TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
OUTPOST IN SPACE
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
OUTPOST IN SPACE
DANGER IN THE SKY
“DON’T try it, Tom! We’ll blow up!” warned Bud Barclay as his friend Tom Swift sent the great silver Sky Queen nosing higher and higher. Bud, wild-eyed, nudged the portly figure seated next to him with his elbow. “Chow, Tom’s gone crazy! We’ll have to overpower him!”
“Relax, Bud. This ship can take it,” replied the blond young scientist absent-mindedly. He kept his deep-set blue eyes focused on the instrument panel.
“Y’ cain’t fool ole Chow that easy, Buddy Boy,” said Chow Winkler. “We been up a lot higher ’n this, and that was over th’ South Pole!”
Bud sighed. “Tom, people nowadays are getting mighty blasé about jetting around in the stratosphere. It’s a sad thing for a pilot. What am I gonna have to do to impress people—invent something?”
The altimeter needle showed they were at a height of 85,000 feet—more than sixteen miles up in the purplish black sky. Despite the star-blazed darkness it was only midday. Tom was flying the huge jet skyship, his famous three-decker Flying Lab, as high as he dared in order to test out his latest invention. This was a solar battery, to be charged by the unshielded radiation of the sun.
During the trip Bud had been intently watching the differential pressure gauge. The dark-haired young pilot, a passenger on this trip, knew that the pressurized plane was being subjected to a terrific bursting strain as the air outside grew thinner and thinner. He also knew that the revolutionary craft had proven time and again that it was well-equipped to meet the dangers of upper-atmospheric flight.
As the eighteen-year-old inventor kept the ship in a steady climb, Bud frowned dramatically. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” he muttered with feigned worry. “If this crate blows up in our faces, we won’t even—”
He broke off as the plane gave a violent lurch. There was a groan of tortured metal and the three were nearly wrenched out of their seats.
“What hit us? One o’ them meteors?” Chow gasped, gripping his armrest.
“Turbulent area,” Tom replied, as the giant craft shuddered from stem to stern. Tom manipulated the controls calmly, and after a few jittery moments the ship had reached a safe region of placid air above the “ghost winds.” Then he confidently flipped a switch, pouring power into the jet lifters. Instantly the plane roared upward, leaving mile after mile behind during its startling vertical ascent. As the upper limit of the stratosphere drew near, the Queen leveled off and seemed to hang suspended in the dark crystalline dome of the upper air, far above even the highest clouds.
Tom glanced over his shoulder as his flying companions nestled back into their contour flight chairs in silent relief. “Listen, pal, don’t scare me like that.” Bud gave a grin. “It’s almost as hard on my arteries as one of Chow’s desserts!”
“You kin joke all you wanna, but I noticed you had three helpings o’ pie last night,” Chow commented smugly. The former ranch hand was not only a close friend of Tom and Bud, but their personal chef. He was as used to needling as to Texas sunshine.
“Sorry, guys.” Tom flashed a smile back at them. “You know we’re apt to run into those ghost winds almost anywhere up here. I figured we’d better get above the action quickly before the shaking did any damage.”
“Speaking of ghosts, what’s that at ten o’clock?” Bud suddenly exclaimed.
“I wish you’d give up on tryin’ to spook me,” said Chow languidly, his eyes following Bud’s pointing finger. Then Chow gave a snort of surprise. “Wa-al brand my contrails, what is that thing?”
Glancing to portside, Tom saw a large, silvery sphere floating some distance away. The sharp sunlight glinted off its surface as if off a polished mirror. “Must be a weather balloon.” Tom’s eyes narrowed. “But I’m not so sure.”
Bud glanced at him curiously. “What are you driving at, Skipper?”
Tom raised a pair of binoculars and trained them on the balloon before replying. “That box attached to the balloon—it doesn’t look like the usual type of radiosonde for sending weather signals. Let’s get a closer look.”
Feeding power into the main horizontal engines, Tom sent the ship gliding forward. Then he banked in a tight curve that brought the Queen close to the object. The balloon veered and fluttered in the rush of the plane’s airstream, but the young inventor finally maneuvered the Flying Lab to within twenty yards of it.
Again Tom studied the object as he held the ship steady. “How about it, pal?” asked Bud. He focused his own binoculars on the strange device, then lowered them with a puzzled expression. “It’s no weather balloon, that’s sure. But what is it?”
Tom replied thoughtfully, “Bud, that balloon may be rigged for some kind of solar-battery test.”
“What!” Chow cried in an indignant tone. “Some lowdown rustler tryin’ to beat you to the punch?”
“It’s only a guess. But the reflectors on the surface of the payload capsule certainly fit with that kind of use.”
Chow was disgusted. “Ramblin’ rockets, that means someone else may get the jump on Swift Enterprises before you kin bring your model t’ market!”
Tom shrugged ruefully. “There’s no law against competition.”
Bud asked, “Who do you suppose sent it up?”
“Search me. I’m not aware of any companies doing active work in this area right now.” Tom settled back at the controls. “Well, whoever they are, I wish them luck.” He gently steered the ship away.
The giant bag was rising slowly—floating toward the upper levels of the stratosphere. Then, without warning, the balloon burst, spattering parts of the shiny fabric in all directions. Tom, Bud, and Chow craned their necks to watch the instrument package as it plummeted downward. A moment later a small parachute popped open to float it gently back to earth.
“Hey, let’s go after it!” urged Bud excitedly. “Maybe we can find out whether your hunch is right!”
Tom shook his head. “The persons making the experiment are probably tracing the balloon by its signals. They’ll be all set to retrieve the box when it lands. And after all, it’s their experiment—we don’t want to foul it up.”
“Guess you’re right,” Bud murmured in a disappointed voice.
“Too bad their big balloon popped,” sniffed Chow. But he didn’t look overly sympathetic.
Tom sent the Sky Queen zooming upward in a steep climb. Soon the altimeter needle showed that the ship had crossed the upper border of the stratosphere and had entered the ionosphere as it neared the edge of airless space.
“High as we go,” said Tom, putting the Queen into hover mode.
“Time to let loose that contraption o’ yours, Tom?” asked Chow.
“Yes,” he replied, “assuming everything works properly. I hope the ghost winds didn’t put anything out of whack.”
Even the lower ionosphere was not high enough for Tom to adequately test his new battery, which required exposure to the full intensity of the solar rays that earth’s atmosphere prevents from reaching the ground. As the skyship could not safely attain the altitude desired, he had designed a special carrying vehicle—a low-pressure glider with automatic guidance controls—to lift the experimental battery another dozen miles spaceward. This unmanned and unpowered glidewing, as Tom called it, was to be launched from a special ceilingless compartment at the top of the Sky Queen’s fuselage by means of a powerful electric catapult. In effect, it would be hurled into the ionosphere like a javelin.
After a last check of the instruments, which showed nothing amiss with the glidewing or the launching catapult, Tom activated an automatic countdown and waited tensely for the signal that the small craft was on its way. But instead a cluster of red lights glared on the control panel as the countdown reached zero.
“Looks like something’s wrong, Skipper,” said Bud.
Tom checked the feed from a videocam mounted in the launcher bay. “The glidewing’s shifted in its cradle, and the sensors won’t release the catapult mechanism,” he replied.
“Kin we fix her up here, boss?” Chow inquired.
Tom grinned. “I just have to tap it and jiggle it a little, like a bad TV antenna. I’ll go put on a pressure suit.” At this extreme altitude, the low pressure and subzero temperatures would be fatal to any human being not sealed in a protective covering.
Bud and Chow kept their eyes glued to the video monitor screen on the control panel. They saw Tom squeeze through the narrow airlock into the compartment that held the catapult launcher. He grabbed two of the glidewing’s main support struts and gently pulled the entire lightweight assemblage sideways several inches.
“Does the board show green yet?” Tom radioed.
“Not yet,” replied Bud.
Tom’s helmet rocked in a nodding motion. “Okay, I see the problem. Watch the board.”
With Chow peering anxiously over his shoulder, Bud stared fixedly at the instrument panel. Suddenly all the red lights were replaced by green.
“That’s it, Tom,” Bud said into his microphone. “Come on in.” There was no reply. “Tom?”
Chow’s big hand abruptly clamped down on Bud’s shoulder like a steel claw. Bud glanced up at the expression on Chow’s face, then tracked his gaze to the video monitor screen.
The launching bay was empty!
THE GORILLA MAN
“TOM! NO! No!” Bud cried in horror. “Tom Swift, can you hear me?”
Chow made a whimpering sound. “We gotta—we gotta do somethin’! He musta gone into orbit!”
Bud did not reply. His heart thudded. He knew that this was not a matter of going into orbit around the earth, but of falling through the atmosphere from a height of fifty miles!
An experienced pilot, Bud forced himself to think. He adjusted the radar sweep and immediately noted the characteristic reflection of the glidewing. Amazingly, it seemed to be following its prescribed arc into the ionosphere.
“No sign of—of a body,” Bud choked. Tom hadn’t been caught up in the flinging motion of the catapult, then, which would have exposed him to a bone-snapping acceleration. Bud again reoriented the scan, now sweeping downward. The radar immediately signaled target acquisition!
“There he is!” Bud cried frantically, nodding at a minute blip on the screen.
Bud reset the Sky Queen’s supergyros, not bothering to warn Chow to hang on. The deck tilted sharply as the ship nosed down. Then Bud downthrottled the jet lifters while blasting the forward engines. The Flying Lab arrowed earthward in a roaring power dive that nearly lifted Bud and Chow from their seats!
“Fifteen thousand feet to target... eight thousand... nine hundred... ” Bud reported in a whisper as the seconds ticked away.
“I kin see him!” cried Chow. A small, pressure-suited figure could now be seen through the large cabin viewport, tumbling limply over and over.
“Okay, listen!” commanded Bud. “Run up to the top deck and walk along toward the stern. Look out through every window you come to—tell me over the intercom whether I’m getting closer or farther from Tom. He’s in the radar blindspot now, and I’m trying to maneuver the Queen so Tom will float back into the launcher bay. You’re my eyes, Chow!”
With a gulp the heavyset Texan clattered up the metal stairway to the deck above. “Got him in my sights now,” he intercommed. “He’s about a hunnert feet straight off t’ the side from the forward lounge.” As Bud eased the great craft sideways, allowing gravity to accelerate it downward to keep pace with Tom’s falling form, Chow worked his way back toward the tail. “Gettin’ closer,” he reported excitedly. “Now I kin see him through the porthole—he’s just above the top o’ that launcher room!”
In response Bud gave the equivalent of a tap on the accelerator pedal, opening up the lifter thrust just enough to retard the ship’s descent. “Wahoo!” Chow cried in triumphant relief. “Got ’im—he’s inside the bay. But Buddy Boy, he ain’t moving!”
Putting the Sky Queen on automatic pilot Bud rocketed out of his chair and scrambled up to the door of the glidewing launch compartment, roughly grabbing a pressure suit along the way. Through the sliding door’s porthole he could see Tom’s limp figure lying crumpled on the deck of the bay.
Had Tom Swift survived his incredible ordeal?
In his suit Bud made his way through the airlock and delicately lifted Tom’s helmet, peering desperately through the tinted visor. He could make out Tom’s face, but the deep shadows made it impossible to determine his condition.
Trying to be gentle in case Tom proved to have sustained serious internal injuries, Bud dragged his pal into the ship, where Chow frantically unsealed Tom’s helmet and pulled it off.
Wide-eyed and white as a sheet, Tom was alive and conscious!
“Genius boy!” Bud cried, his voice trembling. “H-how do you feel?”
Tom’s lips twitched, but he did not answer. He only stared, first at Bud, then at Chow.
“Tom Swift, if’n you don’t say somethin’ we’re gonna throw you back!” Chow’s voice cracked with emotion.
“I’m... I’m... okay,” whispered Tom. “I was... outside.”
“Don’t we know it!” Bud exclaimed. “What happened?”
Bud had to repeat the question twice before Tom responded, speaking dazedly. “I’m not sure. I think... when I cleared the jam, the launcher went off automatically. The edge of it caught me. I—I blacked out for a few seconds... then I came to... and... ” The memory seemed to distress Tom.
Bud insisted that Tom lie down on one of the sofas in the lounge. “We’re heading back to Enterprises!” he declared, striding rapidly toward the stairwell.
Tom twisted on the sofa, facing away from the lounge’s floor-to-ceiling viewports. Chow knelt down beside him, his leathery sun-worn face still pale with worry.
“Talk t’ me, son!” begged Chow. “Must’ve been quite a fright out there. Bet you figgered you ’as gonna... ” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
“And I was alone,” Tom breathed, turning slightly. Then his hand squeezed Chow’s knee. “But I wasn’t alone!”
“Never will be, Tom Swift,” Chow murmured.
Even before the Flying Lab had landed at Swift Enterprises, its home base and the great invention facility run by Tom and his father, the young inventor had risen from the sofa and returned to the command deck, where he shakily checked the instruments that were monitoring and controlling the glidewing.
“Looks like it completed its program,” he muttered, his voice thick and unwieldy. “It’s on a path back to the Enterprises airfield.”
When Tom left the cabin, Chow nudged Bud on the shoulder. “You notice how he wouldn’t look up?”
Bud nodded. “He didn’t want to look out the window. Can’t blame him for that!”
Bud radioed the Swift complex to have medical personnel, from the plant infirmary, standing ready to examine Tom. As the Sky Queen gently touched down on its elevator-pad, a small company ambulance could be seen waiting nearby. Over Tom’s muted protests he was whisked to the infirmary where he was X-rayed and tested for any aftereffects of his fall.
“I don’t find any damage, Tom,” the doctor reported. “Just a bad bruise on the shoulder where the mechanism clipped you. No effects of the actual fall through the air.”
“It was only a few minutes,” commented the young inventor irritably. Then he added, “Look, if you don’t mind, I’d prefer you not let this get around—I don’t care to worry Dad and my family. That goes for you too, Bud, Chow. Promise!”
Everyone nodded. “Far as I’m concerned, it never happened. But I wouldn’t advise trying that stunt again!” said the doctor.
“Don’t worry about that!” returned Tom.
Meanwhile the Enterprises flight control tower had announced that the glidewing had successfully touched down on runway six and had been transported to Tom’s lab in the cavernous underground hangar where the Sky Queen was berthed between flights. With Bud and Chow at his heels Tom descended to the lab and gave the glidewing a quick visual inspection.
“How’s she look?” asked Chow.
“Not bad,” responded Tom. His voice was listless, and Chow and Bud exchanged concerned glances.
Mounting a short steel ladder, Tom climbed up next to a transparent blister attached above and behind the main wing. Tom’s new solar battery had been mounted in an aperture in the dome for exposure to the rays of the sun. Wires from the battery were connected to a port for a voltmeter and other electrical hookups.
When the young inventor climbed down again, his pallid face wore a frown of discouragement.
“Anything wrong?” Bud inquired.
“The voltmeter reading is way down,” muttered Tom thoughtfully, running his fingers through his ragged blond crewcut.
“What does that mean?”
“That the battery’s efficiency for storing electricity will have to be improved. The battery will take a charge but won’t hold it properly. I have the feeling it still wasn’t getting a strong enough exposure to the solar ultraviolet. If it isn’t fully charged to begin with, the material tends to short itself out.”
“Maybe you should send up a balloon like those other fellows,” Bud suggested.
Tom stared at Bud as if he didn’t understand. Then he managed a weak grin. “We’ll go one better and send up a midget rocket. I’m starting to think that the best place to charge solar batteries is beyond the atmosphere.”
“Shor ’nuff, but I don’t get it,” Chow said in a puzzled voice. “How th’ Sam Hill could you go into production? You cain’t jest send up a new rocket ever’ time—”
Suddenly the westerner’s voice trailed off as the full meaning of Tom’s words sank in. “Great gallopin’ gravy, ya don’t mean—”
Bud finished the thought. “Look, genius boy, you aren’t thinking of setting up a factory in that new space station of yours!”
Bud and Chow knew that Tom’s solar battery project was being pursued at the same time as a much larger endeavor—the construction of a permanent manned space station in orbit around the earth, to be used by Swift Enterprises experimenters and engineers. Tom nodded. “Why not, guys? Dad and I have been talking for a long time about adding a manufacturing component to the space outpost. We’re both convinced that it’s practical. There are lots of advantages to working in an airless, zero-gravity environment for certain kinds of materials fabrication. The solar battery is just one example.”
“If’n you say so, Tom,” Chow said dubiously. He then changed the subject. “Anyway, we’re overdue fer some grub around here. You two feel like a good spicy—”
“I don’t need anything!” Tom snapped. “And I especially don’t need anyone fussing over me!”
Chow was taken aback by Tom’s outburst. “Son, I only meant—”
Tom interrupted, passing a hand over his eyes. “Sorry, Chow... I don’t know where that came from. I just don’t think I feel like lunch right now. Maybe Bud would like something.”
Bud rested a hand lightly on Tom’s shoulder. “Tom—now don’t take my head off!—but maybe you should head home early and get some rest. In fact, I’ll drive you.”
His friend nodded, red-faced. “Thanks.” Tom apologized again to Chow, who brushed it off with a worried smile that concealed his deeper concern for Tom.
On the way to the Swift family residence at the edge of Shopton, Tom leaned back in Bud’s convertible with his eyes closed. He didn’t seem to want to talk, and Bud decided to leave him alone for the time being. But as he pulled into the long, curving driveway, the young pilot said with studied casualness, “Say, since you’re going to need a lift to the plant tomorrow anyway, how about if I spend the night—if your mother won’t mind another set of choppers for dinner!”
“She never minds,” Tom responded without emotion. “Are you keeping an eye on me, Bud?”
“No, no!” exclaimed the other hastily. “I just—”
“Never mind. Maybe I need someone to keep me safe.”
That sure doesn’t sound like you, Tom Swift! Bud thought. He regretted his promise to keep the morning’s drama a secret from Tom’s father.
After greeting his mother, Tom headed upstairs to his bedroom, kicked off his shoes, and promptly fell asleep on his bed while Bud chatted with Mrs. Swift, who always called Bud her “other son.” When Tom came down for dinner hours later, he seemed refreshed and more his normal self. The meal was joined by Tom’s sister Sandy, who brought a vivacious spirit to the table, and, halfway through, by Tom’s distinguished father Damon Swift.
“Don’t worry too much about the solar battery problem,” Mr. Swift advised his son. “I’m sure the solution will fall into place. Right now the space station project seems to be capturing quite a bit of public interest. I had an inquiry today from Jeb Soberstein at Consolidated Broadcasting.”
“I remember him,” Tom commented.
“Of course he and his people are interested in using your outpost in space in connection with their subscriber-TV service.”
“Oh, right,” Bud said between hearty mouthfuls. “SpaceLine TV—digital programming ‘direct from outer space to your door’.”
“I’ve watched it over at Bashi’s,” remarked Sandy, referring to Bashalli Prandit, who had become a close friend of the family. “The picture is nice and clear, but those programs!—old TV shows and movies from twenty years ago, when what’s-his-name still had all his hair! And it’s awfully expensive.”
Mr. Swift chuckled. “Well, Soberstein and I didn’t talk about issues like that. I’m not sure he even watches his own programs!”
Later, at twilight, Tom sat at the polished mahogany desk in the den while Bud played with Featherbee, Sandy’s trained cockatiel.
Tom looked up from his sketches and figures. “Say, Bud?”
“Why do you suppose Mom kept asking me if I felt all right?
Bud looked up in surprise, not sure how to answer. “Well—she’s not used to seeing you home in the middle of the day.”
Tom nodded thoughtfully. “No, I suppose not. But I just got a little tired at Enterprises. I guess I must not’ve slept too well last night.”
Bud let Featherbee walk down his arm to the back of the comfortable armchair he was sitting in. The dark-haired youth regarded Tom with a curious expression. “Is that what you told her?”
“What do you mean?” returned Tom with raised eyebrows. “That’s why I was tired, pal—remember? Gosh, flyboy, you’re the one who drove me home!”
Puzzled and alarmed, Bud was composing a cautious reply when Sandy suddenly burst into the room. “Tom!” she cried.
“I—I think—someone’s watching the house from up in the big elm tree!”
Bud jumped to his feet. “In the tree?”
“The one across the road!”
Tom also stood. “What did you see? What did he look like?”
Sandy paced back and forth, agitated. “I was looking at the sunset and I saw something move behind the branches. I thought it was that stray cat, but—it was creepy! The light was shining on this face, and it was like—”
“Calm down!” Tom demanded. “What was it like?”
“Tom, it was like the face of a gorilla!” As the boys listened with open-mouthed amazement, Sandy described a face with a massive, heavy jaw and a brow protruding far over his small beady eyes. “And his hair was all bushy and thick all around, like some kind of animal.”
“Maybe it was an animal,” suggested Bud.
“No!” Sandy insisted. “He was wearing a jacket or something. I could see the collar. And he was as big as a full-sized man—a gorilla man!”
The three looked at one another in astonished silence for a moment. Suddenly Bud’s eyes widened.
“Everybody!—Hit the floor! Now!”
TOM and Sandy responded to the authority in Bud’s voice by dropping down onto the den’s thick carpet and lying prone next to Bud.
“Bud, what’s—?” But Bud shushed Tom and pointed. Tom twisted his head and looked out into the darkening evening through the large window, divided into a number of small panes by a decorative lattice. “I don’t see anything,” the young inventor protested.
“Not the sky!” Bud hissed. “The window!”
Then Tom saw what Bud was indicating, and Sandy gave a little shriek of dismay. One of the panes was pierced by a small, neat hole—a bullethole!
Other than a door to the side yard in the wall next to the window, there was only a single exit from the den, a door that led into the windowless library. The three crawled toward this door, Bud taking the lead. Stretching out a muscular arm he pushed the door open with his fingertips, just wide enough for them to squeeze through. They were fearfully aware at every instant that this portion of the floor was probably visible from the tree where Sandy had spotted the mysterious Gorilla Man.
“Okay, go!” Bud cried. Crouching to their knees he three of them scrambled into the library, Bud slamming the door shut behind him.
“He can’t see us in here,” said Sandy with a quavering voice, rising to her feet. “But what about Mother and Daddy?”
In response Tom picked up a telephone, which also functioned as an in-home intercom. He punched-in the kitchen extension and his mother answered. After explaining the situation and urging his parents to seek safety in a central room not exposed to the exterior, Tom called the Shopton police.
“I’ll send a car immediately!” promised Lt. Madison.
No more shots were fired, and three officers, in bulletproof body armor, arrived in minutes. They examined the elm tree and made a careful circuit of the grounds and the nearby road.
“No sign of anything,” said one of the young men, whose name was Greg Norcall. “Possibly some scuffing on the tree trunk, though. Let’s see if we can bag that bullet.”
Joined now by Mr. and Mrs. Swift, the officers measured the bullethole and scrutinized the floor and walls of the den. “I don’t get this,” muttered one young officer. “Are you sure that hole hasn’t been there for some time?”
“I’m quite sure,” insisted Mrs. Swift. “It’s not the sort of thing one could easily overlook.”
“No, that’s true,” admitted officer Norcall. “What we’re looking for is a high-powered ‘penetrator’ bullet, which is why it passed cleanly through the glass without shattering it. And your Gorilla must have used a silencer. Which leaves us with: where’s the bullet?”
“Not even a mark on the wall, or a rip in the carpet,” noted the third officer.
“It’s weird,” Bud commented.
“Could the bullet have passed right through the den and out through the door?” asked Sandy.
Norcall examined the door to the library. “Not a nick on it. Was this door open, though?”
“It was shut,” Bud explained. “I had to push it open so we could get out.”
Tom suddenly interrupted. “Wait, Bud—I don’t think it could have been completely shut!”
“Because the frame on this door is a little askew. When you latch the door shut all the way, it sticks; so we usually leave it a little bit ajar.” Tom demonstrated how badly the door tended to stick. “But I remember that when you opened it, you just pushed it lightly with your hand.”
“That’s right,” said Bud thoughtfully. “It must have been open a little ways at that. I didn’t notice it from my angle on the floor.”
“In that case,” said Norcall, “the bullet might have shot, or bounced, right through the opening and into the library.”
Asking the others to remain in the den, the police looked about in the library, trying to determine where the bullet would have struck if it had passed through an opening in the doorway only an inch or two wide. But again they came up with nothing.
“We’re not thinking big enough,” declared Tom. “In fact, I think I can lead us right to the—well, not to the bullet, which is probably long gone, but at least to where it struck!”
“Go ahead, son,” Mr. Swift urged.
“We’ll have to go outside,” Tom said. “But I guess it’s safe now.”
Switching on the powerful yard lights, Tom led the others—like a parade—around the side of the house opposite the side facing the elm. “But how could the bullet get way out here?” asked Sandy. “The whole house is in the way!”
“Maybe not,” said Bud, catching on.
Tom stood gazing at the house for a moment, holding up his hand as if making a rough measurement of something. Then he walked a few yards across the manicured lawn to a planter of redwood planks and bent down.
“Look here,” he called, pointing.
The planter had a broad, splintery gouge in its side, obviously freshly made. At the center of the gouge was a deep hole, as if made by a hurtling bullet!
Sgt. Norcall whistled and bent over with tweezers and a magnifying glass. But after a moment he straightened and declared, “Tom, you were exactly right—someone’s already made off with the bullet.”
“How did you figure it out, Tom?” asked Damon Swift in proud amazement.
Before Tom could respond, Bud Barclay held up a hand. “I think I know. You just have to put it all together. The rifle must have been especially powerful. The bullet went through the window glass, through the crack in the door to the library, straight through the library, and on out into the side hallway through the open arch.”
“Oh, I see,” said Sandy. “It must have gone through one of those little decorative window-panes in the wall of the hallway, which goes along this side of the house.” She walked over to one of the narrow windows in the nearby exterior wall and gave a whoop of triumph. “Here it is!—another bullethole.”
“Sure,” agreed Norcall. “And when you line the holes up, the trajectory ends right here at the planter. In fact, you can see that the angle tends downward, which is consistent with an elevated firing position.”
Sandy nodded excitedly. “Up in the elm tree!”
“And we didn’t hear a thing!” remarked Tom’s mother.
“You wouldn’t, necessarily,” Tom said. “We were already talking kind of loud, and the sound of the bullet going through the glass is so much like the clink of plates that we wouldn’t have paid any attention. Then—while San was telling her story—the Gorilla shinnied down the tree and trotted around here to the planter, where he gouged out the bullet and made off with it.”
They all returned to the house, where they sat in the living room as Mr. Swift served some refreshments.
“But I thought you folks were protected by that magnetic alarm system of yours,” observed one of the officers, whose name was Darrel.
“No system’s perfect,” replied Tom. “A single bullet passing through the field wouldn’t create a strong enough impulse to activate the buzzer, and once it stops moving it becomes invisible to the sensor.”
“But the man himself should have set off the alarm,” Mr. Swift pointed out. “Perhaps not up in the tree, but when he entered onto our property. He wouldn’t have the neutralizer coils the rest of us have.”
“Well, we didn’t set off your alarm, did we?” remarked Sgt. Norcall.
“No, because I set the field to ignore you. You can set the override directly from the telephone keypad.” Tom frowned. “That may be the answer, too—the Gorilla may be able to temporarily reset the field sensors by remote control.”
After further discussion the three officers left, promising to keep an eye on the vicinity from their patrol car during their normal rounds.
“So we have someone watching us,” Bud said grimly. “And shooting! But why?”
“I don’t have any idea about the ‘who’ or the ‘why’,” responded Tom after a moment. “But the ‘how’ is kind of intriguing.”
“M-maybe he was trying to pick me off, because I’d seen him!” said Sandy nervously.
“Then why didn’t he?—given that we know he must be an expert marksman with an advanced kind of gun? No, he never intended to hit anything except that planter.”
“Somebody must’ve put out a contract on your oleander bush,” joked Bud. Sandy giggled in spite of herself.
“Here’s my theory,” Tom continued. “I think that wasn’t any ordinary bullet, but some kind of sophisticated microelectronic device. In the split second it flashed through the den, it probably made some sort of visual recording.”
“I see,” Mr. Swift commented. “It would act like a hyperspeed digital camera with an all-direction lens. The recorded camera output could subsequently be downloaded into a computer and studied at leisure, no doubt with some sort of extreme magnification and enhancement feature.”
Tom nodded. “In which case our unknown enemies now have copies of the sketches and calculations I was working on at the desk!”
“What were they about, Tom?” Bud asked.
“The solar battery!”
There was a long and ominous silence as Bud and the Swift family considered the implications of the strange invasion of the property. It seemed Tom Swift and his newest inventions were once again facing unexpected danger! This was nothing new for the scion of the Swift line of scientist-inventors. Just as the first Tom Swift—Tom’s famous great-grandfather—had defeated innumerable adversaries and threats early in the last century, so young Tom had already proven himself in astonishing adventures in the air, the deep sea, and in outer space. Only weeks before he had returned from Antarctica where he and his remarkable atomic earth blaster had been pitted against the ruthless agents of a foreign power.
“Well,” said Tom’s mother with a sudden smile, “I don’t know just why anyone would want to snoop around our den, but—I think I may be able to help you identify who’s watching. Matter of fact, boys, just one phone call should crack the case wide open—as they say on television!”
MEETING WITH A MOGUL
TOM and his father tried very hard to be men of the new millennium. But Shopton was a small, slow-moving town in upstate New York; and the Swift family had something of a reputation for being, in many ways, somewhat old-fashioned. All of which is to say that when Mrs. Swift spoke up, the others didn’t know whether to take her seriously.
“Anne, what do you mean?” asked Damon Swift. “How could you possibly—”
“Oh, Daddy!” Sandy interrupted. “Let Mother finish!”
Mr. Swift fell silent, an apologetic look on his face.
“What I mean is this—Dear,” smiled Anne Swift with just a hint of sarcasm. “I do have a degree in molecular biochemistry, you know; and as part of that program I took some courses in medicine and disease control. I remember a photo of a man, a disease victim, from one of my textbooks. He had the sort of look Sandy described—the disease caused it.”
“That would sure make it easier to track the guy down,” Bud mused. “He might be registered with local hospitals or something.”
Tom’s mother nodded, her eyes gleaming. “It would be even easier than that, I expect. As I recall, the disease is extremely rare—only a handful of people have it.”
“What’s the phone call you mentioned?” asked Tom.
“To my old professor, Joshua TeVenter.”
“Ah. Yes—he sends us Christmas cards every year,” remarked Mr. Swift.
“Yes, Dear. The one you can’t stand.”
Tom’s father winced humorously and Mrs. Swift rose and walked over to the telephone. Minutes later she had concluded her call and was able to share what she had learned. “Professor TeVenter is sure I’m thinking of something called Inherited Xenotic Osteomorphosis Syndrome, or IXOS. It’s a form of chromosomal damage that can be inherited, but it almost always leads to stillbirths, or to death in infancy. It’s been traced back centuries to a single North African family of the Bedouin tribe. It causes progressive deformation of the shape of the skull and jaw, and the bones of the arms. In less enlightened times, victims were exhibited as ‘ape men’.”
“How many victims actually live into adulthood?” Sandy inquired.
“Professor TeVenter thinks no more than five or six adults are alive at any one time, anywhere in the world. He said most of them live in Algeria, Morocco, Spain, or France.”
“Mom, you’re a wonder!” Tom exclaimed, giving his mother a kiss. “Harlan Ames can probably get a list of where the IXOS-ers are living.” Ames, a former Secret Service agent, was the head of security for Swift Enterprises.
There were no more harrowing incidents that night. The next day turned out to be a busy day of meetings for Tom and his father. The meeting with Harlan Ames was followed by a teleconference with several of the world’s chief rocketry engineers, and then, after lunch, an unscheduled meeting with Jeb Soberstein, head of the Consolidated Broadcasting Network.
The meeting took place in the office shared by Tom and his father. Soberstein, a rather massive man with a thin fog of white hair drifting shapelessly across his head, talked rapidly and gestured forcefully. “Damon, Tom—how are you, by the way?—the media has been full of little squibs about this space station of yours. When’s the grand opening?”
“Actually, Jeb, it’s all kind of up in the air right now,” responded Mr. Swift.
“Up in the air! Good one. But you must have a schedule, hmm?”
“It really depends on a lot of things, but the prefabricated modules are near completion already, and I suppose we could start launching the rockets in a matter of weeks,” Tom volunteered.
“I see. Matter of weeks? Got it. Where do you buy those shirts, if I may ask? Never mind.” Mr. Soberstein was quiet and contemplative for a few nanoseconds. “Look Tom, Damon, I know you do deals with private industry now and then—Swift Enterprises isn’t a government operation, thank the Lord. You mind if I smoke?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Swift.
“Yes, I can smoke?”
“No, you don’t mind?”
“If you smoke, it’ll set off a fire extinguisher in the ceiling right over your head,” Tom warned.
Soberstein glanced upward and put away his cigar. “Fortunately I can think without it. CBN would like to lease some space in your station for our equipment. In a permanent manned facility at that distance our broadcasts could reach almost half the earth. And, by the way, we plan some exciting original programming, including a miniseries on—you know, the guy with the wild hair, the physicist, Adolf something.”
“Albert Einstein?” asked Tom politely with a glance at his father.
“Something like that. What sort of figures should I carry back to CBN?”
“Jeb, we’re not—” began Mr. Swift, but the media mogul interrupted.
“Okay—figures negotiable. Let’s not get hung up on it.”
Tom rubbed his eyes, hiding a smile. “It wouldn’t really be fair to give an advantage to one corporation over all the rest.”
“What ‘rest’? There is no ‘rest’! We’re it! But think it over. Memo to follow. That T-shirt really does look good on you, Tom—horizontal stripes suit you. What do you call the dark color?”
“Just ‘blue’? Good thinking. And now, always a pleasure, later, guys.” And he was gone.
Tom and his father burst into laughter.
“What do you think?” asked Mr. Swift.
“We should ask Bud or Sandy,” Tom replied with a grin. “I don’t watch much TV these days. But as far as working with Mr. Soberstein... ”
“I think we might as well give it a try,” said Damon Swift seriously. “Public support for space development has fallen greatly over the last few years. It’s hard to make a case for it, given that most folks aren’t really interested in abstract science. But one thing they do understand is entertainment!”
Tom rubbed his chin. “I get the idea. By working with CBN, we’re getting the public accustomed to the idea that space has its practical side—even its fun side!”
“Exactly. But we’ll make sure all our agreements are for the short term only, and that we’ll have space for the other broadcasters to lease in due time.”
“Someday we’ll have a dozen space stations in orbit!” Tom exclaimed. Then he added: “But Dad, we’ll have to make quite a few changes in our plans. My three-spoke ‘wheel’ will have to be quite a bit bigger and more complicated—and Mr. Soberstein sounds pretty definite about wanting a geosynchronous satellite, not the sort of near-earth station we’d planned. That’s 22,300 miles straight up!”
“Obviously,” nodded the elder Swift. “But your basic design is easily adaptable, and the modules are already being constructed. The main difficulty looks to be the launching schedule. Our company doesn’t have the capacity to launch a great number of our big Workhorse-line rockets in a short period of time.”
They agreed to think the matter through further, and to try to come up with some figures to guide their deliberations.
As the busy day wore on, Tom arranged to have a different model of his solar battery launched on a brief flight into space aboard a suborbital micro-rocket that Swift Enterprises had developed. Launched from the Enterprises airfield, the sleek single-stage projectile, only twenty feet long, climbed through the stratosphere, ionosphere, and exosphere in minutes, rising into airless space for only ninety seconds before slipping back down into the atmosphere. But even that brief span was sufficient to expose the battery to the completely unshielded rays of the sun. Tom hoped that the alternative formulation of the chargeable metal foil in the battery, which Tom had named sol-alloy, would succeed where the other formulation had fallen short. The original version of sol-alloy had been developed to tap the power of the sun for Tom’s Flying Lab. But that first formulation was too bulky and inefficient for adaptation to a small portable battery cell.
In the Enterprises control tower Tom kept a keen eye on the instrument readouts and radar returns tracking the progress of the rocket.
“Tom, something’s wrong!” said the flight manager, Daylene McMurdo. She gestured toward one of the instrument dials. “The main chute didn’t deploy!”
“What about the reserve chute?” asked Tom.
“It took over automatically. But I don’t think I can correct for the change in trajectory—not with those high-altitude winds crossing our path.” She did some fast calculations. “No, it can’t be brought back to the runway. Shall I send the detonator signal?” This emergency feature would blow the rocket to tiny fragments, which would rain harmlessly over the sparsely inhabited hills to the north of Shopton.
Tom studied the readouts with a grim expression on his face. “No, that’s not necessary.”
“But Tom, if we—”
“I said no,” interrupted the young inventor brusquely. “Switch to manual. I’m taking over the controls.” Daylene moved aside and Tom sat down in her place. He reactivated the small maneuvering thrusters, which usually played no role after deployment of the parachute, and used them to gradually force the rocket onto a new heading.
“What do you have in mind?” asked Daylene with hesitation. Tom’s mood struck her as odd.
He took a moment to respond. “I’ll bring her down in Lake Carlopa, near Rickman Dunes. No one’s down there this time of year.” Ten minutes later he stood up. “Okay, she’s down, and the signal beacon is still running, so everything should be fine.”
“Great job, boss,” declared Daylene. But Tom left the tower without replying.
Tom located Bud, and the two of them headed out to the nearby lake in one of the large Swift transport trucks. Using the triangulator equipment built into the vehicle’s dashboard they quickly zeroed in on the rocket.
“Is she floating in the lake?” asked Bud.
“I don’t think so,” was Tom’s answer. “The location of the beacon hasn’t moved for several minutes now. I’d say the rocket has beached itself somewhere near the Dunes.” They drove into the deserted Rickman Dunes recreation area, leaving the road for the sandy beach.
“I see her tail fins!” Bud cried.
In a moment the two youths had pulled up next to the streamlined hull, its chrome sheen now mottled with sooty black from reentry. The secondary parachute was spread out along the beach; the winds from the lake had caught the chute and pushed the rocket up onto the shore, just out of the water.
They got out of the truck and Bud pointed. “Looks like the dome visor opened all right. I can see the battery.”
But as Tom neared the rocket, he was stunned to see a strange glow through the special glass of the dome. Instantly he dropped to the earth, yelling:
“Bud! Hit the ground and cover your eyes!”
A VOLTAGE VICTORY
BUD flung himself headlong in the sand after Tom. Both boys shielded their eyes with their arms. A split second later came a blinding flash of light from the rocket!
Even with their eyelids squeezed shut, they saw the dazzling brilliance of the glare. As the light faded away, Tom opened his eyes cautiously and saw Bud scrambling to his feet. “What in the name of aerodynamics was that?” gasped the athletic young pilot.
Tom half-smiled wryly and said, “Crazy as it may sound, that flash of light proved our experiment is a big success.
“Come here, pal. I’ll show you.” Tom led the way to the burned-out rocket and pointed to the now-blackened dome porthole. “Notice what’s happened to the metal frame around the Tomaquartz window!” he remarked.
“Wow!” Bud exclaimed. “Fused solid to the metal shell of the rocket! The heat from that flash must have been terrific.”
“Right,” Tom agreed. “Which means our battery picked up a sizable charge out there in space.”
Bud responded enthusiastically. “Then this foil you developed is going to work?”
“Well, the sol-alloy did become energized by the solar radiation,” Tom explained. “In other words, a big percentage of its free electrons were energized to a highly excited state and trapped at the surface of the metal foil. But the trouble is that they didn’t stay trapped.”
“You mean the battery is still shorting out somehow?”
Tom nodded. “That’s what caused the discharge flash. Apparently even this alternate formulation of sol-alloy is very unstable when it’s in a charged state. So now the problem is to figure out a desensitizer for the stuff—something to keep it from discharging all of a sudden as it did just now.”
“Sort of a tranquilizer, huh? I see.”
Using the small crane attached to the long truckbed, Tom and Bud loaded the rocket fuselage onto the truck and ferried it back to Swift Enterprises, to the laboratory building. Tom and Bud stood by, watching through goggles, as a welder used an acetylene torch to cut apart the fused sections. Then Tom removed the sol-alloy from the battery inside the rocket and held it up to the light. The once-shiny metal foil was covered with a dull-gray coating.
“It oxidized completely when that flash occurred,” Tom muttered.
“Cheer up, pal,” Bud said, clapping him on the back. “Just be glad you didn’t oxidize along with it.”
Tom pulled away from his pal. “What do you mean, cheer up? I feel fine.” Startled by this response, Bud was silent for a moment, his eyebrows raised. Then Tom seemed to pass on to another thought completely. “If a commercial battery ever failed that way,” he said, “no buyer would touch another with a ten-foot pole. It could ruin our whole market overnight.”
During the next few days, Tom used the advanced facilities of Swift Enterprises to work on a desensitizer, which proved a surprisingly daunting task. As the weekend approached, the skies a dull gray and snow threatening, the young inventor struggled over his problem. But at last he felt that he had it licked. Late Saturday night, Bud came to watch him complete the assembly of a battery to be used in the new test.
“Hey, what happened to the color of your sol-alloy?” he asked with a puzzled look. “It’s darker than it was.”
“That’s because of the desensitizer I’ve mixed with it, so that the stuff won’t pop off like an old flash bulb the second it gets exposed to air,” Tom replied.
The young inventor explained that he had used as a desensitizing agent a trace amount of a transition metal sulfide, incorporating it in the sol-alloy when it was smelted. “And now we’ll put together a four-cell battery,” he said.
“What happens if the sol-alloy oxidizes again?” Bud asked.
“Back to the proverbial drawing board. But I don’t think that will happen this time.”
Tom rolled up four sheets of the sol-alloy and inserted them into cylindrical cells along with granules of a substance he had invented which he called catalium. Then he filled the cells with liquid ammonia under pressure. As each cell was filled, Tom sealed it off. Finally, when all the cells were ready, he assembled them in a battery case made of Herculesium, a lightweight malleable material with amazing electrical-conduction properties.
He handed it to Bud who gave a surprised whistle. “Genius boy, this is so light a child could lift it easily. Man, wait until the automobile makers get wind of this!”
At noon Monday, Tom and Bud eagerly watched from the control tower as the second experimental rocket took off, carrying the new battery. Tom glanced at his wrist watch. “Well, here’s hoping,” he muttered to Bud. “This time we gave the parachute an extra checkout. If this test—”
He was interrupted by a voice shouting his name. “Tom! Come in here quick!”
The boys whirled around to see Nels Gachter beckoning to them from another room, an excited look on his face. Gachter was Enterprises’ chief of communications science.
“What’s up, Nels? Anything wrong?” Tom asked as he and Bud made a dash to investigate.
“Nothing to do with the rocket. It’s the space video-oscillograph! A message is coming through from your space friends!”
Tom and Bud looked at one another excitedly. Gachter referred to the mysterious beings from another planet who had been communicating with the Swifts by mathematical symbols, intermittently, for many months now. The first message had arrived on a strange missile, invisible to radar, which had plunged into the grounds of Swift Enterprises like an oversize meteor. Since then several communications had been received and decoded by Tom and his father, and responses had been successfully transmitted back. The two Swifts had kept a record of all the symbols and had compiled a computerized dictionary. The messages indicated that the senders were intelligent beings who had mastered the problems of space travel—except one. They wished to visit the earth but were unable to endure some unexplained feature of our planetary environment.
When Tom and Bud reached the video-oscillograph, they saw a series of weird symbols appearing on the screen. The earlier parts of the message had already been recorded automatically for extended study.
“Howlin’ headwinds!” Bud cried out. “That machine’s going crazy!” The impulses were coming through stronger and faster than ever before. Tom recognized many of them at a glance from previous messages.
Suddenly an odd symbol which Tom had never seen before began to take shape on the scope. But before his eyes could fully register its shape, the screen went dead!
Tom groaned as he and Gachter checked the instrument hastily. “It’s not the oscillograph itself—the pulses were coming through with so much power that they burned out the limiters in the magnifying antenna!”
“At least you got the first part of the message. What does it say?” Bud asked impatiently.
“Give me time,” replied the young inventor. “There are many new configurations in the symbols, so it may take awhile to translate this.” He made a digital disk of the received symbols for later study.
As Tom and Bud left the room, Daylene McMurdo called over, “Tom, that rocket just touched down on runway two. Where do you want it?”
“The big test lab, please,” responded Tom. “I’ll head there right now.”
At the lab, Tom made sure the rocket was grounded against any dangerous electrical emissions, then unsealed the dome and hooked-up the test instruments. Heart pounding, he stepped back to the readout board and closed a switch. Instantly the voltmeter needle swung around to the right—and kept moving further and further around the dial!
“Good night, look at that!” Bud cried.
When the needle came to rest, the pair could hardly believe their eyes. Tom himself gave a whistle of amazement. “Hang on to your space hat, Bud! The voltage is almost fifty percent higher than what I’d hoped for!”
Bud gave a whoop of triumph and threw his arms around his friend in a bear hug. Tom laughed—but then, to Bud’s shock, he seemed to sag in Bud’s arms, as if he were about to fall to the floor.
Tom straightened up, regaining his feet. “Just lost my balance for a sec, pal. That’s all.”
Bud nodded, hoping his doubt and concern didn’t appear on his face, and glanced at his wristwatch. “What say we knock off early? We could round up Sandy and Bash and head out to—”
“Flyboy, you’ve got to be kidding!” Tom said in a strained voice. “Too much to be done—the figures for the space outpost, the launch schedule problem—I, I can’t—”
As Tom seemed to be becoming agitated, Bud quickly said, “Oh, it was just an idea, Tom—you know, to celebrate your success.”
“Sure... ” murmured Tom. “But now... I’m going to take the battery up in one of the Pigeon Specials.”
“To see whether it picks up any charge at all under lower atmospheric conditions—but I’ll have to get above the cloud deck, to where the sun’s shining.”
Bud said evenly, “Okay then, meet you out at the hangar in ten minutes.”
Tom gazed at his pal blankly. “At the hangar?”
“I’m your pilot. Right?”
“No,” Tom responded in a soft voice. “I think I’ll fly her myself this time.” He shook his head slightly, as if too clear it. “Look, Bud, I’ll meet you for dinner. Okay?”
Not waiting for an answer, Tom climbed up the ladder and began to unclamp the battery.
Forty minutes latter Tom sat in the cockpit of a Pigeon Special, the small commuter prop-plane developed by the Swift Construction Company for mass production. As Bud watched from the control tower, a frown creasing his face, Tom taxied out to his assigned runway and parked, awaiting final clearance for takeoff.
“Pigeon Special TSE-59, you are cleared for takeoff,” Bud heard the traffic control operator say—and then repeat twice.
Bud glanced back over his shoulder. “Didn’t Tom answer, Fred?”
Fred shook his head negatively, repeating his call again. Bud looked back out the tower’s high view window. The Pigeon Special was still sitting in place.
The hairs prickled on the back of Bud’s neck, and he abruptly made for the tower elevator.
What had happened to Tom?
TOM SWIFT, HUMAN FLY!
BUD RAN TOWARD the silent, unmoving Pigeon Special at a frantic pace. Through the forward window of the strange, loop-winged craft he could see Tom Swift sitting rigidly, eyes wide open.
“Tom! What’s wrong?” Bud cried as he ran up to the plane. But Tom neither answered nor moved. In a single athletic motion Bud leapt up to the cabin door, grasped the handle and half-stood for a moment with his feet pressed against the side of the fuselage. “Tom!” he cried again.
His eyes glazed and glassy, Tom slowly turned in his seat to face his pal, then leaned forward to unseal the door and allow Bud inside.
“What’s up, Bud?” inquired Tom calmly.
“What’s up?” returned Bud incredulously. “Tom, don’t you realize—?”
Tom looked at Bud, his brow furrowed deeply. “I—I couldn’t start up... ”
“You mean something’s wrong with the plane?”
“No. Something’s wrong with me!”
Bud sat down quietly next to Tom. His expression told the young inventor that Bud wanted to hear anything and everything his best friend had to say.
Tom swallowed hard and said, “The other day... the problem with the glidewing in the Flying Lab... something happened, didn’t it.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Not exactly. It’s as if I’m remembering a nightmare. Bud, did I—fall?”
“And you pulled me in. Chow was there... ”
“You were trying to free up the launcher mechanism, and—”
“Yes,” said Tom. “The bruise on my shoulder. The whole thing doesn’t seem real anymore, as if it never really happened.”
Bud scratched his head. “I’m not a... I mean, I don’t know about this stuff, but maybe you’re sort of blanking it all out because—”
“Because it was so terrifying,” concluded Tom. “Falling and falling all alone. I was looking mortality right in the face and—I blinked. I couldn’t take it. And now I’m afraid to look out at an empty sky, or to go up in a plane. I can’t touch the throttle. Crazy things run through my mind, just like the space symbols on the oscillograph screen.”
Bud lay a reassuring hand on Tom’s forearm. “You know I’m here for you, pal. We all are.”
“If I can’t fight this off, you know what it means.” Tom looked away in anguish. “I won’t be able to participate in the space station project. I’ll be grounded completely. Useless.”
“Don’t talk that way!” demanded Bud.
“Maybe you’d better taxi the Special back into the hangar,” Tom said. “I—don’t think I can do it.”
As they left the airfield minutes later, Bud asked Tom’s permission to discuss Tom’s problem with Mr. Swift. “Please don’t,” responded Tom. “Give me a chance to fight this off without worrying anyone—anyone but you, chum. If I fail, do what you need to do.”
Some hours later, after a silent, listless supper in his laboratory, Tom went home. He attempted to work, but found himself nodding off to sleep as if he had been drugged. Finally, he gave up and crawled into bed.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock.
The next morning Tom felt somewhat invigorated. Tom’s whole family accompanied him to the plant to witness his first test of a new invention he had developed in connection with the space outpost project, which Bud was to test and demonstrate.
The little group included Bashalli Prandit. “Tom, what is this ‘zero-G chamber’ of yours, anyway?” she asked in the car, running her fingers through her long, raven-dark hair. “Do I understand it is for losing weight?”
“I guess you might say that, Bash,” laughed Tom. “It has to do with helping our worker-astronauts become accustomed to low-gravity conditions without ever leaving the earth.”
“I would think not having gravity to fight would make life easier,” she remarked.
“Some experts believe human beings couldn’t survive prolonged exposure to weightlessness,” noted Tom’s father. “Astronauts who have been in orbit for weeks or months not only become physically weaker, but seem to suffer a general deterioration in their nervous system and basic reflexes.”
“That could be a very serious problem when it comes to doing construction work in space,” added Mrs. Swift. “Small errors could be fatal.”
“But won’t the space outpost be rotating like a wheel?” inquired Sandy. “I thought the idea was to cause a feeling of weight.”
“Yes... but... ” Tom seemed to drift away in mid-sentence, and the car, his father’s, swerved slightly.
“Dear, you’d better pay attention to the road,” Tom’s mother warned.
“Sorry. I’m all right.” Tom cleared his throat. “Sandy, the wheel will rotate, but not until all construction work is finished. During the construction phase is when we’ll face the greatest danger of errors or accidents.”
“Indeed,” said Bashalli breezily. “One wouldn’t wish to fall off. So, Thomas, your chamber creates these conditions here on the ground?”
The young inventor gave a slight nod. “Yes. Of course, it won’t really reduce the actual pull of gravity—no more than floating in a swimming pool is gravity-free. I use a pulsating electromagnet to create a counterforce.” Tom explained that the pulsating aspect allowed for more efficient use of energy. “But the principle is very simple. It’s like using a little horseshoe magnet to raise a piece of metal off a table-top. But as you start to approach the magnet in the chamber ceiling, a positional sensor decreases the pull in a calculated manner, taking your upward movement and acceleration into account. So you end up floating in mid-air instead of conking your head on the magnet.” Tom elaborated further, relating how the system was designed to compensate for the slightest shift in position of any test object inside the chamber, whether human or otherwise. Thus the controls would maintain a precise balance at all times between the downward pull of gravity and the upward attraction of the magnet.
“But has it occurred to you that human beings are not made of metal?” Bashalli objected.
“Bud will be wearing a special sort of metal garment.”
Sandy winced. “Ouch!”
“With cushioned underwear, I would hope,” Bashalli said.
Tom was quiet for the rest of the short drive to Swift Enterprises. Inside the gates, Bud Barclay greeted them in the underground hangar, where the chamber had been constructed. “All set for Barclay’s ace high-wire act—without the wire?” he asked Tom.
“I’d better be,” Tom replied, leading the way to the zero-G chamber. “Looks as if we’re going to have a good-sized audience.”
Chow Winkler and a number of engineers and other employees were already gathered around the experimental chamber. It was made of transparent plastic and was a thirty-foot cube. On the ceiling was rigged one pole of a special electromagnet of Tom’s design. Inside, the room had been furnished with a desk, chair, couch, and tools.
Dave Bogard, an electrical engineer employed by Swift Enterprises, was putting the final touches on the control panel which stood alongside the chamber.
“How’s she coming, Dave?” Tom asked him.
“When this panel was moved, one of the junctions pulled loose. Kind of tricky the way you have these fine adjustments set up. I guess I’ll have to consult the diagram.”
“Here, lend me your screwdriver,” Tom suggested, and soon wired the connections. Dave shook his head and grinned admiringly. “I don’t know how you do it, Tom, but you’ve sure got what it takes.”
Tom lightly brushed the compliment aside. “After all, I drew the diagrams, so I should know how to make the hookup.”
Sandy said, winking at her brother, “It’s all very clear to me. Now where’s this suit that you’re going to wear, Bud? Bashi and I want to be sure it fits right.”
Bud grinned. “It’s the latest fashion on Mars,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go put it on.” Tom left the room at Bud’s side. When they returned, a surprise was in order—Tom, not Bud, was wearing the zero-gravity garment.
“I talked Tom into it,” Bud explained. “Tom makes a better clothes model—he’s slimmer, y’know.”
Tom’s appearance drew a loud buzz of interest. From head to foot, he was clothed in a weird, tight-fitting metal suit resembling fish scales, which was securely strapped on over his normal street garb. It was composed of a myriad of tiny soft iron disks, sewn together on a fabric backing. The disks were built up like the flesh on his frame, clustering most heavily on the thickest parts of his body, whereas the gloves encasing his hands were fairly thin. “Well, brand my lariat, a walkin’ hardware store!” Chow exclaimed. “How kin you ever move around in that there suit o’ armor?”
“Feels a bit heavy, all right.” Tom agreed. “But I’m expecting the zero-G chamber to change all that.”
Mrs. Swift laid a hand on her son’s arm. “Tom, there—there’s nothing dangerous about this experiment, is there?” she asked anxiously.
Tom patted her hand before replying. “Well, Mom, I’m not going to electrocute myself, if that’s what you mean.”
“Son, the answer I’m looking for is, No.”
The blond youth chuckled and hugged his petite mother. “If I should feel any bad reaction, I’ll signal Dave to turn off the power immediately.”
“Good luck, Tom,” said Mr. Swift. He nodded at Dave Bogard, who stepped to the control board as prearranged.
Tom entered the zero-G chamber and closed the door behind him, then signaled his father to turn on the current. Now he was sealed in the air-conditioned cube!
At first Tom experienced no change. Wondering if the device had been activated, he tried to take a step. To his pleased surprise, the upward motion lifted him gently off the floor. Now he hung suspended in mid-air. A queer sensation of buoyancy and lightness, mostly psychological, came creeping over him.
“I think I know how to get out of this,” Tom said to himself. Tilting his head back, he converted his slight drift into a somersault. The force shoved him back to the floor again.
Outside the chamber, Tom’s audience applauded.
Tom realized at once that he would have to master a new gait. Shuffling his feet along the floor, he dragged his body behind like a comedian doing a mime act. The watchers laughed uproariously at the strange antics. Even Tom had to grin at his predicament. “Wait till they see this one.” Standing on tiptoes, he gave a bound to the ceiling, where he walked on his hands! Then, pushing with his fingers, he made his way to one of the walls, which he crept down on hands and knees. Contrary to expectations, the suit’s magnetic material seemed to adhere very slightly to the walls, a phenomenon he was determined to investigate further.
The vertigo-like tension Tom had experienced at first was vanishing, and he resolved to have fun with his experiment. He propelled himself toward one side of the room and proceeded to walk calmly straight up the wall!
Startled gasps broke from the audience. “Tom Swift the Human Fly!” Bud exclaimed like a carnival barker.
“It’s magnificent!” cried Bashalli. “I wish to try it next!”
The cries of amazement grew louder as Torn continued his stroll by walking upside down across the ceiling!
Chow Winkler mopped his brow nervously with his red neck bandana as he stared in half-horrified fascination. “Br-rand my Damonscope,” he drawled, “that ain’t human! How’s Tom ever goin’ to know which is top side up when he comes out o’ that there funny room?”
Reaching the other side of the room, Tom suavely ambled down the wall. Next, he lay down on the couch. His body, being buoyant, failed to dent the cushions. And because he lay without making any effort to restrain himself, the slight movement of his shoulder blades as he breathed was enough to propel him off the couch. He was left floating in the center of the chamber.
He now turned his attention to some of the other equipment in the room. When he sat at the desk and wrote, even the slight effort of wielding a pencil caused him to be shoved this way and that.
The tools and other items in the room had been made specially for the experiment. They contained just enough magnetic material to counterbalance the pull of gravity. A slight touch was enough to send a wrench or wastebasket floating across the room!
Finally Tom picked up a hammer and tried to drive a nail into a board. As he swung the hammer downward, his feet shot up from the floor and the hammer landed feebly on the nail. “I never felt so helpless in my life,” Tom murmured, his comments amplified through the external loudspeaker.
The observers outside the zero-G chamber were laughing and talking with great interest as they watched Tom’s every move. At last they saw him straighten up and signal to Dave Bogard that the experiment was over. Smiling and pleased, Bogard reached toward the control board. But the smile suddenly faded. The master power knob turned easily, but the instrument dial indicated no diminution of electrical current—the magnet was pulling hard as ever.
Seeing the look on Bogard’s face Mr. Swift came over to lend a hand. They were soon joined by Bud.
“The controls have frozen!” Bud whispered, his heart sinking. Sensing that something was wrong, the rest of the audience pressed closer.
“Damon!” cried Mrs. Swift suddenly, her voice taut with alarm. Tom’s father whirled to see his son trembling violently as he floated in the middle of the plastic-walled chamber!
Bud dashed to the door of the zero-G chamber and attempted to yank it open. But the door would not budge. “It can’t be opened until the current is turned off!” yelled Dave Bogard. “Tom told me he’d set it up that way as a safety feature!”
“Great!” gritted Bud. “Can’t you override it?”
“I don’t know how!”
Bud pounded on the transparent wall frantically and desperately, trying to get Tom to respond. But the young inventor seemed only hazily aware of his surroundings. His muscles were tightly clenched and perspiration was beaded upon his forehead. He seemed to be gasping for breath!
“Bogard! Can’t you just cut the power?” demanded Bud.
“The controls aren’t responding!”
“Not the answer I’m looking for!” cried the young pilot. In four leaping strides he had reached the point where a pair of thick power cables joined the lab wall. Wrapping his jacket around his hands for insulation, Bud grasped the cables tightly. Then, bracing his feet against the wall, he gave a mighty heave, muscles bulging.
The cables gave! With a flash and a cascade of blue-white sparks, the cables wrenched free of their sealed connection. Instantly the faint electronic hum of the powerful electromagnet was replaced by silence, broken a moment later by the loud thunk! of Tom’s metal-clad body hitting the floor of the chamber.
Bud pulled the door open easily and scrambled to Tom’s side. Bud immediately began to choke—the air was full of a pungent odor, and his every breath seemed to sting his throat. “He needs oxygen!” Bud called.
Holding his breath as best he could, Bud carried his friend from the zero-G chamber. With the first breath of fresh air the young inventor ceased to tremble. But his eyelids were fluttering, as if he were about to pass out.
Laying Tom down, Bud chafed his wrists, and an emergency oxygen mask was applied. Everyone stood by, pale with fear. Bashalli put a comforting arm around Sandy, who was in tears.
“Some Swift I am,” Sandy murmured.
But even as she spoke these words Tom returned to full consciousness, his eyes darting back and forth from Bud to Mr. Swift, and then to Chow Winkler.
“Hey Pard!” came Tom’s weak voice, muffled behind the oxygen mask. “That shirt of yours is gonna knock me right out again!”
Chow glanced down at his typically gaudy western shirt. He did not answer, but there were tears in his eyes.
“Boy, am I glad to see you back on planet earth!” said Bud. “And not all battered up, either.”
The young inventor slowly pulled off the mask. “I guess I should learn to expect the unexpected,” he said, his throat raw and his voice hoarse. He turned his gaze to his father. “It was the anti-condensation coating on the plastic walls, Dad. The high frequency electromagnetic pulses were causing it to soften and give off some kind of waste gas. That’s why I was able to cling to it like I did!”
“We’ll get it fixed, son,” said Damon Swift. “I suspect some sort of inductive resonance is what froze the controls.”
Tom’s mother kissed his cheek gently and said, “Don’t you dare think of doing a thing until you’ve been looked over by the doctor. And then I expect to see you home and in bed for the rest of the day!”
“That there’s good advice, boss,” added Chow.
Mrs. Swift smiled and remarked, “Charles, it wasn’t advice—it was a direct order!”
Tom returned the smile weakly. “Yes, ma’am!”
With Bud’s help Tom was able to rise and stagger to a chair. “Sorry, Tom,” Bud whispered in his pal’s ear. “Guess I should’ve tried to talk you out of it.”
“Then you’d be here, and I’d be the one helping you,” commented the young inventor wryly. “I thought it would be a good way to face my fears—floating in the air, like... ”
“Like the other day. So how does it feel to go floating around like a feather?” Bud questioned softly.
“It’s fun, once you get your bearings,” was Tom’s reply. “At least until things go blooey! With proper training in the zero-G chamber, a well-picked space crew should have no trouble at all learning what to do.”
“Then I guess the experiment was worth it,” Bud concluded. “Maybe!”
That evening, Tom having announced that he was fully recovered and the Enterprises doctor concurring, Mrs. Swift invited Bud and Bashalli Prandit to join the family for dinner. When the meal was over Tom rose to his feet in front of his chair, rapping on a glass for attention.
“Everyone, I, er—” Nervously he glanced at Bud, who was sitting next to him. Bud gave him a reassuring half-smile and a thumbs-up signal.
“What is it, son?” asked Mr. Swift, puzzled.
Tom took a gulp of water. “It’s just this. I’m kind of nervous and afraid and a little stressed-out—more than a little!—but there’s something I’ve needed to tell you all for a while now. And this is the time!”
THE HIDDEN EAR
“OH MY!” gasped Sandra Swift before Tom could go any further. “Tom, are you—?”
She turned to look at Bashalli, who gave an ironic shake of her head. “Sandra—get the clue, as you say here.”
“Go on, Tom,” his mother said, her voice steady and calm. “You know you have nothing to be afraid of.”
Tom proceeded to tell of the near-tragedy of the other day, and of the strange effect it seemed to have had on him. “I know now that I should have told you right away, and not tried to handle it all myself. But I guess I’m a stubborn Swift, and I didn’t want to worry you—and I was afraid I’d be sidelined from the expedition to construct our outpost in space!”
Bashalli nodded in understanding. “And that is surely something you could not stand for.”
“But the good news is, I seem to be getting better with time,” continued Tom. “Even what happened today in the zero-G chamber somehow made me feel stronger.”
“If you can handle that, big brother, you can handle just about anything!” declared Sandy.
But Damon Swift looked troubled and concerned. “Even if you weren’t my son—just for the sake of Swift Enterprises—I would have a few qualms about your undertaking a space flight in this condition.”
“You’re right, Dad, and I won’t expect any favoritism. I’ll train like the rest of the team and undergo whatever evaluation you think necessary.”
Bud gave Tom a wink that said, I’m proud of you, pal! The discussion then passed on to other subjects.
“I meant to tell you,” Mr. Swift said, “Harlan Ames came through, as usual, with the information we needed on those victims of IXOS. The only likely candidate for our shooter is a man named—I’m probably mispronouncing it—Miza Ranooq. He was born in France of an Algerian family, and now lives in Montreal.”
“Not far from Shopton,” commented Bud.
“Not far at all. He’s enrolled in a special clinic there.”
Tom’s mother gave an imperial nod all around. “Please hold your applause, thank you very much!”
“This is the Gorilla who gave Sandy the creepies? Perhaps his mind is affected as well as his body,” said Bashalli.
Tom asked, “Did Harlan say whether he had any kind of criminal record?”
“There’s nothing on him in this country,” responded Mr. Swift. “Now I have a question for you, Tom. Have you come up with anything I can send over to Soberstein at CBN?”
Tom looked sheepish. “No, Dad. I’m afraid I’ve let myself get distracted. When it has crossed my mind—well, I don’t see the solution.”
The young inventor briefly explained the problem to the others. “If the problem is that you can’t launch so many rockets at one time, why don’t you just build the station gradually?” Sandy suggested eagerly.
“The International Space Station took years, didn’t it?” Bud remarked.
“Yes, but the design of the space outpost is completely different. Because of the need to keep the structure balanced, we have to attach the modular sections to the hub more-or-less at the same time. And if we just leave the materials hanging in orbit, tiny variations in orbital parameters—even something as slight as the pressure of sunlight—will cause them to spread out over many miles.”
“Swift Enterprises must not be allowed to get a reputation for untidiness,” said Bashalli. “Nor do you wish to have loose shingles from this space-house falling on someone’s head!”
During the laughter and joking that followed, Tom noticed that his mother was looking at his dinner plate. He had eaten little at dinner. Sandy also noticed this—a major departure from Tom’s usual heroic appetite, which he shared with Bud. Both Anne and Sandy Swift knew the signs of too much concentrated work.
“Don’t you think you’re overdoing a bit, Tom?” Mrs. Swift suggested gently. “If only you’d take a short vacation, I’m sure you’d feel much better—and get on with your work faster, too.”
“I’d like to, Momsy, but I just can’t break away,” he said.
“But Tom,” Sandy spoke up, “a vacation needn’t mean twiddling your thumbs or wasting time!” She rounded the table to drop on a hassock beside his chair. “You could use your vacation to help your space station project.”
“Just how would I do that?” her brother inquired. smiling doubtfully.
“By flying to Florida with three wonderful, stimulating young people—who are all in this room!—and lying on a sandy beach absorbing, er—solar radiation. It will free up your mind and give you a new perspective.”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “Uh-huh. And why Florida, in particular?”
“Because it’s going to be snowing here, and that’s where people go. And besides—” Sandy held up a handwritten letter. “We just got an invitation to spend a few days with the Lawsons.”
The Lawsons, a retired elderly couple, were longtime friends of the Swift family. They now lived in a large waterfront house on the southwest coast of Florida, at the edge of the Everglades.
“Oh, Tom, please say yes!” Bashalli urged. “We could have so much fun. And truly, I had enough of snow and ice when we all flew up to Alaska.”
Tom was greatly tempted by Sandy’s suggestion about combining work and play—and by the thought of having frequent dips in the warm blue waters around the Ten Thousand Islands region of southern Florida. Finally he let himself be persuaded.
“Do you think it’d be all right, Dad?” he asked.
“You seem to come up with some of your best insights away from the office and the lab,” answered Damon Swift with a smile. “I suppose I can substitute for my genius offspring for a few days!”
The girls cheered, but Bud pretended to object. “Hey, I don’t recall anybody asking me what I think! Let’s see, on the one hand gray skies, snow, slush, and chapped lips; on the other hand sun, sand, ocean breezes, swim trunks... Let me think it over.” Sandy grabbed a pillow from the sofa and threw it at him.
Two days later the foursome took off southward in a Swift Construction Company commuter jet, Bud on the stick. Winging their way out of Shopton and gaining altitude, they sighted another of the silver experimental balloons carrying a payload that suggested solar battery development. Describing the prior encounter, Bud was laughingly giving it a wide berth when Tom’s sister cried out, “Look! It happened again!” All eyes turned to see the balloon disintegrate in shreds and the tiny parachute start earthward with its cargo of instruments.
“Oh, brother!” Bud exclaimed. “That one didn’t even make the stratosphere! What do you suppose they’re up to?” The question was addressed to Tom, but the young inventor barely acknowledged it, and Bud did not repeat himself. He knew his friend was gamely struggling with his inner fears and tensions.
In surprisingly little time they were crossing the long green Florida peninsula. Sandy, an excellent pilot trained by Tom and Bud, asked to take over the controls, finally bringing the jetcraft down to a smooth landing at the international airport near the seaside town on Gullivan Bay where the Lawsons lived. The spry, silver-haired couple were there to meet them and drove the young people to their home, which was set back only one hundred yards from the surf. After lunch their hostess smilingly said, “I know you’ll want to be on the beach as much as possible, so go right out there. The water is perfect today.”
It was not long before Tom and the others were sprawled in swim suits on the dazzling white sands of the beach, under the shade of a broad striped umbrella.
As Bud rolled himself out into the sun, Bashalli remarked, “Now Bud, surely your tan needs no more perfecting. You already look like your were dipped in mahogany stain!”
“Just think of me as a human solar battery,” Bud drawled lazily.
Other vacationers lolled nearby, having escaped the clutches of winter in the north. Though the conversation was light for a time, it finally turned to more serious matters. “Does anyone have even an idea why this Rah—Ran—the Gorilla would be spying on us?” Sandy asked Tom.
Answering for Tom, Bud remarked, “Oh, you know, San—what’s a Swift invention without a little intrigue and mystery? Maybe you girls should make one of your lists of suspects.”
“I swear I’m going to kick sand all over your well-oiled skin, Budworth!” returned Bashalli. “Obviously we are victims of some rival battery company—the ones who are launching those balloons.”
“Sure,” grinned Tom. “It all adds up. They sent up the first balloon knowing we’d fly close to it to investigate, so that—when it burst—the vibrations would dislodge the glidewing in just such a way that when I went to fix it, I’d be knocked overboard. It’s a plot to make me psychologically unfit to put a rival battery factory in orbit!”
“Naw, Tom,” Bud objected. “It’s one of the other TV networks, the ones that compete with CBN. They’re afraid of losing the ratings war, see?. In fact, I’ll bet that guy Soberstein is really an alien clone who—”
“Have we heard enough, Bashi?” asked Sandy.
“Very much enough,” replied the young Pakistani.
The two girls, lovely in their swimsuits, scrambled to their feet. “This is supposed to be a vacation, so let’s forget all that spaced-out chatter for a while and go for a swim,” Sandy demanded. Shouting and laughing, the four young people raced across the sand and plunged into the rolling blue-green surf. All were fine swimmers and a moment later they were cavorting like dolphins.
When they emerged, dripping and refreshed, they lazily strolled back to the spot where they had erected their beach umbrella. Beneath it, Bud had stuck a pop bottle, half full, upright in the sand.
“Oh well, Bud, you’ll have to get more cola,” Bashalli remarked. The bottle had been tipped over and most of the cola had dribbled away into the sand.
Bud started to make a joking rejoinder but Tom held up his hand and put a finger to his lips, frowning as he looked down at the sand. In the dampened sand next to the bottle was a deep footprint facing away from the water.
“That’s weird—isn’t it?” said Sandy quietly, glancing right and left up and down the beach. “None of us could have left that footprint!”
The foursome had carried a wicker picnic hamper out with them, to hold their tops and extra towels. Tom now sunk down to his knees, taking care not to obscure the footprint, and began to examine the inside of the hamper. A minute later he shot Bud a glance and slowly withdrew his hand. Between his fingers was a small, round object, no bigger than a quarter, with a wad of adhesive gum stuck to one side.
“What is it?” whispered Bashalli.
“A bug,” replied Tom, barely audible. “A listening device. I’m sure of it. And it couldn’t have much of a signal-range.”
Bud’s muscles tensed for action as he slowly scanned the nearby shoreline. “Then our enemies are here—right here on this beach!”
SANDY clutched her brother’s arm fearfully. “Oh, Tom,” she murmured. “I shouldn’t have talked you into coming down here after all! Maybe we should fly back to Shopton right away.”
Tom patted Sandy’s hand reassuringly.
“And let those creepies scare us out of our vacation? Not on your life, sis.” He gave some whispered instructions to the others and pulled out his wallet, which he had stuffed in his shoe in the hamper. From the wallet he withdrew a tiny extendable screwdriver, with which he forced open the back of the bugging device, exposing its microcircuitry. “Ready?”
Tom had quickly divined the lay of the circuitry, almost in a glance. He used the screwdriver to force an unintended cross-connection inside the device. The others were looking in three different directions along the beach, trying to cover the small transmission radius of the mechanism. “Okay!” he hissed, pushing home the connection.
“Nothing,” said Bashalli.
“Me too,” Bud reported.
Sandy shook her head in disappointment.
Tom sighed, frustrated. “Well, it might have worked. My connection should have caused the receiver to give off quite a screech in somebody’s ear.”
“Not a wince in sight, pal,” Bud said.
“The listener must be hiding behind something,” Bashalli commented. “Or perhaps the signal goes to a tape recorder, not an ear.”
“Still, there’s no reason for panic. One thing is certain—an enemy is within reach and may be still nearby on the beach.”
Bashalli looked incredulous. “That is your idea of not a reason to panic?”
Tom shook his head. “If we could only lay our hands on him!”
“Which may not be so easy,” commented Bud, looking around. The area was dotted with people. Some were stretched out on the sand, sun-bathing with their eyes protected by dark glasses. Others were chatting or playing cards under beach umbrellas. Tom casually questioned several persons. None had noticed anyone suspicious.
“It’s hopeless!” Sandy groaned. “How can you possibly identify the person who stuck that thing in the basket?”
Frowning, Tom studied the maze of footprints in the sand all around their umbrella. “It doesn’t look as though these tracks will do us much good either. Except where the cola spilled, the sand is just too soft.” Most of the footprints were little more than vague blurs. But that one print of a bare foot, the one that had first attracted their attention, was fairly sharp. Tom and the others crouched down to examine it. At first glance the print seemed perfectly ordinary. Then Sandy exclaimed, “Look! Isn’t this toe mark shorter than it should be?”
She pointed to the print of the great toe on the footprint, which was of a man’s left foot.
“Good for you, Sandy!” Tom said.
“But I still don’t see how it’s going to help us,” Bud muttered.
Bashalli smiled and said, “Why not? All you have to do is go around like the prince’s messenger in the Cinderella story and ask every man you meet to take off his shoes!”
The others burst out laughing, and for the time being the search was postponed. None of the young people forgot the incident, however.
During the next two days, Tom’s mysterious enemies made no further moves and the searchers got no additional clues. Not even one bather with a short toe appeared on the beach. All that was accomplished by their efforts at surreptitious foot scrutiny was to give the Lawsons’ guests a peculiar reputation!
On the third day the sky was slightly overcast—for Florida—and the Shopton four decided to take a tour of Everglades National Park. The elaborate tour, by air-conditioned swamp boat, lasted all morning and continued, after a break for lunch, for another hour into the afternoon.
At the conclusion Bashalli mentioned how much she had enjoyed the tour. Sandy gave a wan smile and said, “I think I’ve seen about enough of alligators and weeping willows and floating moss for awhile.”
“Then I have an idea!” announced Bud with enthusiasm. “Let’s rent some swamp-kickers and take our own tour!”
“Swamp-kickers?” repeated Tom.
“Didn’t you see the sign? They’re like—” Bud searched for words. “Well, it’s a kind of platform that you strap your feet onto, with handlebars.”
“I do not understand the customs of the American South,” said Bash dubiously. “Of what use are handlebars for the feet?” Then she laughed to reassure everyone that she was only joking.
“Oh, they’re like jet-skis,” Sandy explained.
Bashalli wrinkled up her forehead. “It sounds like quite a lovely way to break a leg or two.”
“It’s fun, and you can learn how to use it in minutes,” Bud insisted. “That is—if Tom—”
Tom managed a faint grin. “I’m doing fine. Let’s give it a try. If I end up sitting it out, I’ll just pull out my pocket magnifying glass and study, er—floating moss.”
After renting the swamp-kickers and practicing in some shallow channels under the eye of trained instructors—who seemed years younger than the foursome—they were each given a map of the areas open to public recreation and turned loose.
“Best ya keep puttin’ on your skeeter lotion thick as can. But don’ let them Swamp Rangers catch you over th’ line, you guys,” drawled one boy. “They’s a might stingin’ fine t’ pay!”
Soon the four were laughing and cheering as they wove their ways through the dredged backwaters of the swamp. The swamp-kickers were hardly traveling fast at all, yet the experience was so novel that they felt as if they were soaring along in mini-jets. They played a kind of aquatic hide-and-seek, the girls against the boys, and Bud performed a few daredevil stunts that probably were not covered by the rental company’s liability insurance.
“Why do boys just have to show off?” called out Sandy sarcastically.
“Why do girls wear skimpy swimsuits?” retorted Bud with a laugh.
As their paid-for time neared its limit, Bud and Sandy decided to race Tom and Bash back to the dock. The two teams took different routes, and Bud and Sandy arrived back first. But as the ensuing minutes ticked by, there was no sign of the others.
“Must be a-tryin’ to run out th’ clock,” said the rental manager.
Bud nodded, trying to put up a confident front for Sandy. But each knew the thought paramount in the other’s mind. What if Tom and Bashalli had run into an unexpected danger?
And that was indeed the case! At that very moment the Shopton youths were engaged in a high-speed chase in which they were the prey, splashing through ponds and channels willy-nilly and sometimes skidding across mud, their throttles turned up to top pitch.
“Are they still there, Tom?” cried Bashalli.
Tom nodded, leaning forward on the handlebars of his swamp-kicker. Somewhere behind them was a pair of powerful motorboats, each flat-bottomed and driven by a duct-fan. The first had come darting out of nowhere directly in their paths, the mottled sunlight between the arching trees flashing across a leering gorilla-like face.
They had veered off and fled immediately. Seconds later a backward glance had revealed that a second boat had joined the Gorilla, taking the lead. In the second boat were two men, one carrying a shotgun!
Though the boats were momentarily out of sight, Tom could hear the burr of the engines over the sound of their own. He motioned for Bashalli to pull closer and hissed, “I’m sure they’re only after me! You can get under cover and—”
But Bash shook her head, determination in her eyes. “Absolutely not, my dear Swift!”
Tom frowned but nodded back at her. At that moment the boat with the two men—and the gun—came charging into sight behind them. “Come on!” Tom shouted, and gunned the throttle.
They were speeding along much faster than was safe, given the danger of underwater obstructions and submerged wildlife with sawtooth jaws. Like water skiers they leaned into their sharp turns, sending a rainbow spray of water over the rotting logs and luxuriant foliage. But for all their speed, the leading boat was gaining on them. Tom flinched as a shot cracked out—then another! But the bullets had not yet found their mark.
In fear of their lives, Tom settled on a desperate plan. Trying to speak as quietly as possible over the roar of multiple motors, he barked out directions to Bash, concluding with: “Try to keep even with me if you can!”
As the stalking boat bore down on them, Tom and Bashalli leaned forward against the handlebars of their swamp-kickers, shifting their weight. “That one!” Tom cried, nodding toward a dark shape low in the water far ahead.
They cut back on their throttles for a few moments. The chasing boat immediately gave a roar of increased speed, as if snapping up an opportunity. In his mind Tom could visualize the gunman taking aim, the crosshairs of the gunsight centered on his back!
“Ohhh-kaaay!” breathed Bashalli, an exclamation ending in a little scream as the pair pushed themselves upward, as if jumping into the air from their platforms. But, feet strapped in place, the result was to swing the platforms up and forward beneath them, almost out of the water. And at that moment, the undersides of the swamp-kickers thwacked against the submerged log!
The jolt would have been deadly if Tom and Bash had not anticipated it. Like aquabatic performers they bounded up over the log, splashing down cleanly on the other side and regaining their balance immediately. They veered off into a side-channel to the left.
The pursuing boat could neither stop, nor turn, nor hurdle the log. The prow rammed into it full-force, sending boat and boatmen twisting and thrashing through the air.
Tom and Bashalli did not choose to linger.
Minutes later the bedraggled pair came splashing up to the recreation dock, where Bud held up his forearm, displaying his watch. “Eight minutes over!” he called. “You two come by way of Tahiti?”
The story was told in choking breaths, and the rental owner immediately called the swamp patrol, who flashed by the dock moments later as a police helicopter beat the air overhead.
An hour later the shaken foursome were making a statement to the state police. “You recognized the one guy?” the sheriff asked Tom.
“I recognized his description,” he replied. “Did you catch up with him?”
The sheriff shook his head. “Naw. Not a trace. The other two are in intensive care with a few dozen broken bones. They were able to haul themselves out of the water—lucky for them. But no identification, fingerprints unknown; and I don’t guess they’ll be talkin’ much for quite a while.”
“I don’t know who they are, or what they want.” Tom explained how he had discovered the hidden listening device, and Bud spoke up:
“Those two goons are probably just underlings. The Gorilla’s the guy you want. He’s some kind of electronics genius!”
“You don’t say,” responded Sheriff Olmenez. He turned back to Tom. “And I guess I’m convinced you really are the Tom Swift. I hear wherever you folks go, wildness an’ weirdness follers you like a shadow. Spies, kidnappers, mad scientists, bank robbers—lemme ask you somethin’, young fella.”
“Ever considered maybe just stayin’ home?”
Tom gave a laugh in spite of himself.
As the four left to drive back to the Lawsons’, Tom asked Sandy if she had had enough vacation yet.
“No,” she replied with a stubborn, but discouraged, look on her face. “I refuse to let that swamp of doom be my last memory of this trip! We haven’t had enough vacation, have we, Bashi?”
“Well, as a matter of—”
“There, you see, Tom?” Sandy interrupted. “You and Bashalli haven’t fully recharged your batteries yet!”
“And besides,” Bud put in tentatively, “we still haven’t found the man who planted that bug. It obviously wasn’t the Gorilla, and the sheriff said those other two had regular-size toes.”
Tom reluctantly agreed to another few days.
Despite the frightening event, Tom was able to enjoy the remainder of his vacation and spent most of the time loafing in the sun. The bruise on his shoulder was fading nicely. Yet his inventive mind was never inactive. One morning he seemed to be dozing on the sand next to Bud when the others saw him suddenly stir and snap his fingers.
“What gives?” Bud asked, looking up from a trivia-quiz game he was playing with the girls.
Tom raised himself on one elbow, an excited glint in his eye. “I’ve got the answer to how to get going with the outpost in space!”
“You do?” boggled Sandy.
“Yep!” grinned Tom. “And you won’t believe it!”
THE GIRLS GET A CLUE
“THEN TELL me, Thomas,” demanded Bashalli. “I can believe a lot of things with ease!”
“Hot rockets!” Bud grinned back at his pal. “Don’t you ever stop inventing?”
Tom ignored the gibe. “Look at that kid over there.” He tilted his head toward the surf, where a young boy was playing with an inflated beachball. The boy was having a high time pushing the ball under the water and letting it bound up into the air.
“What about him?” Sandy asked.
“It suddenly struck me that there might be a way to save fuel by launching our supply rockets under water!”
There was silence as Bud, Bashalli, and Sandy traded glances, trying to absorb Tom’s peculiar idea. “Well, Skipper, I know they launch Polaris missiles from submarines... ” Bud murmured.
“Is that what you mean?” Bashalli asked. “To set off your big rockets from submarines?”
“Nope!” The young inventor shook his head, beaming. “I’m thinking that we could anchor the rockets to the sea floor as part of a sort of buoyant carrying vehicle, which would effectively replace the first stage of the rockets.” He began to diagram his idea in the sand. “Think of something like a narrow cylinder a couple hundred feet long or so, made of some strong and lightweight material—maybe reinforced Tomasite plastic. It would really be just a big, streamlined tank full of air.”
“Like that beach ball!” Sandy contributed.
“Exactly, but shaped like a spear pointing upward. Attached to it, or maybe enclosed inside it, will be a pared-down version of the Workhorse rocket Swift Construction Company makes. It’ll have just two stages. The lower segment will carry it into orbit, and then will be converted into one of the modular ‘spokes’ for the space station. The small top stage will hold the construction crew, and will carry them back through the atmosphere when the project is over.”
“Sort of a quick-and-dirty version,” remarked Bud. “But I don’t see the advantage of launching under the ocean like that.”
Bashalli brightened. “Ah, but I see! It is the buoyancy! Like that beachball, the rocket pops up into the air without burning fuel, and is on its way.”
“All right,” said Sandy. “But can you really get a heavy rocket way up to the stratosphere or something, just by buoyancy?”
“No you can’t,” Tom admitted. “But as I figure it, by having the whole rocket fuselage in rapid vertical motion by the time it breaks the surface of the water, we’ll save a great deal of fuel, as well as the time required to prepare a conventional launch stage. You know, most of the fuel burned on a rocket flight is expended within the first mile of travel—and most of that just clearing the top of the gantry!”
Tom was now engaged, excited, and back in his element. After further discussion, he looked at the girls and asked in a sheepish voice, “To really develop this, I’ll need my lab equipment. Don’t you think we’ve had enough—?”
“No!” declared Sandy firmly. Then she softened. “But when Tom Swift wants to go inventing, no one better try to hold him back.”
“Tell you what, San. Let’s leave tomorrow afternoon.” Then Tom’s face took on a warning look. “But—to play safe, let’s all stick around here between now and then!”
Later that afternoon, an unexpectedly warm one, Sandy and Bashalli went down to the beach for a dip. Perhaps inspired by Tom’s illustration, the two girls were tossing a beach ball back and forth before going into the water, when suddenly Bash stopped the game. She came close to Sandy and whispered excitedly: “Look at that man over there—the one with the striped trunks, and—”
“And nothing else!”
“And notice his left foot. It has a short great toe to match that queer print we saw in the sand!”
Sandy stole a second glance in the direction Bashalli had indicated. The man lay stretched out on a big beach towel with a rolled-up T-shirt across his eyes to protect them from the sun.
The girls looked at each other knowingly and studied him for a moment. His black hair was close-cropped above a high forehead, and though his face was partly hidden they judged him to be about thirty years old. Sandy turned to Bash and hurriedly whispered a plan for finding out more about him.
Casually the girls edged their umbrella closer to the spot where the man was lying, then resumed their game of beach ball. Sandy purposely let the ball go past her. It landed several yards away and rolled up to the corner of the towel the man was lying upon. As it hadn’t rolled quite far enough, Bashi carefully strode closer and gave it a nudge—twice—quickly jumping away. At last it bumped up against the man’s legs. He pulled the T-shirt from his eyes and regarded Bash curiously.
Sandy hurried to recover the ball and apologized profusely. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry!” she said. “I missed the ball.”
“Not a problem,” he said with the hint of a drawl. The man now looked at Sandy with a friendly grin; or at least a grin of some kind or other. It crossed her mind that he certainly did not look like a criminal. One of the suave variety, Sandy decided. Now he’s going to say something charming!
“Actually, I’m glad I was lying in the way,” the stranger said pleasantly. Even more than pleasantly.
I was right! thought Sandy. She cocked her head and assumed a puzzled frown. “Aren’t you the man who lives next door to the Lawsons?” she inquired.
“I’m afraid not.” He laughed. “But if that would make us neighbors, I’m all for it.”
He was smooth—clearly a hard case! Sandy laughed too, reddening a tad beneath her new suntan. She and Bashalli abandoned their game and reclined under the beach umbrella. The conversation with the suspect was resumed.
The stranger told them that he was an ex-Army officer, recently separated from the Signal Corps. He had come to Florida for some sunshine and a much-needed rest.
“By the way,” he added. “may I introduce myself? Kenneth Horton.”
“Oh, is that your name? Mm, I mean—” She bit her lip. Oh, is that your name? Ugh! “I’m Sandra Swift,” responded Sandy, “and this is my friend, Bud—er—”
“No,” Bash corrected.
“Bash. Bashalli... something.”
The man offered his hand. “Hey there, Bash Bashalli Something. You two just meet?”
“Comparatively speaking,” Bashalli replied. “My last name is difficult. Foreign, you know.”
“Well, Kenneth is foreign to me, actually. I’d rather you called me Ken.”
Sandy gulped. This mission was not going as planned! “Sure... Ken.”
Bashalli spoke up in the brief silence that followed. “Sandy and I are here, here on this beach, in Florida with our boyfriends, Bud and Tom, to vacation. Here. Florida. Which is where we are now.”
“With your boyfriends.”
“Who are here.”
“So where are they?”
“Well, ah, they’re... elsewhere.” A curse upon this American hunk-lizard! was the phrase that came to Bashalli’s mind, unbidden.
“We ought to get together,” Horton said. “That is, the five of us—if I’ve kept track.”
“Oh, absolutely and look what time it’s getting to be!” Sandy cried with a glance at her wrist.
Horton raised an eyebrow. “You’re not wearing a wristwatch.”
“No,” said Sandy earnestly. “No, in fact, I’m not. Do you wear one?”
He held up both bare arms. “See one?”
“We must run,” Bashalli said. “Really we must.” She looked at Sandy, who looked back helplessly. “Really we must! Run!”
“Later,” waved Ken Horton.
The girls grabbed their things in a flustered flurry and trotted away across the sand. “That went well,” Sandy murmured.
As they arrived inside the Lawsons’ house, where Bud and Tom were relaxing, Bashalli was speaking to Sandy in a tone of disgust. “Sandra, to swoon is not the act of a modern woman!”
“I’m not a modern woman. I’m a modern teenage girl. Let me enjoy it while it lasts,” she pouted. “And look who’s talking, little miss ‘excisely’!”
Both girls gave themselves over to the very traditional act of giggling.
“What’s up, you two?” asked Bud.
“Ah, very much way up!” Bashalli declared. “The small-toed enemy reclines even now upon the beach!”
Tom jumped to his feet. “What!”
“Oh, no, no,” objected Sandy hastily. “It was just sort of a mistake. His toe wasn’t all that short, really... you know.”
Bud stood and pounded a fist into his open palm. “I think I wanna meet that guy!”
“Oh, now, Bud,” fretted Sandy. “He’s not a criminal or a spy. He’s very nice—an Army veteran.”
Bud snorted. “Yeah? Of which country?”
Tom tried to calm the proceedings. “Look, we won’t take a swing at him. But there’s no harm in running whatever we know past Harlan Ames and his various connections.” He pulled out his ever-present notebook. “Just tell me what you learned about him. Did you get a name?”
“Of course we did!” Bashalli pronounced. “It is Kenneth Horton, of the Army Signal Corps.”
“But he goes by Ken,” Sandy corrected. “Probably Kenny.”
“Uh-huh. What about his age?”
Bash looked scornful. “As if we would ask such a question of a total stranger!”
“About thirty,” Sandy blurted out. “A young thirty, very masculine.”
“Be sure to note that down, Tom,” Bud quipped.
“Blue eyes, maybe with a little violet,” said Tom’s sister. “Sort of sparkling, with kind of a come-to-me gleam. White teeth, all there, no bad breath. Well, I think he likes potato chips, but potato chip breath isn’t what I’d call bad, would you, Bashi? Nice rounded muscles, here and here and, er—you know. Flat stomach, totally broad shoulders. One of those—I’d call it a creamy-dreamy tan. Kenny is pretty much your average cute, complete utter babe. Oh, Tom, his voice! Just like Addison Grimes.”
Tom looked thoroughly lost. “Who’s Addison Grimes?”
“You know, Tom,” Bud said wryly. “On the soap opera!”
Tom sighed, wrinkling his forehead. “Can you tell me any more, Bash?”
She shook her head. “No, a major cute. I must agree.”
“How about his hair?”
“Oh, right!” Sandy cried. “Dark, curly, narrow right up the center lane, then going wide at—or did you mean the hair on his head?”
The young inventor set down his notebook and glanced at Bud. “At least we have a name.”
Bud gave a thoughtful nod. “He does sound cute.”
“Well, c’mon, I can see how the girls might find someone like that, er, that.”
Abandoning for the moment their debriefing of Sandy and Bashalli, the boys promptly raced toward the beach for a look at Horton. He was still in place, and fairly recognizable.
“So he’s the one who slipped you that bug!” Bud whispered, doubling his fists. “Well, let’s find out how big he talks, face to face—him and his potato-chip breath!”
But Tom held his friend back by the arm. “Take it easy, pal. We’ve got our look. We’ll notify Ames and let him inform the authorities and run the databases.” He paused and added with irony, “He’s probably coded under cute, huh?”
The next afternoon, Kenneth Horton having made no further appearances, the young people took off for home, landing at Shopton in time for a relaxed mid-evening meal in town. Immediately after dinner Tom emailed an abbreviated report to Harlan Ames, then returned to his lab to plunge into some late-night work on the preliminary design of his buoyancy-lifted rocket idea. It was after eleven when the young inventor finally arrived home for a night’s sleep.
The next morning was Saturday. Tom, first to be up and dressed, was just heading downstairs to fix himself a quick breakfast when a loud buzzing growl sounded through the house.
The alarm system! Tom thought anxiously, rushing to switch it off before the others were disturbed. But the family’s dogs, Caesar and Brutus, were already barking, and a glance showed Tom’s mother in her nightgown at the top of the stairs, a look of fright on her face.
“What is it, Tom?” she whispered.
“We’ll soon know,” said Tom grimly, approaching the front door. “It may be just an innocent caller,” he added, seeing her look of concern. But Tom’s own thoughts were less sanguine. He had taken note of the warning dial above the front door. The needle had swung around violently, indicating that the visitor carried metal—possibly a weapon!
As Tom strode to the door, steps sounded on the porch and the doorbell rang. At least they’re not trying to sneak up on us, he thought. Tom pressed a light switch—it was still early on a clouded winter morning, and the sun had barely touched the sky—and peered into the security eyepiece at the side of the door, which connected to an optical-fiber periscope. In the yellow glow of light outside stood a uniformed policeman—Greg Norcall of the Shopton PD.
Relieved, Tom opened the door. He started to greet the officer pleasantly but was tersely interrupted.
“Are you Tom Swift?”
“You know I am, Officer Norcall. What is—”
“Then please accept this official court document.”
He thrust a grave-looking document into Tom’s hand. “It’s an emergency summons ordering you to appear before Judge Grover on the twenty-seventh of this month to answer charges of malicious destruction of property!”
A COURT BATTLE
THE NEWS about the summons served on Tom Swift appeared in the morning edition of the town newspaper, as if it had been leaked to the press in advance. The local superior court, at which the lawsuit had been filed, was packed on the date of the scheduled hearing.
The Swift family, Bud Barclay, and Bashalli Prandit arrived to the sizzle of electronic photo-lamps and the loud jostling of a throng of excited television reporters armed with deadly-looking microphone booms. Waiting inside the courtroom was Chow Winkler, who, like Bud and the others, had also received a summons; for the lawsuit involved the destruction of “certain high-altitude balloons and other property of the Quik Battery Corporation"—a reference to the balloon Tom, Bud, and Chow had observed from the Sky Queen on the day of Tom’s fall through the stratosphere.
Tom and the others declined to make a statement to inquiring reporters as they entered, except to mutter confidently that the matter involved an obvious misunderstanding.
Although the case was scheduled for one thirty, the court docket was so crowded that by mid-afternoon the case still had not been called. Tom fumed. He had been unable to learn any details of the charges against him and his friends, other than those buried in legalese in the summons itself.
Bud squirmed and fidgeted. Under his breath he muttered to Tom, “Boy, this is worse than standing by for a rocket take-off!”
Finally Judge Grover intoned, “Case of the Quik Battery Corporation versus Tom Swift, et cetera, et al, and various subsidiary parties as stipulated. Will the parties please step forward?”
As Tom rose from his seat, a stranger came bustling up the aisle. He was a stocky man, with a florid complexion and bulging eyes that made him look like a bad-tempered bullfrog.
“Fine,” whispered Bud under his breath. “We’re fighting a real zoo—gorillas and frogs.” Tom responded with a wary chuckle.
“You are the complainant?” inquired Judge Grover, addressing the red-faced man.
“That is correct, Your Honor. I am Jaston York, president of the Quik Battery Corporation. As an attorney and member of the Bar Association of this State, I will represent my own company in these proceedings.”
The judge turned to Tom. “And you are the primary named defendant, Thomas Edison Swift, resident of the municipality of Shopton, a single man and prior emancipated minor, eighteen years of age?”
The judge nodded. “Of course I already know who you are, Mr. Swift, as I am not a dat-rang’d fool; but the legal profession requires that you endure these procedures.”
“Say, I like this hombre,” Chow murmured.
“Aren’t you represented by legal counsel, Mr. Swift?”
“Our company lawyer is now in Washington DC,” explained Tom. “My father and I, and the rest of us, didn’t feel that it was necessary to call him back on this account, because I’m quite sure that there’s been some mistake. I haven’t destroyed anyone’s property.”
“We’ll see about that!” snorted Jaston York angrily.
“We will indeed,” said the judge. “I wish to make clear that these are special proceedings of a type recently authorized by the State Legislature on an experimental basis. Though not a Small Claims Court matter, this hearing will be conducted with a similar degree of informality of procedure.” The hearing now got underway, and York was directed to set forth his purported causes of action in clear, direct, and understandable terms, as required by law and the policies of this jurisdiction—in the words of Judge Grover.
York fingered his lapel and began. “Your Honor, my company was—”
“Which company is that, Mr. York?”
“The Quik Battery Corporation of Plattsburgh, New York, address filed with this court. My company was engaged in making some tests on solar radiation by means of a high-altitude helium balloon. Quik Battery is allowed to make such tests under its State and Federal licenses. We sent up a balloon equipped with valuable instruments on the date of—”
“Dates accepted as stipulated in court submissions. Now, Mr. York, I take it these balloon ascents took place in connection with your commercial purpose, which is the manufacture of batteries for public sale?”
“That is correct, Your Honor.”
“And what, precisely, is that connection, sir?”
York paused. “We are engaged in proprietary research with regard to the area of—”
“No,” said Judge Grover impatiently. “Just tell me what the balloon is for. Making some kind of battery?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“And what transpired? You see, I’m allowed to say words like transpired, but you are not.”
York frowned and turned slightly redder. “Tom Swift and his associates, in a jet aircraft called the Sky Queen, deliberately rammed that balloon with his plane, causing its destruction and thereby ruining the entire experiment!”
The judge shuffled through his papers and nodded. “Busted it, you say?”
“In a manner of speaking, sir—yes.”
“All right. Now then.” Judge Grover turned to Tom and regarded the young inventor over the tops of his spectacles. “Did you hear what he said, Mr. Swift?”
“I did, Your Honor.”
“Do you understand the allegation?”
“Did you do it? That is, you or one of the others named?”
“Definitely not, Your Honor. It’s true that I was flying the Sky Queen at that time, and I did see the balloon Mr. York is referring to. But it burst of its own accord, just as any radiosonde balloon will do after reaching a high enough altitude.”
York sneered sarcastically. “And I suppose you just happened, by some strange coincidence, to be zooming close by at that particular moment!”
There was a slight titter from the crowd of spectators, and Judge Grover rapped for silence. “Much as I enjoy a note of drama, Mr. York, you will confine your remarks to the court for the time being. I take it that you are prepared to prove these charges?”
“I am, Your Honor. May I call my first witness?”
At a nod from York, a tall, thin man came forward and was sworn in. After taking the stand, he identified himself as Frank Haley, a technician employed in the photographic laboratory of the Quik Battery Corporation. York handed him a sheaf of photographs. “Have you ever seen these pictures before?”
Haley glanced at them briefly. “Yes, Mr. York. I processed. these photographs myself. They’re shots taken by an electronic high-resolution camera which went up in the test balloon, the one we have reference to.”
“And what do they show?”
“They show Tom Swift’s plane, the Sky Queen, heading straight toward the camera just before the balloon was rammed.”
A buzz of interest and excitement rose from the courtroom. York turned his red, perspiring face triumphantly toward the judge. “If Your Honor will examine these photographs, you will see that there is no doubt whatsoever about the truth of my charge!”
Judge Grover took the photographs and studied them for several moments. When he looked up at Tom, his expression was grave. “Young man, these photographs certainly have a kind of ipso facto force in bearing out Mr. York’s accusation. Do you still deny the charge?”
“May I see the pictures?” Tom asked. The judge handed them over, and Tom glanced through them quickly. “These are the ones I’ve examined previously. I don’t deny that that’s my plane. The answer is quite simple, Your Honor. When I first saw the balloon, I realized that it was not the ordinary type used for weather signals. So I steered toward it for a closer look. That’s evidently when these pictures were snapped.”
York laughed harshly. “Don’t think you can squirm out of this!” he said, shaking a fat finger in Tom’s face. “Whatever your motive, these images prove that you approached close enough to cause the balloon to explode, and my company expects full compensation and punitive damages, and an injunction to make sure—”
Judge Grover rapped his gavel for order, and replied, “No need to read the laundry list, Mr. York. If you got your camera back safely and developed these pictures, how can you claim the experiment was ruined?”
“Yes, well, I’m sure the court realizes that it’s not the camera I’m talking about! It’s the other instruments and our proprietary battery materials. The payload parachuted to earth, but from a much greater altitude than planned, as we had programmed the balloon to drop the payload package during its descent phase. Practically everything aside from the camera was completely smashed—and all of it was high-priced scientific equipment!”
“Got it,” declared His Honor. “As you have asked for punitive damages, do you allege that this was a deliberate act?—I know you do, of course, as it says so right here, but let’s get going on that part of it.”
There was silence; this question seemed to flummox York for a moment. “Surely it is evident on the face of it that Mr. Swift behaved recklessly in virtually buzzing my test balloon, Your Honor.”
“Does the defendant have a response?”
“The fact is, my plane didn’t really approach the balloon all that closely,” Tom replied. “In fact, my associates here will be glad to testify that I was concerned about not interfering with the experiment.”
Bud and Chow nodded vigorously.
“Nods don’t count,” commented the judge brusquely. “However, Mr. Swift has not yet solicited actual testimony from Mr. Budworth Newton Barclay and Mr. Charles Ollaho Winkler, so the point is moot. Two most unusual names.”
Suddenly an idea occurred to Tom. With a quick shuffle he counted the number of photographic prints. Then he looked at the witness, who still occupied the stand. “Mr. Haley, I’m familiar with several types of high-speed, high-definition electronic cameras, and the special orientation marks on these prints make me think they were taken by a Mondo-Basso camera, manufactured in Milan, Italy. Am I right?”
The spider-thin technician gulped and answered, “Yes, sir, that’s what it is—the top of the line.”
“Well then, that kind of camera records hundreds of images per second,” Tom said.
“Do you dispute that statement, Mr. Haley?” asked Judge Grover.
“No; that’s true.”
“Then given your expertise as entered into the court record by the claimant, I shall accept that statement as evidentiary in and of itself.” The judge turned again to Tom. “And your point, Mr. Swift?”
“Well, Mr. York has only brought to court a handful of these images, all of them apparently consecutive. But that’s misleading!” declared the young inventor confidently. “Truly consecutive images would follow each other so rapidly that they would not show any obvious motion of the plane, as these do. I’d like to know what happened to the rest of them.”
Haley cleared his throat and glanced uncomfortably at his employer. Before he could reply, York snapped at Tom, “What concern is that of yours?”
“I’d like to see them,” Tom said evenly. “They may be important evidence. In fact, they might even show that I never rammed your balloon at all—especially the later ones showing the Sky Queen moving away from the balloon before it burst!”
“Well, you’re out of luck,” York retorted. “They don’t show anything of the kind.”
“What do they show?”
“Nothing! The rest of the prints were all spoiled.”
Judge Grover leaned forward on his elbows. “Does the witness concur in that statement?” he asked.
“Oh yes, sir. I do,” replied Haley, nodding hastily and nervously.
The judge frowned for a moment, then announced, “I believe you’d better produce those images anyhow, Mr. York. I’ll explain why. You see, I can accept that all the images taken after the alleged collision might have been ruined. But this court has some difficulty with the notion that the earlier intervening images were completely spoiled—prophetically, as it were—leaving behind those very few others that happen to support your contention.” He looked sternly at York over his glasses. “In fact, sir, I suspect it would be in your best interest to make a most solemn effort to enter those missing images into evidence, if you catch my drift.”
The plaintiff was obviously distressed, his face redder than ever. “B-but you just heard—that is—” York glared first at the judge, then at Tom. He looked more than ever like an angry bullfrog about to explode. Finally he grumbled in a sullen, ill-tempered voice: “Oh, very well. I’ll produce them if we can still find the digital cartridges in our lab. But I repeat, they show nothing.”
“A wise decision,” said Judge Grover with a smile. “And by the way, Mr. York, you might like to bear in mind that this court does not care to be glared at, as by long tradition only the judge is granted that privilege. Now then, I do note that you allege a second, more recent occasion, in which you allege further interference by a Swift aircraft, this one piloted by Mr. Barclay here. And I see you have again presented a similar series of camera images.”
“Yes, sir,” responded York sullenly.
Chow Winkler suddenly cleared his throat. “Say there, yer Honor, sir, if I could have a say—”
“Um, well, I’as just lookin’ at that second set o’ pitchers, and they look a lot like t’other ones. And, say—don’t it seem jest a little bit suspectible that both times that there camera was pointed right at where the jet was?”
Judge Grover smiled broadly. “Whether suspectible or not, you’ve raised something of a question.”
Tom now added, “Your Honor, this camera has a unique 360-degree lens that allows views simultaneously in all directions, from which the image printer then makes a selection. Once again, it appears we are seeing only a very minute portion of the actual evidence.”
Grover nodded. “Mr. York, I will again suggest that—”
But York interrupted with a near-growl and a wave of his hands. “Since the court chooses to regard those spoiled images as such important evidence, I may as well drop the charges!”
“Suit yourself, Mr. York,” the judge said coldly and brought his gavel down. “Case dismissed!”
The courtroom onlookers burst out in a surge of chatter and applause, and once again photo-flashes exploded into brilliance as Tom’s family and friends rushed up to congratulate him.
Sandy planted a kiss on her brother’s cheek and Bud clapped him on the back, exclaiming, “Why didn’t you tell us you were such a legal beagle?”
Mr. Swift shook Tom’s hand. “Nice going, son! If you weren’t such a first-rate scientist, I’d say you’d missed a legal calling.”
On the way home Bud kept everyone chuckling with his jokes about York’s popeyed reaction when his case started falling apart. But he added, “Just the same, I think that guy would be a good one to stay away from.”
“That’ll suit me!” said Tom emphatically as he steered the family car through Shopton’s late afternoon traffic. Smiling, he added, “We’ll be too busy the next few weeks to bother to look him up!”
“But there is something I do not understand,” said Bashalli. “To use a legal term, what is the motive here? What is it this froglike Mr. York hoped to gain from his very obviously bogus lawsuit? Surely not just the money penalty, which must be quite minute potatoes to a company like his!”
“As to that,” Mr. Swift said, “I think I know the answer, Bashalli. It turns out the potatoes are a lot bigger than we suspected!”
“OKAY, SO WE have some very large potatoes,” said Bud with a laugh. “What’s it all about, Mr. Swift?”
Damon Swift picked up a folded newspaper. “I was reading this morning’s Shopton Evening Bulletin while we were waiting in the courtroom,” he explained. “Bashalli, since you asked the question, why don’t you read this article aloud—starting with the headline.”
“It is in the Business and Commerce section,” she announced. “The headline reads, New Invention Will Harness Sun’s Energy!”
“Oh no!” Sandy gasped, leaning over to scan the article. “It’s about that awful man’s company!”
Bashi quickly read the article aloud. The story announced that the Quik Battery Corporation had developed a solar battery that would revolutionize industry. Jaston York was quoted in glowing terms in praise of the many future uses for the battery. The story also stated that the batteries were energized in “the airless near-earth environment” but gave no further details.
“Those balloons you saw must be the answer,” Mrs. Swift remarked.
“It says that a whole series of such balloons has been sighted lately,” Sandy declared. “The reporter think they might have been behind a slew of upstate UFO sightings.”
“A little box tells us to turn to the editorial page for more comment,” noted Bashalli, turning the pages. She read silently for a moment, then looked up, her eyes flashing fire. “Absolutely disgraceful!”
Bud asked, “What?”
“Listen!” She read a paragraph of the editorial aloud. “ ‘Local citizens will regret that the Quik Battery Corporation has succeeded in making a solar battery before our own Swift Enterprises. Shopton has always looked forward to the Swifts being first in their field with new scientific achievements. But in this case, Jaston York and his engineers have snatched the laurels from our famous father-and-son team. Science marches on, and we can only say, Well done!’ ”
“Thats an insult!” Mrs. Swift exclaimed.
“And after all you Swifts have done for this hick town since the days of the Model T!” Bud Barclay exclaimed in disgust. “Mr. Swift, I know you don’t believe in revenge, but if they don’t print a retraction, I think—you should cancel your subscription!”
Sandy rolled her eyes.
Tom’s father chuckled but made no comment. Tom himself shrugged his shoulders as he turned the car into the driveway of the Swift residence. “It’s a free country. If York’s battery is all he claims, more power to him.”
“A pun,” commented Bashalli. “That is surely a pun.” As Tom cut the engine, she added, “But after all this, I still fail to understand. Why did Mr. Toad, to call him by his proper name, insist on this lawsuit?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” was Tom’s reply. “What better way to get publicity for his new product than to sue his prospective rival? It’s not a secret that Enterprises has been doing battery research.”
“He probably rigged those balloons to pop by remote control,” Bud muttered sourly.
“He couldn’t have known our upcoming flight schedule,” Mr. Swift pointed out. “No, Tom’s theory is mine as well—Quik Battery saw an opportunity to get some publicity out of their failed experiments, and took advantage of it. No more than that.”
But inwardly Tom felt sick. As he drove to Enterprises, he reflected on whether this revelation might affect his outpost-in-space project. If York’s battery captured the market, it might not pay the Swifts to manufacture theirs 22,300 miles above the earth. A great deal of the money that his father’s company had already invested in the project would be wasted!
As soon as he reached his office, Tom called a friend who ran an electrical engineering firm in Philadelphia. He told him what had happened. “See if you can obtain one of Quik’s solar batteries, Jerry, before they’re available for public sale, so we can run some tests on it. I doubt if York would sell me one direct.”
“Sure thing, Tom. I’ll be glad to try, at least.”
To help forget his worries, the young inventor buried himself in his ongoing work. One good thing, Tom mused as he bent over his drawing board, was that everything else was going along well on his project. He and the other Enterprises engineers were conquering the various problems in connection with the newer, bigger space station—including testing out Tom’s remarkable approach to launching materials and construction crews into orbit. Tom’s father had already arranged to visit a site in the South Pacific that was a likely location for the undersea launch rig.
The next day a phone call came in from Washington DC. The caller was Dr. Madden of the Public Health Service, one of the government medical men cooperating in the Swifts’ ambitious space project. “Your idea of using a novel oxygen-helium mixture to breathe looks good, Tom!” he reported. “Our tests show that it’ll cut down the danger of your crew suffering from bends in case of an air leak.”
Tom was jubilant as he hung up. Using an oxygen-helium mix instead of the oxygen-nitrogen combination found in Earth’s atmosphere was well established in space flight, as helium weighed less than the nitrogen in ordinary air. But this particular ratio, lighter still, had been controversial until tested out. Now that it had been certified as fundamentally safe, he resolved to go forward with some further tests.
First, however, he stopped by Harlan Ames office. The square-jawed chief of Enterprises security had left Tom a message indicating that information about Kenneth Horton had finally been received after a lengthy delay.
“I also found out the reason for the delay,” Ames explained. “Your boy Horton was being a bit modest in talking to Sandy and Bashalli. He’s not just some grunt in the Signal Corps, but a trained special agent who was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry after returning stateside from Iraq! We had to get some very high-up clearances to get access to his records.”
Tom was amazed! “Doesn’t exactly sound like the sort of guy who might be planting bugs in beach hampers on behalf of some unknown foreign power.”
“Definitely not. Major Horton comes with the best recommendations imaginable—not only that, he’s independently wealthy, inherited from his family. And nothing to indicate that he has any grudge against you or your father. And now comes the kicker, Tom. He’s made several applications to NASA for training as an astronaut, and probably would be a space veteran already if not for budget cutbacks!”
“Wow!” Tom exclaimed. “By any chance are you suggesting that Enterprises should try to get him involved with the space outpost?”
“That, I leave up to you,” chuckled Ames. “I do recall your Dad saying something about the difficulty of finding enough qualified workers to train for the project.”
Tom gave a thoughtful nod and said, “Tell you what, if everybody is sure Horton is trustworthy, I’ll send him a personal invitation to apply and be interviewed as a Swift rocket man.” His eyes twinkling Tom added, “I’ll tell him we need more cute men with dreamy-creamy tans!”
After completing the meeting Tom went over to his lab adjacent to the huge underground hangar, where he found Bud waiting for him. Tom told his pal about the strange turn of events. But the young pilot scowled and said he was strongly opposed to the idea of inviting Horton to take part in their new project. “You can’t tell me that two guys with a short big toe would have been on that Florida beach at the same time!” Bud protested. “That would be too much of a coincidence.”
“Coincidences can fool you, chum,” Tom replied, slightly surprised at Bud’d vehemence. “For example, in a group of twenty strangers, the odds are about 50-50 that two people will have the same birthday.”
“Well, that’s really interesting, Tom,” Bud grumped.
Tom assured Bud that Horton would be thoroughly screened again at Shopton, then he quickly changed the subject. He reminded Bud that they had not yet translated the interrupted message from outer space. “But I’ve made some progress,” Tom said.
“Okay,” Bud responded. “So what do they say?”
Tom accessed the encrypted file on his lab computer, and Bud looked on with keen interest while his friend showed how he and his father had partially decoded the message.
“Assuming my translation is correct,” Tom replied, “this message tells us that our space friends live on a satellite of the planet Mars!”
“You mean some kind of a space station they’ve built?”
“Yes—though it’s not clear whether that means an independently orbiting facility like our space outpost, or a natural moon—Deimos or Phobos—on which they’ve established a base. After that, the message goes on to invite us to do something.”
“Do what?” Bud asked curiously.
Tom shook his head. “Unfortunately, that’s where the message stopped. The machine went dead right at that point, on a complex untranslatable symbol. It’s strange that they haven’t sent the whole message again, though we’ve asked them to. There’s no response at all.”
“Oh, fine!” Bud said impatiently. “Then we won’t have any idea what they were trying to tell us until the next message comes through. And that may not be for weeks—if at all!”
“I didn’t say we have no idea,” Tom corrected. “In fact, I believe I know what they were trying to say!”
Bud stared at his friend in surprise. “Don’t keep me in suspense, genius boy!” he pleaded. “Come on! What’s the news from the Martian space station?”
“You remember some of those earlier messages our friends out there sent us?” Tom asked.
“Sure. They wanted to visit the earth but couldn’t figure out how to survive in our atmosphere or something— wasn’t that the general idea?”
“Atmosphere, magnetic field, something about the environment—right!” Tom hesitated. “Dad and I have never been able to figure out why they can’t tell us exactly what the problem is. It’s almost as if each side uses some basic concepts that the other can’t even grasp. And they don’t seem to understand the idea of representing their bodies visually—by some kind of television image or even a simple diagram. They’ve never been able to describe themselves well enough for Dad and me to form any idea of what their bodies are like.”
Slowly relaxing, Bud grinned. “Maybe they’re afraid to let us know. They may be bugs or fish or something really out of this world!”
Tom laughed. “That’s as good a theory as any. But the end result is, we couldn’t give them any advice.”
“But what’s on their minds now, Tom?” Bud persisted.
“I have a hunch they’ve given up on that angle for the time being, and now they want us to come and visit them.”
“Say! How about that?” Bud exclaimed, reacting with wide-eyed enthusiasm. “Man, a trip like that would suit me!” His eyes narrowed. “Unless you plan to give my seat to Kenny Horton.”
Tom ignored the comment. “And another thing— visiting their satellite would be much simpler than visiting Mars itself, because we wouldn’t have to overcome the gravity or atmospheric conditions. Mars is subject to some mighty fierce windstorms, flyboy!”
“Piece of cake!” Bud said enthusiastically. “How soon do we start?”
. “Slowdown, space cadet!” laughed the young inventor. “A space station is still the first step in conquering interplanetary space. Besides, even a trip to a Martian satellite would take a little too long for my taste.”
“How long?” queried Bud.
Tom thought for a moment. “The round trip would take over two and a half years right now. Even ageless types like us can’t stay eighteen that long!” Bud’s face fell as Tom added, “And almost half that time would be spent waiting for the right moment to take off on our return trip.”
Bud shook his head glumly. “Well, there goes a dream—with a dull thud.”
“Don’t take it so hard,” Tom said with an understanding smile. “We’ll beat the problem yet, somehow. In the meantime, if those Martians can travel faster than we can in our old-fashioned chemical rockets, there’s no reason why they can’t pay a visit to us at the space outpost!”
“Now there’s a thought!”
After Bud left, his mood somewhat lightened, Tom sat himself at the lab’s air tank setup, eager to carry out a few more tests on the oxygen-helium mixture. To his surprise, he found that his empty tank of oxygen had been replaced by a new one bearing the label of the Aer-Cel Company. Picking up the phone, Tom contacted the supply department. “What happened to our own tanks of oxygen, Luisa?” he asked. “I notice this new cylinder is from the Aer-Cel Company.”
“Oh, that’s one they gave us free,” explained the plant’s chief purchaser. “Seems they’ve designed a new regulator for their tanks and they’d like you to try it out. I figured you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not a bit. Just wondered, that’s all.”
Tom hung up and examined the device which Luisa Perez had referred to. It was wired to the cap nut on the tank, and included a pressure gauge, stopcock, and the necessary threaded fittings for attachment.
Tom unwired the gadget and screwed it into place on the tank. Then he adjusted the tank valve to a suitable pressure and opened the stopcock, to draw off a small amount of oxygen.
The young inventor was puzzled. The device seemed to work in the usual way. Yet there was, after all, something queer about the design. And the hissing air seemed to have a slight odor.
Tom tried to shut off the flow, but the stopcock would not turn. He tried the tank valve. This, too, refused to budge!
Suddenly Tom felt ill. A strange paralysis seemed to be numbing his arms and legs. In a flash, he realized that he had been duped by a trick. Instead of oxygen, there was a deadly gas in the tank!
TOM KNEW that he must get out of the room before he was overcome. But as he tried to go forward, he staggered—it seemed as though his legs just wouldn’t move! Groggy from the deadly gas filling the room, Tom lurched toward the door of his laboratory. With one hand, he pulled out his handkerchief and held it to his nose. But his legs dragged as though weighted down with lead.
“I’ll never make it!” he thought.
Then Tom remembered the wall switch for the exhaust fans. It was just a few steps away. If he could only reach it!
He stumbled forward. One hand groped up and dragged down the lever. The exhaust blowers whirred into life and Tom felt a surge of air. But the gas from the tank had already engulfed the room. Tom’s head was splitting, his eyesight hazy. Swaying blindly, he lurched on, two steps, three steps—one more now and he could reach the door!
It seemed like a lifetime before his hand closed on the knob. With a superhuman effort, Tom opened the door and managed one final staggering lunge out into the underground hangar. He was just in time—shadow was descending all around him. As the heavy steel door swung shut behind him, the youthful scientist slumped to the floor!
A hangar workman raised a shout of alarm. Men came running from all directions. Mr. Swift was the first to reach his son’s side.
“Tom! What happened?” his father cried, cradling the youth’s head with one arm.
The young inventor’s lips moved weakly. He mumbled a single word, “Gas... ”
As someone opened the door to peer inside, Mr. Swift shouted, “Don’t go into that lab!”
The atmosphere of the air-conditioned hangar soon revived Tom. Gradually the color returned to his cheeks and his blue eyes fluttered open.
“Don’t try to talk yet, son.”
When Tom felt completely revived, he ac-companied his father into the laboratory. By this time, the blowers had cleared the room of gas and the air was safe to breathe. Mr. Swift sniffed the tank cautiously. A faint trace of gas was still evident. He caught some in a burette and tried several chemicals on it. When he was through, he looked at Tom.
“Know what that stuff was?” he asked grimly.
“Some type of nerve gas, I imagine.”
“Fluorophosphonate ester. Son, if you hadn’t got yourself clear, you’d be dead by now!”
Tom shuddered. “I wonder if the Aer-Cel Company really did send me that tank?”
“We’ll find out right now!”
Mr. Swift picked up the phone and asked the operator to get the president of the Aer-Cel Company. Tom listened to the conversation, then flashed a questioning look as his father hung up.
“He knows nothing about it—says they never sent over any tank of oxygen,” Mr. Swift reported.
“In other words, somebody pulled a fast one!”
Father and son stared at each other, sharing the same sobering thought. Evidently Tom’s enemies were still at work and would stop at nothing!
One afternoon Bud found Chow parked outside the laboratory door acting as a specially appointed—self-appointed—guard. “You kin go on in. I recconize you!” he declared. Inside, Tom was hard at work with a calculator. His desk was littered with papers, each one covered with figures and equations. From time to time the young scientist paused to punch a new problem into his computer.
“What gives, chum?” Bud asked.
Tom grinned and ran his fingers through his spikey blond crew cut. “Just working out the ascent track of the rockets.”
“What a headache!”
“We want to circle the earth in an orbit 22,300 miles up. But the trick is to make our rockets hit the orbit at just the right spot.”
“Where’ll that be?”
“Directly above Ecuador in South America,” replied Tom. “The CBN people figure that will be the best spot for sending and receiving signals.”
“Got the course all figured out?”
“Just about. We’ll go up in a big arc from the underwater launch site near Loonaui Island in the Pacific, tending east. By the time we’re a thousand miles up, we’ll be zooming along at 21,000 an hour.”
Bud gave an awed whistle as Tom continued, “At that point, we’ll cut the engines and coast the rest of the way. We’ll travel in an elliptical track around the earth till we reach our final altitude. Then, one more spurt of power to regularize our orbit, and we’re in business!”
Bud glanced at his pal’s workbench, littered with sketches and figures. “Plans for your ‘water-pistol’ system?”
Tom nodded. “I’ve progressed to the point where I need to do some actual nosing around on the ocean floor at that Pacific site Dad visited. You interested in a ride, flyboy?”
Bud laughed and said, “I could probably be talked into it!”
Tom was eager to go. Two days later he took off for the Pacific in the Sky Queen. With him were Bud and a small crew of technicians, including Enterprises’ young chief of engineering, Hank Sterling.
“Let me get this straight,” grinned Hank. “You plan to launch your rockets like balloons, but from the bottom of the ocean. Doesn’t that count as going the long way around?”
Tom smiled back, knowing that Hank was already thoroughly familiar with the project. But he decided to elaborate on the idea for the benefit of the others. “The rockets will be two-stage versions of the Workhorse drone rockets we’ve been building over at Swift Construction. We’re leasing a big, fast cargo ship to freight them through the Panama Canal and on over to Loonaui Island—actually, to a tiny islet we’ve purchased about four miles offshore. There we’ll install the rockets in the aqualaunch shells, as we call them.”
“Those are your carrier vehicles?” asked one of the engineers.
“Right. Basically, they’re long cylinders pumped full of pressurized helium, made of a special compound of Tomasite. The rocket sits in a round opening at the very top, like a cork in the neck of a bottle.”
“How do you get those aqua-blimp-things down to the ocean floor, genius boy? Weight them down with ballast?” Bud inquired.
“No, we’ll pull them down on a cable setup. When we release them, they’ll rush up to the surface with increasing speed. When the tip breaks the surface—that’s the actual rocket, remember—we’ll ignite it, and off she’ll soar, already moving pretty fast. If all goes well, we should be able to launch three a day, which we could never accomplish at Fearing.” Tom was referring to Fearing Island off the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., where Tom’s small rocket ship, the Star Spear, was based.
With its solar-fed engines purring contentedly, the great silver skyship streaked across the continent faster than the speed of sound. Soon they were soaring far out above the broad Pacific.
Late that afternoon, Tom arrowed in for a landing on Loonaui. The lush tropical island was set like a green jewel in the sparkling blue waters below. Gentle rolling white breakers burst into foam against the outlying coral reefs.
“Oh, man, I can feel that South Sea island magic already!” Bud sighed as he climbed out of the plane.
“Well, don’t get too romantic, pal!” teased Tom. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Tom and his friends were driven from the small airfield at Jeanmaire, the capital of the Loonaui Islands Republic, to the northern end of the island where Mr. Swift had leased an aging hotel and grounds for use by the Swift Enterprises project. They were greeted by the crew of native Loonauians that Tom’s father had engaged during his earlier visit. A mammoth warehouse had already been constructed at the water’s edge, next to a modern pier.
The people of Loonaui were strong, sun-bronzed Polynesians, with a sprinkling of other groups—Samoans, Filipinos, and even some direct descendents of the old French colonials. Most of them were friendly, but one man in particular, named Pali, seemed different from the others, both in looks and disposition. He wore a sulky, scowling expression. Tom noticed that he seemed to be a man with a following.
“I wouldn’t trust Pali farther than I could throw a rocket,” Bud confided in private.
“Ditto,” Tom agreed. “But I have no reason to discharge him. If I do, it may only stir up trouble.”
“Leave it to me,” Bud said. “I’ll keep an eye on him and find out if he’s up.to anything.”
While Tom was busy setting up quarters for men and equipment that were to arrive from Shopton in large numbers, Bud mingled casually with the natives. He soon realized that he could find out little without knowing the native language. Fortunately, Bud managed to make friends with a good-natured native boy about twelve years old, named Kipu, who agreed to act as translator.
Late that afternoon, Bud saw Pali and a group of friends stroll away from the work area. Summoning Kipu, he set out to trail them. Some distance away, he found the natives seated near a grass hut in a secluded grove of pandanus trees. Bud and Kipu crept up close enough to hear what was going on.
Pali was haranguing the other men in their native language. Suddenly Kipu clutched Bud’s arm and turned to him with a look of terror.
“Come! We must go back to your friends at once! I am scared trouble!”
Tom was checking cargo lists in his palm-thatched cottage when Bud and Kipu burst in.
“What’s wrong?” Tom asked.
“We come to warn you!” cried Kipu, still wide-eyed with fear. “Pali is making great stirring-up. I heard him say you and the men with you are evil—that you come to shoot fire rockets at the sky. This will displease the spirits of nature. Pali tells the island people to destroy you or a great sickness will come to Loonaui!”
“Good night!” Bud gasped. “What’ll we do?”
“There’s no sense getting all worked up,” Tom advised. “This is a modern, educated country. I’m sure few people pay any attention to stuff like that.”
“But you heard what he said!” Bud exclaimed.
“I’m not forgetting a word of it. But Dad had all those workers screened and I’m sure they’re loyal.”
“What about Pali? Would you call him loyal?”
“He’s the one bad apple,” Tom admitted. “But if it comes to a showdown, the island police will prevent trouble. The government here is enthusiastic about our project.”
Bud scowled uneasily. “I still think this setup is dangerous,” he mumbled. “But you’re not listening.”
Tom went over to a crate of trade goods in the corner and took out a colorful atlas of the world, which he gave to Kipu. “Here, take this for your kindness. You’ve done well to warn us about Pali. If you hear more news, please come and tell us at once. We mean no harm to any of your people!”
In the week that followed, there were no further signs of trouble. Tom threw all of his energy into the job of constructing the rocket base. Men and equipment arrived every day and work progressed rapidly.
Although mission control for the space outpost itself would be established in the hotel, a secondary construction site and base for subocean activity was to be set up on a tiny islet four miles off shore. This uninhabited islet, called Bolutanbu, was a curving strip of land barely above sea level, two miles long but only a hundred yards wide at its broadest point.
Tom and Bud landed by cabin cruiser on Boluntanbu, which had already been briefly surveyed by Mr. Swift. With the assistance of Oco and Ambuli, the Loonauians piloting the craft, the youths unpacked and entered two Fat Man suits that had been shipped over aboard the Sky Queen. These were remarkable one-person submersibles equipped with robotic arms and legs, shaped like huge metal eggs and self-propelled.
“Down we go!” chortled Bud into his sonophone communicator. The two waddled down the beach and into the mild surf, walking another hundred yards to the point where the sea floor suddenly dropped away at a sharp angle, an oceanic cliffside.
“The Seuratt Abyss,” Tom explained as they activated the water-jet propulsion units and began to descend into the turquoise depths. “Not very wide, but it’s the deepest Pacific trench near the equator—two miles down!” He explained that the crevice was a vent for the long-extinct volcano that gave birth to Loonaui eons ago.
Twenty minutes later they were strolling along on the sandy floor of the sea, their paths illuminated by special electronic lamps built into the suits; for the sun could not penetrate the depths.
“You sure this crack in the ground is wide enough for your launching-shells?” asked Bud skeptically.
“More than wide enough,” replied the young inventor. “The shells, and the attached rockets, are pretty narrow—nothing like Dad’s big CosmoSoar rocket! And the narrowness is actually a plus, because the rock walls block ocean currents that might foul up the launch.”
They examined several relatively flat sections of ocean floor. Soon a launching site was laid out, marked with self-digging spikes equipped with tiny sonar locating beepers.
“Here’s where we’ll put the electric winch system that’ll wind the cables down to the floor,” Tom said, half to himself. He could already visualize the entire setup.
Bud had jetted a few hundred feet away, using his suit lights, which were attached to the “forearms” of the Fat Man suit, to illuminate and explore the languidly waving undersea vegetation.
“Tom, there’s something over here,” he sonophoned. “I can’t tell what it is—it’s in the middle of one of these sea-bottom forests. Maybe you should—” Bud’s message ended in a startled gasp!
“Bud?” cried Tom. “Barclay, come in!” At full speed he propelled his suit in the direction Bud had gone. But long before he reached his pal, Tom was able to see three things ahead of him in the subsea gloom.
The first was Bud’s suit, turned away from Tom and frozen in a position of fear.
The second was the twin beams of light from Bud’s suit aqualamps.
The third was the object upon which the beams converged.
Not a dozen feet from Bud Barclay loomed a huge monstrous head with curving teeth like daggers!
TOM himself was frozen with dread inside his metal vessel. The sea creature was like something from a bizarre aquatic nightmare, its snout and teeth reptilian, its head almost parrotlike, with the featherlike crest rising above. There were also long, curving horns on top, like those of a snail.
Oh man, the skull of that thing’s as big around as a dining room table! exclaimed Tom’s thoughts.
Abruptly a staccato, wavering sound echoed in his ears.
Bud was laughing!
“Sure fooled me!” he cried. “It’s just a big carving!”
Tom advanced closer to the thing rising from a clump of vegetation, and saw that it was true. The monster was actually a carved figurehead rising from a catamaran-like wooden hull mostly buried in the sand and silt of the ocean bottom. On closer examination it was clear that this was not a figurehead but a figuretail: it was carved onto the boat’s stern, and faced backwards.
Tom touched the figure gently with his mechanical claws, but it fell away like smoke. The wood was completely rotted out.
“How old do you think old Betsy is, Tom?” Bud asked.
“I’d guess it dates from late in the Nineteenth Century,” responded Tom. “I’ve read about this. The tribal culture of Loonaui kept up their boat-building traditions even under the French. We’ll have it raised for the museum in Jeanmaire before we start setting up the launcher equipment.”
Still chuckling and joking about their momentary fright, Tom and Bud surfaced and walked back up on to the pebbly beach of tiny Bolutanbu, where they packed the Fat Man suits away on the cabin cruiser. Then they made the crossing back to the hotel, which Bud had nicknamed Space Central.
After dark that evening Tom, Bud, and Hank Sterling decided to take time out for relaxation and pay a visit to the quaint trading village at the north end of the island, a half-mile beyond the Swift encampment.
Kipu came along in the jeep to act as translator. The narrow, twisting dirt-and-gravel streets, poorly lighted with torches and oil lamps, were crowded with people. Traditional Loonauians in colorful wrap-around garments rubbed shoulders with planters in soiled white ducks and sailors from the trading schooners. The ships lay at anchor in the harbor.
As they bounced along, Bud shot a glance at Tom and grumbled, “What was that you said about this being a modern country?”
Kipu grinned with many teeth. “We are very-much-most modern. This whole place is for tourists to enjoy and spend money—the costumed people come in each morning on the asphalt road on the other side, in buses!”
Tom and his companions wandered from shop to shop, sampling native dishes, such as fish, poi, and yams. They also bought some wood carvings and dyed tapa cloth to take home as souvenirs for Mrs. Swift and the girls, and for Hank’s family.
Bud stopped to play a game of darts with some young sailors from a German ship, Kipu listening to the varied accents with wide ears as he stood watching in rapt fascination. Tom and Hank wandered over to a small, open-sided hut—a snack stand.
“How do you feel about everything, Hank?” asked Tom over an ice-cream cone. “Everything on schedule?”
“I think so, boss,” replied the engineer. “Assuming you don’t get sued by anyone! Seriously, all the space station modules—that is, the bottom stages of the rockets—are complete and sitting in the sun back at the Swift Construction Company, and I’m told the hub structures are coming along nicely. I’d say the main issues now all involve that new-fangled launch apparatus of yours!”
“Well—and one more thing,” Tom commented. “We still haven’t finished selecting and training our space crew.”
“Hey, I passed my tests!” laughed Hank. “Have you got an application from that spacehappy wonder-boy, Horton?”
Tom glanced toward Bud, still at his game down the street. “When I last talked to Dad, he mentioned that Major Horton’s application had arrived—by overnight courier!”
After a time, Hank told Tom that he wanted to wander through an exhibit of Loonauian painted masks. Tom clapped him on the back and said, “Guess I’ll join Bud. See you back at Space Central.”
Tom had taken only a few steps back down the street when he caught sight of a familiar face in the flickering torchlight—Pali. The tall, sullen-faced native had caused no further trouble since the first evening and Kipu was of the opinion that he could now be trusted. “He has learned,” the boy had said. Tom was glad he had given Pali the benefit of the doubt, and a second chance.
Pali nodded at Tom and approached affably. “I wish to tell you, Mr. Swift, that I was concerned this morning about your sacks of building materials becoming mildewed in our damp climate. I stacked them in a different way; now the air should circulate better.”
“That’s good work, Pali. Thanks for changing them.” The man smiled. Tom was slightly puzzled by the Loonauian’s unusually helpful attitude and initiative. He was also astounded to realize that Pali spoke excellent English!
After a pause Pali leaned close to Tom and said that there was something he would like to talk over with him in private. It was of a rather secret nature, he explained, so the two strolled down an alley between wooden buildings and away from the noisy crowd.
“No doubt you are surprised to learn that I am quite civilized, and not at all a head-hunter,” Pali began.
Tom shrugged. “I’ll admit that I didn’t know you spoke English so well.”
“The fact is I was not born on Loonaui. I have a good deal of your valuable white blood in me.” He paused again and glanced at Tom, then blurted out, “I should like to join your space crew!”
Tom was startled. He pointed out that all crew members would have to pass rigid tests and there was no equipment on the island for giving them.
“Very well, then,” Pali persisted. “When you go back to the States, I should like to go along and take those tests. Perhaps I can disprove your doubts that an Islander can compete with an American.”
“I never doubted that at all,” said Tom somewhat hotly. “But I had no idea that—”
The man faced Tom bitterly. “You think I should be happy here, do you? Would it surprise you to learn that I have attended an American university, that I once planned to be an engineer?”
There was something in Pali’s tone that seemed strange, almost threatening. Tom noticed that they had reached a lonely stretch of beach. Palm trees straggled down to the water’s edge. A long aluminum canoe-like boat, outboard motor at the stern, had been run up on the sand and tied to a post. Though the gentle waves were lapping the shore, the gouge in the sand was still fresh. That boat hasn’t been there more than a few minutes, thought Tom for no particular reason.
Pali continued, “Now, Mr. Swift—boss!—perhaps you can understand why I—”
He suddenly broke off with a sneering laugh as two Loonauians sprang on Tom from behind, one clapping a hand over Tom’s mouth. The young inventor twisted and fought but could not shake off his assailants.
“So!—our brilliant, so very young Tom Swift walks into our trap, which was sprung by one word, the word ‘boss’!” Pali chuckled. “They say experience is the only school for fools. But you will not have a chance to profit from this lesson, poor boy.”
His captors forced a reeking cloth under Tom’s nose, and despite further struggle, darkness was his only reward.
He awoke in a strange gray twilight to sounds that he could not identify. He seemed to be lying flat, face downward, but could not feel what he was lying on, nor could he move. His breath seemed labored and hissed in his ears. In the background was a deep throaty buzzing that rose and fell.
Tom tried desperately to clear his thoughts. That sound—I know! Outboard motor, that boat on the sand! What’s wrong with it? Why is it so muffled? He twisted his head and realized something was covering his face.
There was another sound, too. Sloshing, water slapping against—what? The side of a boat?
And a hissing. Where had he heard that before? And recently? In the lab! The air tank in the lab!
Then he understood. He understood a great deal in a single rush.
The hissing was air escaping from a breathing hose, a tube connected to a tank—specifically, a scuba tank strapped to his back, separated from his skin by the latex wetsuit that covered him entirely, except for his plastic faceplate. He could not feel what he was lying on, because he was lying on nothing at all—that is, nothing but water.
He was handcuffed to the underside of the boat!
He smashed his wrists against the aluminum hull above him. Metal handcuffs!—maybe real police handcuffs, binding his wrists together in the small of his back, and then attached to something beneath the boat shell that he couldn’t quite touch. The feeling was coming back to his arms and wrists, and that was unfortunate—they burned with pain.
Looking through the faceplate, he could understand more of what he saw: deep water, bits of seaweed, a skinny fish darting by. Was it still night? Day? He decided that it must be dawn. The water had taken on just the slightest hint of a pale, pastel salmon color.
There was no time to wonder why he had been attacked. He could already feel his breaths becoming labored. His air supply was starting to run out!
Flexing his legs, Tom tried rapping on the boat hull with his heels. Any sound he made was drowned-out by the outboard motor. Not that those guys would pay any attention anyway! Tom thought in desperation. They obviously intended that he would not survive this trip.
But he soon concluded that there was no one aboard topside. It was too easy to cause the boat to rock when he jerked himself right or left. And that suggested a route of escape. He began to thrash furiously, shifting his weight one way and then the other with as much force as he could muster. At first he had little effect. Then he forced himself to think hard.
Okay! Tom said to himself. I have to get into the rhythm of this—I’m spending half my time fighting against the boat when she rolls back the wrong way.
He began to apply force judiciously, amplifying the rocking motion like a child trying to make a swing go higher and higher. Soon the lightweight craft was not only rocking violently but pitching forward and back, causing the outboard motor prop to rise up. The boat swerved through the shallow waves like a seasick eel! Still the young inventor pounded away, writhing with his upper body, slamming the underside with his heels.
Suddenly a watery light showed full in his face, then faded again. It was the surface, tantalizingly near, then rolling away again as the boat rocked back to equilibrium. He strained all the harder, breathing in painful gasps.
At last it happened! The narrow boat tipped up on its side, hesitated maddeningly—and flopped over, trapping enough air to keep it afloat for a time. Tom was out of the water, lying with his back painfully arched on top of the air tank strapped to his back, wrists cuffed beneath him and bearing the weight of the tank and his body, looking up at the pearly sky of a South Pacific daybreak, still only pale with the hidden sun, not yet bright.
The motor sputtered, the screw whirling uselessly in air. In a moment, flooded, it died.
Tom was still in desperate straits. For all he knew, he could be many miles from land, far out in the ocean. He could probably manage to suck in air from around his mouthpiece as the air tank became depleted. But soon the hot sun would be up, blazing down at one tiny figure in a black wetsuit. Tom knew the aluminum underhull would become hot as a griddle. How long could he survive?
ADVICE FROM THE TAXMAN
BACK ON Loonaui Space Central was in an uproar. At first no one had realized that Tom was missing. Having failed to run across his pal in the village, Bud assumed he had gone back with Hank Sterling, whom Bud had seen talking with other members of the project crew. Sterling returned with these friends, and Bud drove the jeep back to the hotel with Kipu.
Bud was surprised to find that Tom was not in the room they were sharing. Must be off inventing something in that makeshift workshop of his! the young pilot said to himself. Me, I need some shut-eye!
He showered and turned in. But his sleep was restless, and by four AM he was wide awake and concerned about Tom. Pulling on a pair of shorts he quietly explored the hotel. It soon became very apparent that Tom Swift had failed to return to camp!
Bud awakened Hank, who groggily explained that he had last seen Tom walking off toward Bud, and had assumed that Tom would accompany his friend back to the hotel. “I didn’t see any sign of danger, Bud,” Sterling declared reassuringly. “You know Tom. I’m sure he’s off somewhere dreaming up equations and new metal alloys under the tropic moon.”
“No,” Bud frowned. “I do know Tom—and I’m sure something has happened. I feel it!”
“All right then. Let’s get in touch with the authorities.”
The island police organized a search, Bud and Hank joining in. Now night had become dusky morning and still Tom had not appeared.
“So far we haven’t a single lead to help us find Tom,” Bud announced glumly. “Someone must have knocked him out in that village and dragged him away somewhere.”
“But we have searched the village, Mr. Barclay,” said the police captain. “There is no trace of such a thing.”
Bob Jeffers, a young mechanic from Swift Enterprises who had qualified for the space crew, spoke up. “What about that guy Pali? Didn’t you say he was up to some monkey business awhile back?”
“The police woke him up and questioned him,” replied Bud, “but he claims he hasn’t seen Tom since he quit work yesterday.”
At that moment Hank pointed out the window. “Here comes Kipu,” he exclaimed. “Looks as though something’s up!”
The boy burst into the cottage. “I bring news!” he announced breathlessly. “My mother woke me up and said Blond Boss is missing—a policeman had come to our door.”
“Do you know something, Kipu?” Bud asked anxiously.
“About that Pali!”
“He said he hadn’t seen Tom all evening.”
“He’s a big-jaw liar! While you were playing the game, I saw them talking—they walked away together between the shops. I didn’t think it needed telling, Tall Bud!” Kipu was near tears. Bud tousled his black hair and brought out a grin.
“Kip, I think you may have just rescued Blond Boss!”
“We will take this man into custody!” declared the police captain angrily.
“Wait,” urged Hank. “Let’s be smart and go the sneak route. Remember, priority one is to find Tom.”
“Alive,” added the captain. Bud gulped, his face white.
Bud and Hank accompanied the police captain and another officer to Pali’s small wooden house, which was not far from the old hotel. They crept up behind the house through the brush and positioned themselves near the doors and windows.
Inside the dwelling, three men were talking—Pali, and the two men who had assisted him in the kidnaping. The three exchanged words in the Loonauian language, and all three burst into satisfied chuckles.
But their mirth was short-lived. They whirled in surprise as Bud and Hank crowded through the doorway with the two island policemen.
“Okay, Pali. You’ve had it!” Bud exulted. “These cops just translated your remarks for us. Only you never will collect that money you were talking about, because Tom Swift is still alive!”
Pali gave a scream of rage. Grabbing a heavy club, he lunged toward Bud, who quickly flattened Pali with a hard right to the jaw while the island policemen covered the other two natives.
“Now then, water rat, you’d better talk and talk fast,” Bud said. “I said Tom was alive—make a liar out of me, and—I’ll—” Bud sputtered. “Well, I’ll get back to you on what I’ll do! But I swear you won’t like it!”
“You will stand trial for kidnaping, assault, and attempted murder,” said the captain. “You are a disgrace to this island! But you can make it better for yourself by telling what you know.”
Pali struggled slowly to his feet, all the fight gone out of him. “And what if it is too late?” he asked cynically. “Will you go easy on me then, Captain Yoru?”
“It’s not too late!” Bud insisted.
“Such friendship. All right,” he mumbled. “I’ll tell you everything.”
In fifteen minutes Bud and Hank were soaring over the ocean in an amphibious police helicopter. Suddenly Bud pointed wordlessly, too emotional to speak. A small overturned boat drifted below, a black figure stretched out upon it.
“Nice... to see you... ” rasped Tom weakly as Bud, still in the harness that had lowered him from the chopper, struggled to free Tom’s handcuffs as the aircraft set down in the water nearby.
A few gulps of water from a thermos bottle helped to revive Tom. Inside the helicopter he related what had happened.
“We know a little more now!” Bud growled. “Pali confessed, and his two buddies caved right away, too.”
If Pali told the truth, Tom thought elatedly, he might get to the bottom of the mystery!
It seemed Pali had been truthful in saying that he was a trained engineer, and that he was not native to Loonaui. He had been born in American Samoa, and had worked in a factory in the States. “But my boss fired me,” he told Tom at the local jailhouse. “For revenge, I sabotaged the plant machinery. I was caught and went to prison. After I got out, no one would hire me. Why should they? Then a man offered me money to come to Loonaui.”
“Who was he?” Tom asked.
“His name is Blatka—Stanis Blatka.”
“What did this man look like?”
Pali described a man unlike any Bud or Tom had yet encountered—very pale, with white-blond hair. “Never have I seen a human like that. Most of his body seemed of normal build, but his legs and arms and fingers were grotesquely thin. I thought of him as ‘the Mosquito’. Yet his voice was very deep, and he spoke in a monotone. Most of the time he wrote his commands on paper and held the sheets up to be read—then he destroyed them.”
“What did this Blatka want you to do?” Hank Sterling asked.
“Come here to Loonaui, where I once lived for a time. Stir up the natives and make trouble. He was hoping I might get them to attack your group. The people wouldn’t do it. So Blatka came and told me to hire canoemen—bad men I knew—to take boy-Tom out to sea.”
“But why is this Blatka out to get me?” Tom wondered, frowning.
“He didn’t say,” replied Pali. “And who am I to ask?”
“We will interrogate this man fully, and his accomplices” remarked the police captain. “Soon we shall have the answer.”
It was not to be. Checking later at the police station where Pali and the others had been taken, the police captain, shame-faced, told Tom, Bud, and Hank that his prisoners had escaped!
“I cannot believe it!” moaned Captain Yoru, shaking his head. “But you see, Mr. Swift, Loonaui has little crime and we rarely use the jail for more than an overnight drunk-tank. Some men came into the station, drew guns and demanded the cell keys—and now the three are all gone.”
Bud started to erupt angrily but Tom lay a calming hand on his arm. “Swift Enterprises will be glad to pay your government for the costs of any investigation. This gang, whatever it is, has attempted murder both here and in the U.S. They must be caught!”
“Did you learn any more from them?” Hank prodded.
The man’s eyes showed fear. “These are very strange matters, sir. Pali finally said Blatka, this Mosquito—he’s head of a dangerous group. Foreigners from many countries, all fanatics—half crazy! He said he knew no details, only that they wished to prevent your Enterprises from placing its moon in the sky.”
Bud turned to Tom with a startled look. “This must be even bigger than we thought!”
Tom gave a worried and thoughtful nod. “We’ll have to hire a security force to keep an eye on Space Central and the Bolutanbu facility. But for the time being, I think I’d be better off working in Shopton.”
Preparations for the return trip were made speedily, and a few hours later the Sky Queen was streaking high over the Pacific carrying Tom, Bud, and Hank. The great silvery ship winged in over the four-mile-square Enterprises plant late that afternoon, local time. Having rested and fully recovered, Tom reported the events in detail to Harlan Ames and his father.
“I’m utterly in the dark as to why anyone would object to the outpost in space to such an extent that they would be willing to kill to prevent it,” commented Mr. Swift. “There seems to be an international element to the problem, though.”
Tom gave a weary smile. “I don’t think it’s just Jaston York and his battery company trying to ace a rival.”
“No,” said Ames. “And the Gorilla, Miza Ranooq—where does he fit in? The Canadian authorities have been unable to locate him.”
Tom wandered back to his laboratory, not yet ready to call it a day. After a few futile minutes trying to busy himself productively, he sat down before the computer to make an entry in his daily journal, which was maintained in a securely encrypted file.
As he finished the entry he leaned forward on his elbows. How next should he proceed? He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, then began to reach to shut down the computer. But something caught his eye.
ZED ZED SEPT
The words floated on the screen, all capitalized, just after the end of his journal entry.
I didn’t type that! thought the young inventor with growing excitement. Could it be—?
Before his eyes, a new line suddenly materialized.
WE CALL HIM THE SPIDER
Tom leaned forward and typed: “Are our tax dollars still at work?”
BETTER BE OR IM OUT OF A JOB
Some time before, when Tom and Bud had first blasted into space aboard Tom’s rocket ship the Star Spear, a mysterious informant, apparently connected to a secret U.S. government agency, had sent Tom useful information in just this manner, as if able to access Tom’s encrypted journal despite his security precautions. Because the informant had identified himself with the phrase your tax dollars at work, Tom had begun to call him the Taxman. But there had been no subsequent contact—until now!
“How are you, Asa?” Tom typed. He believed the Taxman was the same person who had masqueraded as an elderly caretaker named Asa Pike.
DON’T KNOW ANYONE NAME OF ASA
IM THE TAXMAN
YOU NAMED ME YOURSELF
“Whatever. What do you know about our current enemies?”
THANKS FOR ASKING
BLATKA IS A SWISS NATIONAL
HIS GANG CALLS ITSELF
ZED ZED SEPT
OPPOSED TO WORLD TRADE
AH GIVE ME THE SIMPLE LIFE
DO YOU GET IT
Tom typed, “I think so. Then foreign governments are not behind it?”
NO BRUNGARIANS OR KRANJOVIANS
THIS TIME AROUND CHIEF
THESE ARE ENTREPRENEURS
WITH A MISSION
“Why don’t you folks stop them?”
THESE ARE A FEW LOOSE NUTS LEFT OVER
WE DO WHAT WE CAN
SEND COMPLAINTS TO TAXPAYERS
Tom smiled at the response. “What else? The Gorilla?”
FOCUS ON THE INSECTS FOR NOW
“Where is Blatka?”
OUT OF REACH
WILL DO HIS BEST
TO SABOTAGE YOUR
ITS WHAT HE LIVES FOR
Tom typed a few further questions, but the Taxman only messaged:
OUT OF DIMES
—which Tom took to mean the interchange was ended for the present. He reported the incident to Ames and headed home.
The next morning, when Tom arrived at his office, Munford Trent, secretary to Tom and his father, reported that he had a visitor. “He says you asked him to apply for an astronaut position.”
“Let me guess!” Tom laughed. “Muscular, high-forehead, what you might call cute?”
“I didn’t notice,” sniffed Trent. “He gives his name as Kenneth Horton.”
“Please show him in, Munford.”
“He’s at gate security right now. I’ll call Ted Klein to bring him over.”
As Trent left he brushed by Chow Winkler, whose sun-bronzed face was wreathed in a grin. He was glad to have his beloved boss back home and safe. “Tom, you gonna be wantin’ a bite to eat here at the plant later on t’night?” he asked. “If’n you are, I’d like to fix somethin’ a mite special.”
Tom hardly heard him. He was thinking about the messages from the Taxman. How could Tom be sure that Major Horton was all he seemed to be?
He answered, “Thanks, Chow, but I’ll probably be shoving off at five o’clock.” Then, as the cook turned to leave, Tom added abruptly, “Say, wait a minute!”
A sudden idea had struck the puzzled young inventor. Time and again Tom had noticed that Chow had a natural gift for character reading. Explaining that he was about to receive a caller, Tom said, “Stay around, Chow, and look the man over, would you? Then later on tell me what you think of him.”
The Texan agreed, greatly pleased by this mark of confidence in his shrewdness. A few minutes later the security guard ushered Horton into the office. Stretching out his hand to welcome the visitor, Tom glanced at Chow to catch his first reaction.
To Tom’s surprise, the cook’s jaw had dropped open in a look of utter amazement!
READY FOR SPACE
CHOW’S UNMISTAKABLE recognition of Kenneth Horton startled Tom. Was the ex-major friend or foe? Tom found out a second later when Horton exploded with: “Chow Winkler, you old bean wrangler!” The two men rushed together in a bear hug, then pumped hands and clapped each other joyfully on the back.
“Brand me for a three-toed bronc if you ain’t a sight for sore eyes!” cried Chow, holding Horton at arm’s length to look at him. “Where’d you come from, boy?” He looked at Tom. “Brand my buzzards, how’d you know ’bout him, Tom?”
The caller quickly told how he had received an invitation to come to Swift Enterprises for an interview.
“Brand my fuselage!” the cook exclaimed, remembering Tom’s request. “I almost forgot what I’m doin’! Tom, I’ve knowed Kenny Horton here since he was knee-high to a horny toad. I used to work for his pa on the ole Lazy H spread, down in the Panhandle. You take it from me, Tom, you can bank on anything this young feller says ’r does, cause they ain’t no finer folks exist than the Hortons from Texas!”
It was Kenneth Horton’s turn to be puzzled. “That sounds as if I were under suspicion for some reason,” he remarked quizzically.
Tom took a deep breath, embarrassed. “You were,” he admitted. “But in view of what Chow tells me, I’m sure we can forget all that.”
The young inventor then proceeded to explain about the attacks on his life, the device left in the beach hamper, and the tracks of the man with the short toe.
Ken Horton burst out laughing. “No wonder I was a prime suspect!” He chuckled. “But maybe I can still help you.”
“How so?” Tom asked.
“I saw another man on the beach with the same kind of toe peculiarity—but worse.”
Tom was startled by this revelation and asked for a description of the man.
“Well, be was dark-haired, skinny, and about forty years old,” Horton replied. “Frankly, I didn’t take to him. He seemed a little oily. And he talked a lot, too. He struck up conversations with several people on the beach. I figured he was trying to sell something.”
“I don’t suppose you overheard anything that might give us a lead?” Tom asked.
Horton shook his head, then frowned. “Wait a minute! I do remember something. He was flirting with a girl and mentioned his name. Seems to me it was something ending in ‘—erman’.”
Tom excused himself and went to the videophone, the Swifts’ private telecommunications network. He signaled the Key West station, then waited until broadcast employee Graham Kaye’s picture appeared on the screen. Tom relayed the information given him by Horton and requested Kaye to pass it along to the police.
“Have them get in touch with me the minute they turn up any lead,” he added before signing off.
When Tom rejoined Chow and Horton, the cook wanted to know whether these developments might cause Tom to change his mind about leaving the plant at five o’clock.
“They might at that,” Torn admitted. Turning to Horton. he asked, “How about having dinner with us here? Chow can fix something.”
“Glad to,” said the former Army officer. “That’ll give me plenty of time to talk about several ideas I have.”
Chow beamed. “I’ll whip up the best-tastin’ mess o’ Western vittles you ever et!”
“Sounds good to me,” Horton said, smiling. “I’ve missed that great hash-flingin’ of yours, Chow Winkler!”
“Suppose we make it the lounge of the chem-tech building,” Tom suggested. As Chow went out the door, Tom called after him with a chuckle, “Only don’t serve any stewed rattlesnake with cactus dressing!”
When Chow had gone, Horton said, “I had no idea I was under suspicion. But now that I’m in the clear, I’d very much like to be a part of this space effort of yours. As you probably know, I’ve wanted to be an astronaut for many years.”
“Enterprises needs good rocket men, Ken, and you may fill the bill.”
When Horton replied that he was intensely interested, Tom went on to question him about his technical background. Impressed by Horton’s answers, Tom said cordially, “Ken, I’d like very much to have you join our manned satellite program. With your Signal Corps experience in communications technology, I believe you’d make a good liaison man between Swift Enterprises and the broadcasting companies who are interested in our project.”
Tom described the undertaking in more detail, adding, “Of course you’d have to pass certain tests first in order to qualify for any trips into space. And I warn you, they’re rugged!”
Horton was excited by the daring plan to establish an outpost in space. “I’d give my right arm to get in on a project like that!” he exclaimed. “How soon may I take those tests?”
Pleased by Horton’s eagerness, Tom called Bud Barclay on the plant telephone. “Drop around to my office as soon as you can. I have a new candidate for your torture chambers!” As he hung up, he thought, Maybe I should have told Bud who it is!
A few minutes later Bud strode into the office. But upon being introduced to Horton, the affable grin on his face suddenly froze. Tom quickly dispelled his friend’s anxiety. “You can turn off the deep freeze, chum,” he said. “We have Chow’s personal assurance that our guest is okay.” After hearing Tom’s explanation about the man’s background and the second person on the beach with a short great toe, Bud finally thawed out. “Sorry I behaved like a chump,” he apologized. “But after what’s happened, I wasn’t feeling very friendly toward the guy who made those footprints in the sand.”
“I don’t blame you at all,” Horton said. “In your place I’d have been suspicious, too—and would be until that other guy is found.”
Bud nodded with a polite half-smile. But Tom knew his pal well enough to sense that Bud was still put off by Ken Horton for some reason.
“Bud is one of the people overseeing the testing program,” Tom explained.
“Well, we have all day, and I know you’re a busy man, Tom,” said Horton. “I’d be glad to get started right away.”
“Think you want to trust yourself in my hands—Kenny?” Bud asked with a raised eyebrow. Tom looked at Bud sharply, not sure that he was kidding!
“Lead the way, pardner. Open the chute and let ’er rip!”
While the tests were going on, Tom drove over to Swift Construction Company on the other side of Shopton, where he inspected the space station modules with Jake Aturian, an old family friend who managed the company plant. After a long lunch, Tom returned to his office.
It was after five o’clock when Kenneth Horton got back from his labors. He dropped into a chair and flashed Tom a sparkling grin.
“How’d you make out?” Tom asked him.
“Pretty well, I’d say,” he replied. “Man, that zero-G chamber of yours—! I never would’ve believed such a thing was possible.” He ran a hand through his hair, then said. “Say Tom, what’s the issue with Bud, anyway?”
“The issue? What do you mean?”
Horton sat up straight. “Nothing much. He was absolutely polite, even friendly. But something’s eating at him, having to do with me.”
Tom was unsure what sort of answer would be best under the circumstances. “Ken, I think Bud’s just being kind of protective of me and Enterprises. We’re a big family around here.”
He nodded. “Sure, I can see that. Well, no biggie.”
But later on Ken’s instincts seemed confirmed when Bud called, begging off from joining the meal, though he had been invited. Puzzled, Tom asked Chow to join the table in his place. “We’ll be talking quite a bit about technical stuff later on, pard, but we’ll try to hold back on the sleep-inducing details until after dessert.”
“Thanks, boss,” Chow responded. “I’d shor like a time t’ ask Ken about my ole friends ’n suchlike.”
Supper went smoothly, punctuated by much laughter as Horton and Chow competed to relate anecdotes about the other to Tom. Finally, over dessert, Chow gestured at a plastic model of the space outpost that Arvid Hanson had created. Tom had brought it over to illustrate some points while talking with Ken.
“Well, brand my three-toed bronc, what kind o’ doofunny you workin’ on now, Tom?”
Tom gave his friend an affectionate look and exclaimed with mock excitement, “Chow! I just got a brilliant idea!”
“Ye-ahh? Let’s hear it.”
“We’ll take out a patent on that shirt you’re wearing and put it on the market as a sure cure for color blindness!”
Chow chuckled as he looked down at his loud red-yellow-and-purple Western-style shirt. Far from taking offense, he was proud of his spectacular shirt collection.
“You jest say the word, Tom, an’ I’ll wire San Antone this minute for a tailor-made duplicate in your size!”
Horton chuckled and said, “Man, it’s the same old Chow Winkler, still wearing those wild shirts!”
“Guess I’ll take that as a compliment,” beamed Chow. “But what in tarnation is that model over there?” he added. “You goin’ in for designin’ chuck-wagon wheels?”
“Chuck-wagon wheels?” Tom laughed. “You mean I’ve never showed you Arv’s model of the space station I’m working on?”
The cook squinted suspiciously, then shoved back his ten-gallon hat and scratched his balding head.
“You pullin’ my leg, Tom?” he inquired. “You gonna have people live in that wheely-deal?”
“I’m gonna be one of those ‘people,’ Chow,” remarked Ken. “You’d better hope Tom’s on the level!”
“I am,” Tom replied. He rose and picked up the lightweight model, which was about a foot in diameter and was suspended from a base by a stiff wire. The station consisted of a spherical hub with fourteen slightly cone-shaped cylinders spreading out from it. Packed so close together that they almost touched, the structure look less like a wheel than a thick corrugated disk. “This is what our space station will look like. You see, each of these spokes will actually start off as part of a rocket—basically just a great big flying fuel tank with rocket engines at the bottom. Instead of letting these rocket stages fall back to earth, we’ll make use of them by scouring out the empty tanks and converting them into living quarters, labs, workshops, and manufacturing areas for the new solar batteries. The main life support, power, and communications systems will all be located in the hub, which will be sent up separately.”
“Guess you know whatcher doin’,” commented the old westerner doubtfully.
Ken, who had spent some time familiarizing himself with the basics of the project, now spoke up. “Y’see, Chow, the whole thing will be hollow. Each spoke-module will be a separate compartment for one particular use.”
“Like fer instance?” Chow queried.
“Well, some will be space observatories, others labs. As Tom said, some will be for manufacturing the solar batteries, and some will be leased by CBN for radio broadcasting or high-definition telecasting. Of course the crew will be able to go from one compartment to another, either through the hub or through this connecting tunnel here.” Ken had Tom tilt the model, showing that the underside had a tubular corridor running all the way around just beneath the periphery of the disk.
“Whyn’t you jest put that tube around th’ outside, Tom? Like as t’ the rim of a wheel?—that’d make it really look like a wagon wheel!”
Tom nodded. “Yes, but you’re forgetting one thing—the outside rim is actually the bottom of each module. If you put the corridor there, you’d have to climb down into it, and the door would take up some valuable floorspace.”
Chow scratched his chin and scowled thoughtfully. “Good grief ’n gravy, I don’t see how the ends o’ each one of those cans kin be th’ bottom. You gonna have the whole thing standin’ up on end?”
Ken Horton joined in Tom’s laughter, then squeezed Chow’s shoulder to make sure his feelings hadn’t been bruised. “Listen, Chow, there’s no gravity for things in orbit, you know,” Ken explained. “So the space outpost will have to make its own gravity by whirling around like a wheel. And that means ‘up’ for each compartment will be towards the hub, and ‘down’ will always be toward the opposite end of the spoke, which is where the base, or floor, will be.”
The cook nodded, but frowned. “Wa-al, you better hire a lot o’ tall, skinny workers if you want ’em to live inside somethin’ that looks like a pop bottle.”
Responded Tom, “Each ‘spoke’ is pretty roomy, Chow. In fact, each one will be divided internally into three or four levels by small circular platforms. As you climb from the lowest to the highest level, which is nearest the hub, you’ll feel lighter and lighter!”
“Hmmph! Then sign me up fer the very top floor, boss! I allus wanted t’ lose weight!” As Tom and Ken chortled at Chow’s skeptical comment, the veteran cowpoke merely clumped off with the dirty dishes, shaking his head at his boss’s fool notions.
“Now there’s one cowpoke we’ll never get into orbit!” Tom declared.
Tom was in for a surprise, however, for early the next morning Chow showed up at the laboratory and announced that he had changed his mind.
“You mean you want to come with us when we set up our space station?” Tom asked.
“Yep. If you go, I go. Ain’t no one goin’ to say old Chow is scared to take a chance.”
“That’s the spirit,” Tom said. “But first you’ll have to pass some tests. And I have to tell you, old timer, they’re pretty rough.”
“Listen, son, I broked a few broncos in my time,” replied Chow. “An’ blame if I’ll let you get by with callin’ me a old timer!”
“Okay, Chow,” grinned the young inventor. “Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” He arranged with Bud to have Chow trained and tested—albeit with a bit more leeway than the younger candidates.
As the day wore on, Tom’s father dropped by. After they discussed Tom’s progress on the various remaining aspects of the project that had not been finalized, Damon Swift reported that a delegation of government astronomers wanted to talk with Tom about his space station observatory as soon as possible. The young inventor suggested that Trent arrange for a meeting the following afternoon at three o’clock.
Promptly at three the next day the group of scientists arrived at the Swifts’ office. Dr. Amos Harlow, head of the delegation, was a pleasant man with lively blue eyes and bushy white hair.
After outlining his plans, Tom showed them the model of his proposed outpost in space. “These two sections,” he said, pointing, “will be assigned to astronomical work.” He explained the overall plan of the structure.
“A brilliant job of design!” commented Dr. Harlow. “You surely have gone far beyond the government’s space-station program. Now let us show you our plans for the optical telescope.”
He unrolled a sheaf of drawings. “As you can see, the optical elements will be held together by a mere spiderwork of wires. The heavy mirrors will be weightless out there in space, so this is all we’ll need to brace them rigidly.”
“In fact, we expect to fabricate the mirrors and the lenses right there in your space outpost,” added another astronomer, Danielle Faure. She noted the advantages of working in a contamination-free environment.
Compared to the giant telescopes used on the earth, the outpost’s telescope would be small. But all were aware that it would give a much clearer, sharper picture of the heavens because there would be none of the earth’s atmosphere to blur out the view. “Think how the skies will open to us!” Harlow said enthusiastically. “We’ll be able to study the dust clouds in the Milky Way, and those strange exploding stars called supernovae. With luck, we’ll learn about life on Mars—perhaps even solve the riddle of how the universe was formed!”
Tom’s pulse throbbed with excitement. He already felt as though he were living with one foot in the future!
After the departure of the astronomical team, Tom drove to the main laboratory. The engineers had asked to see him.
Jack Grady, the chief engineer assigned by Hank Sterling to the air-conditioning setup in the space station, greeted him with a pleased grin. “It looks as if we have the oxygen supply problem licked, Tom. Thanks to your dad!”
“By using those chlorella algae?” Tom asked, referring to the tiny green water plants.
“Right. We’ve just finished running tests on the stuff, as he suggested. In strong sunlight, five tankfuls of those plants will absorb carbon dioxide and give off enough oxygen for a crew of fifty men!”
“Fine. How big are the tanks?”
“Five feet square and filled to a depth of one inch,” replied Grady. “We’re testing them in a greenhouse on the roof.”
“How about the moisture problem?”
“We’re working on that.” Grady pointed through a glass window to several men in a sealed test chamber that was filled with a foglike haze. “According to our estimates, a man needs about two quarts of water a day. Half of it he gives off to the atmosphere by breathing and evaporation. That much we can recover, purify, and use over again.”
“The rest we’ll have to bring up, I suppose,” said Tom.
“Right. About one quart per man.”
Tom rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, we can save the weight of containers by bringing it up frozen into cakes of ice.”
Grady snapped his fingers. “And as the ice melts in the space station, it’ll take part of the load off the air-conditioning system, too!”
Tom slapped Grady on the back and said with a grin, “Well, that’s my quota of help for the day!”
Heading for his lab in the underground hangar Tom stopped off at the zero-G chamber. Bud stood at the controls, a broad grin on his face. Inside the chamber, a man in one of the magnetic test suits was wallowing and flopping wildly about in mid-air as he tried to adjust his muscles to his helpless condition.
“That’s Chow in there!” Bud exclaimed. “Looks kind of like an overfed pigeon with a bum wing, doesn’t he?”
Tom chuckled. “I might have known!”
The two boys were weak with laughter by the time Chow emerged. His bowlegs wobbled as he removed his metal cap. “That blamed gravity room is worse’n the meanest bronc I ever rid!” the chef announced mournfully. “I’m still wonderin’ how th’ hey I’m goin’ to do any cookin’ up there in the middle o’ nowhere!”
“You won’t have much cooking to do,” Tom informed him. “The food will be shipped up precooked and frozen. All you’ll need to do will be heat it in an electronic oven.”
Chow groaned. “Precooked!—jest as well git it pre-eaten too! Tom, that’s an insult to any self-respectin’ range cook! But I bet I kin figger out a way around it.”
Just then one of the hangar workers called Tom over to a wall-phone. When he answered, the Enterprises switchboard announced that Tom had a call from Sheriff Olmenez in Florida.
“That tip from Major Horton paid off in a hurry,” the officer announced. “We got a’selves the short-toed fella who left that footprint on the beach!”
BATTLE OF THE BATTERIES
THE SPEED of the police work amazed Tom. “Congratulations, Sheriff!” he exclaimed. “How did you find him?”
“I’d call it a lucky break,” the officer replied. “We checked the hotel guest lists for names ending in ‘—erman,’ and nailed the right man almost im-mediately. A desk clerk pointed him out to one of my detectives just as he was coming back from a swim. His name, by the way, is Eli K. Rhoderman.”
“How about the description?” Tom asked.
“It fits, all right. He’s thirty-one years old, dark-haired, short ’n skinny like a rat. Says he’s a business rep for the Quik Battery Corporation.”
“Quik Battery!” Tom echoed.
“That name mean something to you?” asked Sheriff Olmenez.
“It sure does! Quik is working on a new product similar to one I’m developing. The president of the company already has tried to make trouble for me in court. Is Rhoderman with you now?”
“In the next office,” the police captain replied. “Suppose I put him on the extension phone for a three-way talk.”
A moment later Tom heard the click of a receiver being lifted. A shrill, angry voice began to pour out a flood of indignant complaints. “Take it easy, Mr. Rhoderman,” Tom said in a mild voice. “You haven’t been charged with anything so far.”
“Then what’s the idea of having me arrested?” stormed the salesman.
“You haven’t been arrested yet,” the sheriff’s voice broke in. “You were merely brought here for questioning. Remember, this is America and you’re innocent till we figger out how and why you did it!”
“I’ve already answered your questions,” retorted Rhoderman. “What else do you want to know?”
“Someone placed an electronic listening device in a beach hamper I was using,” said Tom. “That’s a serious felony. Can you explain how the footprints leading away from it happen to match yours?”
“No, and I don’t propose to try. I dare say I’ve left my prints all over the beach since I’ve been here. If that’s the only evidence you have against me, better pull in your horns!”
“We will need more evidence to hold Mr. Rhoderman,” Olmenez admitted, none too happily.
Tom asked Rhoderman several other pertinent questions, hoping to catch him off guard or perhaps link him in some way with the attack in the swamp. But the wily salesman parried all questions cleverly, without revealing any useful information.
Finally Tom said, “All right. I guess there’s no use pressing the matter any further.”
“I know what this is about, Swift. This is your petty way of getting back at Quik Battery for taking you to court!”
“You’re free to go, Rhoderman,” the sheriff growled. Rhoderman slammed down the phone. “I’m convinced that he’s our man,” commented the officer to Tom. “We’ll get authorization to put a tail on ’im, and I’ll let you know if he tries any funny business.”
Tom thanked the officer for his prompt and efficient handling of the case, then hung up and contacted Ken Horton, who had just finished a training seminar. When Horton heard the story, he was glad to learn that Rhoderman would be shadowed. The two new friends talked for a couple of minutes. Then Tom glanced up and saw that Bud was standing nearby, a disapproving expression on his face.
“I thought you might like to know that a crate just arrived from your friend in Philadelphia,” Bud said. “It contains one of those new solar batteries made by the Quik Corporation. Want it hooked up to the test equipment?”
“Yes! Thanks, pal,” Tom said excitedly.
Tom found himself pacing up and down impatiently while the crate was ripped open by two workers with crowbars, and the shiny black battery case lifted out. “So that’s York’s latest baby,” Bud remarked, as he helped attach the battery terminals to the test-leads. Tom closed a switch on the control board and the needle swung far around the dial.
Bud groaned. “Hey, that’s as powerful as your battery!”
Tom nodded with a worried frown. “Right. And what’s worse, York’s beaten us to the punch by putting it on the market. By the time we bring out our model, the Quik outfit may have things all sewed up!”
With eager fingers he clamped on other test equipment that would expose the battery to a heavy and varying load, mimicking its real-life utilization. Ten minutes passed; then he hooked it up again to the voltmeter on his control board. The needle flickered weakly. The battery was almost dead!
Tom gave a whoop of relief. It was clear that York’s engineers had failed to conquer the problem of how to keep their battery from discharging too fast. Tom’s, on the other hand, had stood up under heavy testing. It would hold its charge for years! “But their desensitizer is almost worthless,” Tom concluded as Bud congratulated him.
The two left the lab side by side, talking excitedly. As they neared the zero-G chamber, Bud commented that Chow had gone inside for his second session. “Guess I shouldn’t have left the controls for so long,” said the dark-haired pilot, “but that machine can practically run itself.”
But Tom suddenly looked alarmed. “Look!” he exclaimed.
Floating in mid-air, Chow was slumped over—limp and unconscious!
“Good night!” Bud cried. He eased off the power, and Chow gently floated down to the floor of the chamber. Tom unsealed the door and rushed inside. He could hear Chow breathing deeply.
Tom shook his portly friend by the shoulder, and Chow’s breathing became louder and deeper than ever. Then his head lolled over to one side and his lower jaw dropped open. Tom frowned, and a moment later his suspicion became a certainty. Chow was snoring!
Now the young inventor shook his patient forcefully. “Chow! Wake up!”
The cook’s eyes flickered open. He mumbled a sleepy reply. Then he caught sight of his boss, and Bud on the other side of the transparent wall. Chow sat up, blinking in surprise. “Sa-a-ay, what in thunderation’s goin’ on here?” he demanded.
“You just fell asleep in the zero-G chamber, that’s what!” snapped Tom irritably. “Had me and Bud scared half out of our wits thinking something was wrong!”
“Hunh? Asleep?” Chow echoed. Then he grinned sheepishly. “Brand my space suit, I shouldn’t o’ stayed up to watch that hoss opera on TV last night! I ain’t fit fer nuthin’ the next day after a late movie.”
Chow was so apologetic that Tom burst out laughing. “All right, par’ner, let’s give it another try. But no more doping off in there, or you flunk this test for sure!”
This time, Chow came through with flying colors, and promised to report wide awake for future tests.
The weeks passed very quickly. Snowfalls came and went in Shopton, while in tropical Loonaui teams of workers struggled to construct Tom’s underwater space-launch system. Finally word came that the system was complete and had passed all tests, including the launch of a payload into orbit. With Tom’s father and Jake Aturian giving the final word, the prefabricated modules of the space outpost were packed up and freighted off to the South Pacific.
One evening Tom sat in his living room with Bashalli Prandit. His mother and father were upstairs, and Sandy had gone off to see a movie with Bud.
“No bullets will be shooting through this room tonight, I do hope,” remarked Bashalli, eyes dancing merrily.
“Not permitted without prior arrangement,” Tom replied humorously. After a thoughtful pause, he said: “Bash, have you noticed Bud being a little on edge lately?” He went on to explain Bud’s unsettled reaction to Ken Horton. “I don’t know how to reassure Bud. Ken’s checked out in every respect.”
Bashalli gave Tom a chiding look. “Do you really not understand, Thomas? You Americans! Always toughing it out. Does it not occur to you that good friends can be jealous of friends?”
Tom looked puzzled. “Jealous? But what in the world does—?” Then he snapped his fingers. “Oh!”
“You see now?”
“Sure! Sandy was pretty taken with Ken, wasn’t she! Bud must think Ken’s trying to cut in on him.”
“Well, yes, that could be one of—”
“I wish he’d talk it through with San, instead of taking it out on me,” Tom mused. “Ken hasn’t mentioned Sandy. I don’t think he even recognized you two when he met you the other day.”
Bashalli gave him a frown. “That is not a very flattering thing to bring up, you know. No doubt you have kept him distracted with—”
Suddenly Tom leapt to his feet. “Bash!”
“Out there, on the other side of the hedge! He’s there again—the Gorilla!”
BASHALLI gasped in fear. “No! What shall we do?”
“Lights off!” Tom whispered. He flicked off the master wall switch. All the lamps went dark. Only a faint glow filtered into the room between the flecks of falling snow from a late-season snowfall. “Switch off the hallway light—go tell Mom and Dad to stay upstairs for now—and you too!”
The gorilla-like figure had been standing outside the low hedge that enclosed the broad front lawn, near the public road. Now he was nowhere to be seen. But as Tom watched, headlights flickered to life and began to rush off down the road, along with the growl of an engine.
Since the events of the other evening, Mr. Swift had insisted on having a pulsator pistol on hand near the front door. Now Tom grabbed the electric disabling device and cautiously opened the door, checking the magnetic security detector dial to make certain that it registered no one in hiding.
In the light snow Tom made his way across the yard, sticking to the shadows as much as possible. He saw no sign of anyone. But he noticed large footprints etched in the snow further on, by the roadway, as well as the tracks of a car that appeared to have been parked there for some length of time. Gone! he thought.
“Wasn’t me,” said an impossibly deep voice, making Tom jump.
“Who’s there?” hissed the young inventor. He brandished the pulsator pistol. “What do you want?” There was no answer, only the silence of falling snow. Not wanting to make himself a target, he hadn’t brought a flashlight out with him; now he could only turn slowly, trying to make out what he could in the gloom.
He stopped turning. Some thirty feet distant, a black silhouette against the gray of bushes, was a hulking form that he recognized at once.
Tom could not make out the Gorilla’s face, only its outline. The man’s words came out without warning, touched with an accent that Tom decided was French. “They were in a car, parked and watching with infra-red binocs. They didn’t see me. I let you see me—wanted a little confab. When you killed the lights, they left.”
“Who are ‘they’?” Tom asked.
“Your enemies. Baby Mosquitoes.”
“And who are you?”
The man chuckled. “You named me. Gorilla isn’t the worst thing I’ve been called, young man.”
“So you’re Miza Ranooq?”
“In another life.”
“Do you plan to tell me what’s going on? Or are you going to finish the job you and your buddies started in Florida?” Tom was slowly backing away.
“That is a most uncharitable judgment, Tom. Or as your friend might put it, not very flattering.” Tom could feel the blood leaving his face. The Gorilla had been listening to his casual conversation with Bashalli!
“Okay,” said Tom, trying to keep his voice steady. “I’ll just stand here. Play your game, and go.”
“No game,” retorted Ranooq. “By the way, you can forget using your electric gun on me. I’m protected against it, naturally.”
“Now let me tell you a few things, Tom. That other night, I wasn’t the one who fired the spy shell through your house. I was watching the one who did, though—Eli Rhoderman, incidentally. He slunk into a prepared hiding place, thinking he could recover the bullet, with its recorded data, after everyone went back inside. But I handed him a disappointment—I got to it first!”
“What did you do to him?”
“Nothing at all. Wrong point in the play.”
“Uh-huh. So what’s he after?”
“Money. His boss York pays him to spy on you, but lately he’s been peddling the stuff to Stanis Blatka too. Hence the bug in Florida. He also hired the two thugs to keep tabs on you and your friends; then Blatka decided he wanted you out of the picture. The phony Aer-Cel tank was Blatka’s idea, though Rhoderman’s the one who arranged it. He’s a busy little bee.”
“Let me guess,” said Tom with heavy sarcasm. “In the swamp, you were around just to protect me—right?”
“Right, Tom. If either of them had succeeded in drawing a bead on you, they wouldn’t have lived to see the bullet miss the mark.”
Feeling the chill of the snow, Tom shook his head skeptically. “Why should I believe any of this? What do you get out of this?”
“Nothing but my salary,” said Ranooq. “After all, it’s your tax dollars at work!”
Tom was thunderstruck. “Are you trying to tell me—you’re the Taxman?”
Ranooq laughed. “Let’s just say we all work for Collections. You’re getting to be a pretty popular fellow around the office, Tom. We want to see you alive and well. You’re doing a sterling job upholding your unique little strip of the human genome—like your great-grandfather did. But we can’t interfere too much.”
“Wrong point in the play?”
The Gorilla laughed again, amiably. “A few more things and I’m outta here. First, your Mosquito is a mighty smart guy. We can’t touch him right now, but he can touch you—even 22,300 miles up in space. Don’t take your safety for granted up there.
“Second, if you don’t tell the world about your space friends, we will! It’s too important to keep bottled up until you and your Dad are good and ready.
“Third, don’t waste breath and body heat asking me how we know what we know.”
“Anything else?” Tom asked.
“Yes, I suppose—one thing. Stop being such a pig-headed boy genius and take a good look at the people around you! We like you, Tom Swift, but sometimes you make us wanna cry!”
Tom’s left hand was thrust into his pants pocket. Now he stretched out a finger and pressed a button on the remote control unit secreted there. Instantly the Swift property was flooded with light.
But no one stood in the light but Tom Swift himself. Miza Ranooq, the Gorilla, was gone.
Tom reported the eerie incident—to his family, to Harlan Ames, to the police. But there was nothing to be done, and little to be said.
Four days later, Tom, Bud, Mr. Swift, and four-dozen trained astronauts—Ken Horton and Chow Winkler among them—took off in the Sky Queen for Loonaui. This was the first small step in an epic journey that would end 22,300 miles above the earth!
Landing at the airstrip that had been cleared and paved near the old hotel, Space Central, the boys emerged from the Flying Lab to a din of shouts and cheers from the assembled work force.
For weeks aircraft and ocean vessels had been delivering supplies and equipment to the makeshift spaceport in the Pacific. The extent of the construction work since Tom and Bud’s previous visit, guided by Hank Sterling among others, was astonishing.
“Brand my neutralator, you got a reg’lar rocket city built up on this little ole island!” Chow gaped at the extent of the humming base surrounding the hotel, with its machine shops, commissary, barracks, and recreation areas. Special docks had been built for the fuel tankers and salvage tugs. And the hangars and warehouses were crammed with supplies and parts-assemblies for the outpost in space.
The start of the expedition was set for the following morning. Amid great fanfare, part of the hub section of the giant space wheel was blasted aloft from the undersea launch site in an unmanned cargo rocket. The rest of the great central hub was to be sent up shortly after lunch.
“From liquid space to outer space!” joked Hank Sterling. “Tom, you get the prize for the confoundin’est launch system in the history of astronautics!”
“But she works like a real demon, Tom,” said Ken Horton with a back-clap. “That’s what counts.”
“Who’s gonna ride herd on them space-freighters?” puzzled Chow, as the second automated rocket burst through the waves and streaked upward.
“No one,” explained Tom. “Once they reach the orbit, they’ll just float around up there till the space crews arrive to unload them.”
Chow scratched his chin and shook his head uneasily. “I still don’t see what’s gonna keep things in place up there. But I reckon there ain’t much you could use fer a hitchin’ post at that!”
Before supper, Tom made the announcement for which everyone was waiting. “Launching of the manned rockets begins tonight, eleven fifteen PM. Number One will blast off at eight o’clock, with Bud Barclay in charge. The other rockets will follow at six-hour intervals. Here’s the list of ship assignments.”
“Tom, I don’t see your name on the list,” Bud commented, brow furrowed. “Or Ken’s.”
“Ken and I will be going up last, in the Star Spear,” explained the teen space explorer. “I want to have one fully-maneuverable spacecraft near the outpost at all times, not just the return capsules.”
“Okay, but why—” Then Bud interrupted himself. “Okay, Tom. You’re the boss.”
News of the coming take-offs electrified the camp. The crewmen were keyed to a high pitch of anticipation. Bud and his crew would be in a rocket carrying transmitter equipment. Its empty tank hull would be converted to one of the broadcasting “spokes.”
As eleven o’clock approached, Tom and his father entered the pilot’s cabin with the crew. They shook hands all around, Mr. Swift saying, “This is a big moment for all of us. You’re leaving on one of the greatest voyages in human history. Good luck and godspeed to you!”
Tom hugged Bud and murmured, “We’ll join you soon, flyboy!”
Tom’s dark-haired pal nodded and turned away, hiding his emotions.
Blast-off proceeded smoothly. Tom stayed with the radar-tracking crew, exchanging signals with the rocket until it reached its far orbit safely about five hours later, rendezvousing with the pilotless freight rockets that had preceded it. An hour later Rocket Two took off, with Hank Sterling in charge. It contained the makings of the crew’s bunkroom section.
By the end of the day, two more rockets had been launched on the same time schedule. The first was to become the mess hall and recreation spoke of the space wheel; the other, the observatory in which the telescope would be mounted.
Finally the momentous week came to an end. All the basic elements of Swift Enterprises’ outpost in space—the central sphere and the fourteen spoke-modules—had been flung into orbit in record time!
“I see you have us posted, Tom, to leave tonight on your Star Spear,” Ken Horton remarked, as the smoke-trail of the last sea launch dissipated into the blue Pacific sky. “I’m itching to get on with it, boss. But I kind of regret not have a chance to try that underwater scheme of yours.”
Tom nodded and grinned. “You’ll have plenty of time to get bored with that routine. We’ll be sending ships back and forth almost daily once the outpost is up and running.”
Tom’s Star Spear rocket ship, a seasoned veteran of orbital flight, had been freighted by sea from Fearing Island to Loonaui, and now stood fueled and ready on its support vanes on the surface launchpad that had been constructed for it on tiny Bolutanbu.
Tom and Ken were ferried out to the islet by helicopter. In the pilot’s cabin Tom set the automatic control instruments into operation, including his navigational computer-sensor device, nicknamed the Spacelane Brain. Time clocks began ticking in the blockhouse. The two strapped themselves to their acceleration couches and waited tensely. Soon enough the islet shook with a blast of thunder! A billowing cloud of smoke and flame burst over the area as the Star Spear rose from its launching pad. Slowly at first, then with ever-increasing speed, the rocket shot upward into the blue.
When the punishing G-forces of acceleration eased off, Ken cast a look Tom’s way and said, “Man, that was—brisk! I feel like I left about half of myself somewhere in the stratosphere.”
The single-stage projectile continued its long arduous climb into space. Finally the red light and buzzer signaled cutoff of the main thrusters.
“This is it!” murmured Tom. “We’re in orbit!”
They were now a thousand miles above the Pacific and climbing eastward at the terrifying speed of more than 21,000 miles per hour! From here on, the rocket would coast along on the elongated orbital path that would carry it to the space outpost construction site.
Now that the ship was no longer accelerating and the G-pressure had melted away, Ken swung his couch into sitting position and released his safety belt.
“Boy, do I feel—!” Ken broke off with a gasp as he found himself floating to the cabin roof. With one hand he pushed himself down again. “Good thing I had some lessons in your zero-G chamber, Tom.” Weightless, Ken cavorted around the cabin like a swimmer in space, then settled down to stare out the porthole. “Look at that view!” he exclaimed.
The earth was now a slowly deflating globe far below, with the islands and continents clearly defined amidst a brilliant blue.
“May as well relax a bit. It’ll be more than four hours before we use the motors again,” Tom remarked. “I’m going to switch on the video-oscillograph and see if our space friends have any messages for us.” With his father’s permission, Tom had briefed Ken on the astounding secret of Swift Enterprises’ contact with alien intelligences, swearing him to secrecy.
Tom activated the receiver. Instantly mathematical symbols began to form on the screen.
“Ken!” Tom exclaimed. “They’re warning us of danger, as they did once before!”
“What kind of danger? Can you tell?”
“I don’t know. The computerized translator hasn’t recorded these symbols—there’s that strange one they transmitted last month.” Tom pressed a button and the metal shield covering his own pilot’s viewport drew back. Outside, the weird, harsh blackness of space shone with myriads of stars. Tom gasped involuntarily, seized by a passing moment of panic. But the two astronauts could see no cause for alarm. No echoes marred the radar screen.
Tom was puzzled. “Sure wish I knew what they were talking about! But ‘we never explain’ seems to be their middle name.”
“Maybe some enemy’s chasing us,” Horton suggested.
“You mean Blatka—the Mosquito? Could be. Or maybe even something from another planet!” Tom gulped—then chuckled nervously. “Listen to me!—I’m starting to sound like my sister Sandy.”
As the hours crept by, the warning message continued, then abruptly ceased for no reason. But the two were unable to locate any threat.
Eventually the Spacelane Brain showed that the Star Spear was more than 21,700 above the earth’s surface, in a world where above meant almost nothing. The ship was almost over Ecuador, only a few score miles from the space station assembly point.
“Stand by for the adaptation maneuver!” Tom announced. “We’ve almost reached our orbit!”
Moments later, the steering motors on the vanes fired to tilt the ship into proper orbital aim. Then the main rocket motors roared once again to life.
The next second, a blip appeared in the center of the radar screen. At the same moment, Ken yelled, “There’s the danger!”
In the black void of space a gleaming teardrop of light was arcing across the sky! Tom gasped in astonishment.
“What is it, boss?” Ken puzzled. “Can’t be a shooting star—not up here! Shooting stars are just meteors that burn up in the earth’s atmosphere.” He rubbed his eyes and looked again. “So what in the name of astronautics is it?”
Tom tried to control his excitement. “Ken, it may be a spaceship!”
Suddenly the speeding light veered sharply. It headed straight for the Star Spear!
Tom was in a quandary. Could this be his space friends trying to make contact? Or was it a dangerous attacker from outer space?
THE MYSTERIOUS WHEEL
CLOSER AND CLOSER came the strange object. Tom gunned the steering jets to maneuver the Star Spear out of the way. But the object altered its path instantly, obviously intending to approach the spacecraft.
“Cosmos!” exclaimed Ken Horton. “That looks like your space-wheel design!”
Despite this slight resemblance, Tom had never seen anything like the eerie phantom now pacing the Star Spear from distance of less than a mile. Like the outpost it was circular, a thick disk with a rounded, bulging center. But there all similarities ended. The object seemed to be made entirely of light—gleaming, swirling, flickering light, marked with shifting multicolored bands like the Aurora Borealis. Unlike a conventional craft, it did not gradually accelerate or decelerate, but assumed a speed and direction immediately, with no transition. Sometimes it was absolutely still, keeping even with the rocket; other times it seemed almost to dance from place to place like a spark from a campfire.
“It isn’t solid,” marveled Horton. “You can see stars right through it.”
“I’ll bet our space friends are on board!” Tom breathed. “Let’s see if we can’t contact them.”
Activating the transmitter, he began beaming out modulated signals representing the space symbols. But no reply appeared on the oscilloscope screen.
Tom switched on the space radio-communicator. “This is Tom Swift aboard the Star Spear. Do you understand these signals?”
Suddenly Ken gave a cry of disbelief and pointed. “Hey, what’s happening to it?”
The weird vehicle—if vehicle it was!—seemed to be changing shape, unfolding and opening up like a flower. A single point of diamond-hard blue-white light, blindingly intense, was revealed at the center. Then without warning the whole mass of light seemed to blur, melt away—and it was gone!
With a start, Tom realized their full peril. What they had taken to be a friendly spacecraft might be some kind of explosive weapon! But the young inventor began to breathe easier as the minutes passed without any follow-up encounter.
“Any theories, Tom?” asked Ken.
“Not a one,” responded Tom. “But the ship’s automatic cameras will have recorded the object. Maybe we’ll learn something by studying the images.”
Tom accessed the digital record, only to be confronted with a further mystery. The cameras showed nothing but empty space!
“And not only that, but look at this feed from the Spacelane Brain.” Tom looked up at Ken, bewildered. “The Star Spear should have traveled many miles during that minute, right? But it doesn’t show up in the record. It’s as if that whole encounter took no time at all—zero!”
Said Ken Horton slowly, “As if it never happened. But we both know it did—don’t we?”
Tom shrugged. There was nothing else to say.
The remainder of the trip went smoothly. When they arrived at the rendezvous, 22,300 miles above Ecuador, the travelers stared out through the transparent viewports with wide eyes. Even the television images transmitted from the other ships had not prepared them for what lay before them.
“Oh man!” gasped Ken, lapsing into a drawl. “I sure never seen nothin’ like this back in Texas, amigo!”
An awesome sight met their eyes. In the starry blackness of outer space floated a great silver-white wheel hub, with huge holes all around the middle where the fourteen spoke-modules would be connected. Ranged around it at some distance were the streamlined return capsules from the fourteen delivery rockets. Swarming all about were tiny figures in segmented red spacesuits, the brilliant sun glinting from their transparent bubble-helmets, minute lights flickering from the tiny exhaust-nozzles of the micro-thrusters built into their suits, which allowed them to maneuver in gravityless space. Working with cables and winches, the men and women of the construction team were trying to guide the rocket tank-stages, which had been separated from their engines as well as from the crew-capsules, into their hub sockets.
Tom tuned the ship radio for local communication. “Calling all crew captains. Can you hear me?” One by one, they reported in with welcoming hails. “I’m glad to see the wheel hub’s all erected,” Tom said. “Congratulations!”
“Yes, but these blasted space spokes are giving us plenty of headaches,” radioed Hank Sterling.
“We’ve been working on them in shifts for the past twelve hours,” came the voice of Arvid Hanson, who was one of the captains, “and we don’t have even one connected.”
“Guess there’s kind of a trick to it. Want us to pile out and help?” Tom asked.
“Won’t turn you down, Skipper,” Hanson replied. “Go on, pull up and stretch your space legs!”
“Brand my solar salad!” came a familiar foghorn bellow. “This is worse’n trying to corral a herd o’ plumb-loco steers!”
Tom grinned and whispered to Ken, “Did he always say ‘brand-my’?”
“Naw,” Horton responded. “It’s a substitute for some salty expressions he used to use. My pa had to cover my ears!”
“I heard that, Kenny Horton!” crackled Chow indignantly.
“Bud, you out there?” radioed Tom. There was no answer. “Maybe it’s his sleep shift,” he said to Ken. “I’m glad we planned for them to be able to use the modules even before connecting them to the hub.”
Stabilizing the Star Spear, Ken led the way out the side hatch, soaring gracefully into the emptiness. But as Tom stood up in the hatchway, he found his heart pounding and his stomach-muscles clenching up. His acquired phobia was still dogging him! Trembling inside his suit, he forced himself to jump free.
It soon became clear to Tom that Hank and Arv had not exaggerated the difficulties of the job. The slight bursts of the spacesuit steering thrusters was more than adequate to start the big cylinders moving; the problem was dragging them to a stop in time. Floating in the void, Tom would nose a section toward its berth, only to wind up out of line, or at the wrong angle. Once he swung a spoke clear around broadside to the hub.
“Whew!” he gasped. “This is worse than any target I’ve ever tried to hit!”
“The computer simulations just didn’t cut it,” Hank Sterling commented.
But the presence of their beloved young boss seemed to inspire the space crew. Two hours later, Ken Horton reported that the first of the modules, on the far side of the hub, had been docked successfully.
“Wonderful!” Tom radioed. “Who gets a bonus in his paycheck?”
“I’m pleased to say it’s my fellow native of the Lone Star State!”
“T’weren’t nothin’, boys,” radioed Chow modestly. “Jest goes t’show that you young whelps shouldn’t under-estee-mate real experience!” With Chow giving some instruction, half the wheel was finished by the end of the shift.
“Great work, all of you,” signaled Hank Sterling. “Now let’s all hit the mess hall and rest on our laurels—for an hour or two!”
Tom looked forward to finally seeing Bud inside the mess hall spoke. But as he climbed between the crowded levels, he was surprised not to see his pal anywhere. “I thought ol’ buddy boy was here m’self,” declared Chow at Tom’s side.
“You looking for Bud Barclay?” called one of the crew members. “I just passed him heading out toward Module Nine.”
“Thanks, Mary,” Tom responded. “I think I’ll go float over to say hi.”
“Mind if I go with you?” asked Ken Horton.
“Not a bit,” said Tom. But he was thinking: Though Bud might not like it!
The two jetted across the vast emptiness toward Module Nine. One of the sections not yet connected to the hub, it was safely “parked” about a thousand yards off. Tom noticed that it had not yet been fully prepared for docking, as the bulky rocket motor that had lifted it through the atmosphere was still locked in place.
“Hey, Barclay,” Tom radioed. “What’re you doing?” There was no reply, and Tom commented to Ken, “Guess he’s inside.”
The two entered the section through the temporary external airlock that was used by the fuel-scouring team. The interior of the module seemed fairly complete. The deck-floors had been installed, as had worklights and air-circulating apparatus.
Checking his suit dials, Tom said to Ken. “We’ve got a good shirtsleeve environment.”
“I won’t mind getting shed of this big bubble-head for a few minutes,” chuckled the astronaut. “But where’s old Bud?”
“I don’t know,” said Tom, puzzled. His puzzlement turned to concern when Bud gave no answer as their calls echoed through the cylinder.
They floated from one circular compartment to the next, using a ladder that was like a tower of rings. As Tom poked his head into deck three, he suddenly cried out: “Ken!”
“Bud’s in here—he’s not moving!”
ALL THE WAY DOWN!
BUD WAS floating near the deck in his spacesuit, his face bloodless, his helmet drifting nearby. Calling his name, Tom gently rotated the floating form around.
“See anything?” asked Ken.
“Nothing,” Tom replied desperately. “At least there’s no rupture in his suit. And he’s breathing.” Unsealing and pulling off Bud’s suit gauntlets Tom chafed his friend’s wrists. “I don’t want to try taking him across to the hub. Please go get Dr. Kwan and bring—”
Tom was interrupted by an explosion of sound, a deep, throbbing roar. A powerful force slapped Tom and Ken down to the deck and crushed them against it!
“Wh-what—” Ken sputtered.
“The—rocket—engines—!” Tom spat out through clenched teeth, shouting over the roar.
Tom had been able to cushion Bud’s helpless form as it fell to the deck. Tom and Ken continued struggling against the acceleration pressure of the section’s motors for long painful moments. Then sudden silence fell as the engines cut out and the pressure dissipated.
“How could that have happened, Tom?” panted Ken. “There’s no fuel for the engines—I mean, we’re here inside the empty fuel tank!”
Floating upward Tom winced and shook his head. “Don’t you remember? There’s still a small reserve tank in the engine complex.” He reminded Horton that the motors, floating free in space, were to be guided back to earth under remote control after completion of the station. Reentering the atmosphere and parachuting into the ocean, they would be recovered and reconditioned for further use. “Someone’s set off the engine for this module by remote signal, I’m guessing,” Tom concluded. “Which sounds more than a little like the work of the Mosquito, Stanis Blatka!”
“Why? To ram the space station?”
“We would have collided right away if that were the goal.” Tom’s mind flitted back to his experience bound beneath the motorboat. “The guy’s got a sick mind. He doesn’t just murder you, he likes to do it in a dramatic way, to make a point.”
“Okay, but how—?” Then Horton gasped. “You don’t mean—”
“Reentry, Ken!” confirmed Tom grimly. “He plans to incinerate us in the atmosphere!”
“And we can’t contact the outpost from inside the module,” said Horton. “But they’ll see us, of course, or track us by radar.”
“Wrong on both counts,” was Tom’s retort. “Everyone was either on sleep shift or in the mess hall—remember? And the automatic radar alarm is only activated by incoming objects!”
“Well, great longhorns!—all we have to do is step back outside and use our radios outside the hull!” Horton led Tom scurrying back down the ladder to the airlock by which they had entered.
“The hatch motor isn’t working!” groaned Horton in frustration, thumbing the switch. The motor gave forth a grinding sound. He and Tom tried to force their way into the airlock by putting their shoulders to the access panel, but it would not move.
“This thing’s built too strong,” Tom said. “It can’t be forced. And whoever knocked out Bud and fired the engines must’ve forced some kind of glue or sealant into the hatch panel after he watched us go aboard.”
“So we’re stuck—literally! What about the main hatch at the tip of the section, the one you’d use to enter the hub?”
“No go,” responded Tom. “I could see the the outer cowling was still sealed in place. We can’t remove it from the inside.”
They made their way back to Bud. As Tom moved to take his friend’s pulse, Bud suddenly groaned.
“Bud!” Tom exclaimed.
The muscular young pilot ran his fingers through a lock of his dark hair, which had tumbled across his forehead. His eyes fluttered open.
“T-Tom?” Bud choked. “And... ” Suddenly his thick voice was filled with fury. “Tom! It’s him! Horton did this to me!” He lashed out with his fists, but zero gravity sent him into a spin, and the blow missed Ken entirely.
“Whoa, whoa, pal!” Tom admonished. “Ken’s been with me since we got here.”
Bud groaned again. “Yeah ... yeah. It was just a dream. Now I remember... ”
“What happened to you?” asked Horton.
“It was a set-up,” Bud declared in disgust. “I was resting when I was intercommed that you two had arrived and wanted to see me in Module Nine. I went inside, and—and then—”
“Look at this mark on the back of Bud’s head,” said Tom to Ken. “It’s like a little cut from a blade.”
“There must’ve been some kind of knockout drug on it,” Bud said. “I never did see anyone.”
Tom looked chagrined. “You know what? I’d bet our enemy was still nearby when we came aboard, floating out of sight on the other side of the module!”
“Don’t matter none now, pards,” Ken pronounced with an exaggerated drawl. “How do we keep ourselves from takin’ the long hot road down to the ground?”
“Won’t a team from the outpost come after us when we turn up missing?” Bud asked.
Tom sighed. “By that time we’ll be a few thousand miles downrange and accelerating away from the station. The return capsules aren’t maneuverable enough to reach us, and the only three people alive who know how to operate the Star Spear are—”
“Us!” concluded Bud dismally.
“Is there a way to tell where we are?” asked Ken.
Tom shook his head. “Nope. This section doesn’t even have a porthole. It was to be used for storing the solar batteries.” He looked into the faces of his friends with deep sadness and resignation. “All we can do is wait.”
“We’ll have one big clue as to our position,” Bud said. “When the walls start smoking, we’ve hit the atmosphere!”
Hours passed in the hollow spoke as it arced downward from space toward the earth. To be more comfortable they pulled off their bulky spacesuits, taking their deadly ride in shorts and T-shirts. Not many more words passed between the three.
Bud knew his friend’s powerful mind was churning furiously, considering one alternative after another. At one point he put a hand on Tom’s knee and said gently, “Look, Tom, just let it go. You’ve done your best—always did. I’d rather go this way, with you on a great adventure, than a thousand other ways I can think of.”
Tom nodded gratefully but said, “Don’t ask me not to think, Bud. That’s the one thing I can’t manage.”
A long time afterward, a faint whisper broke the silence from outside the cylinder.
“What was that?” hissed Ken Horton. But he knew the answer, as did Tom and Bud.
They had begun to hit the soft, bare outermost edge of the earth’s atmosphere.
The whisper of molecules became a mutter, then a slight, continuous moan. They could feel vibrations in the metal of the walls as wisps of air tickled the hull.
“How fast you reckon we’re going?” Ken inquired. “Just scientific curiosity, mind you.”
“Oh, not all that fast,” Tom replied. “Not even fifteen miles per second, I’d say, at a pretty nearly flat angle.”
“But we’ll get a lot slower by the time we hit the lower stratosphere,” added Bud. “Not that we’ll be around to notice it.”
“Will anything of the module actually reach the ground?” asked Ken.
“Oh, certainly! Don’t underestimate the durability of Swift space-age materials!” Tom exclaimed. “The magtritanium-Tomasite composition shell can shrug off the temperatures. Which doesn’t mean it won’t get hotter than a solar furnace here inside.”
And in fact the inside temperature seemed noticeably warmer.
“You’re not giving me much to cling to, boss,” Ken commented wryly. “I’d heard you and Bud here were pretty good at getting out of scrapes.”
Bud shrugged, staring at Tom to gauge his reaction. “Don’t pick on genius boy, Kenny. He’s been a little distracted for a few weeks. It’s this phobia thing.” He described Tom’s fall from the Queen.
“Hmm, I see! Well, Tom, this is an even bigger fall—maybe it’ll cure you.”
“Maybe,” Tom responded dully. “At least it won’t much matter, will it.”
The hurtling module began to sway.
Outside, the rushing air sounded like the hiss of a snake.
Inside, it was becoming as balmy as a California summer day.
Below and far ahead, the Indian Ocean was still hundreds of miles distant. Yet in another sense it wasn’t so very distant at all.
AS THE MODULE horned its way into the upper fringes of the atmosphere, the cushion of air slowed it down, bit by bit. And as it fell more slowly, it was no longer in free fall, and the pull of gravity was able to timidly reassert itself.
The helmets, the loose space gauntlets, everything loose and floating free began to drift toward the underside of the next-higher deck divider, which became their “floor.” Then, as the cylinder wavered and shimmied, objects began to gently bounce off the curving walls.
Bud was fanning himself with his hand. “I don’t usually mind the heat,” he noted, “but with you two perspiring it’s getting a mite close in here.”
“Lemme see,” Ken said. “I’d guess we’re in the upper nineties. Not all that hot for Texas.”
Module Nine gave a mighty shake, like a dog with a bone.
“Will we start tumbling, boss?” asked Ken. “I’as never much good on those carnival rides, y’know?”
“The tapered shape of the spoke is pretty aerodynamic,” said Tom. “It was made to cut through the air while staying stable. Of course that was heading the other way!”
Bud was lying pressed against a support stanchion. Now he sat up halfway. “Tom, do you think the Mosquito burned up all the fuel in the reserve tank?”
Tom Swift rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I—I don’t know, Bud. I—” He tried desperately to draw his thoughts together: with the return of gravity came the eerie, awful sense of falling—and his vertigo. “No,” he finally muttered. “The rocket burst was too short and mild. The tank is probably about half full.”
“Okay,” Bud continued, “then why couldn’t we—”
“He’s got something!” Horton burst out. “With the engine still locked in place and fuel in the tank, couldn’t we fly this thing—somehow?”
The corners of Tom’s mouth twisted up for the first time in hours. “Aerodynamic doesn’t mean flyable, guys. Let’s say we did rig up a way to fire the motors—over the next few minutes. So what? They’re in the tail end, pointing the wrong way. It’d just speed us up.”
“Well... yeah,” said Bud in discouragement. Then he glanced at his pal and his heart beat faster with hope. Tom had a new gleam in his eyes. He was thinking! “Still... ” Tom murmured, “there might be a way to do something at that!”
Bud raised his eyebrows. He sensed that Tom’s phobia had been driven off at last! “You trying to say we’re not quite dead yet, Skipper?”
Tom gazed off into the recesses of his imagination. “Maybe not quite!”
Half a world away, it was night on Loonaui Island, and the atmosphere was that of a funeral. Within twenty minutes the space outpost had reported that Tom, Bud, and Ken were missing; ten minutes later, that Module Nine was being tracked by radar along its wayward course back to earth—beyond hope of interception.
Informed in Shopton of the tragedy in the making, Tom’s mother and sister, and Bashalli Prandit, had tearfully insisted on joining Tom’s father on Loonaui. They were flown there via Swift Enterprises jet at supersonic speed, arriving in less than four hours.
“Where are they now, Damon?” asked Mrs. Swift bravely as Sandy tried to stifle her sobs and Bashalli tried to comfort her friend through her own tears.
“About seven hundred miles above equatorial Africa,” answered Mr. Swift in a lost, quiet voice.
They watched a radar scan, relayed from Egypt, that showed when the cylinder began to penetrate the atmosphere, setting up a hot sheath of gaseous flame that reflected the scanning waves.
“It won’t be long,” said Damon Swift. “It will come down in the Indian Ocean, near the coast of the Malay Peninsula.” He left unsaid what “it” was.
“Sir, something’s changed!” exclaimed one of the technicians.
“The—the vehicle has slowed. Radically! And there’s a new angle of descent.”
No longer in a smooth but uncontrolled fall, Module Nine was decelerating!
Damon Swift pointed at a portion of the radar feed. “The sheathing effect is breaking up here—in front—as if—”
“What?” asked Anne Swift.
“As if it’s retro-braking.”
Module Nine slammed into the middle of the Indian Ocean at 5:26 AM, Loonaui time. Its velocity was more than sufficient to smash it completely, peeling it into long fragments and twisting those fragments like pretzels. No one aboard could have survived.
But there was no one aboard.
Satellite imaging guided a small fleet of amphibious jetcraft to the warm waters not far off the coast of the great island of Madagascar, where—at 5:09 AM, Loonaui time—a compact human bundle, three spacesuited figures lashed tightly together by hoses from an air-recirculator, had splashed down under the canopy of a parachute. They were picked up struggling to stay above water, having shed their spacesuits—an enormously difficult task in itself—but using their air-filled bubble helmets to help them stay afloat.
“You three might like to know this,” said the medic aboard the rescue craft. “I’m told one of your space station crewmen—Hanson, I think they said—took a prisoner who’s going back to earth in irons, so to speak.”
“Blatka?” asked Tom Swift, his voice raw and husky, his eyes almost swollen shut.
“They called him ‘Mosquito’.”
Bud forced out a semblance of a cheer. “Man, I’d give anything for five minutes with that guy—just me, him, and my right fist!”
“They said he was up there under a phony name. He’d been training all along in Shopton with your astronauts. Bulked himself up, changed his hair color.”
Tom nodded. Every muscle and bone in his body ached. “International law will deal with him.”
“But say, amigo,” interrupted Ken Horton, speaking to the medic. “Aren’t you maybe a little bit curious o’ how we got out of that module?”
“Oh, Tom’s father already explained it to us,” grinned the medic. “Once he knew you’d all parachuted free, he worked it out backwards, y’might say. Know what I mean? He said you must’ve worked the parachute—for the rocket engine—free from inside, then got out through the side hatchway up in the ionosphere. Your spacesuits protected you, right?”
Tom choked out a laugh. “Right! The heat of reentry weakened the plastic sealant gumming up the hatch. Then, when we slammed on the ‘brakes’—I was able to set off the rocket engine—the jolt was enough to crack the hatch completely. But we couldn’t have gotten out if we hadn’t been able to slow our descent—the airstream blast would have been far too violent, even under low pressure.”
“Tom, your Dad said he couldn’t figure one thing, though. He knows you must’ve got into the engine electronics to start ’er up. But how did you turn the whole module around so the engine’d point forward?”
Bud Barclay chortled gleefully and threw an affectionate arm around his pal. “Genius boy here got his brain online and remembered how he’d flipped a boat upside down when he was chained-up underneath it! He had us jumping off the walls, angling toward the middle—kind of a low-gravity space ballet! —something about angular momentum. Once we rocked ’er past the tipping point, she flopped over. The airstream forced the whole thing to swing around.”
“Ow, Bud!” groaned Tom. “My shoulders!” Then he added modestly: “But really, I just drew on my experience, that’s all. They say experience is the only school for fools!”
Ken Horton nudged Bud. “Now that you two’ve lived to fight another day, what’s next?”
“Well,” said Bud, “if it were up to me, I’d start off from Tom’s outpost in space and head straight for a satellite of Mars, where some friends of ours live. But Tom never goes the same way twice, you know. Since we just did ‘up,’ I’d guess we’ll be heading down!”
Bud was a better prophet than he knew. Tom’s next quest would take him into the depths of the sea, an incredible adventure a newsman would later title Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter.
Sixteen hours and a hospital stay later, Tom and Bud were climbing shakily from a helicopter at Space Central, to wild cheers from a huge crowd, led by young Kipu. He held up a sign:
BACK LIKE SPACE BOOMERANG!
Tom’s mother smiled through tears of relief as her son greeted her with an affectionate hug and kiss. Mr. Swift welcomed the boys with hearty handclasps and congratulations—and tears of his own. Then it was the girls’ turn. Their tears had long since dried.
“Bring us back any stardust?” Sandy laughed.
“Just a moonbeam apiece,” Bud quipped.
“And a kiss for good measure,” added Tom with a grin at Bashalli, as the boys proceeded to suit the action to the words.