TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
“YOU mean this little gadget can rev up a big enough storm to fly your new cyclone-plane?”
Through the greenish quartz-glass window of his protective helmet, Bud Barclay stared in amazement at his best friend, Tom Swift. The young inventor grinned. “An ultrasonic storm, Bud. You can’t see it or hear it, but it packs a terrific wallop! By the way, pal,” he added, “it’s cycloplane. Don’t make it a worse tongue-twister than it already is!”
The two youths and Hank Sterling, the blond, rugged chief engineer of Swift Enterprises, were in one of Tom’s private laboratories, testing a small ultrasonic wave generator which the young prodigy had designed. All three wore special fiberglass helmets, aprons, and gauntlets to protect them from the dangerous but invisible pulsations of silent energy.
“As the electric current oscillates, this device beams out intensely powerful sound waves—far above the range of human hearing,” Tom explained. All eyes focused on the gleaming steel cylinder, encircled by slotted openings, which housed the generator.
“Sure looks harmless enough,” Bud remarked.
“Don’t let its looks fool you, flyboy!” Tom retorted. “Those ceramic disks in there are vibrating over five million times a second. With waves of that frequency, you can― ”
“Tom! Look out!” The sudden yell of warning came from Hank Sterling on the other side of the workbench. As he spoke, he flicked off the master switch on the electrical control panel. Glancing down, Tom saw a jagged tongue of fire dart up his shop apron. A second later the whole apron front burst into flames.
“Jetz!” gulped Bud. Hank vaulted over the corner of the workbench to help Tom beat out the flames. But Bud acted even quicker. Grabbing the laboratory fire extinguisher off the wall, he upended the tank and sprayed Tom with a lather of chemical foam which instantly doused the flames.
“Th-thanks, Bud—and you too, Hank!” Shuddering with relief, the young scientist-inventor sank down on a laboratory stool and pulled off his helmet. Hank and Bud followed suit.
“Whew! Close call!” Tom muttered, managing a sickly grin. His face was pale and clammy with perspiration, and the air was draped with wispy wreaths of smoke that stung the eye. Hank helped him remove the blackened remains of his shop apron while Bud switched the lab air-circulation system to high power.
“Sure you’re all right, pal?” Bud demanded anxiously. Tom nodded and Bud chuckled. “I always knew your inventions were hot stuff, genius boy, but not that hot!”
As Tom flashed back an appreciative wince, the strongly-built, dark-haired youth heaved a sigh and gave his friend a serious look. “All kidding aside, what made your apron catch fire?” Bud asked in a puzzled voice. “I was half afraid we were dealing with more of those antiproton effects—you know, the rays that disintegrate you while making a nice fireworks display!”
“Blame the ultrasonic waves,” Tom replied ruefully, “not to mention some carelessness on my part. The nodes of concentrated energy heated the cotton fabric right up to the kindling point. I told you these high-frequency vibrations were dangerous!”
“Want to go on with the test, Skipper?” asked Hank.
Tom shook his head. “Not now, Hank—I’ve had it for this morning.”
“Can’t blame you for being a little shook up!” Bud punned.
“Before we do any more work on the ultrasonic generator, we’d better have some fireproof suits made of the new asbestalon formula.” Tom jotted down a few calculations on a sheet of paper. “Yes, I’d say asbestalon-four should be sufficient.”
“I’ll take care of it pronto!” Hank promised.
As Hank left the room, the phone bleeped. Tom scooped up the receiver. “Tom Swift speaking.”
“This is Dad, son,” came a quiet voice over the line. “I’ve just had some interesting news. Can you come over to the office?”
“Sure thing, Dad—right away!”
After cleaning up a bit and changing his jersey, Tom waved so-long to Bud and hurried out of the laboratory, hopping into a small waiting vehicle called a nanocar. Gunning the electric engine, he threw in the clutch and went humming across the grounds of Swift Enterprises. This four-mile-square enclosure, crisscrossed with airstrips, was the experimental station where the famous father-and-son team of scientific innovators developed their new inventions.
A few minutes later Tom strode into the big modernistic office in the main administration building which he shared with his father. In addition to the broad executive desks, drawing-board flatscreen terminals, and comfortable leather lounge chairs, the office contained models of many of the Swifts’ greatest inventions—not only those of Tom and his father Damon, but inventions going back almost a century to the era of Tom’s famous great-grandfather, the original Tom Swift. Among the models were a motorcycle, a winged dirigible, an antique photo-telephone, and a spacesuit replica designed by Tom’s father for use in the American space shuttle.
One long shelf was devoted to Tom’s own accomplishments. There was a silver, needle-nosed replica of Tom’s Star Spear, the rocket ship in which he had pioneered a successful journey into outer space, and a blue plastic model of the jetmarine, a craft which he had used in hunting down a ring of undersea pirates. The largest model displayed Tom’s giant robot in miniature, but the newest addition was a replica of the odd-shaped atmosphere-making machine that Tom had taken to Earth’s new moon, the phantom satellite Nestria—a peril-fraught voyage from which he and Bud had only recently returned.
“What’s up, Dad?” Damon Swift turned from his work with a smile. There was a close resemblance between father and son, especially noticeable in their deepset blue eyes and clean-cut features, although Tom was the taller and rangier of the two—and his hair was still blond.
“Sit down, son. How long has it been since you’ve seen Cousin Ed Longstreet?”
“Must be a couple years!” Tom grinned as he settled his lanky frame into a deep-cushioned green leather chair in faux-50’s style. “What far corner of the globe is he poking into these days?”
“I haven’t kept up with his latest travels. But here—read this message I received this morning.” Tom took the email hard copy which his father handed him.
HEY DAMON, ANNE, TOM, SANDY—HOPE I DIDN’T LEAVE ANYONE OUT—ARRIVING SHOPTON AIRPORT 2:30 P.M. TODAY FROM CHICAGO. GOT SOMETHING UNUSUAL WHICH I WOULD LIKE YOU BOTH TO EXAMINE WITH YOUR SCIENTIFIC MINDS!
“‘Something unusual’?” Tom’s forehead puckered into a frown. “What do you suppose it is, Dad?”
Mr. Swift shrugged and replied with a chuckle, “Tom, I haven’t the faintest idea. But knowing Cousin Ed, it might be anything from a new species of tropical butterfly to a shrunken head!”
As Tom burst into laughter, the elder scientist added, “The point is, I’m taking off for the Citadel right after lunch. Could you meet him?”
“Sure—be glad to, Dad.” The Citadel was the Swifts’ atomic energy plant in the Southwest. Research work for the government required frequent trips there from Shopton in upstate New York, where Swift Enterprises was located.
Promptly at 2:21 that afternoon, Tom and Bud Barclay arrived at the compact Shopton airport. In order to carry an extra passenger, they had taken Bud’s red convertible—its license plate TSE TSE FLY—instead of Tom’s two-seater sports car. Minutes later, a big silver jetliner swooped in for a landing and discharged its passengers.
Tom pointed to a slender, bareheaded figure coming down the rampway corridor. Ed Longstreet was a slightly built man, about twenty-five years old, with blond, thinning hair.
“Sorry Dad couldn’t be here,” Tom apologized, after introducing Bud and explaining Mr. Swift’s absence. “So what’s all this about a mysterious object you want us to examine?” he added with a twinkle.
“Right here in my briefcase,” Ed replied. “You can examine it when we get to the plant.”
Bud shot Ed a shrewd look. “That’s a pretty narrow briefcase, Ed. Just how small are they making shrunken heads these days?” The world traveler laughed in response—but wouldn’t divulge his secret.
On the way back to Swift Enterprises, Tom chatted with his cousin. From their conversation, Bud learned that Ed, whose family was well off, was a seasoned wanderer and tourist, a dabbler in various fields of science, and an expert linguist.
When they arrived at Tom’s office, Ed Longstreet unlocked his briefcase and took out a strange figurine. About twelve inches high, its shape was half human, half animal, crudely rendered. The queer object shimmered with a beautiful yellow-orange iridescence.
“What is it?” asked Bud, staring in fascination. “Some kind of kangaroo-woman?”
“That’s what I’m hoping Tom can tell me.”
“Looks like some kind of primitive animal god or tribal figure,” Tom remarked in a slow, puzzled voice. “Where’d you get it, Ed?”
“Picked it up in a San Francisco curio shop on my way back from Japan,” his cousin replied.
The young inventor pointed to the figure’s kangaroo-like stomach pouch. “It’s meant to represent a marsupial, obviously. That may mean it came from the South Pacific area, somewhere around Australia.”
“What I want to know is, what’s it made of?” Bud inquired.
Tom shook his head, rubbing his lower lip thoughtfully. “That’s what has me stumped. So far as I recall, I’ve never seen any substance quite like this. Of course this yellow-orange color may indicate some kind of an oxide, due to weathering.”
With his fingernail, Tom scratched the bottom of the figure slightly, then hefted and tapped the object, noting its metallic ring. “Wait a minute!” he exclaimed suddenly. “I may be wrong, but I’ve got a hunch about this. Let’s hop over to the materials lab.” Using the ridewalk moving-ramp system, they were effortlessly conveyed to an all-glass laboratory devoted to materials fabrication and analysis. Here the young inventor examined the statue quickly under an electron-wave spectroscope. When he raised his head from the instrument, his blue eyes sparkled with excitement.
“Well give out, genius boy!” urged Bud tensely. “What is it?”
“It’s an ore of holmium—pure holmia—one of the rare earths!” Tom replied.
Bud’s face remained blank. “Rare earths? What are they?”
“A group of very rare metals with tongue-twisting names like dysprosium, praseodymium, ytterbium― ”
“Okay, okay, professor!” Bud put in hastily. “Just tell us what’s so unusual about them.”
“For one thing, they practically never occur in ore deposits all by themselves—at least not so far as modern science knows,” Tom explained. “Ordinarily they have to be separated, in tiny quantities, from other substances like monazite sand, which is used in atomic energy production. Some of them develop an unusual magnetic property, ferrimagnetism, under certain conditions.”
“Then where would the primitive people who made this statue get a whole hunk of this stuff?” Bud demanded. “Or is this really modern art from Manhattan?”
“Good question. I wish I knew! It ‘reads’ as ancient, though.”
“Does holmium have any value, aside from being so rare?” Ed Longstreet asked.
“Yes,” Tom replied. “It can be used in making alloys, special glass and electronic parts, not to mention the various hush-hush applications that are rumored. And scientists could probably find a lot more uses if there were a large enough supply.”
“Hey!” Bud exclaimed, bouncing off his laboratory stool. “Then if we could find out where this object came from, it might lead to a valuable strike—a rare earths strike!”
Tom nodded. “It could be a tremendous discovery. But that leaves us with our big question, guys—where in the world did it come from?”
JAKE THE CAT
THE THREE were silent for a moment, contemplating the mystery—and the intriguing possibilities. “Afraid I can’t be of much help,” said Ed Longstreet apologetically. “I questioned the curio-shop owner, but the only thing he could tell me was that it arrived in a consignment of art objects he’d bought at auction. He says he’d never run across anything like it.”
Tom drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the workbench. “Maybe an art expert could help us.” Picking up the phone, he put through a long-distance call to Grandyke University, which was located in the next county. He spoke with Professor Feeney, a specialist in the traditional art of the South Pacific cultures, who promised to come out and examine the strange figure. Tom then contacted Dr. Gorde, the curator of the Museum of Historic Sculpture and Carvings in New York City.
“So you called Ward Feeney first, eh?” he grumped humorously. Tom knew the two men were close friends. “Well, when that old quack is done looking at it, swing around my way and I’ll give you the real lowdown.”
The next day, Professor Feeney arrived and studied the statue closely, but could offer no clue as to its exact origin. “It might be Asiatic, Polynesian, or Melanesian,” said the elderly man. “If you want a professional guess, I’d say Melanesian, mid-eighteenth century. But that culture did not have a general knowledge of metal-working—certainly nothing like this peculiar substance. Gordo may have an idea. It’ll be wrong, but perhaps this is best approached by a process of elimination.”
Later in the day Bud flew Tom and Ed to New York City via one of the small commuter jets manufactured by the Swift Construction Company, an Enterprises affiliate. At the Museum of Historic Sculpture and Carvings in Manhattan, Dr. Gorde, a very obese man with carrot-red hair, handled the figure with the raised-pinky delicacy of an artist. “Most unusual example of traditional Pacific sculpture I’ve ever seen!” declared Dr. Gorde. “What did Feeney come up with, Melanese? Predictable.”
“What’s your analysis, sir?” Tom asked.
“Javanese, late fourteenth century—the Toonongo period. Many unusual features, though—yes sirree.” Now examining the statue under a powerful magnifying glass, Dr. Gorde asked, “Would you permit the figure to be placed on display for a few days? Good for our museum, and a good way to flush out some professional opinions, too.”
Ed Longstreet, who had been planning to remain in New York anyway, agreed willingly, so the statue was immediately placed on display in a glass case and given the utmost in dramatic lighting. TV commentators mentioned the news item and the Shopton Evening Bulletin carried a front-page story about the queer pagan idol, the information quickly spreading to the rest of the national media, and to the internet. As a result, crowds stormed the museum the next day, eager to view the mysterious object. Armed guards were posted around the case in which the figure was displayed.
“It certainly caused a stir in Manhattan,” Tom said to his blond, blue-eyed sister Sandra that evening at the dinner table. He repeated this later to his slim, pretty mother when he kissed her good night.
Shortly after midnight, he was awakened by the shrill ringing of his bedside phone, a private line. Lifting the receiver sleepily, Tom asked who was calling. “It’s Dr. Gorde, Tom!” gasped a voice that seemed to quiver like a big blubbery bubble escaping a bubble-pipe. “Oh my! My goodness! The animal god has been stolen!”
The news shocked Tom wide awake. “Stolen!” Tom choked. “But—but the guards—how― ” He tried to calm himself. “Where are you calling from?”
“The museum,” said the curator. “The police are here with me, and so is your cousin Mr. Longstreet. There’s no need for you to fly down immediately, Tom, but perhaps― ”
Tom arranged to fly back to the city in late morning. As Bud was on a piloting assignment, he flew himself this time, in a Swift Pigeon Special.
A short time after landing in New York City he braked his rental car to a halt in front of the museum. Shoving past reporters, he strode to the office of the curator. Here he found Dr. Gorde mopping his ample brow, and two night watchmen from the museum being questioned by police detectives while Cousin Ed looked on. “Glad you’re here, Tom,” the curator greeted him. “Maybe you can give us some help on this.”
“Exactly what happened?” Tom inquired. One of the detectives, a plain-clothes police sergeant, gave him a quick fill-in, with the two night watchmen providing additional detail. The first hint of trouble had come with a sound of shattering glass in the east wing of the museum about 11:35 P.M. One of the watchmen had run to investigate, only to be knocked out by a blow on the head. A livid bruise still showed on his right temple. The other watchman, arriving on the scene a minute or so later, had found the display case smashed and the mysterious figurine missing. “What about the burglar alarm?” Tom asked. “You must have video cameras covering the room—what do they show?”
“We checked that, natch,” the plain-clothes man reported. “But there was nothing to see. Turned out someone had introduced an override device into the main system somehow, activated by remote signal. I’d suppose it was put in place earlier in the evening, while the museum was full of people, blocking the lines of sight of the videocams. Then, after the museum was cleared and locked up for the night, he activated the mechanism and broke in through a high rear window.”
“Removed a pane of glass very neatly,” noted the other detective, whose name was Rusty Hubbel. “He’s a pro.”
“Any clues from the M.O.?” Tom asked.
“The M.O.?” put in Dr. Gorde, peering through his gold-rimmed pince-nez with a puzzled expression.
“The crook’s modus operandi, or method of operation,” the sergeant explained. “You don’t watch TV, Gorde? Yes, Tom, as a matter of fact, everything points to a well-known second-story man called Jake the Cat. Don’t blame me, I didn’t give him the name. Here― ” He leafed open a large rogues gallery album sitting on Gorde’s desk, shoved it toward Tom, and pointed to two “mug shots”—front and side views—of a lean-faced, dark-haired man about thirty years old. “That’s the guy I’m talking about. One of the guards—Wuzzolini here—thinks he remembers seeing him in the crowd yesterday. He’s been in and out of the penitentiary in half a dozen states for similar crimes. He specializes in thefts from public buildings and always kills the alarm first like a good little boy.”
During this explanation Dr. Gorde was pacing back and forth nervously. “But why on earth would a criminal of his low type steal such an exotic art object?” he demanded.
“Art objects bring plenty of dough, don’t they?” said Sergeant Camp, the senior detective.
“Surely not in this case,” the curator insisted. “Why, the statue must be known throughout the country by now, from all the news stories about it! Where could the thief dispose of it?”
“I agree with Dr. Gorde,” Tom said. “No fence will handle stolen goods unless he can resell them at a profit. And I doubt if any private collector would dare to buy such an easily recognized item.”
“Ya can’t count on that, kid!” retorted Rusty Hubbel. “I’ve met guys that’d heist the Mona Lisa just for the thrill of havin’ it in their cellar.”
“Hmm.” Sergeant Camp frowned and stroked his chin. “So what’s your take on it, Tom? Are you saying old Jake bungled this time?”
“Hey!” laughed Rusty. “‘Bungled while he burgled’!”
Tom shook his head. “Not necessarily. We managed to keep it out of the news stories, but that statue is made of a very rare metal. If this Jake melted it down, it could never be recognized, but its industrial research value would still be worth many thousands of dollars!—not too bad for a night’s work.”
“Not too bad for his rep, either,” remarked Camp.
“His rep?” demanded Gorde in outrage. “Are you telling me this professional hoodlum has an agent?”
“‘Reputation’,” whispered Ed Longstreet.
“But the flaw in that theory is—how did Jake the Cat find out about the figure’s composition and its value?” Tom mused. “It almost suggests that he was sent to get the statue, by someone already familiar with it.”
The sergeant nodded. “Maybe someone who had stolen it himself, then lost possession somehow. He could have recognized it from the media photos.”
Ed looked rueful. “Guess I’ve really stirred up a hornet’s nest by bringing you the statue, Tom! I don’t much care about its monetary value. But I would like to have it back long enough for the big brains to figure out who made it, and where.”
“We’ll contact the FBI and put out a dragnet for Jake the Cat,” the chief promised. He told Tom, Longstreet, and Dr. Gorde that they would be kept apprised of any progress in the investigation.
That evening, back in Shopton, Tom decided to take Bud and Sandy out for a late snack in town. They stopped in at The Glass Cat, a mildly Bohemian coffee house owned by the brother of their friend Bashalli Prandit, who attended the counter when not attending the DuBrey Artists Institute, where she was in her second year.
The pretty raven-haired Pakistani greeted her friends warmly and brought them tea, soft drinks, and a tray of pastries. “Ah, a stolen statue, a second-story man with a colorful name! The mystery mystifies and the intrigue—intriguifies.”
“I think Tom and Bud should wear protective helmets 24/7 for the next month or so,” Sandy teased.
“Forget it!” retorted Bud. “You know the bad guys have to knock one of us out at least once before they get caught.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I was born thick-headed, but lately my skull’s starting to feel like a concrete porch step!”
Tom laughed and said, “I’m just glad that for once all this stuff doesn’t have anything to do with my current project.”
“You mean the cycloplane?” asked Sandy.
Tom nodded, and Bashalli repeated the word. “Cyclo-plane. A neat little name, to go with seacopter and terrasphere. What does it do, Thomas? Fly around in cyclones?”
“It makes its own cyclone.” Tom grinned in reply. “See, there’s an ultrasonic generator that― ”
“Hold it, Tom,” Bud interrupted. “You explained it all to me the other day, so let me play Tom Swift and see if I can explain it back to Bash here.”
“Bud is very competitive,” Sandy remarked jokingly as Tom waved Bud onward.
“Leave nothing out, Budworth,” demanded Bashalli.
“Okay.” Bud stood up and put his hands on the back of his chair. “Tom Swift and his ultrasonic cycloplane: the scientific explanation. Ladies, no doubt you know of the Magnus effect?”
“Of course!” they said together. Then, together, they shook their heads negatively.
“As I suspected. Well, for the benefit of those few of you present not in the know, the Magnus effect (eye-eee, the ‘Magnus force’) is a term that was coined to explain anomalies in the airflow around a spinning object. On the side where the windstream flows along in the same direction as the rotation of the object’s surface, the air gets dragged around it by surface friction and the airstream velocity is increased. On the opposite side, where the motions are opposed, the velocity is decreased.”
“And as we all know, the Bernoulli principle states that the pressure of a moving fluid against a surface is lower on the side where the relative velocity is greater,” Sandy said with mock pomposity. “And vice-versa!”
“Thus, airplane wings,” nodded Bashalli.
Tom added, “It’s also the principle behind throwing a curve ball. It’s why the ball has to spin as it cuts through the air.”
“Indeedly.” Bud gave a grand gesture of professorial approval. “And consequently there is an unbalanced force acting upon the spinning surface at right angles to the line of airflow. So the ball curves, right or left.”
“I’ve seen old pictures of ocean-going craft that made use of the Magnus effect,” noted Tom. “They have big vertical cylinders on the tops of masts, which interact with the wind as they spin.”
Bashalli looked skeptical as she drank her tea. “Then this new plane is some sort of wind-sailing craft, like a big kite?”
Tom chuckled. “Now there’s an idea! But no, the cycloplane is basically a jet, but instead of wings it uses a pair of horizontal cylinders, called cyclocyls, running the length of the fuselage along either side.”
“Hence the name—cycloplane!” declared Bud.
“Right. The cyclocyls are mounted in special frictionless brackets and can be made to spin at a tremendous rate. The resultant Magnus effect creates a region of increased pressure which acts against the underside of the cylinders, pushing the plane upwards.”
“Now, ladies,” said Bud, “I’m sure it’s occurred to you to wonder where the right-angled airflow comes from, even when the plane is just hovering—because without the airflow, the cylinders have nothing to react against.”
“It was on the tip of my tongue,” said Bashalli dryly.
“That’s where genius boy’s ultrasonic thingamabob comes in. It vibrates the air, and—well, when you have one wave on top of another, see― ” Bud looked flummoxed. “Er, why don’t we let Professor Swift himself take it from here!”
With bland smiles the girls turned to look at Tom. “Here’s the deal!” Tom chuckled. “I’ll even use a visual aid.”
Tom filled a flat, transparent baking pan with water and carried it back to the table, setting it down carefully. He poked one finger into the water. “Look at the shadows on the bottom as I jiggle my finger up and down—the waves ripple out in all directions in a circular pattern. Now I put a second finger in on the other side of the pan, and jiggle both at the exact same rate.”
“The shadows make a stationary pattern,” observed Sandy. “A criss-cross pattern that jiggles but doesn’t flow outward. It looks like a blobby spiderweb.”
“That’s right,” confirmed the young inventor. “The ripples from each source cross each other in such a way that a stable pattern of standing waves is created—the basic waves themselves are still moving, but the places where they cross one another, the ‘peaks’ or reinforced crests, stay in fixed positions. They make the darker shadows, whereas the parts between them, the ‘nodes,’ show where the water is almost undisturbed because the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ exactly cancel each other. Now, Bash, drop a little scrap from that soda straw wrapper onto the water.”
“You may refer to me as your lovely assistant.” Bashalli did as requested. “It landed where the water is agitated and mounded-up,” she observed. “But it slid over to a flat area right away, and it’s staying there.”
“That makes sense,” said Tom’s sister. “It’s like a surfboard sliding along on a water wave.” She looked up at Tom. “Is that how you push the air sideways across the cylinders?”
“Basically, sis. There will be a pair of ultrasonic generators mounted underneath the plane, one at the front and the other toward the rear. They’ll create a pattern of standing waves—high-ultrasonic waves—between them. By constantly varying the wave frequencies, sort of playing one generator against the other, a steady lateral airflow is created which crosses beneath the cyclocyls. When the air dragged around by the cyclocyls runs into the lateral stream—there’s our ‘cyclone’.”
“But this storm of sound waves will have to be very powerful to lift an entire airplane,” said Bash doubtfully. “Does sound have so much strength?”
“You should’ve seen what it did to Tom’s shop apron!” Bud declared wryly.
“Don’t forget, Bash—these nodes get re-created more than twenty thousand times a second. Even the tiniest push can be pretty formidable when you multiply it by that much!”
“I dare say,” Bashalli nodded. “So it seems you will have a wonderful plane with a wonderful name, and it can go up and down. And why is that so important? Balloons do it already—so do helicopters, and even your Flying Lab with its jet lifters.”
“Not to mention pogo sticks,” Sandy added mischievously.
“True,” Tom agreed. “But my cycloplane will have unparalleled agility and stability in its vertical motions, or while hovering, due to the gyro effect of the whirling cylinders. Plus the wingless, bladeless fuselage will have a much narrower ‘footprint’ than any conventional aircraft—you’d be able to land it in an alley between two buildings.”
“Plus, no heat or smoke, like you get from the Sky Queen,” observed Sandy, referring to the Flying Lab.
“And so, when do you take us on a flight, Thomas of the Swifts?” demanded Bashalli with a smile.
Tom held up his hands in protest. “Hey, the full-sized model, which I’ve named the SwiftStorm, isn’t even finished yet.”
The conversation was interrupted by Moshan, Bashalli’s older brother, who told Tom a telephone call had come in for him. Excusing himself, Tom stepped behind the counter to take the call.
“This is Mother, Tom,” said the familiar voice.
“Hi, Mom—is anything wrong?”
“No, Dear, but there’s something I was sure you’d want to know about right away,” was the reply. “Captain Rock just called here for you. He had news about that Cat person. I was going to leave a message for you, but then I remembered that you had said you were going to Bashalli’s café.”
Tom’s eyebrows rose. “News about Jake the Cat? Has he been captured?”
“He’s in custody now—in the Shopton jail!” exclaimed Mrs. Swift.
“And Tom, it’s quite strange—he’s turned himself in!”
AMAZED and excited, Tom hurried back to his friends and related the startling news.
“You mean to tell me this guy just waltzed into Shopton PD and said, ‘Here I am, Lock me up’?” Sandy demanded in a scornful voice. “Gee, what kind of professional criminal is he, anyway?”
“I’m about to find out!” said Tom. He called the Shopton police station and spoke briefly to Captain Rock, a longtime friend, who told him that Jake the Cat seemed to be in a confessing mood. The Captain invited Tom to come down to the station right away, if he wished.
Bidding Bashalli goodnight, Tom hastily drove Bud and Sandy to the Swift home, where Bud was parked. Then he rushed to the police station in Shopton’s modest downtown area.
Greeting Tom, Captain Rock said, “You know, it gives me a funny feeling in my stomach when hardened criminals decide to turn themselves in. Doesn’t feel right.”
As they walked toward the chief’s office, where an armed officer stood watch, Tom asked about the circumstances of Jake’s being apprehended.
“Young man, some forty minutes ago he just came walking through our front door and told Mindy who he was, and to put him away in the cooler! Mindy called me—I was hanging out down the street, enjoying a quiet moment of self-absorption—and I came back on the run. Jake says he’ll tell everything that he can, but― ”
“I think he’s lost it, Tom. He keeps talking about how we shouldn’t touch his hands, or we’ll die!”
In the chief’s office, Jake the Cat sat on a hard, straight-backed chair under a bright light. Tom saw that one wrist was cuffed to the top of a chair leg. The swarthy burglar, wearing a high-necked mud-colored jersey, was as lean and agile as a trapeze stunt man.
He looked frightened and agitated, but when Tom entered he gave the young inventor a nod of greeting that was surprisingly cordial. “You Tom Swift?” he asked. “Hopin’ you can help me out, pal.”
“Hello, Mr. Cat,” Tom responded cautiously. “I hear you’ve confessed to some things.”
“Sure—I’ll spill the whole story!” Jake whined. “Just gimme a break at the trial, an’ keep me alive t’ see the trial, that’s all I ask!”
“We’re not making any promises,” snapped Captain Rock. “Those fingerprints you forgot to wipe off your alarm-snuffer gadget give us a clear-cut case. But go ahead and talk, and we’ll tell the New York boys you cooperated. You’ve been read your rights, and the tape is running. Understand?”
“Okay, okay. Anything—but first, Swift-boy’s gotta do something about the cesium!”
Rock glanced at Tom. “He keeps babbling about cesium. Is there such a thing?”
“Sure,” Tom replied, puzzled. “It’s a soft metal, part of the alkali group.”
“And tell him the rest!” shouted Jake. “It’s poison! Get it on your skin, and you’re done for!”
Rock asked Tom, “Is that true?”
Tom nodded. “Sure, more or less. Jake, what makes you think you’ve been exposed to cesium?”
The man scowled bitterly. “You gonna play games? I saw on th’ TV how everybody was wearin’ gloves t’ handle that statue, but I didn’t think nothin’ about it. So I cipe it and make my delivery. Then I get home and get a message from an old associate—a colleague, you know what I mean—and what does he say? He says ever’body’s talkin’ about how that thing’s made of this rare metal stuff called cesium, that’ll kill ya if you touch it! Look at my hands!”
He turned his hands palms-up. They were chapped and red.
“Looks like you need a moisturizer,” said Rock sarcastically.
“I been washin’ and washin’ all day long!” Jake cried. “Swift, you gotta give me the cure!”
“I think I’ll have some good news for you,” Tom replied carefully. “But I think you said you had some things to confess, didn’t you?”
“Whaddaya want to know?”
“Where’s that statue you stole?”
“I ain’t got it. Like I just said, I turned it over to the guy who hired me to pull the job.”
“The guy who hired you!” Captain Rock glowered in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“Just what I’m tellin’ ya,” Jake insisted. “This guy gets in touch with me the other night—there are ways if you really want to, and got connections— and offers me a nice little bundle of cash to snatch the statue from the museum. Said he had to have it right away!”
“Who was he?” Tom asked.
“Search me. You think he gave his name? He wired me th’ deposit, rest on delivery o’ the goods. Met me in a parkin’ lot about five this morning.”
Growled Captain Rock, “You must have seen him when you turned over the statue.’’
“Sure I did. Little old man, real skinny, kinda stooped-over, you know?”
“Where was the parking lot located?” Tom asked the thief.
“Little burg over in the next county—Walderburg, matter o’ fact. Where that big university is.”
“Yeah, Grandyke U.,” nodded Rock. “Tom! What is it?”
The young inventor looked startled. “I think I know who put Jake up to the theft—a professor at Grandyke who looked over the figure just the other day! His name’s Ward Feeney.”
Jake nodded vigorously. “The dude looked like a professor, ya know? And he never touched the statue himself, just had me drop it into a box!” He shot Tom a look of frantic appeal. “I know I’m a bad guy, Swift, an’ I heard tell what you did to those guys who tried to con you over in Africa. But I’m beggin’ ya here—help me!”
The chief shot a puzzled glance at Tom. There was a brief silence.
“Do you think he’s telling the truth?” the young inventor asked.
Rock shrugged. “Could be. Naturally we’ll search his motel room in Walderburg with a fine-tooth comb. But none of this makes sense if his turning himself in is just a put-on of some kind.”
Tom turned back to the prisoner. “I guess I’ll believe you, Jake. The good news is, that statue isn’t made of cesium or anything else that could hurt you. The underworld rumor mill got it wrong. As for the bad news—well, here you are, pal!”
Jake the Cat scowled fiercely. “Tell me about it!”
A female officer had been standing quietly at the door. Now she spoke up. “Captain, maybe this is just a coincidence but—there’s a man named Feeney out in front waiting to see you!”
Captain Rock’s jaw dropped. “Feeney? As in Ward Feeney?”
“That’s the name he gave, yes sir. He says he wants to confess to a crime, just like this guy!”
Captain Rock frowned suspiciously at Tom. “This isn’t some kind of psychological experiment you guys are conducting, is it?”
Tom half-smiled and shook his head.
Professor Feeney stood alone in the station lobby, a forlorn figure. Seeing Tom, he blanched. “Oh no!—well, perhaps it’s just as well. I’d have to face you and your father eventually.”
“Professor, what’s going on?”
“Let’s go into a private little room and talk, shall we?” suggested the academic in a trembling voice. Ushered into a small room, he collapsed into a chair as the Captain read him his rights and set up the recording equipment. Feeney then commenced his story.
More than a year prior, he had been contacted, in a surreptitious manner, by a man who identified himself as a Dutch scientist. “He gave me quite a convincing sob story—about how he had been trying to smuggle a unique carved statue out of a far east country where the government forbids any traffic in archaeological artifacts. He said he needed to study the figure with various instruments not available in that country, and that’s why he had to resort to smuggling.”
“All in the interests of science, eh?” remarked Rock sarcastically.
“So he said. He claimed he had got the statue across the border, but the men he had hired got wind of its true value and disappeared with it. He asked me to keep an eye out for it, and promised that if I returned it to him, he and I would study it together. When you called, Tom, and gave me the description, I was fairly certain I had found what the man was looking for, and then when I examined it in my hand, all doubt vanished.”
“So you had it stolen,” Tom declared grimly.
“I suppose I’ve let my friendly rivalry with Dr. Gorde get a bit out of hand. Frankly I couldn’t stand the thought that—well, never mind. I spoke to the Dutchman, who put me in touch with this Jake fellow and asked me to act on his behalf while he flew here.”
Captain Rock asked what had happened when he turned the statue over to the Dutchman. The professor winced. “We met for breakfast in a diner, on the main highway outside Shopton, and I handed him the box. He thanked me, and asked how I liked my bran and granola, which I thought was an odd question. When I replied that I had it frequently, he said, ‘Dear Professor, I have in my pocket a small pistol, which I have aimed at you beneath the table. You may continue to enjoy many more such breakfasts if you go your way in peace and forget we ever had this conversation.’ Then he rose and left, sticking me with the bill. I never saw his car.”
In response to a question from Tom, Feeney described the man as very slender overall, but with broad, muscular shoulders and a thick neck. His hair was a pale blond, his eyes watery blue, his lips rather thick. “I’d say he was in his early forties, and his accent seemed consistent with his describing himself as Dutch. He pronounced ‘Jake’ as ‘Jhake’.”
“Not much of a clue,” Tom commented, “but at least it’s something to go on.”
“We’ll follow it up,” Captain Rock promised. After hammering a few more questions at the sheepish prisoner, who in truth needed little hammering at all, he called in an officer and said, “Okay, take him away! The other one too! But stow ’em at opposite ends.” Shaking his head, he added to Tom, “Strangest night I ever had around here.” Tom laughed in agreement.
Before Tom retired for the evening, he phoned Ed Longstreet in New York and told him of the astounding developments. “I’ll tell Dr. Gorde,” promised Cousin Ed. “Now if we could just get the darn thing back!”
The next morning Bud found Tom hard at work in his main laboratory, which adjoined the huge underground hangar where the Sky Queen was berthed.
Bud perched himself on his customary stool and asked his pal if he were working on the cycloplane. Tom glanced up and shook his head.
“Not at the moment, flyboy. I’m taking one of my head-clearing breaks.”
Familiar with Tom’s work habits, Bud nodded in understanding. “Then what are you working on? A long-range stolen statue detector, maybe?”
“Glad to see your ESP is working, chum,” Tom answered. “I don’t know how to find where ‘Kangaroo Sue’ has got to. But with a little luck, these calculations I’ve made just might tell us where she came from!”
THE DARING SKY SURFER
BUD BARCLAY had seen so many amazing things during these recent years of friendship with Tom Swift that he sometimes had to fake his amazement, so as not to deny his pal the pleasure he derived from seeing it. But on this occasion Bud’s surprise was genuine and obvious. “Genius boy, how are a bunch of numbers going to tell you where the thing came from? Especially since you don’t even have it anymore?”
Tom grinned with enthusiasm. “Granted, we don’t have the object itself, but what we do have is a pile of data stored in the electron-wave spectroscope from our examination of it the other day. It stays on the hard drive until it’s overwritten.”
“And that’ll tell you something?”
Tom stood and stretched. “C’mon, let’s see!”
The young inventor led his friend to the materials lab, where he activated the spectroscope control terminal as Bud looked over his shoulder. Consulting his notes and calculations, he began to enter a processing routine into the device’s inbuilt computer.
“What I’m doing,” he explained as he manipulated the keyboard, “is telling the computer how to extract and summarize magneto-orientation data from the stored scan of the metal lattices of the holmium.”
“Oh,” said Bud. “I see.”
Tom chuckled at the blank expression on his friend’s face. “As I mentioned, the rare-earth metals have unusual magnetic properties. When the statue was cast and cooled, faint magnetization patterns induced by the earth’s magnetic field were frozen in place.”
Bud snapped his fingers. “I’ve heard about something like this, on TV. Scientists used magnetic patterns in rocks to backtrack the drifting movements of the continents.”
“Yes, and also to create a history of the changes in Earth’s magnetic poles, which have completely reversed several times.” Tom went on to say that the magnetization patterns were like magnetic fingerprints, and could in principle provide good evidence of the general location of the figure when it cooled to its final form. “Since we’re fairly sure it came from the southeast Asia or Pacific islands region, this could help us narrow it down further.”
It took a good long time to enter Tom’s commands onto the computer. When he was done, he started the processing routine. Strange patterns of colored triangles, like little pointers, fanned out across the monitor screen. Finally a coordinate code number appeared in the lower right corner. “There it is!” Tom exulted. “Now we look it up on a map!”
In moments Tom had the answer he had been hoping for. “It comes from a region of several thousand square miles smack in the middle of Papua New Guinea, near Lake Kutubu in the Southern Highlands area.” He looked up at Bud. “High rugged mountains, silty rivers, dense jungles, and very few towns.”
“Sounds inviting,” commented the dark-haired pilot with irony in his voice. “New Guinea—that’s near Australia, isn’t it?”
“Just to the north,” Tom confirmed. “They almost touch.”
“So what do we do, now that we know?” asked Bud.
Tom shrugged. “I’m not sure that we do anything, except tell Ed about it—and Dr. Gorde too, I suppose—if he’ll listen!”
Tom switched off the spectroscope terminal and stood, but Bud could tell he was still mulling over the new data. “You know,” Tom said at last, “I think I’ll radio the astronomy team on the space outpost and see if they can run a series of high-resolution polyfrequency photographs of the region. It’ll be at an angle, but that might actually bring out some interesting features.” Tom was referring to the Swift Enterprises space station wheeling about the earth in a geosynchronous orbit high above the equator, the famous outpost in space.
“What exactly are you looking for?” Bud inquired.
“It’s not an ‘exactly’ just yet,” was the answer. “But I’d sure like to know if some unusual geological features go along with the concentrated holmium deposit—if that’s what it is.”
As they left the materials lab and headed down the hall toward the nearest ridewalk, which dipped in and out of the various buildings, a loud voice hailed them from behind. “Lawnge sarveese, you twosome!”
Bud winced. “I think ‘lawnge sarveese’ means― ”
“Yep!” Tom nodded. “Lunch service.”
“He’s seen us. We can’t get away. Oh man, I’ll be glad when Chow gets back!”
Chow Winkler, a former ranch chuck-wagon cook who had become the personal chef for the Swifts and their senior employees and friends, had been gone for a week on one of his periodic visits home to Texas and New Mexico. His dishes, sometimes better classified as experiments than edible cuisine, were nevertheless usually delicious and as colorful as the reckless western shirts he favored. By contrast, the meals served up by his designated second-in-command, a Russian expatriate named Boris, were always elaborate but not always pleasing to the American palate.
“Do not think to get away, I spy you!” exclaimed the diminutive cook, who was holding a silver tray. “Ah, always joking, you two—American joshing, a sign of affection.”
“Of course,” said Tom. “But isn’t it a little early for lunch?”
“Pfah! We shall call this the pre-lawnge countdown,” laughed the Russian. “Is a pun! You get it?”
“We get it,” Bud said in slightly woeful tones. “What do you have today?”
“Today, little crackers with persimmon jelly and peppered caviar, genuinely Black Sea, I swear to you.” Boris daintily picked a stuffed cracker from the tray and thrust it toward Bud’s mouth. “Exquisite!”
Bud sampled the cracker and then, under Boris’s stern gaze, swallowed the rest. “It’s actually—it’s very—Tom, you’ve got to try it.”
Tom did so. “And did I lie to you?” demanded Boris. “It is exquisite?”
“Almost too exquisite for words,” muttered Tom, his face a strange mixture of colors. “I-is there a drink to go with it?”
“A drink? No drink. You need a drink, there is water fountain.” Boris turned away stiffly. “But I am glad you like it. I shall add it to my list.” He sailed off down the hall.
Tom and Bud looked at each other in silent dismay. Then they made for the hallway drinking fountain as fast as dignity would allow.
When they made their wobbly return to the underground hangar, Tom drew Bud to a corner near the Sky Queen. “Thought you’d like to take a look at the Drumhawk!” Tom said, gesturing.
“Your new cycloplane? I’ll forgo my usual joke about how small it is.” The object in front of Bud was a flat silver plank with beveled edges and rounded ends, about the size and shape of a small ironing board. It rested directly on the concrete floor. Two long horizontal cylinders flanked it, attached by ring-shaped brackets which held them up and out, with a gap of perhaps six inches. The cylinders, which Bud correctly assumed were small versions of the cyclocyls, had the diameters of one-gallon paint cans.
“The Drumhawk is the test prototype Arv Hanson put together for me,” Tom explained. “I need to wring out any problems in the interaction between the cyclocyls and the ultrasonic generators before finalizing the design for the SwiftStorm.”
“Are you planning to have someone ride on this little thing?”
“Someone already has!” declared the blond youth. “I’ve been playing around with it for days, installing one version of the generators after another. So far my altitude record is a whole twelve feet. Watch, pal!”
Tom stepped onto the metal-plastic surface and stood between two vertical safety bars that extended up to waist level. Straps dangled from these bars, which Tom attached to his belt loops. Then he removed a small handheld control box from its holder on one of the bars.
“Should I duck and cover?” called out Bud jokingly.
“You might want to cover your ears!” replied Tom. He flicked a switch on the controller, then depressed a series of buttons in sequence. The two lifting drums began to revolve, one clockwise, the other counterclockwise. Set in frictionless bearings and pushed along by an electromagnetic flux-motor, the cyclocyls were completely silent. Not so the paired ultrasonic generators: they produced a deep, penetrating thrumming sound that rose in intensity until Bud had to fall back several yards.
“I thought ultrasonics were supposed to be silent!” he shouted over the din.
“It’s the interaction!” was the barely-heard response. “The interference effect! But I’m in a null spot—the noise is worse for you!” Tom slowly twisted a dial on the controller, and the sound-tone became higher pitched as the drums revolved so rapidly that their motion was no longer visible. Suddenly, with a slight jerk, the platform began to drift forward. It had lifted off from the floor by two inches!
As Tom increased the power further, the model slowly levitated, foot by foot, finally topping off at one dozen feet. After a moment Tom gently brought it down again and killed the power.
“Wow!” groaned Bud. “You should pass out earplugs, Tom.”
“The fuselage design of the real cycloplane will mute-down the noise,” Tom assured him. “Want to try it?”
Bud was game, and after some instruction seemed to have mastered the strange contraption. “You just have to get used to keeping your balance,” he remarked after his final flight.
“I’ll be taking it out in the open—after our real lunch,” said Tom. “I want to see how it handles when there’s a bit of a breeze to contend with.”
Bud was quiet for a moment, and Tom didn’t see the slight smile that touched his friend’s lips. “Say, here’s an idea,” Bud said with feigned innocence. “Rickman Dunes was opened for the summer Monday, but it’ll still be pretty deserted until the weekend. You could test your cyclo-toy in the breezes from the lake, while your three nearest-and-dearest—Barclay, Prandit, and sister Swift—lounge on the sand. And that was lounge, not lawnge!”
Tom laughed and said, “Well, I guess I do owe the girls some more time together after cutting things short last night.”
“And,” Bud added, “we can pick up some burgers on the way, thereby avoiding Boris’s noontime sarveeses.”
“You talked me into it, flyboy!”
By noon the four were relaxing in the bright sunlight that made Lake Carlopa a study in glittering crystal, sitting on a wide blanket in the sands of the Rickman Dunes recreational area. They had found a secluded section of the Dunes, blocked from the sight of others by a stand of trees.
“Keep having ideas like this, Bud, and I’ll turn the inventing over to you!” Tom declared, finishing his hamburger.
“What a beautiful day!” proclaimed Sandy, pretty in her bathing suit—more often than not, a sun-bathing suit.
“It is like a day in my home town in Pakistan,” Bashalli said. “We used to go down to the riverbank after school, to talk about boys and be silly girls, which the teachers did not allow.”
“Well,” said Bud, “silly-time is over. I’ll go get the Drumhawk from the van.” Made mostly of Tomasite plastic under a thin metal shell, the prototype was light enough for one person to carry.
“Bud will always find some excuse to shed clothing and show muscle,” commented Bash. “Male vanity! Tom, you are lucky to have so little.”
“Vanity, or muscle?” asked Tom.
“Both!” teased Sandy. “I don’t mind Bud’s vanity, though. Until it turns to fat, that is.”
Bud seemed to take a long time at the van, which was out of sight behind a dune. When he reappeared presently, balancing the Drumhawk on his head, Tom suddenly frowned. “Hey, what’d you do to it?”
“Just unscrewed and removed those unnecessary and insulting safety bars!” declared the youth. “Plus, added some heroic decoration.” He had attached one end of a thin cord to a ring protruding from the top of the platform, wrapping the other end one turn about his waist, just above his swim trunks, and knotting it in place. Rainbow colored plastic pennants hung down from the cord, twitching in the steady breeze.
Sandy and Bashalli clapped appreciatively, but Tom rose to his feet, looking worried. “Bud, we don’t know how stable it’s going to be out here in― ”
“Let’s not quibble, Professor Swift,” interrupted Bud. “Just watch the demonstration. This is all for science.”
Tom sat down again. He knew his pal, a California native, was an excellent surfer who frequently flew to the Atlantic coast to keep up his skills. But he couldn’t help wondering if the test platform would make a suitable sky-surfboard.
Warning the girls about the noise, Bud positioned himself at the middle of the platform and switched on the power. The sand beneath seemed to deaden the sound somewhat. In moments the Drumhawk, cyclocyls gleaming in the sun and pennants fluttering, began a sluggish rise.
“The daring young man on the flying ironing board!” Sandy cheered with a giggle.
Bud waved, shifting his weight to keep balance. “Five feet up!—you guys look like ants.”
Suddenly a strange tone wavered through the background noise of the Drumhawk. “Bring ’er down, Bud!” Tom called.
“Getting some vibration,” Bud yelled back. “So what do we do? We rise above it!” He poured on the power, which was supplied by a bank of lightweight Swift solar micro-batteries built into the underside of the platform. The Drumhawk bobbed upward—six feet, eight feet, ten feet. Tom shouted with alarm as his pal passed the fifteen-foot mark, blithely heading on toward twenty!
“Come down!” demanded Tom. He could see that the platform was beginning to sway, which Bud evidently took as a challenge to his prowess as a surfer.
“I know what I’m doing, Skipper! Don’t you want a thorough― ”
Bud’s boast went unfinished, merging into a yelp of surprise. The flying board abruptly surged upward and forward. To stay on, Bud dropped to his knees and grabbed the edges of the platform. But it was starting to tilt, and began shaking and twisting like a dog whipping water from its fur.
Bud’s hands slipped. In an instant he would be pitched off—and he now was as high as the roof of a three-story building!
“Bud!” Sandy screamed.
BUD TUMBLED off the flying platform, which suddenly began to whirl like a crazed compass needle. The cord around the youth’s waist pulled taut—and snapped. In an instant he had belly-flopped into the shallow lake waters a dozen yards from the shoreline. Afraid that his friend might have been hurt by the wallop, Tom splashed into the gentle waves at top speed.
But Bud Barclay had sustained greater injury to his pride than his athletic body. “Good grief!” he choked, staggering to his feet in water that came up to mid-stomach. “Genius boy, I don’t recommend marketing your prototype as a diving board!”
Seeing that Bud was in good shape after his ungainly fall, Tom broke out laughing. “I’ll have to have ‘use only as directed’ printed on the side! By the way, pal― ”
“You might want to find your trunks before you come in.”
Bud nodded, reddening slightly. “Around my knees.” He waved jauntily toward the beach. “Hey there, girls, how ya doin’?” Struck by a sudden thought, his head whipped skyward. “Tom! The Drumhawk is flying around up there out of control!”
“Don’t worry,” Tom replied, still chuckling. “When the board sensed that contact had been broken, it started to power down automatically. It’s floating in the lake.”
Back on shore the girls had a few gleeful digs to make at Bud’s expense, but the young pilot took it all with sheepish dignity. “This is what science is like, folks,” he said. “We learn through failure. Right, Tom?”
“Absolutely!” agreed the young inventor with a broad grin.
“And what exactly did you learn from this episode?” Bashalli asked. “Something about the limitations of drawstring swimwear, perhaps?”
“That, and more,” Tom said. “Thanks to Bud, I now know that I have some real problems to overcome in the design of the ultrasonic generators.”
Sandy asked if a flaw in the generators had caused the Drumhawk to become unstable.
“In the generators themselves, or at least in their positioning,” was the answer. “That funny sound we heard was an interference effect due to sonic resonance in the metal shell of the platform. It may have had to do with the waves being reflected back from the sand dunes all around. I didn’t anticipate it.”
“Well, Tomonomo,” observed Sandy, “even genius-boys can’t anticipate everything.”
Bud rubbed his head. “And even handsome young sky-surfers can get a surprise now and then.” He bent over and knocked water from his ears.
Two days later, while Tom was busy in his private lab perfecting new engine mounts for the cycloplane to counteract the wave-buffeting problem, the phone rang. Answering it, he heard the calm, crisp voice of Munford Trent, the two Swifts’ office secretary. “Tom, the communications center is relaying a call from the space outpost—it’s Ken Horton.”
“Thanks, Munford― ”
“I’d prefer to be called ‘Trent,’ please.”
“Sorry. Go ahead and put Horton through.”
In a moment Tom was speaking to the young head of the Swift space station facility, their voices conveyed over more than 22,000 miles of cosmic emptiness. “Tom, we’ve finished those polyfrequency photo studies you requested. I’ll be transmitting the data shortly, but I thought I’d give you some advance word.”
“You found something?”
“Definitely, Chief!” said Ken excitedly. “Dr. Jespers and the astronomy boys say they’ve identified a big old crater smack in the middle of New Guinea!”
Tom was amazed. “A crater?”
“Yep, an ancient one, so eroded-down and covered by jungle that you can’t recognize it at ground level, or even from a plane. Jespers thinks it’s from a meteor strike several hundred million years back. But it’s mighty big, amigo—the crater walls, what’s left of ’em, circle almost the entire region you wanted us to look at.”
“My thanks to everyone,” Tom said. “If the holmium was originally carried to earth by the meteor itself, the densest concentration should be near the center of the crater. Someone must have mined it out of the ground there, centuries ago.”
“If I know you, you’re going to go take a look!”
Tom chuckled. “Obviously! But first we need to narrow down the range of the search.”
Later in the afternoon, Tom discussed the matter with his father in their shared office, Bud sitting in attendance as he often did.
“Finding a source of rare-earth substances is certainly a worthy goal,” observed Mr. Swift. “You could fly a search pattern above the region in the Sky Queen, as you did in the Verano uranium project. The improved metal detector and long-range spectronalyzer will allow you to map out the element distribution from an altitude of 30,000 feet or more.”
“Great! Let’s go!” Bud cried spiritedly.
Tom rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t want to leave Enterprises right now, not while I’m right in the middle of the cycloplane project. On the other hand, I don’t want to just set it aside for too long.”
“Look, guys, why not do it in two phases?” Bud suggested. “Slim Davis told me you were planning to have him fly those asbestalon samples, your new formulation, to Australia overnight, so why not have me tag along with him? On the way back we could fly right over the center of that New Guinea crater, and see what the instruments pick up. Then when you’re ready to fly there in the Queen, you’ll have less ground to cover.”
The two Swifts approved Bud’s idea, and arranged for the necessary equipment to be installed on the Swift Construction Company jet that was to be used. By dinner time Bud and Slim, a seasoned company pilot, were airborne and headed for Australia.
Two mornings later, Tom sat in one of his labs talking by satellite relay to Bud, who was now on the return lap of the flight and soaring high above the New Guinea jungle.
“Just crossed over the crater wall,” Bud radioed. “Nothing to see, though—just green, green, green.”
“What do the instruments say?” Tom asked.
“Oh, no big change, just—wait a sec, Tom.” There came a long pause, and Tom could imagine his friend carefully examining the instrument readouts. “Got a spike all of a sudden—holmium! Man, the numbers are going up fast!”
Bud recited the readings, and Tom whistled in surprise. “That counts as an ore strike already.” But he cautioned that false positives could not be ruled out yet. More data would be needed to confirm the find.
After Bud had transmitted the position of the jet, the voice of Slim Davis came on the speaker. “Boss, this is quite a place! There’s some kind of tropical storm going on, with lightning flashing back and forth. We’re bouncing around like grease on a griddle, and the instruments are wiggling all over the― ”
Bud’s startled voice interrupted Slim’s. “Up! Pull up!”
There was a long, loud burst of static.
“Slim! Bud!” Tom called frantically.
After a moment Bud Barclay’s voice could again be made out through the rush and roar of interference. “…was a close one, Tom. I…”
The static rose and fell, aping a concealed voice that could not quite penetrate the noise. Then it broke through again, very faintly. “…like volcanoes, two of ’em…” Another break. “…gap in the clouds, so we’re making another pass, way low down…”
Tom strained to catch the overlapping voice of Slim. “…huts lined up with colored roofs. Bright colors. Looks like the tribesmen are…”
With a crackle of static, the broadcast cut out completely!
Concerned and fearful, Tom punched buttons on the communications control panel, changing the signal route. In seconds he had made audio contact with Ted Elheimer, who ran the California link of the videophone system, the Swifts’ private communications network.
Tom hurriedly explained the situation. “Can you pick up their signal from one of the videophone satellites?”
“I’ll try, Tom!” After a few moments, Elheimer reported that he had acquired the signal from the jet. “Pretty weak, but I can hear them.”
“Are they all right?”
“No!” exclaimed Elheimer grimly. “They’ve activated the emergency locator tone!”
Tom went pale. The automatic distress signal!
“I’m hearing Bud—I think,” Elheimer continued. “Something about…instruments are haywire, and…”
There was a long, ominous silence over the speaker. “Ted! Do you still have them?” demanded Tom. “Can you hear them?”
“Sorry, Tom,” came the slow reply. “The signal is gone—both the vocal and the distress call. It cut out all at once. I—I’m afraid they’ve crashed!”
RIPPING OFF his earphones, Tom darted to the main videophone terminal and flipped on the switch. As the screen lit up, Ted Elheimer’s face came into view.
“What happened to the signal, Ted?” the young inventor cried out. “Any trouble in the relay hookup?”
Elheimer shook his head gloomily. “No, Tom. The transmission just stopped, that’s all.”
Tom was numb with shock and fear. “Good night, in country like that, they won’t stand a chance!” Struggling with his emotions, Tom clenched his jaw grimly. “The important thing is, Bud and Slim may have parachuted to safety. They’ll be depending on us!”
Tom hurried back to his office and immediately began organizing a rescue expedition. Issuing orders at high speed, he dictated a number of memos to Trent, then phoned the news to his mother and father at home.
Mrs. Swift was extremely proud of her husband and son. She found it difficult, however, not to be fearful of the dangers they often encountered while pursuing their scientific work.
“Oh dear,” she murmured. “Please be careful, son. A rescue flight to uncharted jungle country is…” She interrupted herself with a deep sigh of resignation. “But of course, you have to do it.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Tom soothed her. “I won’t take any unnecessary chances, but I certainly can’t leave Bud in the lurch.”
Tom then spoke at length to his father, discussing the details of the rescue flight and receiving the elder scientist’s complete and trusting support.
But the hardest call, which Tom insisted on making himself, was to San Francisco, where Bud’s parents lived. They reacted tearfully, but with bravery and hopefulness.
That night brought Tom only worry, not sleep.
To transport the rescue expedition, Tom had chosen his huge solar-powered aircraft, the Sky Queen. This amazing skyship, nicknamed the Flying Lab, had been designed by the young inventor to help him carry out scientific research work in any part of the globe.
The following day, descending to the underground hangar where the Queen was berthed, Tom beamed an electronic key to open the door. On the floor below, there was a bustle of activity. Mechanics swarmed over the mighty three-decker craft, which filled the entire underground hangar space with its streamlined silver form.
“Engines all check?” Tom asked the crew chief.
“Not yet, Skipper. Couple of burned out units. We should have her all loaded and ready for takeoff by five o’clock.”
“Good work. Buzz me as soon as you’re ready, Hanno.” Tom turned to go when a loud, gravelly voice came booming across the hangar:
“Gangway, you cowpokes an’ buckaroos! Gimme lots o’ room now! Here comes the grub!”
Chow Winkler had returned! But for a moment it looked as though a whole supermarket had grown a pair of bowlegs and was clumping across the concrete under its own power. The legs were clad in blue denims, stuffed into high-heeled cowboy boots. Above, the rest of the figure was blocked from view by an enormous carton, loaded high with groceries and canned foods.
“Gangway, all you waddies! Chuck wagon’s comin’ down, so― ”
“Chow!” Tom let out a yell as he saw one of the man’s boots miss a step.
The next instant, cans, bottles, blue denims, boots and all came tumbling and clattering headlong in a spreading circle of catastrophe!
There was a moment of stunned silence as the echoes died away and the cans and assorted objects stopped rolling and came to rest. Then a stout, weather-beaten figure emitted a faint groan and raised itself painfully from the debris.
“Chow, are you all right?” Tom gasped as he hurried to assist the middle-aged Westerner.
“Don’t reckon I’ll know till I try standin’ up. Here, gimme a hand, son.”
Tom slipped a shoulder under one arm while Hanno Turrosh, the crew chief, supported Chow on the other side. Together, they managed to hoist the bald-headed, roly-poly man to his feet.
Gingerly Chow Winkler tested his limbs. The Texan grinned wanly. “Left eye feels like I might wind up with a shiner. Them soup cans kin pack a mean punch! Mebbe I better slap on a hunk o’ beefsteak jest in case.
“Don’t bother, Chow,” a mechanic guffawed. “With that shirt you’re wearing, who’ll notice your eyes?”
Forgetting all about his bruises, Chow turned from side to side to display his purple and flame-orange cowboy shirt. “Ain’t it a jim-dandy?” he beamed. “I picked up this here lil ole number in San Antone on my― ” A phone shrilled at the rear of the hangar.
“It’s for you, Skipper!” a mechanic sang out. Tom hurried back to take the call.
“This is George Hedron,” said the voice at the other end of the line. As Tom struggled to place the name, the man added: “We haven’t met, Mr. Swift, but I’m an instructor at the DuBrey Institute. Miss Prandit is my student.”
“Of course,” said Tom. “She’s mentioned you.”
“I just heard the news from Bashalli about your rescue expedition to New Guinea, so I decided to call up and volunteer.”
“Volunteer?” Tom was puzzled for a moment.
“To go with you. You see, I’ve been down in the New Guinea jungles before, photographing animal and floral specimens, which I use as live models for technical illustration—my specialty and main occupation. I might be able to help you a good bit.”
“Oh, I see.” Uncertain, Tom stalled. “It’s kind of you to offer, but I’m not sure that we’ll be able to take another person. May I call you back?”
“Sure, you can reach me here all afternoon,” Hedron replied, and gave Tom his phone number. “Really, I just want to help in any way I can.”
After hanging up, Tom frowned for a moment, then dialed Harlan Ames, the plant security chief at Swift Enterprises. Quickly he told what he knew of Hedron’s background. “Check up on Hedron, will you, Harlan? Bashalli and the school should be able to give you more info. Find out if he’s on the up-and-up, and call me back as soon as possible. If he’s legit, I wouldn’t mind having a New Guinea expert on the team. The government there keeps telling us there’s little that they can do.”
“Will do, Tom!”
In less than an hour Ames reported back. “Everything looks all right, Tom. Bash and the Institute hold him in very high regard. I checked Hedron’s university record and he holds a master’s degree in zoology. So far as I can find out on short notice, he has no criminal record.”
“No sign of skullduggery? No secret meetings with the Brungarians or the Kranjovians?”
Ames laughed. “Not a trace!”
“Good enough, Harlan. Thanks!”
Tom felt that there was now no reason to turn down Hedron’s offer of assistance, especially in such a life-and-death emergency. So he phoned the zoologist and told him to prepare for immediate departure and report to Enterprises by mid-afternoon.
Soon after five o’clock, the roof of the underground hangar swung open in two halves, rotated by smooth-working gears. The hangar floor was then raised to ground level by hydraulic lifts, and the majestic Sky Queen emerged into the bright Shopton sunlight.
Sandy and Bashalli had driven out to the plant to wish Tom a last-minute farewell. “I’ll be worried every minute you’re gone,” Bashalli confessed shyly, “and imagining your shrunken head on a stick. So do be careful!”
“I promise.” Tom smiled, then surprised himself by blushing as the raven-haired Pakistani raised herself on tiptoe and gave him a quick kiss.
Sandy was tearful. “Tom, watch out. And you must find Bud—and Slim, too!”
Tom gave his sister a gentle squeeze. “We’ll bring ’em both back safely. That promise is for you, sis.”
One by one, the members of the rescue party climbed aboard the giant plane. Besides Chow, Hedron, and Hank Sterling, there was Arvid Hanson, the expert modelmaker of Swift Enterprises who was also a crack pilot, and Doc Simpson, the young plant physician. Several experienced flight crewmen made up the rest of the expedition.
In the ship’s large flight compartment, Tom settled himself in the pilot’s seat and ran through a quick instrument checkoff, now and then giving a sober glance sideways at the copilot’s spot usually occupied by Bud. Then, after clearing with the control tower and waving soberly to the two girls, he gunned the mighty engines. With the roar of a giant the Sky Queen shot straight up on its bank of jet lifters, then soared ahead westward, having been cleared for a cross-continent trans-Pacific route.
Streaking across the United States at over twelve hundred miles an hour, Tom and his companions paid little attention to the tapestry of farmland, cities, plains, and mountains unrolling beneath them. Then came the long flight across the billowing blue-green waters of the Pacific. Occasionally they passed over tiny ships trailing long wisps of smoke, or tropic atolls ringed by coral reefs and breakers of foam.
Finally, almost ten hours after leaving Shopton, the rescue party sighted New Guinea.
“We’ve outrun the sun,” Arv Hanson commented from the co-pilot’s chair.
Tom nodded, glancing at his watch. In the local time zone, it was only a few minutes before three o’clock in the afternoon!
Flying inland over the enormous island, they sighted dismal swamps, dense tropical rain forests, and towering mountain ranges. At some points, the ground was cleared in cultivated patches where the natives raised taro, yams, and vegetables. But most of the terrain appeared wild and forbidding.
“And this is the twenty-first century. Imagine what New Guinea was like a few generations back.” The voice behind Tom then asked, “Have you pin-pointed the spot where the crash occurred?”
Looking up from his topographic flatscreen, Tom saw George Hedron entering the flight compartment.
“Should be right about here, according to the—the final readings they transmitted.” Tom pointed toward a spot on the screen, which they were rapidly approaching.
Hedron frowned doubtfully. “That region is notorious for being poorly mapped. If Bud’s instruments were going haywire, the position he gave was probably way off.”
Tom nodded. “We have to start somewhere.”
Pointing just ahead out the curving viewport, Hedron called Tom’s attention to the fact that the area was blanketed by clouds. Hedron explained that fearful storms raged over this spot all the time.
“I think a few miles beyond would be a better place to land. The clear valley there will give us a chance to search in all directions. Besides,” added the zoologist, “it’s directly in Bud and Slim’s line of flight from their last reliable position.”
Tom looked at Hedron coolly. “I want to set down as close to the crash site as possible. I think the Queen can handle a storm.”
But soon enough Tom began to wonder if George Hedron weren’t right after all. The cloud deck became thicker and blacker, torn by startling flashes of brilliant lightning that seemed to dance from cloud to cloud. The Flying Lab swerved and vibrated, and Tom ordered all personnel to strap themselves in.
“Never saw a storm like this one,” gulped Arv Hanson, seated next to Tom.
“It must be the same one that forced Bud and Slim down,” said the young inventor. “I’d hoped it would have dissipated by now.”
Suddenly both men gasped as the deck tilted sharply forward. “The instruments!” cried Hanson. All the readout needles were wavering madly, and the radarscope was a flurry of static snow!
Silently, Tom focused his energies on manipulating the controls of the great ship he knew so well. He poured power into the jet lifters. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the Sky Queen rose up out of the hurricane-like turmoil. In minutes it was hovering steadily in the stratosphere, high above the roiling clouds.
“I won’t try that again,” said Tom. “I guess George was right.”
Inputting the positional data for the spot Hedron had recommended, Tom turned the ship about. Ten minutes later he swooped downward toward a rough clearing. Tom switched on the jet lifters again and allowed the Sky Queen to settle gently onto the floor of a shallow valley. There was no sign of habitation, but the land had definitely been cleared by human hands some time in the past.
The big skyship had hardly touched ground when the hatch opened and the men piled out. All were eager to explore the lush green surroundings.
“Sure didn’t see no sign of any plane wreckage when we ’as comin’ down,” Chow reported gloomily.
“It might not be visible among the trees,” Tom pointed out. “Remember, they might have ejected. We’ll split up into twos and scout around.”
Tom drew Hank as a companion. Together, they struck eastward through the forest. The air was spicy with the scent of tropical flowers, but insects were a constant nuisance. Overhead, the cries of strange birds broke the quiet of the jungle.
“Sure hope we don’t meet up with any cannibals,” Hank remarked jokingly. “Hey, what’s—!”
He broke off with a gasp as he stumbled over a grassy hummock—a hummock which came to life! Rearing up on long, ostrichlike legs, it turned into a bird about five feet tall.
“Good grief! What is it?” Hank goggled.
“Cassowary, I think.” Tom chuckled, adding, “Look out! They can’t fly, but they’re dangerous if they’ve been wounded!”
Evidently Hank had injured the cassowary. Shaking its wattles like an angry turkey cock, the big bird glared at the man. The creature’s head was crested with a large, black horny helmet, and its unfeathered face and wrinkled neck were of scarlet, yellow, and purplish blue. It looked like a weird feathered dinosaur.
Suddenly the cassowary hurled itself at Hank! With a yelp, the young engineer shinnied up the nearest tree, while Tom, to be on the safe side, climbed another.
Below the treed pair, the bird, beside itself with rage, stalked rapidly back and forth.
“Guess we’d better sit this one out,” Tom called to Hank.
“You bet. Lucky thing that species sticks to the ground!”
Finally, with another vigorous shake of its wattles, the cassowary disappeared into the jungle. Tom and Hank sighed in relief and slid down from their perches. They continued the search, and when they reached higher ground, looked around hopefully. Still they detected no trace of the missing fliers.
“If Bud and Hank were nearby,” said Tom, “we’d have spotted some sign of them from this point. Guess we’d better head back,” he added, discouraged.
When they reached the ship, Tom and Hank found that the other searching teams had returned, with no better luck to report.
“Come on. Let’s take off!” the young inventor decided restlessly. “We’ll fly to the position Bud gave just before the crash. Maybe we can thread our way along under the storm—Bud radioed something about getting through a gap in the clouds.”
“Don’t fergit them volcanoes,” muttered Chow. “Buddy boy said he saw a couple of ’em!”
With all hands aboard, Tom seated himself at the controls. He switched on the engine and fed power to the jet lifters.
But the huge ship refused to rise off the ground!
AS TOM worked the throttle controls and checked all the instruments, Chow Winkler popped his bald head into the flight cabin.
“What’s wrong?” the Texan queried. “Ain’t we goin’ to take off like you said, Tom?”
“We can’t. For some reason the jet lifters aren’t getting any power.” Unhooking his seat belt, Tom added, “I’ll go below and check.”
Accompanied by Hank Sterling and armed with a kit of tools, he hurried down a winding steel ladder to the bottom deck. Here the two troubleshooters opened an inspection port and squeezed into the labyrinthine engine compartment.
An hour’s check failed to disclose the cause of the trouble. Next, Tom inspected the jet lifters in the ship’s underbelly. Hank joined him a few minutes later.
“Any luck?” Doc Simpson inquired, as they paused to wipe the dripping sweat off their brows.
Tom shook his head. “The tubes are clear. Must be something we missed in the engine compartment.”
By this time, a purple dusk had descended over the trees. Night was coming on fast, and the screams and twitterings of the jungle birds died away to a faint murmur.
Grimly Tom surveyed the prospects ahead. What if the whole rescue expedition should find itself marooned in the wilderness, in need of rescue itself? But he shook off the gloomy thought.
“Come an’ get it, buckaroos!” Chow appeared in the doorway, banging a metal triangle. “How ’bout you an’ Hank knockin’ off fer now, Tom? Soup’s on!”
Dinner proved a dismal meal, in spite of Chow’s tasty cooking. As soon as Tom finished eating, he hurried up to the radio panel and called Shopton on an encrypted transmission via satellite. To his delight, his father’s voice responded to the pre-arranged code signal.
“Have you found any trace of Slim and Bud?”
“Not yet, Dad. I was hoping that they might have got a message through to Shopton somehow.”
“No. George Dilling’s group has been monitoring, but they’ve had no further word since the crash. But here’s a slight piece of good news, Tom. The police just called to report that they now have a lead on that Dutchman—the one who had Feeney hire Jake the Cat to steal the statue. Someone matching his description is wanted by the authorities in Singapore for smuggling.”
“That’s great, Dad. Glad to hear it.” But Tom’s response was listless. He was far more concerned about his close pal than about the mystery of the statue. Bud was like a second son to the Swift family.
In order not to worry his family or the relatives of his men, Tom decided to avoid any mention of engine trouble. After sending his love to his mother and Sandy, and to Bash, the young inventor said good-bye.
Just as he switched off the transmitter, Chow came into the radio room on tiptoe—as much as his ponderous form could manage. From the furtive way he peered into the passageway, it was obvious that he was bringing secret news.
“What’s up, Chow?” Tom asked.
“Tom, d’you reckon someone could have messed up this here airplane so it can’t fly no more?”
“Sabotage? No, I never even considered that, Chow! Why?”
“’Cause when I ’as hikin’ back from the woods this afternoon, I heard some kind o’ hammerin’ noises—metal hammerin’, but real soft an’ low. Sounded to me like they might have come from the Sky Queen.”
Tom’s pulse quickened with interest. “Did you see anyone near the ship?”
Chow shook his head. “Nope. When I got back, there warn’t no one around, so I figgered I must have been mistook. But now I’m not so sure!”
Tom gave the roly-poly Texan’s shoulder a pat of approval. “Thanks for telling me, Chow. I’ll check right away!”
Calling the men together, the young inventor questioned each one carefully. But apparently no one had been out of sight of his fellow searcher long enough to do any mischief to the plane.
Tom was baffled. If none of his men was the saboteur, then who had been doing the hammering? Unfriendly natives, perhaps? New Guinea tribesmen who had already captured Bud and Slim and were even now keeping watch on the rescue party?
But untutored locals would have damaged the Flying Lab in some cruder fashion easy to detect, Tom reasoned. It was a mystifying problem.
“Just to be on the safe side, we’d better search the plane for stowaways,” he announced. “Arv, you take charge of the search, will you? Hank and I will go back to work on the engine.”
Hanson responded with a quick salute, “Righto, Skipper!”
Twenty minutes later he reported, “Tom, we’ve been over every inch of the ship. No one’s hiding on board.”
“Okay, Arv. Thanks.” Tom laid down a beryllium wrench and wiped a smear of grease off his face with his sleeve. “At any rate, we’ve spotted the trouble.” He held up a length of Tomasite plastic tubing. It was part of the servo-control hookup to the jet-lifter throttle. “Someone crimped the insulation line with a pair of pliers,” he explained tersely. “The control signals were shorting out before reaching the lifter engines.”
Hanson’s eyes widened in dismay. “Then it was sabotage!”
“No doubt about it. Whoever did this had to have planned the whole thing ahead of time.” Tom said no more, though he was greatly worried. A highly skilled technician, with detailed knowledge of Tom’s great skyship, was back of the sabotage.
“Somebody must be out there in the underbrush, watching us,” murmured one of the crew, Red Jones.
“Like an injun scout,” Chow added, “jest waitin’ fer his chance.”
Tom nodded. “And he would have had to have known how to defeat our electronic security system, too—and that’s not an easy task.” After replacing the length of tubing, Tom took the Sky Queen up for a brief test flight. This time, the mammoth ship checked out perfectly. Since the jungle was now shrouded in darkness, Tom felt that further searching that day would be fruitless. They would continue in the morning. He brought the ship down and arranged for guards during the night. There were no visitors, however.
Mist still drifted among the trees when the Sky Queen soared aloft at dawn. With Hanson as copilot, Tom headed eastward to the spot from which Bud and Slim’s last contact had emanated. For half an hour they cruised back and forth over the area without spotting any wreckage, the continuing storm growling and glowering on the rugged horizon.
Finally Tom said, “I think our best bet is in the storm area.” He pointed off to starboard, where the mass of dark clouds blotted out the landscape. A narrow break in the clouds was visible. “That may be the gap Bud mentioned, Arv.”
Hanson frowned. “It’s hard to believe that the cloud bank could remain so stable over a period of days like that.”
“It may be due to some landscape feature,” Tom noted. Banking sharply, he steered straight for the strange opening in the area of heavy weather. As they plowed into the periphery of the turbulent overcast, two towering volcanic peaks, as close to one another as factory smokestacks, suddenly loomed up ahead!
Chow, who had come forward to the flight compartment with Hedron and two other members of the rescue party, gulped nervously. “Brand my ripcord, I’ll bet m’ bottom dollar that’s them volcanoes the boys saw!”
“Bud and Slim may have crashed between those peaks or just beyond,” Tom replied, half to himself. “I want a closer look.”
The opening in the clouds was narrow, and quickly grew narrower as the ship roared forward toward the twin volcanoes. The rescuers felt as though the walls were closing in on them like a funnel. As they plunged deeply into the turbulent storm area, the giant ship began to buck and shudder violently. Tom seemed about to lose control of the Sky Queen.
Chow yelled in panic, “We’re goin’ to crash!”
The faces of Tom’s crewmen blanched with alarm. But the young inventor managed to quiet their fears momentarily with his reply: “Relax, Chow! We were in this soup before and pulled out safely. We’re a mighty big bird!”
“That’s j-jest what’s worryin’ me,” the cook quavered. “Don’t hardly look like anything bigger’n a hoot owl could fly betwixt those pointy peaks!”
Without warning the storm clouds seemed to slam together, and the plane was now at the very heart of the storm. Rain lashed the cabin windows, and the extinct volcanoes stood out in the leaden darkness like sentinels of doom, gray in the skyship’s forward lights. Tom was forced to jockey the craft like a balky horse to keep it aloft.
Cutting the forward jets, he braked the Sky Queen sharply. Then, as the plane lost momentum against the buffeting winds, Tom eased off on the jet lifter throttle. Slowly he began the dangerous descent into the gorge between the peaks, so narrow that even the wingless Flying Lab was in danger of being wedged in as tight as the cork in a bottle.
“Everyone keep a lookout for signs of wreckage!” he instructed his companions. His own eyes darted from side to side—conning the instrument dials, gauging the distance between the jagged and threatening mountain walls to port and starboard. In the misty, lightning-lit gloom, visibility was almost at zero. The mammoth plane was so completely boxed in by the peaks that again and again it seemed as if the buffeting winds would dash it against the rocks!
Beads of sweat glistened on Arv Hanson’s forehead as he watched Tom’s icy-nerved maneuvers. “Only that boy could do it,” he muttered softly in George Hedron’s direction. Hedron nodded appreciatively.
Suddenly there was a screech of tortured metal and the whole ship rocked and vibrated under the impact. “The starboard vane tip is scraping!” yelled Red Jones.
Instantly Tom yanked the throttle and poured power to the jet lifters. Like a rocket, the plane shot up from between the volcanoes with a blast of smoke and flame, roaring through the writhing canopy of thunderheads and finally emerging into bright morning sunshine miles above the earth.
Chow had collapsed into the nearest seat, his rotund bulk quivering with nervous shock. “Brand my sagebrush salad,” he moaned, mopping his bald head with a red bandanna, “why don’t we try somethin’ safe fer a change?” He grimaced. “Like hirin’ some head-hunters to give us all a good short haircut?”
“Sorry, Chow― ” Tom repressed a worried grin. “—but I’m afraid this jungle rescue business is going to be no picnic any way we tackle it!” Turning serious, he added, “Did any of you spot traces of Bud’s plane?”
The others responded with a gloomy negative.
“Pretty tough to see much, though, with all this overcast,” commented Sam Barker, one of the flight crew. “We could have missed them easily.”
High above the storm area now, Tom stared at the dark cloud masses billowing under powerful winds. The tops of the two volcanoes were totally hidden. Now, though, they could faintly discern the terrain below the edges of the storm. The volcanoes seemed to be part of a high, spiny ridge of dark rock extending far into the distance, like a wall completely enclosing a central area about one mile square.
“Updrafts all around,” muttered Arv Hanson. “They’re like vertical jetstreams, Tom. If we tried to hop ’em in the Queen—”
Tom cut off the disheartening assessment. “We muffed our chance that time,” he brooded. “With the giant searchlight, we could have picked out ground details clearly.” This famous invention was capable of illuminating large areas with a clear, diamondlike brilliance. “And we’ve got to do it. We can’t risk coming down right on top of Bud and Slim.”
“Jumpin’ horned toads!” gulped Chow, turning pale beneath his desert tan. “You don’t mean you’re aimin’ to try that loco stunt again?”
Tom shook his head. “No. Even our supergyros can’t steady the ship well enough for safe hovering. Anyhow, it’s no use trying to fly any lower in the Sky Queen—we’re just too darn big to maneuver.”
“Are you giving up?” George Hedron inquired.
“Not by a long shot!” vowed the young inventor. “Arv, you stand off somewhere on the lifters and I’ll try to get through in the Kub.”
The Kangaroo Kub, a midget jet plane with advanced maneuvering capabilities, was carried in the vast hangar-hold of the Flying Lab.
Chow sprang to his feet. “Now wait jest a second there, son! You sure as Cheyenne ain’t headin’ into that mess all alone!”
Tom shook his head impatiently. “I don’t need a copilot. I’ll run the video cameras automatically, on infrared.”
“Call me copilot er call me friend,” said the cowpoke, “but I’m aimin’ to go along with you.”
“But—!” Then Tom relaxed. He realized that Chow was setting aside an enormous burden of fear out of loyalty to Tom. “Okay, pardner. Let’s head for the hangar.”
Leaving Hanson at the controls, Tom and Chow scrambled below to the ship’s pressurized hangar space. Slipping into the cockpit of the Kangaroo Kub, a flick of a switch caused the entire rear section of the deck to lower on hydraulic arms like an elevator platform, the sides opening out to the sky. Tom locked the canopy and hastily warmed up the engine.
“All set, Arv,” he signaled into his mike. “Steady as she goes!” Tom fired a cartridge to release the special launching-rail mechanism, and the tiny jet shot from the hangar into space.
“Wheee-oooh!” yelped Chow in a cowboy whoop.
Once airborne, the Kub was steered back toward the pass. But almost as soon as Tom penetrated the storm area again, he realized that the odds were hopeless. Seized by the violent crosscurrents, the small craft was tossed and buffeted like a feather in a windstorm. Tom felt a wave of panic as the stubby jet failed to respond to its controls.
“I’d better cut back on the throttle!” Tom muttered to Chow.
“R-reckon ya better!” gasped Chow.
As the jet thrust slackened, the plane teetered perilously on the brink of a stall. Tom waited for the split-second bite as its controls took hold, then hauled up its nose and “poured on the coal.” The Kub zoomed upward like a comet!
“Whew!” Tom felt his heart pounding with relief. “Well, there goes that idea!”
Chow reached over and put a hand on his beloved boss’s shoulder. “Don’t you fret, son. You’ll come up with somethin’ better.”
Disappointed but far from defeated, the young inventor streaked back to the hovering Queen and set down primly in the hangar at slow-cruising speed, slipping easily into the hold’s arresting mechanism.
“Any luck?” Doc Simpson voiced the question of the whole group as Tom and Chow entered the flight deck cabin.
Tom shook his head glumly. “Not yet. The Kub wouldn’t handle in the storm. It won’t do the guys any good to crash a second plane down in that valley. But that doesn’t mean we’re licked.” His mind whirling, Tom sighed. “But for now, let’s go back to that clearing and set down.”
Arv turned toward the master controls. But before he could make a move, Sam Barker, the crewman monitoring the communications setup, suddenly waved a cautioning hand.
“What’s up?” Tom asked. But Sam motioned him to silence, straining to hear something from his headset. Finally he looked up at Tom and the others.
“Bud and Slim are alive!—at least, one of them is!” Sam reported breathlessly as the men clustered around. “I just picked up a faint signal on the ship’s radio!”
A TREACHEROUS TREK
“YOU’RE SURE it was Bud or Slim?” Hardly daring to feel hope, Tom grabbed Barker by the shoulders.
“Positive! The signal was pretty feeble, and there was too much static to recognize the voice. But it was one of our boys, all right!”
“What did he say?”
Sam’s face clouded. “At first I couldn’t make anything out, but the last part sounded something like: ‘…rare…like what you…’ That’s all I could understand. Then the signal faded out completely.”
“Please try to call them back!” Tom directed eagerly.
The men waited in suspense as Sam made a series of attempts at different frequencies. “No response,” he finally reported in discouragement.
“Well, keep trying!” Tom ordered.
As Barker complied, Tom and the others left the control compartment and headed upstairs to the lounge, where the young inventor was pelted with questions about the results of his flight in the Kub.
“I doubt if any type of aircraft could make a landing in that storm area,” Tom told them. “I’ve never heard of a weather phenomenon like that. And it doesn’t seem to be going away.”
“Kinda makes a feller believe in black magic,” Chow said in a worried voice. “Thunderation! I knew I shoulda brought along my lucky horseshoe!”
Hank Sterling spoke up. “Tom, I know that has already occurred to you, but—how about using your new cycloplane? It’s compact enough to maneuver between those peaks, and its lift principle could help you resist the buffeting effect.”
Tom nodded slowly. “I’ve been thinking the same thing. The cycloplane’s aerodynamic principle offers our only chance of stable flight in such a turbulent sky as this one.”
“But the SwiftStorm is back in Shopton,” Red pointed out. “And it’s not even ready yet.”
“I know.” The young inventor brooded silently for a moment.
Doc Simpson spoke up. “Let’s assume an air rescue of Bud and Slim is out. What’re we going to do?”
“Try reaching them overland,” Tom decided. “Looks as if it’s our only hope.”
George Hedron frowned. “You’re the man in charge, Tom, but do you have any idea how treacherous that dense jungle is?”
“You’re right, George,” Tom said, casting a cool look toward the zoologist. “I am the man in charge. We set off in two hours.”
Unfortunately, the expedition’s gear on board the Sky Queen included no complete outfits for a long jungle hike. But Tom refused to be intimidated by this obstacle. We’ll get through, somehow, he told himself. Bud’s depending on me!
After consulting Hedron about possible hazards, he issued a number of orders. Then the young inventor hurried back to the command deck and interrupted Sam long enough to put through a radio call to Shopton.
“Any news, son?” Mr. Swift’s voice came through the unscrambling device.
“Yes, and good news at that, Dad!” Tom quickly told his father about the signal which Sam had picked up. “But there’s some bad news, too,” he went on. “We’ve spotted the place where Bud and Slim must have crashed, but there’s no chance of landing—or even trying an air pickup. That means we’ll have to reach them the hard way.”
“Through the jungle?” The elder scientist’s voice was tinged with worry.
“Right, Dad. We’ll start out right away.”
“But, Tom, you’re not equipped for a land search of that kind.”
“I believe we can make out,” Tom reassured him. “Anyhow, it’s worth a first try on foot. If we can’t get through, I may have to use the cycloplane.”
Mr. Swift conceded the logic of Tom’s plan. “I’ll put an engineering team and a test pilot on the job right away; in fact, I’ll take personal charge myself. With luck, we can have your cycloplane ready for action in a few days.”
“Swell, Dad! That’s the main reason I called.”
Meanwhile, Chow had been packing a jungle kit for each man, which included water, food rations, and insect repellent. Doc Simpson loaded his own bag with medical instruments and extra first-aid gear in case of emergencies.
At the same time, each man was busy with scissors, needle, and packthread, fashioning himself a makeshift sleeping bag out of waterproof nylon fabric, interwoven with Tomasite fibers. Great rolls of the lightweight material were always carried aboard the Sky Queen for camouflage purposes.
Tom himself went to work at top speed in the ship’s electronic laboratory. Assembling parts like a one-man production line, he constructed a small transistor-type walkie-talkie for every man, in case the group should become separated from one another.
Despite their dogged pace and Tom’s announced goal, the tropic sun was high overhead when the lunch-call clanging of Chow’s triangle was heard over the ship’s intercom. Hungrily the crew assembled for a tasty meal of ham sandwiches, salad, and lemonade.
“How soon do we hit the trail, Skipper?” Hank Sterling asked as he got up from the table.
“In about an hour,” Tom replied. “And that’s a concession! We’ll all hit the sack for a short siesta first, so we can start out well rested.”
Shortly before two o’clock, Tom roused the men from their naps. Shouldering their jungle kit bags, the rescue party lined up for the rugged overland trek.
Arv Hanson and two flight crewmen had been detailed to stay behind and guard the Sky Queen, and to continue trying to contact Bud and Slim. Tom had equipped himself with a fairly strong radio transmitter to keep in constant touch with them.
“Remember, fellows,” Tom warned his men, “we’re in for some rough travel and the heat and humidity will be terrific until we reach higher ground. So take it easy until you get used to it.”
With shouts of farewell from the three crewmen guarding the Sky Queen, the rescue party slogged forward into the jungle.
The undergrowth was so dense that almost at once the going became rugged. Swinging their machetes and hatchets, the men had to hack their way along, foot by foot and yard by yard.
On all sides, the towering forest rose about them—huge casuarina trees, oaks, palms, and pandanus. Dripping green moss festooned the branches and clung to the tree trunks.
Even the ground underfoot was soggy, covered with rotting vines and logs. “Like walkin’ on a sponge!” Chow grumbled. “Sure wish we had that there tank contraption we used in Africa.”
Tom gave his friend a rueful look. “I didn’t plan for a hike, Chow. But these trees are so close-packed I don’t think even the terrasphere tank would do us much good.”
“Mebbe not,” the Texan conceded. “But them TV screens on board sure did get a good picture!”
Every foot of the way, they were fascinated by strange sounds and splashes of brilliant color. Gaudy parrots and cockatoos screeched at them from the treetops. Other weird-looking birds would occasionally flit into view, trailing long plumage of orange, violet, or emerald green.
“Birds of paradise,” George Hedron explained. “Their feathers used to bring a fortune for decorating ladies’ hats. In fact, the natives still use them for making plumed headdresses—though it’s for the benefit of tourists these days, more often than not.”
Once the trekkers sighted a comical-looking animal perched on a tree branch. It was snoozing contentedly with its head between the forepaws. At sight of Tom’s rescue party, it arced to the ground in a prodigious leap and scuttled off through the undergrowth.
“And what might that be?” Chow demanded, perspiration flooding down his nose. “Sittin’ Bull’s nephew?”
Hedron chuckled. “Just a tree kangaroo!”
But the men were in no mood to enjoy the interesting surroundings. Streaming with perspiration and pestered by insects, every step seemed to add to their torture.
Turning to speak to Doc Simpson, Tom noticed a glazed look in Hank Sterling’s eyes.
“Hank! Are you all right?” he queried.
Tottering, Hank wiped the sweat from his brow. “Sure—j-just a bit bushed, I guess,” the young engineer replied.
Suddenly Doc gasped and pointed to Red Jones. Apparently the redheaded crewman had not noticed that the rest of the group had halted. With drooping head and closed eyes, he stumbled forward.
“Catch him, someone!” Tom shouted.
But it was too late. Tripping over a tree root, Red sprawled headlong on the ground, then groveled in the green foliage, too weak to rise. Doc Simpson and the others ran to his assistance. “Heat prostration,” the medic announced after a quick examination.
By bathing Red’s forehead and holding smelling salts to the man’s nose, Doc soon revived him and gave him a hydrating electrolyte drink which restored his vigor. But Tom, concerned but impatient, suggested that the group rest for a while.
While the men lounged, panting, with their backs propped against tree trunks, the young inventor checked his Global Positioning System meter.
“Wow! What a snail’s pace!” he muttered in disgust. “Since we left the Sky Queen, we’ve covered only about a mile in actual forward motion.”
The depressing news was greeted with loud groans. To cool off from the steaming jungle heat, and to keep away the flies and mosquitoes, the men fanned themselves constantly.
In half an hour, the group resumed its trek. But as before progress was slow. Gradually the jungle shadows deepened as the day drew to a close.
“Might be wise to stop soon and make camp,” Hedron advised. “Night can come fast in the jungle.”
Tom agreed, but pointed out the importance of first finding a good campsite. Eventually the expedition halted near a shallow jungle stream that seemed to ooze sluggishly through the darkening gloom. While Chow made a fire and started preparing the evening meal, most of the men flopped down, completely drained of energy. Tom, however, decided to use what was left of twilight to scout around for enemies—human or animal.
“I’ll go with you,” Doc volunteered. “I’m always on the hunt for rare medicinal herbs.”
Keeping in close touch with each other, the two began ranging around the camp in widening circles. Suddenly a shout from Doc brought the scientist-inventor on the run.
“What is it?” yelled Tom, alert for danger.
In reply, Doc held up a waxy green plant with a small pink flower which he had just plucked from the ground. “A rare herb, used in certain drug preparations!” he explained. “Here’s a whole patch of the stuff!”
Irritated, Tom almost snapped at Doc for alarming him. But he thought the better of it. I’m as worn out and on-edge as the rest of ’em, he said to himself. With Tom’s help, Doc began picking a supply of the flowers to take back to Shopton for his medical experiments. Engrossed in their task, neither noticed that the ground was getting softer at every step.
Suddenly Tom realized they were both ankle deep in the wet, spongy earth. Floundering for a foothold, Tom slid sideways, as if down a hidden embankment. When he stopped, he had sunk almost to the knees in oozy muck!
“Doc!” he cried. “It’s a bog! We’re getting sucked in!”
IN A FRENZY of alarm, the two explorers tried to scramble back to firmer ground. But their efforts were futile—the treacherous bog only clutched them more securely in its slimy embrace. With every wallowing step, they plunged deeper and deeper into the morass.
“Hold it, Doc!” Tom gasped finally. “We’re only making matters worse!”
Panting for breath, the two companions eyed each other in growing panic. They used their walkie-talkies to contact their friends, but there was no reply.
“Maybe if we yell, they’ll hear us,” Doc suggested.
They shouted themselves hoarse, but the only response was the mocking cries of jungle birds.
Tom said at last, “Doc, did you happen to pack any fishhooks in your jungle kit?”
The doctor stared in amazement. “No, but I have some large safety pins you could bend into hooks. Why?”
“Just an idea—which may not work. Give me some pins and a reel of surgical thread, will you?” By this time, both victims had sunk to their hips in the bubbling ooze. But Doc managed to get out the thread and pins and hand them to Tom. Working fast, the young scientist looped the thread through the ring on his jackknife to weight the line. Then he tied several of the bent pins to one end of the thread; the other end he tied to his belt.
Twirling the line around and around, he heaved it toward a clump of trees at the edge of the bog. After several misses, Tom finally succeeded in hooking a long trailing creeper which dangled from the tree branches, the only one in range.
Doc held his breath as Tom began gently reeling in the line. Both feared that under the strain, either the thread might break, or the pins be dislodged. Their last chance for survival would be lost! But finally the vine was close enough for Tom to reach out gingerly and grasp hold.
“You did it!” Doc exulted as Tom’s hand finally reached out and grabbed the vine.
“Don’t cheer until we make sure this is strong enough to support our weight,” Tom warned him. He began to pull it toward him gently. The vine pulled taut—and suddenly fell limp. It had broken apart!
“No!” gasped Doc.
“Got another idea,” Tom muttered. He disengaged the pins from the vine, then tossed the weighted line upwards. In a few tries he had managed to hook the overhanging branch of a tree.
“That branch won’t support a man’s weight, Tom,” warned Doc Simpson.
“Doesn’t have to,” was the reply. Tom pulled the long, supple branch down within reach, then grabbed it. As Tom yanked on it repeatedly, the tree to which it was attached swayed and bowed. Suddenly a large bough ripped loose and tumbled down on top of the bog, its broad yellow-green leaves splaying in all directions. Tom slowly dragged himself up on top of the ragged mat, which began to sink down a ways into the bog. But before the bough had been forced down deeply, Tom had hauled himself to safety, and was able to rescue Doc Simpson in turn.
“I owe you my life, Tom,” Doc murmured gratefully.
Tom shook his head, managing a faint, tired grin. “Without your surgical thread and those safety pins, we’d both have been out of luck.”
After resting for a while, they began to trudge back to camp. Step by step, the two young men groped their way by flashlight through the tangled jungle growth. But even with the yellow beams of their penetrating, high-intensity lights to guide them, the going was slow and tedious. Ten minutes later Tom stopped abruptly.
“What’s the matter?” Doc inquired.
“We’re going in circles!”
A sweep of his flashlight revealed the same patch of pink-flowered herbs which had lured them into the bog.
“Whew!” Doc shuddered and mopped his brow. “A few more steps and we might have walked right into that bog again!”
Checking the GPS readout, the two trekkers resumed their slow plodding through the jungle. Minutes went by. Still no flickering campfire greeted them through the trees.
Once again Tom stopped. “Let’s face it, Doc,” he said grimly, “we’re lost. Something—maybe the electrical storm—is fouling up the GPS.”
“Let’s try shouting some more,” the physician suggested. “At least we may be within earshot by now.”
“Okay—both barrels,” Tom agreed. “And if there’s no response, we’ll try the walkie-talkie again.”
Filling their lungs with air, the two companions let out a long-drawn bellow for help. A moment later the startled pair were cowering under a deadly hail of small, sharp-pointed stones!
“Take cover!” Tom yelled.
Shielding their faces, he and Doc plunged into the underbrush. For several minutes the stinging missiles continued to rain down all around them. Then, like a passing storm, the attack halted as abruptly as it had begun.
Crouching in the darkness, the two awaited another onslaught. But none came. Only the eerie night sounds of the jungle broke the silence.
“What do you make of that?” Doc whispered. “Unfriendly natives?”
Venturing out of their hiding place, they scouted around cautiously. None of their attackers was in sight.
Tom played his flashlight over the ground and kicked up several small polished stones the size of marbles. “Take a look at this ammunition, Doc. Those natives must have used slingshots.”
Doc picked up one of the stones and examined it. “They weren’t playing with peashooters, that’s for sure! These things look innocent enough, but if one of these should hit a vital spot, it could kill a man!”
In spite of himself, Tom felt a chill of fear. “We’d better get back to camp pronto!” he advised, taking a sweeping look at the black shadows that had closed in around them. Only the scattering of the tiny missiles disclosed the presence of humanity somewhere amid the trees and underbrush!
Despite painful cuts and bruises, they pushed on through the jungle, trying not to expose themselves too openly. At long last, half an hour later, they sighted Chow’s campfire through the trees. A chorus of gasps and exclamations greeted them as they stumbled into the circle of firelight.
“Good lord! What have you two been up to?” demanded one of the expeditioners, Billy Yablonskovic.
“You name it, we’ve had it,” Tom said wearily as he sank to the ground.
Bruised, bloodstained, and covered with muck, he and Doc presented a startling appearance. As they washed in the nearby stream, they related the whole story. Then Doc sprayed their wounds with a penetrating antiseptic.
“Now that you two mavericks are here,” said Chow, “we sure ought to get at our grub. I’ll dish out some stew.” He turned away.
“Tom,” said Red Jones, “what did the natives look like? I mean those guys who blasted you with stones.”
Tom shrugged. “We didn’t even catch a glimpse of them. They took us completely by surprise.”
“Must be very primitive, though,” Doc Simpson added. “Those missiles indicate a stone-age culture. Let’s hope they’re not cannibals to boot!”
“Cannibals!” Red Jones turned pale at the thought. “Excuse me, but I think I’ve just lost my appetite!”
“Let’s hope,” said Hank Sterling, “that they have, too.” He caught Tom’s eye and winked.
With good-natured hoots and chuckles, the exhausted men gathered around the campfire and held out their plates to Chow. But underneath all the joking ran a feeling of grim apprehension. Even though no one put it into words, the same thought was in every mind: Had Bud and Slim fallen victim by now to a tribe of savage headhunters?
Tom was especially worried. After finishing a meager supper, he drew George Hedron aside and spoke softly. “George, just how dangerous are the locals here?”
Hedron returned a wry smile. “Nowadays? I’m afraid we taught them to be unfriendly. Many New Guinea tribesmen were first reported friendly, despite an appearance that seems fierce to outsiders. At least, they were friendly enough on their first contact with Europeans. But this is an especially dangerous region, Tom. The central government has little real authority here; in fact, much of the area has only been tentatively mapped, from the air or by space-satellite.” Hedron then recounted a story he had been told during his last visit to New Guinea, concerning a tribe that had first been contacted by explorers only fifty years before. “They claimed to know nothing of the modern world, or the strange ways of white men. They had never seen an electric light, or an airplane, or even a book.”
“Were they cannibalistic?” Tom asked.
“No. But they did preserve and worship the skulls of their ancestors. Anyway, after a few years, the whole tribe abandoned their traditional village and up and disappeared into the unexplored wilderness—this jungle around us. Never seen again. It just might be that the Iwooro, as they call themselves, had something to do with the attack on you and Dr. Simpson.”
As Tom returned to the campfire, his head was full of dark thoughts. Did tonight’s attack mean that these local natives had already suffered at the hands of hostile whites? If so, the rescue party could expect plenty of trouble!
To play safe, Tom assigned sentries to take turns standing watch throughout the night. He and Billy Yablonskovic took the first trick, then tumbled into their sleeping bags, stiff with exhaustion. Some time later Tom awoke to find Red Jones, who was on guard, shaking him urgently.
“Huh? Wh-what’s up?” Tom mumbled sleepily, raising himself on one elbow.
“We just heard a shot, Skipper!”
Instantly alert, Tom scrambled out of the sack. The jungle was shrouded in darkness.
For several minutes Tom, Red, and Chow, who was the other sentry, waited tensely. But there were no further shots. Only the distant scream of a night bird broke the eerie stillness.
“Sure you weren’t mistaken?” Tom asked.
The two sentries eyed each other uncertainly. “Well, it sounded like a shot,” Red replied.
“Shore did, boss,” agreed Chow. “An’ I’ve heard my share of ’em in my time.”
Tom stayed awake for another half hour. When nothing else happened, he finally went back to sleep, after first urging Red and his co-watcher to rouse him at the slightest hint of trouble.
Morning dawned without further incident. After breakfast, the expedition prepared to break camp.
Suddenly a startled screech from Sam Barker brought the whole rescue party running to his side. In speechless fright, he pointed to his sleeping bag.
Out slithered a sinister golden form with glittering green eyes!
THE WINGED HORDE
“IT’S A PYTHON!” exclaimed George Hedron. “A green tree python!”
Inch by inch, the reptile squirmed its way out of Sam’s sleeping bag.
“Looks more yaller to me than green,” Chow muttered. “Not to mention all them black an’ white speckles.”
“This is a young one,” Hedron explained calmly. “As they get older, they turn a bright emerald green.
“Sam looks pretty green right now, himself!” someone guffawed.
Gulping hard and trembling visibly, Sam Barker looked sick indeed. “Y-y-you mean I’ve been c-c-curled up all night long with that!” he quavered. “I’ve always—had nightmares about― ”
Suddenly he sank down heavily in the jungle grass. “That settles it,” Barker groaned. “I’m quitting this assignment right now!”
“Oh, no, you ain’t, buckaroo!” said Chow firmly. Reaching out a gnarled but sinewy arm, Chow hauled the demoralized rescuer to his feet. “Now you listen here, Sam Barker. We got two good friends, Bud and Slim, dependin’ on us to save their hides. An’ brand my steel skillet, we ain’t goin’ to let ’em down, even if it means stickin’ our own necks in the chopper—or sleepin’ with snakes! You savvy?”
Sam flushed under the cook’s stern gaze and seemed to take a fresh grip on himself. “I—I guess you’re right, Chow,” he mumbled. “None of us has any business quitting till we find Bud and Slim.”
“Now you’re talkin’!” Beaming with approval, the Texan clapped him on the back. “An’ don’t you worry about bein’ afeard o’ snakes. Tell ya the truth, I ain’t got much use fer ’em neither—danged slitherin’ varmints.”
Meanwhile, the python had ceased moving, even though it still hadn’t emerged completely from the sleeping bag. With unblinking beady eyes, the snake stared sluggishly at the circle of human beings.
“Looks as if it doesn’t want to leave that nice warm bed,” observed Hank Sterling with a chuckle.
“Well, we’re not taking it with us, that’s for sure,” Tom announced. Chopping off a long tree branch with his machete, he cautiously prodded the reptile into motion. As it slithered off through the underbrush, Hedron watched it disappear with a worried look.
“That little fellow may have some kin close by,” he warned the others. “And a full-grown python is apt to be nasty. Keep a sharp lookout when we hit the trail.”
Later, while the rest of the party finished stowing their gear, Tom began sending out a signal.
“Rescue party calling Sky Queen! ... Come in, please!”
In a few moments Arv Hanson’s voice replied, “Hi, Tom! You just missed a message from Shopton.”
“Anything important?” Tom inquired.
“Well, your dad’s been called to Washington on a new defense contract. But he said he thinks that they have all the kinks ironed out of your cycloplane. In fact, the ship should be ready for test flying as soon as you get back.”
“Swell news, Arv! Anything else?”
“Yes, the police have been talking with your cousin, Ed Longstreet, and now they’re working on a tip from that curio dealer out in San Francisco. I didn’t catch all the details, but apparently they know who has the stolen statue, or think they do.”
Tom gave a whoop of satisfaction. “Sounds as if things are really popping!” he remarked, then added dryly, “Been popping for us, too.”
Briefly he related their adventures since leaving the Sky Queen. When he mentioned the mysterious gunshot which Red Jones and Chow had heard during the night, Arv broke in, “Hey! That must have been me, Tom!”
“You? How come?”
Arv explained that he had spotted moving lights in the jungle near the Flying Lab. “I figured it might be natives working up enough nerve to attack us, so I fired a shot in the air.”
“Nothing—the lights disappeared. The shot scared them off, I guess.”
Tom mulled over the news thoughtfully. “Well, don’t take any chances, Arv, but let’s not start any feuds, either. If there are locals prowling around, I’d like to show them we come as friends, not enemies. The lives of Slim and Bud may depend on it!”
“You have a point there, Skipper,” Arv replied in a troubled voice. “From now on, I’ll be careful. Oh, by the way― ”
“Didn’t you say your camp was about seven miles north by northwest from here?”
“Well, the GPS unit has been a little off, but we should be close to that.”
There was a moment of silence, as if Arv were hesitant to convey bad news. “Tom, according to my instruments here, your signal’s coming from almost due north of the Queen—and no more than three miles away!”
“What!” cried Tom in dismay.
“I’m sure of it.”
After signing off, Tom hauled down his antenna and packed up the transmitter. His attitude was grim and thoroughly discouraged. The other men, standing about, had heard the entire exchange. No one said a word, but Tom could read the startled disappointment in their eyes—a look of sheer defeat.
“It looks like we’ve veered to east, somehow,” Tom said simply. “I don’t know what to say.”
Suddenly Sam Barker, who had been sitting cross-legged by the campfire, struggled to his feet. In an anguished voice he exclaimed, “Tom, I—I have to confess!” Tom and the others stared at Sam as he continued: “I’ve let you all down—and betrayed Bud and Slim Davis, too.”
“What did you do, Sam?” Tom asked evenly.
Barker lowered his head in shame. “I couldn’t take it. I thought I could, but—after just a few hours, all I could think about was getting out of this jungle.”
“What did you do?” Tom repeated.
“When we all stopped yesterday, I sneaked over and got into the GPS circuitry—tweaked it a little. Somehow I thought I could make you give up and return to the plane.”
The men fell back as Tom strode over to Barker, crossing the space in three steps. He stood in front of the Enterprises employee with clenched fists, staring into his eyes.
Then he put a hand on Sam’s shoulder.
“Sam, you put all our lives in danger. You betrayed Slim Davis and― ” Tom’s voice seemed to fail him for an instant. “And Bud. But you owned up to it. That’s how I know I can trust you.”
Sam was trembling, red with shame. “Thanks, Tom,” he said quietly. “I—I want to go forward with all of you now.”
Tom nodded and turned to face the others. “Anybody else have something to confess?”
Chow Winkler raised his hand. “Wa-al, since you asked—I confess I could do with a nice big air conditioner—an’ mebbe one o’ them magic-finger beds. Shore would feel good on this back o’ mine!”
The men laughed, and even Tom forced a smile. “Wish I could get it for you, Chow.”
The cook nodded. “I know ya do, son.”
Tom repaired the GPS unit, and soon the chastened rescue party was ready to hit the trail.
Again they were forced to hack their way through the dense jungle. But the early-morning freshness made the going pleasanter than before, and the shreds of mist still drifting among the trees lent a touch of nighttime coolness.
The men plodded along cheerfully, whistling or cracking jokes as they wielded their hatchets and machetes. At times they had to proceed single file. Eventually, however, the trees and underbrush thinned out into an open area broken up by large jagged boulders.
“Hold it!” shouted Tom suddenly.
Crowding up behind him, the men gasped at the sight that met their eyes. A huge, glossy green serpent at least fourteen feet long lay stretched out on a flat-topped boulder.
“Wa-al, I’ll be a knock-kneed bronc!” Chow whispered. “Reckon this here must be that varmint’s kin we heard about!”
“That’s right,” George Hedron agreed.
“I can see the family resemblance,” joked Billy.
Slowly coiling its tail, the python reared its head torpidly and stared at them through piercing eyes.
“Guess we interrupted its morning sun bath,” Hank remarked.
“Either that or it needs a dose of vita-minnies,” Chow added. “Sure looks like a lazy critter!”
“No wonder. It’s just eaten.” Hedron pointed to a telltale bulge in the python’s midsection.
“Oh, oh.” Sam Barker gulped nervously as he sized up the reptile’s swallowing capacity. “Now what do you suppose it ate?”
“A baby wild pig, maybe,” Hedron replied. “It’s amazing what a python can digest.”
“Well, don’t look at me,” Sam protested. “And don’t go giving that python any ideas, either!”
Always on the lookout for new delicacies, Chow began to mutter about “python pie,” also mentioning his recipe for stewed rattlesnake. But Tom hastily quashed the idea.
“Let this python enjoy its food, and we’ll enjoy ours,” the young inventor said, chuckling.
Giving the reptile a wide berth, the rescue party pressed forward. As the sun rose higher in the heavens, the heat became unbearable. Soon the men were dripping with sweat. To add to their discomfort, the stinging insects of the jungle seemed to be attracted by the glistening moisture on their skins.
“Am I just imagining things, or are these mosquitoes getting worse?” inquired Hank as he paused to slap his face and arms.
Tom brushed away several winged tormentors that were buzzing around his own head. “They sure― ” With a gasp, he broke off. “Good night, guys! Look behind us!”
Turning, the men gasped in horror. A dense cloud of mosquitoes, billowing out at least twenty yards in width, was bearing down on them through the trees!
“Sufferin’ horned toads, a whole army of ’em!” yelled Chow. “We’ll be et alive!”
“Quick! Break out your insect repellent!” Doc Simpson ordered as they scampered for safety.
Clawing into their kits, the crewmen pulled out small tubes and began spraying the salve on their faces, legs, and arms. But the vicious horde came swarming around them before the job was half done.
“It’s not working!” groaned Red.
“Nothing would help with a swarm this thick!” mumbled Hedron, flailing both arms in an effort to drive off the attackers.
Relentlessly the mosquitoes closed in on their victims like an air squadron on the attack. Every square inch of exposed skin seemed to be covered with clusters of the tiny brutes.
In desperation, the men broke into a wild run, scattering in all directions through the trees. Still the winged tormentors pursued them!
Tom found himself tearing along side by side with Chow, who displayed amazing speed for his portly size and bowlegs.
“Ain’t that water I see up ahead?” panted the Texan, pointing to a ribbon of silver sparkling among the trees.
“It’s a stream, all right,” gasped Tom. Raising his voice, he yelled, “This way, all of you! We can throw off the insects by ducking under water!”
Reaching the bank of the stream, he and Chow plunged headfirst into the gleaming depths.
Though its surface glinted in the sun, the water proved to be stagnant and murky. Once submerged, Tom and Chow found themselves groping among a tangle of weeds and oozing mud. When they finally surfaced, the deadly mosquitoes were still humming and swarming in all directions.
“Keep down, except for your mouth and nose!” Tom shouted, hoping there were no crocodiles lurking about.
The cook needed no urging to obey orders. Flapping his arms and treading water desperately, he tilted his head far back and managed to stay almost completely under water.
Gradually the cloud of insects passed over.
“Okay, I guess it’s safe now,” Tom announced, popping his head up. With a few swift strokes, he swam back to shore.
Spluttering, Chow followed him. Together, they clambered out onto the bank of the stream, Tom lending the cook a helping hand. Both were coated with a mixture of mud and green scum.
The stout old Texan was so exhausted that he lay heaving and panting for several minutes before he found his voice. Then he muttered weakly:
“I don’t know which is worse—drownin’ in that mud puddle, or gettin’ hacked up by them flyin’ buzzsaws!”
“I’ll take the puddle any day!” Tom chuckled. A moment later he sat up sharply. “Hey! Where are the others?”
The stream and its banks were deserted as far as the eye could see!
CHOW SEES A GHOST
CHOW OPENED his eyes and peered around. “Huh! Ain’t nobody in sight. Reckon they musta ducked for cover somewheres else, when you an me jumped in the drink—if you call that stuff fit fer drinkin’!”
Worried, Tom reached in to his kit and pulled out his compact walkie-talkie, thankful for its watertight case. After hoisting the antenna, he thumbed the signal button several times and spoke into the mike:
“Tom calling all hands! ... Tom calling all hands! ... Report, please!”
He waited tensely in the silence that ensued. Then he tried again.
First one voice, then another, filtered back over the receiver. “This is Hank, Tom!” ... “Sam Barker reporting, Skipper!”... “Doc here, Tom!”
In a few minutes every man was contacted. “We’ll regroup as soon as possible at the spot where we scattered,” the young inventor told them.
It was a sorry-looking band of rescuers who assembled on the trail a short time later. Every man was covered with insect bites. Red Jones—the worst bitten of the group—was puffy-faced from the savage attack.
Tom led the men to the jungle stream so they could bathe their tortured, itching skin. Then Doc Simpson swabbed each one with a soothing lotion to reduce the swelling and relieve the irritation.
“Guess we might as well have lunch before we push on,” Tom decided.
Chow boiled some water and brewed tea, while the men nibbled on cold rations. After a short siesta, the group started off again.
Progress became slower as they plodded upward through the foothills ringing the shallow valley through which they had passed. At some points, the trees and luxuriant green foliage were not so dense as before. But this helped the men little. The steep climb was more exhausting than hacking their way on level ground.
By midafternoon they reached a narrow, rocky defile. Stringing out into single file, they threaded their way through the pass with Tom in the lead.
As they emerged on the other side, the young inventor passed the word to take a rest. One by one, the men threw themselves on the ground, breathing hard from exertion. They could now see, looming in the far distance, the ebon clouds of the continuing thunderstorm. The rumble of distant thunder was almost constant, as were the stifling waves of humidity.
“Wish we’d had time to find a meteorologist to come along,” Tom muttered. “There’s something to be learned from that big blowout.” Glancing around, he suddenly asked, “Where’s Hedron?” Supposedly, he had been bringing up the rear. But none of the other men knew what had happened to him.
Tom peered back through the gorge. There was no sign of movement among the rocks or shrubbery. “Hey, George!” he yelled, cupping his hands. “George Hedron!”
His voice echoed and re-echoed between the high-walled cliffs, startling a flock of red and yellow jungle birds into screaming flight. But the shouts brought no response from the zoologist.
Thoroughly alarmed, Tom beamed out a call over his walkie-talkie. Again he received no answer.
“Maybe these rocky hills are blocking the signal,” Sam Barker suggested.
“Could be.” With a worried frown, Tom ran his fingers through his ragged blond crewcut, eternally a week late for a trip to a barber. “Anyhow, we’ve got to find him. He may be hurt!”
Ordering his men to regroup, Tom led them back through the pass. On the other side, he called again over his walkie-talkie. Still no reply.
“We’d better fan out and look for him,” Tom told the others. “And be sure to keep in touch by walkie-talkie—we don’t want another man missing!”
Leaving the beaten trail which the rescue party had carved through the wilderness, Tom struck off into the underbrush. Trailing vines and creepers mingled on all sides with gorgeous orchids in colors of gold, purple, crimson, and orange.
Suddenly a glint of sunlight caught his eye. Peering into the distance, Tom saw a silver wire spearing up through the trees. At the very instant he saw it, the wire began to disappear from view. It was a walkie-talkie antenna being lowered!
With a shout, Tom crashed forward through the tangled green foliage. A moment later he emerged into a tiny clearing. There stood Hedron, smiling happily. Beside him huddled a weird, brownish-gray animal, strapped in a bag of wire netting.
“Good night, where have you been?” Tom demanded.
“Capturing a padmelon.” Hedron pointed to his prize. Looking somewhat like a huge rat, the padmelon was almost three feet long. “It’s really a species of kangaroo,” Hedron went on. “The females have a pouch, and― ”
“That’s all very interesting,” Tom interrupted curtly, “but why the dickens didn’t you let us know what you were up to? Don’t you realize the whole rescue party is searching for you?”
“I’m sorry,” Hedron apologized. “I spotted this padmelon burrowing through the underbrush, and it seemed like too good a chance to miss. I couldn’t call you or make any kind of a signal for fear of scaring the thing away.”
Tom was greatly annoyed. Hedron apparently thought it more important to capture the ratlike marsupial than to rescue Bud and Slim. But Tom held his temper and said calmly: “Well, now that you’ve trapped it, what do you propose to do? I still wouldn’t have found you if I hadn’t spotted your aerial.”
“I tried to contact you just now,” Hedron explained, “but my walkie-talkie doesn’t seem to be working. I guess it was pretty foolish to wander off like this,” he added lamely. “If you hadn’t happened to find me, I might have wound up in a real jam!”
Somewhat mollified, Tom examined Hedron’s walkie-talkie. “Seems to be working now,” he said.
“Must be a loose connection,” the zoologist commented. “These things got thrown together pretty quickly.”
Tom conceded the truth of Hedron’s observation. He called his men together and the trek was resumed. Hedron photographed the captured padmelon from several angles, then set it loose again.
At dusk the exhausted group made camp near a shallow, cavelike opening in the side of a low cliff. Chow tried to tempt everyone’s appetite with a tasty meal of hot rice and canned meat loaf. But the men were too exhausted, and too sore from insect bites, to even pretend to enjoy it. They ate in silence, then sprawled out to doze.
At last Tom and Chow were the only ones still awake, too drained to talk. While the cook cleared away the supper remains, Tom propped himself against a big rock and stared up into space. Above the clustering treetops, resting upon the distant horizon opposite the black canopy of storm, the slit of night sky was brilliant with stars.
Idly, the young inventor picked out the Southern Cross and other tropic constellations. As he thought of Bud and Slim, a lump formed in his throat. By now, their plight must be desperate. Perhaps they were already dead!
Worst of all, Tom and his rescue party were helpless to aid them. All they could do was plod along, mile by mile, through the jungle at a snail’s pace. What have I gotten us into? he wondered. Meanwhile, there were Arv and the two crewmen to worry about as well. What if hostile tribesmen should launch an attack on the Sky Queen and its crew?
“Yi-i-eee!” Without warning, a shriek of terror split the air!
Jumping up in alarm, Tom saw Chow bounding toward him. Popeyed with fright, the cook stumbled over the embers of the campfire and would have sprawled headlong if Tom hadn’t caught him.
“Chow! What’s the matter?” the young scientist demanded.
“A g-g-ghost! I jest seen a ghost!” yelled the terrified Texan. “Good gosh an’ great gravy, it’s out there watchin’ us!”
“Now calm down, cowpoke, and talk sense!” Tom demanded sternly. “What is it you saw?”
“Two horrible big eyes—starin’ at me out o’ the darkness!” Chow replied. “It’s a jungle ghost, I tell you, or I’d ’a shot it with one o’ these here ’lectric guns o’ yours.” He nervously patted the Swift impulse gun, or i-gun, holstered at his hip, which had been distributed to those among the men who were experienced shots.
“All right, all right!” said Tom. The cowpoke was trembling like a nervous bronc. “Just show me where you saw this, Chow.”
“Over yonder at the other end o’ camp.”
With Chow, Tom ran to the spot where the cook had been cleaning the mess gear.
“It was over there, between them two trees,” whispered Chow.
“What, that?” It was George Hedron, who had come up behind them.
“There they are!” Chow stabbed the darkness with a quivering forefinger. “Look at ‘em! Starin’ at us jest like a couple o’ burnin’ coals!”
Ahead, beyond the glow of the campfire, two huge reddish eyes peered out of the night. Gaping with half-sleepy amazement, Tom and Hedron stared back at the weird unmoving disks.
Hedron fished in his pocket for a flashlight. “Relax, Winkler. I’m sure it’s only some New Guinea bird or animal. Let’s flash a light on it.”
He aimed the beam into the darkness. The light revealed a queer-looking animal perched on a tree branch. With its domelike skull, huge ruby eyes, and a tail partly furred, partly smooth-skinned, it looked like a little gremlin. “Why, it’s a cuscus!” exclaimed the zoologist.
“I don’t care what kind of ornery cuss it is!” Chow retorted, but he colored a little shamefacedly. “It ain’t got no business scarin’ civilized folks half to death!”
As Tom stifled a laugh, the cook stalked forward toward the tree branch and made shooing motions with his apron. “G’wan now! Clear out afore I take the skillet to you!”
The cuscus, instead of darting off in panic, continued to stare at Chow with the same blank expression. Somewhat unnerved, the Westerner turned to George Hedron.
“D-don’t jest stand there!” he cried. “Get that blasted critter out o’ here!”
Hedron shook his head. “Not me. This creature is slow-moving and slow-witted, but it has a very nasty temper when aroused.”
“Wa-al, that makes two of us!” snorted Chow.
At that moment the cuscus bristled as if about to attack and let out a shrill cry of “Chit-chit-chit!”
Chow was so startled that he almost fell over backward. Retreating hastily toward the fringe of trees, he muttered: “Dang New Guinea varmint!” As if satisfied that he had won a victory over the strange invader, the cuscus finally scuttled off into the darkness. Crashing about in the underbrush, just beyond the campfire’s circle of light, the Texan breathed a sigh of relief—and then froze.
“T-Tom!” he called out weakly.
In a moment Tom was at his side. “It’s gone, Chow,” Tom said. “You can― ”
But Chow was pointing off into the jungle darkness with a finger quivering in fear. Tom turned to look, and his jaw fell open.
Twenty feet distant, framed by tree trunks, an eerie face, dead white, floated in the darkness like a ghost!
CHOW AND TOM stood in frozen silence for a long moment, staring at the weird face. The deathly whiteness of its skin was interrupted by slitlike eyes and a fierce-looking mouth outlined in blood red. The spectre seemed to glow slightly as light from the stars fell across it.
“Tom Swift, you gonna tell me that there’s some brand o’ animal?” whispered Chow.
“No,” Tom replied. “It’s human, all right.”
“Yeah,” shuddered the cook. “But alive—er dead?”
Tom drew his i-gun, and Chow followed suit. They slowly approached the apparition, which remained motionless.
The two split off in opposite directions, circling around the big trees and arriving at the eerie object at the same moment.
“Well, it’s not a ghost,” said Tom.
“Naw. But what in heck is it?”
The object, the size and shape of a human head, was mounted at the top of a wooden pole which had been thrust deeply into the matted ground. It had a leathery covering, painted white, with eyes and a mouth crudely painted on the front. Bulges beneath the covering suggested a nose and two ears.
“It’s a human skull,” Tom said, examining it. “This stuff it’s wrapped in must be skin—probably the skull owner’s own, cured, stretched, and painted.”
A beam of light split the darkness, falling upon the skull. “Willya look at that!” came the voice of George Hedron. “Tom, that’s an Iwooro ceremonial skull!” He came closer and played the light over the repulsive object. “Yes indeed, the genuine article. This old fellow was somebody’s ancestor, maybe going back several hundred years.”
“I ’as gonna say he didn’t look so good,” declared Chow. “But I expect I’ll look a mite worse when what’s left o’ me is that old.”
“Why is he painted white like that?” Tom inquired.
“It means he’s killed a man,” was the response. “This was a warrior.”
“Whatever he was, he hasn’t been standing here very long,” Tom said, bending down. “Look at how those leaves and shoots are scuffed up. Somebody planted this here within the hour—for us to find!”
Hedron nodded. “You’re right, Tom. We’re being told that the ghost-warriors of a tribe have claimed this jungle, and are prepared to defend it.”
Chow’s eyes darted about nervously. “It’s a warning—that it?”
But Hedron shook his head, a grim smile on his face. “Not exactly a warning. It’s not telling us to get lost or else. It’s telling us to get ready to die!”
Chow gulped loudly. “Brand my gravestone! I’d prefer a warning!”
“I’d better assign guards for the night,” said Tom. “We’ll take turns in pairs.” The three returned to the cave and Tom reluctantly awoke the other men, so desperately in need of sleep. Red and Sam were assigned the first watch.
The rest of the party stretched out in their sleeping bags around the cave entrance. Soon the camp was wrapped in silence again.
Just before dawn broke, the group was rudely awakened by a wild whooshing sound overhead.
“Bats!” yelled Hank Sterling, who was one of the sentries on watch. “There’s a million of ’em!”
The air was black with the fantastic looking creatures. Even at a distance their wingspan seemed enormous—as wide as a man’s outstretched arms!
Awakening in alarm, the weary men scrambled from their sleeping bags and jumped to their feet.
“Flying foxes, aren’t they?” Tom asked Hedron.
The zoologist nodded, staring in fascination at the oncoming horde. “That’s what most people call them. Actually they’re a species of fruit bat.”
The next moment, the rescue party began to scatter in panic. Instead of passing over, the bats zoomed straight at them!
“Oh—oh! This cliff hollow must be their home!” Tom exclaimed.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when one of the creatures swooped past, grazing Tom’s cheek with its wing tip. The young scientist-inventor recoiled. But the bat banked, and circled around. Before Tom could dodge, he was whacked so hard on the face that he fell flat!
The other men had taken refuge behind trees, but now dived to the ground. In three minutes the raid was over. The bats disappeared completely inside the hollow’s inky interior.
“That cave must be deeper than it looks,” observed Doc. “Must be an opening up above, behind those rocks.”
Chow muttered, “I ain’t takin’ any chances. I’m stayin’ out in th’ open. Druther be skeered by a ghost than bit by a bat!”
The night finally ended. While the men splashed their faces in the water of a nearby creek, listlessly, Chow built a fire and started breakfast.
Hedron came up to Tom. “I think I’ll go out and scout around for some wallaby tracks,” he said. “Like to capture and photograph one if I can.” Tom stared at him, but before he could gather his thoughts to make a retort, the zoologist wandered off, whistling.
Soon the appetizing aroma of bacon and corn meal filled the air. A few minutes later Chow sounded the breakfast gong by banging on his stew kettle. “Okay, buckaroos! Eat hearty!” he urged. “Goin’ to need all your strength to beat through this jungle an’ find Bud an’― ”
His words ended in a yelp of pain as a hail of sharp-pointed stones suddenly spattered the camp.
“It’s another attack!” Tom shouted. “Run for cover, everybody!”
Openmouthed with dismay, the men wavered a moment in confusion as another volley of missiles shot out of the jungle. Tom’s group started for the shallow cave opening but changed their minds. The bats might try another assault!
“This way!” Tom cried. Hugging the mountainside, he scrambled upward among the rocks and boulders to where he had glimpsed a deep gash in the face of the cliff.
The men bumped into one another in their haste to follow. Once inside the cave, they huddled together in the darkness, panting.
“Wow!” gasped Billy. “Tom, it looks as if your prehistoric pals haven’t forgotten us.”
“They’ve been keeping tabs on us right along,” the young inventor muttered. “That skull proves it.” Tensely he waited, wondering if the attackers might close in for a fight to the finish. But apparently they were being cagey, either out of fear or caution. Ten minutes ticked by without any further sign of the enemy.
“Stay here,” Tom ordered the others. “I’ll take a peek outside.”
He disappeared but returned in a few moments with news that no one had bothered him. “I’m pretty sure that our attackers have gone,” he added. Then Tom frowned. “I’m worried about Hedron. No sign of him.”
“Hedron again!” grumped Red. “That guy’s more trouble than he’s worth.”
Emerging from the cave, the men descended the hill and fanned out cautiously around the camp. But they found no trace of their attackers or of the zoologist-artist either. As Doc Simpson started to attend the men who had received cuts from the missiles, a cheery voice asked: “Hey, what’s going on?”
The group swung around to see George Hedron sauntering casually toward them among the trees.
“A range war, that’s what!” growled Chow. “Lucky you didn’t get yer scalp lifted out there, son!”
He explained what had happened. Hedron was amazed. “And to think,” he remarked ruefully, “while you guys were having all that excitement, I couldn’t even scare up a field mouse, much less a wallaby!”
Tom looked at Hedron sharply, but said nothing.
Though Tom was desperate to push on in his search for Bud and Slim, he delayed long enough for a newly cooked breakfast to be prepared. Meanwhile, he examined some of the stone missiles.
“Find something, Skipper?” Doc Simpson inquired, noticing the other’s excited look.
“I sure have!” Tom said in quiet awe. “These stones are made of holmium, like the stolen statue!”
The news aroused a flurry of interest. The men clustered around, agog at Tom’s discovery.
“You’re sure?” Hedron demanded.
“As sure as I can be without a spectrographic analysis.” Pointing to the shimmering yellow-orange pellets, Tom explained how their color, texture, weight, hardness, and general “feel” were exactly like that of the animal figurine, “Kangaroo Sue.”
Put in Doc, “But that means there must be a supply of rare earths around here, somewhere close—the mine you were looking for, Tom!”
“Right! And that’s not all,” Tom went on, his weariness forgotten. “Remember that message Sam picked up that we assume was from Bud or Slim? ‘Rare ... like what you—’ Well, the whole phrase might have been ‘rare earths, like what you found in the statue!’”
As the men burst into excited comments, Tom’s mind whirled with interesting possibilities. Could it be that his lost friends had discovered the secret of how the missiles were made? One statue might have been fashioned from a single rock, but surely these quantities of ore had not been mined and processed by stone-age tribesmen!
But how old were the missiles? Did they date back to prehistoric times? Or had they been fashioned by living enemies!
“Well, what do we do now, Skipper?” asked Red Jones, breaking in on Tom’s thoughts.
“You guys eat your breakfast,” the young inventor replied. “Hank, Doc, how about you two coming with me? An idea just occurred to me. If we can track those natives who attacked us, they might lead us to Bud and Slim.”
“By George, you’re right, Tom!” Doc Simpson was enthusiastic. “Let’s go!’
Circling back and forth around the camp, the trio studied the damp soil and thick green underbrush for signs of human footprints. Unfortunately, Tom’s own men had trampled much of the ground just a few minutes before, while searching for their unseen enemies.
“We’ll have to go farther,” said Hank.
But even beyond the fringes of camp in the direction from which the missiles had come, they could detect no footprints or tracks of any kind.
“Looks as if we’re out of luck.” Doc sighed as he paused to mop his brow.
Tom nodded, scowling with disappointment. “Jungle dwellers are past masters at covering their tracks. I guess we’re out of our league when we try to solve― ”
Tom broke off. Reaching into the tall grass, he scooped up a long strip of untanned leather. It was tapered at both ends, and broadened at the middle into a sort of pouch.
“What is it?” Hank demanded, with a puzzled expression.
“A thong slingshot—the same kind David used on Goliath. And probably what they used on us just now, too.”
“No doubt about it,” Doc agreed. “At least we’re on the right track!”
With renewed energy the trio continued their search. None of them, however, could find any other clues or trail signs. After an hour they finally gave up and returned to camp.
Chow cooked a fresh batch of food for them. While they ate, the other men examined the thong slingshot and discussed the mysterious unseen natives.
“Reckon we’d better keep our eyes peeled right sharp from now on,” the Texas cook commented. “Jest like pioneers passin’ through Injun country. If we don’t, we’re apt to wind up missin’ our hair, or even our heads!”
“There’s no reason to think these locals are headhunters. But you’re right, Chow.” Tom nodded. “From now on, it’ll be every man’s job to keep a lookout while we’re on the move. And no stragglers!” he added, with a cool glance at George Hedron.
The zoologist made no comment, but when the rescue party hit the trail, he was ready. Again the route led upward through the highlands, with towering purple mountain ranges soaring into the dark, swirling clouds in the distance. There was now a steady wind against them, and the constant rumble of thunder and flicker of lightning added to the oppressive atmosphere.
Then the ground seemed to flatten out into a plateau. But the terrain was as rugged as ever, and the tangled vegetation even thicker and more impassable as they pushed on. Dirty, footsore, bathed in sweat, the men groaned and grunted with the effort as they hacked their way forward with axe and machete.
“I sure wish I was back on the open range,” Chow burst out. “Out there a hombre can see where he’s headin’.”
“And never is heard a discouraging word,” put in Red Jones with humorous sarcasm.
Tom’s heart sank as he thought of the distance that still remained between where they were and the likely crash site between the volcanoes.
During a rest period, he confided in Hank. “Maybe I’d be wiser to go back to Shopton, bring the cycloplane here, and try taking it down through the storm area between the volcanoes,” he said in a low voice, “instead of continuing this trek.”
“We could continue here in your absence,” the engineer said in reply. “It may be the smartest thing, Tom.”
Again and again, Tom turned the problem over in his mind as he trudged on, leading his group almost automatically. But suddenly a cry from Billy shocked Tom out of his reverie.
“Sam! Your legs!” Glancing toward Barker, the young inventor gasped to find the man’s pantlegs oozing with dark blood.
“Land leeches!” exclaimed Hedron.
“Good night!” cried Tom. “We’ve all got them!”
The others examined their own limbs. Then, dropping their knives and axes in a near panic, they began clawing at their legs, plucking off the stubborn blood-suckers as fast as their fingers would permit.
Doc Simpson brought out his first-aid gear and smeared a soothing salve over everyone’s legs. “That’ll help to stop the bleeding,” he explained. “Now take some of this gauze, wind it around your legs and ankles, and tape it on. That’ll discourage the leeches. They look disgusting, but they’re really harmless.”
In a few minutes the group was ready to continue. As they pushed on, Sam Barker sang out: “Come to beautiful New Guinea! Vacation spot of the world! This island paradise― ”
“—is a right good place to go loco!” Chow finished sourly.
The others laughed and began hacking their way again. Just before noon, the sky now dark with stormclouds, they reached a deep chasm extending off in both directions as far as they eye could see.
“No,” murmured Tom dejectedly. “Oh no!” He felt like breaking into tears.
“End of the line,” said George Hedron matter-of-factly. “No way to go on.”
“Aw, c’mon!” Chow protested. “It’s jest a big crack in the ground—we kin climb down, and up t’other side.”
“Impossible!” retorted Hedron.
“You may be right. To get down that incline, we’d need Tom’s terrasphere,” said Doc Simpson. “Look down!” The ravine, sheering downward a hundred feet or more, seemed deep enough to hold a tall building. Below lay a tangled mass of trees and vegetation so thickly matted and intertwined that it seemed to form a continuous green carpet across the floor of the gulch.
Suddenly Red called out, “Look!”
A half-mile further along, the ravine was spanned by what appeared to be a rickety bridge made of vines wrapped around long wooden branches from trees, apparently woven together by the natives. The crude structure swayed back and forth, whipped by the growing winds from the storm front.
The expeditioners made their way to the bridge with hopes high. But their hopes faded when they arrived.
“This thing must be fifty years old,” declared George Hedron. “It’ll never support the weight of a man—not in its present condition.”
“You’re a real ray of sunshine, aren’t you, Hedron,” said Red Jones angrily.
“Sorry, but I’m here to give advice.”
“It’s the only way to get across,” Tom commented. “I’ll go first and test it.”
There was an instant outcry. “No, don’t do that, Skipper!” Red exclaimed. “That thing’s not safe.”
Chow put in, “If anyone goes, it’d better be ole Chow here. Reckon if that bridge’ll hold me, it’ll hold anyone!”
But Tom brushed aside their protests. “I got you fellows to come on this expedition,” he pointed out quietly, “and I don’t expect any of you to take a risk I wouldn’t take. Besides, these natives are clever at vine weaving—their own lives depend on it. Here goes!”
Advancing step by step, he proceeded cautiously onto the narrow span. The men held their breaths. The bridge bounced and swayed dizzily over the yawning gulf.
“I don’t like this here business,” Chow said worriedly.
“Nor I,” added Sam Barker.
Tom was almost at the halfway point, when Doc Simpson, who was watching his progress through field glasses, gave a yell of alarm. “The anchor ropes on the far side are giving way!” he screamed.
The vines were now held by only a few strands!
Tom had halted at the doctor’s cry and looked back. His frantic friends were signaling with their arms for him to return. A chorus of voices broke into agonized shouts:
“Come back! Come back!”
Uncertain, Tom hesitated for an instant. Then, looking ahead, he saw what was happening and turned to dash back to safety.
He was too late. With a creaking screech, the far end of the vine-ropes pulled loose completely from their tree-stump moorings and the bridge gave way. Tom plunged toward the bottom of the chasm!
TRIAL BY STORM
TOM’S companions watched in horror as the broken bridge arced down across the chasm. The sickening plunge had caught Tom unawares, but he had miraculously managed to grab the braided strands of the vine-ropes and hook his arms and legs through them.
As the dangling bridge hit the near wall of the rocky ravine, the smashing impact knocked the breath out of Tom. While he swung perilously, everything swimming before his eyes, his friends swarmed into action.
“Grab those vines!” shouted Hank, taking charge. “Hoist! But gently!”
Hauling on the upper end of the bridge, the men raised Tom inch by inch. Despite the men’s careful hoisting, he was bumped and scraped against the cliff face. When he finally was eased over the edge, he was only half-conscious. Quickly the others freed him from the tangled strands and laid him on soft grass. Doc went to work with smelling salts, but it was several moments before Tom could speak. Then he grinned up wanly at the circle of faces. “Didn’t know I was a trapeze artist, did you?”
“Brand my stabilizer, I thought you was a ex trapeze artist fer a while there!” gulped Chow. “Now stay put, son!” he added hastily, as the young scientist-inventor tried to get up.
Tom obeyed orders meekly, while Doc sprayed his cuts and abrasions with antiseptic.
A moment later Hank came rushing up, an alarmed and angry look on his face. “That was no accident, Skipper! Those bridge ropes were cut almost clean through!”
There was a moment of uneasy silence, then Doc asked, “Who do you suppose did it? Those same tribesmen who gave us the stone treatment?”
Tom scowled worriedly. “It seems as if someone is determined to keep us from reaching Bud and Slim.”
“And maybe this time they succeeded,” put in Hedron. He gestured across the chasm. “What do we do now—fly over?”
Chow scratched his bristly chin. “Wa-al, it’d sure take too long to walk around, so I reckon that means we gotta climb all the way down an’ then up t’other side, jest like I said in th’ first place.”
“Oh, brother!” groaned Red Jones. “Just working our way through that mess on the bottom will take hours in itself. Another day, maybe two, lost!”
“Listen, maybe the Sky Queen could hover on its lifters over the ravine,” suggested Billy. “Then it could sort of ferry us across.”
“No,” said Tom brusquely. “Look at all this vegetation. It runs right up to the edge. If the lifter exhaust started a fire, it’d burn out of control in minutes.” He paused, his brow creased. “Look, guys,” he said, “Bud’s and Slim’s lives may depend on us reaching them as soon as possible. Hank, could you take over if I left?”
“There’s a good chance that I can make the descent between the volcanoes in the cycloplane.”
“But that’s way back in Shopton,” Sam Barker interrupted.
“I know,” Tom said, “but now that we’ve cleared a trail, I should be able to get back to the Sky Queen pretty fast. I could fly home to the plant in ten hours in the Kub, test the cycloplane, and be back here in New Guinea in two or three days.” He smiled enthusiastically. “The way things look now, I might be able to reach the scene of the crash sooner than you fellows.”
The men looked at one another, then agreed that the young inventor was probably right.
Chow offered the only protest. “Brand my coyote steak, you ain’t makin’ that trip through the jungle alone, son—not with all them stone-slingin’ stone-agers around. I’m goin’ back with you!”
Tom agreed to let him go along, but not for the reason stated—he had come to be concerned that his older, heavyset friend would suffer physically from the rigors of the difficult trek remaining.
Tom attempted to radio the Flying Lab, but even using his powerful long-range unit the growling static from the nearby lightning storm foiled his efforts. Nevertheless, he and Chow departed immediately.
“You boys’ll hafta eat out of your food kits fer a few days,” Chow called as he waved farewell. “But it’s fer a good cause.”
All through the afternoon the two backtracked at a fast pace. At dusk they halted for a cold snack, then continued their trek. Night came on, cloaking the jungle in inky darkness. Tom and Chow pulled out flashlights.
“We’d better keep the beams close to the ground,” Tom advised, “so we won’t attract attention.” The yellow cones of light scooped a path forward over the matted vegetation.
Finally Tom called a halt. “I guess we’d better stay here and try to get some rest between now and daylight.”
Easing off their heavy kits, they propped themselves up against the bole of a giant casuarina tree. Tom decided to try again contacting the Sky Queen to notify Arv Hanson of his plans. “We should be far enough from the storm here,” he told his companion.
As he tuned the radio, it buzzed, hummed, and crackled. Finally Tom was forced to give up the attempt. “Chow, we have no time to lose! I don’t know what’s going on with that freakish storm, but the sooner we get back with the cycloplane, the happier I’ll be!”
“Me too!” declared Chow. “I say, a little food and an hour o’ rest, then on we go!” Tom nodded. But for Chow the hour of rest stretched into deep slumber, which Tom allowed to continue until daybreak.
At the first streak of daylight, Tom and Chow again set off. Without bothering to eat, they shouldered their kits and plunged forward at a steady jog trot. In two hours, muscles knotted and aching, they reached the forest clearing where the great silver-skinned skyship stood waiting.
“Thank goodness it’s still here in one piece,” Tom reflected.
Arv Hanson and his two crewmen came crowding to the open hatch to greet Tom and Chow.
“Something wrong? Why didn’t you radio you were returning?” demanded Arv, fearful of bad news. After Tom reported the events of the past twenty-four hours, Hanson said, “We’ve had a rough go of it ourselves.”
“Last night. This time they came right up to the ship and let go with a hail of stones from hiding. No damage, of course.”
While Tom explained his plans, Chow trudged dutifully to the ship’s galley and prepared a hasty breakfast. “Sure feels good to be back in my lil ole flyin’ chuck wagon!” he told the others as he served porridge, bacon, waffles, and cocoa.
“Well, don’t think we’re not glad to have you back!” Bill Bennings, one of the flight crewmen, chuckled as he finished his third waffle.
Breakfast over, Arv Hanson remarked to the cook, “If Tom can spare you on his trip home, how’d you like to stay behind here with me? It might be safer to have another pair of eyes to keep watch. Besides, you can be in on my plan.”
The Texan asked in surprise, “What plan?” Arv explained a plan which had been taking shape in his mind. Chow and Tom agreed enthusiastically.
“It’s a good idea,” said the young inventor. “The more we know about our enemies, the better our chances of finding Bud and Slim.”
After radioing Shopton, Arv took off in the Sky Queen and hovered steadily at 1000 feet while the hangar deck opened up. In a flash of flame and smoke the Kangaroo Kub came streaking out of its secure metal pouch and headed for the clouds, veering northeast.
Alone in the cockpit, Tom spurred the compact jet to terrific speed. Not designed for transoceanic or intercontinental flight, the Kub required refueling, which Tom accomplished at the Swift Enterprises installation at Loonaui Island in the mid-Pacific, and at the Swift nuclear research facility in New Mexico, the Citadel.
Day and night were telescoped as the jet crossed the successive time zones. Finally, bone tired, Tom circled in for a landing above the Enterprises airstrip at eight o’clock in the morning.
Tom had radioed ahead to George Dilling in the plant communications center. As a result, Tom’s whole family and Bashalli Prandit were on hand to greet him. There was an exchange of kisses and handshakes, then a quick briefing on the rescue party’s efforts to find Bud and Slim.
“N-no sign of them?” Sandy bit her lip to keep back the tears.
“I’m sure they’re alive,” Tom said, putting an arm around her. “I feel it. And now, a few hours of sleep at the house, then I must test the cycloplane.”
Sleep, a relaxing shower, clean clothes, and a hot home-cooked breakfast gave Tom new energy. Hopping into his sports car, he drove back to Swift Enterprises. Here he spent several hours personally going over his cycloplane.
“I’ll have to give the cybertron a real run-through,” he remarked to construction engineer Art Wiltessa. “It’s mighty complex, but vital.”
“The avionics team had charge of that one, Tom,” Art replied. “What is it, anyway? The autopilot?”
“That and more.” Tom explained that the cybertron, designed especially for the cycloplane, was a lightning-speed navigational and control computer that combined satellite mapping data with real-time radar input to produce a detailed internal representation of the part of the earth’s surface the craft was flying over. “It’s a real ‘virtual reality’ emulation, even simulating weather effects in 3-D. It’ll safely steer the SwiftStorm, keep her stable, and make continuous fine-tuning adjustments to the two ultrasonic generators, and to the cyclocyls.” He added that the cybertron had a built-in positional calculator similar to the system he had invented for space vehicles, nicknamed the Spacelane Brain.
“Does everything but cook, eh?” joked Art.
“Chow nixed that idea!” Tom held up a small unit the size of a cellphone. “The plane has a dual control setup, too. If the main board should fail, or if it’s out of reach because the pilot has had to eject, this little remote allows the pilot to access the cybertron from a distance of several thousand feet.” Art whistled his appreciation.
After checking the cybertron, the ultrasonic generator, and the new engine mounts, Tom felt sure that the ship was completely ready for its shakedown flight.
“Ready for finals, Dad,” he said to his father. “You did an amazing job getting the SwiftStorm finished. And by the way, will you call Ed Longstreet and ask him if he’d be willing to fly back to New Guinea with me? I may need help in talking to the natives if I can’t connect up with Hedron right away.”
“I’ll phone him right away, son. Best of luck!”
Tom donned his flying suit and climbed into the cockpit of the cycloplane. At the touch of a button the curving viewdome swung down and slid forward, becoming flush with the sleek fuselage of the SwiftStorm. Bob Jeffers, the crew chief, gave him thumbs up.
Signaling back, Tom switched on the power. As the spinning drums hummed into action, the plane soared skyward to twenty thousand feet with such rapidity that Tom was left lightheaded.
“So far so good,” the young pilot muttered to himself. He half-laughed. “I’ll have to take it slower—the human ‘wetware’ can’t keep pace with the hardware!”
With a steady hand, he opened the jet throttle. Keeping his eyes glued to the air-speed indicator, he watched the needle creep around the dial. 350 knots . . . 400 . . . 450 . . . 500!
Tom gave a whoop of joy—the ship had passed the crucial speed range without a tremor!
But I still haven’t taken her through the sound barrier, he reflected cautiously.
He zoomed upward in a steep climb, then leveled off at fifty thousand feet. A voice from the tower cut in, “We’re tracking, SwiftStorm. How does she handle, Skipper?”
“Terrific so far,” Tom replied. “Tell you more in a minute or so. I’m going to dive.”
“Okay. I’ll listen for the boom.”
“You won’t hear it, Mac. I’ll shoot the works over Lake Carlopa, so as not to disturb anybody.”
A moment later Tom went into a 60-degree dive—the nose-over floating him slightly off his seat as he outraced the pull of gravity. Below, the broad blue patch of lake water settled squarely into his line of sight. Then, suddenly, he was boring down at dizzy, screaming speed. In less than sixty seconds he could be plunging into the lake!
Calmly Tom watched the air-speed indicator wind up. A white needle was creeping clockwise, as a red-and-yellow striped one moved counter-clockwise.
Suddenly the needles crossed Mach 1! He was through the sound barrier!
The cycloplane was roaring downward at almost 900 knots when Tom finally pulled out of the dive. For a moment the G-force glued him to his seat. Then his body relaxed as he leveled off. Grinning happily, Tom put the ship through a punishing series of aerobatics—rolls, steep turns, and loops. Not once did the cycloplane show the faintest sign of bucking or loss of control!
“Well, are you still with us?” came the voice of Mac Maxwell from the tower.
Tom’s voice was radiant with sheer pleasure. “Mac, she’s smooth as silk—really out of this world! And the cybertron makes me feel like a co-pilot!”
A splotch on his radar screen indicated a storm somewhere off to the east, far out over the ocean. Must be Hurricane Edna, he thought. Eager to test his new craft still further, Tom sped toward the disturbance. The skies darkened and the sea below foamed and crested into huge, mountainous waves.
“Wow! Looks like a real blow!” he observed with satisfaction. On impulse he switched off the cybertron and took manual control. “A perfect test for what we’ll be facing in New Guinea!”
Soon he was streaking into the thick of the storm. A vivid flash of lightning split the sky, followed by a boom of thunder. Winds of fearsome velocity battered against the viewdome. But through it all the cycloplane soared and swooped smoothly. Tom felt like a lord of the skies!
Switching the cybertron back on, Tom relaxed in his seat. Without a tremor, the automatic brain took over control of the ship. The gyrosensors controlling the rotation of the cylinders kept the plane on an even keel.
“Talk about floating on a cloud!” Tom chuckled.
Suddenly a warning beep from the cybertron drew his attention to the radarscope. Some unknown object was plummeting down directly above him! The cybertron eased the ship neatly out of the way.
To Tom’s amazement, the object proved to be a parachuting pilot!
TAKING OVER the controls, Tom banked and circled in a tight turn. Then he slowed the cyclocyls, causing the SwiftStorm to drop steeply. Down elevator!
Maneuvering under the parachutist, Tom slid open the viewdome. Raging wind and stinging rain lashed his face as he stood up, using the remote control unit in his hand to minutely guide the hovering plane. A moment later the flier was cutting his shroud lines and easing himself safely inside the rescue craft.
“Th-thanks a million!” gasped the young man, clad in military garb. He looked around, eyes wide. “But what in the name of Jupiter is this plane—a flying saucer?”
Tom laughed. “I call it a cycloplane.”
“I call it magic! But what holds it up?”
Tom explained briefly, adding, “Like to try it, Lieutenant?”
The stranger took over the controls. “Why, it’s the steadiest thing I’ve ever flown!” he exclaimed. “Man, you can just about wish it from one heading to another!” When Tom acknowledged the sentiment with a grin, the stranger went on, “By the way, I’m Lieutenant Deever, Naval Reserve—storm spotter. My jet lost a wing when I pulled out of a dive. I’d have wound up in the drink if it hadn’t been for you!”
“Glad I happened along,” said the young inventor, sticking out his hand. “I’m Tom Swift.”
The lieutenant grinned. “I figured that out mighty quick!”
After landing the Navy pilot at the reserve base, where his cycloplane caused a sensation, Tom returned to Swift Enterprises. The successful flight had left him giddy and more than ready to roar back to New Guinea.
To Tom’s delight, Ed Longstreet had just arrived and was waiting for him at the hangar, accompanied by Tom’s father.
“Ed was already en route to Shopton when he received my call,” said Mr. Swift. “He’s agreed to the idea.”
“Wouldn’t mind a chance to get another of those little statues,” Ed declared. “Maybe the authorities will be in a mood to make a gift of it.”
“We leave tomorrow,” Tom said to his cousin, expressing his gratitude.
Damon Swift inquired, “Well, son, is this super-plane up to expectations?”
“Even better, Dad—and I even picked up a hitchhiker! I’ll tell you all about it.”
As they drove to the Swifts’ office in a nanocar, Tom asked Ed if he knew the details of the police theories concerning the mastermind of the statue theft. “Not too much to know so far. Some clues in San Francisco led the authorities to Seattle and a warehouse rented by a man who gave the name of John Aider. But he’s disappeared, and it’s thought the name is an alias for Haugen Bartholdis.”
“The Singapore smuggling suspect?”
“That’s the one,” Ed confirmed. “The description is a good match for the man Feeney met. He’s Dutch. Your man Ames said valuable artifacts have a habit of going AWOL when Bartholdis is anywhere around, according to Interpol reports.” With a frown, Cousin Ed added that Bartholdis was wanted for questioning in Indonesia as well.
“Questioning about what?”
“Murder! Frankly, I’d just as soon this guy stay missing.”
Toward the end of the day Tom asked a dozen of Enterprises’ best jet pilots to assemble near the administration building.
“I’m looking for a volunteer to return with me to New Guinea in the cycloplane.” Quickly Tom explained his predicament to them. “Though the cybertron can guide the plane, it can’t look for the missing men by itself. There’ll be times when I’ll have to rest, whether I want to or not, and it’s vital that the air search go on without a break. Who’ll volunteer to come with me?”
The men shuffled their feet and looked around awkwardly, but no one stepped forward.
Both Tom and Mr. Swift were shocked. The elder scientist spoke to the group. “Are none of you willing to accompany Tom on a mission as important as this?”
Again there was silence!
Then a weather-beaten, sandy-haired mechanic named Wade spoke up. “Some of us have overheard what Chow Winkler and those other guys have been reporting on the radio from the Sky Queen. From what we hear, that New Guinea jungle’s a deathtrap.”
Tom’s eyes flashed angrily. “I look fairly healthy, don’t I? And your friends Bennings and Shawk on the Queen are in good shape, too. Sure, a jungle rescue mission is no picnic, but it needn’t be too dangerous if we use our common sense. The point is, Bud Barclay and Slim Davis are depending on us to save their lives. When a friend’s in that kind of trouble, you don’t count the cost!”
The men glanced at one another, and a few heads nodded slightly.
Tom continued: “I’ll ask again: who’ll come with me?”
Tom’s words seemed to strike home. Many of the men flushed and visibly straightened up. This time, more than half the crowd stepped forward.
The young inventor gave them a quiet smile. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, fellows. I’d like to take all of you—but the plane can only accommodate two men to accompany me and Ed Longstreet.” After selecting two veteran pilots in their early twenties who had no immediate family, Tom dismissed the others.
Early the next morning the crewmen and Ed climbed aboard the SwiftStorm and Tom took his place at the controls. He gunned the cycloplane after receiving final clearance from the tower and lifted off in a rush of power, the craft’s trajectory smoothly shifting from vertical to horizontal as he headed south of west. As they sped along high above all commercial air traffic, Tom taught his three passengers the ins and outs of controlling the plane, allowing each a turn at the controls.
“I have to say, Tom—this whirling-dervish flyer is the most fantastic aircraft in the sky!” enthused one of the crewmen, John Yarborough. “And the maneuverability!—man oh man, you could set it down on a dime and― ”
“I know—and get back nine cents change.” Tom’s voice caught in his throat. The expression was a favorite of Bud’s.
The SwiftStorm cruised at top speed beyond the sound barrier, and again managed to outrun the sun. Its advanced design allowing extended flight without refueling, it was still morning, by the local clock, when the cycloplane reached the vicinity of the twin extinct volcanoes and the camp of the Sky Queen.
The great thunderstorm still raged unabated. Switching on the radio, Tom beamed out a signal, first attempting to reach Sterling’s trekkers. As before, static made the attempt futile. Putting distance between the cycloplane and the storm, he then contacted the Flying Lab. Almost immediately he was answered by Arvid Hanson.
“We saw you coming, Skipper!” Arv exclaimed. In the background Tom could hear the joyful comments of the other nearby members of the rescue party, Chow’s characteristic voice booming through. “We’re plenty glad you’re back.”
“How goes it down there?” Tom asked.
“Well, we’re still in one piece,” Arv reported wryly. “Two more attacks from the stone throwers. since you left. I’ll have more to report when you land.” Tom grinned, realizing Hanson was referring to his secret plan, which he didn’t want to discuss over the air.
After signing off, Tom swooped down over the treetops to the Sky Queen’s previous landing spot. Hardly had the SwiftStorm touched ground next to the great skyship when Chow and Arv came bursting out of the hatch to greet them.
“Brand my goggles, you’re a sight fer sore eyes, boy!” the cook exclaimed.
Tom introduced his cousin Ed and the other two crewmen, John and Gil, to the men. As the six walked toward the Sky Queen, Tom asked Arv about the outcome of his plan.
The modelmaker chuckled. “They fell for it, all right! The other night Chow and I pretended to go for a stroll near the ship, and set down one of the walkie-talkies on top of a rock in clear view—then walked away as if we’d forgotten it. Sure enough, one of the attacks came later that night, and the next morning the unit was gone.”
Ed Longstreet looked puzzled. “How does that help you?”
Chow grunted. “Them connivin’ stone-age varmints don’t know that th’ thing is rigged up so she’s on all th’ time—and we kin home-in on her signal, too!”
Tom asked what they had heard so far.
“At first, mostly words we couldn’t make out—the local dialect, I suppose,” explained Arv. “But about an hour ago we started hearing bits of conversation in English.”
“Could it have been Bud or Slim?”
Chow shook his head. “Naw, Boss. Some feller with an accent. Me, I thought it was French, but Arv here says it’s German or mebbe Dutch.”
“Dutch!” exclaimed Ed. He gave Tom a meaningful look.
“Did anyone mention a name?” Tom asked.
“Yes,” was Hanson’s reply. “At one point the man with the accent asked one of the others to hand him a canteen, and you could hear someone answer, ‘Sure, Mister Hoken’—something like that.”
“Haugen,” declared the young inventor. “Haugen Bartholdis! So the smuggler is connected to these attacks on our rescue expedition!”
“Good grief, my innocent little statue has a lot to answer for!” said Ed ruefully. “And if anything has happened to your friends, Tom, I― ”
“If anything happens, it’ll be because I wasted time on foot, instead of returning to Shopton immediately for the cycloplane,” Tom stated. “But let’s forget blame. We have to move fast now. It seems Bartholdis and his cronies are getting bolder—they may feel they’re closing in on us.”
Arv set his jaw. “With you back, Tom, I’d say we’re closing in on them!”
After radioing news of his arrival, Tom and the others ate and allowed themselves a brief rest period. Then the systematic search from the air began. Tom, with one other to assist, went up in the SwiftStorm time and time again, methodically scouting further and further into the periphery of the storm. Unhindered at long last by the terrible winds and unpredictable buffeting, they were able to survey a wide area of lightning-lit jungle, an area centered on the twin volcano peaks.
“Still no sign of wreckage—or anything,” remarked Gil Muir to Tom at the end of one sortie.
“Which means whatever clues are there to be found must be right at the foot of the peaks, or even between them,” responded the young inventor. “I’ll finish out this pattern and head back to camp for now.”
“Isn’t it time for you to eat and get some rest, Tom?”
The young inventor waved off the suggestion impatiently. “One more trip, then I’ll turn it over to you and John for the rest of the daylight period. But I couldn’t rest without taking a preliminary look at that central area.”
At the camp Tom let off Gil and picked up Ed Longstreet. As they rose to cruising altitude, Ed asked if Tom had seen any sign of Hank Sterling’s team from the air. “No,” was the response. “But I’m not overly concerned. The storm is drowning out the radio, and it’s so dark on the ground that I wouldn’t expect to see them very easily in the middle of all that jungle growth. We’ll be lucky to see traces of the crashed jet!”
The cycloplane plunged into the swirling maelstrom of storm. But now Tom approached the area confidently. The sleek little craft responded perfectly as he came down through the overcast. Again and again, bursts of rain lashed his canopy, while gale winds howled on all sides. This time Tom was piloting a ship which defied the elements!
Slowly and smoothly the SwiftStorm descended between the twin volcanoes. Tom was lower now than ever before. As if touched by an unconscious memory of the perilous descent in the Flying Lab, the scientist-inventor found himself almost holding his breath. His cousin nudged him, and Tom flashed a grin at Ed.
Peering down through the semidarkness, the two could make out a cluster of huts.
“A native village,” Ed murmured. “And look at those roofs! They’re every color of the rainbow!”
Suddenly Tom interrupted his mental observations as he realized the cycloplane was becoming sluggish. A glance at the flight dials sent a chill of fear through him. The needles were flickering crazily. The instruments had gone haywire!
“Tom—!” Ed grabbed at Tom’s forearm in panic. The roaring winds were starting to force the weakened cycloplane sideways against the rocks!
THE SILENT VILLAGE
FRANTICALLY Tom increased the output of the ultrasonic generators, seeking to produce an airflow powerful enough to overcome the effects of the storm winds. The rotating cylinders responded by increasing speed.
Bit by bit, the cycloplane rose higher, as if straining against an invisible cable. At last it soared free above the overcast. With a gasp of relief Tom gunned the jet engines and the plane shot forward out of danger.
“Whew!” Tom’s heart pounded. “Another minute and we’d have crashed just as Bud and Slim did!”
“Now we have a pretty good idea of what they encountered,” said Ed, his face pale. “But if even your cycloplane can’t handle it― ”
Tom set his jaw resolutely. “She can handle it! Now that I know what to expect, I’ll run the controls manually and take us all the way through.” He paused for a moment. “Or—shall I fly you back to the camp first?”
Ed sighed. “Nope. I have a reputation to maintain—for foolhardiness! Go for it!”
At top speed Tom took the cycloplane back into the gap between the peaks, the controls on a new, riskier setting. The SwiftStorm seemed to drop with breathtaking speed. But this time it remained stable despite the freakish reaction of the instruments.
In less than a minute they were through the worst of it and hovering placidly above the village of huts.
“It’s not so bad down here,” Ed remarked in surprise. “In fact, look over there those tree boughs are barely moving. What in the world happened to all the wind?”
“The wind isn’t needed down here,” Tom replied cryptically. Before his cousin could ask what he meant, the young inventor suddenly gasped and pointed. “Ed! There’s part of Bud’s wrecked plane!”
A silvery metal cylinder, a band of bright red encircling one end, lay crumpled between the trees below, barely visible!
“It’s one of the rear engine nacelles from the jet,” declared Tom. He up-throttled the engines and the cycloplane roared forward, making a loop to approach the village at a different angle. The change brought a grim sight into view.
“The jet!” breathed Ed Longstreet.
He pointed to the starboard slope of one volcano. At the very foot of the cliff, between a number of outlying huts and half-hidden among the rocks and underbrush, lay a crumpled silver mass. In grim silence, the two searchers eyed the smashed plane as their own craft settled downward to the valley floor. One wing of the jet had been almost completely sheared by the impact and lay uselessly among the ruins of a hut that had been demolished by the impact.
Neither one dared voice the thought that shot through minds. Had the jet carried Bud and Slim to their doom after all?
The instant the cycloplane’s wheels touched ground, Tom killed the switch. As the tense searchers started to jump out, he took a quick look around. There was no sign of life, and no sound except the reverberating thunder and distant, howling wind from high above.
Hopping out, Tom hurried toward the wreckage, waving Ed to follow him. Anxiously they poked among the wreckage, but found no trace of any bodies. Tom straightened up with a thoughtful frown. The two seats were still in place; Bud and Slim had not ejected. Apparently their two missing friends had been carried off from the wreck, either dead or alive. But where? And what had happened to the native villagers?
“It’s like a ghost town,” said Ed.
Tom nodded. Except for the ever-present rattle of high thunder, the whole valley lay wrapped in a foreboding stillness that in its way seemed even louder than the tumult above. Tom and his companion were more conscious of the air of mystery that hung over the valley than they cared to admit.
“Let’s investigate the village,” said Tom finally. “There’s nothing more to see here.” Warily he led the way, with Ed following. Their eyes scanned the rocks and underbrush. Nothing stirred as they approached the nearest huts. The walls of the dwellings were made of stakes planted in a circle and joined by woven strands of reeds.
The duo peered cautiously into several huts, but found each one dark and empty. Tumbled gourds, eating implements, straw mats, and scattered items of food, such as bananas and yams, seemed to indicate a hasty exit.
In one hut Tom found a gorgeous native headdress made of orange and green bird-of-paradise feathers. Why had the owner left such a treasure?
“Looks as if he and the others cleared out fast,” Ed Longstreet remarked.
Tom nodded. “The question is, why? Because we broke through their defense system?”
“Huh? You mean the storm?”
“That’s just what I mean!” Tom declared. “I’m convinced the storm is artificial, created by some sort of machine as a way to keep this area unseen and inaccessible. That’s why it doesn’t blow itself out and disperse.”
Ed was astounded, but found the logic convincing. “Then it must be a side effect of the ‘storm maker’ that causes the instruments to go wild.”
“Yes, and a pretty convenient side effect at that!” Tom was flushed with anger. “Anyone who decides to try breaking through the turbulence, as Bud and Slim did, gets wrecked anyway.”
Yet everything indicated a crude, primitive mode of life, not in keeping with that of a scientist. The hut floors were of trampled earth, while the thoroughfares of the village were mere beaten tracks among the rows of dwellings, which numbered several dozen altogether. At the very center of the group of huts was an open stone fireplace, surrounded by a circle of boulders.
“Probably where they hold their village feasts and ceremonial dances,” Ed commented. Then he asked, “What’s our next move, Tom?”
“We’ll try to get in touch with Hank and the land party,” Tom decided. “Down here right next to the volcanoes we may be protected from some of the interference effects.”
Returning to the cycloplane, Tom activated the radio and began beaming a signal at the frequency used by the land party’s walkie-talkies. But although the static seemed much reduced, there was no response.
Finally, brow creased with worry, he abandoned the effort. “Let’s scout around and see if we can dig up any clues to what’s going on here.”
After half an hour of fruitless probing, Tom paused. Once again his eyes fell on the thatched roofs, with their amazing mixture of colors. The hues ranged through the whole spectrum—from a shimmering violet, blue, and blue-green to yellow-orange and a queer metallic red.
Standing on tiptoe, Tom plucked a handful of thatching from the nearest hut. A closer look left him wide-eyed with amazement. The stuff was even more fantastic than he had imagined! As Ed watched, Tom rolled some of it between his fingers.
“Mineral fibers!” he muttered. But the stuff was far different from asbestos or any similar material known to modern science.
There was only one answer. It must be a combination of rare earths! “Probably in the form of silicates,” Tom reflected with growing excitement. “Is that why Bud and Hank sent that radio message with the word ‘rare’?”
“Must be!” Ed agreed.
Brushing aside the gloomy fear that his friends might not be alive, the young inventor’s thoughts went racing eagerly into the future. What research could be carried out with a new and plentiful supply of rare earths! Experiments leading to revolutionary advances in the field of atomic energy, new electronic devices; stronger and more heat-resistant metal alloys!
“It doesn’t add up though,” Tom said to his cousin moodily, looking at the huts. “How could primitive stone-age natives separate those rare earths?”
With a shrug, Tom dismissed the knotty problem from his mind. Right now the main thing was to find a clue to Bud and Slim’s fate. The two resumed their search of the huts, working separately. It was several minutes later when a gleam of reflected light inside one of the dwellings caught Tom’s eye.
Tom pounced on the object which lay on a woven green and yellow mat. It was Bud Barclay’s wrist watch—the watch Tom himself had given his friend as a Christmas present! Hardly two feet away was another watch, upon which Slim Davis’s initials were inscribed!
Tom’s heart gave a leap. Both watches were still running and unmarred, their crystals unshattered. If the watches had survived the crash in good shape, more than likely his friends had, too! Both were probably alive!
Then another thought occurred to Tom. If, by any chance, his friends had left their watches here in the hope that they might be noticed by a rescue party, perhaps they had taken other steps, too. Maybe Bud and Slim had tried to leave some kind of message in the gloomy hut!
Tom whipped out his flashlight and played it around the room. At first glance nothing of interest showed up. Undaunted, he began a thorough search, poking into every nook and cranny. For the first time he noticed that this particular hut had walls interwoven with thick branches to strengthen them. He was sure it had been used as a prison.
At one spot the dirt floor had been dug up, then hastily covered over. But the corner of a sheet of white paper was still visible. Tom clawed away the dirt and pulled out the paper. A note from Bud! With pounding pulse, the young scientist-inventor read:
Slim and I are alive and okay so far (the 17th), but we’re prisoners of a white man, Strang, who seems to have the natives in his power. We escaped and got off a radio message from the jet, but were recaptured—don’t know if you got it. Tomorrow morning they are taking us to a cave to keep you from finding us. They tell us we’ll never be allowed to leave. And if you find out what the white man is doing, you’ll be put to death! So long and here’s hoping you find this. But I know you’ll come for us.
As he read the news, Tom was both relieved and angry. Not only would he find Bud and Slim, but he would unlock the valley’s secret!
“Today’s only the 18th,” he thought jubilantly. Stuffing the paper into his pocket, Tom hurried back to the huts where he had left Ed.
Just as he had finished showing the note to his cousin a loud crackling drew their attention toward the parked cycloplane. A voice was coming from the radio!
“Tom! Tom Swift! We’re under attack!”
CAVERN OF SECRETS
“THAT’S Chow’s voice!” Tom cried in alarm.
He raced over to the SwiftStorm with Ed at his heels and clambered up into the cockpit, where he had left the receiver open.
“Chow! Do you read me? This is Tom!”
He repeated his frantic signal over and over, but static was the only response.
Tom switched off the unit with a sigh of frustration. “The Sky Queen must be under attack—and by something worse than slings and arrows!”
“How do you suppose his signal managed to get through the storm interference?” Ed asked.
Tom pointed off toward the far horizon. “There’s the answer—a break in the clouds. Something in the wind circulation must produce gaps in the storm now and then, by accident.” But even as they watched, the gap was drawing closed.
“We had better return to the Flying Lab,” declared the young inventor, pulling the sliding viewpane-hatch closed above them. Ed could tell that his cousin was distressed and reluctant to abandon the search for Bud when he was so close to success. He put a hand on Tom’s shoulder.
“I’m sure we’ll be back here soon, cuz.”
Tom nodded silently and activated the ultrasonic generators and the cyclocyls. The craft responded with its usual efficiency and sprang upward into the air, swinging around to penetrate the storm clouds in the direction of the Sky Queen campsite.
As they rose higher, Tom’s worried frown deepened. Once again, the plane was responding sluggishly, and now even his deft piloting seemed unable to overcome the problem. As a jetstream of hurricane force slammed into the cycloplane, the craft shook violently and was driven backwards.
“Hold on!” Tom shouted. Gritting his teeth, he attempted to guide the SwiftStorm into the lightning-laced clouds by brute force, gunning the forward jets. The plane made its way forward, but seemed to fight for every yard of progress, swaying and vibrating with ever-increasing violence. Finally, after a jolt that was particularly bone-jarring, Tom grunted in disgust and turned the plane about.
“We can’t get through until I figure out what’s failing in the system,” he muttered. “Chow and the others will have to do the best they can.”
Tom set the cycloplane down again and began to examine its inner workings. In less than a minute he gave a choking gasp of anger and straightened up.
Ed was amazed. “But the plane was in sight all the time, ever since we landed!”
“Evidently someone snuck up on the far side and forced open the inspection panel. He probably grabbed at things at random, but he managed to disable some key circuits necessary for stable flight at higher power.”
“Which means we’re being watched!” murmured Tom’s cousin, glancing about nervously. “Can you repair the cycloplane?”
Tom shook his head. “No, not here. I’ll need some components stored aboard the Sky Queen, as well as some special tools.” He managed a weak grin. “Looks like we’ll be taking the overland trail, Cousin Ed!”
Ed laughed. “Won’t be the first time.”
With a sigh Tom said, “Before we try hiking out of here, there’s one thing we can do.” Pulling out the two watches and Bud’s note, he said, “I’m going to look for that cave Bud mentioned. You keep working the radio, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Ed replied. “And I’ll keep my i-gun ready for action, too.” Ed Longstreet, an experienced marksman, had been issued one of the Swift impulse weapons and trained in its use.
As Ed glanced at the towering volcanic peaks on either side of the valley, he said softly, “Bud and Slim are alive! Thank goodness! And they’re somewhere inside those mountains.”
“I have a hunch the cave is fairly close to the village,” Tom mused. “I’ll try the eastern side first. But I’ll try to make it hard for that hidden spotter to see what I’m doing.”
“Good luck!” said his cousin.
Tom trudged toward the rocky lava-hardened slope. He traveled in a crouch, ducking behind huts, tree trunks, and other obstructions so as not to be noticeable. When he reached a point where the ground ahead rose steeply, he began skirting along the edge, moving stealthily from boulder to boulder. The going was rough, but he soon progressed far beyond sight of the village. However, he found no trace of a cave entrance anywhere along the accessible slope.
Must be in the other volcano, Tom told himself.
He headed back toward the cluster of huts to see if Ed had received any news of the battle. As he passed through the village, he noticed that one dwelling, set somewhat apart, was considerably larger than the others.
This could be the chief’s hut, he decided. Poking his head in the doorway, he switched on his flashlight and played it around the interior. He caught his breath in surprise. In a corner stood a small, curious-looking statue.
Tom rushed in and grabbed it. Except for its metallic violet color, the figurine was a duplicate of the stolen “animal god,” irreverently nicknamed Kangaroo Sue!
“One of Sue’s relatives!” Tom muttered to himself jubilantly. “Then it’s true—Ed’s statue did come from this part of New Guinea. It probably was stolen out of this very hut!”
But stolen by whom? Tom wondered. The smuggler Haugen Bartholdis? Or the mysterious white man named Strang who was now holding Bud and Slim prisoner?
Maybe the two of them are working together! the young inventor speculated.
Eager to report his latest discovery, Tom headed back on the double to the cycloplane. Ed Longstreet listened in amazement to his cousin’s report. “Wish I had some exciting news in return, but the radio’s still giving out nothing but static.”
“We may receive something when another storm-break occurs, though.”
“I’ll keep at my post, General.”
Tom returned to his hunt for the cave. This time, Tom headed toward the western edge of the valley. Again he skirted the cliff wall. The terrain was strewn with rocks and brush.
For fifteen minutes Tom tramped along without finding anything. Suddenly he was startled by a small creature which popped up almost in front of his face. He recognized it as a kangaroo rat. To his astonishment, it disappeared right before his eyes!
“What goes on here?” the young inventor muttered, stopping abruptly.
With a surge of excitement, he clawed among the brush, eager to uncover the tiny kangaroo’s secret. A whole cluster of shrubbery came away in his hand. Beyond yawned an opening.
“The cave!” Tom gasped.
Plunging into the dark interior, he snapped on his flashlight. The glow revealed several large rawhide sacks set just inside the entrance.
Tom opened one eagerly and whistled softly in amazement. The sack was full of weird treasures! Idols, statuettes, vases, and an assortment of strange objects glistened in metallic rainbow colors!
“More rare earths!” Tom exclaimed in a whisper.
He aimed his flashlight deeper into the gloom. No rear wall was apparent. Instead, a path sloped downward into yawning darkness.
Tom gasped aloud. “This must be the entrance to an underground storehouse of treasures!” For a moment the young inventor was tempted to plunge forward and find out where the underground path led. But caution held him back. He might be walking into a deadly trap!
This will take careful planning, he decided. Getting myself captured won’t be of any help to Bud. Pulsing with excitement, Tom hurriedly made his way back to Ed at the plane.
After Tom had given a brief, breathless account of his discovery, Ed said, “Look, Tom, Bud and Slim may be imprisoned further along in that tunnel. We both have our guns—let’s investigate. I can follow a ways behind you, in the dark. If somebody gets the jump on you, I’ll toss ’em a little lightning!”
“Exactly what I was about to suggest!”
Tom led his cousin back to the cave entrance, again trying to minimize the chance of being seen by the hidden watchers.
Worming their way through the covering brush, the two started through the mysterious tunnel, Ed hanging back in the shadows by about 50 feet while Tom blazed the way with his flashlight. The pathway ahead, obviously created by the hand of man, unfolded before them in ghostly outlines.
For some time they picked their way along in silence through the narrow, winding passageway. Every step took them deeper underground. The eerie darkness and the rocky walls closing them in tightly on either side began to get on Ed’s nerves. “Doesn’t this thing ever end?” he whispered as he and Tom conferred with the light off.
As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, Tom suddenly detected a glow of light, somewhere ahead. “We’re coming to something!” he muttered tensely. “I won’t use the flashlight.”
A few minutes later they both grew wide-eyed in amazement as the tunnel widened into an enormous cavern bathed in a muted luminance, pale and soft as moonlight. Before them lay a fantastic sight!
Catching up to Tom, Ed Longstreet was the first to find his voice. “Great Scott! An underground city! This is unbelievable!” he murmured. “If I weren’t seeing it with my own eyes—!”
The pair stared in awe at the incredible scene spread out before them. Sometime in the long distant past, an unknown race of stone masons had built this whole city deep down under the earth.
“But why?” Tom asked in an awed whisper. “And what lights it up?”
There were structures shaped like pyramids, domed buildings with high arched doorways, and walls covered with strange carvings. Here and there, mounted on pedestals, were brooding statues, larger versions of the kangaroo-like animal figure. Strangest of all were the streets, with deep-carved grooves as if made to be used as tracks for wheeled carts or chariots.
Once, the visitors realized, the city had throbbed with life—busy, bustling throngs of people. Now the buildings were deserted, the streets covered with a thick, gritty layer of dust and debris.
“But where’s the light coining from?” Tom again puzzled aloud. The strange glow that made every object visible bathed the whole city in a weird, unearthly radiance. Every building stood out in soft silhouette.
Ed shrugged and Tom admitted he was baffled. “The light is coming from somewhere beyond the city, perhaps from the far end of the cavern!”
In a near-whisper Ed called Tom’s attention to the stone of which the pyramids and other buildings were constructed. Rainbow colors, in a sort of speckled pattern, shone iridescently throughout the surface of the stone, contributing a sparkle of color to the eerie glow.
Tom flicked on his flashlight and examined the stones at close range. “These colors look like more of the rare earths!” he muttered.
Ed was staggered by the announcement. “Do you mean the whole city’s built out of the stuff?”
“Out of the ore,” Tom corrected. “There must be a huge quarry somewhere around here!”
Ed put a finger to his lips, nervously. “And that must mean our enemies are somewhere close by!”
TOM AGREED with his cousin’s assessment. But overwhelming scientific curiosity led him forward. In awe-struck silence the duo pushed ahead through the deserted streets. Still there was no sign of life. Only their own muffled footsteps and low whispers broke the stillness of the great cavern. Even the thunder of the storm, so constant that it could almost be forgotten, was scarcely audible.
Suddenly Tom gasped and halted. “Hold it!” The unexplained cavern glow revealed bare footprints in the dusty litter of the street! “Do you suppose these are the undisturbed footprints of people who lived here centuries ago?” Tom asked.
Ed pondered this. “I’ve seen many an old ruin, even some in caves. Unless the ground has been concretized in some way, as when soft clay bakes in the sun, things like footprints are slowly worn away, or filled in by dust as it falls year after year. Tom, these may be prints of the villagers who― ”
The crack of a rifle echoed through the cavern! As it died away, Tom and Ed could make out the faint, muffled sound of voices from somewhere ahead of them.
“Come on!” Tom urged. “Maybe that’s Bud or Slim!”
The duo dashed forward, picking their way through the maze of winding streets. As they ran, they were alert for an ambush. Obviously the place was not deserted after all! There might be an onslaught of enemies with rifles or a rain of stone missiles at any moment.
But nothing happened.
Finally they slowed to a walk, then halted, panting. With no further sounds to guide them, it was impossible for the rescuers to tell if they were heading in the right direction. A deadening silence had fallen again.
Ed looked at Tom. “Do you think that call was a trap?”
“I’d rather not guess,” Tom replied, “but it’s also possible that this cavern has unusual acoustic properties that― ”
The youth’s words were interrupted as a voice behind them suddenly called out, “Hi, you fellows!”
Startled, the rescuers flinched and whirled around as if they had been stung. To their amazement, a man in safari garb was strolling toward them!
“Hedron!” Tom gasped.
The zoologist’s manner was completely casual. Ignoring their wide-eyed looks of surprise, he greeted them with a smile. The man acted as if there were nothing more unusual about running into them here in this underground city than in the streets of Shopton!
“Made it back, I see,” Hedron said to Tom. He offered his hand to Ed. “George Hedron,” he introduced himself. Ed gave his own name and shook hands cautiously, casting many a glance Tom’s way.
“Do you mind telling us where you’ve been all this time?” Tom asked sharply. “Where are Hank Sterling and the others?”
“Oh, well,” Hedron replied. “Guess I owe you another apology, Tom. The fact is, I pulled one of my harebrained stunts the other day, after we made it out of that crevice and had started into the jungle on this side. Saw a baby kangaroo while I was out scouting and thought maybe I could bag and photograph it. Never did, though—it finally got away. By that time I realized I was lost. Static made the walkie-talkies useless, you know. But luckily,” he concluded, “I managed to find what looked like a trail, and here I am.”
Tom shook his head in angry disbelief, trying not to raise his voice. “What do you mean, Here I am! How did you find the entrance to this cavern? And where are the others?”
Hedron merely grinned. “Don’t worry,” he continued smoothly, “I crossed paths with the other guys just minutes ago, while I was out filling my canteen. They’re camped in the jungle on the other side of the mountain—didn’t know about the village of huts until I told them about it. Hank wonders why you haven’t shown up in that plane of yours, by the way.”
“Never mind about me!” Tom demanded.
“Oh, right, you asked how I got inside here. Well, that trail I was following led right up to a small opening between two boulders. I was looking for shelter for the night, and followed a cave all the way into the cavern. Spent the night in one of those stone temples. Quite a sight, isn’t it? Seriously, Tom, I’m sure you’re a bit upset with me, but I’ve really learned my lesson! Next time I’ll follow orders.”
“We heard a shot just now, and voices. Know anything about that?” Ed asked Hedron.
“I heard it too,” was the reply. “I’m sure it’s the other members of the party. I told them where the entrance is—the one I used.”
In a smooth movement Tom removed his i-gun from its holster and aimed it at the zoologist, who stepped back in surprise. “There’s only one conventional gun on this expedition, and it’s with Hanson back at the Sky Queen. You’re lying to us.”
“Now Tom, be reasonable!” Hedron protested with a half-smile. “I just made a guess in answer to the question. I didn’t realize Sterling and the boys didn’t have a real rifle among them. Why would I lie to you?”
Tom lowered his gun, but continued to stare at Hedron in suspicion. “Seems to me you’ve had a lot of luck on this rescue expedition, George. You wander off and get yourself lost, but never get into trouble. You managed to be absent during one of the attacks. And it strikes me that the night we found that skull, you were already up and walking around. Maybe you planted the skull yourself!”
Hedron winced, as if his feelings were hurt. “I really think I deserve better than that, Tom. You invited me to this party, remember?”
The young inventor’s slight nod conceded the truth of Hedron’s statement. He holstered the i-gun. “I apologize if I’ve jumped to one conclusion too many,” Tom said. “I’m on edge because we found evidence that Bud and Slim made it through the crash and are being held prisoner—maybe here in this cavern!”
“I understand,” responded the zoologist. “No hard feelings. I saw the wrecked plane outside.”
“We’d better try to find who shot off that gun,” Ed urged crisply. “We’re wasting time.”
As they continued to walk along in the same direction as before, Hedron continued to talk, keeping his voice low at Tom’s order. Looking around at the ancient buildings, he went on, “Isn’t this an amazing spot? I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it! Have you, Longstreet?”
Before Ed could comment, they heard voices again, louder, from somewhere to the side.
“It must be your friends!” Hedron exclaimed. “Come on. Let’s go!”
Breaking into a run, the three men raced in the direction from which the sounds had come. In a few moments they reached a spot where the narrow, twisting streets widened into a plaza or public square, paved with multi-hued stone tiles of pentagonal shape. With muffled gasps of amazement, Tom and his companions pulled up short.
A fantastic scene met their eyes, illumined by huge floodlights that reflected down from the high cavern ceiling and cast a glow throughout the city. Across the plaza trudged a group of dark-skinned natives in single file. Their ankles were manacled and linked by chains, while on their shoulders they bore heavily loaded sacks like those stashed in the entrance tunnel.
“So this is where the missing villagers have been hiding!” murmured Ed, dumfounded.
Beyond, ranged against the wall of a broad, low building, stood more of the natives, oddly smeared with paint and covered with garments woven of leaves. It was several seconds before Tom realized the purpose of this strange garb.
“It’s for camouflage—jungle camouflage!” he whispered to the others as they shrunk back into the shadows. “Those men must be the invisible army of stone snipers!”
Tom grabbed Ed’s arm and roughly pulled him further into the portal in which they were standing. This was no time to risk being seen. A deadly hail of stones might follow when their presence was discovered. But no sooner were they huddled inside the arched doorway than Tom realized that only Ed had accompanied him. George Hedron was still standing outside!
“Come in here!” Tom hissed. “If those men spot us, they may attack!”
But the zoologist seemed completely unaware of any danger. He took a few steps further into the street. Standing in plain view of the plaza, he scanned the scene with a keen, intent air.
“What’s wrong with him?” Ed puzzled. “Has he gone deaf?”
Tom watched the scientist through narrowed eyes and muttered, “It could be that he doesn’t want to hear me!”
There was something odd about Hedron’s attitude. He seemed poised for action—like a panther crouched to spring. By this time, Tom’s distrust had grown to a near certainty that the zoologist was up to something.
Meanwhile, the present danger was too great to speculate about Hedron’s motives. Any second now the jungle snipers might discover the intruders. In a tense, heart-pounding silence, Tom and his companion waited. Nothing happened. Apparently the sling-warriors still had not discovered that they were being spied upon.
“What do you make of it?” Ed asked.
“Beyond me,” Tom replied. He edged forward and peered out cautiously. The column of chained natives was still plodding across the public square with their heavy loads. Either the snipers were focusing all their attention on the slaves in order to prevent any break for freedom or else they were too busy talking among themselves to notice Hedron.
Suddenly Tom gave a startled gasp. As the last few slaves trudged past, two bedraggled but recognizable figures were revealed propped sideways against a long-dry street fountain.
“Bud!” he cried out without thinking.
Throwing caution to the winds, the young inventor rushed out of his hiding place. In the sudden surge of excitement and relief that swept over him, nothing else mattered except to reach his pal’s side!
As he raced toward the fountain, with Ed at his heels, Bud and Slim turned their heads to look, but otherwise remained motionless. What was even more strange, neither showed the slightest sign of recognition!
In full view of the phalanx of warriors, Tom dashed to Bud’s side. “Bud!” pleaded Tom in a low, tense voice. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know me?” He turned to Slim Davis. “We’re your friends!”
Neither made any response. Tom stared in horrified surprise. He saw, for the first time, that both fliers were chained. And they regarded him with a blank, unseeing gaze, as if staring into empty space!
“Steady, cousin!” Ed Longstreet warned as Tom groaned in shocked dismay. “They’ve been brain-washed or something. They’re both in some sort of stupor.”
In desperation Tom glanced about the plaza, trying to figure out his best move. Another horrifying sight met his eyes. Some distance away, women and children of the tribe cowered against the lofty arching walls of the cavern, apparently completely subdued.
Just then a new development caught the rescue party’s attention. A small, sandy-haired white man had darted out from one of the buildings like a scurrying rat. In one hand he lugged a big, heavily laden sack. His other arm cradled a queer-looking device like nothing Tom had ever seen before. Cylindrical in shape, with a hand-grip beneath, it was covered with white ceramic insulation. From the front end protruded two thick coils, like the mandibles of some monstrous insect.
A weapon of some kind! Tom concluded silently. At the same moment it flashed through his mind that it must be this man who kept the natives enslaved while looting the secret city. No doubt the object under his arm was the device which he had used to shock his victims into dazed submission whenever they became rebellious.
“Quick! We’ve got to get Bud and Slim out of here!” Tom whispered. Any moment the man could turn and notice them!
Then he remembered Hedron. Turning, he was just in time to see the zoologist raise one arm and shrill out the word: “Okay!” He seemed to be speaking to someone just beyond Tom’s line of sight.
The next instant, Hedron started racing at top speed back toward the tunnel that led into the cavern.
Tom whirled back and saw that the sandy-haired white man had been joined by another, a narrow-waisted man with broad muscular shoulders and thinning blond hair, matching Feeney’s description of the man presumed to be Haugen Bartholdis. He carried a rifle, and was staring straight at Tom and Ed! There was no possibility of hiding now!
To Tom’s bewilderment, Bartholdis gave Tom a bland, tight-lipped smile, not even raising his rifle. He said something to the other man, who half-turned and looked at Tom calmly. The man nodded and they both shared a relaxed laugh, as if they had not a care in the world.
In an instant the young inventor knew what their arrogant demeanor was all about. As Tom and Ed tried vainly to back away to safety, the smaller man casually aimed his strange weapon straight at the rescuers.
With an evil leer of triumph, he fired!
AN INSTANT after the unknown man pulled the trigger-switch in the handgrip of his device, a blue-white luminescent corona filled the air around the coils. But Tom had not been idle during those fearful seconds. He had drawn his impulse gun and discharged its stunning electric pulse in the direction of his two enemies.
Feeling no effect on himself from his foes’ weapon, he glanced at his friends while keeping his aim and holding down the button on his i-gun. Ed, Bud, and Slim also seemed to be unaffected.
Ed, relaxing a bit, quavered, “Their machine isn’t working!”
“The antennae probably send out a train of electromagnetic shock waves!” Tom mused. “The pulsations from the i-gun must be scrambling or nullifying them in some way—look at that heat shimmer in the air between us! A lot of energy is being dissipated!” Knowing that Bartholdis would bring his rifle into play as soon as it became obvious that the shock weapon was not affecting Tom and Ed, Tom whispered to Ed to sink down to the pavement as if blacking out. As Ed did this, Tom fell back against the wall next to Bud. But he managed to maintain his aim, and kept firing his gun all the while.
The sandy-haired man appeared satisfied at last, switching off the shock gun. Unconcerned about Tom and Ed, he resumed conversing with his companion.
Tom made use of his hunched-over position to eye the manacles on Bud’s and Slim’s ankles. A single chain of lightweight metal connected the two men, passing through a heavy metal ring set firmly in the pavement. If Tom could sever the chain—!
Whispering his plan to Ed, Tom stealthily adjusted the settings on his i-gun, then brought the emitter-barrel close to the chain and depressed the button. Instantly a brilliant, raging ball of blue-white light encircled the chain, shooting off sparks and smoke in all directions. Tom’s and Bud’s bodies blocked the sight from the view of the enemy.
The chain was beginning to glow red, and the glow was slowly creeping along in both directions, link by link. In moments Bud and Slim would be scorched! Ending his feigned helplessness, Tom brought down his booted heel on the chain where it passed through the ring, slamming down with all his weight and force.
The chain broke apart in a flash of sparks!
Bartholdis and his crony looked up at the clang of the chain segments dragging across the pavement stones. But already Tom and Ed were hastening their friends out of sight as quickly as they could yank them. The two freed captives made no sound, but seemed willing and able to stumble along docilely.
With a snarl of rage, the sandy-haired overseer cried out a blistering stream of oaths, and his face twisted with fury. Then he shrieked fanatically to Bartholdis: “Run ’em down!”
His cries echoed through the empty boulevards of the dead city. Herding Bud and Slim along, Tom and Ed zigzagged back and forth from one hiding place to another, moving at top speed while striving desperately to remain out of sight. Tom was able to tie the loose ends of the prisoners’ chains to their belt loops, so they would not drag.
Pausing with the others at one of the pedestals, Ed panted, “I think we’ve lost him!”
But Tom’s eyes grew wide as he saw Bartholdis dart into sight around a corner. He was now armed with a submachine gun! As he swung it up into firing position, Tom yelped a warning to his comrade, “Hit the deck!”
Not a split second too soon, they dived headlong for cover behind the broad-based pedestal, pulling Bud and Slim down with them. A spray of bullets from the chattering machine gun whizzed overhead and rattled off the stone wall of a building somewhere behind them.
A choked cry came from Ed Longstreet. Tom’s face went white as he glanced at his cousin. A bullet must have ricocheted and struck him!
“I’m okay,” Ed murmured. “Just a nick. But here he comes!”
Putting his i-gun on a diffuse-impulse setting, Tom extended his hand beyond the pedestal and fired in the general direction of Bartholdis. He was rewarded with a grunt of surprise and the sound of the smuggler’s gun clattering down to the pavement.
“Run!” Tom urged. “He’ll recover in a second!”
The four scrambled down a side street. When they came to an intersection, Ed called out: “Tom, look!” The dust of the avenue to the left was marked and scuffed by many footprints.
“Must lead to another cavern entrance,” Tom panted. “Maybe the one Hedron uses.”
“But it’ll get us out of this cavern!” exclaimed Ed.
The four made their way along the curving thoroughfare, following the footprints. In minutes they had reached the arching cavern wall. A narrow, shadowed opening loomed in front of them. Pushing Bud and Slim through the portal, Tom and his cousin found themselves in a low-ceilinged corridor lined with uneven rock, its further reaches black with shadow.
Before they had taken five steps down the tunnel, a loud rasping sound made them spin about. They caught a glimpse of a door-sized metal plate sliding into position before all light from the cavern was cut off.
Tom groaned softly, chest heaving from the run. “Trapped! He must’ve been herding us this way all along!”
“You give me too much credit,” came a hollow voice, Dutch accented. “It was rather a fortuitous coincidence, eh?”
The voice seemed to be coming from above and behind Tom. Stretching his hands upward, he felt along the ceiling and came upon a small round opening, evidently connecting to the cavern and providing the tunnel with ventilation.
“Tom Swift, is it not?” continued the voice of Bartholdis. “But of course, who else? Your wonderful wingless airplane sits outside even now.”
“You can’t keep us here, Bartholdis!” Tom shouted.
“Ah, you know my name? Well and good. As to your statement, I cannot think of any good reason why we can’t keep you, eh? Do you expect your friends to rescue you? The government? Your mighty army? Long before any such thing, we shall be finished here, I assure you. Then you will either accompany us—or you will not. And I rather think the first alternative would be best for you, all considered.”
Tom was silent.
“No comeback? Ah well. As for me, I intend a bold break with tradition. I shall say nothing about insidious plans, infernal inventions, or the combined genius of myself and my partner, Mr. Strang. To ease your curiosity, I shall only remark that this enterprise of ours has the usual human motivations, money and power. Oh yes—and love! The basic emotions, eh? And now I must leave you behind this steel door—which, to spare you some wasted effort, is quite impervious.”
The silence that followed was broken by the sound of Tom rapping on the metal plate that imprisoned them.
“Can you—?” It was Ed Longstreet’s voice.
“Not a chance,” Tom replied. “The i-gun couldn’t burn through this thickness in a year. How are Bud and Slim?”
There was a pause. “They’ve wandered back into the corridor. I’ll grope my way along until I find them.”
Tom followed along, bumping into Ed in the dark. “I doubt this is a tunnel—just a long room or cave that they use as a prison. Maybe they kept some of the villagers in here for a while. That would account for all the footprints in the dust.”
But Ed noted, “One problem with that theory, cuz. It sure looked to me like those prints were all of people in shoes.”
The two suddenly blundered against a flat wall of stone. Where had their two dazed comrades disappeared to? Groping along, they found that the room continued at right angles.
Suddenly Tom gave a grunt. “Here’s Bud. Slim next to him.”
“Great gallopin’ gophers! That’s Tom!”
The new voice in the darkness startled and overjoyed the young inventor!
“Chow! You’re in here too?”
“We’re all here, Tom,” came another voice, which Tom immediately recognized as Sam Barker’s. Other voices now piped up. It developed that both the rescue trekkers and the crew left at the Sky Queen had been made captive!
“Where are you, exactly?” Ed Longstreet called. “Your voices sound distant.”
It was Hank Sterling who answered. “We’re on a lower level. You must be at the metal grating that serves as our jail bars. Just beyond is an open stairwell with stone steps. We’re at the bottom in a big chamber with no other exit.”
Tom groped forward past Bud and found the metal bars, which he rattled. “These bars aren’t very thick. Guys, I think I might be able to melt through them with my impulse gun!” He asked his cousin to move Bud and Slim out of the way. Finding the hinges that anchored the grating to the wall, Tom brought the gun close and activated it. The tunnel lit up in its electric flare.
The first hinge fell to Tom’s power quickly. But as he began working on the second hinge, the flare began to waver. “The emitter element is decaying from all this heavy use,” he said. “We’ll have to finish the job with your gun, Ed.”
Finally the job was done, and the door was pulled aside. In moments they had clattered down the steps and joined the crowded chamber below, to muted cheers and many slaps on the back.
“Brand my blackout cake, Boss, don’t you have a flashlight with you?” Chow demanded.
Tom confessed that the flashlight had been dropped somewhere during their scramble through the streets of the lost city. “Tell you what, though—we’ll use our remaining i-gun to make an electric glow. The emitter’s too weak now to use it for much else.”
The electrical flare was small as a pinpoint. Nevertheless, its illumination was more than sufficient. Tom surveyed his weary, dirty crewmen with grim satisfaction. “At least you’re all here, and alive!”
“All except George Hedron,” said Doc Simpson in disgust. “He’s wandered off again.”
“Well, he turned up.” Tom briefly described the events in the village of huts and the underground city, including the encounter with Hedron. Then the others told their stories—how the sandy-haired man, Strang, had ambushed the overland party in the jungle with the warrior band, forced-marching them into the cavern at gunpoint and spearpoint; and how a machine-gun and grenade barrage by Haugen Bartholdis had compelled the Sky Queen crew to surrender only hours before. They had been flown to the volcano area in a small helicopter, which had landed in a camouflaged clearing nearby.
“And Tom, blame-me and brand me if those cusses cain’t turn that there storm on and off like a dang electric light!” Chow exclaimed.
Though the men had seen the dazed villagers and warriors, they were horrified at the condition of Bud Barclay and Slim Davis. “What does that weapon do to people?” asked John Yarborough in dismay.
“It’s as if the victims are lobotomized,” Doc commented. “But without surgery.”
“I can only guess that a focused electromagnetic flux causes a disruption in some part of the central nervous system, just as an electric shock can stun muscles for a time,” Tom said, gazing at Bud’s blank, disinterested face. “The victims can’t seem to think or initiate action, but they can still move around and perform tasks. It must make them submissive to the will of others.”
“Zombies!” pronounced Arv Hanson with a gulp.
Chow Winkler approached Bud hesitantly. “Buddy boy, you kin hear ole Chow, cain’t you? Give me a word, buckaroo—just one—any one!”
“He can’t,” came a weak, raspy voice. “B-but I can!”
“Slim!” Tom exclaimed, delighted. “You’ve come out of it!” The others hooted and cheered.
Slim was trembling, and Doc Simpson helped him sit down without falling. “I—I’ve been aware of you all for several minutes, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to speak. But Bud― ”
“What happened?” Tom asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“The storm got us. The instruments went bad, and we clipped the volcano. I think one of the engines pulled loose. We pancaked down hard, and skidded. Guess you saw the plane out there.”
“When we were pulling ourselves out, the little guy, Strang, came up with a rifle. He said we would be held for a while—insurance, he called us. We were kept prisoner in a hut with reinforced sides, for days. A couple tribesmen guarded us. We escaped once, but they hauled us back.”
“I found Bud’s note,” Tom said with a glance at his friend.
“Bud was sure you would.” Slim rubbed his eyes, then resumed. “One day—I don’t know how much time has passed—they came to move us into what they called ‘the cave’. Of course, Bud and I had worked up a plan to break loose. But no go. Strang was there with some little thing that looks like a flashlight. He beamed it at us, and Bud—Bud was closer to the gun. He took a bigger charge.” The pilot sighed ruefully. “I think maybe he was trying to protect me, Tom. Anyway, since then it’s been like a nightmare, where you want to run but your legs won’t work.”
Tom gave Slim’s shoulder an understanding squeeze. “I’m glad you’re okay now. I’m sure Bud will be too.”
The conversation was abruptly interrupted by a shout from Red Jones. “Hey, look over here! I think I found another tunnel!” Tom and the others excitedly rushed to the redheaded crewman’s side. He was pointing upward toward a spot near the top of one wall, where several boulders fit together unevenly. In the i-gun glow they could barely make out the edge of a horizontal slit in the wall.
“I stuck my hand up, and could feel air flowing through,” Red explained.
“Wa-al, if’n you wanna call that a cave, then I’m as skinny as a beanpole!” snorted Chow. “No way in Texas I’m gonna be able to squeeze my borderline through that dinky hole.”
“But it looks as though we can widen it,” said Tom. “Let’s see!”
“Guess we don’t have much else t’do,” Chow admitted.
As it turned out, the rocks around the opening were loosely packed and easy to pry apart. One by one the men scrambled through the widened opening, which proved to be the mouth of a narrow cave. “This is definitely artificial,” Tom declared with growing excitement. “And feel that breeze—fresh air!”
“It might be an abandoned access tunnel dug by the original builders of the city,” suggested Ed. “In which case it may lead us right out to the open!”
The troop worked their way along the tunnel single-file, guiding the helpless Bud and assisting Slim, who was still weak and dizzy.
“Man, this is as long as a New York subway!” complained Hank Sterling. “We can’t be under the volcano anymore.”
“But we haven’t hit daylight either,” grumbled Gil Muir.
In a few more minutes, Tom whistled softly, halting those following him. “Careful—light ahead.” Moving with great caution, they emerged one by one into a dim light. “Aw, no!” groaned Red. “It’s another cavern!”
But Tom Swift’s eyes sparkled as he took in the scene. “Not just another cavern!” he exclaimed in a hushed voice. “It’s a miracle—and maybe a way out!”
ELECTRICITY OF THE GODS!
TOM’S HOPEFUL words surprised the men.
“Now, Boss,” said Chow scratching his bare head. “I’m all fer optimism, but I don’t exactly see much reason fer it right now.”
The cavernous hollow into which they had emerged was much smaller than the other, with high rough walls that slanted together like the inside of a cone. At the peak of the stone ceiling was a jagged, irregular gash through which the dimmed daylight of the storm region fell in a narrow beam. Most of the cavernous chamber was thick with shadow.
Hank Sterling stared up at the opening, shading his eyes with his hand. “We must be inside the other volcano,” he theorized. “That’s the lava fissure up there, but all the lava’s been dug away underneath.”
“Look down at the floor,” Tom urged, pointing. The men murmured in puzzlement.
The weak sunlight from above fell upon an open, circular pit with sides like a funnel, terraced into a series of levels. The earthen sides glimmered with every color of the rainbow!
“The rare earths quarry!” Doc Simpson exclaimed. “We’ve found it!”
Tom gave a vigorous nod. “Men, I think both these peaks aren’t real volcanoes at all! They’re cone-shaped mounds of fitted stone, like pyramids, which wind and rain and plantlife have eroded down over the centuries until they no longer appear artificial. The openings at the top may have been for ventilation and light, or to let cook-smoke escape. The opening over the hidden city has collapsed and is blocked-up, but this one is still wide open to the sky.”
“Okay, chief,” said Billy doubtfully. “But why did they do it? What’s the purpose?”
Ed Longstreet spoke up. “There are plenty of reasons to want to conceal a settlement from plain view. Safety, for one—it’s like living in a stone fortress. Furthermore, this was obviously some kind of sacred site for the ancient people. Perhaps they made pilgrimages here to worship their gods. The entire hidden city may really be one big temple, so to speak.”
“It all makes sense, I suppose,” remarked John Yarborough thoughtfully. “But what about this structure here?”
“That’s the unbelievable thing—if my theory isn’t just a lot of hot air,” declared Tom. He approached the edge of the pit, which was about one hundred feet across and forty feet deep in the center. Wrapping his shirttail around his hand for protection, he took a copper penny from deep in his pocket and reached down into the pit. A mere touch of the coin against the side sent up a shower of sparks! At another spot the young scientist-inventor cautiously gouged a small chunk out of the ground as the men watched curiously.
“This is something like mica,” said Tom musingly. “You know—the flaky substance that’s used in making electrical insulation and condensers.”
Some of the queer materials from the pit remained caked on the penny. Tom carefully rubbed the stuff between his fingers, and it flaked away at the touch.
“Do you realize what this mineral bed really is?” Tom asked. “Look at these things lying all over the place.”
“What, those big vines?” asked Sam.
“Not vines—power cables!”
“What!” cried Hank. “Are you serious?”
Tom grinned. “Dead serious!”
The others stared at the young inventor in amazement, then Red Jones pleaded, “Explain it real simple-like, so the rest of us non-geniuses can understand.”
“Sure, that’ll be easy.” Tom smiled. “Notice how this bed is made up of thousands of layers of mica with layers of that steel-like material between?”
“That steel-like material is cerium, another one of the rare earths. Cerium is used in photocells. It makes electricity! Out of the daylight that pours down through the opening above—which was much stronger before the storm got in the way—the veins of rare earths create a voltage potential that can be tapped by linking them through conducting materials like copper, silver, or even iron.”
Ed gaped. “You’re implying that this civilization achieved a highly advanced level of scientific know-how thousands of years ago!”
“That’s a lot to get for one copper penny, Skipper,” joked Arv Hanson skeptically.
Tom responded with a shrug. “You all know that rare earths have unusual electrical and magnetic properties. At Enterprises we experimented with certain rare earths alloys in developing the solar batteries, but the expense of acquiring the materials in quantity was prohibitive. Now what I think,” the young inventor continued, “is that these ancient people—probably just their priestly class or artisans—discovered that if separated veins of the rare earths were connected by long strips of metal and exposed to sunlight, a magical force was created. We call it electricity!”
Chow’s jaw had long since dropped wide open. “You tryin’ to tell me these stone-age folks had electric power?”
Tom laughed. “Not as we understand it. They didn’t have electric motors or lights. But one of the things about that hidden city that amazed me was the way rare earths alloys had been incorporated right into the walls and pavement, layered on like a metallic paint that didn’t peel off. Now I know how they did it!”
Hank interrupted Tom with a shout. “Sure!—electroplating!”
“Right—somehow they discovered the basic technique and learned how to use it. And this chamber was their power station—a giant natural solar battery!”
The men broke into an excited babble at Tom’s astounding theory.
“Say,” Arv Hanson broke in, “maybe those guys were even more advanced than we thought. Aren’t those radar dishes up around the opening?”
Looking up again, Tom and the others noticed for the first time a number of circular, dish-shaped reflectors just beneath the lip of the fissure, somewhat hidden in shadow. Tom frowned. “Nothing ancient about that. I’ll bet it has to do with Strang’s and Bartholdis’s storm-making machine!”
They could now make out power lines looping down the inside of the cavern walls. Following the wires, Tom soon discovered a large, dial-studded metal cabinet concealed in a recess in one wall.
“What’s that, the control mechanism?” inquired Ed.
Tom pressed an ear to the metal casing. “An electrical hum—it’s probably some kind of polymodal-wave oscillator. No sign of a dynamo, so it must run off batteries.” Tom tried to pry open an access panel, but the metal chassis resisted his efforts. “Too bad—I’d like to see how it’s set up.”
“Well, I’ve had about enough of that storm!” grated Slim Davis, who seemed to have recovered rapidly. With a fierce expression Slim strode up to the cabinet and took hold of a handful of the power leads to yank them loose from the antennas above. But Tom put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Not yet!” he warned. “If we shut off the storm, our enemies will realize where we’ve got to. We need to do some planning first.”
Slim nodded. “You’re right, Skipper.”
They began a hasty exploration of the chamber, and soon discovered a portal that undoubtedly led to the outside, as Tom had foreseen. But it was covered by a metal door, securely locked from the other side.
Doc snorted. “We won’t be getting out that way!”
Chow arched his back and gazed far up at the opening, through which the black swirling clouds could be seen. “Mebbe we kin use them wires like climbin’ ropes, an’― ”
“They’d just pull loose,” Tom observed. “Besides, I have another possibility—in my pocket!”
The young inventor unzipped his pants pocket and drew forth a small rectangular object, holding it up for all to see.
“Tom!” exclaimed Gil in surprise. “The remote for the cycloplane! You mean you’ve had it all along?”
The youth gave a happy nod in reply. “Sure did. After the sabotage of the SwiftStorm—which I imagine was the work of Strang—I thought it would be best to take the control box with me.”
Tom briefly explained the purpose of the device, and Chow broke into a Texas cheer. “Yahoo! Then you kin have that there cycle-plane fly down through the hole and pick us up!”
“That’s the general idea,” Tom confirmed. “I’m pretty sure we’re still within range.”
Tom activated the box and made several attempts to transmit instructions to the cybertron. Each time a small red light flashed on.
“Somethin’ wrong?” asked Chow worriedly. “Got a loose wire?”
“No,” Tom replied. “But I’m not getting any signal back from the plane—no ‘handshake,’ as they call it.”
Ed asked if the plane were too far away after all. “It’s not that,” Tom replied. “I think the thick stone around us, and maybe the presence of the rare earths ore, is weakening the signal. I wonder if I could boost the power a bit…” He opened the back of the box and made various adjustments. Nothing worked.
Tom frowned musingly, deep in thought. Sudden his face lit up. “Good night, what a dope I am! We have all the power we need down here!”
“You mean from the oscillator?” asked Hank. “I thought you couldn’t break open the casing.”
“Naw, boys, don’t ya get it?” Chow grinned. “Tom’s gonna plug into that there dirt battery!”
Once more the men were amazed at this bold idea. “Do you really think you can do it, Tom?” Red Jones asked.
“Why not?” was Tom’s answer. “We may have to stir the deposits up a little to deal with surface oxidation, but I’d guess even a small section of the quarry will still generate significant voltage, enough to push the signal over the threshold.”
Tom and the men set to work immediately, scooping the oxidized crust off the rare earths deposits by shirttail-insulated hand. Tom was able to make tentative but reasonable guesses as to the composition of several of the bright-hued veins.
Accepting the risk, Tom had the men pull down a couple of the power leads from their antennas, as the ancient cables had long since corroded into uselessness. After pulling out a few thin wires from within Strang’s cables, which would be used to make the final connection to the remote control, the cable insulation was scraped away at several points by vigorous rubbing against the sharp edges of cut stones.
Finally Tom lay the cables across the rare earths veins, burying the uninsulated segments to make a solid contact. Bursts of spark were a sure sign that the project was on the right track. The “battery” was far from dead! Making the final connections, he grinned at the crowd around him. “Cross your fingers, guys!”
Chow retorted, “Me, I’m crossin’ every blame thing I got!”
With a gulp and a silent prayer, Tom thumbed the button on the unit, which now rested flat on the rocky floor.
The light flashed red—failure! But Tom held up a warning hand and carefully rechecked all the connections as the men waited breathlessly.
He tried again.
“Green!” he sang out happily. “The cybertron got the signal!” The men roared their relief and excitement.
As the cheering faded out, Ed asked his cousin how Tom would be able to maneuver the cycloplane without being able to see what it was doing.
“It’ll be chancy,” Tom admitted. “I’m basically having the SwiftStorm ascend to a thousand feet, then circle around trying to home in on the signal, which will be strongest over the opening. Then she’ll be in view, and I’ll guide her down visually.”
Tense waiting followed. With its noise-suppressing configuration and frictionless drive motors, the slight hum of the cycloplane could not be heard above the rumble from the storm.
“You’re not using the jets?” asked John Yarborough.
“She’d overshoot,” replied Tom. “But I can make her creep along slowly by slightly tweaking the axis of the cyclocyls.”
Minutes later a shout from Sam Barker electrified the group. “I saw a shadow move across the rocks up there!”
“There she is!” cried Chow, as the SwiftStorm glided into view like a modern magic carpet.
“Okay,” murmured Tom. “Now let’s see if I can get her down through that gap without a smashup.”
It was a delicate, nervewracking endeavor. The cycloplane barely fit through the fissure—no standard aircraft, such as a helicopter, could have made it. But Tom patiently guided his invention in for a smooth, soft landing as his loyal team watched in breathless silence—all but Bud Barclay, who slumped on the cavern floor, eyes lowered, inert, his black hair falling across his forehead. For once an impressive on-the-dime landing didn’t give Bud his “nine cents change.”
“She’s down,” said Billy. “Who goes first?”
“I’ll take five of you on the first run,” Tom decided. “A total of six is pretty much the limit, and until I can make repairs the lift system is only stable at low power. But nobody should be envious—the first of us may have to fight!” After some thought he announced that he would take Hank, Gil Muir, Red Jones, Doc Simpson—and Bud.
“Why Bud?” demanded Sam. His tone was polite, but challenging. “I know he’s your pal, but he can’t help you in a fight out there.”
Tom looked at Barker coolly. “Bud’s the worst off here, and he’s depending on us. I want to get him to a safer spot as quickly as possible—I don’t have to tell you that we could be cornered in this cavern.” He sucked in his breath and added, “I’m sorry if you disagree, Sam.”
Sam shook his head. “I don’t, boss. Just needed to hear you say it.”
Tom pulled Bud into the cockpit, and the others clambered aboard. The viewpane and opaque ceiling panel slid shut and locked. The young inventor activated the cyclocyls, and gave a nod to the men outside.
The lift-drums whirled silently, and the SwiftStorm lifted off toward whatever dangers waited outside.
THE CYCLOPLANE rose through the mouth of the faux volcano easily, as Tom had now been able to give the cybertron detailed instructions on avoiding the rocks.
But real peril lay ahead. With the i-guns dead, they had no weapons, nor any means of protecting themselves from Strang’s stun device. Only one thing’s on our side, Tom said to himself. Strang and Bartholdis may not yet realize that we’ve escaped our prison.
Doc and Red boggled at the noiseless arc of Tom’s invention through the sky. “If you plan to sell these things, chief, put me on the list!” Red exclaimed in appreciation.
“Just keep your eyes open,” was Tom’s brusque reply. He glanced sideways at Bud, who returned the gaze but showed no recognition of his closest friend.
Avoiding the buffeting, roaring winds that whipped between the two peaks, Tom followed a circuitous route, skimming the treetops for miles, then finally doubling back on the other side of the low, jungle-choked mesa upon which the village had been built. The SwiftStorm managed to surmount a barrier ridge with difficulty, battling the forces of howling nature for every inch, but at last the cycloplane was hovering peacefully over the village of huts between the peaks.
Suddenly Hank Sterling called out a warning. The fierce-painted band of jungle warriors had appeared in a cleared area, brandishing spears and slings. At the rear of the column were two white men with weapons of their own—Bartholdis with his machine gun, and Strang with his wave-beamer.
“They haven’t seen us yet,” whispered Gil. “But they’re sure to look up!”
Tom moved to give the SwiftStorm some altitude, but before he could touch the controls he glimpsed Strang, looking skyward with the snarl of a cat, raising and aiming his device.
And they had no defense.
Thoughts tumbled through Tom Swift’s fertile mind—his shop apron catching fire, the roar of the Drumhawk prototype in the hangar, the screech the prototype had made when its vibrations had fallen out of synch at Rickman Dunes.
“You mean this little gadget can rev up a big enough storm to fly your new cyclone-plane?”
“An ultrasonic storm, Bud. You can’t see it or hear it, but it packs a terrific wallop!”
There was no time to warn anyone in the cockpit of what was about to happen. As if acting with a mind all its own, Tom’s hand darted forward and twisted a dial, turning the pointer into a zone marked in red.
Even inside the sealed cockpit, the sound of the suddenly out-of-synch ultrasonic generators was as wince-inducing as fingernails across a chalkboard. But below on the ground, focused and concentrated by the concave underside of the cycloplane’s fuselage, it was like the blast of a hundred sonic booms at once—and it didn’t stop.
Faces contorted in pain, Bartholdis and Strang staggered back, their weapons fumbling to the ground. They tried to flee, but stumbled and fell writhing. Even the stoic warriors were unable to withstand the sonic onslaught. They looked about in confusion and covered their ears.
Powered by sheer rage, Strang made a determined crawl to where his stun-beamer lay. He rose to his knees and seemed about to discharge the weapon. But Tom had seen his efforts. He sent the cycloplane swooping downward like a hawk, a maneuver which brought the battering ultrasonic waves closer to the enemy. Strang tumbled backward with an unheard yelp, dropping his device. Leaning over, the young inventor made hand-motions through the curving viewpane, the meaning of which was perfectly clear: Fall back and raise your hands!
Strang and Bartholdis complied.
Tom re-tuned the generators. As they fell silent, he guided the craft in for a landing in front of the two sullen white men.
“Hank, Gil, Red—tie ’em up before they forget what they’ve just been through and decide to test us! There’s rope behind you in the locker.” His eyes fixed on his enemies, Tom sat with his hand poised over the control panel—an obvious threat that the sound barrage would be resumed if the two proved less than cooperative.
“What about those tribesmen?” whispered Doc.
Tom shrugged helplessly. “If they’re still dazed, they may just stand and watch as they did before—I hope.” When the two men had been securely bound, Tom warily exited the cycloplane, and he and Doc helped Bud down to the ground.
Realizing he was in Tom’s power, the sandy-haired leader glared at his captors. About fifty years of age, he had almost colorless eyes that gave him a sinister reptilian look.
“What’s the meaning of this outrage?” he hissed, as Tom recovered the electric shock weapon and began to examine it curiously. “Do you think you can get away with this highhanded― ”
“We’ll ask the questions,” Tom interrupted coolly with barely a glance. “I know who your partner is. Suppose you tell us your own name.”
“I’m Julian Strang of Seattle, if it’s any of your business,” the man retorted—though with a few more words in-between. “This man is my business partner Mr. Bartholdis, a citizen of Holland. You are illegally interfering with a very important economic development project, Swift!”
“Glad you know my name,” Tom responded with a too-polite smile. “Now,” he went on, “suppose you tell us skeptics just what kind of project you’re engaged in here.”
“We’re engineers,” Strang snarled. “Beyond that, we don’t have to account to you for anything!”
“Engineers, eh?” Doc Simpson put in dryly. “What sort of engineering involves making slaves of the tribe and hauling away all those ancient statues and art objects?”
“We wanted to assay their metal content, that’s all,” Strang said. “Any crime in that?”
“That’s for the Papua New Guinea government to decide,” was Tom’s reply. “Something tells me slavery, imprisonment, torture, theft, and probably murder and bribery, won’t do much to enhance your business prospectus, Mr. Strang. Then again, I’m not a businessman,” he added.
“You’re raving!” Strang practically spat out the words. “Look at those villagers over there—do they look like they’re trying to get away? They’ve been cooperating voluntarily with our scientific investigation of this ancient site!”
Red Jones snorted. “As soon as they come out of that trance your machine put them in, I’m sure they’d like to express their point of view. Maybe we should leave you two alone with them in one of the caves!”
Strang paled, but Bartholdis burst out laughing. “Ah, very good! Alas, Julian, your usual bluster seems not to impress our gallant captors, eh? Let us concede that this chapter is ended. But perhaps there will be another,” the Dutchman concluded cryptically.
A faint, croaking voice from behind suddenly broke the ensuing silence. “T-Tom!”
The young inventor whirled.
George Hedron stood arrogantly poised on the slope of the mountain a few score feet distant. He held a rifle in his hand, aimed directly at Tom Swift.
Acting on impulse, Tom raised the stun-beamer in his hand, aimed at Hedron, and pulled the trigger-switch! Instantly Hedron jerked backward, his rifle twisting from his hand and clattering down the rocks, out of reach.
The zoologist straightened up, glanced down at the rifle, then at Tom. “Hey, Tom, what’s up? Did you think I was aiming at you? I just now found that rifle in― ”
But Tom was already in furious motion. Legs pounding like pistons, he scrambled up the rocky slope with knotted fists as Hedron drew back.
“Okay, now, Tom—?”
The young inventor rammed an uppercut to Hedron’s chin! The zoologist thrashed backwards—then savagely returned the blow, and the fight was on! With a strange hyena-like cry, the older man bore down on the young inventor. But Tom agilely ducked his whirling fists and drove a stiff punch to the man’s midriff.
“Ooof!” the zoologist grunted, doubling forward in agony.
As his head came down, Tom’s right hand came up in a roundhouse blow that jarred him to his heels. With a groan, Hedron went down like a collapsing skyscraper and lay panting on the rocks.
In a few minutes Hedron had joined his cronies, the fight knocked out of him. The three criminals lay propped in a row against the side of a hut, securely trussed and glaring sullenly at their captors as Doc Simpson tended to their various bruises—and none too gently.
But Tom had paid no attention to this—he had rushed to Bud’s side. “Flyboy—you spoke! You warned me—didn’t you?”
As if with a great effort, the dark-haired young pilot nodded. There were tears in his eyes—and Tom’s. “He’s coming out of it!” Tom called to the others joyously.
Bud muttered Tom’s name softly—and broke into a weak grin. Tom hugged his pal warmly, and could feel the hug returned.
A great deal then happened in a brief span of time. A key found on Strang opened the outer door to the chamber of the quarry, releasing Chow, Arv, and all the others. Tom then allowed Slim Davis to have his way with Strang’s infernal storm-making machine. In minutes the power leads to its antennas lay about the floor like dead snakes.
As Tom and Slim left the cavern, Slim pointed upward happily. “Here comes the sun!” For the first time in weeks—perhaps much longer—the deadly tempest was dissipated with the winds!
“I still want to study that machine,” Tom remarked. “I suspect it uses some sort of microwave-induced ionizing effect to constantly pump new energy into an existing weather system.”
In the village, Tom questioned the prisoners. Strang wouldn’t talk, and Hedron, face swollen like a balloon, couldn’t. But Bartholdis proved perfectly willing to chat.
“It seems I’m to tell my story after all, eh? Ah well. It’s quite straightforward. My dear friend Julian is a doctor with a bent for electronics, the inventor of a number of medical devices for which he remains, sadly, unacclaimed. Not content to hide his light under a bushel, he made a career move into the exciting and lucrative field of smuggling—with a specialization in antiquities. Thus, inevitably, he came into contact with me. A most productive partnership was the result.
“Here in this lovely country Julian came across a small statue of curious design, one that Mr. Longstreet over there will surely recognize. While finding its way to America, it was stolen; you know its fate thereafter, I think. It awaits Mr. Longstreet in the helicopter.
“Various clues and travelers’ tales led Julian and I to these central jungles in search of other such statues, which, I am given to understand, are composed of valuable materials. We traced the route of the statues to this locality, but our aerial survey came to a bad end. Our helicopter wrecked, the kindly people of this isolated village, who term themselves the Iwooro, cared for us. But as they say, ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ Julian had invented his shock-emitting weapon—which reminds me, you must remove the safety catch before trying to fire it, Tom; otherwise it serves only to frighten fools like George here. Anyway: the Iwooro had no defense against it. Slings against science! In no time we had compelled them to reveal the secret quarry and the hidden temple-city of their remote ancestors.
“To remain undisturbed by the authorities in our work of pillage, we undertook various security measures, including the installation of Julian’s storm-amplifying machine—I confess I have no idea how it works.”
Tom interrupted. “It must require a great deal of power. What is its source of energy?”
Strang barked out a laugh and made his only contribution. “Swift Enterprises Solar Batteries!—twelve of them.”
Bartholdis smiled. “Irony, eh? Now, there is little more to tell. You know of my recovery of our little lost god. My actions led to my downfall.”
Tom and his friends were disgusted at the callousness of the man. He turned to the third bound figure. “How about you, Hedron? Were you planted at that art institute for some reason?”
Hedron winced, forcing open his swollen lips. “When will you learn to trust, Tom Swift? I was there as a legitimate teacher, and became acquainted with Miss Prandit by sheer happenstance, not criminal design. Even when your lovely friend rejected my well-meant advances, I didn’t hold a grudge against you, Tom. I didn’t hate you, though in time I did come to wish you dead. I really did volunteer because I wanted you to find your friends; the thought of doing away with you somehow during the expedition was absolutely secondary.”
“I see,” said Tom dryly.
“But you know, you made it clear from the start that you didn’t trust me,” Hedron sulked. “I could sense it, just as I could sense that Bashalli’s interest in you would become love for me as soon as I could free her from your spell, so to speak.”
“The poor man, a victim of lovesickness, eh?” put in Bartholdis. “Strang spotted him from hiding the day he did a bit of unauthorized work on your giant airplane, your Sky Queen, parked in the jungle. Strang and his boys trailed you in parallel for some time as your expedition started off on foot. I’m told that on one occasion, when George had become separated from you—I believe he had evil designs of his own—Strang chatted with him at the other end of a gun, and discovered that he would be more than willing to work with us hand in glove.”
“But I didn’t plant that skull, Tom!” Hedron exclaimed. “The Iwooro warriors did that on their own—it’s a native custom.”
“Very charming,” added Bartholdis.
“Hedron has many bigger problems than being lovesick,” Tom said. “At any rate, we’ll have the national police authorities take charge of all of you.”
Tom now turned his attention to the Iwooro warriors, who stood like statues waiting nearby. He asked Ed Longstreet to try communicating with them in a local dialect. But Ed had scarcely begun to speak when a tall, imposing figure, his chest covered in tattoos, stepped forward. “That is not necessary,” he said in cultured English. “I speak your language. I am k’hongtu, or chief, of the Iwooro. I am Ahtumik.”
Tom was pleased and amazed. “We had no idea any of you spoke English.”
“It is our custom that the one who shall become chief leave the village for a time as a young man, to learn of the world,” responded Chief Ahtumik. “I was educated in Australia.”
“I want to assure you,” said Doc Simpson, “that we will use our medical knowledge to free your warriors from the effect of the shock weapon.”
“No, you will not,” Ahtumik said. “The weapon was never used on them—only the village men that were used as slave labor. It was the threat to our wives and children that caused me to order them to assist these men. Of course, they obeyed me without question.”
Tom was puzzled. “But when you saw us sneaking up on you, in the streets of the city― ”
Ahtumik shook his head. “Did you think we would betray you to our enemies? I told these men to stand and be silent—and so they were.”
Ed asked if the Iwooro knew the origin of the hidden city. “Of course,” said the Chief. “Was it not our own ancestors who built it, many centuries ago? We have much to tell you of our history—and the judgment of the gods, which reduced our population from thousands to this handful you see. We call ourselves The Rememberers.”
“We can learn much from you,” said Tom.
“Yes,” agreed Ahtumik. “The question is—how much shall we choose to tell you?”
Tom and his expedition, and his prisoners, returned to the Sky Queen by means of the cycloplane and Strang’s hidden helicopter. After a stop in the capital of Papua New Guinea, the Flying Lab headed home to Shopton, the SwiftStorm safely housed in its aerial hangar.
A few days later, Tom came to visit Bud in Shopton Memorial Hospital, where the athletic young pilot was recovering nicely.
“Back so soon, genius boy?” Bud joked. “What is it, a new project to get me up on my feet?”
Tom laughed. He wasn’t quite ready to tell his pal that something new was indeed in the offing. It would plunge Tom into the undersea mountain mystery that would lead to an ingenious new invention—his Deep-Sea Hydrodome.
“No, flyboy, not a project. Just a little something I owe you.”
Tom counted into Bud’s outstretched hand nine copper pennies. “There, pal—the famous nine cents change. And I’d hold on to them if I were you. You never know when a penny might come in real handy!”