraid not, Mother,” Tom replied. “But you can be sure of one thing—I’ll come back just as fast I can, even if I have to dig right through the center of the earth!”
Tom had arranged to have Sandy buy Christmas presents both for relatives and friends—particularly Bashalli. And he had commissioned Bud to buy a present for Sandy.
Early the next morning the Sky Queen was taken from the underground hangar and readied for its cross-world flight. Tom’s family came by to watch the take-off. They were momentarily joined by Bud, who was on his way to the jet he would be piloting.
“Wish I were going with you,” said Bud wistfully to Tom. “I’m a pretty handy guy to have along in a plane crash!”
“Don’t I know it!” laughed Tom. “But you’ll be joining us down at the bottom of the world in just a few hours—I’ll hold off on crashing till then, flyboy.”
“It’s a deal!”
The young inventor bade goodbye to his mother, father, and sister, then entered the Flying Lab and took his place in the forward pilot’s deck. In seconds the solar-powered engines stirred to life. With a fearsome blast from the jet lifters the great silver ship soared up into the blue on a due-south heading.
Traveling through the skies at fourteen hundred miles an hour, Tom watched cities, jungles, and mountains unfold below, then broad stretches of ocean.
“Young Tom, I won’t know how to begin to tell my wife the tale of all this,” commented George Eagle Friend in awe. “And a good thing too—she would never believe me!”
Ten hours later Tom caught his first glimpse of the vast and perilous south polar land!
The sky was gray and foggy, and the sea looked the color of lead. But the awe-inspiring spectacle of the rugged, towering mountain peaks of the sinuous Antarctic Peninsula more than made up for the gloomy atmosphere.
“Brand my iceberg lettuce, there’s a sight we don’t have even in Texas!” Chow exclaimed.
“Ah yes. Stupendous. And the whole peninsula is actually a part of the Andes Mountains,” commented Anton Faber.
“Huh? The South America ones? Y’don’t say!”
“Indeed so. But you can’t see the connecting peaks, because they are beneath the ocean.”
The skyship flew on, passing over a corner of the Weddell Sea. The shores far below were edged with pack ice. As Tom and his companions watched through powerful electronic binoculars, they made out numerous flocks of penguins, as well as several spouting whales.
When Daryl Blake handed the binoculars to Harold Voorhees, the engineer handed them back with disdain. “Never mind. I’ve seen the sights before, thank you.”
The Sky Queen followed a curving course over the Ronne Ice Shelf toward the interior of the Antarctic. In a matter of minutes Tom called for everyone’s attention.
“Look down, folks! Right over there—the South Pole!”
Voorhees glanced at Chow, who was gazing down at the glittery white landscape in open-mouthed fascination. “Of course there’s no actual pole there, you know,” he told the Texan.
“I know’d that!” declared Chow indignantly. “And there’s no pole in a polecat neither.” As Voorhees turned away, Chow added under his breath, “—ceptin’ maybe when they fly!”
Tom’s destination was a broad, flat canyon in a low mountain range close to the Earth’s southern magnetic pole, which was displaced from the geographical pole by some 800 miles. According to the lithosonde readings, this was the point on the earth’s surface closest to the vein of molten iron that Tom planned to tap.
As the Queen drew close to the location, Daryl Blake cried out, “Look! Huskies!”
Using his own binoculars, Tom scanned the whiteness below and quickly spotted a string of sled dogs! Banking sharply, he swooped down for closer scrutiny.
Suddenly his view was blanked out as if a white curtain had been drawn across their path. The skyship shuddered violently as winds of tornado velocity shoved it aside from its course. They had run head-on into a force of tremendous, deadly power—a massive Antarctic blizzard!
“EMERGENCY stations, everybody!” Tom yelled as the Flying Lab pitched and yawed like a runaway bronco.
“W-what’s wrong with the gyros?” cried one of the technicians.
“The winds—changing too quickly!” gasped the young inventor in reply.
Dr. Faber was trying desperately to strap himself in. “My word!” he cried as Daryl Blake moved to assist the older man.
“Get us out of here, Swift!” demanded Harold Voorhees. “This will damage my instruments!”
Tom did not bother answering but let the Sky Queen do his talking for him. He fed power into the jet lifters and the ship roared upward into the tumult of the skies above them. The roiling snow and clouds fled downward past the viewports. Then with a final shock that was felt throughout the craft, polar sunlight broke in on all sides. They had risen above the blizzard!
Tom’s heart was thudding as he set the controls on automatic and turned to his companions. “I apologize, folks. I should have been keeping an eye on our weather radar instead of looking at the ground.”
“Ultra-high-altitude storms like that are fairly rare,” commented Anton Faber, straightening his eyeglasses. “No one can blame you for being unprepared.”
“We’ll discuss blame on some later occasion,” Voorhees said coldly. “I’m going below to check my materials.”
Tom quickly contacted the three supply jets and warned them of the blizzard. “Thanks, pal!” Bud radioed back. “We’re doing fine, though—just crossed the Antarctic Circle. I can see Slim’s and Arv’s planes off to starboard.”
Scrutinizing the weather radar data, Tom realized that the fast-moving blizzard had already moved beyond the area of their planned encampment. He brought the Queen back down again and looked for signs of the dogsled team. But he could see nothing but undisturbed whiteness below.
“Mebbe the snow covered ’em up,” said Chow.
“No, I don’t think so,” Colonel Eagle Friend countered. “Most of the storm activity was in the upper air, and the snow was carried off by the winds. I say, if you wish my opinion, that we are looking down at what is called a ‘white-out’—a weather phenomenon in which low-lying mists and icy fog reflect back the sunlight and reduce visibility to zero.”
After noting an absence of motion on the down-sweeping radar, Tom could do nothing but proceed to the base location. Presently he called out, “There it is!”
“Does our little canyon have a name?” asked the colonel.
“No,” Tom answered. “Just map coordinates.”
“Then we gotta name her!” Chow pronounced. “How’s about Pluto Canyon?—cause I hear tell Pluto’s the old god of th’ underworld, an’ that’s where we’re headed!”
Tom laughingly accepted the suggestion. Riding low to the snow-blanketed ground, he maneuvered the great craft into the canyon, then made a quick check of some instruments on the broad panel in front of him.
“Another radarscope?” inquired Daryl Blake.
“Yes,” Tom confirmed. “Phase-diffraction ground penetrating radar, to be exact. Just making sure we land on a relatively thin layer of snow over solid rock, not a hidden lake.” He found an adequate spot to land and eased off on the lifters.
The shock of landing was somewhat severe. “I had to make it a little rough,” he said apologetically. “The lifters were shut down higher than usual, so as not to melt the snow and land us in a pond.”
“Leastwise we’re here,” remarked Chow. “Ever’body, welcome to Camp Pluto!”
Most of the crew suited up and jumped to the ground, clad in their heated parkas. Like a small battalion they went to their appointed tasks, and soon Camp Pluto was alive with a frenzy of activity. There was considerable work to be done in the hour or so before the supply jets arrived.
There was fog in the air, and even simple tasks seemed lengthy and grueling, working with gloved hands in the bitter Antarctic cold. But by the time the thunder of jets could be heard, the fog was lifting rapidly. Strong winds sweeping up from the Pole helped scatter the last shreds of it toward the distant Antarctic Ocean.
Using the ski undercarriage, Bud landed first, followed by Hanson and, minutes later, Slim Davis. They taxied in close to the Sky Queen and cut their engines. Soon Tom and Bud were clasping hands through their thick gloves.
When Tom described the dog team they had seen, Bud gave a half-growl. “Our Excelsis Club pals must’ve already established a base somewhere close—which means trouble for us.”
Tom immediately put all hands to work building the planned series of large igloo-like structures for housing the planes, stores, and equipment. Each igloo consisted of an open netting stretched over curving prefabricated beams. A powerful pump then shot a watery mist over the netting, creating a layer of dark ice which the polar chill would keep solid for many days. After further layers were applied, each structure was lined with sprayed-on Tomasite foam and lighting was installed.
The sun, pale and ivory-colored, moved in the sky but never set, remaining in sight at all times and providing the travelers with a continuous glow of weak, watery light. The passage of time seemed to have been suspended, and only Chow’s amplified “dinner bell” divided afternoon from evening. With the men assigned shifts, work continued around the clock, and twenty-four hours after Bud’s arrival the job was nearly completed.
As all hands gathered in the crew’s quarters of the Sky Queen to eat a hearty, steaming-hot meal, Daryl Blake sat down next to the roly-poly cook.
“We’re trying to figure out a riddle,” Blake said, giving Tom a wink. “Chow, there’s one place on earth where you’d face north, no matter what direction you turned. Do you know where that is?”
The likable cook scratched his sparsely-haired head as Tom grinned. “I’d say deep in the heart o’ Texas!”
Everyone laughed heartily and Blake said, “No, here at the South Pole!”
“You mean every direction is up? That’s more’n I kin take, podners! I’m going back to my pots an’ pans!”
Chow was just finishing the cleanup when an excited crewman ran up to Tom, shouting: “There’s a plane coming! I just picked it up on the radar! Looks like a heavy bomber!”
All work stopped as the men came dashing up to hear the news. Bud looked at Tom in dismay. “Bronich!” he gasped.
There was no time for speculation. Tom already had assigned each crewman to a special post in case of emergencies. Now he barked an order:
“All hands to stations! Stand by to repel attack!”
As the men raced to their emergency posts, they heard the drone of the approaching plane. An instant later the strange ship arrowed down out of the brooding gray skies. It was a jet bomber!
As the plane swooped low over the camp, the bomb-bay doors flashed open and a metallic-colored object plunged earthward.
“A bomb!” Chow cried out. Shutting his eyes tight, he clamped both hands over his ears. But the expected blast never came. The object merely plummeted into the snow. Then the enemy plane zoomed upward and whined away over the mountains.
Tom waited a full two minutes to make sure the plane would not return. Then he emerged from the laboratory igloo, shouting and fanning his arms back and forth in a signal of “All clear!” Everyone made a dash toward the object in the snow. But Tom warned them back until he’d had time to inspect it and make sure that it contained no booby trap or time-delayed explosive.
It developed that the metal-gray object was merely a cloth sack, weighted with rocks and containing a written message. The others gathered around as Tom read it aloud.
THE UNITED STATES HAS NO RIGHT IN THIS PART OF THE ANTARCTIC. ABANDON YOUR BASE AT ONCE OR WE WILL ATTACK WITHOUT RESTRAINT!
Angry murmurs arose from the crewmen and Chow Winkler exploded with indignation. “Why, them jet-propelled polecats!” he raged. “Sounds like they’re fixin’ to start a war at the South Pole!”
“IF THEY want trouble, they can have it!” said Tom in iron-edged tones. “But first we’ll call their bluff.”
“Will you be sending the return message the same way, Skipper?” asked Arv Hanson.
“No, I have a method in mind that better expresses my feelings,” declared Tom. He suddenly grinned. “C’mon, didn’t you ever practice your cursive writing in the snow?”
Bud looked incredulous. “Genius boy, you don’t mean—!”
After briefly logging on to a website that provided Kranjovian translations of certain common phrases, Tom carted one of the powerful water-spray pumps over to a broad slanting snowbank, as clean and white as a blank billboard, that the winds had frozen hard under a thin crust of ice. After slightly warming the water and dropping in a tablet of red dye, he turned the pump to full power. Carefully manipulating the nozzle with his hands, the sharp stream etched a single word in the snowbank:
As Tom examined his work, which would be easily visible for miles, Chow asked: “What’s it say, boss?”
“Oh, it’s a common Kranjovian term—a colloquialism.”
“But what does it mean?”
Tom grinned mischievously. “Well, pard, it means No!—more or less!”
Chow nodded sagely. “I bet you wouldn’t want to say it to your old Kranjovian grandma, huh.”
Bud laughed. “Chow, you win that bet!”
The entire crew reentered the Sky Queen as the craft’s radar beams searched the skies for danger. But all was still and quiet.
“No clever comebacks so far,” Bud remarked tensely. “But something tells me it won’t last.”
“Rude language is hardly likely to make our foes turn tail and run,” Arv Hanson said. “I’m sure we can expect another attack.”
“But look, guys—what are they after, anyway?” asked Slim Davis. “You suppose Bronich wants to beat you to the iron ore with some mechanical borer of his own?”
Tom shrugged. “We don’t know. He was collecting video info on the mechanical earth blaster. Maybe Kranjovia suspects that the U.S. will claim the vein and horde the ore. But that’s not what’s planned. After the costs of the mission are covered, it will become a world resource ultimately administered by the United Nations.”
Roy MacGregor, the project meteorologist, now spoke up. “In my opinion, it might be a good idea to contact Washington right away about the threat. We pay the State Department to deal with things like this!”
“True enough!” Tom responded. But when he tried the radio, he could only receive a buzzing, whirring sound.
“Aw man!” cried Daryl Blake. “They must be jamming our signal!”
Tom made a number of adjustments and tried several instruments. Finally he turned back to the anxious group with a puzzled expression on his face. “I don’t understand this at all,” he said. “I can’t get a fix on the source of the jamming.”
“I will make a guess that they’re bouncing their interference signals off these mountains behind us, like radar,” Colonel Eagle Friend suggested.
Voorhees assumed his customary smug inflection. “Have you ruled out the possibility that some defect in your instrumentation is the cause?”
Tom held back his temper with difficulty. “We’ll check everything out in due course,” he replied evenly. “But static or not, we have to keep to our schedule.”
Suddenly they were interrupted by Hank Sterling, arriving from the lower deck. “Colonel! Something’s going on with your dogs down below!”
Colonel Eagle Friend rushed down to the hangar deck, followed by Tom and Bud. Long before they slid open the panel door, they could hear the ragged sound of frantic barking.
“Come now, boys and girls!” scolded the Colonel. After a few comforting phrases in the Chinook language, the dogs became calm again.
“What got into ’em?” Bud asked.
“I have no idea,” George Eagle Friend responded. “The flight itself did not seem to bother them.” He gestured at a head-high crate strapped down near the makeshift kennels. “From the way they move and sniff, it seems they are disturbed by that box. What is it?”
Tom strode over to the crate and read the writing on the side. “It’s just one of the crates from that sporting-goods company—skis and things. Maybe the dogs heard some of the equipment shift.”
Bud held up and hand, silencing the others, and pointed. A foil wrapper lay crumpled up near the crate.
“And what are these crumbs on the floor?” whispered the Colonel. “I don’t feed Klootch and the others such stuff!”
Tom’s face assumed the visual equivalent of Oh, no! Removing a large crowbar from a utility clamp on the nearby bulkhead, he started to pry at the lid of the crate. But before he could make any progress, the entire side of the container swung open like a door!
Bud winced. “Great. Anybody need their braces tightened?”
“Colonel Eagle Friend—I’m not very pleased to introduce you to Jerry Landis, DDS—also known as Dr. Sneffels!” proclaimed Tom.
Landis stepped out of the crate and straightened up. “I suppose it wasn’t difficult to dope out my real name,” he said sheepishly.
Tom shook his head in half-amused resignation. “Let me take a guess. The Terranoids ordered you to stow away!—right?”
“I—I wouldn’t call it an order,” the man replied. “But when my ex-brother-in-law mentioned that you were going off on a polar expedition, I put two and two together!”
“What did you come up with?” inquired Bud sarcastically.
Tom briefly explained Landis and his concerns to the Colonel, who listened stonefaced. “Then is this man a danger?”
“Oh, no no no!” exclaimed Landis. “I meant no harm. I bribed a couple of Bob’s employees to rig up this little compartment for me. I just had to go along, in case your digging operations were to disturb the—well, you know. I thought that if I were on hand I might be able to help you communicate with them.”
“The main danger was to you, Doctor,” commented Tom. “You might have been exposed to low temperatures and dehydration.”
“Oh, I had my fleece jacket, a water canteen, and a dozen energy bars. And I’ve been sneaking out now and then to use the little boy’s room.”
“When you snuck back in just now, you dropped one of your wrappers,” said Colonel Eagle Friend. “I used shiny objects in training my lead dogs, and the sight of it started them barking, which set off all the rest.”
“I’m sorry,” Landis said. “I’m only trying to protect our world, you know.”
“I can’t spare a plane to send you back,” said the young inventor. “Not even if we repackage you! But you are to stay in the open areas with other crew members from now on. We’ll be watching you.”
Landis nodded meekly. “I understand. Thank you.”
After introducing the new mission member to the astonished crew, Tom made ready for the next task—the all-important job of finding the precise site for the launch of the atomic earth blaster. The Flying Lab lifted off and hovered at an altitude of 500 feet as Tom used the ground penetrating geo-radar, scanning back and forth across the floor of Pluto Canyon.
Finally he said to Jill Sharberg, the mission seismologist and geophysicist, “How do those readings look to you?”
“I doubt you could do better,” she declared. “A moderate thickness of snow, ice, and slush; a layer of gravel—then good solid granite.”
Tom flew the ship over to the spot, then descended close to the ground. “Hold on, everyone!” he announced over the loudspeaker. What followed was like a ride on a pogo stick. First he fired up the jet lifters, bouncing the Sky Queen upward, then throttled back, allowing her to descend again. He did this more than a dozen times.
“Is this really necessary?” demanded Harold Vorhees.
“Feeling a little green, Hal?” needled Bud.
“I have a purpose,” Tom explained. “I’m using the heat from the lifters to melt down a large depression in the snow and ice below us. When we pump out the water, we’ll set up the earth blaster right in the middle. The idea is to use the hollow to pool the molten iron when it comes shooting up the shaft.”
“Quite ingenious,” remarked Dr. Faber.
Finally the pit was large enough, and Tom directed the workers already on the ground to begin pumping out the water.
“Aren’t you going to land the Queen?” inquired Bud.
“First I want to take a hop up to the stratosphere,” responded the young scientist, throttling up the jet lifters. “We should be able to rise above the jamming waves at that height.”
The Sky Queen mounted up like an elevator into the pale sky, which gradually darkened as the air thinned around them. Tom leveled off in the mid-stratosphere, as several crew members crowded around to observe his efforts.
But it was futile. “The interference is as strong as ever,” Tom declared. “Let’s head higher.”
The search for clear channels was repeated several times, until the Flying Lab was hovering near its maximum altitude on the very edge of black space. But Tom’s efforts availed nothing. “It’s beyond me!” he exclaimed in disgust.
“Yes, I dare say it is,” came an oily voice.
“Something you want to say, Voorhees?” snapped Arv Hanson.
Voorhees’s lip curled in a sneer.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you started facing the facts?” he inquired with a nasty edge to his voice.
“Such as?” asked Tom.
“Such as the fact that you’ve bungled this expedition from the word go!”
Bud shoved his way forward to stand face to face with Voorhees. “Maybe you’d like to back up that statement, Hal,” he suggested, knowing the nickname would irritate Voorhees. “Tell us exactly how Tom has bungled this expedition.”
“I should think that would be obvious, even to you, Barclay—you, who is only along for the ride as number one playmate of the boss’s son!” Voorhees jeered.
Tom took an angry step forward, but Voorhees plunged ahead in his rant. “While we’ve been wasting valuable time setting up a base here—on a site, by the way, which was chosen personally by young Mr. Swift and his handpicked team of ‘experts’—this Bronich has probably picked the ideal spot for drilling! And now you can’t even keep him from jamming your transmissions! So here we are, isolated and vulnerable in the middle of this waste of ice and snow.”
Anton Faber and Daryl Blake both began to protest Voorhees’s accusations. But Tom merely held up a hand to silence them and stiffly turned back to the control panel.
Scarlet with anger, Bud stalked from the control compartment, followed by Arvid Hanson.
Hanson returned a moment later. “Where’s Bud?” asked Daryl Blake.
“Chilling out down below,” Hanson replied. “I don’t blame him.”
After a few more attempts, Tom announced that he was unable to break through the wall of interference. As he piloted the Sky Queen into the lower atmosphere, heading back to base, Bud’s voice suddenly erupted from the intercom.
“Tom! You’d better get down to the hangar pronto! Bring Voorhees with you—we’ve got a problem!”
“After you,” said the young inventor to Voorhees, motioning for Arv Hanson to take over the controls.
They made their way to the ship’s flying hangar. Tom was surprised to note that Bud had swung open one of the smaller loading doors at the side of the large compartment.
“Well? What is it, Barclay?” Voorhees demanded, pulling on his thick gloves in the frigid air.
“A problem in low-temperature engineering,” Bud said grimly. “I assume that’s right up your alley—Hal.” Bud indicated a section of hull at the top of the portal.
“No doubt I’ll be able to handle it,” sniffed Voorhees, moving closer.
“No doubt,” said the young pilot. “Then try handling this!”
To Tom’s horrified amazement, Bud’s fist shot out in a thudding punch that caught Voorhees in the middle of his back. The engineer flew forward and toppled through the hatchway into empty space!
HAROLD VOORHEES didn’t exit the skyship with his dignity intact. He screeched like a squeaky hinge, arms flailing. The shriek was doubled as one of Voorhees’s arms hooked with Bud’s, pulling the young pilot off balance and yanking him out the hatchway at Voorhees’s heels!
Sick with horror and dread, Tom approached the open hatch—and halted in boggling surprise.
The Flying Lab was hovering only a few dozen feet off the ground!
Bracing himself and looking down, Tom saw two snow-draped figures struggling in a deep drift.
“Arv!” Tom cried into the intercom. “Shift one hundred feet to starboard and set us down! Bud and Voorhees have fallen out and are in the snow beneath us!”
As soon as Hanson had nimbly set down the craft well to the side, Tom hurled himself out the open hatch and into the soft snow. At an awkward trot he made his way toward Bud and Voorhees, who were staggering back and forth hunched over as if injured.
Something white and glittery arced by Tom’s head, then another. Then—contact! A snowball rammed the young inventor’s shoulder and burst like a dandelion puff.
Bud Barclay and the eminent Harold Voorhees were engaged in a furious snowball fight! They were shouting incoherently, and—Tom suddenly realized—laughing wildly, like two children at play.
“Guys, what in the—!” The end of Tom’s shout was swallowed up in a pelting rain of snowballs from both combatants, which Tom Swift laughingly returned in kind.
Finally the three ended sitting down flat, legs extended, exhausted.
“Who won?” asked Tom.
“I did, obviously,” responded Voorhees.
“In a pig’s eye!” protested Bud.
“Now shake hands—both of you!” Tom ordered. “And don’t give me any argument.”
The commanding ring in his voice produced an immediate result. Voorhees crawled over to Bud and offered his gloved hand. Bud tottered up on his knees and shook it.
“Sorry if I—er—surprised you, Harold,” muttered Bud.
“You sure did, kid,” responded Voorhees, breaking into a grin that suggested apology. “And… call me Hal.” The concession obviously came hard. Voorhees added: “If you must!”
Bud hoarsely explained to Tom that he had arranged with Arv Hanson to bring the Sky Queen almost to ground level over a spot that the geo-radar showed was well-cushioned with fresh snow.
“I deserved it,” admitted Voorhees. “I have a reputation for being—difficult. I suppose it’s become a habit. I apologize for my comments, Tom. Given the circumstances you’re handling this project masterfully.”
Tom chuckled. “I’m just glad we didn’t lose two valuable team members in the snow.”
The snow fight released a great deal of the tension that had built up among the mission members. For the next twenty hours, the work seemed to fly by almost effortlessly. The molten iron collector pit, emptied of water, became a point of concentrated activity as a framework gantry tower was constructed to hold the earth blaster. Meanwhile, around the periphery of Pluto Canyon, three narrow shafts, equidistantly spaced, were sunk about six feet into the solid rock that underlay the snow. An ultrasensitive lithosonde sensor was lowered to the bottom of each shaft, and the shafts packed densely with Tomasite foam. These electronic “ears” would allow Tom to monitor the precise speed and position of the blaster during its descent, using three-dimensional triangulation, calculated by computer.
As Tom completed a successful check of the monitoring equipment, Chow Winkler sidled into the control compartment offering hot cider—and a troubled expression.
“Something on your mind, Chow?” Tom inquired.
“Wa-aal, not really… mebbe.” The cook approached Tom and spoke softly. “Tom, d’you suppose there’s somethin’ to that stuff the dentist talks about? About how them adenoids underground is goin’ to invade us?”
Tom stifled a smile. “Scientifically speaking, I suppose I can’t absolutely rule it out. Does it really bother you?”
“Naw!” he replied unconvincingly. “Mebbe a little.”
The young inventor clapped his good friend on his broad back. “Chow, speaking unscientifically, I’d say there’s about as much chance of our setting off a Terranoid invasion as—as the Rio Grande taking off for Canada!”
Chow beamed. “Now you’re talkin’ my language!”
But Tom was frowning as Chow left. He was annoyed that Dr. Landis’ strange ideas were being spread to the crew.
As Tom made his way back to the main exit hatchway, intent on inspecting the progress on the launch gantry, he met Daryl Blake and Dr. Faber. Blake, excited as a schoolboy, ushered Tom to the botany lab on the Sky Queen, where he had been working steadily since their arrival.
“Now, my friends,” announced the red-haired scientist as Tom and Dr. Faber followed him into his workshop, “feast your eyes on this!”
With the air of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Blake produced two exhibits of lichens—a small clinging plant found at the South Pole. One specimen was frozen solidly in ice, the other was growing luxuriantly under the rays of a sun lamp.
Next, he pointed out a display of ivy and mountain pinks—some quick-frozen and some flourishing in a tray “garden.” Tom and Faber looked on fascinated as Blake continued: “This experimental treatment will revolutionize horticulture and the study of plant growth! From now on, seedlings and small plants can be frozen and shipped anywhere in the world, and safely revived!”
Tom exclaimed: “And not only that—freezing would kill off any harmful insect life that might be carried along.”
Dr. Faber’s eyes danced. “Think of it! Vital seeds and shoots for growing food and making medicines, quick-frozen for indefinite storage!”
As Blake finished showing his exhibit, Tom congratulated the botanist on his success. “But I’m nowhere near done,” said Blake excitedly. “Colonel Eagle Friend and I are about to leave on a little dogsled safari along the base of these mountains. About an hour to the east, satellite photos indicate an ancient lakebed, frozen over since the Mesozoic. I’m anxious to see what sort of micro-plantlife might still be clinging to life along the old shoreline.”
“I can’t tell you to keep in touch by radio,” Tom commented wryly. “But take some impulse rifles and flareguns along.” The impulse rifles, like the smaller versions called i-guns, fired silent, paralyzing electric charges at their quarry.
As the three left the laboratory, Dr. Faber said to Tom, “I was wondering if you’d care to accompany me on a short field trip to study the Antarctic wildlife at the edge of the ice shelf? I’m particularly interested in making some observations on the behavior of penguins and whales. Slim Davis has agreed to fly me there, as he is not required here at the moment.”
“Fine!” agreed Tom, who was in the mood for some recreation. “Right now I’m not required myself!”
After a good breakfast—for it was early in the nightless day—Tom and Dr. Faber took off, Slim piloting the same jet he had flown from Shopton. At first the sky was clear, and the mountain ridges cast blue-black shadows in the snow. Everything stood out in sharply chiseled detail. On the exposed cliff faces, red and green lichens mingled with white and gray patches against the blackish rock, creating a colorful effect.
But gradually the sky became overcast. Earth and sky seemed to meet in a ghostly, shadowless white universe with no horizon. Faber directed Slim toward the Bay of Whales, a watery indentation in the great Ross Barrier.
On a snow field at the edge of the water, where they sighted a large school of Acklie penguins, Slim brought them down for a landing using the ski undercarriage. The friendly, frolicking birds seemed absolutely fearless and quickly came waddling over to inspect the visitors. With their white breasts, shiny black coats, and flippers, they looked like funny little gentlemen in evening clothes.
Dr. Faber made notes and took photographs while Tom watched some of the penguins playing a game. A group would gather around a snow hill and watch solemnly while one climbed to the top. He would stand staring out to sea for a while, then another would climb up and push him off. The newcomer, too, would stand gazing off into the distance until another penguin pushed him off. One by one, they took turns being “king of the hill.”
Finally one of the penguins began picking up small pebbles in his beak and bringing them over to drop at Tom’s feet. “He seems to have taken quite a shine to you.” Dr. Faber chuckled. “That’s a sign of penguin approval. Incidentally, that’s how a gentleman penguin woos the lady of his choice.”
“Good night!” Tom grinned. “Let’s get out of here before he tries to kiss me!”
They took off, this time cruising over the open water hoping to sight a whale. The bay was studded with drift ice and floating icebergs. Unlike the northern variety, these Antarctic bergs were long and flat, some extending for two miles in length.
At Dr. Faber’s request, Slim brought the plane down again next to the shoreline so they could observe some of the seals which were sliding on the ice. As the veteran pilot maneuvered the craft skillfully alongside several of the creatures and cut the engines, the elder scientist gave a sudden cry of alarm. Tom looked in the direction he was pointing, then gasped.
From behind an iceberg, a mammoth whale had reared its enormous head and was charging directly toward them!
“He’ll beach himself!” exclaimed Slim.
“I rather think, young man, I’d be more concerned about us!” retorted Dr. Faber breathlessly.
Slim gunned the jets and the craft began to bounce and slide across the ice field that ran down to the water. The charging whale seemed attracted to the flame of their exhaust and altered his course as if to intercept them.
“Full throttle, Slim!” urged Tom. “Hit the sky!”
Slim pulled back the stick and blasted the jets. The plane skidded, bounced twice—and lifted off.
Dr. Faber looked back. “The poor fellow looks disappointed.”
Tom raised his eyebrows. “I’ll send him a card from Shopton!”
As the jetcraft mounted higher, Tom tried the radio. But again there was only the roar of static. “I don’t get this at all,” murmured the young inventor. “They can’t have covered the whole of Antarctica with their jamming signal.”
“Maybe it’s those underground people,” Slim commented under his breath. Tom shot him a glance and was disturbed to see that the pilot was serious!
A short time later the jet rumbled to a stop near the other crafts at Camp Pluto. “Where is everyone?” asked Dr. Faber as they got out.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Tom said. His instincts told him that something was wrong!
Just then the main hatchway popped open on the side of the Flying Lab, and Harold Voorhees leaned out, waving his arms. “Hurry!” he called. “Get on board!”
The three stumbled up the boarding ladder and Voorhees pulled the hatch shut. “We’ve gone to emergency stations,” exclaimed the scientist, his voice at its highest pitch. “Despite the interference, Hank Sterling is certain he’s picked up an unidentified aircraft heading this way on the radar!”
“An attack!” gasped Slim.
“And probably a real one this time,” Tom declared. “But we can’t cut and run—not with the equipment already in place.” But even as he spoke he became aware of the thudding sound of distant helicopter blades. Tom took a quick look out the viewport next to the hatch. “A chopper, coming down the pass in the mountains!”
Tom didn’t bother mentioning what else he saw—an automatic multi-missile launcher suspended beneath the large military-type helicopter gunship. Suddenly flares of bright light flickered across the front of the barrel-like launcher.
In an instant the Swift station was shuddering to the roar of warheads exploding on every side. The attack had begun!
THE SKY QUEEN rocked violently from side to side. Keeping his feet with difficulty, Tom switched on a bulkhead intercom. “All crew! This is Tom! Everyone down to the first deck hangar on the double!”
Tom then made his way up to the control deck, taking the steps two at a time and trying desperately not to fall.
“Tom!” shouted Bud from the steps above him. “Where are you—?”
“Control!” replied the young inventor tersely as he leapt past his pal. He didn’t have to look back to know that Bud Barclay had turned around and was following close behind him.
In the control compartment the two youths crouched down low, making their way between the contour seats toward the main pilot’s panel. Glancing out the large viewpanes they were shocked at the damage being done Camp Pluto by the aerial attack. One of the ice igloos had already collapsed in a haze of black smoke, and even as they watched a series of the small missiles struck another of the domes, which promptly caved in.
“The duplicate blaster!” Bud groaned through gritted teeth. “They got it!”
Tom did not speak but warily rose halfway and fumbled with the control-panel levers. Suddenly there came a sensation of motion—Tom was retracting the Flying Lab’s landing gear, causing the great skyship to sink down toward the ground. “That’ll keep the bottom deck safer,” he muttered.
Throughout the incident they could hear the metallic bang of scores of the missiles ramming the hull of the Sky Queen. But the warheads were of the proximity type and not a single one detonated, thanks to the radar-absorbent Tomasite coating that enveloped the ship.
Suddenly the roaring racket was replaced by dead silence. Tom and Bud slowly rose to their feet and looked out over the base, ears still ringing.
“There they go!” Bud pointed off into the distance, and Tom glimpsed the chopper disappearing behind a mountain peak.
But was the attack over—or was this a trick to draw the crew into the open? Tom checked the radar screen and saw, through the swirl of static, the glowing shadow of a large object moving swiftly away. He watched the radar return until the gunship could no longer be distinguished, then picked up the control panel microphone. “This is Tom! The enemy is gone for now, but no one is to exit the ship until further word.”
The crew members cautiously filtered back into the rest of the ship. Some were wild with anger, some clearly fearful—but all were shaken and distressed at the damage done the operation.
“Tell me, Tom—will you be able to continue the project?” asked Carol Heiden of the mineralogy department.
It was Chow who answered for his boss. “You must be loco from the cold! Never seen the day that this young’un would turn tail and run—not Tom Swift!”
Chow’s confidence caused a trace of tears to well up in Tom’s eyes. “I swear we’ll go forward somehow.”
“Even if we have to dig down to the center of the earth with teaspoons and nail files!” Bud added.
First, though, the overall damage had to be assessed. Despite impressions, the wreckage proved not to be ruinously extensive. Unsurprisingly, Tom’s snowbank message had been targeted and completely obliterated. Far more significant was the damage to the duplicate earth blaster. After the ceiling of the igloo had fallen in, one of the missiles had scored a direct hit on the machine. “The shell of the blaster is so strong it probably could have got through it without a problem, if it had been closed-up,” Tom explained to Bud as he stood working a portable control unit next to the blaster. “Unfortunately the access panels were all standing open for testing.”
Bud watched keenly as his pal ran a series of diagnostic tests, trying to evoke a sign of life from the device. “Totally dead, Tom?”
“Good as,” replied the youthful scientist bitterly. “The coolant gas has leaked away, and the main vector joint assembly—where the chassis bends—is ruined.” He fed a small current into the fore-electrodes, producing some sparks. “The new electrode design protected them, and the atomic pile module wasn’t breached, thank goodness. But this baby isn’t going anywhere except home.”
“Then the upshot is, no backup earth blaster,” Bud declared. “Which just means we’ll have to make a perfect shot the first time!” Tom grinned at the reassuring sentiment.
Tom heard a voice calling his name and trotted to the arched opening of the half-wrecked igloo. It was Arvid Hanson. “Skipper, the Kranjovians may be coming back to demand our surrender!”
“A team is approaching—a dogsled!”
But it proved to be George Eagle Friend and Daryl Blake returning from their expedition. “We heard the booming and saw the flashes from miles away,” said the colonel. “It wasn’t hard to imagine what was happening.”
“Especially after what we saw on our way to the lake bed!” Blake continued. At Tom’s excited urging the young botanist described how they had been traveling unseen in the deep shadows of the mountains when the helicopter gunship suddenly sprang into the sky as if from thin air! “I think their whole camp is covered over by camouflage—a huge tarp, like a circus tent, made up to look like a snowfield.”
“About twenty-three miles from here,” explained Eagle Friend. “I believe I could find the exact spot on a map by referring to the lay of the mountains.”
“We ought to pay them a visit in the Queen!” grated Bud. “Do we have any fresh ‘bolts of vengeance’ on hand?”
“They have missiles, pal,” Tom pointed out. “My priority is to get the earth blaster launched.”
Feverish hours passed as the tense mission team worked to complete the launch tower, three stories in height, and raise the atomic earth blaster into its vertical cradle at the top. And in addition to his concern over the Kranjovians, Tom had another unwelcome matter occupying his mind: Jerry Landis. The true believer had last been seen outside when Hank Sterling had called everyone into the ship just prior to the attack. In the ensuing confusion he had not been watched, and now he was not to be found.
“The fool must have wandered off into the snow,” declared Voorhees contemptuously.
“He may be lying somewhere injured,” Tom retorted. “We’ll have to spare a few of the nonessential crew to search the area.”
“I will take Klootch and conduct a search,” Colonel Eagle Friend volunteered. Slim Davis, with Chow as an extra pair of eyes, also searched from the air with the Sky Queen. But after hours of careful searching, no trace had been found. It seemed there was nothing more to be done.
But finally came zero hour!—the historic launching of the atomic earth blaster downward into the hidden, mysterious bulk of the planet. As the machine waited in its tower, nose down, Tom stood outdoors next to the control unit at a safe distance, nearly all the mission crew knotted around him at the highest pitch of excitement. All were wearing the anti-rad suits as a precautionary measure.
The new suits had another essential feature. “What’s with these funny-color helmet-windows, boss? Y’kin hardly see through ’em!” objected Chow. “Bad enough we hafta wear these here suits—feller could trip over his own legs!”
“Don’t worry, pard—in a minute you’ll see plenty!” promised the young inventor. “This is it, Hank. Are we ready?” The engineer gave Tom a thumb’s-up.
Tom’s finger stabbed a series of buttons. “Power-up sequence initiated,” he called out. “Arc-field—active!” He struck another button and the entire crowd shrunk back, murmuring in awe. A crackling ball of intense blue-white brilliance—a miniature atomic sun—had sprung to life around the down-thrusting electrodes on the nose of the blaster! The new electrodes had tremendous power. The variable-polarization helmet visors reduced the glare, but nevertheless the watchers had almost to cover their eyes.
Tom counted down, eyes darting between the monitoring instruments and the machine itself.
Strong clamps on the tower flipped open, and the shining metal cylinder fell toward the bare frozen ground that made up the floor of the collector pit. But the earth blaster never actually touched that floor: the arc-field vaporized the rock as it drew near, creating a round shaft about a foot wider all around than the radius of the fuselage. The earth blaster dropped into this shaft with a flash of sparks and electrical fire, and in a split instant Tom Swift’s great invention had vanished from human sight forever en route to the inner world.
To an accompaniment of wild cheering, Tom cried, “She’s away!”
AFTER THE great haste involved in preparing for the launch, the ensuing hours seemed to drag by slowly—though tainted with the ever-present danger of another attack. Tom’s monitoring operation now occupied the main command deck of the Sky Queen, and most of the mission team found reason to pay a visit at least twice every hour.
“I’m a little old to be pestering you like a child, with ‘are we there yet?’ every five minutes,” began Anton Faber hesitantly.
Tom chuckled. “But you want to know if we’re there yet!”
“I’m afraid so. Even age and wisdom can’t keep curiosity at bay.”
The young inventor smiled. “I’m delighted to talk about my baby. Let’s see… according to the triangulation coordinates, at the end of three hours and twenty minutes she’s reached a depth of 69.9 standard miles ‘as the mole digs’ which means she’s averaging slightly over twenty miles per hour.”
“Twenty miles an hour!” boomed the foghorn voice of Chow Winkler. “Brand my cow ponies, you c’n do better’n that in an old jalopy—even on them California freeways.”
Tom laughed and said, “True. But the mechanical version only managed about three miles per hour through solid bedrock, and the Pine Hill setup barely doubled it.”
“So you see, my friend, relative to where we were, we are plunging down into the depths like a falling meteor—albeit a rather sedate one,” kidded Faber.
“But seriously, Tom,” said Otami Karugi, one of the electronics technicians, “is it just falling freely down the hole it’s making?”
“No, Tami,” he replied. He pulled out his notebook and made a couple quick sketches. “The arc-field, projected several feet in front of the nose electrodes, vaporizes everything it touches in an ongoing explosion. And explosion is just the word for it—a tremendous amount of back-pressure is generated, which would keep the blaster from moving an inch if we didn’t push it forward—downward, that is.”
“Okay, boss,” interjected Chow, “but how’re you pushin’ it? Didn’t see no wheels on this model!”
“No wheels,” Tom confirmed. “But the new-type electrodes don’t just create the arc-field, but shape it as well. Instead of bumping the solid nose of the blaster, the exploding gases are funneled into two open ports and conducted right through the length of the chassis to the back end where we have a pair of big exhaust nozzles—the cones you saw. In effect, this turns the machine into an underground rocket!”
“Sure makes a nice round hole, anyway,” commented Daryl Blake.
“Actually, the sideways pressure of the rock strata closes up the hole in seconds—at least that’s what would happen if we hadn’t anticipated the problem.”
“Cover your eyes! Here’s where we see the latest blinding light of Swift genius,” called Bud from the other side of the compartment, where he was lounging with a sandwich.
“Don’t tell me you’re dragging along sections of pipe, as you did in the Pine Hill operation,” Blake exclaimed skeptically.
“Nope,” Tom responded. “But you might say we’re manufacturing our pipeline as we go along! The contoured arc-field allows an outer fringe of exploding gases to escape the intake ports; instead the gases are squeezed sideways around the body of the blaster, where they hit the walls of the shaft with such enormous force that the particles are actually driven several inches right into the hot semi-solid rock. This creates a super-hardened ‘shell’ of dense silicoid matter that coats all sides of the shaft. It won’t last for more than a few days—but that’s enough!”
“When exactly do you expect to strike your vein of molten iron?” asked Dr. Faber. “You see? I’ve returned to my original pestering question!”
Tom glanced at a chart of calculations. “My best guess would be, in five and a half hours, at a depth of one-hundred eighty-eight miles. And then, don’t stand too close to the pit—the molten ore is under such humongous pressure that it will shoot its way back up the shaft in a matter of minutes!”
“By the way,” said Hank Sterling, poking his head into the compartment, “instruments at the pit are showing slowly increasing traces of radiation in the gases coming up the shaft.”
“Contamination from the atomic pile?” asked Daryl Blake.
Tom’s eyes shown with the excitement of challenging new discoveries. “Something more exciting than that, I think! We’re on our way to confirming— ”
Tom’s account was interrupted by the loud buzzing of an automatic alarm. The young inventor took a quick look at a ground-level radarscope readout, and his face blanched. “We have visitors!”
Bud was at his pal’s side in almost a single bound. “What? How many?”
“Big vehicles—probably snowcats of some kind, but moving very rapidly. Three of them!”
Hank Sterling entered the compartment on a run. “Tom, we could lift off and be miles away before they reach us!”
Tom Swift pressed his fingers to his brow, trying to summon the inspiration to make the right decision. But before he could respond, Bud pointed out the viewport and yelled, “Heads up! Missiles!”
The air above was full of contrail plumes from small missiles, fleetingly glimpsed. The trails criss-crossed as if forming a cage over the Sky Queen.
“That answers that!” Tom declared. “We can’t lift off into the path of those missiles.”
Chow Winkler pulled off an imaginary ten-gallon hat, whipped it down to the deck, and stomped down hard on it in furious frustration. “Blasted snow sidewinders!”
Tom abruptly gestured for Bud to follow him, ordering all other members of the crew to remain in relative safety aboard the Flying Lab.
“What’s the big plan, Skipper?” Bud whispered tensely as they descended to the hangar deck.
“We’ll take two impulse rifles and head for the hills,” Tom replied. “We can conceal ourselves among the rocks and pick off the Kranjovians as they get out of their vehicles.”
Working at frantic speed the boys jumped into two helmeted anti-rad garments, grabbed the rifles, and threw themselves out the hatchway, which Tom had set to close automatically behind them. They plodded through the deep snow, conversing in monosyllables over the suit radios, barely able to hear one another due to the ever-present static.
Suddenly their path in the snow was cut by a neat line of well-placed bullets! They whirled. Clad in a warm jacket and parka, holding a powerful conventional rifle, Jerry Landis, DDS, stood in front of one of the ruined igloos.
He motioned for Tom and Bud to ditch their impulse rifles in the snow, backing up the silent command by aiming his rifle directly at Tom’s head. The boys could do nothing but comply.
Landis directed them through the arched door, following them into the igloo. Ahead the pale sunlight fell through the hole in the ceiling upon the ruined duplicate earth blaster. Finding that Tom and Bud could not hear him, he gestured for them to unseal their transparent helmets.
“Guys, I’m supposed to do what I can to secure the base,” Landis said. “So I guess that’s what I’m doing, eh?”
“Who gave the orders?” asked Bud Barclay. “The Terranoids? Or was that story as phony as you are?”
Landis shook his head violently. “The Terranoids are real—and so’s my story! Believe me, I don’t like working for those Kranjovians, not a bit! But they intend to stop your drilling project, and if that’s the only way to prevent a war between the overground and underground worlds, so be it.”
“I understand, Jerry,” said Tom soothingly. “You’re only doing what you think is best.”
“But Bronich and his comrades—they’re just exploiting you. After all, the earth blaster has already been launched. It can’t be turned around, or even switched off. Once launched it works independently of our control.”
Landis grinned broadly. “Oh, sure, I know that, Tom. But see, the plan is to set off a bunch of grenades—I think they’re called thermite incendiary bombs—up on the mountain next to the base here.”
“Okay, so you bring down the mountain on Camp Pluto. So what?” demanded Bud. “Burying us won’t stop the earth blaster.”
“We won’t bury you—not exactly.” Landis’ brow crinkled apologetically. “Now try not to get too upset, you two, but the real idea is to drown you!”
Bud gaped. “Huh?”
“Right. See, those bombs produce a lot of concentrated heat. The heat melts the snow, the water floods the base—covering the two of you, it looks like—but the main thing is, it runs down that shaft, and— ”
Tom winced. “I get it. As the molten ore rushes upward, it meets a shaft full of water. Instant steam—instant explosion all the way to the top!”
“That’s why your friend calls you ‘genius boy’!” exclaimed Landis admiringly. “When Bronich and his associate first got in touch with me at the Excelsis Club, I didn’t believe a word of what they were saying—that Swift Enterprises was in league with the Terranoids, digging a route to the earth’s surface for them. But my night visions have confirmed it! I’m absolutely committed to bringing that shaft down on their heads—if they have heads!”
Landis interrupted himself and glanced out the doorway. “Here they come now.”
“The Terranoids?” asked Tom politely.
“I’d rather you not make fun of me,” said Landis, frowning.
The big snowcats, evidently carrying many men apiece, had arrived in camp and come to a halt. Two figures—one tall and gaunt, one short and rather dumpy—came trudging into the igloo, high-powered rifles in hand.
“Bud, you’ve met Ivor Bronich,” Tom said. “And now I’ll introduce you to Drurga Leeskol, mercenary scientist.”
Leeskol managed a weak smile. “Yah, mercenary by necessity, and underpaid at that. And boys, it all goes to alimony payments—I have many ex-wives!”
“Do not get drawn into conversation, Leeskol!” commanded Bronich sharply. “The less said the better.” He turned to Landis. “And you, Jerome, you did very well indeed.”
Landis seemed to squirm with pleasure. “Did I? I appreciate your saying so, Ivor!”
Bronich nodded. “Indeed yes. Of course, you are rather a lunatic, but Kranjovia will take care of you.”
“With a bullet!” Tom pronounced sardonically.
“No, no, Tom, you must be careful,” Bronich remonstrated. “We will preserve you for now, for whatever uses we may put you to. But who knows, if you anger us, we may do something wasteful and unpleasant.” Giving Leeskol a short nod, Bronich turned and left the igloo, saying, “Now to oversee Detar and the others. Be good!”
Leeskol took out a cigarette. “Do you mind, Jerry?”
“No,” replied Landis. “But you know, it’s hard on the gums and yellows your teeth.”
“When that happens, perhaps you will make me dentures, doctor.” Leeskol lit up and breathed a long puff of smoke. He glanced across at Tom and Bud. “Ah well, boys—that Bronich! Horrible fellow, isn’t he? I’ve had to spend weeks in his disagreeable company. A typical Kranjovian. We Croats have no use for those boorish people.”
“But you don’t mind helping them!” Tom observed.
Leeskol tried, and failed, to blow a smoke ring. “Nonsense. I mind a great deal. But you know, the pay is decent, and they offer good medical and dental. Now, I know you have a million questions, Tom. I’ll spare you the drudgery of trying to trick me into revealing our great master-plan. I don’t mind telling you about it. If you can stop it, why not? Kranjovia is not my worry, and my pay has already been deposited.
“You want to know what we are after, surely. Well, the leader-without-peer of Kranjovia, Ulvo Maurig, General-Secretary of the Party, has spent his life transferring to his extended family as much of his country’s wealth as possible. I’m afraid they have become dependent on it. But fifty years of The Party has depleted the natural wealth of that ancient land. All that is left, it seems, is the promise of high-grade iron from a newly discovered site in the Gunta Mountains. And now comes my old buddy Thomas Swift, threatening to undercut the value of that ore by tapping the core of the earth! Tsk-tsk—a problem to be overcome. Do you see?”
“Very clearly,” said the young inventor calmly. “But of course we’ve known all that for some time.”
“No! You amaze me constantly,” joked Leeskol. “But do forgive me for doubting what you claim.”
“Well,” said Tom, “we did discover the jamming transmitters—the one in Dr. Jerry’s big crate, and the others on the supply jets placed by his accomplice in Swift Enterprises security. We left them operational, of course, to draw you out.”
Landis’ eyes grew round as saucers. “Now I know what you’re thinking, Drurga, but— ”
Leeskol ignored him. “And how did you unravel this scheme of my brilliant patrons, I wonder?”
Tom chuckled. “Easily. When Jerry appeared in the hangar deck, the whole thing came clear. There’s no way our security people, with their detection instruments, would have failed to discover him back in Shopton—unless someone was working with him on the inside, secretly. And of course I knew the jamming devices had to be planted inside the Sky Queen and the other jets. You can’t blanket the whole polar icepack from one transmitter without tipping your hand.”
Jerry Landis looked at Tom with an almost worshipful air. “Wow! That’s great thinking! Drurga, maybe we should consider switching sides—do ya think?”
But the mercenary, alarmed and nervous, only shook his head. “Yet here you are, Tom Swift, at our mercy, about to be handcuffed and foot-cuffed to your dear friend and drowned in ice water. And though you know of our ‘in’ in your security department, you do not yet know of the other, the one close to you who disclosed to us your mission into the earth, known only to a very few trusted associates. You do not know who it was. Perhaps it would be kindest not to tell you.”
“Never mind, Leeskol. I want to tell him!”
The voice came from Tom’s side—the voice of Bud Barclay!
TOM SWIFT’S world spun around him as he gaped at his best friend, boggling in unbelieving shock.
“It’s true, genius boy,” said the dark-haired young pilot, stepping forward. “It’s what you’ve been suspecting all along, after all. At first they tried to blackmail me, but after a while I came to realize what a pain it’s been living in your shadow, stroking your ego by calling you genius boy, having to come up with all those gee-whiz juvenile quips day after day. And Shopton! I’m supposed to live in that little pinprick after growing up in San Francisco? Man, did it ever get old!” Bud glanced at the two armed men in cynical amusement. “Aw, close your mouths, guys, before birds start nesting. Besides, Landis, even if they cut Leeskol here out of the loop, you knew about it. Bronich told me.”
Bud shook his head in thoughtful disgust, leaning against the duplicate blaster’s control unit.
“Out of loop? Out of loop? I do not tolerate such treatment!” exploded Leeskol furiously. He glared at Jerry Landis, who began yammering a whining denial.
“Cut it, you two!” commanded Bud. “Get the cuffs on Swift before he faints dead away. Turn around, Tom.”
“I gather you finally saw the light, Bud,” Tom muttered.
Bud’s grin sparkled over his shoulder. “You’re not the only one who gets to be bright around here.”
Leeskol abruptly stiffened. “That sound—what is…?”
With a crackle the atomic sun burst upon the interior of the igloo, a blinding blue-white sun that slammed the eyes as a hundred sonic booms would slam the ears. Trying vainly to shield their eyes, Leeskol and Landis shrieked and collapsed to their knees. Face turned away from the ruined blaster’s sputtering arc-field, eyes narrowed to slits, Bud took two bounding steps, and then a third—a smooth kick-off step that sent Landis’ rifle skittering off across the ice. The dentist yelped in pain—Bud’s kick had caught his knuckles as well.
Meanwhile Tom Swift, crouched and running backwards, had managed to butt the blinded Leeskol in the midsection. The scientist-for-hire fumbled with his weapon, but a series of powerful uppercuts from the young inventor, delivered with closed eyes, introduced Leeskol to unconsciousness.
“I don’t think I can find that kill switch!” Bud shouted. But in a moment Tom had deactivated the duplicate earth blaster and the arc-field had evaporated, leaving behind ten minutes of purple after-images.
Tom and Bud stood looking at one another, their captors down and disabled. Then they embraced warmly as the close friends they had always been.
“Tom, you didn’t really think—I mean, all that junk I said— ”
The young inventor barked out a laugh. “Flyboy, you’re a better actor than I thought! But when I saw you heading for the control panel—and then you had me turn away—!”
Bud Barclay shared Tom’s laughter, gleefully. “Yeah, and how about when you said I’d seen the light, and I said I was being bright!” He paused. “But I figured you’d know I was play-acting when I said you’d been suspicious of me. As if we could ever mistrust one another—genius boy!”
Tom turned away from his pal. “Let’s not forget we’ve still got Bronich and company running around out there.”
They picked up their enemies’ rifles and warily approached the igloo doorway. For the first time they noticed that Camp Pluto was alive with strange sounds—sharp outbursts of noise.
“Bud!” Tom exclaimed. “People are screaming and yelling somewhere!”
Suddenly an unfamiliar figure—one of the Kranjovians—staggered across their field of vision. He seemed to have acquired a large, wriggling appendage on his backside. Cursing in Kranjovian, he collapsed into the snow in a frantic, struggling heap.
“Good night!” cried Bud. “It’s the huskies! Colonel Eagle Friend’s turned the dogs loose!”
It was so. Klootch and his muscular cohorts were charging back and forth across Camp Pluto with fangs bared, and the Kranjovian invaders, taken by surprise and unable to draw a bead on the fast-moving targets, were falling under their powerful jaws.
“Attention Kranjovians!” boomed an echoing voice from the Flying Lab’s external public address system. “This is Arvid Hanson, speaking on behalf of Tom Swift Enterprises! Your leader, Bronich, has surrendered to us, and is ordering you to throw down your weapons and assemble next to the flagpole. Here he is to tell you this himself.” A series of orders in the Kranjov language followed.
“Bet he’s adding a few choice phrases not authorized by Arv!” Bud remarked.
Events followed one another—swiftly. The Kranjovians were taken prisoner and held in one of the ice igloos. Bronich and one of his lieutenants, in fear of their own lives, showed Tom and the project team where the thermite devices were buried, and how to safely disarm them. Meanwhile, Hank Sterling disabled the jamming transmitters on the Sky Queen and the supply jets.
“Listen, Tom,” Bud said. “If you knew where the jammers were all along, why’d you go flying around in the Queen to try to get out of range?”
Tom’s face lit up with mischief. “Pal, I didn’t know about ’em! I literally figured it out on the spur of the moment, right there in front of Leeskol.” He added sheepishly: “Guess I haven’t been thinking too clearly over the last few weeks—for some reason.”
There had been no fatalities among the canine troops, but several of the huskies had been wounded, or had suffered sprains or broken bones. Tom thanked George Eagle Friend for having risked his beloved dogs to save the camp, and the project. “It was time for their exercise anyway,” he said simply as Tom shook his hand.
Tom immediately contacted Swift Enterprises, then the United States government. The “plant” in Harlan Ames’s department was quickly identified and arrested, and a formal protest was lodged by the United States against the Kranjovian authorities—who disavowed all knowledge of Bronich’s actions.
In half a day, a police force from three nations had landed at Bronich’s concealed base, peacefully apprehending those few who remained there.
Tom asked Ames over the radio if the wayward Enterprises employee had been involved in setting the lethal trap for Tom and Bud in Tom’s laboratory. “Let me give a preface first,” replied the security chief. “Bronich’s operation started out as routine surveillance of American technology, progressing to mayhem when the Kranjovian government decided to eliminate you for fear your digging machine might allow the U.S. to compete against their iron-ore plans. It went in a new direction when he got wind of the Antarctic project. Our turncoat, Devlin Meaks, did what he did because he became convinced Kranjovian operatives would retaliate against his family members if he refused. He took orders directly from Bronich. It was Bronich who supplied him with the high-tech devices, developed by Leeskol, that allowed Meaks to foul up your home detector system—in hopes of placing a bug, which they were never able to do—and to remotely override the earth blaster controls in your lab. It was Bronich himself, by the way, who launched those torpedoes in Lake Carlopa.”
“I suppose the purpose of that was to allow Jerry Landis to come across as a hero,” commented Tom.
“Right,” Ames confirmed. “Bronich and Leeskol exploited Landis’ delusions from day one, periodically meeting with him at the Excelsis Club, where Landis signed them in as guests under assumed names.”
“And the contact bomb in Pine Hill?”
“Planted by your rival Charles Picken, a man with a big mouth, a big ego, and a big thirst for alcohol. His secretary turned him in while you were in your involuntary ‘radio silence.’”
“Then that leaves one big question…” Tom began.
“I know, Tom—you want to know who was leaking project information. I’ve been building up to it.”
“Don’t try to tell me it was Bud!” Tom declared.
Ames’s voice was quietly apologetic. “I had no business allowing Steve to spread suspicions like that. Especially since they were completely wrong. No, Skipper, we know who the culprit was. Bronich is singing like an opera star right now.”
“Well, Tom—it was Chow Winkler!”
The young inventor couldn’t believe his ears! For a moment he could not speak.
Harlan continued hastily, “But he’s not to blame. You see, it turns out that our favorite cowpoke talks in his sleep! Bronich managed to place a listening device in Chow’s boarding house—guess he has real faith in those things!—and that’s how he learned about the deep-down dig. I haven’t had the heart to tell Chow.”
Tom sighed. “I won’t either. But maybe we can teach Chow to sleep on his stomach.” He paused, then added: “No, forget it!”
That conversation with Harlan Ames occurred later on, just prior to Tom’s return to Shopton. Days before, the main interest had been the ultimate fate of the atomic earth blaster and the molten iron project.
Even before the dogs had been rounded up and returned to their kennels, Tom had resumed the monitoring operation in the Sky Queen control compartment. He had immediately grabbed the signal record that was steadily issuing from the lithosonde output printer and had begun to scan what had already fallen on the floor.
“Bud!” he shouted triumphantly. “The blaster’s working perfectly! It’s down more than ninety miles now!”
All thought of the attack was forgotten as Tom focused his attention on the progress of the blaster. Watching the dials carefully, he made slight adjustments of the triangulation input “mix” from time to time, as the computer reeled out a steady record of the drill’s progress and also estimated pressure and temperature data.
As the critical moment drew near, Tom announced, “Seventeen-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, everyone!”
“Wow!” gasped Bud. “How deep is the blaster now, genius boy?”
“It’s down over one-hundred-sixty miles!” replied Tom.
A surge of anticipation spread through the camp as the men gathered around the control post. Feeling that tension, Tom felt a need for some open air. “We still have more than a half-hour,” he noted. “Care to join me, Bud?”
Donning the anti-rad gear and helmets, the youths strolled to the edge of the collector pit. Wisps of steam, born deep within the earth, were rising from the shaft opening. Suddenly, as they stood watching, the rush of vapor began to increase markedly. In the course of one minute it became a whitish jet geysering high into the frigid sky.
“What does it mean, pal?” Bud asked.
“Some sort of deep-earth activity along the shaft,” responded the young inventor uncertainly.
They began to feel a vibration in the snow-packed ground upon which they stood.
“Hear that, Bud?” said Tom excitedly. Even through their helmets they could detect a deep rumbling—the groaning of the earth!
“Swift! Barclay!” came the voice of Harold Voorhees within the skyship. “Return immediately! The lithosonde readings— ” The rest of the message was lost to the flood of chaotic sounds around them. The geyser of vapor had become a glowing-hot gas jet roaring skyward with a powerful force, hurling ice and rock fragments upward into a mushroom cloud a mile high.
The two exchanged glances and began to back away from the pit. Suddenly Bud cried out, “Look! There she blows!”
For miles around neither binoculars nor telescope was needed to see the white-hot geyser of molten iron that shot straight up in the air from the open shaft!
Tom’s heart was hammering wildly. The sudden climax to his long months of work and planning left him breathless and dizzy with excitement. Above the cheers and clamor of the crew ringing in his headset, he could hear Bud shouting again and again: “You’ve done it, Tom! You’ve done it!”
The gushing jet of molten iron made a white-hot arc as it plunged down into the hollowed-out artificial lake.
“What I wanna know is how d’you turn the stuff off, after you’ve got enough?” asked Chow in an awe-stricken voice when Tom and Bud had returned to the ship.
“It ought to stop in a few minutes of its own accord,” explained Tom. “As the metal cools, it’ll seal off the hole made by the blaster, by forming a plug of solid iron.”
But the flow seemed endless, and the level of metal inside the lake kept rising rapidly. For a time there was fear that Tom’s calculations about the time might be wrong—that the outpour might continue indefinitely. But in twenty minutes the gush of molten iron dwindled and finally stopped, as though it had been choked off by the turning of a giant throttle.
Grabbing a long-handled ladle, Tom hurried to the pit to skim off some of the top layer of the tons of metal that had not yet completely congealed. Then he rushed to his laboratory to analyze the sample.
“It’s the purest sample of iron I’ve ever seen!” reported Tom excitedly, a judgment confirmed by Carol Heiden.
The other men crowded around, clapping the young inventor on the back and congratulating him.
“Well, I didn’t bankrupt Swift Enterprises, after all.” Tom grinned. “But, brother, things sure had me worried for a while!”
As the days passed and Camp Pluto was broken down for the flight back, Tom and most of the project team couldn’t resist making frequent trips to admire the artificial lake of cooling iron. The protective suits were no longer needed, as the iron plug seemed to have sealed off the radioactive vapors completely. “Good riddance to them rubber suits, anyhoo!” muttered Chow as he stood next to Tom and Dr. Faber beside the pit. “But boss, we better all hotfoot it back inside afore them reindeers start gallopin’ all over the place!”
“Reindeer?” said Tom. “You’re a little mixed up, Chow. There are no reindeer at the South Pole.”
“That’s what you think, son.” The cook chuckled. “Figgered you’d fergit—t’night’s Christmas Eve!”
The next day there was a huge feast in the hangar deck, which the crew had decorated with green and red streamers and a tinfoil Christmas tree. Chow had outdone himself. There was roast cold-storage turkey with chestnut dressing, cranberry sauce, and all the traditional trimmings. To top it all off Chow brought on a huge, steaming plum pudding with hard sauce.
After all hands had stuffed themselves till they could hardly move, they joined in singing “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and other Christmas carols. Then Tom Swift stood and all eyes turned his way.
“I wish I could reward every one of you with a gift that would express my thanks, and my father’s,” he said. “But you’ve all been a part of scientific history; and now there’s a little something I’ve saved for today—an unexpected discovery!”
As the team members stirred in puzzlement, Tom continued: “As you know, we detected considerable radiation in the vapors rising up the shaft. I’ve been studying samples of those particles, and I’ve concluded that they represent some unknown kind of thermonuclear fusion going on deep inside the earth!”
Tom’s announcement caused a sensation. “But Tom,” Voorhees put in, “you say—fusion? Hydrogen fusion, as we find in the sun?”
“That would be incredible enough,” he replied. “But this is stranger yet! I see evidence of higher-element fusion, self-sustained in some mysterious way. As we continue to probe the earth, we may tease out the secret, tapping a source of clean energy in quantities never imagined!”
“If them terror-noids don’t make a fuss about it!” Chow declared, setting off hearty laughter.
Presently the team members were able to speak to loved ones back in the United States, the hangar intercom having been tied-in to the ship’s radio.
Among the last voices to come on were those of Damon and Mrs. Swift, who sent their loving wishes to the boys and everyone else. “And now the girls have something to say,” added Tom’s mother.
“Good gosh! I sure hope Sandy remembered to buy something nice for Bash,” Tom whispered to Bud.
“Oh, Tom!” Bashalli’s voice cooed over the radio speaker. “It is simply beautiful! I never realized you had such wonderful taste!”
“Well—uh—I thought you might like it,” stammered Tom, giving a shrug as Bud chuckled softly.
By way of thanks, Bashalli blew Tom a kiss into the mike, and Sandy did the same for Bud, after thanking him for the silver bracelet and earrings he had given her.
As the party ended, Bud drew Tom aside and led him into the second deck corridor. “I suppose that big brain is already hard at work on the next idea,” Bud remarked.
“Well, I have been having a few thoughts about one idea—building a permanent space station!” replied Tom dreamily. He knew the Outpost in Space project would be an even greater challenge than the Antarctic mission!
His pal shuffled his feet. “I know we weren’t supposed to bring ‘nonessentials’ along,” Bud said quietly. “So plug me with an impulse gun!” He pulled a small wrapped box out of his pocket and handed it to Tom.
“They’ll have to fry us both!” chuckled Tom, pulling out a box of his own. “Merry Christmas, flyboy.”
Tom opened his gift first—an expensive watch. Bud explained, “It gives you the date, year, season, barometric pressure, and due-north; and the two hands are antimissile-missiles. Does everything except tell the time!” he joked.
Bud then opened Tom’s gift. It was the same identical watch! The boys leaned on each other, laughing helplessly. Then there fell the silence that sometimes falls between two close friends.
The door to the command deck slid open. “Tom? I think you’d better look at this!” It was Hank Sterling, his expression unreadable.
Tom and Bud hurried into the compartment. Sterling was holding tapes from the lithosonde triangulation unit. “I printed out the last day’s-worth before starting to pack down the equipment.”
“I haven’t looked at it since the gusher gushed,” Tom admitted. “Didn’t see a need to.”
“What in the world is it, Hank? Did we accidentally crack open the globe?” speculated Bud. “Tell me if California’s falling into the Pacific—my folks own good beachfront property in the Mojave Desert!”
Hank wordlessly handed the tapes to Tom, who examined them. “But this—this can’t be right. This shows the earth blaster still chugging along down below, as of this morning!”
“I thought the molten iron was supposed to destroy it,” observed Bud.
Studying the tapes, Tom said, “Apparently, the gusher came early because a part of the shaft behind the blaster caved in, releasing an undetected vein. The shifting pressures closed and sealed the lower shaft, which protected the blaster from the iron—and also diverted its course. It never did hit the primary vein, and has been going down ever since!”
“Ever since!” gasped Bud. “Where did it get to?”
“When it finally met its maker, it had descended to a depth of— ” Tom gulped in sheer awe. “—of almost three thousand miles! Bud, do you realize what that means? We went right through the mantle—into the earth’s core!”
Bud clutched his chest and staggered back. “I knew I should have had your watch engraved! Let’s see—‘Tom Swift, conqueror of air, water, fire, and earth!’ Sounds right!”
“Absolutely! And what would you like for your inscription, Budworth Barclay?” Tom asked.
“Easy question! ‘Bud N. Barclay—actor, hero—and you should see him in a towel!’”