TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT ON
THE PHANTOM SATELLITE
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 ON
THE PHANTOM SATELLITE
THE AWESOME SPECTACLE
“TOM! That runaway planet, or whatever it is, will—will it collide with earth?” White-faced with fear, Bud Barclay stared at his friend, Tom Swift.
For a moment the young inventor continued to peer through a powerful telescope in the silent, high-domed observatory that stood like a sentinel on the outskirts of the Swift Enterprises grounds. “Nobody knows, Bud.”
But Bud knew the meaning of every tone in his best pal’s voice. “Please, Tom—tell me.”
Finally turning to face Bud, Tom said grimly:
“If it keeps on course and maintains the same speed, I don’t see how it can miss us!”
Both young men glanced out the window at the strange, brilliant object gleaming low in the eastern sky, where the rising sun had just begun to spill over the horizon. First sighted only hours before by astronomers in Asia, the mysterious body had been growing larger with every passing moment. Alerted at the nearby Swift residence, Tom and Bud had scrambled to Enterprises at breakneck speed to observe the strange phenomenon and determine its course.
“Jetz!” Bud cried out. “How big is this thing and—how much longer do we have before it hits us?”
“Dad’s checking the computations on that now,” the rangy blond scientist-inventor replied. Turning once more to the telescope eyepiece with disciplined calm, he added, “Bud, this must be what our space friends were trying to tell us about in that message yesterday.”
It was now a good many months since the Swifts had begun communicating with friendly beings from another planet. The first message had arrived on a missile from outer space, which had plowed into the Enterprises grounds like a meteor. Later, the great installation’s experimental magnifying antenna had intercepted more messages, which appeared on the video-like oscilloscope screen in the form of strange-looking mathematical symbols. Tom and his father had decoded these, and replied with messages of their own beamed into deep space by the same powerful antenna. The most recent contact had been a spectacular one—a space vessel bearing samples of alien vegetation, sent to earth in hopes that the Swifts, whom the space beings had learned to trust, could help them overcome the environmental factors that prevented their paying a visit to our world in person. But the present events threatened far more than spectacle!
“Why didn’t they warn us it would collide?” Bud demanded in a quavering voice. “They just said something about a phenomenon that would be clearly visible from earth.”
“The message was incomplete, Bud. Besides, Dad and I weren’t sure of our translation on some of the symbols. We still have no idea what the object is or where it came from! It approached from the direction of the inner solar system, and the glare of the sun prevented our detecting it sooner.”
At that moment Damon Swift, Tom’s father, entered the main observatory room. His expression bleak, he handed a sheaf of scribbled notes and computer printouts to his son.
“Our space outpost is finally in position to probe the object with its instruments. It is definitely on a collision course with earth,” he summarized for the boys, “and at its present velocity—well, we have perhaps two hours.”
“Two hours!” Bud repeated in a hoarse whisper. The dark-haired young pilot had never lacked for courage, but nothing had prepared him for worldwide destruction from outer space!
Tom exchanged meaningful glances with his famous father, whose scientific genius he had inherited. “There’s no possibility of an error?” he asked, fighting his emotions.
“I’m afraid not.” Mr. Swift put his hand on Tom’s shoulder, adding, “I must call home and talk to your mother. Perhaps we both should go—”
“Listen!” Bud interrupted. He ran to the lower edge of the curved gap in the dome and looked out. From a distance came the frightened babble of Swift Enterprises workers, the early morning shift, who were milling around the low buildings. Every face was turned toward the bead of light in the heavens.
“The men are panicking,” Bud said. “Is there anything we can tell them, Mr. Swift?”
As Tom turned back to the telescope, his father pondered the question. What statement could he possibly make at such a time?
Finally, Mr. Swift said quietly, “We owe it to them to tell them the truth—that unless something happens—”
“Wait, Dad!” Tom exclaimed. “Something has happened!”
As Mr. Swift drew near, Tom pointed to a set of illuminated dials indicating the coordinates of the telescope’s automatic tracking mechanism. “Look—the delta vector has fallen back to zero!”
“What!” Mr. Swift cried out. “Impossible!”
“What does it mean?” Bud asked.
Mr. Swift answered. “The object is not coming any closer!”
“It’s suddenly slowed down tremendously and changed course!” Tom added excitedly. “Dad, I think it’s going into orbit around the earth! Take a look at these figures.”
Tom’s father examined the readouts carefully. In a moment he said, “You’re right, son. By some miracle it won’t collide with earth!”
Bud heaved a sigh of relief. “That Little Luna up there sure looked like the third strike!”
The tension released, Tom and his father grinned at Bud’s nickname for the moonlet. After conferring with his father, the young inventor picked up a microphone connected to the plant’s public-address system. “Tom Swift speaking. We have tracked the object in the sky. The danger is over. Everyone, please return to work. There is no present cause for alarm. The moonlet has gone into orbit. Repeat—there is no cause for alarm.”
At once, with a scattering of muted cheers, the loyal employees began streaming back to the flat-roofed, modern laboratories and workshop buildings scattered about the four-mile-square enclosure of Swift Enterprises. Criss-crossed with wide airstrips, Enterprises was the experimental station where the Swifts developed the inventions that had brought worldwide fame to the family for generations.
Meanwhile, Tom turned the telescope over to a young astronomer who had just arrived, named Garrett Baines. “We’ll plot the orbit of our phantom satellite, Tom,” Baines declared, “and compile as much data on it as possible.”
“Thanks, Gar,” Tom responded. “The whole world is waiting for the data, you can be sure!”
Tom followed Mr. Swift to the main administration building, in which they shared an office, leaving Bud to speak to some of his friends on the workforce and gauge their reactions to the morning’s crisis. Dropping into a deep leather chair, Tom waited for Mr. Swift to finish a telephone call to their home. Keen blue eyes glittering with intelligence and raw curiosity, Tom was a taller, slimmer edition of his father despite the ragged remnants of a blond crewcut that contrasted with Damon Swift’s graying temples.
“What do you make of it, Dad?” he asked when Mr. Swift put down the phone.
“The important thing right now is what the public will make of it,” his father replied in a troubled voice.
“You mean widespread panic?”
“I’m afraid so. Your mother says it’s all over the networks. In the past, people have been scared out of their wits by comets. This is far more alarming!”
“Let’s see what the news flashes have to say.” Tom reached out and flicked on the large-screen television monitor that filled half of one wall. Instantly a voice came crackling out of the speaker:
“—has just announced that all Civil Defense units are being alerted for possible action. So far no astronomer can offer any explanation for the strange object in the sky. But keep tuned to this station for any new developments.”
Tom twirled the dial to several other stations. Each one was broadcasting similar exciting news bulletins and a few fantastic theories.
“What it all amounts to is that no one has any explanation,” Tom commented dryly. “And people have a great urge to talk all the louder the less they know!”
At that moment Bud walked into the office and perched on a corner of Tom’s broad desk. “Come on, genius boy,” he said, grinning at Tom, “you must have some idea about that blob of stardust. Give us the inside story. Is it some kind of big meteor?”
Tom smiled. “It might be an asteroid that happened to stray into earth’s orbit. That’s what we thought at first. But Little Luna changed her direction and speed too suddenly to have been a wandering asteroid. I’d say the laws of nature are being interfered with!”
“Meaning the satellite must be artificial— constructed by our space friends for their own purposes.”
Bud’s eyes widened. “Man! You think those guys are that far advanced?”
Mr. Swift now spoke up. “We can only judge by what we’re seeing, Bud. If the space scientists didn’t literally create the object out of whole cloth, they surely played a role in maneuvering it into a safe orbit.”
The telephone bleeped and the young inventor scooped it up. “Tom speaking.”
“Mr. Swift, this is the main switchboard. We’ve been flooded with calls, and a Mr. Perkins from the Shopton Evening Bulletin is being very demanding about being put through to you.”
“Go ahead,” said Tom. “It’s Dan Perkins,” he mouthed to Bud and his father.
“This is Dan Perkins. Listen, Tom, how about some words on this fireball in the sky, or whatever it is? Are you and your father cooking up some new stunt?”
“Sorry, Dan, we can’t make a statement at this time,” was Tom’s cool reply. He and his father were not always satisfied with the tone and accuracy of the reportage in Shopton’s home newspaper.
“Now look, Tom, you can’t brush off an old newspaperman like me that easily!”
“Sorry, but we have nothing to say yet!” Tom’s voice was polite but unyielding.
The inquiry from Dan Perkins seemed to be the signal for a flood of similar calls. Soon the shrill burr of the phone had become all but continuous. Some of the callers sounded terrified, others were spluttering with rage. All of them clamored for an explanation of the strange sky phenomenon and wanted to know what dangers were in store for Earth.
Exasperated, Damon Swift buzzed the office secretary, Munford Trent, on the intercom. “From now on, please shut off all calls!”
Meanwhile, Bud and Tom were tuning in the latest news accounts, which now issued uninterruptedly from the TV. They were all similar: sensational and quietly hysterical. To judge by the reports, panic was spreading across the globe. An excited announcer was saying:
“A bulletin just handed me states that crowds are rioting in Manila, Hong Kong, and other cities in Asia, where the space phantom has been visible for several hours! More trouble is expected as the glowing object becomes visible in other parts of the world. To add to the concern, freak high tides are reported at a number of coastal points. One Canadian town on the Bay of Fundy was almost swept away!”
“We know that’s just coincidence,” Tom pronounced. “The object isn’t yet at the right position in its orbit to affect that region. Besides, it’s far too small for its gravity to have a significant effect on the tides.”
The intercom buzzer sounded and Tom flipped the switch. “Sorry to disturb you,” Trent apologized, “but—”
“How’d you guess? He says it’s urgent.”
Tom grinned wryly. “I’m sure he does! All right, put him on.”
“I’m not bothering you for a statement,” the editor said in a smug voice. “Just a little heads-up. You’d better tune in your TV in exactly one minute, Tom. Odyssey CableView. You and your dad are in for quite a surprise!”
With a sly chuckle, Perkins hung up.
Tom turned to his father and Bud. “Perkins has cooked something up. I’ll get it on the videophone.”
A private TV network, used to link the various offices and outposts of Tom Swift Enterprises and its several affiliates, the videophone system could also be set to pick up regular commercial broadcasts over local cable. Tom stepped over to the control box, and in a moment the logo for Odyssey CableView popped on to the lower corner of the screen. A talking head was holding forth with customary vigor. His diatribe finished, he turned, and the screen flashed to a scowling man with bushy white hair. After introducing the man as John Voort, professor of astrophysics at nearby Grandyke University, the commentator asked:
“Can you offer any explanation of the strange glowing object in the sky, Professor?”
“Any scientific theorizing would be premature. It is definitely not a natural phenomenon. In my opinion, there is only one possible explanation.”
“What is that?”
“As we all know, Tom Swift and his father are in contact with extraterrestrials of unknown origin, who are willing to communicate only with them. I have reason to believe that the Swifts and these creatures are now engaged in an experiment which could have tragic results!”
“Oh no!” groaned Bud through clenched teeth. “Dan Perkins must have dropped that little hint!”
The commentator asked, “Do you mean it could be dangerous to us here on earth?”
“Certainly it could be dangerous!” declared the professor. “Tremendous forces may be unleashed—these high tides are only a sample! Even worse, a slight miscalculation could lead to a collision between the object and earth, resulting in unprecedented loss of life! You have asked my opinion and I have spoken bluntly.”
The commentator now filled the screen again. “And so the voice of science warns us: it’s not a movie this time, folks! How far are the famous inventors willing to go in their—”
Tom switched off the videophone in midsentence. Bud exploded, “Are you going to let Voort get away with that?”
As usual when under fire, Mr. Swift controlled his emotions. His only comment was, “The man is entitled to his own opinion, Bud.”
“Maybe we’d better issue a statement after all, Dad,” suggested Tom. “People seem to expect it of us.”
His father agreed. Quickly Tom dashed off a few lines and handed the paper to Mr. Swift, who scanned it and nodded approval.
Picking up the phone, Tom called Dan Perkins at the Bulletin. “Why Tom! How’s it hangin’?”
Tom did not mention the broadcast but merely said, “Dan, you’ve asked for a statement. This is the only one we can make: ‘We know absolutely nothing about the nature of the satellite. However, we plan to observe it carefully, both from Swift Enterprises and from our orbiting space station, and will release our findings as soon as we have anything to report. So far there appears to be no danger to earth’.”
“Maybe that’ll shut him up!” grumbled Bud as Tom broke the connection.
Tom and Mr. Swift went back to the observatory. Hour after hour they studied the object, which showed in the telescope as a small, bright disk with few visible details. By lunchtime they had also received data transmitted from the Swift space outpost which circled the earth in a geosynchronous orbit at a distance of 22,300 miles. The outpost was equipped with its own telescope and a variety of sophisticated space-probing instruments.
“Look at these photos, Tom,” said Damon Swift, handing a sheaf of digitized images to his son.
“Nice and sharp,” commented the young inventor. “The outpost’s electronic telescope does a wonderful job.”
The pictures showed the first close-up view of the interloper from space. The moonlet was revealed to be a rocky, rugged sphere, pockmarked with craters and sporting narrow, jagged peaks that seemed to claw far into space. Its mottled coloration was primarily a deep auburn.
“Definitely an asteroid,” said Mr. Swift. “And from the cratered condition of the surface, it’s been around a long time.”
“Yet that color is unusual, Dad—don’t you think?”
“It is. I’m anxious to receive the telespectrometry data from the outpost.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “But by now the satellite is below their horizon, so we’ll have to wait.”
Tom and his father continued their observations throughout the afternoon and long into the evening, occasionally releasing updated statements to the world press. It was nearly midnight when they finally stopped work.
“It looks to me,” said Tom, “as if the earth has a permanent, junior-size moon.”
“Right, son. But we’ll know more when we have a full day’s-worth of orbital figures.”
After closing the observatory, the Swifts drove a nanocar—a midget company personnel vehicle—across the experimental station to their private gate and parked it for the night. Tom beamed the gate open with his electronic key. Then, as was often their custom, father and son headed on foot down the little-used road which led to their home a half-mile distant. At Tom’s request, Bud had already returned the family car to the Swift home, where his own car was parked.
The Swift residence was just looming up ahead in the moonlight when Tom clutched his father’s arm. “Hold it, Dad!” he warned. “I think I heard something moving over in the—”
His words ended in a gasp as a shadowy figure leaped from the bushes beside the road, a long knife in his right hand.
“Murderers!” screamed the assailant. “You’re trying to destroy the world! But you’ll never live to do it!”
AS THE assailant’s arm arced viciously through the darkness, Mr. Swift dodged to avoid the knife thrust, but was only partially successful. He gave a yelp of pain. Instinctively, Tom hurled himself at the attacker and grabbed the man’s wrist. The stranger fought like a cornered rat, twisting, clawing, and kicking as he tried to get his knife hand free.
But Tom, using his right fist, pommeled the attacker until the man’s knees buckled. Dropping the knife, he sagged limply and Tom’s next blow sent him sprawling to the ground in a knockout.
Instantly Tom turned to his father who was clutching a bloody shirt sleeve. “Dad! Are you all right?”
“Just a scratch, son. Let’s see who this fellow is.”
Whipping out a pocket flashlight, Tom beamed it at his fallen foe. The man’s face looked bony and hollow-cheeked. His clothes were shabby, his hair long and unkempt.
“Never saw him before,” murmured Tom.
“Some misguided crank, no doubt.” Mr. Swift’s voice was tinged with pity for the man who had attacked them. “We’d better take him to the house.”
The stranger revived enough to walk under his own power. Taking no chances, Tom used his handkerchief to tie the man’s wrists behind his back. The prisoner muttered incoherently all the way to the Swift home, but had become fairly docile.
Tom’s mother and his blond, blue-eyed sister, Sandra, a year younger than he, greeted the group at the front door, having waited up late for them. They cried out in alarm at sight of the bleary-eyed prisoner and at Mr. Swift’s bloody sleeve.
Tom bound his prisoner more securely, then called Dr. Simpson, the plant physician. Next, Tom phoned Harlan Ames, in charge of the security division at Swift Enterprises. He apologized to both for disturbing them in the middle of the night.
Minutes later, a car screeched to a halt on the gravel driveway outside the house. Harlan Ames, slender and dark-eyed, was accompanied by Phil Radnor, blond-haired and stocky, Ames’s assistant. At once they began to question the prisoner.
“All right, let’s have the whole story! Who are you? Who put you up to this?” barked Ames.
The man stared back sullenly, his eyes gleaming with a fanatical light. “I’m trying to save the world from destruction! Can’t you understand? Tom Swift and his father are the real criminals!”
While the questioning went on, young Doc Simpson arrived, yawning, and examined Mr. Swift’s arm. Fortunately the knife slash proved to be only a flesh wound. After using an antiseptic, the doctor applied a bandage. A quick examination of the prisoner showed only superficial bruises.
When Ames and Radnor had abandoned grilling the stranger, who refused to give his name and only glared at them, Tom’s mother approached the man and lay a gentle hand on his arm.
“Sir,” said Anne Swift in a soft voice, “you endangered my husband and my son, and you can’t blame us for being upset. But let’s all calm down. Won’t you tell me your name?”
The man looked up at Mrs. Swift, frowned—and smiled. “Sure. My name is Samuel F. Cobboley, ma’am. Did you say someone is after your son?”
“I’m afraid so, Samuel. Do you know why?”
The man seemed to struggle to think. “Well, some folks seem to have the idea that Tom and his father are out to destroy the world.”
“Isn’t that silly!”
“Sure is, ma’am.”
Tom’s mother smiled prettily at the stranger. “Now, your doctor—what did you say his name was?”
“Oh, that’d be Dr. Smeckna, Otis Smeckna. He’s in the phone book, if you need a good psychiatrist,” was the reply. “Please don’t tell him I’m not taking my pills, though. It makes him mad, and he sends me bad thought-waves.”
“We won’t mention it,” she said soothingly.
“Amazing!” whispered Ames to Radnor.
The psychiatrist was contacted, and within forty minutes Dr. Smeckna had escorted his patient off into the night. “Samuel gets worked up rather easily, and he was listening to the TV news,” was his brief explanation. “Thank heavens he didn’t do any serious damage to you men.”
Early the next morning as Tom and his father were eating in the sun-filled breakfast nook of the Swift home, a broadcast came over the television which startled them both.
‘‘World capitals are buzzing with excitement,” said the newscaster. “There is a rumor that Brungaria—” Instantly the Swifts were alerted at mention of a country which had once been a persistent adversary of the United States. “—has something to do with the strange new sky satellite,” the announcer went on. “So far, the Brungarian government has neither confirmed nor denied this rumor. Many experts take this as proof that the Brungarians are responsible!”
Tom and Mr. Swift exchanged worried glances. “Dad, this could cause even more panic!”
A totalitarian state for most of the Twentieth Century, Brungaria had only recently entered the democratic fold. But there were still many who held on to suspicions that the East European nation regarded itself as a rival to the West. The thought that tiny Brungaria might have developed a technology of such immense power would be deeply disturbing to much of the world.
With Tom at the wheel of his low-slung sports car, father and son sped to the experimental station, and by eight o’clock they had arrived at some figures that seemed conclusive, now based upon a day’s-worth of instrumental observations of the phantom satellite. These showed that the new body was indeed orbiting around the earth like a second moon. Tom had plotted the orbit and found it was precisely 54,311 miles from earth. The moonlet’s rate of revolution on its own axis was calculated to be 28 hours, 16 minutes, and the period of its orbit about the earth was a shade over three days, 19 hours—an alternative “month” for Earth! Spherical in overall shape, Little Luna was about 41 miles in diameter.
“No atmosphere detected,” Tom commented. “And surface gravity is negligible, as one would expect for such a small body—less than .3 percent that of the earth.”
“Well, one thing seems certain,” remarked Mr. Swift. “However it came to be where it is, the new satellite is a natural body—probably an asteroid.”
“Which means it wasn’t constructed by either our space friends or the Brungarians,” added Tom.
Mr. Swift nodded thoughtfully as he mulled over their other findings.
“Here’s something else that may interest you, Dad,” said Tom with a slight smile, shoving over a paper filled with formulas and equations that he had worked out.
Mr. Swift studied Tom’s figures with a puzzled look. “You mean its orbit is perfectly circular?”
“Perfectly! No variation, to within one-thousandth of a percent.”
“But that, at least, isn’t natural! An object drifting into orbit could never settle in to such a perfectly regularized one.”
“Exactly.” Tom’s eyes glinted with excitement. “That proves its trajectory was artificially controlled.”
“In other words, the work of intelligent beings!”
Again, father and son stared at each other, the same thought running through their minds. Was this part of some plan by their space friends after all?
Mr. Swift shoved back his chair and stood up abruptly. “Tom, I think we’d better call a press conference as soon as possible and give our findings to the world. It may help to calm the public’s fears.”
Tom nodded. “I’ll get George Dilling on the phone right away and make the arrangements.”
As the lunch hour drew near, a jostling swarm of television reporters and news photographers filed into a reception room in a building near the main gate. At one o’clock, just before Tom and Mr. Swift were to arrive, Harlan Ames walked in and ascended to the dais. The crowd of newsmen buzzed expectantly as Ames introduced himself.
“For reasons of safety,” Ames began, “we’ll have to ask all of you to observe some rules that—”
But at that point came a loud interruption. A slightly-built, red-haired young man, wearing a vivid green sports jacket and carrying an expensive camera, burst out in a nasty manner: “Is the cover-up starting already? When are you going to cut out the double talk and get down to what you really know?”
“What do you mean?” asked Ames, annoyed.
“I mean we want the real story! What are the Swifts up to? We all know you and your space pals are cooking up some experiment, just like Professor Voort said yesterday! So you can’t make us swallow the bunk you’ve been handing out so far!”
Harlan Ames’s fists clenched at the man’s insulting manner. The crowd shrank back as he jumped from the platform. Striding up to the man, he said quietly, “Look, wise guy, you’re a guest here. If you don’t like the way things are being run, leave!”
“I have the right to be here!” responded the short-statured young man loudly. “You want to throw me out, go ahead and try it!”
“Thanks!” Grabbing the lapel of the man’s jacket, Ames swung the man around and took him by the seat of his pants. Before the surprised newsman could do more than squawk helplessly, the security chief marched him out of the building and through the main gate! “Don’t let him back in!” Ames told the gate crew. “And don’t come back till you’ve learned some manners!” he called after the sputtering photographer.
Meanwhile the two Swifts had arrived and mounted the dais facing the audience. As Ames returned, to a scattering of applause, they began to explain their findings.
The rest of the conference went smoothly. Toward the end one of the journalists asked, “Since Swift Enterprises has spaceflight capability, should we expect a Swift expedition to the satellite?”
Damon Swift chuckled. “If I know my son Tom, he’s already planning it!” The crowd laughed, and Tom grinned.
After a late lunch Tom and his father went to their office, where they found Bud Barclay waiting for them with a bulky package in hand.
“Here’s that part you needed,” said the youthful pilot, handing the package to Tom. “Straight from Marietta, Georgia, via Bud Barclay Air!”
“Thanks, chum,” said Tom.
Bud noticed a gleam in Tom’s eyes. “What’s cooking now?” he asked.
Tom glanced at his father, who looked on in amusement. “Oh, just an idea.”
“I’m all for sending an expedition to explore that satellite!” Tom answered. “Dad’s been playing devil’s advocate, but I think I’ve talked him into it. How about it, Dad?”
Mr. Swift grinned. “I decided the same thing this morning. But I didn’t want to deprive you of the opportunity to make your case!”
Bud’s face lit up with anticipation. “Do you mean it?” he asked Tom.
“Never more serious.”
Bud let out a whoop of excitement. “Hot rockets! Another space trip!”
“There are a number of details to be worked out, though,” continued Mr. Swift. “The only vehicle available that is at all suitable is the Star Spear.”
“So what’s wrong with that?” Bud queried. “She’s a great little ship!”
“The key word is little,” said Tom. “Though we could land on Little Luna in the Star Spear, the cabin can only accommodate two. We’d have no room for the many scientific instruments that ought to be brought along to justify the trip from a scientific standpoint. I don’t want to go just to be able to say we got there first.”
Bud shrugged. He clearly believed that getting there first was a more than sufficient reason for a space flight!
The two Swifts immediately began making plans. Calling in Trent to take notes, they roughed out an estimate of the equipment and supplies needed for a short private expedition—a minimal one.
Later Tom went to continue work in one of his laboratories on an invention which he had recently started developing. “I might need this for the trip,” he said to Bud, who was looking on.
Suddenly a twangy voice, western as the Pecos, boomed from the doorway. “This a private shindig, or kin anyone git in the game?”
As the boys looked up, a grinning, bowlegged figure ambled into the lab. Chow Winkler, a former chuck-wagon cook who now worked for the Swifts as chef at the plant and on expeditions, was fat and bald-headed, with a face burnt brown as leather by desert sunshine. As usual, he wore a flashy cowboy shirt, tucked into his faded jeans.
“Hi, Chow!” Tom greeted him. “Come on in.”
“Now what in tarnation would that be?” Chow asked, staring at an object on Tom’s workbench. “It looks like one o’ them merry-go-round lawn sprinklers—or a silver spider, mebbe.”
Tom laughed. “It’s a model of an atmosphere-making machine, Chow.”
“You mean, a contraption fer makin’ air?” A frown wrinkled the cook’s forehead. “But brand my spurs, why bother makin’ air? Ain’t we got plenty to breathe already?”
“Here on earth we do. But on the moon and other planets, space travelers won’t find any, so they’ll have to make their own.”
“Well, brand my ox-eegen mask!”
“Speaking of oxygen,” Tom said with a grin, “my machine will not only shoot out a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, released from rocks by electrical smelting—it will also make the stuff clump together, so that it can’t drift away when there’s not enough gravity to hold it in place.”
Chow scowled at Tom suspiciously. “An’ jest how do you make gases stick t’gether? Add a little glue mebbe?”
Tom laughed affectionately at the notion. “By using Inertite.”
Chow nodded. “That there’s that stuff you concocted when we ’as over in Africa.” An all-but-miraculous substance composed not of atoms and molecules but literally of interlaced “strands” of the spacetime continuum itself, Tom had used Inertite to create a special sheathing to protect his terrasphere from the destructive effects of antiproton-emitting gas in the Caves of Nuclear Fire.
“I don’t get it, Skipper,” Bud remarked from beneath a furrowed brow. “What does Inertite have to do with holding an atmosphere together?”
“As ‘non-matter matter,’ so to speak, Inertite has quite a range of unique properties. We’ve barely scratched the surface so far.” Tom picked up a bar of the whitish substance, which felt to the touch like ordinary matter. “Remember how the rocks of the taboo mountain were run through with veins of this stuff?”
“Sure,” Bud replied. “That’s why the gas didn’t disintegrate the whole mountain.”
“Well, the veins we could see outright were only the biggest ones. For every one of those, there were a hundred smaller ones; and for every one of those, another hundred smaller still. Eventually you end up with filaments so small and thin that they can only be detected with an electron microscope.”
Chow looked blank, but said, “Reckon that’s mighty small, idnit?”
Tom nodded. “So small they make an atom look big!”
“Okay, so you’s got these little bitty threads,” prompted Chow. “What’s that have t’do with anything?”
“Glad you asked.” With the air of a magician the young inventor tore off a tiny scrap of paper from one of the pages in his notebook and walked over to a nearby workbench. He held his hand high, dramatically, and then released the scrap, which slowly fluttered down through the air. Suddenly, as it came parallel to a pair of horizontal rods about a foot apart, it stopped falling and hung in midair between them, jiggling as if caught in a spiderweb.
Bud and Chow approached and examined the space between the rods. “Nothing there,” declared Bud. “So what’s keeping it up? Static electricity?”
Chow disagreed. “If’n we’re betting, my bet’s on magnets.”
“Neither one!” Tom pronounced. “You see, I’ve found a way to take a lump of Inertite, like that bar I was holding, and ‘spin it out’ into the same kind of ultra-small filaments we were just talking about. Certain resonant frequencies of electromagnetic waves cause the ends of the filaments to be attracted to the corresponding ends of other filaments nearby. They join together and create a kind of continuous webbing, sort of a net of fine gauze too thin to be visible to the eye. I’ve stretched some of the webbing between these rods, and that’s what the scrap of paper is resting on. As you can see, it has some give to it.”
Bud nodded sagely. “Neat and keen and all that stuff, Tom. But you still haven’t explained how you’re going to keep the air you make from dissipating into space.”
“I’m getting to it. When these nets of filaments get to a certain size, they start to curl in and connect to themselves, as a soap bubble does. The spaces in the netting are so narrow that molecules of oxygen or other free gases can’t fit through. They’re trapped, and that’s what holds the atmosphere in space.”
“Yeah, I got it!” Chow exclaimed proudly. “Yuh’re kinda blowin’ a big soap bubble with air inside.”
“That’s the general idea, pard,” Tom confirmed. “The wall of the bubble is so thin that you won’t be able to see it at all.”
“Well, I think my brain must be too thin to see how it all fits together!” joked Bud. “So you’ve made a great big bubble of air—how do you get people inside it without popping it?”
In response Tom passed the palm of his hand between the two rods. The scrap of paper dipped down a ways; but then as the hand passed along further, it sprang back to its previous position. “See?” Tom exulted. “The Inertite filaments don’t break under stress like ordinary matter. Solid structures can push the netting around up to a certain point, but beyond that point the netting opens up and simply flows around the obstruction, the way radio waves can flow around a building.” He explained that if such an atmospheric bubble were created on the moon or another planet, spacecraft would be able to enter and leave by simply passing through the invisible Inertite shell. No opening or airlock would be required.
Chow’s face creased into a cheerful grin. “I cain’t say I savvy every word of it, son, but if you say so, I reckon it must be true!”
“Same here!” Bud groaned. “It’s way over my head!”
“It’ll be way over all our heads,” grinned Tom, pointing to a blueprint of his machine. “The ‘spider’ will be suspended about eighty feet in the air above the rock-smelting apparatus.”
Bud looked mystified. “But what holds it up? Are those spider-filaments that strong?”
“No, the gases released in the smelter are given an electrical charge and propelled upward by a magnetic flux—the same principle used in the Star Spear’s matter-accelerator engines. The pressure of this stream of charged particles supports the machine just like a ping-pong ball on a water spout. And of course the rotation of the dispeller—the ‘spider’—automatically keeps it gyro-stabilized.”
“Simple as that, eh?” quipped Bud dryly. Chow could only scratch his head at his young boss’s ingenuity.
The excitement Tom felt over the project lasted until dinnertime. Then, reaching home, Mr. Swift greeted him with disturbing news. “Son, you and I have been summoned to Washington tomorrow morning.”
“Summoned!” Tom repeated. “But why, Dad?”
“The official who called refused to give any reason,” responded Damon Swift. Then he added tensely: “I’m afraid it’s an inquiry about our being responsible for the terror the satellite caused!”
TAKING OFF the next morning in a Swift Construction Company commuter jet piloted by Tom, Tom and Mr. Swift soon landed at the Washington airport. A government limousine whisked them to the Pentagon Building.
In one of the large conference rooms, they were greeted by Mr. Luther Helm, a balding official in the Defense Department whom they had met before. “Delighted you could come,” he told the Swifts.
“As are we,” replied Mr. Swift somewhat sharply.
Helm introduced them to the other members of the group. These included high-ranking officers of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and various government scientists, including several associated with NASA. One of the attendees was an old friend, Admiral Krevitt of ONDAR, the Office of National Defense Applied Research.
“Haven’t seen you two since the Russian sub business,” he commented. “Both well, I trust?”
“So far,” said Tom pointedly. Krevitt chuckled in response.
The two were seated at a long table with the others under the presiding gaze of George Washington’s portrait, and Helm called the meeting to order. “Gentlemen,” Helm began, “here’s the situation. Forgive me if I put it in summary form. This new moon in the heavens could become a prize objective. It looks like an ideal spot from which to launch deep space expeditions, such as the American manned Mars project that you’ve read about recently. It also has strategic importance with implications for the security of our nation. Any country that gains control of it could conceivably dominate the earth through various kinds of high-tech space-based weaponry which could be shielded from retaliation inside the bulk of the satellite. I’m sure your imaginations are all adequate to the task of envisioning this.”
Murmurs of agreement echoed around the table. Tom and his father glanced at each other. They had not been reprimanded. Why had they been called to Washington?
“Therefore,” Helm continued, “we have decided to send an expeditionary force to land on the satellite and claim it for the United States. Mr. Swift, we feel that you and your son are the obvious choice to make such an expedition a reality. What do you say?”
Tom and his father were amazed as well as pleased. This outcome to their summons was far different from what they had expected!
“This is a great honor,” said Mr. Swift. “It will mean a tremendous responsibility.”
“Then I take it you accept?”
“No,” continued Damon Swift. “I’m afraid we must decline.”
Tom gasped under his breath and sat up straight in his chair, hardly able to believe his ears. But he felt reassured when his father gave him a nudge beneath the tabletop.
The men at the table looked startled and alarmed. “We were counting on you,” said Helm after a tense pause.
“Please understand,” Mr. Swift went on. “Swift Enterprises is not a government agency, and cannot function like a government agency. It’s clear that the sort of ‘expeditionary force’ you contemplate would be headed-up by a military official, or someone else appointed by the government for reasons having little to do with science and invention. With all due respect, we can’t participate in such an arrangement. If Washington is unwilling to trust us with actually commanding the expedition…” He left the sentence unfinished.
There was muttering at the table. “It’s not a matter of trust, Swift,” put in Admiral Krevitt. “With these rumors of possible Brungarian involvement…well, it only seems proper for the United States to be represented by someone with official standing.”
“Our choice was Col. Jess Northrup, an experienced NASA astronaut,” Helm said. “You surely can’t object to the involvement of a man such as Northrup, a national hero!”
Mr. Swift smiled. “I’m well aware of his heroism twenty years ago, landing the space shuttle after the accident. I was part of the shuttle program myself back then. But this is an utterly novel situation.”
“Besides, it might interfere with his next run for the Senate,” whispered Tom in ironic tones only his father could hear.
Damon Swift added, “Tom and I are ready to serve our country any way we can, as always. But if we are to take up these responsibilities, you must allow us to be fully in charge.”
Helm spoke quietly to the man sitting next to him, a man known by the Swifts to represent the President of the United States. After a moment the man nodded, and Helm straightened up. “You’ve made a forceful case for your point of view. We are willing to work out a protocol of cooperation between you and Col. Northrup, with Swift Enterprises clearly in charge of all the scientific aspects of the expedition. What do you say to that?”
Mr. Swift leaned over and muttered a string of meaningless syllables into his son’s ear, a bit of undetected mockery the officials would never learn of. Tom nodded thoughtfully, trying hard not to laugh. Then Mr. Swift said soberly. “Naturally we accept.”
“Excellent!” Helm exclaimed in obvious relief. “And you, Tom, how do you feel about it?”
The young scientist-inventor grinned. “I had hoped to make a quick, simple, private expedition to Little Luna, as we’ve nicknamed the moonlet. Now we’ll have an added and worthy incentive. But I think you gentlemen should be aware of one fact: we don’t have a vehicle able to handle the sort of large-scale effort you seem to have in mind.”
Helm and several others at the table exchanged half-amused glances. Then Helm nodded at Admiral Krevitt, who slid a thick binder across the table to the two guests. “Take a look!”
Mr. Swift opened the binder and gasped softly, turning it so Tom could see.
“The nuclear rocket!” exclaimed Tom, startled. “But—”
“Yes, for security reasons we led you to believe it was still on the drawing board,” Admiral Krevitt remarked. “Though it was mostly a Swift Enterprises design.”
“Are you saying it’s been constructed?” demanded Tom’s father.
“Indeed so, in secret,” Krevitt confirmed. “All ready to gas and go. We had planned a test flight for late next month, but now—”
“I take it you agree that this vehicle, the Titan, will be adequate to the project,” Helm said to Mr. Swift.
“More than adequate!” replied the head of Enterprises. “The Titan—at least as we designed her—could easily carry a crew of twelve, with considerable storage space for the various necessities and equipment.”
“Then I’d say we have ample reason for optimism.” Mr. Helm smiled and thanked the Swifts. Then he asked their opinion on the chances of survival on the bare surface Little Luna for an extended period of time.
“None, outside of a space suit,” Mr. Swift answered, “unless my son’s latest invention could be put to practical use there.” He mentioned the atmosphere-making machine.
“Fantastic!” one of the scientists burst out. “We could use one of those in Los Angeles.”
His listeners were very much interested in this new Tom Swift invention. One man asked, “Do you intend to use compressed gases?”
‘"For my first tests, yes,” Tom replied. “But I’m hoping we’ll find the necessary elements on the satellite to make all the gases we’ll need for a permanent atmosphere. Long-range readings suggest that the surface of Little Luna contains high concentrations of metallic oxides and nitrogen-bearing compounds.”
The conferees now got down to details of planning. Since the Swifts had already estimated the amount of necessary equipment and the cost of a minimal expedition, they were able to quote definite figures as a starting point for the discussion.
“Here’s something you Swifts should know,” a representative of the Central Intelligence Agency declared. “We have reliable information that the Brungarians are making feverish plans for an expedition of their own. As you know, they’ve revived their space program with help from Russia, and we’re sure they’re hoping to reach the satellite first, and establish a military base! I don’t need to tell you what that would mean to the whole world.”
“Isn’t Brungaria an ally these days?” asked Tom politely.
“A great nation has no friends,” said the man sitting next to Helm, speaking aloud for the first time.
“The United States must reach there first!” an Air Force general stated grimly.
“We’ll rush the project at top speed,” promised Mr. Swift.
Helm nodded. “Incidentally, we would prefer to let your own staff at Swift Enterprises handle the security angle on this, although government officials will be on hand for any emergency.”
“Budgetary constraints,” muttered a man with thick glasses and no tan whatsoever.
A few minutes later the conference broke up and the Swifts were soon winging back to Shopton. The elder inventor put an arm on his son’s shoulder. “Tom, you are to be in charge of this expedition. My place is on the ground at Enterprises. I’ll help in every way I can, but you’ll be Number One man.”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll try to live up to your faith in me.”
“Just return to us safely!”
In the days that followed the Washington meeting, both Swift Enterprises and the Fearing Island space facility bustled with intense activity. Crews at Enterprises worked around the clock, readying supplies and equipment for the historic journey into space, while on Fearing Island trained specialists, many from NASA, assembled the modular parts of the nuclear rocket Titan, which had been freighted to the island by barge. In the meantime Tom worked to complete his atmosphere-making machine. He had decided that he would be bringing on the Titan enough parts to construct two of the machines, to be set up on opposite sides of Little Luna. This would speed the production of a livable atmosphere for the barren satellite.
Two days after the Swifts returned from Washington, an Air Force jet touched down on one of the Enterprises airstrips. Aboard were the first four members of the government team to report for duty. The Swifts had agreed that six spots on the 12-person Titan crew would be reserved for government assignees, including Col. Northrup.
Tom and Bud drove out on the field to meet the arrivals. First out of the jet was a big man in a well-tailored suit. Bounding forward, robust and bareheaded, hair shot with gray, he looked like a high-powered business executive. Which was exactly what he was.
“I suppose you’ve come to give us a lift, eh boys?” he boomed. “Well, let’s get going! Take us to the man in charge!”
“As a matter of fact, I’m in charge,” Tom said, smiling.
“What!” The man’s jaw dropped.
“I’m Tom Swift. And I imagine you’re Mr. Jason Graves.” Tom had been prepared for his arrival by telegram. He knew that Graves was the dynamic owner of a large metallurgical research plant—a man who had won a reputation for quick fulfillment of defense contracts.
Graves shook hands, chuckling. “Almost had me fooled there for a minute, sonny. Of course I recognize you now. But your father’s the CEO around here—he’s the man I’ll deal with.”
“Sorry, sir, but Dad’s at our rocket facility on Fearing Island this week,” Tom replied. “He’s supervising the construction of the new launch pad for the nuclear spacecraft. So you’ll be working with me, Mr. Graves. As you know, I’ll be skipper on the flight, too.”
Graves’s face turned a ripe plum color. “You mean, I’m supposed to take orders from a kid who isn’t even old enough to order a martini?”
As Bud bristled, Tom said calmly, “Sorry if it seems a little unusual, Mr. Graves. Bud and I are space veterans and have run some big projects before, including the construction of our space station. I hope you’ll give me a chance to prove myself.”
“Well,” said the man doubtfully, “that’s what America is all about.”
While Graves struggled to accept the idea of taking orders from someone so much younger than himself, introductions to the other two arrivals followed.
Col. Jess Northrup looked very much like his photographs—big, colorful, manly, and full of smiles. And maybe a little too full of himself! thought Tom as he shook hands. The ex-astronaut was about fifty years old, with thinning brown hair that Tom suspected would be gray without some regular technical assistance. “Goodta meetcha, Tom!” he said heartily.
A blond, husky, likable metallurgical engineer and mineralogist named Kent Rockland introduced himself. “This is like a dream!” he confessed. “Looking for ore on an alien world—wow!”
“Speaking of dreams,” said a quiet voice, “I never dreamed I would live to set foot on one of the celestial bodies I’ve studied through my telescope.” The voice belonged to Dr. Henrik Jatczak, one of the world’s foremost astronomers and an expert in planetary chemistry. A small, shy, wiry man, Dr. Jatczak had a shock of unruly black hair that seemed not to want to lie down, and twinkling blue eyes peering through thick-lensed glasses.
“It’ll be a privilege to work with you, sir,” said Tom as they shook hands. “I’ve been an admirer of yours ever since I can remember.”
“Which is not very long, as cosmic time is counted; yet I thank you. I, too, am an admirer of yours, young man,” said Dr. Jatczak in a quiet voice. “I consider Swift the greatest name in modern science—applied science, that is.” With mischief in his eyes, he added, “And I for one shall be honored to take orders from any of the Swifts!” Bud could not help smiling at this quiet rebuke to Jason Graves, who responded with a sour look. But Tom, charmed as he was by Dr. Jatczak, found himself wondering if the frail man had the stamina required to cope with the rigors of space travel.
Tom took his guests on a quick tour of the experimental station by jeep, then assigned each one certain duties before they dispersed to their living quarters near the administration building.
During the next few days, other top-level scientists and engineers arrived and quickly began work. Among them were Jim Stevens and Ron Corey, two young specialists in forced plant growth from the United States Department of Agriculture.
“Didn’t know they’d be sending along a couple of farmers!” joked Bud, as he and Tom lunched with their new guests in the Enterprises cafeteria.
Stevens replied with a smile and a pleasant southern drawl. “Our jobs will be to cultivate crops for a permanent food supply on the satellite, something made possible by the atmosphere machine. I’ll be handling the work from this end, of course—on Planet Earth!—while Ron’s doing his thing up on Little Luna with the rest of you.”
“Have you set a date for take-off?” Corey asked Tom.
“We have, but for security reasons, Dad and I are the only ones who know what it is,” replied the young inventor. “We’re not even supposed to tell our families and friends the real nature of this project. The official story is that Enterprises is planning to launch a robot flyby to probe the satellite with instruments.” He looked embarrassed, and in fact he was.
Bud gave a mock groan. “Everything’s so hush-hush around here that even the mice are starting to complain!”
As the meal ended, Ron Corey leaned over to Tom and asked, “Tom, what did your friend mean—about the mice?” Then Tom knew for certain that Ron Corey lacked a sense of humor!
By week’s end the last of the government crew assignees had arrived at Swift Enterprises. He presented himself at Tom and his father’s office, hand extended. “Teodor Kutan,” he said. “And before you ask, gentlemen, the name and the accent are Polish. Now, though, I am a citizen of this country.”
The Swifts knew that Kutan was a diplomat, a somewhat well-known one who had represented the United States in a number of difficult foreign negotiations. His age was indeterminable, though probably closer to fifty than thirty, and he was short and somewhat heavyset, with thinning light hair and eyebrows like small shrubs. “Tell me, Dr. Kutan, if I might ask…” Tom began, not wanting to be overly blunt.
“Ah, no doubt you wish to know my exact function on this voyage of discovery.” Kutan gave a slight, rather perfunctory smile. “The expedition may have need of a diplomat representing our government in a formal sense. No, not to deal with alien space beings, but with encroaching astronauts from other nations who may be inclined to dispute the American claim.”
“In other words, Brungaria,” said Tom.
“In my youth, I spent many a summer in Volkonis, the capital,” continued the diplomat. “I know the Brungarian character well.”
After Dr. Kutan had left to unpack, Tom and his father resumed their discussion of some remaining aspects of the expedition. “When we last talked, son, you hadn’t yet filled out the last four seats on the Swift team,” Damon Swift noted. “Other than you and Bud, who will be going with you in the Titan?”
Tom replied, “First of all, Hank Sterling.” The blond, square-jawed chief of the engineering division of Enterprises, Hank, only a few years older than Tom and Bud, had accompanied them on most Swift expeditions and was in many ways Tom’s righthand-man for technical problems.
“I expected Hank to be picked,” commented Mr. Swift.
“Then I wanted someone from the medical and physiological field. As Doc Simpson doesn’t yet have his ‘space-legs,’ I decided to go with Violet Wohl from the Life Sciences department.”
“I’m not acquainted with Dr. Wohl, but I’ve heard good reports on her work, and I know she has an MD. Two places remain, then.”
Tom nodded. “Of course I considered Arv Hanson, and also Bob Jeffers. But I couldn’t turn down Rafael Franzenberg, given his expertise.”
“Yes, he’s a real triple threat—physics, chemistry, and electronics.” Mr. Swift paused. “Still, you and I know that not everyone enjoys his company, and his brand of humor.”
Tom chuckled. “Between Dr. Kutan and I, we may have a few extra diplomatic problems to handle on this trip!”
“Who is your remaining selection?”
“I suppose you can guess that one, Dad. After all, we’ve got to eat!”
Damon Swift laughed gently and said, “Absolutely! And I know Chow Winkler and his rather extravagant observations play an important role in keeping the captain of this ship psychologically trim.”
Tom joined in the laughter. “But I’m not shoe-horning Chow into the project on a whim—he’s had space training, and was actually pretty valuable during the construction of the space outpost.”
Frenzied days fled past without incident. A week before the scheduled secret take-off, Tom was busy one afternoon in his laboratory with Hank Sterling. They were testing a large scale model of Tom’s atmosphere machine, a working model created by Arvid Hanson, Enterprises’ talented maker of prototypes.
Suddenly Bud Barclay rushed in, yelling, “Hey, Skipper! Take a look at this!”
He waved an early edition of the Shopton Evening Bulletin on which large banner headlines proclaimed:
SWIFTS TO HEAD U.S. EXPEDITION
TO PHANTOM SATELLITE
With growing anger and alarm, Tom read through the story, credited to Editor Perkins himself. The report included an amazing wealth of detail, including the exact time and date of departure, type of spaceship to be used, and the names of some of the personnel!
“A complete account!” gasped Hank Sterling as he read the story over Tom’s shoulder.
“But who tipped them off?” Bud exclaimed. Sick with rage and dismay, Tom could hardly speak. “We’ll soon find out!” he declared, when he recovered his voice.
Snatching up the telephone, Tom called the Bulletin and asked for the editor. “Where did you get that story on this supposed space expedition?” he demanded.
Dan Perkins sounded surprised. “Why, from you folks, naturally. Where else?”
“Sure.” Perkins explained that he had received a standard dated news release on a Swift Enterprises letterhead, giving all the information and signed by George Dilling, Enterprises’ chief of the Communications and Public Interest office. “You mean the story is phony?” he burst out, suddenly realizing that something was wrong.
“I mean it was top secret!” Tom exclaimed. “That information could involve the security of the whole world!”
Perkins let out a long whistle and started to apologize, but Tom interrupted him brusquely. “It’s not your fault, Dan. You printed it in good faith. But from now on, please check with me on all releases concerning this project!”
In a matter of moments, Tom had alerted Harlan Ames, and the plant security force whirred into action. Ames hurried to the laboratory to confer with Tom.
“Where did you keep the records of the expedition personnel?” the security chief asked Tom.
“In our office safefile cabinet. As you know, it’s as secure as a bank vault!”
“We’ll grill everyone who has access to your office,” Ames said. “How about the date of take-off?”
“That was never written down. Someone must have eavesdropped on our radio communications when Dad was at Fearing Island.”
“Which means they cracked the encryption routine.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Tom added, “The Swift Enterprises letterhead could easily have been duplicated on a computer printer.”
All night long the investigation went on. Everyone on the staff and all others even remotely connected with the expedition were questioned and cross-questioned, and Mr. Swift had the task of trying to mollify and reassure Washington D.C.
Early the next morning Tom sped to the plant with his father, both in a somber mood. Their first caller was Ames, haggard and unshaven after his grueling all-night session.
“Any results?” Tom inquired anxiously.
Ames shook his head grimly. “Not a single lead.” Then, pulling an envelope from his pocket, he dropped it on Mr. Swift’s desk.
The inventor raised his eyebrows, puzzled. “Is this what I think it is, Harlan?”
“My resignation,” Ames said glumly. “Effective immediately.”
FOR A MOMENT Tom and his father were dumbfounded. Mr. Swift’s keen blue eyes studied the security chief.
“Why are you doing this, Harlan?” he asked finally. “Do you really want to resign?”
Ames shrugged unhappily. “What else can I do? I’ve failed to maintain proper security, and now I can’t even find out where the leak occurred.”
“We’re no more willing to accept your resignation now than we were in previous situations like this,” retorted Mr. Swift. “You know we have complete confidence in you. You took every precaution, but we’re up against a clever enemy. In my opinion, there’s no way you or anyone could have forestalled the leak.”
From his pocket Ames pulled a rumpled telegram. “This is from the FBI. Their agents are here to investigate. I’m sure it’s because the officials who asked you to make the expedition think I’ve bungled the security job.”
“Well, we don’t!” insisted Tom.
“I want you to continue,” added Mr. Swift. “You can’t quit now, Harlan. We need your help to see the project through!”
To clinch the matter, Tom tore up the letter of resignation and dropped it into the wastebasket. “Whoops!—What letter of resignation? You’re still working for Enterprises!”
Flushed but grinning, Ames agreed with an expression of gratitude and hurried off to resume his work.
Tom’s face was serious as he turned back to his father. “Dad, we don’t know who’s working against us. But there’s only one thing we can do now to beat the Brungarians or any other country that wants to claim Little Luna. Speed up everything and beat our original deadline!”
The elder scientist nodded. “You’re right, Tom. And it’s theoretically possible. The Titan has been assembled on Fearing and is being tested-out even as we speak. All reports are positive. With a little luck, I believe I can have the last of the cargo locked away onboard by the end of the day. You could fly the crew, and your machine components, to the Island this evening and be ready for blast-off by midnight.”
“Midnight! That’s fantastic, Dad! We tested the Arv’s model of the atmosphere-making machine yesterday afternoon. It worked perfectly! The main casting was poured last night. If Hank prods the workers, they should have the whole assembly ready to load onto the Sky Queen by the end of the afternoon.”
With a quick handshake, the Swifts parted.
Tom sought out Bud, and asked him to inform the other members of the space team. “Sure, pal!” Bud agreed. “But when do we have the party?”
“You know, the going-away party. We always have one, Tom.”
The young inventor laughed. “This time Sandy and Bashalli are being kept as much in the dark as the rest of the world!”
But at home that evening, Tom discovered that he was in error. “Tom Swift, don’t you think for one minute we believe that ‘going to Fearing to watch the launch of the robot rocket’ story!” Sandy exclaimed.
“Like everyone else on Earth, we have read the Shopton Bulletin,” added dark-haired Bashalli Prandit, a visitor for supper who was a close friend. “Obviously this is a not-so-clever ruse to mislead everyone about your departure for Mini-Moona, or whatever you call that thing.”
Tom held up his hands wryly. “All right, you two have outfoxed us. We launch at midnight.” Tom and his father explained the security concerns surrounding the expedition.
“I understand,” said Sandy. “We won’t breathe a word to anyone.”
“Not over the next six hours!” Bash continued. “But your next going-away party—no doubt only weeks away—will have to be a double one.”
“Agreed!” laughed Tom.
After supper Tom made a call to Enterprises to make certain the loading of the Sky Queen, his great three-deck Flying Lab, was proceeding apace. After assuring him that all was well, the chief of the loading team asked Tom to hold the line while he transferred him to Harlan Ames’s office. Ames told Tom that his meeting with the FBI officials had gone well. Then he passed on to another subject.
“Tom,” said Harlan, irritation in his voice, “you remember my telling you how I ejected that photographer the other day?”
“From the press conference?”
“Yes. Well, he’s back again. Roberts just picked him up near the south fence, trying to sneak onto the grounds on some kind of ladder contraption. He says he’ll sue, talks about freedom of the press, and so on…but also…”
“Also what?” asked Tom, mystified.
“He says he knows you!”
Tom was startled. “He does? What’s his name?”
“His identification says Gabriel Knorff.”
Tom barked out a laugh of sheer surprise. “Gabe Knorff! Harlan, doesn’t that name ring a bell?”
“Good grief, now that you mention it—!” Ames sounded apologetic and embarrassed. “The flying photographer?”
When Tom and Bud had been preparing for their first trip into orbit aboard the Star Spear, the Fearing Island high-security zone had been breached by young Gabriel Knorff, a hot-shot journeyman photographer seeking fame. Knorff had flown over the island on a back-mounted rocket belt. Despite some incidents of impulsive behavior, Tom had become friendly with the slightly-built redhead, who had an ingratiating manner.
“Don’t feel bad about not recognizing him,” said Tom comfortingly. “You never met Gabe—it was Rad who dealt with him.”
“Right,” Ames said. “So what shall I do with him? He insists on speaking to you directly—says he’ll wait until you come in tomorrow morning.”
“Of course Dad and I will be there within the hour. I think I’ll have time to see what he’s after.” Grinning, Tom hung up the phone.
When Tom arrived at the plant, he immediately went to Ames’s office, and the glowering security chief nodded toward the redheaded young man seated in one corner of the room, next to his camera equipment. “Tom!” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet and offering his hand.
“Hi, Gabe,” responded the young inventor as they shook hands. “I see you’re back to setting off security alerts.”
“I seem to have a real talent for doing that,” responded Gabe. “And by the way, sorry for getting out of line the other day. I was practicing my assertiveness skills and I guess I went too far. After that story in the paper, I thought I might be able to sneak a peek, by telephoto, at some of your astronauts, and—”
“I know. You needed an interesting angle for the shot.”
“Right. I mean, there are buildings all over this place! And also—”
“There’s an also?”
“Isn’t there always?” Knorff sucked in a deep breath. “Tom, I’m asking you to take me with you to the satellite!”
Tom’s eyes widened at the sheer nerve of the man’s suggestion. “Gabe, why in the—”
“Now listen, Tom, be reasonable and think a little. I’m a pretty persistent guy, and mighty clever too. I’m sure I’ll be able to find a way onto your rocket island before the big launch. And look, you don’t want me to turn up in a crate aboard the spaceship, like that crazy guy did on your South Pole project.”
“No,” said Tom. “I’d rather avoid surprises.”
“Well, here’s a great chance to avoid a really major one! Besides, everyone knows you Swifts work by intuition and taking chances more than by pure science. What does your intuition tell you?”
“That I should have you locked up for about a month.”
“Oh really?” Gabe paused. “You must be joking. You know I’m a good guy and a fast learner. And I can follow orders, too—when I have to. Besides, I’m so small and compact you can stow me away in the luggage bin for the duration of the flight! But seriously, a professional photographer would be of real benefit to this historic—”
Tom held up a hand. “I suppose if I’m willing to justify taking my chef along, I don’t have any business leaving behind the press. As it happens, it’s no big deal to slide in another acceleration seat.”
Gabe beamed. “Tom, buddy, you’ll never regret it!”
“I already regret it,” said Tom sarcastically, “but I’m willing to give you the chance—if you’re prepared not to set one foot off our controlled security zone between now and our return from space.”
“Agreed! I know I’ll need a few days training before—”
Tom put a hand on Gabe’s shoulder and smiled. “I’m afraid you’re going into space with no training at all. I suppose that’s a worthwhile experiment in itself!”
“We leave for Fearing in twenty minutes. And we leave for Little Luna at midnight!”
The young photographer gulped. “Th-thanks for telling me!”
As the Sky Queen prepared to take to the air, Tom introduced the new team member to the others, who had assembled in the Flying Lab’s comfortable lounge on the top deck.
The reactions to the abrupt announcement varied widely. Most of the space team greeted Gabe Knorff warmly, trusting Tom Swift’s judgment without qualm or question. But Jason Graves looked quietly apoplectic, Col. Northrup frowned, and Teodor Kutan withdrew into a calculated silence. Bud shook Gabe’s hand coolly—he had had some run-ins with the photographer before.
As the others talked, Chow pulled his young boss aside.
“Say there, Tom, you sure this is sech a good idea?”
“Why?” Tom asked.
“Wa-aal, if’n you count ’em all up—now we got thirteen on this here crew!”
“Don’t tell me you’re superstitious, pardner!”
“Naw, not a bit,” Chow protested. “But brand my fallin’ stars, nobody ever died from bein’ careful!”
The Sky Queen flew south at transonic speed, and quick hours later landed at Fearing Island on its cushion of jet lifters.
Two hours afterwards a big cargo plane followed, loaded with heavy equipment for the expedition. At the same time, other planes were being rolled out across the island airfield, while mechanics scurried about in the glare of powerful floodlights, unloading their cargoes and carting them to the waiting Titan.
As Tom watched the final loading routine, Bud walked over. Like Tom, he already wore the emergency pressure suit that the astronauts would use as a precaution during the flight. “Skipper, that new ship of yours doesn’t look much bigger than the Star Spear. How’s she going to carry such a big crew—and all those crates and machines?”
Tom grinned. “Guess I never really gave you my customary explanation of how it works.”
“I’ve been waiting!” Bud joked. “All I know is, the Titan has some kind of atomic motor. What does she run on, liquid uranium?”
Tom’s grin became a chuckle. “No, something much easier to handle—oxygen!”
“You mean plain old air?”
“The business part of air, anyway,” said Tom. “Most of the main central fuselage is tank divided into sections, like a honeycomb, containing oxygen, which we’ve super-pressurized without liquifying it.”
“Like the air tanks inside the underwater Fat Man suits, right?”
“Same technique. We needed a gas to serve as a thrust-medium, and oxygen made perfect sense, as we’d need to bring some along anyway to breathe until the atmos-maker is set up.”
“So where do the atoms come in?”
Tom drew an imaginary diagram in mid-air. “Pushed by its own pressure, the oxygen flows into a special chamber below the atomic reactor, where the gas is exposed to concentrated ionizing radiation produced in the reactor—high gamma rays, mostly. The radiation knocks electrons loose in the gas, which gives it a powerful electrical charge. The charged oxygen molecules repel one another, much more forcefully than the explosion produced by fuel combustion in standard rocket engines.”
“And there’s your thrust,” nodded Tom’s pal. “Sounds like the Titan will give you a lot more ‘bang for your buck’.”
“Right,” Tom confirmed. “That’s why the crew section of the ship can be so much larger than the little two-person compartment in the nose of the Star Spear.”
In appearance the Titan was very different from any spacecraft yet launched. Its rather squat central fuselage was cylindrical and bullet-shaped, with the single thrust exhaust nozzle, extending down beneath it, flaring widely like the horn of a trumpet. This portion of the ship held the tanks, reactor, and engine apparatus. The habitable section of the ship was completely separated from the central cylinder, skirting its lower third like a flat-sided doughnut complete with a hole in the middle. The outside-facing wall of the crew module was a continuous transparent viewpane stretching all the way around, and large storage bins were built into the floor and ceiling of the module. There was no launch tower or gantry: the ship rested on its launch pad atop four stubby landing legs.
Tom added, “If you want more details about the Titan, speak to Rafe Franzenberg. He was Dad’s main assistant in the design, which Enterprises did under contract with the government. I was just a kid back then.”
“A kid inventor, you mean!” Bud proclaimed. “While I was hanging out on the Jungle Gym, you were inventing luminous wallpaper and left-handed coffee mugs!”
Presently Tom received word from the loading foreman that that all equipment and supplies were aboard and safely stowed. It was time for the crew of thirteen to board the spaceship.
“Lead the way, sky boy!” chortled Bud.
The youths approached the silver-gleaming craft, pinned in a webwork of floodlight beams. Stepping onto a small platform, the boys rode several yards up the ship’s side, to one of the Titan’s three loading hatches. On the way, Tom pointed out that the entire hull was coated with a transparent layer of Inertite one-thousandth of an inch thick.
“That layer will protect her from the strongest cosmic rays,” he told Bud. “And it’ll protect the crew from any gamma rays that manage to find their way out of the ionizing chamber.”
Reaching the sliding hatch, which could be opened to a width of ten feet, the boys climbed inside the spaceship and passed through one of the larger storage bays, taking a ladder to the main deck above. Though Bud had already been trained in a simulation of the craft’s interior, he couldn’t help a gasp of amazement. “Jetz! What is this—a luxury liner?”
Tom looked around proudly at the crew’s living quarters. “Quite different from our earlier rockets, eh? We’ve really come up in the world.”
Comfortable fold-down bunks lined the inner wall. There were private lockers for each man, a well-stocked library, and a small recreation lounge with exercise equipment. Built on a continuous curve, the crew module’s dividing walls were open at the outer periphery, next to the viewpane, providing a hallway that encircled the ship.
Tom went on, “Below deck is the cargo hold, with smaller bins above us for the more compact items. That door over there leads to Chow’s galley.”
As they strolled along, soon joined by some of the other crew members, Tom showed Bud a machine shop for emergency repairs. It was equipped with power tools, workbenches, gauges, and racks of technical gadgets.
“Now take a peek at the lab setup,” Tom said. Bud’s eyes grew wide as Tom slid back a door and pressed a master light switch. The compartment beyond was divided into cubicles, each one equipped for a different type of scientific research. One area contained retorts, test tubes, and shelves crowded with chemicals. Another housed a maze of gleaming electronic test gear. Still another contained optical devices and lens-grinding equipment.
Finally they arrived at the main flight compartment and control room, which was next to the airlock hatch. Several rows of acceleration seats faced an array of dials, scopes, and control levers.
“Glad to see they’ve got that extra seat bolted down,” noted Tom approvingly. “The lucky thirteenth!”
“My hands are itching to take a crack at these gadgets in real-time!” Bud said, grinning. “The reality is never the same as the simulation.”
“You’ll catch on to it in no time,” Tom assured him.
Midnight was drawing near, and the remaining space travelers were filtering into the cabin, taking seats one by one. The seats were not specifically assigned, excepting only the those at the control panel, which were reserved for Tom and Bud as pilot and copilot.
Jason Graves was the last to enter, big and blustery in his pressure suit. “Say, is this seat the only one left? I’d assumed I’d be sitting with the mission leader up front.”
“You were the last to board, Mr. Graves,” said Teodor Kutan in the calming voice of a professional diplomat.
“I’m perfectly well aware of that fact, Kutan!” snapped Graves. “I had some important last-minute calls to make. But for the good of the expedition—”
“Please take your seat, sir,” Tom directed the executive. “We can discuss the seating arrangements en route.”
Eight minutes to go! They talked quietly, each man thinking of the tremendous adventure that lay ahead—some thinking of the dangers that might face them on the strange, small alien world.
Tom glanced at the time and muttered to Bud, “I’m surprised Dad hasn’t come by yet. He was planning to wish us all luck in person.”
But just then Mr. Swift strode into the room. Looking up, Tom noticed his father’s grim expression. So did everyone else. The hum of voices ceased.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” Tom anxiously inquired.
Mr. Swift spoke to the whole group. “A report just came in via State Department back-channels,” he told them soberly. “The Brungarian government has announced that their expedition has already taken off and is now in earth orbit, preparing to depart on a trajectory to the satellite!”
“That means they’ve won!” Bud cried out in anger and deep disappointment. “They’ll claim Little Luna!”
A MISHAP EN ROUTE
EVERY FACE in the compartment showed utter dismay. If the Brungarians were about to seize control of the satellite, why should the Swifts bother to blast off in the Titan?
Tom was first to break the silence. “Any word from Washington about canceling the expedition?” he calmly asked his father.
Mr. Swift shook his head. “Nothing so far. The report has not been verified—as you know, the moonlet seems to have stirred up the earth’s magnetic envelope, and deep-space radar scans have been affected. I’ve been trying to reach Admiral Krevitt. Unless we hear otherwise, I’d say we’re free to use our own judgment.”
“Then let’s go ahead!” Tom urged without hesitation. “That announcement may be a hoax!”
The flight deck rocked with cheers, and Mr. Swift approved his son’s proposal with a smile of determination. “I was confident that would be your answer, son. Now, all of you, best of luck—our thoughts and prayers are riding with you.”
“I’m jest hopin’ we don’t need ’em,” Chow murmured, and the room erupted in nervous laughter as Mr. Swift exited with a wave.
The final minutes of the countdown proceeded on schedule. Yet an air of gloom, dark as the midnight sky, pervaded the rocket base. Word of the Brungarian claim had gotten around, and there was little of the excitement and humor that usually marked the launch of a spacecraft.
“Not even a brass band to see us off!” Bud complained.
When the voyagers were strapped in safely and the hatches sealed, Tom spoke into the mike, calling for a clearance check. Swiveling radar dishes probed the night sky with invisible feelers.
“All clear, Titan,” reported the mission ground crew. A loudspeaker thundered, “All personnel please leave the launching area!” and mechanics and engineers scurried for cover.
“This is it!” Tom told his team. He punched the final commands into the guidance computer, then buckled his own safety belt.
Inside the flight compartment, the space voyagers listened tensely to the tail end of the countdown. Suddenly a familiar voice interrupted. “Titan, this is Mr. Swift. We just got word from Washington about that Brungarian announcement. Their government says the report is false! Repeat, false! Their space agency denies all such reports as completely unauthorized!”
Hearty cheers filled the cabin as Chow muttered in disgust, “Them sidewinders is full o’ more tricks than a locoed bronc! Wonder how they keep track o’ their own lies?”
“Let’s hope our luck holds,” Tom said quietly. A second later came blast-off. With an earthshaking roar, fortunately muffled inside the cabin, the Titan began to rise slowly from its launch pad.
Suddenly a blinding flash of blue-white light flooded the cabin, followed by a dozen more in rapid succession! “What is it?” cried Violet Wohl fearfully.
“Ah hah! Somebody didn’t read her manual!” chided Rafael Franzenberg. “Just a harmless little lightning discharge from the ionized exhaust gases.”
“We ran into worse twenty years ago, in the shuttle,” commented Col. Northrup. “Real high-altitude thunderstorms. Shook us up.”
The Titan now accelerated and headed skyward. The seconds ticked off as the earth fell away below. Then, without warning, another bright flash made the crew flinch in their seats.
“Sorry, folks,” called out Gabriel Knorff, holding up his camera with its electronic flash. “Had to get a shot of this historic moment.”
But there were no more lighthearted comments as the Titan thundered its way through the last shreds of the atmosphere and into the abyss of black space. Those who had never traveled into space were silent with awe, but even the others seemed to feel the weight of their mission.
Tom had asked Dr. Wohl to sit next to Henrick Jatczak, to keep an eye on the health of the frail-looking astronomer. “Marvelous!” murmured Dr. Jatczak, gazing through the broad, curving viewpane. “I have only seen our galaxy of stars in little bits at a time, as if through a peephole in a fence. Now this!—such wonder.”
“Yes,” said Violet Wohl. “How are you dealing with the G-forces, Henrick?”
“Like a fish to water, my dear.”
Kent Rockland spoke up. “I was expecting worse, actually. The pressure doesn’t feel like much at all.”
“The Titan is able to accelerate more moderately than most rockets,” Tom responded, keeping his eyes on the instruments. “We hardly need to worry about fuel consumption, and can take our time reaching—”
“Tom!” cried Hank Sterling in sudden alarm. “The module! It’s shifting out of position!”
Tom gave a glance back and saw where Hank was pointing. The edge of the viewpane seemed to be inching out of line, as if the crew module were pulling away from the central propulsion section!
“It’s one of the positioning brackets,” said Bud, eyeing the instruments. “Good night, it must have pulled completely loose from the hull!”
“B-boss, is this thing about to go bronco on us?” gasped Chow as a vibration raced through the compartment.
“Go bronco? What does he mean?” asked Ron Corey.
“Don’t worry, chief,” commented Rafael. “It’s not a joke—you don’t have to get it.”
Joke or not, Tom knew the situation was a serious one. If one bracket had failed, the strain on the others might cause further damage, leading to a chain reaction with catastrophe at the end. Thinking quickly, the young astro-captain plucked the hand microphone from its cradle and tuned the frequency. “Titan to space outpost!”
“We read you, Titan,” came the reply. Tom and Bud recognized the voice of Ken Horton, commander of the outpost crew. “Your trajectory looks mighty fine to us.”
“We need to make some quick repairs,” Tom explained. He described the problem. “Could you have an extravehicular tech team ready for us?”
“Wilco, Tom. See you in a few!”
With a terse explanation to their fellow astronauts and a call back to mission control on Fearing Island, Tom and Bud activated the ship’s maneuvering system—thrust-diverter vanes that could be extended into the main flow to alter the direction of its force.
The trip to Swift Enterprises’ space station went smoothly despite the slight sagging of the crew module. The travelers coasted upward for four hours, and there was no further stress on the brackets. Then, at the proper instant, Tom kicked in the atomic drive to curve the ship into orbital course at 22,300 miles out.
“More shifting,” Bud remarked nervously. “I’m chewing my knuckles until we get that bracket fixed, Skipper!”
Presently a voice chuckled over the radio, “Welcome to Sky Haven!”
“Hi, Ken!” Bud exclaimed.
“We’ve arrived!” Tom grinned.
Eager for their first glimpse of the famous outpost in space, the newer members of the crew rushed to the transparent plasti-quartz window. Gasps and murmurs of awe arose. Even though the astronauts had seen pictures of Tom’s space station, the immensity of the spectacle was breathtaking.
“Hold it!” called out Gabe, flashing a shot of the space crew with the outpost shining in the background.
The huge silver wheel, its fourteen thick spokes spreading outward from a central hub, gleamed in the darkness, a stark study in white against black. It slowly rotated, sending dancing sparkles of reflected sunlight up and down its curving surfaces.
One of the spokes bore a latticework telescope. Others bristled with radar scanners, as well as radio and TV antennae. On still another, highly polished mirrors were mounted to focus sunlight upon the solar-battery production lines.
As Tom maneuvered alongside, he described the layout of his space station to his companions. Each of the wheel’s spokes served a different purpose. One was an observatory, one a bunkroom—others were laboratories or factories. The whole setup formed a bustling community in space, constantly replenished by rockets launched from the Swift facility on Loonaui Island in the Pacific.
“A fantastic achievement!” Dr. Jatczak remarked.
Tom guided the Titan to the side of the disklike wheel facing them, which was universally called the underside, as it was the side nearest the distant earth. As soon as the ship was moored to the space outpost by magnetic grapples, the grapple arms contracted, drawing the Titan up to the nonrotating airlock corridor that protruded from the spherical hub of the station. Tom announced, “Sorry, there won’t be time for any sightseeing. We must move fast if we hope to reach the satellite before the Brungarians do!”
When everyone readily agreed, Tom donned an oxygen rig and helmet, turning his pressure suit into a true spacesuit, and exited the Titan. An extravehicular tech crew from the outpost was already at work, inspecting the brackets that joined the ship’s crew compartment to the central cylinder.
“Horton here,” came Ken’s Texas drawl over Tom’s earphones. “The beam is almost completely detached, Tom, but we should be able to fix it up quickly.”
“Wait a sec,” replied the young inventor. “I’d like to take a look.” Using tiny gas jets built into the forearms of his suit, Tom soared around the curving bulk of the craft to the spot where the repair crew had gathered.
Ken Horton greeted Tom and gestured toward the metal bracket. Tom floated closer and whistled softly. “The bolts didn’t give way,” he said. “The whole beam has cracked open.”
“Must have been a flaw in the casting,” commented Horton.
“I’m not so sure!”
Tom radioed the Titan and asked Kent Rockland to suit up quickly and join him outside.
“Glad to!” Kent exclaimed. “I can hardly wait to put my practice time in your zero-G chamber to use!”
When the young metallurgist arrived, accompanied by Bud Barclay, Tom asked him to take a close look at the beam and give an opinion as to the cause of the break. “It wasn’t some random flaw,” Kent declared presently. “I’d say sabotage!”
Tom nodded, unsurprised. “How did they do it?”
“Without giving you the full course in metallurgy and fabrication—someone managed to introduce a thin strip or ribbon of fragile material into the beam, probably during the casting phase. It didn’t extend all the way through, but it weakened the girder enough for it to slowly twist apart.”
“We’ll use the portable scanner to examine the other brackets,” promised Ken Horton.
Tom added, “Better check out the landing struts as well.”
Tom jetted backwards to clear the way for the tech crew. But just then, a crewman who was jockeying a heavy piece of equipment across the gap between the outpost and the Titan bumped it a glancing blow with his air tank. The bulky machine, knocked loose from its path, began to tumble and swung straight at Tom’s back!
“Look out!” Bud and Kent cried out at the same time.
Both launched themselves with a flying kickoff from the hull of the spaceship and hurled themselves at Tom to knock him out of harm’s way.
But the effort misfired. Though Kent was able to shove Tom aside, the whirling bulk slammed hard against the back of Bud’s transparent bubble-helmet, sending the young pilot hurtling into open space.
“Barclay! Use your jets!” cried Ken Horton.
“He’s been knocked out!” Tom exclaimed. He could see Bud’s head lolling inertly inside his helmet.
Tom activated his own suit jets and streaked to Bud’s rescue. Only seconds had passed, but his pal was already more than a hundred yards from the outpost! Tom retrobraked, found that he had overcompensated, then retroed again. Finally he was able to snag Bud’s limp form and draw him close. But when Tom tried to activate the jets again to return to the space station, they sputtered once—and died!
Good grief, I’m out of fuel! Tom thought in alarm. And Bud’s suit jets would provide no help, as they could only be operated from within the spacesuit, and Bud was unconscious.
Suddenly a glittering movement against the blackness of space caught his eye. A thin cable, painted a brilliant green, snaked out from the direction of the outpost like a striking serpent! As the end streaked past, Tom grabbed the line. A moment later it snapped taut.
“Nice shooting, guys!” Tom radioed, relief in his voice.
“You didn’t forget about our pressurized rescue lines, did you?” joked one of the men.
“After all, you invented it!” added Ken Horton.
Tom used the rigid line to propel himself back to the vicinity of the Titan, his arm around Bud, who was beginning to stir and groan.
Kent said, “I thought you were goners!”
“Of course, any of us could have jetted over to pull them back,” noted Ken Horton evenly. “Even you, Rockland. You were nearest.”
The metallurgist looked abashed. “I—I know. Guess I froze up for a second.”
“No harm done, Kent,” Bud muttered woozily, conscious again, but aching where the back of his head had snapped against his helmet.
“Better knock off for a while and catch your breath,” Horton suggested to the trio from the ship.
“No time for that,” said Tom urgently. “We must hurry.”
At last the repair and inspection was completed. Tom and Ken Horton exchanged a warm spacesuited handclasp.
“Sure sorry you aren’t coming with us, Ken!”
The space veteran laughed. “Next time, boss. Maybe I’ll come visit you on Little Luna—once the volleyball courts are set up!”
The members of the expeditionary force now reboarded the Titan. At the last moment, a crewman from the space outpost came floating through the connecting passage bearing a large, pressurized case.
“For Dr. Wohl,” he explained tersely, handing the case to Bud, who looked at it curiously. “What is it?” Bud asked, but when he glanced up the crewman had already departed.
Bud brought the case aboard and handed it to Violet Wohl, who expressed pleasure and carefully unsealed it in front of the other crew members. The case proved to contain a cage full of white rats!
Chow’s face wore a doubtful expression. “Brand my gyro, ma’am, what’re you doin’ with them varmints?”
Dr. Wohl, carefully strapping the case to her own bunk, replied with mild indignation, “These are valuable cargo, Chow. They’ve been raised in low gravity on a special diet, and I’m taking them along for research experiments on the satellite. I don’t want to risk having them injured before we even get there.”
“Wa-aal,” responded the range hand, “if’n they get loose in here, we’re gonna wish we’d brought along a few space cats.”
Dr. Wohl stood tall and looked Chow in the eye. “They won’t get loose. But if anything happens to these little guests of mine, you’ll find that I can be worse than a wet space tiger! Is that clear?”
“Yes sir, ma’am!” gulped the chef. But as he slunk meekly away, he snorted under his breath, “Hunh! Blame first time I ever heard o’ treatin’ those thievin’ calamoots like royalty!”
Smiling, Tom ordered everyone to buckle his safety harness. Then he accessed the flight computer which would control their revised course to the satellite, and radioed farewell to the space outpost.
“Here goes!” he cried as the countdown ended.
The main thruster roared, and the Titan responded instantly. But instead of a gradual, steady acceleration, the ship hurled itself into space as if struck by a home-run batter! The force of the acceleration was more powerful than the crew had expected, and they were all jolted backwards into their cushioned seats, violently.
Hank Sterling choked out a lungful of air, as if he had been slugged in the stomach, and Col. Northrup, who sat next to him, remarked through clenched teeth, “This is nothing, my friend. On the shuttle we had to take more than—”
The next instant the cabin resounded with a sharp crack like a pistol shot! The acceleration seat occupied by Henrick Jatczak flipped backward, hurling the elderly scientist to the deck!
“Tom!” yelled Gabriel Knorff, struggling with the sudden pressures of acceleration. “The guy’s bleeding—he’s hurt bad!”
EARTH’S NEW MOON
“TOM, what happened? What’s going on?” Bud cried out fearfully. There was no answer! Desperately the copilot tried to turn his head for a look, but the crushing weight of acceleration pinned him against the back of his seat with paralyzing force. And instead of letting up, the force was increasing! Bud’s lungs convulsed under the pressure. His face muscles pulled taut, baring his teeth in a skull-like grimace.
Like a streak of light, the Titan hurtled through space at unchecked speed!
Exerting all his strength, Bud raised his right hand. Inch by inch, he groped forward, clawing for the main cutoff for the automatic pilot. At last his hand reached the switch and slammed it downward. Instantly the huge spaceship slackened its terrifying lunge.
As the pressure eased off, there were groans and gasps from all the passengers—even, perhaps, from Jess Northrup. At last able to turn his head, Bud saw that Tom was half-slumped in his seat, held in place by his safety restraints. Bud unbuckled himself and rushed to Tom’s side. “Tom, are you all right?”
Tom was conscious but could only reply with a faint moan. Bud freed him from his harness and shouted for Dr. Wohl.
“No, Bud,” Tom protested weakly. “I’m all right. She needs to check on Dr. Jatczak!”
“I am already doing so!” called Violet Wohl. Clutching her medical kit the physician knelt by the side of the astronomer, who was unconscious. She ran her hands over Jatczak’s limbs and body, checking for possible fractures, and also peered into the pupils of his eyes through an ocular instrument. As Tom approached, she said, “He’s coming around, but he may have had a slight concussion.”
“Should we return to Earth, Doctor?” Tom asked grimly. “I won’t risk a life just to be first to plant a flag.”
By this time Henrick Jatczak had regained consciousness. “Wh-what happened?” he muttered groggily. “Why am I on the floor?”
“Looks as if your seat support broke under the strain of acceleration,” Tom replied gently. “You made a crash landing.”
The elderly man winced. “I remember now. My boy, I saw every star in the Milky Way, and without the impediment of a telescope! But if I have any say in the matter, I insist that you travel on—even if you have to ship me back to your space station in a crate.”
Dr. Wohl smiled. “I’m sure I can treat him en route without any danger.”
“Come take a look at Mr. Graves,” Teodor Kutan called out. “I think he’s backed out!” It seemed the big industrialist’s drive and determination had proven unequal to the stresses of runaway acceleration. Wohl administered smelling salts, and Graves gurgled. As he revived, he brushed the doctor’s hand aside. “Get that stuff out of my face!” he growled. “What do you think I am—a sick old lady?” He struggled to his feet, clearly in an angry mood. “Why didn’t you warn us about that big burst, Swift? Every pen in my pocket is broken!”
“It was unplanned, Mr. Graves,” Tom said. “Something must have thrown the automatic pilot out of kilter. Now we have to get back on course—fast!”
“Leave that to me, Tom,” Hank Sterling offered. “I’ll run a diagnostic.”
Then everyone flinched as a bright flash lit the cabin. “Gabe, I’m gonna take that camera and ram it right down—” Bud began.
“Freedom of the press, pal!” replied Knorff, lowering his camera. “It’s why I’m here. Besides, I had to make sure the camera wasn’t damaged.”
“Let’s take a look at the damage to that seat,” Tom said. As the ship was coasting and zero-gravity conditions now prevailed, it was an easy matter to lift Jatczak’s acceleration seat from where it had wedged itself. Holding it over his head, Tom examined the broken underpinnings. The swivel joint which had held the cot to its pedestal had fractured. As a result, several bolts had been sheared off or been wrenched loose under the strain.
“What’s the verdict?” Bud asked. “More sabotage?”
“This time it was probably just an accident,” pronounced Kent Rockland over Tom’s shoulder. “It wasn’t made to take such a high acceleration.”
“Neither was I!” jibed Rafe Franzenberg. “But say, Violet, you might want to check the blood pressure of your rats.”
“We all thank you for your concern,” she replied with a frown.
Tom and Bud now returned to the front of the compartment, and Hank reported his findings. “It was a programming glitch that came into play when we had to load in the new course data,” he explained. “We should have no further trouble.”
“That’ll be the day!” muttered Chow. “I’m jest glad I didn’t have a cake in the oven.”
In fifteen minutes Dr. Jatczak’s acceleration seat had been repaired with spare parts. Next, Tom took a reading of their position with a device nicknamed the Spacelane Brain.
Kent Rockland came forward to peer over the inventor’s shoulder as the machine whirred into action. On one dial a needle flickered to the 27,600-mile mark. On another dial colored dots registered a navigational fix.
“What is that gadget?” Kent inquired with keen interest.
“A combination stellar sextant, cosmic-ray altimeter, and computer,” Tom explained. “We were way off course, but this gimmick will tell us our position and velocity and feed the results into the main navigational computer.”
Turning to the crew, he ordered, “All hands back to your seats and secure your safety belts! We’re going to accelerate again!”
“This time, let’s not burn a hole in the sky, pal,” Bud cracked as he took his seat.
Tom chuckled. “I’ll watch it.”
Cautiously he flipped on the automatic pilot and the atom-powered oxygen thruster thundered to life. The Titan speared forward at terrific but bearable acceleration.
Mere minutes later, the rocket’s automatic cutoff switch shut off the power. The Titan then coasted along an elongated trajectory carrying it further and further away from the earth. Finally, hours later, Tom brought the ship into an orbit 54,000 miles out. “Now we play catchup,” Tom remarked.
Soon the phantom satellite glided onto the crew cabin viewpane. At first only a round blob of light, it began to look more like a midget world as the ship drew closer—a dark world mottled with strange patches and streaks of color. As it grew larger still, the tense, silent crew stirred with excitement.
“Wow!” Bud gasped. “We’re here! I can hardly wait for the first close look!”
Tom turned on the tracking-control computer and the rocket went into a slow-cruising pattern around Little Luna. Ripping off their seat belts, everyone crowded up to the window. In silence, they gaped down at the weird moonlet. A feeling of awe akin to terror gripped the crew as they eyed the mysterious intruder from outer space.
“A new and unknown world!” Dr. Jatczak exclaimed.
Ron Corey said softly, “Some day we’ll make it a green world, Doctor—a world with air, water, and food crops to keep colonists alive.”
“I hope the tree-huggers won’t make a national park of it,” grumbled Jason Graves. “I see quite an industrial potential down there.”
“Brand my space suit,” Chow quavered, “jest lookin’ at the thing makes my spine feel like a buckin’ bronc!”
Bud glanced at his pal, who had said nothing so far. “What’re you thinking, genius boy?”
“Mostly about setting us down safely,” he answered. “I’ll coast in to about twenty miles altitude and head north to the pole. Bud, you and Dr. Jatczak break out the small telescope and see if you can spot a good, flat place to land. I’d like to get as close to the pole as possible.”
“I would suggest you also look for any signs a Brungarian landing.” All eyes turned toward Dr. Kutan.
“But I thought the report of their expedition was bogus!” Kent protested.
Teodor Kutan shook his head. “These competitions between nations are anything but simple and straightforward. It would be typical of the Brungarians to have launched an expedition, and then denied it when word got out. They would prefer not to confirm it until—and unless—it was a complete success. The new democratic government has not completely broken with its predecessors.”
“Report whatever looks interesting,” Tom directed Bud and Jatczak.
“Righto, Skipper,” Bud replied.
“Let me know if you spot any love-starved space sirens,” said Rafe. He winked in the direction of Violet Wohl, who turned away disdainfully.
Tom guided the spaceship closer to Little Luna, whose gravity was too slight to sustain the craft in an orbit. Bud and Jatczak hastily set up a tripod-mounted telescope and scanned the surface of the satellite. A strange panorama passed before their eyes. Rocky and barren, pockmarked and forlorn, the little world was devoid of life. The rugged terrain was indented with yellow craters and broken by upthrusting crags of gray, pink, and blue. The sharply curving horizon had a sawtooth outline.
Presently, as Tom cruised northward, they passed from the sunlit zone into the nighttime portion. Yet even in the dim light, details of the terrain were visible.
“Fortunately, there’s enough earthshine to light up the satellite,” commented Dr. Jatczak with his eye to the telescope.
“Earthshine? What in the name o’ coyotes is that?” Chow queried.
“Sunlight reflected back from the earth.”
Chow beamed. “Then most of it’s comin’ from Texas!”
The others chuckled and Tom drawled out of the side of his mouth, “Well, brand my panhandle if it ain’t!”
After circling the satellite several times, the travelers could find no sign of any earlier landing by a spaceship.
Bud gave a whoop of triumph. “Yippee! We’ve won the race!”
The crew joined in a ringing cheer, as the men shook hands and slapped one another on their backs. “Never bet against good old Yankee knowhow!” exulted Jason Graves. “Wish I had a cigar.”
Jubilant, Tom nosed the Titan in still closer and began to descend toward a relatively flat area that Bud and Dr. Jatczak had noted, which was almost precisely at the moonlet’s north pole.
“Looks a bit small for a ship this size,” commented Col. Northrup. “But you’re the captain, son.”
Tom did not respond, and Bud, in the copilot’s chair, called out, “Ten thousand feet to touchdown point.”
Suddenly a buzzer sounded.
“What’s that?” asked Gabe loudly. “Incoming call?”
“It’s one of the automatic alarms,” muttered Hank Sterling.
“Y-you mean there’s a problem?”
“Tom’s compensating now.”
Tom and Bud were making rapid adjustments to the controls. The pallor of their faces told the onlookers that something unexpected had happened.
Hank approached next to Tom and quietly let him know that he was standing near, ready to help.
Not looking up, Tom said in a low voice, “I can’t figure what’s happening. We’re accelerating toward the surface.”
“Another computer glitch?” Hank asked.
“No,” replied the young astronaut. “This time it has nothing to do with the ship. Some sort of force is pulling us downward, and it’s getting stronger by the second. If I can’t pull the ship free—we’ll crash!”
A GRAVITY MYSTERY
TOM SWIFT’S words carried to the rest of the cabin. “It must be those alien cronies of yours!” rumbled Jason Graves. “They’ve induced us to send an expedition up here just to destroy us!”
“Knock it off, Graves,” commanded Kent Rockland.
“Let’s refrain from causing our captain any distraction,” added Kutan.
Rafael Franzenberg elbowed his way to Tom’s side, nudging Hank out of the way. “Tom, let me see the nano-interferometry readings!” he demanded. Without question, Tom brought the data up on a monitor. “As I thought—the radar bounceback is getting red-shifted. That means—”
“Gravity!” exclaimed Tom unbelievingly. “We’ll have to flip and fire the main thruster!”
“Everyone strap in!” bellowed Bud.
Assuming that the miniscule gravity of Little Luna would require only a slight nudge of power to ease the Titan to a gentle landing, Tom had been heading down nose-first, planning to reverse orientation close to the surface. But now, reaching out, he switched on the gyros for the descent maneuver made necessary by these unexpected conditions. The craft responded by heeling over to a vertical, tail-down position. The atomic thruster was now engaged, the blast firing straight downward to slow the ship.
“More power, Skipper!” Bud urged.
There was a jolt as Tom upped the thrust. The Titan hung motionless for a moment, Tom’s hands flying back and forth among the banked rows of levers and switches. At the same time, his keen blue eyes kept a hawklike watch on various dials. Don’t dare to trust the computer now! he thought.
Under Tom’s guidance, the Titan began to sink groundward. But the rate of descent was very uneven.
“By jingo, this is like goin’ down in a start-’n-stop elee-vator!” Chow gasped. “My stomach cain’t set itself down!”
“The forces pulling on us must be changing rapidly,” said Kent breathlessly. “Tom has to compensate by hand.”
“Minor problems,” Northrup commented. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Does anything ever bug you, Colonel?” asked Gabe Knorff, irritated.
“Sure, son,” he replied suavely. “Photographers!”
“One thousand feet!” Bud sang out.
Moments later, Tom flicked a switch to extend a pair of long impact-cushioning struts, which Bud had christened the Daddy Long-Legs Gizmos. These hydraulic struts were to absorb the impact as the craft settled down on the four stubby landing legs that sprouted from the bottom of the propulsion module. Special anchoring mechanisms at the ends of the long struts, capable of penetrating the hardest rock, would drill themselves deeply into the ground to help stabilize the craft on the surface.
“Impact five seconds!” Tom announced. The expeditioners braced themselves.
A heartbeat later came a sharp jolt. The Swift expedition had landed!
“Relax, everybody!” said Tom in a loud voice. “We’re here!”
The cabin rang anew with cheers, and even Jason Graves joined in.
Bud hugged Tom. “You did it, pal! Score one more for old Swift Enterprises!” Tom could only grin happily in response.
After radioing mission control and reporting the successful touchdown, Tom turned to face his crew. “Okay. Into your space suits!” Tom directed, his heart thudding with excitement.
Quickly the crew donned their gear and stepped through the airlock in small groups. Tom went first, carrying an American flag, the base of which was tipped with a long spike.
As soon as his feet touched ground, Tom wedged the spike deep into a crevice between rocks. Then he stepped back and saluted the Stars and Stripes. The others did the same.
At ease again, Chow exclaimed, “Sure feels good to stretch my legs!” He kicked his heels together and gave a little hop.
The next second, Chow was soaring high above the ground! Screeching over his suit transiphone and flapping his arms wildly, he came down ten yards from the spot where his leap had begun.
“A cowfly boy!” Bud quipped as the crew rocked with laughter.
Chow looked sheepish. “Brand my jets!” he said, “I must have swallowed some helium pills!”
“Don’t worry,” Tom reassured him. “It’s just the low gravity here.”
“Yes, the gravity is low,” commented Dr. Jatczak in puzzled tones. “Yet not at all what it should be. There is a mystery here to be solved.”
Kent Rockland agreed. “Up here, we weigh only one-twentieth as much as we did on Earth, according to my instruments. That’s enough to hold us down if we don’t get too frisky—but it’s a good thousand times stronger than we had estimated from Earth.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to investigate that,” declared Col. Northrup. “At this moment, our commander has a duty to perform.”
Tom had left the channel open between the Titan and mission control, and he knew his words were now being broadcast to the entire world. Speaking over his suit mike, Tom described their space voyage, the survey flight around the satellite, and the landing. He concluded:
“I hereby officially take possession of this satellite for the United States of America!”
A thrill of pride swept over the crew as all of them snapped to attention and saluted, their gloved hands brushing their space helmets. Gabe Knorff took a run of photographs with the pressurized camera that he had been provided with.
A few minutes later Tom’s father, at mission control on Fearing Island, informed Tom that millions of American listeners were celebrating in the streets, jubilant but astounded to learn that they now owned Earth’s new moon!
As the young inventor signed off, Bud grinned. “Brother!” he said. “Now I know how Columbus felt when he claimed land on another continent.”
“Only there ain’t no Injuns here,” Chow spoke up.
“I should point out a certain legal aspect of the American claim,” noted Dr. Kutan, sounding like a man making a lecture. “International treaties prohibit nations from asserting for themselves ownership of celestial bodies. Our being able to claim this satellite derives from the evident fact that it was guided, artificially, into orbit, thus rendering it a vehicle by legal definition—in fact, a derelict, which we have now taken possession of.”
“Thank you for clarifying that,” said Rafe with loud sarcasm. “I know I’ll sleep better tonight!”
The crew’s high spirits, however, ebbed as daylight faded and the encampment rotated into the shadow zone. Although at the poles the daylight region was always in view even at night, the men were appalled by the utter barrenness of the satellite; and the huge ball that was Earth, glowing in the sky, made them homesick.
To keep the men’s minds occupied, Tom had Jason Graves work them at top speed. Acting as his special lieutenant by prior agreement, the industrialist was at last in his element. For two hours the expedition labored to unpack supplies, set up equipment, and try out the vehicles that had been carried, disassembled, in the Titan’s storage bays. These electric mini-tanks, powered by Swift solar batteries, were pressurized and geared to work on the atmosphereless moon until Tom’s invention could establish earthlike conditions.
Declaring himself satisfied with their progress, Graves finally dismissed the others to a hearty meal provided by Chow. They retired to their bunks in the Titan for the rest of their first long night on Little Luna.
Early the next morning, Tom announced to the others that he and Bud were going to do a little exploring in one of the caterpillar tanks.
“Be careful, fellows!” Hank Sterling warned. “We’ll keep in constant touch by radio,” Tom promised. But this was a promise he was unable to keep: as soon as the base camp was out of sight behind the jagged hills, radio communication became intermittent and was riddled with static.
The ride was slow and jolting over the rugged terrain. With no blanket of air to soften it the sunshine blazed pure white, and the rocky ground seemed to glisten with a steely brilliance. Though the specially designed tank treads were able to grip the rocky surface as they crawled along, there were many moments when the tiny vehicle seemed to jump yards into empty space, falling back at a snail’s pace.
“Man, this is more like a drive along the bottom of the ocean than a space trip,” Bud complained. “Any theories about the gravity mystery, Tom? Did the spaceship flip a tripwire switch when we started to land?”
Tom was silent for a moment. “There’s no way to switch gravity on and off—no way known to Earth science. But our space friends have an amazing ability to manipulate matter and energy to suit their needs. My guess is that there’s some device, somewhere on Little Luna, that’s acting as a gravity concentrator. The gravitational field is tremendously boosted, but only very near the surface. That’s why we weren’t able to detect it from the earth beforehand. Our landing difficulties had to do with the fact that the G-force gradient was extremely ‘steep.’ In other words, the force of attraction was doubling almost every few yards, rather than over many thousands of miles.”
“I see,” Bud responded. “But why did the space guys set up wild conditions like that?”
“Who knows? They never seem able to explain their motives very clearly.”
An hour passed as the tank crawled and bounced along, periodically checking in with the Titan.
“Hey, look at those crater walls!” Tom exclaimed presently. “Kent will want to examine them—what weird colors!”
“Maybe they’re extinct volcanoes,” Bud speculated.
“Let’s go see.”
Tom steered toward the wide crater in front of them, but as the treads crawled forward, the tank suddenly slewed around. Its nose dropped, and the ground seemed to fall away beneath them. Gray powder began to inch up over the view plate!
“Hey, what’s happening?” Bud gulped as he grabbed for support. “What is that stuff?”
“Powder ash!” Tom cried. “We’ve run into a crater full of it!”
“WE’RE NOT ALONE!”
MONITORING the Titan’s communication link, Ron Corey heard the boys’ cries of alarm. Then the signal went dead!
“Tom, can you read me?” he shouted into the mike. Repeated calls brought no response!
Frantic with anxiety, Corey called Hank Sterling on his suit transiphone. The blond, square-jawed engineer, in charge of a work crew outside, listened as Corey poured out news of the boys’ plight. “I had just finished making my latest report to Jim Stevens at Enterprises and was about to switch off when the signal came in,” he explained. “I don’t know just where they are, but their situation sounds dire!”
“Great space!” Hank cried out in dismay. “Ron, we’ll take the derrick tank and go pull ’em out!”
Under the engineer’s directions, the crane bucket was removed from the work tank Hank had been using outside. Huge grappling hooks were rigged in its place.
News of the disaster spread quickly among the crew. As Hank and Ron were about to board the tank, Kent Rockland rushed up.
“Let me go with you!” he urged. “I’ve handled bulldozers and all kinds of construction equipment.”
“All right. Hop in!”
“Me too!” Chow demanded, but Hank waved him off.
“Not enough room!” he yelled.
Kent took the controls and the tank rumbled off. The trail was not hard to follow. The rescue party was able to make out the treadmarks of Tom’s vehicle here and there among the rocky debris.
The trail wound among jagged hills and along the rim of a rocky canyon. Off to the right, a range of pink and blue crags stood out in sharp detail under the pitiless sunlight.
“Good thing these tanks are temperature-controlled!” Hank remarked grimly. The exterior temperature stood at 231 degrees in the sunlight!
“How long have the boys been gone?” Kent asked.
Ron Corey glanced at his watch. “About three hours.”
“Which means they have only an hour’s supply of oxygen left,” Hank muttered. “They wouldn’t be able to drive their tank back even if they got it free.”
With desperate urgency, Kent gunned the derrick tank forward. Finally, after clawing their way through a narrow defile, the rescuers emerged onto a barren plain. Ahead rose the streaky yellow walls of several craters. Corey pointed them out excitedly. “Those must be the volcanoes I heard Bud talking about just before they got trapped!”
Hopeful that they were now nearing their goal, the rescuers advanced as fast as possible toward the craters. Here the tire marks were unmistakable. Suddenly Kent felt the tank treads losing their traction. The hard ground was dropping away! “This is it!” he cried as the tank’s nose dipped downward toward the crater directly before them.
Slamming the engine into reverse, Kent barely managed to back away safely. Hank scrambled out through the tank’s airlock hatch to survey the situation.
“Tom and Bud have vanished!” he radioed. “They’ve sunk into the chasm without a trace!”
Hank’s face was grave as he reentered the tank. “We’ll have to fish for them blind with the grappling hooks!” he told his companions.
Hank himself operated the crane. Foot by foot, he swung the hooks like feelers into the gritty gray depths, hoping to hit metal.
After a few moments of the awful suspense, the men’s faces were streaked with sweat. Kent clenched his hands nervously. Would they find Tom and Bud in time?
Suddenly Hank broke the silence. “I’ve hit their tank!”
Relieved, Kent and Corey uttered words of encouragement. They watched as Hank maneuvered the hooks delicately, seeking to get a grip on the sunken vehicle.
At last he threw in the clutch and fed power to the winch. Groaning, it started to reel in, then pulled taut under the resistance of a heavy weight! “We’ve hooked ‘em!” Hank exclaimed jubilantly.
Slowly the engineer hoisted the little tank upward. Moments later, it broke through the top layer of ash, smeared with a gray-brown substance from top to bottom. Swiveling the crane around, Hank deposited the vehicle on solid ground.
Kent grinned. “Swell fishing, Hank! This is one time the big one didn’t get away!”
The smiles faded as the three tried to contact Tom and Bud by radio. Even now, with the signals no longer blotted out by layers of ash, there was no response!
Had the boys’ oxygen supply given out?
“Come on!” Rockland urged. “Maybe there’s still a chance to revive them!”
The trio were about to clamber out when Ron noticed movement—dislodged dust was streaming from the edges of the rescued tank’s hatch! Then the hatch popped open and two figures emerged from the tank.
“They’re alive!” Kent yelled joyously. In a minute Tom and Bud were safely aboard the derrick tank, exchanging hugs and thumps with their rescuers.
“Man alive, are we glad to see you!” Tom said enthusiastically.
“A little longer and that tank would have been our coffin,” Bud added. “Our oxygen was almost gone. When we map this place, I vote we call it ‘Devil’s Hole’!”
“Why didn’t you answer our radio signal just now?” Hank wanted to know. The boys replied that they had heard nothing over their receivers.
“Interesting,” murmured Kent. “Some substance in these rocks must effectively block radio signals, even when only a thin layer covers the transmitter.” He turned to Bud. “Oh, and just for the record, these are not volcanic craters in the usual sense; they are caused by newly-melted materials being squeezed out through the crust by the impact of nearby meteor strikes. That powder-ash ‘quicksand’ you got yourselves into is pyroclastic material that—”
“Whoa!” exclaimed Ron Corey and Bud at the same moment, followed by laughter.
Kent grinned. “Pyroclastic is my fancy word for ash. As a matter of fact, this particular kind of ash is made of—ready?—glass! You fell into a pit of tiny glass beads, prepared for you by Mother Nature.”
“I knew Mother Nature had it in for me!” Bud groaned.
“Let’s get back to camp pronto,” Tom said. “We’ll need some kind of safety device to prevent any more accidents like this. I have an idea for an invention that may take care of it.”
The boys’ tank proved to be fully operational after it had been dragged free. After recharging its air reservoir from the extra supply brought by the derrick tank, the two vehicles returned to base, where they were greeted warmly by the rest of the team.
“Of course it’s wonderful news that you boys made it back safely,” said Jason Graves. “But you would’ve done well to take me along in the rescue tank, Sterling. In my younger days I had quite a bit of practical experience with excavation and crane work.”
“Well, Graves, if this incident had happened back in your ‘younger days,’ I’m sure I would have called on you.” Hank smiled and walked away; the other onlookers didn’t dare do either.
Graves frowned and, after a silence, barked, “Okay, back to work!”
Entering the spaceship, Tom hurried to his laboratory-workshop cubicle. An hour later Bud found his friend hunched over a flatscreen design board under a xenon lamp, sketching out electronic circuit diagrams.
“That the new ground-tester gadget, Skipper?” Bud inquired.
Tom pushed back his green eyeshade. “Nothing very new about it. We simply shoot out a signal in advance of the tank treads and wait for the echo to bounce off solid rock. By timing the interval, we can tell whether the ground drops away.”
“Like a ship’s fathometer, eh?”
“More or less, except that we can’t use sound waves when there’s no atmosphere. It’ll really be more like ground-penetrating radar, and in fact I’m calling it a penetradar system. The trick is to generate a beam that’ll pierce the ash deposits without causing a lot of false echoes. And it’s a real tricky trick thanks to the wave-canceling properties of the crust materials.”
Bud grinned. “That shouldn’t be too tough for a wonder boy who’s already conquered space.”
“Your confidence is touching, chum,” Tom retorted, then yawned and took a hearty stretch.
After relaxing for fifteen minutes over a cup of hot chicken soup, brewed from a cube, Tom went back to work. Soon he had the plans for his new invention drawn up, and called in Sterling and Franzenberg to assign them the tasks of helping him construct and install the units in the several vehicles used by the expedition.
With both the earth and the sun dipping low on the horizon and the day ending, the task was finally finished. Tom took a break in the recreation compartment. But he had only begun to use the exercise equipment when he was interrupted. Gabriel Knorff burst into the compartment, followed by Jess Northrup.
“Tom—!” began Knorff.
“Naw, Tommy, not a problem,” put in Northrup before Gabe could answer. “If you call something a problem, it turns into one. Let’s call this a challenge.”
Exasperated, Tom sighed and sat down on the bench of the machine. “Whatever you want to call it, what’s the issue?”
“It’s Graves!” exploded Gabe. He paced back and forth angrily. “Everybody’s had about all they can take from that big blowhard! The guy never saw a rocket launch until a few days ago, but now he acts like the galaxy expert on space colonization, telling everyone exactly how to do their jobs, detail by detail!”
“He’s a bit bossy, I agree,” Tom replied mildly, trying to defuse the situation.
“Bossy? The guy’s a tyrant—no, a Tyranosaurus Rex!”
“He wouldn’t let Red here take photos over at the atmos-maker site,” explained Col. Northrup with a slight smile. “Didn’t take too kindly to it. As you can see.”
Gabe looked as though he were about to redirect his fury in the direction of Northrup. “Now listen, Colonel, I’m a legit member of this expedition and my photographic record is as—”
“Mm-hmm,” said Northrup languidly.
Blocked, the photographer turned back to Tom. “I’m telling you, that man will wreck the whole expedition!”
“Matter of fact,” added Northrup, “there is just a little grain of somethin’ in what this young fella is saying. Morale’s pretty important on a mission, I’ve found.”
This was not the first complaint Tom had received about the high-powered executive. Somehow Graves’s noisy energy had to be piped into useful channels. After Knorff and Northrup had left, Tom mulled over the problem as he finished exercising.
Presently, as the crew were gathering for supper, Tom called Jason Graves aside. “I suppose that young pup Knorff went crying to you about not being able to take his fool snapshots!” stormed Graves, already on the offense. “Well, setting up that air machine is delicate work requiring everyone’s full concentration.”
“I’m not concerned about Gabe at the moment,” interrupted Tom. “I wanted to thank you for the great work you’ve been doing—and see if you had the energy to take on a problem.”
His mood suddenly changing, Graves plumped himself into a chair. “What’s on your mind, son?”
Tom explained that the task of setting up the two atmosphere-making machines, one at each pole of Little Luna, had a high priority and required his constant attention. “But I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting some of the scientific and surveying work that’ll pay off for later expeditions. I know Kent Rockland needs to put together some sort of plan to do his geological exploring, and Ron Corey is afraid of falling behind in searching for areas that might be developed for farming.”
“Now you’re talking my language, Tom,” responded Graves. “You want me to help ’em get organized, maybe ride herd on ’em a little. That it?”
“If you’ll take that load off my shoulders,” the young scientist-inventor said, “it will leave me free to make the final adjustments on my atmosphere machines.”
“Just leave everything to me!” Graves boomed, and promptly went to work.
By nightfall of the day following, survey teams under the pressure of Graves’s powerful inspiration had begun making sorties into the craggy wilderness of the satellite, while Dr. Jatczak and Rafe Franzenberg, freed from the industrialist’s intrusive oversight, had begun assembly of a package of instruments to be used in making delicate astrophysical measurements. Violet Wohl busied herself with her rats. Tom assigned Jess Northrup the job of examining the Titan to ensure that no potential malfunctions had developed during the flight; he had become familiar with the craft during its secret construction phase at NASA, which had been under his general supervision.
As for Chow Winkler, Tom was content to leave him to the important responsibility of turning the bland, dehydrated food rations into three square meals a day—plus snacks!
Meanwhile Tom, with a team consisting of Bud, Hank, Gabe, and Teodor Kutan, had made significant progress in setting up the first of the two atmos-makers. “This baby’s right on schedule! All we need now are the rock samples Kent was going to gather from the south pole region,” Tom commented to Bud. “If they’re as rich in oxides as the rocks around here, we’ll be churning out a breathable atmosphere in no time!”
“I don’t envy Kent and Ron, having to hang out with Graves on those survey trips,” Bud declared. “Especially this overnight one. It’s a good thing they’re using the biggest tank, with lots of air—Big Jake will probably suck up most of it himself!”
As Tom laughed, Kutan added: “Allow me to commend you, Tom, for your skill in handling the problem of Mr. Graves. You found a way to tap his talents without paying a stiff price. When you can’t get a difficult person out of everyone’s hair, it often proves best to concentrate him on, er, just a few hairs!”
Bud snorted. “Ron and Kent are probably losing theirs.”
The round trip from the Titan base camp to Little Luna’s opposite pole was fully 129 miles, a two-day journey that would be the longest such trip yet attempted. As anticipated, when the large tank passed below the horizon of the moonlet, which was only a few miles distant, all regular radio communication was cut off. Tom was relieved when, late the following afternoon, the tank reappeared over the horizon and signaled that all was well.
“But we have news!” radioed Ron Corey mysteriously. He would not elaborate.
When the three travelers arrived, they hastened into the spaceship to meet with Tom. “How do the rock samples look?” Tom asked Kent.
“Never mind that!” Graves horned in brusquely. “You’ve got a bigger problem facing you on this moon. We’re not alone!”
Tom was thunderstruck! “What!”
“Absolutely true,” Kent confirmed. He explained that during the return leg of their journey, they had chosen to take a narrow pass that cut through a range of steep hills. “We came out of the pass onto an elevation—a ridge overlooking a plain about two miles across.”
“That’s when we saw it,” continued Graves. “A big, round enclosure.”
“It seemed to be inflatable,” said Ron Corey, “a big pressurized dome, a couple hundred feet across.”
“The top was painted camouflage colors, Swift—tans and grays to match the landscape. But the sides were transparent, and we could see inside pretty well with the binoculars. And—!” Jason Graves paused dramatically.
“Tell me what you saw!” Tom demanded impatiently.
“People walking around, wearing silver-colored outfits. Little enclosures set up all over the place. Machinery!”
Tom asked if there was any sign of a spacecraft.
“We didn’t go close enough to find out.” Graves added, “I thought it might be wiser to return to base and decide our official course of action before they spotted us.”
“Good work!” Tom nodded approval and frowned thoughtfully. His brain whirled with questions. There was a fantastic possibility!
Could it be that the Swifts’ space friends had made a landing? But if so, why had they not contacted the American base?
More likely, the hidden spaceship had brought visitors from Brungaria to Little Luna!
Before Tom could voice his thoughts, Kent spoke. “Whoever they are, they must have just landed. They sure weren’t here when Dr. Jatczak and Bud scouted Little Luna by telescope!”
“They could have been,” Graves argued. “The dome blends in with the ground, and their ship might be done up the same way. If it was on the night side of the satellite, you could easily have missed it!”
“That’s possible,” Tom said glumly.
A worried silence fell on the group as the crewmen eyed each other. Perhaps the American spaceship was not the first to land on the satellite and their claim to it was invalid!
Thinking fast, Tom came to a quick decision. “I’d rather not try radioing Earth or the space outpost, now that we know someone might be listening in. But before we make a move, I’ll try to contact my space friends,” he said. “If the ship is not theirs, we’ll know it must be the Brungarian expedition!”
Graves looked astounded. “You mean to tell me those people might not be people?—they might be aliens from space?”
“Let’s not speculate, sir. What we need now is information!” Dashing to the communications apparatus, Tom raised the long-range antenna and warmed up the powerful transmitter. During their space flight in the Star Spear, Tom and Bud had been able to make contact with the space beings through this means. Would it work now?
Tom opened his space dictionary computer file, which contained a list of all the symbols the Swifts had been able to translate, and laboriously worked out a message.
He called in Hank Sterling to assist him, briefly explaining the critical situation. An hour later, the camp abuzz with the disturbing news, Tom decided he had a usable message. While Tom used a special electronic stylus to create the symbols, Hank monitored the outgoing signal on the oscilloscope. Working the tuning knobs, he watched the mathematical symbols, patterns of light which Tom sent flickering across the screen—a flattened circle, two intersecting curves, a wiggly line that looked like a two-headed snake, and others.
“How soon do you hope to get a reply?” Kent Rockland asked when the message was finished.
Tom shrugged. “It’s never consistent. But I’ve set the recorder to keep sending every five minutes until we—”
He broke off as Bud burst through the doorway. “Hey, Skipper!” the young pilot yelled in excitement and alarm. “A rocket just landed outside!”
Tom leapt to his feet, knocking over the chair on which he had been seated. “You mean a spaceship?”
“No. A small missile!”
Pulling on his spacesuit equipment and dashing outside, Tom saw a color-striped, man-sized projectile half buried in the ground twenty yards from the Titan, the expedition crew gathered around it.
Dr. Wohl, standing nearby, shot a worried glance at Tom. “What’ll we do? It may be armed.”
“I’ll scan it with our instruments.” After careful scrutiny with the penetrating Eye-Spy camera and a variety of longrange sensors, Tom announced, “Okay, fellows. It’s not explosive. Its fuel was used up before it crashed.”
“It still could have done a lot of damage!” Bud exclaimed.
“What is the missile?” Kent asked.
“We’ll soon find out,” Tom replied. “There’s some kind of small container inside the head.”
“Don’t ask me what the device is in a technical sense,” commented Teodor Kutan. “But I can tell you where it’s from.”
“Brand my cosmic compass!” Chow exclaimed. “How kin you tell that?”
“Look at those stripes painted on it,” was the reply. “Black, red, and gold—the colors of the national flag of Brungaria. I would say the thing contains a message, directed right to our doorstep.”
The rocket was pulled from the ground by crane and turned upright. Walking up to it, Tom found the catch that opened the nose cone. He extracted the small cylinder and unscrewed it.
Inside was a rolled-up sheet of paper. Tom gasped as he read the message!
FACTS ON THE GROUND
TOM’S CREW pressed close as their Skipper read the message aloud over his suit transiphone:
TO THE AMERICAN INTRUDERS:
YOU HAVE NO LEGITIMATE CLAIM TO THIS SATELLITE SINCE WE, THE BRUNGARIAN SPACE FORCE, ARRIVED FIRST. UNLESS YOU DEPART WITHIN THREE HOURS, WE WILL BE FORCED TO CONSIDER YOU HOSTILE INVADERS AND WILL TAKE ACTION TO DEFEND OUR RIGHTS AND PROPERTY.
STREFFAN MIROV, COMMANDER
The ultimatum brought an angry outburst from Tom’s crew. Their transiphone channels crackled with indignation.
Jason Graves fumed, “That Brungarian bandit! Telling us to get off this planet! We’re Americans—they can’t shove us around that way!”
“Now you’re talkin’, pardner!” Chow chimed in, shaking his gnarled fist. “Reckon none of us hankers to knuckle under to them space rustlers! They ain’t yet fenced-in the sky, not by a long shot!”
Blistering comments came from Gabe Knorff and Kent Rockland, and the crewmen buzzed like a nestful of angry hornets. Bud, however, kept his own temper in check, waiting to hear what Tom had to say.
The young inventor let the team members express themselves, then called for silence. “No sense losing our heads,” he told them. “If possible, we must avoid trouble.”
“What!” Graves exploded. “You mean we’re going to take this insult to our country lying down?”
“I didn’t say that,” Tom replied evenly.
“Then what do you propose to do?” Graves challenged.
Tom turned to Teodor Kutan. “Do you have a comment, Dr. Kutan? You’re our resident diplomat, and you know these people.”
Kutan nodded and cleared his throat. He had obviously been waiting for someone to solicit his learned opinion. “I do know these people, and I speak their language. As a matter of fact, I am acquainted with Streffan Mirov, though we have lost touch over the years.”
“That’s surely a stroke of good fortune,” remarked Dr. Jatczak softly. “What sort of man is he?”
“He had a nickname in Volkonis—Za Turouj, ‘The Bull’,” replied Kutan. “He had a reputation for stubbornness, and is known to be a proud man. Yet I found him reasonable, and he has a scientific background, which is why he was selected for the expedition, I would think.”
“Can we get this ol’ buddy of yours to see things our way?” asked Col. Northrup. “I’m military, but I didn’t plan on fightin’ a war up here.”
“We may not have a choice!” snapped Graves.
“Hey, everybody—Jason here just volunteered to lead the charge!” jibed Rafael Franzenberg.
Kutan waited for quiet. “To answer your question, Colonel, I believe the prospects for fruitful negotiation are quite good. The first step is to arrange a meeting of the leaders—a summit conference, as they say.”
“But what about that ultimatum?” asked Violet Wohl.
“Think of it as an opening bid,” counseled the diplomat.
The expeditioners seemed split, with some clearly jostling for a more forceful response. But Bud spoke up loudly and said:
“Tom, you’re our commander—we’re going to do whatever you think is best.” He looked around at the others. “And that goes for all of us—right?”
One by one, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, everyone nodded.
“Thanks,” Tom responded simply. “My decision is to go to the Brungarian camp with Dr. Kutan and a couple of you others. Let’s see how much of this is real, and how much is posturing.”
Chow scowled, a pained look on his face. “Don’t feel right, son. But you’re the boss.”
Tom smiled and put a gloved hand on his friend’s spacesuited arm. “I’d write a message in the snow, like we did in Antarctica,” he joked, referring to an incident that occurred during the atomic earth blaster adventure; “but there isn’t any snow.”
Chow looked mollified but said, “Wa-aal, if we end up needin’ snow, mebbe that machine o’ your can make us some!”
“Who’ll be going with us, pal?” asked Bud excitedly.
Tom shot Bud an apologetic look and said, “Flyboy, this time I need to ask you to stay behind. I need you high-powered leadership types to take charge of things here, in case—something goes bad.”
Though feeling a chill from Tom’s sober words, Bud nodded.
Tom added: “It’s a big responsibility, but I know you’ll have expert help from Mr. Graves.” Tom had been careful to speak loudly, so that his transiphone would automatically extend its signal in a wider arc. He was rewarded by noting that Graves suddenly wore a smug smile on his face.
Tom winked at Bud, and his pal broke into a grin. He understood that by leaving his best friend behind, it became easier for Tom to leave Jason Graves out of this delicate negotiation.
“Who will be accompanying us, then?” asked Kutan. “I suggest no more than four altogether.”
Tom’s answer was, “For the third person, Col. Northrup, who will be well known to the Brungarians and has status representing the U. S. government. As for the fourth person—”
“Me!” exclaimed Gabriel Knorff. “You’ll want some kind of journalistic record of this historic meeting. Besides, you’re leaving the high-powered leadership types behind, and I’m about as opposite as you can get!”
The young inventor had to smile at Gabe’s peculiar logic. “Okay, Gabe. You can come along as the representative of the average American.”
“And besides,” commented Jason Graves sourly, “he is obviously the most expendable!”
“We’ll leave at first light,” Tom declared, eyeing the sun, which was now down to its last sliver. “While we’re gone, all you scientists and technicians please go on with your work.”
Graves spoke up again. “Suppose they attack us while you’re away?”
“I’ll leave you in charge of making that decision, Mr. Graves,” Tom replied carefully. “If we’re not back in six hours, radio word to my father and the space station. Then blast off and go into a parallel earth orbit near Little Luna until you receive further orders.”
Graves saluted, like a general taking over an army.
The next morning, the expeditioners remaining looked on grimly as Tom, Northrup, Gabe, and Kutan embarked in one of the larger exploration tanks.
“Good luck, buckaroos!” Chow called out.
“Thanks, pard. We may need it,” Tom replied tersely as he wriggled into the tank’s airlock. “At least they didn’t follow up on their ultimatum—it looks like you were right, Dr. Kutan, thank goodness.”
Other voices joined in a tense send-off. Then the hatch was sealed and the tank ground into action. Tom threw the gearshift into high as Gabe said: “If we’re not back on time, Graves probably will start a war!”
Col. Northrup shook his head. “Naw, I’m sure he’ll obey orders,” he declared. “I’ve worked with men like ol’ Jake Graves. He doesn’t wanna stick his neck out too far.”
“An astute observation,” agreed Kutan.
The vehicle rumbled over rocky rising ground and headed into the beetling hills beyond. The slopes were strewn with boulders and upthrusting clumps of granite, craters of all sizes everywhere. Inside the tank, the three travelers were bumped and jolted by the rough terrain, but their weight was so much less than on earth that they felt no real discomfort.
“Next time, let’s build these jobs with better springs!” Gabe remarked. “Don’t want my cameras to get hurt.”
His eyes glued to the penetradar output, Tom said, “The tank’s shock absorbers have the wrong resistance constants. Remember, we weren’t expecting significant gravity up here.”
They followed the precise directions provided by Kent Rockland. One hour passed, then a second.
Col. Northrup had taken over the tank controls when Tom abruptly held op a hand. “Hold it!” Tom ordered. “Looks like one of those ash craters ahead!” He pointed at the scattered image on the penetradar screen.
Northrup braked the tank hard, and Tom crawled out through the hatch to scout the terrain. “It’s a crater, all right,” he reported. “Big one, too. That volcanic ash makes it hard to tell where the solid ground ends.”
Cautiously the crew skirted the dangerous chasm, then continued their journey. Twenty minutes later the tank encountered a smaller crater and was detoured again.
As it rumbled across a barren plateau, the vehicle suddenly shuddered under a glancing impact.
“Something hit the hatch cover!” Gabe exclaimed in panic as Northrup jolted the tank to a stop.
Dr. Kutan paled. “Do you think the Brungarians are shooting at us, Tom?”
“I don’t know,” Tom replied tersely. “Swivel the video scanner, Colonel.” Northrup obligingly rotated the longrange magnifying camera, mounted on the top of the tank, through a complete scan of 360 degrees.
“Can’t see a thing,” the young inventor said, “unless someone is strafing us from a spaceship. I’ll crawl out and take a look.”
“I thought you said the Brungarians would respond peacefully,” said Gabe to Kutan, accusingly. As the older man shrugged, Northrup said, “It’s a wise man who always considers that he might be wrong, Red.”
Tom squirmed through the airlock. Moments later, he rapped on the tank’s hull and crawled back inside, holding a small chunk of iron-gray metal about the size of a golf ball.
“A meteorite,” he explained. “Still warm, too, from having gouged the hatch.”
“There, you see!” Kutan said.
As the trip continued, Tom asked Dr. Kutan what he thought of the Brungarians’ claim to having landed first.
“What do I think? I’ll tell you,” the diplomat replied. “I don’t think much of it. I think the original intelligence concerning the Brungarian space launch was accurate. But they did not leave orbit and approach the satellite until we had radioed that we had landed safely. They probably touched down not long before we discovered them. Now their purpose is surely to establish what are called ‘facts on the ground,’ to give them an advantage in future negotiations.”
“Are all Brungarians as tricky as these guys?” inquired Gabe.
“Every nation is capable of trickery and deception, young man,” Kutan said. “But when the nation is one’s own, it is called ‘clever strategy’.”
“You’re very cynical, Dr. Kutan,” Tom declared with a frown. Northrup laughed. Tom added heatedly: “I was serious, Colonel.”
“I know you were, Tommy,” Northrup said. “That’s why I laughed!”
Forty minutes later the tank entered upon the open plain described by the earlier explorers and came in sight of the enemy camp. “Here we are,” Gabe announced, eyeing the broad, low dome. “Should we roll right up to their front door?”
“No. Better stop here,” Tom decided. “Otherwise, they may think we’re coming to attack.”
The four climbed out of the tank and looked over the Brungarian base. The dome, covering more than four acres of ground, appeared to be made of thick plastic. It gave off rainbow glints in the sunlight, especially from its transparent side panels.
Inside the dome they could make out rows of small tents and bulky machines that seemed to be on casters for mobility. About half the area was closed off to view, covered by a black tarpaulin. They could see men and women moving about in silver-white garments: it seemed the Brungarian expedition had many more members than its American counterpart.
Cautiously the four Americans advanced on foot. After circling part way around the dome, they found the airlock. Two armed, stony-faced Brungarians stood guard at the entrance. Clad in spacesuits with transparent helmets, small pistol-like devices protruding from holsters, they watched without flicking a muscle as the Americans approached.
“Friendly-looking, aren’t they?” Gabe muttered. “At least they’re not shooting yet!” He lifted his camera and snapped a series of photos.
Tom had been trying to raise the base on his suit transiphone, just as he had tried over the tank radio since they entered the plain. There had been no response on any channel. But now the suit unit detected a signal, and Tom tuned to it. He could see that one of the guards was speaking.
“Ol n’rya y tul!”
He put his hand to his holster and drew out his weapon!
A DOUBTFUL TRUCE
“HE IS telling us to stay where we are,” translated Dr. Kutan. Speaking rapidly in Brungarian, he told why they had come.
It was evident that the guards had been expecting them. Replying only in surly grunts, they gestured the Americans inside with a wave of their weapons.
Passing through the airlock, Tom and his companions were met by a scowling officer in a dark green Brungarian military uniform. The man’s face flushed with anger as a blue-white flash announced that Gabe had photographed the Brungarian flag, flying above the base. He reached out for the camera, demandingly, but Gabe drew back.
“Not on your life, dude!” said the photographer.
“Tell him we’ll be glad to let their commander inspect the camera and our equipment,” Tom directed Dr. Kutan.
In response to this message, the officer uttered a few words in a harsh guttural tone.
“He says Mirov, the commander, will deal with us,” Dr. Kutan translated. “We are to follow him, and not attempt to leave.”
As the callers walked across the base, Tom looked around. Most of the people in view carried weapon holsters. Two technicians were visible tending what Tom assumed was the dome’s air-conditioning machinery and others were busy at the control panel of some shielded equipment. Tom suspected this to be a small atomic turbogenerator, supplying the base with power.
Presently a tall, handsome man in a gold-braided uniform approached. He had brown, wavy hair and brilliant, glowing dark eyes. At sight of the four Americans, he thrust out his hand in greeting and smiled, displaying strong white teeth. He first addressed himself to Teodor Kutan.
“Ah, it iss so nice to see you again, my old friend from days past!” he declared in a thick accent. Turning to the others, he said, “I am Streffan Mirov. Alas, I do not spik the English so goot! Yet I am learning.”
Tom introduced himself and the others, then said, “Dr. Kutan will be glad to translate, in case you wish to speak in your own language.
Mirov shook his head. “No, no, I prefer to be courteous. I am already disgraced by that foolish note I sent to you—ah, by missile, how rude of me!” Apologizing profusely, he explained that he had acted in haste on instructions from his government, instructions with which he disagreed and which now had been withdrawn. “I trust that the celebrated Tom Swift will overlook this unfortunate incident,” he urged in suave tones.
Mirov went on to praise the scientific genius of Tom and his family. “In my country, we have long admired those many clever inventions. Alas, during the decades of oppression, the books narrating your great-grandfather’s achievements were not sold openly. Yet I read them all—the black market, you know. Tell me, do you still have the electric runabout?”
“It’s on display,” Tom replied. He was unsure how best to react to Mirov’s attitude. Why the sudden change, and why all these sugary remarks?
The situation was partly explained when the Brungarian added that he especially admired Tom’s atmosphere-making machine. The young inventor felt a strong urge to ask how Mirov had learned about the atmos-maker. He refrained, however.
Instead, Tom described his machine very simply and told how he hoped to establish an atmosphere for the whole satellite. “Commander Mirov, you and your men will also benefit from such an atmosphere if I am successful. You will no longer need this dome, and will be free to explore the satellite.”
Mirov hastily acknowledged this and agreed that the two groups should work in peace. Moreover, he said, the satellite should belong to all nations of the world. After a pause, he continued in Brungarian, asking Kutan to translate—it seemed he wanted his fellow officers to understand his comments.
Kutan said, “He says, ‘Of course, if any mineral wealth were found, it is only natural that the countries which sent expeditions should take control of that resource’—he uses a term which is like ‘the lion’s share’.” As Dr. Kutan translated this last part, Mirov winked slyly at Tom.
Ignoring this, Tom replied, “Please ask Commander Mirov if his country has any plans to use this new moon as a military base.”
Mirov skillfully dodged this question and others along the same lines. Somewhat irritated, Tom mentioned that he and his crew had scouted the whole satellite before landing. “At that time we saw no sign of your ship,” he ended sharply.
“A most natural oversight,” Mirov replied smoothly, in English. “The dark colors of our habitat-dome would blend into the landscape. This no doubt camouflaged our ship. And as you know, New Brungaria has a disruptive effect upon radar—a temporary phenomenon, I am told.”
“New Brungaria?” repeated Col. Northrup, speaking for the first time.
“Our name. But it is no matter, eh?” It was sad, Mirov went on, that a dispute should have arisen over who had landed first. But he suavely suggested that this matter be taken up before the United Nations. Tom agreed.
Suddenly Mirov frowned and added, “By the way, our ship’s radar picked up some sort of craft as we were approaching the satellite. Strangely enough, it accelerated so fast that our radar lost it in a few seconds.”
Tom felt a surge of excitement! The young inventor at once recalled an instantaneous blip on his own screen which he had thought was simply another effect of Little Luna. Now he felt that his conclusion might have been wrong. The unknown ship had perhaps belonged to the Swifts’ space friends!
But Tom made no mention of this possibility, merely remarking casually, “Perhaps you would care to show us around before we leave, Commander Mirov.”
The Brungarian’s face stiffened but did not lose its patronizing smile. “Surely; and perhaps when I come for a visit, you will do the same.” The tour lasted only a few minutes. After showing them the atomic power plant and air-conditioning equipment, Mirov called a halt without inviting his visitors on board the hidden spaceship.
“Now you will perhaps join me and my senior officers in some refreshment,” he said hastily.
Introducing the party to a half-dozen men and women, the gold-braided commander ordered tables and chairs set up, and had a steward serve platefuls of a tasty but highly seasoned reddish concoction.
“This is moofta, the Brungarian national dish, in concentrated form,” Dr. Jatczak explained.
As Tom lifted a spoonful to his lips, Col. Northrup whispered, “Careful!”
Wow! It’s hotter than Chow’s tamales! Tom gasped inwardly, gulping down a quick mugful of water and trying to conceal his reaction.
“Told ya!” murmured Northrup.
“And here is our science officer, our expert in rocketry and astrodynamics, Professor Lemura,” cried Mirov grandly as a stooped, balding man stepped out from behind the tarp barrier. “Come join us, Mihklo—you must exercise those English skills you boast of!”
Professor Lemura approached warily, shaking hands with the guests as they were introduced one by one. He seemed nervous and evasive, speaking more in grunts than in English. When Gabriel Knorff was introduced, he withdrew his hand and turned away rudely.
“I do not have time for this, Commander. You may handle the publicity. Allow me to return to my work.” He stalked off and vanished behind the barrier again.
“Rather temperamental,” said Mirov coolly. “But truly a genius, so we put up with him.”
“I have read about him,” commented Tom. “Involved with the Soviet space program, wasn’t he?”
“Indeed so,” confirmed the Commander. “Born in Kazakhistan, actually. We induced him out of retirement to join this effort. How fortunate it was, to have perfected our spacecraft already, just in time to make the voyage to New Br—that is, to this little moon.”
After a polite exchange of goodbyes, the Americans took their departure. To forestall Mirov’s men picking up any remarks they made over their suit transiphones, none of the three spoke until they were safely embarked in their tank and below the horizon.
“I sure don’t understand that guy!” Gabe remarked in a puzzled voice as they started off. “First he sends us a threat, and now he acts as if we were pals!”
“I would like to trust him,” Tom said. “What do you think’s going on, Dr. Kutan?”
“Ah well,” was the reply, “The whole setup’s phony. Streffan never could bluff me. They know their claim to the satellite is false, and Mirov knows we know it. The message in the missile was to get your attention; now he has been instructed to be friendly. They want the benefit of the atmosphere you will be making, Tom, as it will make their explorations all the easier.”
Tom thanked Dr. Kutan and was quiet for a moment. “That’s not the whole deal.”
“What do you mean?” Kutan asked.
“You shook hands with that Professor Lemura, just like me,” the young astronaut noted. “Notice anything?”
Kutan shook his head, puzzled. But Col. Northrup said, “Sure did.”
“What?” asked Gabe. “He ran off before shaking with me.”
“His fingers were rough-feeling—but just along the sides,” Tom continued. “Nothing like ordinary calluses. Know what? I’d say—”
“I’ll say it for both of us,” Northrup broke in. “Lemura has had some kind of unusual plastic surgery on the skin of his fingers—matter of fact, on his fingertips.”
Kutan frowned. “They looked real enough to me.”
“Sure they’re real. They’re just not his!”
Tom nodded in sudden understanding. “He’s been given new fingerprints!” he exclaimed. “But why would the Brungarians do that? Are they afraid we’re going to capture his prints somehow and test them?”
“Let’s just say this—there’s more goin’ on at that camp than meets the eye!” the Colonel declared. “If I were you, I wouldn’t trust Mr. Mirov farther’n you can throw him—even in low gravity!”
AIR FOR AN ASTEROID
WHEN TOM and his companions returned to the American base, everyone there rushed out and swarmed around the tank. Tom, Northrup, Kutan, and Gabe were bombarded with questions as they spoke of the parley. Their listeners were amazed that the crisis had ended so quickly. Some were relieved by the news. Others were suspicious.
Hank Sterling asked, “Do you think we can take Mirov at his word?”
Jason Graves answered before Tom could. “You can’t trust those foreign types. I deal with them all the time.”
“We’ll be cautious,” said Tom. He asked Sterling if there had been any response to his broadcasts to the space friends.
“Something came in,” he replied, “but the translating computer didn’t know what to make of it.”
“I’ll have to work on it,” Tom said with determination. “And I’ll transmit a copy to Dad so he can work on it as well.”
Tom hurried to the communications control panel aboard the Titan. In minutes he was in touch with his father on Fearing Island.
“Hi, Dad!” the young inventor said as his father’s voice came through.
“Good to hear from you, son! What news from Little Luna?”
Tom quickly reported the amazing developments, and added, “Dad, please contact Washington. Tell them what happened and find out what we should do in case of attack. We think there’s some hidden agenda going on.”
“I’ll get the instructions immediately,” Mr. Swift replied. “Meanwhile, stay on the alert and try to avoid trouble. I’ll be looking forward to receiving those latest space symbols.”
After signing off, Tom rounded up the expedition for a status report and conference. They listened intently as he laid out a plan of action.
“I believe,” Tom said, “that the most important thing is to get the atmosphere machines going as soon as possible. That’ll give us more freedom to move around and also show the Brungarians we’re doing our part to make this satellite livable. Here’s how we’ll tackle the job.”
The young scientist said that a garrison force would be left at the base to guard the north polar atmos-maker, which was nearing completion a few score yards from the landing site. “This group will consist of Col. Northrup, Ron Corey, Dr. Kutan, and Hank Sterling. Colonel, you’ll be in charge, but Hank will oversee the completion of the machine, with help from the rest of you as needed. We didn’t bring any weapons with us—didn’t think we’d need ’em—but we’ll leave you all the transport tanks except the one with the derrick: you can use them as shelters and take refuge in them if something happens. But there’s no real reason to fear an attack—I’m sure Mirov wants the machines finished as much as we do.”
The others would accompany Tom to the southern pole of Little Luna in the Titan, where the second atmos-maker would be constructed as quickly as possible. “I’ll need everyone’s help,” Tom declared.
“I am as willing as anyone to assist you,” spoke up Dr. Jatczak. “But as far as manual labor goes, I fear you are about thirty years too late.”
Tom smiled. “There’ll be many important tasks involved that don’t involve lugging around machinery, sir.”
“Don’t worry, Jatczak, you won’t be left out of the action,” said Rafe in his usual wisecracking tone. “We’ll even find some use for Violet’s little friends with the big ears.” As Dr. Wohl looked on, entirely unamused, the scientist persisted. “I have a notion to try hooking their exercise wheel up to a generator to save on veranium fuel! You wouldn’t mind, would you, darlin’?”
Dr. Wohl looked at him levelly. “We might be forced to try it, Rafael. But the first recourse would be to run the machine off your ego, a fuel that never runs out!”
Tom did not join in the laughter that followed. He was feeling the weight of his great responsibilities on the mysterious satellite. Northrup whispered to Tom, “They’re just blowin’ off a little steam. Probably a good thing.” Tom nodded.
It was now too late in the day to start out. For the rest of the daylight period, Tom kept the expeditioners busy checking, organizing, and unloading the necessary tools and equipment.
As twilight fell, everyone returned to the Titan for supper. Chow, sensing the fear and tension in the air, had a surprise for them all after dessert.
“Look here, folks!” he announced, producing the large object he had been concealing behind his broad back. It was a battered old western-style guitar!
“Oh no!” Bud groaned humorously.
“Oh yes, buddy boy! And sure as a star, you’re gonna join in if’n you want breakfast tomorrow!” Chow began to sing a country-western ballad in a voice that could best be described as grizzled, and everyone eventually joined the fun. The revelation of the evening was that both Jason Graves and Ron Corey had excellent singing voices—tenor and baritone.
Before going to bed, Tom and Bud donned their spacesuits and went outside. The night sky was brilliant with stars. But the huge bright ball of earth outshone everything else in the heavens, filling almost a third of the sky.
They both acknowledged a feeling of homesickness. Then Bud chuckled. “What a dither those old Tin Pan Alley song writers would be in up here!”
“Why?” Tom asked.
“Because they wouldn’t have a reason to rhyme June and moon any more,” Bud replied. “They’d have to talk about the earth shining way up in the sky, or walking with your date in the earthlight.”
Tom grinned. “They might rhyme earth and girth, if your girl friend happened to be the chubby type.”
“Sounds more like a song about Chow and his size fifty-two belt,” Bud quipped. “Say, Tom, what makes the earth look so much brighter than the moon?” The moon, half below the horizon of Little Luna and far off in its orbit, looked a dull gray and was hardly noticeable.
“Higher reflectivity,” Tom replied, “due to Earth’s atmosphere as much as the oceans. As a matter of fact, it’s twenty times as bright as the moon. Which reminds me—we still haven’t found out why this moon shines so brightly when seen from Earth. It’s one more mystery.”
Bud patted Tom on the shoulder. “Let’s not solve ’em all in one night, genius boy!”
When morning came the crew members that would remain behind stood a healthy distance away, waving farewell as the Titan lifted off smoothly. There was no longer a danger of crashing. Doctors Franzenberg and Jatczak had been able to measure and chart the abnormal gravitational conditions now prevalent on Little Luna, and Tom had programmed a compensatory routine into the spaceship’s computer.
It took only minutes for the nuclear craft to arc around the satellite in a half-loop and set down again in a canyon near the south pole. After a gentle landing, Tom and Franzenberg—serious for the moment—took an hour going over everyone’s technical assignments and reminding them how the atmos-machine would function.
“Like the other machine, we’ll be building our Southern Special from the ground up,” Tom said. “After Kent has located the best site based on his analysis of the surface composition, we’ll set up the automatic boring and conveyor units, then the smelting apparatus and the atomic pile. The dispeller—that’s the ‘spider’ that spreads out the atmosphere—won’t be unloaded from the hold until everything else is in place and tested.”
In answer to a question from Gabe Knorff, Rafe described how continuous spectrographic and infrared analyzers would check on the composition of the atmosphere generated by the machine. Carbon monoxide gas fumes produced in the smelter would be catalytically converted to carbon dioxide and the excess CO2 removed by a caustic scrubber. The process would also release water vapor from the rocks, so that the atmosphere would not be excessively dry.
Kent and Dr. Jatczak now went off to find the best spot for the atmos-maker while the others labored to unload the equipment, including the disassembled derrick tractor-tank. Kent’s earlier survey had confirmed that the general site was rich in the sorts of ores required.
Shortly before the evening meal, Kent came into Tom’s laboratory with several reddish chunks of rock, flecked with metallic glints. “Tom, I think this ore may be our best bet for producing oxygen in the atomic furnace!” he announced excitedly. “We found it about a half-mile up the canyon. There are also nitrous compounds up there, for nitrogen.”
“I’ll look at it under the spectrograph,” the young inventor said. He took the rock samples into the metallurgy cubicle. A few minutes later both scientists were grinning happily.
“Nice going, Kent,” Tom congratulated him. “It’s almost pure red iron oxide, plus about two percent of rare metals. It should work very nicely for us!”
“Mmm, I can almost breathe that fresh air already,” Kent remarked. “You know, Tom, Henrick thinks these ores and compounds give us a clue as to where the asteroid came from in the first place.”
“He says the crustal composition is very different from what one would expect to find on small bodies in the inner solar system, and could only have been formed on a much larger body, one big enough to have an atmosphere of its own. He theorizes that Little Luna is a tiny fragment remaining from a satellite of one of the giant outer planets in our system.”
Chow Winkler had been standing in the doorway behind them, listening. “Say there, you mean these here planets and things can bust up on their own, inta little pieces?”
“Sure enough,” Kent replied. “Tidal forces can do it, or a collision with another body.”
Tom added, “That’s what scientists think gave Earth her moon—the old one, I mean! When Earth was young, she must’ve got run into by a wandering body that splashed a lot of the crust into space, which eventually solidified into the moon as we know it now.”
“Which jest goes t’ show,” Chow declared, “that this here universe is a purty dangerous place!”
Hard days of work in the blinding sunlight were capped by black nights of relaxation aboard the ship. The various crew members watched television programs relayed from earth, including the news reports that now featured regular updates on the progress of the Swift expedition. The other expedition, still not officially confirmed by Brungaria, was not mentioned.
It was frustrating not to be able to contact the north pole site at will. But messages were relayed back and forth via Fearing Island or the space outpost, and it seemed all was well there. There had been no further contact with the other camp.
One night, after a particularly long and arduous day of work, the members of the space team were glad to retire. Tom, however, worked on, tinkering with the mechanical parts of his atmosphere machine. One crucial unit had been jarred out of line by the forces of acceleration during the Titan’s space mishap.
“I’d better run another test on that pump impeller before I quit,” he decided, yawning sleepily.
Exhausted by the day’s grueling activities, and fighting to stay awake, Tom flicked a switch and bent over the whirring impeller. Suddenly his head nodded and he slumped forward, slowly drifting downward in the weak gravity of Little Luna. As he did, the sharp-bladed impeller cut a deep gash in his arm!
Pale from shock and with blood spurting from the wound at an alarming rate, Tom staggered to the wall intercom and pressed the button.
“Doctor Wohl!” he called weakly. “H-hurry to my—my—” Tom’s words trailed off as he collapsed to the deck!
THE FIRST DAWN
AT WORK in a nearby cubicle with her rodent-subjects, Violet Wohl heard Tom’s call. Grabbing a medical kit, she dashed out into the main connecting passageway, where she collided with Bud.
“What happened, Doc Vi? Was that Tom over the—”
“Tom’s in trouble. Come on!”
It took a moment to locate the right cubicle. Bursting in, they found the young inventor sprawled on the deck in a welling pool of blood.
Wohl and Bud bent over him. “Quick! Press here with your thumb!” Dr. Wohl ordered Bud, indicating a spot in Tom’s armpit.
As Bud complied, the bleeding stopped. With deft fingers, Violet Wohl cleansed and bandaged the wound. Then Bud carried the unconscious youth—a meager few pounds of weight—to a bunk. Tom’s skin was pale and clammy, his lips blue.
“He’s in a state of shock. Pile on the blankets!” As the doctor gave orders, she rigged up tubing and a needle to administer plasma.
Gradually, with the aid of stimulants, Tom regained consciousness. At sight of Bud’s frightened face, he grinned wanly. “Relax, chum! I’ve got more blood than I ever use!”
Bud responded by squeezing his friend’s hand gently. “Next time don’t scare us like that, you old space eagle! What happened?”
Tom described his accident, after which Dr. Wohl ordered him to stay in bed for the traditional twenty-four hours.
Tom grimaced. “But I can’t stay in bed tomorrow, Vi! I must get the atmosphere machine working! It’s so near completion…”
The physician-scientist finally agreed. “Tom, you must not exert yourself,” she warned, “or you may be flat on your back a lot longer than twenty-four hours!”
By late morning the color was back in Tom’s cheeks and he felt much refreshed by ten hours of sleep, although his arm pained him. Chow brought breakfast to his bunk, and fussed over him like a mother hen while he ate. Then the young inventor climbed into his spacesuit.
“What’s going on outside?” Tom inquired as he tightened a leg strap. “I didn’t intend to sleep for so long.”
“Better ask Graves,” Chow replied evasively. “I hear tell he’s been bossin’ people around since the sun came up.”
Hurrying out through the ship’s airlock, Tom emerged in time to see the derrick tank returning from a job at the construction site, with Rafael at the controls. “C’mon, boss, I’ll run you back up there. That man is too, too much!” Not asking Franzenberg to elaborate, Tom decided to see for himself. What trouble was Jason Graves causing this time?
The tank threaded its way through a bottleneck in the canyon, between high walls which abruptly receded on both sides. Then Tom let out a shout of shocked astonishment.
The atmosphere-making machine stood complete, glinting in the sun and ready for testing!
Franzenberg grinned at Tom’s reaction. “Gotta hand it to Graves,” he said. “The guy really does keep people hopping!”
Tom crawled through the airlock and bounded up to Graves, who stood proudly. “Mr. Graves, you’re amazing!” Tom said, shaking hands vigorously. “I can’t thank you enough for seeing this through so quickly!”
“Nothing to it,” Graves replied, grinning. Looking somewhat like a pouter pigeon in his spacesuit, the robust tycoon showed Tom the various details of the construction, noting that Rafe had repaired the unit that Tom had been working on the previous night. “The partial tests have all been successful, Tom. We can start making air as soon as you like, in my humble opinion.”
During the next few hours, Tom worked with the others, making some final tests and performing some delicate calibrations. The fascinated expeditioners looked on as the big glittering gas spreaders spun around high above the site, apparently supported by nothing!
“Brand my cookstove,” Chow muttered, scratching his stubbly chin, “I’ve seen a heap o’ queer things since I been workin’ fer you an’ yer pa, Tom, but this takes the prize!”
The part of the atmos-maker that remained on the surface beneath the whirling dispeller resembled an elaborate construct of metal blocks, each one several feet long, joined to one another at odd angles.
“Looks like modern art,” commented Bud to Tom. “I’ve been meaning to ask you why they’re put together that way.”
“Why not?” Tom responded. “In this low gravity, we can fit the modules together according to functional efficiency, without worrying about whether the thing will stand up on its own.”
“Tell me this, Tom,” Gabe asked. “Won’t you have to have someone standing by at all times, feeding rocks into the smelter?”
The young inventor shook his head. “Underneath this part of the machine is a long, flexible feed-conduit which can extend out like a telescope. It’s hooked up to a special adaptation of my earth blaster digging machine.” He explained that the digger would constantly rove about deep underground, testing rock samples electronically and pulverizing whatever rocks fit the specifications. “The rock dust will be blown through the conduit right up to the smelter,” he said.
“Sounds like one o’ them automatic floatin’ things that bobs around in swimmin’ pools t’ keep ’em clean,” Chow remarked.
“Well,” added Kent, “the sort of rocks you want, Tom, are very plentiful on Little Luna and run deep down, I can tell you that.”
Tom watched the spinning spider overhead approvingly. “We’ll be able to ditch our space suits once we get these machines in full operation,” he said. “Because the machines are located at the poles, the rotation of the satellite will help spread the gases around.”
“How can you possibly cover this whole mini-planet with air, though?” asked Dr. Wohl. “It seems it would take years!”
“We can’t wait that long!” Tom laughed. “Remember, the atmospheric envelope will spread broadly, but won’t be deep at all, just a hundred feet or so. In fact, most of the higher elevations of the surface will stick out into space, so we’ll have to be careful when we go exploring.” He added that the “skin” of Inertite filaments would hold back the outflow of gases, trapping them as if in an expanding bubble. This would allow local air pressure to approach normal within a matter of hours.
“I jest hope this new-fangled air you’re making is fresher’n that dehydrophobiated grub I been having t’make meals out of,” Chow grumbled.
Tom smiled. “You mean dehydrated, Chow.”
“Wa-aal, mebbe so, but a steady diet of that stuff is enough to give a man hydrophobia!”
As the cook clumped off in his space boots, Tom chuckled. Then he examined some of the dials on the atmos-maker control chassis. “Guys, I don’t see any reason why we can’t start running the smelter. If Hank’s ironed out the final problems at the other site, we could have at least a little atmosphere on Little Luna as early as tomorrow!”
To cheers, and photo-flashes from Gabe Knorff, Tom activated the rock-feeder. Then, minutes later, he switched on the smelter. Almost immediately a faint haze could been seen rushing out of the whirling air spreader in all directions. “We’re in business!” Tom cried jubilantly.
For hours Tom and his comrades monitored the operation of the machine. It showed no variance from the ideal parameters.
Suddenly a deep shadow fell across the canyon site, like the sweep of a great black wing. Sundown!
“I always forget how quickly night comes on Little Luna,” murmured Dr. Jatczak. “And I was not finished with some of my instrumental observations. I’ve set up my own little observatory nearby, you know. But tomorrow morning will be soon enough.”
“You’ll begin to get some atmospheric scattering tomorrow, Doctor,” Tom noted. “If you want, I can try to calculate the refraction coefficient.”
Bud clapped his pal on the back of his spacesuit. “Don’t go into that now, genius boy,” he said, “or you’ll be slaving over a hot flatscreen all night. Weren’t you supposed to be taking it easy? I vote we head back to the ship.”
“Second the motion,” Tom said, yawning. He was bone-tired, and hungry too.
A surprise awaited the team back at the Titan. It seemed Chow had been inspired to new heights of creativity by his own grumbling! To celebrate the completion of the atmos-maker, the colorful Texan had prepared a special supper for the crew. To their amazement, the men found themselves served with appetizing hamburger patties, mashed potatoes, stewed corn, milk, and fruit pudding.
“What a chef!” Bud cried as he finished the last spoonful of pudding. “Chow, I take back everything I ever said about your rattlesnake soup and the other crazy concoctions you dream up!”
Chow winked, beaming. “High time you learned to discern good food afore you digest it, Buddy Boy!”
Jason Graves, newly mellowed, joined in the praise. “This meal really hit the spot, Chow. How did you manage it with all those dried-up rations we brought along?”
“Oh, ’t warn’t nuthin’,” the cook replied. “I jest used a mite o’ injin-ooity—juiced the burgers up with some squirts o’ cranberry juice and fruit pulp. Almost brung ’em back to normal, if I do say so myself! Don’t wanna tell you all m’secrets, though.”
“Maybe it’s better that we don’t know,” Bud muttered.
After enjoying the afterglow of Chow’s meal for a time, Tom contacted the space outpost. In minutes he was on a radio relay back to the other camp at the northern pole.
Hank Sterling answered the signal. “All’s well here, Skipper. The machine’s in great shape—in fact, since it’s still light here, we might as well start ’er up.”
“Great!” exulted the young inventor. “We’ll fly the ship back by late tomorrow.”
Before retiring, Tom took a last look out at the landscape of Little Luna, dark and forbidding. Yet somehow—if it wasn’t just imagination—the shadows looked a bit softer around the edges.
In spite of the late hour at which they had retired, everyone turned out at daybreak to witness the first atmospheric sunrise on the tiny moonlet. The eastern sky was jet black and sparkling with icy stars for the most part as the sun edged over the horizon. Then everyone burst forth in awe. Across the lowest strip of sky, and especially within the canyon itself, rolled a luminous haze flushed with dawn colors of rose-pink, gold, and crimson.
“Oh man, ain’t that a sight!” exclaimed Chow, crowding at the viewpane with the others. “When can we get shed o’ these suits, Tom?”
Checking some instruments, Tom responded with pleasure, “It won’t be long, pard! We’ve already got about 5 millibars of pressure at ground level—only 995 to go.”
Chow’s expression soured. “That much?”
“Don’t worry. From here on the buildup will accelerate greatly. I think we’ll be walking around in shirtsleeves by lunchtime.”
Tom’s bold prediction was dead on. Shortly before local noon, he made a final check of the instruments and told everyone the air was safe and breathable, though protection from ultraviolet would still be necessary. “Yippee!” cried Chow as he and the others, gathered outside the Titan, gingerly removed their spacesuit helmets, then breathed deeply. “Almost as good as it looks in Texas! Smells right fresh. And it’s gettin’ some color in.” Though the sky directly above was still black, most of the great dome of sky was now touched with indigo, even blue. “The air’s balmy, too,” Chow added.
“That’s because the atmospheric blanket has started protecting us from extreme temperature changes,” Tom explained. “But listen, guys, the air is still quite rarefied—no hard work.”
“I suppose I could force myself to hold back,” Bud joked.
After lunch, which was served picnic-style in the open air, Tom issued orders that everyone keep an emergency “life tent” handy at all times. Compactly folded, these tents could be carried as packs and would inflate automatically if the atmosphere machines should ever fail.
The balance of the afternoon was spent in preparations for the departure of the spaceship back to the north pole base. A special monitoring system was set up to keep a careful eye on the atmos-maker. “We’ll relay the output through the space outpost,” Tom explained to Rafe.
Minutes later Tom was interrupted in his lab cubicle by Violet Wohl. “Tom... have you run into Henrick recently?” she asked.
“Not since lunch,” he replied. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been concerned about his health ever since the accident on the ship,” she explained. “He mentioned yesterday that he has had a few dizzy spells, and I worry that he might overdo it in this thin atmosphere.”
“Have you called for him by transiphone?”
Wohl nodded. “I just did, but there was no answer. Of course, the terrain may be blocking the signal…”
Tom smiled reassuringly. “I’m sure there’s nothing wrong, but why don’t you and I look around a bit? He’ll need to be getting back to the Titan soon, anyway.”
Taking the derrick tank and joined by Bud, Tom and Dr. Wohl decided to look first in an area near the canyon where they knew Dr. Jatczak had been making instrumental observations. The walls of this high-sided valley were splashed with eerie bright colors.
“A pint-sized Grand Canyon!” Bud exclaimed. “Sure wish I had a color camera to—”
He broke off as a wailing shriek echoed through the valley, strangely muffled in the rarefied air.
“It’s the atmosphere alarm!” cried Tom. “The pressure must be dropping!” He glanced at the meter in the tank. “Good gosh, it’s dropped thirty percent!”
“And Henrick is out there in the open!” exclaimed Dr. Wohl fearfully.
They gunned the tank and sped toward the area where they hoped to find Dr. Jatczak.
The valley took a sharp turn, and Bud suddenly cried out and pointed. On a rise next to a set of instruments stood one of the life tents, fully inflated! Pulling on helmets and breathing gear that were stored inside the vehicle, the three scrambled and bounded frantically up to the tent, their feet barely touching the rocks. Inside the tent they could make out the form of Henrick Jatczak. The little astronomer lay sprawled face down, unconscious! They surmised that he had been so busy with his work that he had not crawled into his tent until he was almost asphyxiated. Full of dread they dragged the entire tent down to the tank and managed to push Jatczak through the airlock.
Inside Dr. Wohl felt the man’s pulse. “It’s very weak. He’ll need artificial respiration—fast!”
First Wohl, then Bud, then Tom straddled Jatczak’s body and applied rhythmic pressure to his lungs. But after twenty minutes of steady treatment, the victim showed no signs of reviving.
“I’ll try a shot of adrenalin,” the doctor said tensely. Filling a hypodermic syringe from the tank’s emergency kit, she injected the heart stimulant, then waited.
Again there was no response!
White-faced, Bud threw a pleading glance at Violet Wohl. But the medic shook her head slowly.
“I’m afraid we may have found Henrick too late,” she said sadly. “I’m more sorry than I can say.”
THE CAVE OF WONDERS
“YOU MUST save him, Doc Vi, you must!” Bud exclaimed in dismay as he knelt beside Dr. Jatczak.
“There’s still hope, Bud,” the physician said hastily, “but the odds are against us.”
Knowing how fond Bud had become of the frail astronomer, Tom gave his friend’s arm a squeeze. “Keep your chin up, pal. We’ll work on Dr. Jatczak as long as there’s an ounce of hope!”
Spelling each other at five-minute intervals, the trio continued to apply artificial respiration. Again Tom’s turn came around. With a slow, pistonlike rhythm, he labored over the unconscious man, forcing air in and out of his lungs. Suddenly a long gasp escaped from Jatczak’s lips!
“He’s coming to!” Bud cried softly.
Energized with hope, Tom kept pumping until Dr. Jatczak’s eyes flickered open. Then Dr. Wohl waved spirits of ammonia under the astronomer’s nose. He coughed and gasped.
“Oh my!” he murmured weakly, trying to raise his head. “I did it again, didn’t I.”
“Don’t talk, Henrick—just lie still,” Violet told him gently.
They drove Jatczak back to the Titan at top speed, where he was put to bed in the ship’s tiny sick bay under the care of Dr. Wohl. She gave him a complete examination, then injected a sedative to put him to sleep. Emerging from the compartment a few minutes later, the physician found Bud waiting anxiously, along with Chow.
“Dr. Jatczak is doing well and resting comfortably,” Wohl reported. “He’ll pull through all right.”
“I sure hope so,” Bud said earnestly.
Tom had been unable to wait for the doctor’s assessment. He immediately moved to take account of the other members of the crew, using his transiphone. By good fortune all the others had been working near the ship when the alarm sang out, and had either been able to scramble aboard, or were waiting safely nearby in their tents.
“But what in thunderation’s wrong with that machine of yours, Swift?” demanded Jason Graves, his brief mellowness having fled.
“I’m about to find out,” Tom replied.
He went to the atmos-maker site in the company of Rafe Franzenberg. The silver spider was still whirling madly above, and the ore bins were full.
“It’s a baffler, chief!” muttered Rafe.
Tom opened up the service access panel and began to perform some voltage checks on the circuits within. “Got it!” he called out abruptly. “The frequency modulator for the coherence-wave generator is defective. The Inertite filaments aren’t connecting up with one another, and the gases are leaking away into space.” Fortunately they had brought a variety of spare parts with them, and the repairs took only a few minutes.
Within an hour and a half, Tom was able to announce that a livable atmosphere had been restored. He then went to check on Dr. Jatczak, and was delighted to find the scientist sitting up and alert. Dr. Wohl reassured the him by saying, “Henrick should be back on his feet soon, but he’ll need plenty of rest. And, incidentally, this is a good place to convalesce.”
“Because of the low gravity?” Tom queried.
“Exactly. The lessened amount of muscular strain here would be helpful to heart patients,” the medic replied. “Sustained zero gravity can be harmful, but this amount is beneficial—my tiny caged patients are proving it!”
“Maybe Little Luna would be a good place to set up a hospital,” Bud suggested.
Jatczak now spoke up. “As we are speaking of gravity, my recent observations have been concentrating on that very subject—and the results are so fascinating that I was reluctant to turn aside from them, even at the risk of my life!”
Tom asked the astrophysicist to elaborate.
“Of course we’re all aware that this minute body manifests a considerably stronger gravitational force than its slight mass can account for,” he began. “Thinking its core might be composed of some extraordinarily dense material, I began making a detailed study of the moonlet’s rotational characteristics. And what do you suppose I found, eh?” He paused, as if expecting an answer.
“Er—I give up,” said Bud.
“There is a wobble, my boy, a wobble! A periodic anomaly produced by tidal interaction with the earth—ground tides, you know.” Dr. Jatczak sat up straighter, eyes shining, and Violet Wohl cast a smiling glance in Tom’s direction. “I followed up these observations with a more minute instrumental examination of the gravitational flux vectors, and my findings—quite remarkable!”
“Maybe you could summarize them for us,” Tom suggested gently.
“Of course. In brief, the satellite’s gravitational field does not conform to its physical shape, but shows an unprecedented deviation—a warp, if you will. The distortion is centered on a small region north of the equator, which I have been able to identify on the crude photographic map we compiled from the space survey. Tom, it is scientifically essential that we pay a visit to this area!”
Tom was almost as excited as Dr. Jatczak to learn of this new mystery. And in truth, he felt a great desire to set aside the burdens of command for a time. “Let’s do this,” he said with new enthusiasm. “Rather than fly back to the main base camp with the Titan, a small group of us could drive back in the derrick tank, stopping at the anomaly site on the way!—that is, if Dr. Wohl thinks you’re up to it, sir.”
Violet Wohl gave a reluctant nod. “Resistance is futile, I can tell!”
Within the hour, the Titan blasted off with a great sudden bound, arcing north under the guidance of Rafael Franzenberg, while the tank set off on its long, rugged journey with Tom, Bud, Kent, and Henrick Jatczak, whose scientific excitement seemed to have worked a miracle cure.
The sun had begun to creep below the horizon, and the sky was alight with something Little Luna had never seen—a red-orange sunset. “We’re starting to develop some clouds,” Tom commented.
Bud snorted. “Those little wisps up there aren’t what I call clouds!”
But abruptly, as they bounced along, the orange glow was whisked away, taking with it the blue-violet of the sky. Though a part of the sun was still visible, the sky above was black as midnight.
“What happened?” inquired Kent in surprise.
“We just passed through the skin of the atmosphere-envelope,” Tom explained. “It hasn’t expanded this far yet.” He added that the barrier would extend outward much more quickly as it moved away from the poles, a planned effect of the force of Little Luna’s rotation. “Give it another day or two. If the northern atmos-maker is operating as efficiently as this one, we’ll soon have a complete atmosphere covering almost the entire surface.”
With the brilliant earthshine providing nearly as much light as full day, the explorers were able to continue safely for several more hours before finally stopping for the night. After a packaged supper Tom tried to raise the north pole camp by relaying a call through the space outpost, but the tank’s transiphone equipment proved inadequate to the job.
“They’re probably having dinner in the Titan right now,” murmured Bud dreamily. “This prepackaged gunk makes Chow’s cactus-burgers sound like heaven.” He quickly added: “Don’t tell him I said that!”
Bud, Kent, and Dr. Jatczak conversed for a time, speaking of their lives fifty-thousand miles away. Noticing that Tom was quiet, Bud asked what was on his mind.
“Just thinking about our Brungarian pals and that Professor Lemura.”
“The man with the phony fingers?” asked Kent.
Tom nodded. “It just occurred to me—though he wasn’t enthusiastic about meeting any of us, he didn’t seem to have any particular problem with me, or Northrup, or Dr. Kutan.”
“The big shots, in other words,” Bud commented.
“You might say that. But I was looking at his face when Mirov introduced Gabe Knorff to him. He definitely had some kind of strong reaction, which he tried to hide. He wouldn’t shake Gabe’s hand, and practically ran away.” Tom’s voice trailed off.
“Young Gabe can be somewhat of a pill,” declared Jatczak with a wry chuckle.
“Yeah,” said Bud, “but how would some rocket brain from Kazakhistan already know that?”
Tom fell asleep with the mystery churning through his head, unsolved.
By noon the next day, the tank had crossed the equator and was drawing near to the location of Dr. Jatczak’s prize anomaly. They stopped frequently to allow the astronomer to take readings with his instruments. “Yes indeed!” he proclaimed. “We are very close. You can almost feel it, can’t you?—‘down’ is no longer quite down, but a bit to the side!”
“If you say so,” retorted Bud skeptically. He turned to Tom. “Where now? What’s the program this afternoon, space boy?” Bud asked.
“It looks like we need to keep heading a bit west of north,” Tom said.
Kent agreed, nodding in his spacesuit helmet. “How about starting with that range of hills over there?” He pointed off to the west.
The group reentered the tank, and soon they were working their way up a gradual incline in the barren rocky terrain. Presently they reached the low mountains and began following a wide, sinuous ledge that wound upward among the rocks. The colorful crags and peaks, which loomed majestically in the harsh light of the vacuum, actually were tiny compared to mountains on earth.
“Like miniature Alps,” Kent commented.
“There’s even white on the peaks, like snow,” noted Bud.
“Well, actually that’s a secondary oxide reaction between—”
“Never mind, Kent buddy,” interrupted the dark-haired pilot. “Leave me my romantic illusions!”
At this cry from Henrick Jatczak, Tom brought the tank to a skidding halt and looked back at the astronomer. He was pointing up through the dome, speechless.
“Good night!” whispered Bud.
Halfway up the side of a mountain crag, a huge inscription had been carved into the rock!
“A space symbol!” Bud gasped.
The weird symbol was circular and had segments radiating out from it, like a sunburst. It appeared to be more than thirty feet in diameter and stood out boldly against the stark rock face.
“It looks like the kind of symbol the space friends use,” said Tom softly. “But I’ve never seen that one before.”
“You will note that one of the radiating features is longer than the others,” Jatczak observed. “It may be meant to point the way to the very site we are seeking.”
They branched off from the route they were following and approached the carved peak.
“That looks like a road over there!” Kent exclaimed.
They followed the flat path, obviously artificial, until it became too narrow for the tank. Then the four got out and traveled further on foot, their excitement growing with every step.
Bud had taken the lead on the narrow trail. “Say, here’s a cave!” he called out, after rounding a huge boulder.
Something in Bud’s voice made Tom hurry forward. The sight that met his eyes was strange and intriguing. In the face of a steep pinnacle of bluish rock was a large opening. It seemed to be the entrance to a passageway. Though wide enough to admit all four of them, the floor of the passageway sloped sharply upward at an incline of almost 75 degrees.
Kent gave a low whistle. “Hey, that’s too smooth and well-finished to be a natural cave or rock fissure. Looks to me like an engineering job!”
Bud flashed an excited glance at Tom. “What do you make of it?”
Tom looked at the opening in solemn awe. “Our space friends,” he almost whispered, “must have carved that passage!”
“But why build it at such a steep angle?” Kent asked.
“It’s only a guess,” Tom replied. “But maybe their own planet has such low gravity that an incline like this is easy for them to ascend. Their bodies have evolved to handle it.”
Dr. Jatczak said, “It is safe to assume that the source of the gravitational effect lies within that cave!” His voice was emphatic.
Then another idea struck Tom. “If the space people really were here on the satellite, they may have left instructions for us and some samples of their civilization!”
“Well, sizzling skyrockets!” Bud exclaimed. “What’re we waiting for?” Eagerly he started to scramble up the sloping passageway, but Tom pulled him back. “What’s the matter?” Bud complained.
“Listen! The suit raditectors are picking up radiation!” They all paused to listen, and could hear the audible tones in their transiphone headsets that warned them of ambient radiation.
As Tom tuned several control knobs, the tones grew louder. Excitedly the young inventor watched the needle flicker upward on a dial built into his suit forearm. “High-level radiation!” he exclaimed. “But the Tomasite-Inertite layers in the suits, and the helmet coating, will protect us.”
Bud offered to go back to the tank and retrieve some sensor instruments for use in the cave. A few minutes later he returned with the instrument kit and a portable floodlight, battery-powered. “Thought this might help us see what’s up there,” he panted.
“Good! We can use it.”
They easily bounded up the slope and stood for a moment at the mouth of the cave. Tom pointed wordlessly at a smooth space on the wall just within. Another space symbol!
“I guess we’ve got the right address!” murmured Bud nervously.
The four entered the tunnel, its steep incline posing no real problem in the weak gravity of Little Luna. After an ascent of several dozen feet, the cavity ended at a large, long chamber with a horizontal floor. Tom flashed the light from side to side. The whitish glare revealed walls lined with shelflike indentations, bearing a bewildering array of strange objects. Some looked like twisted glassware used in chemical work. Others seemed to be made of stone or metal.
The explorers held their breath in sheer fascination. Then Kent asked Tom to direct the floodlight directly onto a blank wall. “What sort of rock is this?” he wondered aloud. “It’s run through with veins of some kind of crystal.”
“There are loose pieces all over the floor,” Tom observed. He bent down and picked up a couple fist-sized fragments, putting them in his suit sidepack for later analysis.
“Gentlemen, if I am not mistaken, there lies our goal!” called out Dr. Jatczak over his transiphone.
In the center of the floor was what looked like a cube-shaped rock about thirty inches on each side. It seemed inert. But as Tom and Jatczak began to approach it, they both cried out in alarm!
“What’s wrong?” exclaimed Bud in dread.
TERROR FROM THE SKY
“SOMETHING’S got ahold of us!” Tom shouted in response to Bud’s cry. “It’s pushing us sideways!”
“And look at the rock!” exclaimed Kent. The cube had become luminous!
Bud and Kent ran forward to attempt to drag their friends out of danger. But before they had taken two steps, Tom and Jatczak were suddenly jerked sideways. A pair of small silver-colored objects, one from each spacesuit, streaked away from them in a spiralling trajectory, as fast and hard to see as the blur of a whirling fan blade.
“Stand back!” Tom warned.
The small objects orbited the cube at blinding speed, coming closer and closer to it. Then they hit the cube and stopped moving instantly, stuck fast.
“The magtritanium wrenches from our tool belts!” Tom proclaimed. “There’s some sort of field around the cube that interacts with that combination of alloys.”
Though the object was still glowing faintly, the four were now able to approach with no difficulty. Tom scanned it with the portable instruments Bud had brought. In the silence of the eerie, airless cavern, there was something strange and menacing about its queer shape. Tom saw that it was not a perfect cube, each of its six faces being built up in several steps or layers.
“Just as I thought,” he said slowly, eyeing the readings. “It’s like the meteor-missile the space scientists sent to Enterprises—you can’t see anything inside it beyond the transparent glaze on the outside. There’s no heat and—that’s odd!—no radiation either.” He made a broad arc with the sensor instruments. “The radiation is coming from the walls of the chamber, not the cube itself.”
Curious, Tom tried to move the cube. Despite the low gravity, it wouldn’t budge. “It seems to be fused directly to the floor,” he said at last. “It may be that no power on Earth can move it!”
“In my opinion, this is the energy source for the gravitational-field concentrator,” Dr. Jatczak declared. “Perhaps it is fused to the floor because it uses this rocky substance, or the crystal within it, as a sort of antenna through which the effect is focused and controlled.”
“If that’s true,” said Kent Rockland, awestruck, “the entire core of this asteroid may be functioning as one big gravity antenna!”
“Your guess is as good as mine!” Tom muttered. Completely mystified, he worked the controls of the probe instruments but got no further data.
The men looked at one another in dismay. “Now what?” Kent asked.
“Only one thing we can do.” Tom shrugged. “Return to the ship for specialized equipment.”
Dr. Jatczak was obviously deeply stirred. “This will surely prove the great discovery of this expedition,” he declared. “Perhaps one of the great scientific discoveries of all time!”
“And listen, guys—we can’t let the boys from Brungaria get ahold of it!” Bud warned heatedly.
“Getting ahold of this object may be why they came to the satellite in the first place!” speculated Tom. “In any event, we’ve got to get to the Titan as quickly as possible!”
The explorers were half afraid that the cube-device would somehow prevent them from leaving. But their worries were unfounded. They arrived back at the derrick tank with no difficulty. “Okay, let’s get out of here!” Tom urged.
The foursome made good time on the last leg of their northward journey, though their impatience made the trip seem unbearable. But finally they came rumbling out of the hills and saw the base camp ahead, with the Titan towering serenely nearby and the atmosphere-making machine whirling away above.
“Look at that blue sky!” exclaimed Kent. “They’ve got an atmosphere established here too!”
“Wait’ll we tell them what we’ve found,” Bud chortled. “I’m in the mood for another celebration dinner!”
But Tom spoke a word of caution. “Let’s stop here and get out,” he said softly. The spaceship was still a good hundred yards distant. “Something’s wrong.” He glanced toward the sun. “It’s only five o’clock, but—”
“Right, Skipper,” said Bud. “Where is everybody?”
The base camp seemed deserted!
They exited the tank, removing their helmets slowly. The air was thin but good-smelling and easy to breathe. They began to trudge forward, looking about the ground, leg muscles tense and ready to run back to the waiting tank.
“I see no signs of struggle or attack,” murmured Dr. Jatczak.
“Come in, Titan!” Tom signaled repeatedly over his transiphone. No response! “They must be on board, but not wearing their spacesuits and away from the communications panel,” he said, puzzled. As if to prove his statement, one of the wide freight hatches at the base of the ship suddenly flew open. Chow Winkler popped out like a cannonball and came bouncing toward them across the open space, arms waving. His was wearing an earthly costume—bluejeans, boots, and a western shirt.
“Come on, buckaroos! Get inside pronto!” he cried frantically.
“What’s wrong with the camp?” Bud demanded.
Chow pointed skyward and screeched, “Look behind you!”
The boys whirled in alarm. Hovering overhead like some sinister bird of prey was a huge saucer-shaped object, bright yellow in color, topped by a low curving dome!
“Good Lord above!” Jatczak cried out. “A spaceship!”
“It’s your space friends, Tom!” Bud jabbered in a panic. “They must be mad because we disturbed their cave!”
“Spaceship nothing!” Tom retorted. “Listen—it’s a helicopter!”
“It’s them Brungarians!” yelled Chow. “Now come on!”
Now they all could see that the saucer was held aloft by whirling chopper blades attached, not above the fuselage, but in a circular opening on the underside surrounded by the ring-shaped lower hull. As Chow spoke, small round panels flashed open on the inner wall of the lower fuselage. Three long, snakelike tubes whipped into view—metal tentacles of jointed segments, apparently motorized in some manner. Each tentacle was armed with a wide suction cup on its tip! As the saucer-copter approached, the tentacle tubes groped menacingly toward the Americans.
“Run!” Bud shouted.
The four travelers and Chow dashed for the safety of the Titan, but the rotund cook and frail Dr. Jatczak could not keep up with the others.
A scream of terror split the air!
Tom turned quickly. What he saw made his face blanch in horror. Firmly gripped on his broad back by one of the huge suction cups, a tentacle was hauling Chow up into the enemy ship!
AS CHOW was drawn into the dark opening beneath the enemy ship, Tom’s blood ran cold. Yet he was powerless to aid the faithful Texan.
Tom himself was wildly dodging the writhing tentacle that was aimed at him. No time to reach the Titan now! Jatczak and Kent, too, were ducking and weaving in a frantic attempt to evade capture. Heedless of his own safety, Bud sprinted back to help the frail astronomer. And now the third tentacle, having deposited Chow in the ship, came snaking down again in the direction of Bud Barclay!
At that moment Tom felt a strange vibration from his sidepack, and a tingling, electric feeling that seemed to penetrate right through his spacesuit. The cave rocks! In a panic Tom scooped them up out of the pack, raising them up in his gauntleted hands to toss them aside. But as he lifted them, they seemed to come alive, semi-transparent and glowing with a strange green fire.
There was a searing hiss, followed by a burst of light—not from the rocks, but from the grappler tentacles! To Tom’s utter astonishment, small sections of each tentacle vanished in puffs of smoke, completely disintegrated by some powerful force from the glowing rocks!
The severed ends of the tentacles convulsed, then fell limply to the ground in slow motion.
“Yahoo!” Bud yelled in a frenzy of relief. “Give it to ’em, Tom! Blast ‘em, boy!”
Impulsively, Tom started to lift the rocks toward the Brungarian saucer, as if aiming them. But suddenly he checked himself. If he should destroy the enemy craft, war on Earth might result. And besides, he suddenly remembered, Chow was a captive in the saucer. His life could not be jeopardized.
As Tom hesitated, the useless stumps of the tentacles were withdrawn into the craft. With a rumble of concealed jets the saucer-copter soared off across the dark blue-gray sky and vanished behind the mountains.
Bud was disappointed and angry. “Why’d you let them get away, Tom? We had them!” But when he saw the anguish on his friend’s face, he apologized.
The other expeditioners now cautiously emerged from the spaceship. Unsurprisingly, Jason Graves was indignant that Tom had not started a shooting war with the Brungarian saucer. But when Tom explained, he grudgingly admitted that his young commander was right.
“We’ll save Chow some other way,” Tom declared, gritting his teeth, and the others nodded vigorously.
Kent spoke up. “I still don’t savvy what happened, Tom, but those little marvels sure saved us!” The two rock fragments had ceased glowing and again seemed inert and harmless.
Tom admitted that he was completely baffled. “It seems impossible, but I have to wonder if, somehow, our space friends are monitoring us here and took control of those rocks themselves, to protect us.”
“I see nothing impossible in that, Tom,” declared Jatczak. “We must open our minds to incredible things. Consider this: perhaps the entire asteroid is functioning as a super-computer, energized by the cube device!”
“Good grief!” burst out Gabe. “That’s a thought!”
“Here’s one more,” added Hank. “Tom, do you remember what happened when we tried to retrieve that specimen missile from the Atlantic?” He was referring to the recent operation involving Tom’s diving seacopter.
“Sure,” said Tom. “Dad’s suction lifter blew a fuse, but we snagged the missile with cables.”
Bud finished the account. “The metal cables started fizzing where they touched the rocket hull and the hull broke apart.”
Hank nodded excitedly. “Right! First an electrical anomaly—then a disintegration effect!”
Tom snapped his gloved fingers. “And that’s what happened here, too—something similar, at least.” He looked again at the two rocks in his hands. “The space people may use this substance as a key part of their technology. By studying it, we may be able to make it work for us!”
There was a confused babble of speculation. Then Hank said, “All of this reminds me—your Dad transmitted a long message to us while you were traveling, Tom. I haven’t gone over it, but I think he’s been able to translate those space symbols.”
“All this future-minded speculation is well and good,” said Graves hotly, “but may I remind you, one of our crew has been taken prisoner!” He turned to Jess Northrup. “Colonel, you represent the United States government here. I demand that you take action!”
“You do, do you? What do you have in mind, Jake?” Northrup seemed to smirk at Graves.
“Tom Swift is in charge,” said Dr. Kutan in his customary calm voice. “I suggest we all allow him to consider the situation in an unhurried manner. A great deal depends upon his decisions, not only here on this satellite, but on Earth as well.”
Gabe flashed a picture. “I’ll caption this one, The Moment of Decision!”
“For the moment, let’s return to the ship,” Tom said.
As they walked Bud asked Tom for his opinion about the strange saucer-craft. “Do you suppose that’s their spaceship, with chopper blades added on somehow?”
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “It’s much too small for the size of the crew they seem to have brought, and I don’t see any indication of a real space propulsion system. My guess is, it’s some kind of exploration craft they brought with them, just as we brought the tanks. They may have planned to use that grappler-arm setup for rock samples.”
“Or to steal the gravity device from us!” Bud retorted. “In any event, they must’ve been counting on you to create an atmosphere here. Mirov probably decided to bring the saucer when he learned through his spies what your plans were.”
“Right. It’s clear they had early intelligence on the atmos-maker.”
“One positive thing, though,” Hank put in. “Since the air doesn’t extend up very far, that chopper-saucer won’t be as useful to them as they probably hoped. They’ll have to maneuver around the hills and mountains, just as if they were traveling on the ground.”
Col. Northrup, meanwhile, told how the Brungarian craft had been sighted just a few minutes before the tank had arrived. It had made a series of low passes, trying to grab personnel off the ground, but had skulked away when the American crew fled into the Titan for safety. “Mirov’s turning out to be a pretty crafty Joe, Tommy.”
Inside the ship the crew showered Tom and the others with questions about their strange finds. Despite Tom’s cautious replies, his own brain was seething with wild speculations. Obviously the cube possessed tremendous power. But what kind of power; power for what purpose? How was it controlled? Above all, why had the space people left it in the cave?
“Alright, Swift, you’ve had time to think. What about Winkler?” Graves asked in a booming voice.
“I’m not forgetting him,” Tom replied, grimfaced. “There’s not much we can do, except wait.”
“Wait!” Bud exclaimed, eager for action.
“I’m sure we’ll hear from the Brungarians,” Tom said coolly. “They’ll probably hold Chow as a hostage and try to make us—”
Skree-e-e-e! Tom’s words were drowned out by the shrill whine of a jet engine. Every head jerked upward as a silver blur streaked over the camp to a crash landing close by.
“Another message!” Bud cried out. He started forward until Tom commanded: “All of you stay here while I run a check. It may be explosive!”
After determining that the missile was not armed, Tom left the Titan. Dashing to the spot, he found that this was a much smaller projectile, the sort that could be launched from the saucer craft. But as before, inside was a tube containing a note. Tom beckoned the other members of his expedition to come forward. As they gathered around him, he read aloud:
TOM SWIFT, U.S. COMMANDER:
LEAVE THIS SATELLITE WITH THE ENTIRE PIRATE FORCE WITHIN IN ONE HOUR, OR THE MAN WE TOOK PRISONER WILL BE EXECUTED. IF YOU OBEY, WE DECLARE THAT HE WILL BE RETURNED TO THE EARTH IN OUR SPACE VEHICLE UNHARMED. IF YOU CHOOSE FURTHER AGGRESSIVE TACTICS, WE CANNOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN CONSEQUENCE. REPLY IMMEDIATELY ON THE WAVELENGTH STATED HEREIN.
A communications frequency was written at the bottom of the sheet above the signature of Streffan Mirov.
“Those skunks!” Bud exploded, clenching his fists.
“Never mind all that!” Graves cut in. “What do we do now—clear out like a lot of whipped dogs and not even put up a protest?”
“Not on your life!” Tom snapped. He paced up and down, running his fingers through his blond crew cut. His brows were puckered in deep thought.
“Mind if I float a little idea?” asked Northrup.
Tom looked at him and waited.
“I’m a bigger fish than our cook,” he continued. “Let’s say we offered to make ’em a trade—me for Chow. We get Chow back, they get a better hostage, and just maybe I can use the authority of these stars on my chest to get Mirov talking.”
“It’s a standard response in such situations,” was Kutan’s opinion. “It may well prove effective.”
“You’re a courageous man, Colonel!” exclaimed Graves. “An American hero!”
Tom nodded without enthusiasm. “I’m willing to make the offer and see how Mirov responds.” He went to the communications control panel and tuned the radio to the frequency indicated. “Commander Mirov, this is Tom Swift. I am replying to your message.”
As there was no response, Tom repeated the message several times.
“Maybe he doesn’t realize the terrain will block the signal,” speculated Rafe.
“Naw, they’d have to’ve figgered that out by now,” Northrup proclaimed. “Just give him a chance to find a good clear line of sight.”
A voice finally erupted from the speaker, almost inaudible in a storm of static. “This is Mirov. What do you have to say to me?”
Tom outlined Northrup’s proposal. He was somewhat surprised when Mirov answered almost immediately with, “We accept this plan. Have Colonel Northrup drive to our base in one of your small vehicles. When we have him, I will authorize one of my officers to release the prisoner near your camp. Any sign of hostility toward our aircraft will mean—” But the rest was lost to static.
“I can guess,” muttered Tom.
“Time to go,” Northrup said. “I remember the way.” He shook hands all around and headed for the airlock. Minutes later, in one of the smaller tractor-tanks, he had disappeared around one of the rugged hills that ringed the small valley.
Tom glanced at the clock. “It’ll take Northrup several hours to arrive at the Brungarian base. I don’t imagine we’ll see Chow before sundown—maybe not until after daybreak tomorrow.”
Nervous and distracted like the rest of the crew, Tom sought a way to pass the time. He decided that the first order of business was to report to his father.
Intrigued by Tom’s new discoveries, Mr. Swift was nonetheless angered and deeply disturbed by what was transpiring on Little Luna between the two camps. “You’ve acted wisely, son,” he said. “We can’t allow them to maneuver us into provoking a war!”
“What is the Brungarian government saying to Uncle Sam right now?”
“According to Luther Helm, they have finally confirmed the presence of their expedition on the asteroid. But Admiral Krevitt told me something interesting, not for public attribution. Some of his sources are hinting at a big problem with their expedition!”
“What kind of problem, Dad?”
“It’s very unclear,” was the response. “The gist of it seems to be that there has been a break in communications, a loss of contact. I’m assuming it has to do with the interference caused by the satellite, but Krevitt thinks the Brungarian government is very concerned.” Mr. Swift promised to keep Tom posted.
After breaking contact, Tom sat down to examine his father’s work on translating the space symbols Tom had relayed to him. This turned out to be so engrossing that Tom almost forgot that he was awaiting the release of a hostage! This is an incredible message! he thought. But I still need to clean it up a little.
At 8 P.M., the sun half below the horizon, a great commotion surged through the Titan. Tom arose from his workbench and called out: “What’s going on?”
“It’s our ramblin’ cowpoke himself!” Bud called out happily. “The saucer just let him loose over by the atmos-maker!”
Astonished, the young inventor ran to the window in time so see the yellow craft zoom out of sight. Down below a familiar figure was trudging his way toward the spaceship, a broad grin on his face. Most of the crew crowded through the hatch to run and greet their comrade.
But Tom held back, a current of alarm in his veins.
“This isn’t right!” he muttered to himself. “Something’s going on!”
CHOW WINKLER was hailed by cheers and shouts of welcome. The crew swarmed from the Titan to surround the returning captive.
Rafael Franzenberg slapped Chow on the back. “What was the idea of letting that big snake grab you?” he joked. “Don’t they grow ’em that big in Texas?”
Chow grinned and scratched his head. “Pardner, if I ever saw a sidewinder like that on the range,” he drawled, “I’d sure crawl into the nearest gopher hole an’ pull it in after me!”
The westerner was hurried aboard ship, where Tom greeted him with an affectionate bear-hug. “Did they mistreat you, Chow?” he asked.
“Nope, not a bit,” replied the cook. “Now don’t get me wrong—they didn’t have one o’ those vibro-relaxer beds fer me t’ lie in. Nothin’ like that. But they purty much let me be.” He related how the tentacle had drawn him up next to a narrow platform, dangerously near the rotor blades, where a uniformed crewman had deactivated the suction cup and led the prisoner into the ship. Chow was locked into a small compartment with a chair and lavatory facilities, and a single round porthole set in the wall. “Had bars on it, too—made me feel like I ’as in the pokey!”
“Did you see any sign of their big spaceship at the base?” inquired Hank Sterling.
“Didn’t see any sign o’ the base at all,” was the reply. “All I could see through that porthole after we set down was a bunch o’ mountains.”
Tom described Mirov and asked if he had spoken to his captive. But Chow said he had only seen the single crewman, who had also guided him off the saucer-craft when it returned him. “And that there feller never did say a word to me,” he added.
“What’s running around in that brain of yours, Skipper?” Bud asked. “Why the big frown?”
The young inventor rubbed his chin. “None of this adds up. Obviously Chow was returned long before Col. Northrup could have reached the Brungarian base—and it sounds like the saucer didn’t go to the base either.” He glanced at Teodor Kutan, who gave an eloquent shrug.
“And here’s another thing,” Tom went on. “Why did Mirov’s note ask us to contact him by radio?”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Ron Corey. “He wanted our answer.”
“But he would have known our answer, just by the fact that the Titan had, or hadn’t, taken off.”
“I see what you mean,” Bud said. “It’s almost as he wanted to make it easy for you to get in touch, as if—” Bud looked at his pal in sudden concern. “As if making the hostage exchange was what the whole thing was about from the first!”
The discussion was interrupted by a loud buzz from the Titan’s radiophone—incoming message!
“More nonsense from Mirov, no doubt,” said Dr. Jatczak scornfully.
“It’s a different frequency,” Tom muttered. He matched channels and answered.
“Tom Swift, this is Corporal Nirotka!” Tom recognized the name as one of the officers he had met at the Brungarian base.
“I’m listening, Corporal.”
“Thank to God, we try for hours to radio, but the interference comes and goes. Please, you must understand…But alas, this English, not so good…”
Kutan took the mike from Tom. “Dy sra traslerma’on.” He told Tom, “I offered to translate for him.”
There followed a lengthy, frantic exchange, interrupted by Kutan’s translations. “He is most apologetic for the raid on our camp here. He asks that we not blame his country for it.” Kutan’s eyebrows now rose in surprise. “Tom!—he says Commander Mirov is no longer in charge—he has been taken prisoner!”
“Prisoner!” repeated Tom. “By whom?”
Kutan listened to Nirotka for a moment. “He says, by Professor Lemura!” It seemed that Lemura had overpowered Mirov with the help of two turncoat officers, and had imprisoned him in the helicopter vehicle. Nirotka claimed that everything that had happened since then had been the doing of Lemura.
Nirotka now switched to English. “Listen me, Tom Swift! Lemura, he is bad, insane—he sends us threats, by radio—to destroy this moon, to kill us all! And he has s’machekt—fouled up, you say—the big transmitter, the one for Earth. We are cut off, no instructions!”
Tom grabbed the microphone. “Nirotka! What does Lemura plan to do?”
There was a pause. “I am sorry to say…We brought along from Brungaria the big big bomb, the ‘H,’ like the letter…”
“An H-bomb?” Tom was stunned!
“Yes. The government wanted it left here, as a, what you say? Deterrent against U.S.A., so you will not try to take this moon for yourselves. Now Lemura says he will use it to break up New Brungaria, to pieces.”
“What does he demand from you?”
“Nothing!” cried Nirotka. “He only says, soon, maybe tomorrow! He is insane!”
“Do you know where the bomb is?”
“He stole it, on the aircraft. Already, though, I think he has put it down somewhere inside the ground. Listen, Tom Swift, there are forty-three of us here, and we will die unless you take us off, in your Titan ship!”
“What about your own ship?”
“Bah! The man did something—it is useless.” Nirotka’s voice took on a pleading tone. “Please trust us, Swift, we are your allies now! You must save my people!”
As the man continued to plead, Tom removed his finger from the microphone button. Dr. Jatczak lay a hand on his arm. “Tom, we must do what we can. It would be inhuman not to attempt to save these people.”
Tom shook his head grimly. “We might be able to rescue ten, even twenty—but not the whole contingent.” He activated the microphone again. “Listen, Corporal—I’ll have Dr. Kutan translate what I am about to say.” Tom handed the mike over to Kutan. “We haven’t enough room in our spaceship for all of you. But I think Lemura’s threat is mostly a bluff. Even a hydrogen bomb wouldn’t be powerful enough to blast the satellite to pieces. He’s trying to terrorize you. He probably intends to set off the bomb near one of our bases, to wipe it out. The best thing would be for both our teams to go into hiding on the far side of the asteroid, as far from the bases as we can get. Eventually, other ships from Earth will come to pick us up. Do you understand?”
There was a long pause after Kutan had finished his translation. Then Nirotka’s voice came on again. “Yes, we understand it. We know of a secret place, but must not say it on radio. I will send a courier to you immediately—we can seek refuge together. Now, I sign off.”
Trying not to take note of the faces around him, Tom immediately made contact with his father on Fearing Island. Mr. Swift was horrified! “I can hardly believe this is happening! The State Department will be informed at once, and they will make a formal protest to the Brungarian government!”
“I don’t think the Brungarian government has much to say about these things any more,” declared Tom bitterly. “Lemura seems to be running his own game.” The young inventor recounted the plan he had evolved with Nirotka.
“Yes,” said Damon Swift, “going into hiding is probably the wisest course of action. But you all must leave immediately!”
“I’m breaking the connection now, Dad,” Tom said. “The longer we’re on the air, the more likely Lemura will be able to pick us up through the interference.” Tom expressed his love to his father and family, and switched off the space radiophone.
“I-I wonder how long it’ll be before their courier gets here with the location of the hiding place,” quavered Gabe Knorff. “You don’t suppose he’s walking over, do you?”
“Obviously not,” Tom replied. “They must have one or two ground vehicles. Meanwhile—everyone, we must make emergency preparations to relocate.”
“Can’t we just fly to the new location in the Titan?” asked Violet Wohl.
Jason Graves answered on Tom’s behalf. “And where would we hide the spaceship, hmm, doctor? The idea is not to be found!”
“If you thread your way between the peaks, you’ll be safe from the saucer,” Tom explained. “The atmosphere is too shallow for it to fly over them.”
As everyone scattered to their emergency tasks, Tom pulled Bud aside. “I don’t want to tell the others yet, but I do plan to blast off in the Titan after all.”
“Then you’ve got a copilot, Tom,” Bud declared loyally. “But where are we going?”
“Where? To find a big big bomb!”
“DO YOU really think we can find the H-bomb?” asked Bud. “And disarm it?”
“From the surface, not a chance,” was the response. “But if we make a few loops around Little Luna in the Titan, I think some of our longrange detectors will be able to lead us to it. As for disarming it, we may not need to!”
“All we have to do is get above the concentrated-gravity zone and chuck it out into space!”
As the tense minutes dropped away, the crew members gathered their belongings, food, water, and various emergency supplies—and a cage full of white rats. The items would have to be carried by hand or in backpacks, as using the tanks would make their route obvious to Lemura.
“We’ll have to lug along the space helmets and pressurized airtanks,” noted Hank Sterling to Tom. “We don’t know whether Lemura will allow the atmos-makers to continue operating.”
“That pizen rattler prob’ly plans to blow ’em up!” exclaimed Chow glumly. “Brand my horseradish, I wish’d I’d tried t’break out o’ that room on the saucer—I’d have shown him some real Texas fists!”
Less than ninety minutes after Tom had spoken to his father, the Brungarian courier arrived at the base riding a strange, compact little electric vehicle resembling a motorcycle with huge balloon tires, obviously built for great speed and agility. “I am Lt. Sergela Prualungis,” said the woman, snapping a salute to Tom. “Here is the map to the secret location—a series of very deep, what shall we say?—deep cracks in the ground, on the far side. We have begun already to walk there, all of us, staying in shadows and narrow passes. We propose to meet you there.” Tom took the map with thanks, and she added, “The whole walking trip will be days long, but with each step we are farther from danger. It is all one can do, eh?”
After she had driven off again to join her countrymen, Tom assembled the American expeditioners and explained his intention to search for the bomb. The crewmen clustered around in stunned silence.
“What are our chances, Skipper?” Hank Sterling asked quietly.
Tom shrugged. “We’ll need luck,” he admitted. Hank laid a hand on the young scientist’s shoulder without speaking, while others pressed forward to shake his hand and wish him success.
“Thanks, fellows!” A lump rose in Tom’s throat as he realized that he had won the crew’s complete trust and affection. They were depending on his leadership to save them. “We may not be successful,” he said somberly. “But no one really knows whether you’ll be safe if the bomb explodes, even after you reach the other side of the asteroid. We’re all taking risks today, and facing great danger as best we know how. And I want to say, I’m proud to know you!”
As the others set off between the hills, Bud commented softly, “I’m glad you didn’t say ‘proud to have known you’!”
“We’ll get through this, flyboy!” Tom said defiantly.
Inside the now-deserted Titan, Tom and Bud made ready to blast off. The countdown, a short one, proceeded methodically. But when it reached zero, the great engines remained silent!
“Good night!” Bud gasped. He gaped at the control panel. “The whole atomic thrust system is dead as a doornail!”
Tom leapt from his seat and slammed a fist against the viewpane. “I was afraid of this. Sabotage!”
“But who could have gotten aboard to do it?” Bud demanded. “The ship flew fine just days ago!”
A voice spoke behind them. “I, er, may have an answer for you!”
Bud groaned loudly. “Knorff! How did you sneak back aboard?”
“Through the freight hatch,” replied the redhaired photographer meekly. “I figured my journalistic duty was here, with you guys.”
Tom didn’t bother blowing up at the impulsive young stowaway. “Okay, you’re here. What did you mean when you said—”
Gabe fumbled in a pocket and took out a small photo print. “It was the first day and I was just checking out my camera and flash settings, and didn’t think much about it at the time. He didn’t even make an excuse, just mumbled something and walked away. But I had to wonder—why was he coming out of the storage hold where you were keeping the second atmos-maker, the south pole one? At that time we were busy setting up the other one.”
He held out the photo to Tom, but the young space veteran didn’t look at it. “I don’t need to see it. I’d already figured out that Jess Northrup has been working for the other side.”
The photo showed Northrup emerging from the hatchway of storage hold B.
“How did you know?” asked Bud, incredulous. “Because of the hostage business?”
Tom nodded. “That’s when I started putting it together. I remembered that Northrup had been involved in the original construction of the Titan by NASA—he was in a good position to ruin the bracket beam, maybe even Jatczak’s chair.”
“He could have been in that hold to sabotage that part of the second atmos-maker, the part that failed at the south pole,” Gabe said. “I just wish I’d said something, Tom,” he added ruefully.
“Sometime over the last couple days he sabotaged the engines.” Tom stared out the viewpane at the night landscape, illuminated by earthshine. “He didn’t want us to have any chance of escaping Little Luna, even if we got word from the Brungarians about the bomb. He and Lemura have been working together all along. And now they’re riding around together in that saucer-copter.”
“But why?” demanded Gabe. “What’s Lemura’s goal?”
Tom turned and faced him. “Sheer lunacy—just as it was the first time.”
Gabe looked blank. “What first time?”
“The first time he tried to revenge himself against the country of his birth, the country that condemned him to death.”
Eyes bulging wide, Bud choked out a single word:
Korvant Rotzog, a Brungarian rocket scientist blamed for a disaster in space during the totalitarian era, had escaped the firing squad with the help of western agents, and had been given a new identity. But he had used his technical genius to plot a mad vengeance against Brungaria. As recounted in Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship, Tom and Bud had narrowly thwarted his evil ambitions.
“I thought the guy was dead!” exclaimed Gabe in confusion.
“No remains were ever recovered from Carpe island,” Tom replied. “When his rocket base went up, the burning super-fuel reduced everything to ash. He must’ve had an escape vehicle ready and waiting—or maybe he was never there at all!”
“Now I get the fingerprint business,” Gabe remarked. “It never was to fool us—but to mislead the Brungarians into thinking he was that man Lemura.”
Tom nodded his agreement. “Lemura is probably dead. But his fingerprints live on!”
“Bet he used the same surgeon who made that Fearing Island spy look like he’d been beat up!” Bud cried, half in anger and half in awe. “Then he was able to take Lemura’s place on the space expedition.”
Gabe laughed unexpected. “Okay, guys, now the great light dawns! That must be why he didn’t want me to see him up close—he thought I’d recognize him, because he remembered my name as someone who’d been on the yacht where he was holed-up for a while. But man, I was only aboard for a total of two or three hours! I don’t think I ever caught sight of him.”
“He must look a lot like the real Lemura,” Bud commented.
“The real Lemura was a Soviet scientist, Bud,” Tom retorted. “Any photo of him would probably be decades out of date.”
Tom sat down again, and Bud put a hand on his shoulder. “What now, Skipper? Join the others?”
Gabe asked fearfully, “Do we even have enough time? We don’t know when Rotzog plans to set off the bomb.”
Suddenly Tom brightened. “Wait a second! Now that we know Rotzog’s behind all this—I think I can tell you when the bomb is set to go off—and where it is!”
Bud shot a wry look toward Gabe Knorff. “Genius at work, Gabe. Maybe you should get a shot—no, put that thing down!” Bud turned to Tom. “I know you’re aching to explain, Tom, old chum.”
Tom was already at work at the computer station. “Ten to one Rotzog is still feeding his main obsession—revenge against Brungaria! In his crazed mind, just setting off a big bomb on Little Luna wouldn’t accomplish anything, but—what if he set it off in such a way that it threw the satellite out of orbit?”
“Is that possible?” gasped Knorff.
“Very possible,” Tom confirmed. “Just a split-second of thrust on the leading edge of the satellite would send her into an atmosphere-grazing trajectory straight at Earth!—but it would have to be timed perfectly. And that’s what I’m calculating now.”
Presently a long series of coordinates flashed onto the monitor screen. “There’s the list,” said Tom.
“The list?” Bud repeated. “Can’t you narrow it down?”
“Sure can. Because there’s a second element to factor in. I’m sure he wants Little Luna to come down over Brungaria! Only one realistic trajectory will do that. By combining the factors, we’ll know both the when and the where—the bomb will have to be located more or less along the midline of the asteroid’s mass, right on the fore-edge at the moment of detonation.”
Gabe had turned white, making a stark contrast to his red hair. “Listen, guys, I’ve seen movies and—I mean—if this thing actually hits the earth, it won’t just be a problem for Brungaria. Won’t it, like—wipe out all life? Total extinction?”
“What do you want me to do, Gabe?” asked Tom, his face stony. “Broadcast a warning? Just the sight of Little Luna in the sky caused mass panic! If the bomb goes off and we start heading earthward, there won’t be time to get another bomb up here to divert it. We’ll hit. End of story!” Tom realized all too well that his beloved family, in fact all mankind, were in dire peril.
“Then—” the photographer gulped. “Let’s go get that bomb, boys!”
TOM LOCATED the probable coordinates for the bomb on the crude photo-map of Little Luna. The area was several miles in diameter and not far from their base—about nine miles southeast, still in the daylight zone.
“We’ll take the smallest, fastest tank,” Tom said, “and bring along whatever tools and instruments might help us disarm the bomb.”
“Swell,” grated Bud as he paced back and forth behind Tom. From the angry flush on his face, Tom guessed what was on his mind.
“Simmer down, pal,” he advised gently, laying a hand on Bud’s shoulder. “Whether we like it or not, we must keep cool. There’s too much at stake to lose our heads.”
In fifteen minutes, their tank crammed with equipment, Tom, Bud, and Gabe were scooting and scrambling across the defiant terrain of Little Luna. Tom pushed the vehicle’s electric motors to the limit, and it seemed that half the time they were soaring through the air from one rise or hillock to the next.
“This is more like flying than driving!” gulped Gabriel Knorff. “But whatever you do, don’t slow down!”
Studying the map, Bud observed, “Looks like we’ll have quite a bit of landscape to poke around in.”
“I’m pretty sure it’ll be easier than it looks,” Tom said. “See that big, steep-sided crater that I’ve marked? It would make an ideal blast-chamber for Rotzog’s purpose—just like the combustion chamber of a rocket, with the opening at the top serving as a nozzle. I’m going to look for the bomb right in the center.”
The three fell silent, prey to the dread and tension of their mission. Five, ten, twenty minutes passed. Then without warning Tom swerved the wheel violently to the right, nearly sending the tank into a sideways somersault!
“G-good grief!” cried Bud. “What’s wrong.”
Tom killed the engine. “Caught a glimpse of something—something we don’t want glimpsing us!”
The tank had skittered into deep shadow between arching boulders. Now Tom pointed off into the sun-drenched valley that they had been following.
“The saucer!” Gabe exclaimed.
The helicraft had appeared between two peaks, dwarfed by their craggy elevation. Unable to rise higher, it was forced to cruise cautiously 100 feet above the valley floor.
“They’re coming from where we’re heading,” noted Bud. “Maybe they just planted the bomb!”
“If so, that’s good news,” Tom muttered. “They will have given themselves plenty of time to get clear of the blast area.” He leaned forward and began to tune the tank’s transiphone unit.
“Tom, you’re not planning to try radioing that loon, are you?” Gabe demanded.
“No,” Tom replied. “But they probably have some kind of in-ship communications setup, like an intercom. Wouldn’t hurt to see if we can listen in.”
After several tries, Tom was able to zero-in on the correct frequency. He boosted the amplification to maximum.
Amidst the usual static, a torrent of angry Brungarian poured from the speaker! There were several distinct voices—but mainly two.
“Wish I spoke their language!” murmured Tom. “But I recognize one voice—it’s Mirov.”
“The other bigmouth must be Rotzog,” Bud guessed. Then he added, “Listen, Mirov called him by name!”
The craft had now passed over the tank’s hiding spot, and the wave-canceling effects of Little Luna’s terrain were beginning to assert themselves. The three Americans turned in their seats to look back at the saucer-chopper.
“What’s going on?” asked Gabe breathlessly. “It slowed down.”
Suddenly the sounds from the speaker took on a shrill tone of desperation and fear.
“They’re doing something to Mirov!” Tom said. Then he flinched back. A shrill, horrifying scream burst from the transiphone—continuing an instant later, not from the speaker, but from the sky!
“Look!” cried Bud. “They’ve thrown somebody overboard!”
“It’s Mirov!” Tom shouted.
A figure in a dark uniform was tumbling through the thin air of Little Luna! The Americans sat frozen with horror. Mirov’s ghastly shriek rang in their ears!
In every mind the same nightmarish picture was burned like a photograph—the picture of a helpless captive being hurled from the Brungarian helicraft to the rocky ground below!
From the speed of the fall it seemed the man had been propelled groundward with great force. It was the most brutal and cold-blooded act Tom had ever known. Shuddering, he managed to pull himself together. Unless he and his friends acted at once, an even more terrible catastrophe loomed in the offing. Everyone on Little Luna would be blasted to death!
“We must move fast!” he cried out. Waiting but a moment for the saucer to gather speed and soar out of sight, Tom activated the tank motors and quickly spun it around.
“You’re going the wrong way!” shouted Gabe.
But Bud said confidently, “Tom knows what he’s doing.”
“Mirov should be able to tell us some things about the bomb,” Tom said in explanation. “The low gravity makes even a fall from that height survivable, unless he slammed into some rocks.” He didn’t need to add a further motive: that making some attempt to help the man was the only decent thing to do.
They had seen the Brungarian hurtle past the side of a nearby mountain and out of sight. Unfortunately, the ground was broken and shadowed by rocks, crags, and gulches. Precious minutes slipped away as they swept the terrain with electronic binoculars.
“There he is!” The cry broke from Gabe Knorff. He pointed to a man’s figure, spread-eagled grotesquely on the rim of a sandy canyon.
The rumbled to a stop and the Americans ran to Mirov’s side. “He’s still alive,” said Tom. “But I think his shoulder is broken.” The commander was only semi-conscious, but when Tom applied stimulants and injected a powerful painkiller, the man began to revive. At first his deepset gray eyes seemed glazed, as they roved uncomprehending over the faces of the Americans looking down at him. Then, with a rush of returning consciousness, he jerked upright and burst into a frantic torrent of words.
“Can you speak English to us, Commander?” Tom asked quickly.
“Yes, yes, sorry—my friends!” He began to explain about the H-bomb, but Tom cut him short.
“We know about Rotzog’s plan,” Tom declared. Mirov confirmed the general location of the bomb, which was as Tom predicted.
“But I was imprisoned when they set it down!” he exclaimed. “I do not know if it is well hidden or visible on the surface.” He added that Rotzog planed to detonate the bomb by remote signal after departing into space.
“How does he plan to get away?” Bud demanded.
“That’s no puzzle!” declared Tom in fury. “He was heading toward our camp at the pole!” Mirov confirmed that Rotzog intended to have his accomplice, Colonel Northrup, reverse the sabotage that was preventing the Titan from functioning. Then he and his party would use the American craft to flee!
“They will return to Earth with your ship their valuable prize,” groaned Mirov. “I ordered him to stop, in the name of our beloved Brungaria, but it only made him furious!” Tom and Bud exchanged glances—wherever Rotzog was heading, it was surely not back to Earth, a world he intended to doom to destruction! But Tom refrained from telling Mirov all he had deduced.
They carried Mirov into the tank and attempted to cushion him as best they could. Then Tom poured on the power, and the tank scurried on its way.
Finally they rolled over the rim of the wide, deep crater that Tom thought was the most likely site for the bomb.
“But where is it?” muttered Bud. The steep-sided crater was half cloaked in shadow. There was no sign that a human being had ever set foot there!
Tom activated his battery of sensor instruments and scanned the floor and walls of the crater, sweeping them back and forth. When he finally looked up at his companions, his face was pale and grim.
“Nothing!” he choked. “Not a trace!”
An abrupt sound, rolling and booming through Little Luna’s scant atmosphere, drew their eyes northward.
“Oh no!” Bud cried desperately.
A minute speck against the indigo sky, the Titan roared upward into space!
ATOMS TO ATOMS
THE GREAT spaceship rose like a spark, its corona-trail of ionized oxygen glowing brightly and flashing lightning.
“Forget them!” Tom commanded. “We must concentrate on the bomb!”
But Gabe was giving way to despair. “What’s the use? He could send the signal any moment now!”
“No, young man, you are wrong!” gasped Commander Mirov, weak with pain. “I did not make myself clear. The remote signal activates the timer mechanism. There follows another fifteen minutes before detonation.” He rose up on one elbow, surveying the crater. “But I see nothing. I think the madman has buried the device.”
“But how can we find it, Tom?” asked Bud softly. “Is there anything left to try?”
Tom’s eyebrows flew up as a idea struck him. “Of course there is! How could we have forgotten? We can use the penetradar scanner to find the bomb even if they covered it over!”
Moving like lightning Tom activated the system and swiveled the transmitter-reflector to take in the crater. “There!” he cheered. “Near that outcropping over there!”
They rumbled down the crater wall, sending a huge plume of purple-gray dust floating into the atmosphere. Stopping fifty feet short of where the penetradar showed the bomb to be buried, the Americans piled out of the vehicle. As the deadly clock ticked away, they used shovels to uncover the fiendish device.
“Now what?” panted Bud, eyeing the barrel-sized metal mechanism.
“Commander, do you know how to disarm it?” Tom asked by transiphone.
“It is easy enough,” was the answer. “But first you must remove the panel on the side, marked with the sign Theta—the Greek letter!”
They found the metal panel. But there seemed to be no way to open it!
“Bah!” cried Mirov. “He has welded something over the release mechanism! But now, I don’t know what to tell you.”
Bud and Gabe looked at Tom, silently awaiting his next move. The young inventor, perspiring and trembling with dread and tension, pushed his fingers through his blond hair. “Only one option left,” he said.
“One’s good enough for me,” said Bud. “If it works!”
Tom shrugged. “It may. No, better than that—it probably will. But there’s a small chance—”
“What, genius boy?”
Tom looked his best friend in the eye. “It just might detonate the bomb!”
But there was no alternative. Tom had the others follow him back to the tank and enter it for safety. He then pulled on his space helmet and reached down into a thickly shielded locker at the rear of the tank.
When he stood up again he was holding two fist-sized rocks in his hands.
Gabe whistled. “Can you make those things work again?”
“I have no idea,” was Tom’s grim reply. “Bud, drive the tank back to the edge of the crater wall. Please.”
Bud complied silently.
When the tank was parked, they all watched through the dome as Tom Swift slowly approached the bomb, holding the weird rocks at arm’s length as he had done before. Nothing happened, and he edged closer and closer.
“What is to happen?” breathed Mirov. “There is nothing.”
“No!” gasped Bud suddenly. “There is something!”
The rocks had begun to glow! They grew brighter and brighter still, lighting the whole floor of the crater with an eerie green. Tom squeezed his eyes shut to keep from being blinded.
The next instant the bomb casing was engulfed in a huge, crackling ball of brilliant blue-white fire! Black smoke billowed up into the sky in a spreading column; and then a roar like thunder jolted the tank.
“He’s done it!” cheered Gabe.
The bomb had completely disintegrated!
Bud couldn’t wait to switch on the tank motors. He came bounding out of the airlock and skidded at top speed across the loose rubble that covered the bottom of the crater, heading for a small figure lying motionless on the ground.
But Tom was alive and grinning. “Northrup was right, Bud—it wasn’t a problem after all. But man, it sure was a challenge!”
He gingerly held up the two rocks from the cave. They had turned black as coal, as if some inner energy had been utterly consumed.
Returning to the tank, Tom began trying to make radio contact with the Swift expedition. He no longer was concerned about the possibility that Rotzog might overhear the signal.
Meanwhile Bud explained to Streffan Mirov the full details of Rotzog’s mad program. “Then Tom Swift has saved the entire world!” he exclaimed.
But Tom glanced over his shoulder and shook his head. “I might’ve kept Little Luna safe in its orbit, but I don’t think Rotzog’s plan would have worked in any event. You see, playing billiards with satellites is a pretty precise game, and its much easier to miss the target than to hit it. Without complete data, the odds are that Little Luna’s new trajectory would have missed the earth entirely.”
“How do you know he didn’t have all the data?” demanded Gabe Knorff.
“Because we had something he didn’t have,” grinned Tom. “Namely a brilliant man named Henrick Jatczak, who was able to figure out that Little Luna has a wobble!”
“Amazing!” Gabe commented. “Want to know another amazing thing?”
“All that drama between you and the bomb—and I forgot to get any photos!”
At first there was no response to Tom’s repeated transiphone signals. But as the tank mounted a ridge near the north polar base, a whirring buzz suddenly erupted from the speaker.
“Sure sounds like Chow!” cracked Bud as Tom tried to improve the reception.
The responder proved to be Rafe Franzenberg, who had worked up an experimental device to diminish the interference produced by Little Luna.
“Tom, we’ve linked up with the Brungarians!” he reported. “Now that the bomb business is over, shall we return to the Titan?”
Tom winced. He explained sadly, haltingly, that there was no Titan to return to.
“But I have a proposal,” offered Mirov. “Now that we are all friends, come join us at our own base. We have much room there. Perhaps your people can continue their experiments while we work out a means to regain contact with the earth.”
Tom gratefully accepted the offer.
By the time ten days had passed, many things had happened on Little Luna, and life had become very different. The equipment from the north pole base—all but the atmos-maker, which continued to spin away automatically—was moved in stages to the Brungarian encampment, which had been nicknamed Astra-Volkon, and which now had the flags of two proud nations flying above it.
With the aid of the saucer-copter, found abandoned at the U. S. base, much of the satellite was explored from the air, in an atmosphere ever growing deeper and richer.
The American expedition found a comfortable home in the Brungarian habitat, and were fascinated to learn the details of its design and engineering. But for Tom the most intriguing aspect was being able to tour the Brungarian spaceship, known simply as the Gamma-4. Though containing a small atomic reactor for electrical power, the airliner-sized craft used conventional chemical rockets for space propulsion—though with modifications that gave them unusual force and maneuverability.
Streffan Mirov admitted, with wry humor but without apology, that Dr. Kutan’s surmise had been correct. The Gamma-4 had not landed on Little Luna before the Titan, but days after. “Ah, what does it matter?” laughed Mirov. “Like little schoolchildren, we have learned to share.”
Jason Graves overheard the comment. “Big of you to admit it, Mirov,” he said. “Of course we Americans are big on sharing—long as you respect our property rights, of course.” Mirov only smiled.
It took several days, and much work by Tom, Franzenberg, and their Brungarian counterparts, to finally reestablish radio contact with the frantic world 53,000 miles distant. When they did so, Tom’s father had dramatic and unexpected news.
“It’s a tragedy, yet also a relief, in a way,” said Mr. Swift. “I’m afraid the Titan is destroyed.”
Tom was shocked. “What happened?”
Damon Swift explained that the craft had been tracked on an approach to the earth’s atmosphere when suddenly it began to spin wildly, completely out of control. “She finally split in two. The nuclear reactor was thrown into a high orbit, thank heavens, where we should be able to recover it. But the entire passenger module went spiralling into the atmosphere and disintegrated. There were no survivors.”
When Mirov was informed of this development, he said, “I know what must have transpired. I saw how Rotzog and your Colonel Northrup hated and distrusted one another, as traitors do. I believe they fought for command of the spaceship; perhaps Northrup fancied he could murder the others and again assume the pose of a hero. Yes, they fought—and in doing so, somehow they ruined the control mechanisms.”
Tom nodded soberly, adding, “Rotzog managed to duck one fiery finish, but the fates wouldn’t let it happen twice.”
The most pleasing news for all the space pioneers was Tom’s discovery of the cause of the Gamma-4’s disability. “It was an ingenious act of sabotage,” he said admiringly. “I’m sure I can reverse it, though.” In days he was able to announce, to great jubilation, that the Brungarian ship would be able to carry them all back to Earth.
“Time to start packing!” he laughed.
“Amen an’ holler-loolee t’ that!” was Chow’s comment.
There was, inevitably, a final celebration on Little Luna on the evening before liftoff. Though much of the exotic meal was prepared by Brungarian cooks, Chow was enjoying himself as much as his mates. “Brand my kippered herring,” he remarked between mouthfuls, “if I don’t watch that chef what’s-his-name over there, I’m goin’ to be out of a job around here fer sure!”
“Some of it’s pretty spicy, Chow,” whispered Gabe.
“Ain’t nothin’ to an old Texas chili-cooker!”
Violet Wohl asked, “But how did you find the moofta?”
“Warn’t no problem,” replied the cook. “Jest lifted up th’ lid an’ there she was!”
Suddenly Tom stopped short in surprise as Ron Corey handed him a small dish of fresh, tiny-leafed spinach. “Say, where did this come from?”
Corey doffed an imaginary hat and took a bow.
“Little Luna’s wonder,” said Ron. “Forced plant growth in the exhilarating atmosphere you have created here.”
As everyone else’s jaw dropped open, he went on, “Yes, indeed, the product of earth’s new moon!”
Tom tasted the greens which he declared to be delicious, then congratulated the botanist. “Half the plaudits go to Jim down at Enterprises,” Ron noted modestly. “He’s been working right along with me in the lab down there, based on my reports. Thanks to you Swifts and your company, he had the resources to pursue some experimental notions that I never could have put together here in space. It helped me avoid a lot of dead-ends, I can tell you!”
Ron glowed with pride as their mess-mates of both countries slapped them on the back. After supper, everyone trooped outside the Astra-Volkon dome for a look at the satellite garden Ron had created.
The vegetable plot consisted of a small patch of soil, not far from the big dome but carefully concealed by rocks. Although after sundown, there was still enough light from an orange sunset for the expeditioners to see neat rows of sprouting green vegetables interspersed with cactus to keep water evaporation loss to the minimum. The tiny, low-growing plants seemed to be thriving.
Tom marveled. “But this is unbelievable! All these came up in just the last week?”
Corey laughed. “Last six days, actually!”
“Think of it, Tom!” said Hank Sterling enthusiastically. “With your atmosphere machines, space colonists could be self-sustaining in a matter of months, even on the asteroids!”
Much later that night, their last on Little Luna, Tom stood alone just inside the dome, gazing out moodily at the slate-dark landscape and sparkling stars. The earth had not yet risen, and Tom felt strangely alone with his thoughts.
The scuff of a shoe behind him made him turn around.
“Hello, Doc Vi. You getting a last look, too?”
Dr. Wohl approached and flashed him a tight smile. “Actually, Tom, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” She cleared her throat, and Tom knew something important was on her mind.
“Tom—when you leave for Earth tomorrow, I—I want you to leave me behind on Little Luna!”
A HERO’S WELCOME
TOM’S FACE registered his shocked surprise. “Leave you behind?—! Are you joking?”
“I’m very serious,” she said. “My experiments with my rats have had some very striking results, and I can’t bear to abandon the project now. But there’s another reason, a more important one.”
Tom waited for her to continue.
“It’s Dr. Jatczak, Tom. He’s dying!”
“It’s his heart,” she said quietly. “He knows about it—has known for months. Back home he’s not likely to last out the year. And that’s the point!” she continued forcefully. “Here on the satellite Henrick has shown a remarkable improvement—something to do with the reduced gravitation, I’m sure. If he could remain up here to continue his researches, with me looking after him, who knows how many more wonderful things he could accomplish before his time finally comes.”
Tom asked gently, “Is that what he wants, Violet?”
“It’s what we both want,” she answered simply.
“I suppose there’s a lot to be said for the idea,” Tom mused. “The two atmos-makers need very little attention… you’ll have a garden for food, plentiful supplies, this big dome to live in…”
“And the high adventure to sustain us!”
Tom smiled in understanding. “Done! I just wish I could stay here myself, to continue investigating that cave.”
Tom parted from Dr. Wohl and entered the spaceship. In the communications compartment he put through a promised call to his father on Fearing Island, where it was then mid-afternoon.
“I’m planning to blast off tomorrow, Dad, just as I told you.” Tom added, “It looks like, er—a small garrison force will be left here to guard our country’s claim to the satellite and let us know if any enemy invaders are about to land. That’s what you can tell Mr. Helm, anyway.”
“It’s wonderful how well everything has turned out, son,” Mr. Swift commented. “We all have a great deal to be thankful for! And I’m especially glad your Brungarian hosts consented to make Fearing their first port of call. It’s hard to believe that we’ll be seeing all of you in less than twenty-four hours—which is still the length of a day here on Earth, in case you’ve forgotten!”
He supplied some further news before signing off: it had been determined that, as suspected, Col. Northrup had been the hidden source of the press release to Dan Perkins. Tom was glad to have that bit of the mystery cleared up. Mr. Swift added that the Swift expedition’s homecoming would be somewhat different from its take-off, but refused to say any more on the subject.
“See you tomorrow, son. And get a good night’s rest.”
“Right, Dad. So long!”
Tom had no sooner left the compartment than Kent Rockland strolled up to him. “Tom, I know you must have a million things on your mind, but—well, I was talking to Dr. Wohl…”
It developed that Kent also wanted to remain on Little Luna! “There’s so much here to explore, Tom. And it’s not exactly permanent exile—I expect to see a thriving colony up here in a matter of months!”
Tom had no sooner given his consent than Rafael Franzenberg appeared in the corridor. “Let me guess!” exclaimed Tom. “You want to stay behind too!”
Rafe frowned. “Bite your tongue!” He was holding a palm to the side of his face, and, looking up, Tom noticed that Violet Wohl was standing at the other end of the corridor. She was also pressing a hand to her cheek—and looking none too happy.
“If I stay up here much longer, I’m afraid I’ll lose all my charm!” Rafael moaned.
Tom bid Rafe an amused goodnight, wishing he might crawl into bed at once. But there was still much to do, organizing the departure operation for the following day. It was almost midnight when he finally tumbled into his bunk, exhausted but happy. A moment later he was fast asleep.
The next thing Tom knew, Bud was shaking him gently. “Wake up!”
“Huh! Something wrong?” Tom almost bounced out of his bunk before his eyes were fully open.
“Take it easy, pal!” Bud advised. “I just want you to come outside and see a phenomenon you’re responsible for.”
Pulling on his trousers, Tom hurried with Bud to the main entrance to the dome-habitat. As they stepped out into the early morning atmosphere, something wet splashed on Tom’s nose. The sky was gray and overcast. Drops of moisture were splattering all around.
“It’s raining!” Tom cried out in excited delight.
“The satellite’s first shower!” Bud grinned. “Little Luna’s getting more livable every day!”
By midmorning the Gamma-4 was ready and eager for liftoff under the command of Streffan Mirov. The big dome was partially folded back, and the last of a misty rain scattered weirdly thick droplets on the portholes. Tom bid an emotional farewell to the three who would be remaining behind, and took his place in the spaceship. Moments later the lift-thrusters roared, and the Gamma lifted up and off, heading spaceward.
In minutes the phantom satellite was no longer a world, but only a bleak mottled disk growing ever smaller with distance. Yet it was changed—a thin halo of blue, dotted with clouds, now clung to it like a transparent wrapper.
During the hours-long flight home, Bud, Chow, and Hank found time to chat with Tom about the translation of the space symbols he had received, which he had continued to work on, amplifying his father’s translation. “It’s quite a message,” said the young inventor, “and it answers a lot of questions.” It seemed that the space scientists had maneuvered the moonlet into its orbit in hopes that Tom could establish an earthly environment there. They had provided a slight gravity field to help with the containment of the atmosphere, and hinted that the energizer device had been left behind for Tom to study. Eventually, they desired to land on Little Luna themselves in an attempt to learn to acclimate their bodies to earthlike conditions.
“But why th’ Sam Hill didn’t they jest come out an’ tell you all this in th’ first place?” Chow demanded.
“They did!” Tom exclaimed. “We always suspected that the earlier message had been cut short. But the Brungarians, who have been monitoring our space communications—which is their right to do since we went public with it—did receive that last part. That’s how they knew about the device in the cave, though they didn’t know how to find it.”
Long hours later, the Brungarian spacecraft streaked through the skies of Earth and touched down in a smooth landing on Fearing Island. Tom flicked open the porthole shutters and looked out.
“Good night!” he exclaimed, as Commander Mirov broke into laughter.
Held back by guards was an excited throng, eager to greet the returning heroes who had taken possession of the earth’s new moon in the name of the United States. TV cameras, interviewers with headphones and portable microphones, reporters and news photographers stood poised for action like an army battalion. Gold-braided admirals, generals, and Air Force commanders were clustered in the front rank.
Mr. Swift boarded the ship and greeted his son warmly. “Dad,” Tom gasped, “is this what you meant by—”
Damon Swift nodded, smiling. “I told you your homecoming would be different from the takeoff!”
As the space team exited the ship, frenzied cheers split the air, and a brass band broke into “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” quickly followed by a Brungarian marching song!
Tom nudged Bud, remembering the latter’s wisecrack about no band to see them off. “Guess your complaint brought action, pal!”
An instant later Tom and the others found themselves mobbed as the crowd broke forward, out of control! Tom tried to shunt the newsmen and officials off to his father, but Mr. Swift said:
“It’s your show, son. The spotlight’s on you!”
“Over here, Tom!” yelled a familiar voice. Flash! Gabe Knorff had finally captured a photo that would soon be blazened on front pages around the world!
Unable to duck the welcoming committee, Tom gave a short speech on the future of space travel and science. Then, one by one, he introduced the various members of the expedition, and then turned the microphone over to Streffan Mirov, who introduced his senior officers and scientists. Mirov concluded with, “We will see this bright satellite forever shining in our skies, to remind us that we are all fellow citizens of this world, and friends.”
The last to speak was Jason Graves. He told of the wonderful new materials they had discovered, and painted a glowing picture of their use in the coming industrial conquest of space. To his shipmates’ surprise, the tycoon gave Tom full credit for the expedition’s success.
“My congratulations to Tom Swift, the greatest modern-day symbol of American invention and ingenuity!”
Luther Helm, the representative from the Defense Department, then stepped up to the microphone to say that the Swifts would be given the honor of naming the new satellite—which was, of course, not legally a celestial body, but a vehicle. Though it had been nicknamed Little Luna, the government preferred to list its newest possession by a more scientific designation.
Tom had already discussed the matter with his father. Tom announced, “There would be no Swift Enterprises today, and no expedition to the moonlet, if not for the dedicated woman who stood at my great-grandfather’s side and believed in him when the rest of the world looked away. We’ve decided the satellite will be called Nestria, in honor of my great-grandmother, Mary Nestor Swift!”
The onlookers cheered loudly.
But at long last, Tom and Bud found themselves alone in a Fearing Island locker room as they changed from their rocket attire. “Well, my space friend,” said Bud, “where do we go from here? I mean, where’s left?”
“Who knows?” Tom answered. But the unexpected answer awaited the two of them in Tom’s Ultrasonic Cycloplane.
“To tell you the truth, I’m anxious to return to Nestria,” Tom continued. “I can’t wait to study that gravity concentrator with some more sophisticated instruments.” Then he chuckled and added excitedly, “Maybe our space friends will be there in person to tell us the whole story!”
Just then Jason Graves stopped by and offered his hand to Tom. “Young man, when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I judged you on your years, not your abilities. I can’t thank you enough for having ignored me!”
Tom laughingly shook Graves’s hand and modestly left the room.
The industrialist shook his head in something like awe and much like envy. “I must say,” he commented to Bud Barclay in a gruff voice. “If this is what Tom Swift can accomplish now, I wonder—what will he be like when he grows up?”