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
“CALLING Tom Swift!”
“Power failure in the wind tunnel!”
“Hey, the presses have stopped in the metalstamping department!”
Excited voices blared out from all corners of Swift Enterprises, many wending their way toward the telephone in Tom Swift’s private laboratory at the ultramodern four-mile-square experimental station. But the telephone bleeped and sputtered in vain. Tom was not there.
In the big assembly building known as the Barn, a lanky, blond youth with deep-set blue eyes switched off his experimental equipment as the lights above him began to flicker and fail.
Tom sighed. Then his pocket phone made a modest chirp and he fished it out of his pocket.
“For Pete’s sake, take it easy, chief!” gasped a voice at the other end of the line. “You’ve popped the main circuit breakers for the whole plant!”
“The load’s off, Art,” Tom reported, recognizing the voice of engineer Art Wiltessa. “I just stopped my experiment. My apologies to everyone.”
The young inventor clicked off and stood for a moment balefully regarding the odd-looking clump of machinery that silently awaited his next electronic order. Almost hidden behind a dense spiderweb of power-feed cables, the device consisted of a wide, low circular casing with a round depression in the center of its topside, causing it to resemble a rather puffy metal doughnut with a very stunted hole. Above it rose a series of thick disks, one above the other, in a spreading conelike array, the narrow neck of which dipped down into the center of the “doughnut” and touched it at a fine point.
“No use, Matty,” murmured Tom. “You’ve got just too much appetite.”
“Wa-aal, anybody with an appetite around here better think about losin’ it!” twanged a gravelly voice, none too pleased. “Brand my buckshot, Tom Swift, give folks a warning if you plan blowin’ all the ee-lec-tricity on this here spread!”
Tom’s frustrated frown switched to a broad smile as a chunky, bowlegged, weather-beaten figure came stomping into the big, hangarlike space. Wearing a white chef’s hat and highheeled cowboy boots, Chow Winkler, the Enterprises cook for its executive staff, was pushing a lunch cart in front of his ample midriff.
“Sounds as though you’ve had some trouble, Chow,” Tom said sympathetically.
“Trouble? Pardner, I’d call it real misery! And all on account o’ your experimentin’. My mixer went dead jest when I ’as beatin’ up some lemon meringey. My fancy-pants electronic range is as stone-dead as Jesse James. An’ there I was with two dozen half-baked pie shells—not t’mention lunch!”
Chow grunted with disgust as he served Tom the food off the cart. “So there’s your lunch, wrangler— cold beans an’ applesauce.”
“Looks good to me,” said Tom with a sheepish expression. To emphasize it, he piled into the food hungrily.
“It better be, son, ’cause that’s all I got to offer. Jest lucky you didn’t electrocute yourself into the bargain, messin’ around with all them volts an’ killywatts!” But after a brief pause, the cook’s broad brow began to furrow with concern. “Y’know, boss, I kin prob’ly rustle up somethin’ better right quick. You young fellers need your vitamins and energy.”
Tom chuckled silently. He knew that under the old Westerner’s leathery hide beat a heart as warm as Texas sunshine. Chow Winkler had been a ranch cook with a modern-day chuck wagon when he met Tom and his father Damon Swift during the course of a project in the New Mexico desert. He had become so fond of Tom that he agreed to go back to Shopton with them and take on the job of chef for the Swifts at Enterprises. When Tom went on expeditions, he usually accompanied him as cook, confidant, and friend. More than once his dedication and shrewd, seasoned insight had proven invaluable.
“This lunch suits me fine, Chow,” Tom reassured him. “I’m sorry about the troubles my tests caused you. And speaking of energy, that’s the problem in a nutshell. Matty here—that’s my new matter-making machine—needs a lot more of it than we can handle.”
“More’n this whole place kin handle, sounds like,” observed the former Texan, casting a suspicious eye at Tom’s equipment. “Matter-makin’ machine, huh? More like a nerve-wrackin’ machine!”
Tom gave a rueful laugh. “Matty’s been messin’ with my nerves too, pard—ever since we got back to Earth!”
Only weeks had elapsed since Tom, Chow, and a large crew had returned from their epic voyage to the moon aboard the newest Swift spacecraft, the colossal Challenger. True to form, the youthful scientist-inventor, who had already earned a name for himself in the history books that equaled that of his famous same-named great-grandfather, had plunged full speed into perfecting a bold new idea. It was his test of the key component of his invention that had confounded Enterprises’ power supply and Chow’s oven.
“Shall I explain how my boy here works, Chow? I promise I haven’t explained it to Bud yet!” Tom was teasing his friend. Chow had complained about the fact that Tom usually favored his pal Bud Barclay with an account of his work and ideas before anyone else.
Chow looked doubtful but eased down on the top of a crate, pulling off his chef’s hat. “That’d be fine, son. But make it short—none o’ that mathy-matics that’d drive a junebug crazy. I got me lunch t’ serve.”
Tom nodded affectionately. “I’ll do my best. Okay then, what we have here is a machine that makes matter.”
“Figgered that,” Chow said. “So ain’t we got enough? I got more’n enough, m’self.”
Tom chuckled. “Well, the problem is that space travelers don’t have enough of the right kind of matter—specifically air and water. On the moon, or when we’re traveling through space,” Tom continued, “we’ll be cut off from our natural sources, the supplies we take for granted here on Earth. If this machine could produce oxygen, nitrogen, water, maybe even edible rations of some kind that could be eaten in an emergency, then we could exist away from the earth as long as we wanted to stay.”
“Not sech a bad idee,” Chow commented, “ceptin’ that ‘edible rations’ part. Don’t sound like good healthy food t’ my way o’ thinking. But as fer the rest—wa-aal, I know you been talkin’ about doin’ some homesteadin’ back up on the moon.”
“That’s right,” said Tom with a grin. “Lunar colonization—a permanent scientific city—that’s the next logical step. But it won’t get started without air and water.”
The westerner frowned. “Thought you already had a machine t’ make air fer ya, boss.”
When the mysterious extraterrestrials Tom called his space friends had moved a small asteroid into permanent orbit about our world, the young inventor had led the American rocket expedition that staked claim to the phantom satellite. There on Little Luna, as it had been nicknamed, Tom had used his atmos-maker invention to create a livable environment. “Chow, the atmosphere-making machine only works if the materials in the ground include plenty of oxygen-bearing and nitrogen-bearing compounds for the smelting mechanism to release. Otherwise you’d have to use tanked gases. Unfortunately, the compounds we need are rare on the moon—and of course they don’t exist at all in space itself.”
“Made yer point,” Chow agreed. “So this here jumble o’ stuff turns out air an’ water like some kinda assembly line, is that it?”
“I wish it were that simple,” replied the young inventor. “This machine uses a complicated process, involving some cutting-edge quantum theory, to make the substances we need out of loose atoms of solar hydrogen—the ‘solar wind’ that’s always blowing out from the sun into outer space. That’s why I call it a solartron as its official name. It’s the latest in a long line of ‘trons’ that manipulate subatomic particles, such as the cyclotron, synchrotron, bevatron― ”
“Whoa now!” exclaimed Chow with a look at his watch. “Gotta get a move on—folks is waitin’ on their lunch, sech as it is.”
“But pard, I haven’t really explained how― ”
“Mebbe some other time, son.” As the cook wheeled his cart away in hasty dignity, he seemed to be muttering something under his breath. “Sike, sink, bev, quanto-squanto—brand my dictionary!”
Tom soft laughter was interrupted has his pocket phone rang again. The caller proved to be Mr. Greenup, head of the Shopton Municipal Water Company. “Tom, I just called to give you a head’s-up, as they say. Lewton Ajax is on the warpath, and you might be wise to head him off.” Ajax was the president of Brightpath Power, the power-supply corporation that supplied the town with its electricity.
“I’ve spoken to Mr. Ajax more than once,” Tom remarked. “He can get a little hot under the collar.”
“As can I,” chuckled Greenup. “But Lewton has his friends, you know. They say he’s got Dan Perkins in his corner.” Perkins, owner and editor of the Shopton Evening Bulletin, had always had a somewhat testy relationship with the town’s biggest newsmaker, Swift Enterprises.
“Dad’s not especially worried, Mr. Greenup, and neither am I,” was Tom’s reply. “The power problems have been limited to our facility out here, so far. It looks like we’ll have to go someplace else to work out the bugs anyway—Brightpath Power doesn’t seem to have enough of it!”
Herb Greenup paused. “Well, Tom… I suppose I shouldn’t tell tales out of school, but there’s something you and your father deserve to know.”
“About Mr. Ajax?”
“About his attitude toward your plant—and you. It’s fairly well known in certain circles that Lewton Ajax intends to do whatever it takes to shut down Swift Enterprises!”
TOM was aghast. “Shut us down! But why in the world would he try to do something like that?”
“Ah, well, Tom, I’m just telling you what they say,” was the cautious answer. “Ajax didn’t grow up in these parts—him and his snooty wife and those four obnoxious sons of his. They brought him in to run the company and make a good profit, and he’s one of those young fellows with big sharp teeth and very flexible morals. Unsociable type. Doesn’t care to apply to the Yachting Society, can’t be bothered with the Excelsis Club.”
“I’ve only spoken with him on the phone,” Tom remarked. “He seemed civil and rational. Does he have something against Swift Enterprises?”
Mr. Greenup snorted. “No, young fellow, what he has is something for the land Enterprises sits on—namely a great greedy desire! He’s one of the ones in favor of massive commercial development all along that side of town. Talks it up—jobs and taxes and all that.”
“But we’re the biggest employer in Shopton, and the taxes we pay― ” Tom caught himself. “Sorry, Mr. Greenup. It’s just ‘what they say.’ No need to get excited about it. Thanks for the call, though.”
But the young inventor was disturbed. He called his father in the main office and they discussed the matter for a while. Mr. Swift could shed no light on the situation—although he admitted to having heard the same rumors.
Tom finished gulping down his food, then in a moment of quick resolve picked up the phone and called Brightpath Power, asking to be put through to Mr. Ajax directly. “Hello, Tom,” the man answered, his voice rather cool. “You’ve been on my mind. I was about to give you a jingle.”
“I was calling to ask if arrangements could be made to increase the supply of power to Enterprises from the town’s generating plant,” Tom said.
“And I was calling to tell you that you’re maxing out our capacity. I don’t know what’s going on over there—something of grave worldly importance, I’m sure—but if Enterprises keeps it up our little town is going to have to ante up whatever it takes to produce more generating capacity. We’re looking at the possibility of brownouts and blackouts, Tom. Not only can’t I promise you any increase, but I’d say we’ll have to look at surcharges or serious cutbacks to keep the juice flowing.”
“This is all news to me, Mr. Ajax,” Tom replied. “We don’t mean to place that sort of burden on the town.”
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t.” Somehow Ajax sounded a bit sarcastic.
Tom began to think aloud. “With this sort of load… I suppose I should be thinking in terms of tapping the reactor at the Citadel. That’s our nuclear research facility out in― ”
Ajax interrupted brusquely. “That’s your concern, not mine. I’ll let you know if any more of these ‘issues’ arise. Have a bright and powerful day.”
Tom clicked off, deep in thought. As he turned, he suddenly realized that Bud Barclay had entered and was watching him with a half-smile.
“No luck with the electric company?” Bud asked. He began to casually unzip the flight gear shrouding his athletic form. An expert pilot, he had spent most of the morning jetting up to Bangor, Maine, and back, delivering some electronic components to an Enterprises licensee.
Tom shook his head wryly as his best friend drew closer. “Looks as though I’ll have to go out to the Citadel if I want to continue my experiments. With our new generating plant out there, I should have all the power I need. Up for a flight to New Mexico?”
“When haven’t I been up for a flight to anywhere?” laughed Bud. “By the way, why not take Ted Spring along?”
As he helped Bud out of his flight suit, Tom nodded his agreement. “Good idea, flyboy. If he’s going to accompany us on future space flights, he may as well familiarize himself with the solartron project from the ground up.”
“And,” Bud noted, “it’d make your Dad happy.”
Twenty-two years old and a longtime family friend, Ted Spring was a tall and athletic African-American with a sincere, easy-going manner and, by everyone’s estimation, a bright future ahead of him. After graduating from an aeronautical engineering school, he had taken special training at Swift Enterprises as a space pilot.
Sadly, Ted’s career had already been marked by tragedy. While Ted was still in school, his father Dakin, a crack test pilot for the Swift Construction Company, had lost his life on a test flight. Since then Mr. Swift had taken a fatherly interest in young Ted, and in his family.
Knowing that Ted would be in the huge underground hangar where Tom’s great Flying Lab the Sky Queen was berthed, Tom and Bud strolled together down the slanting access corridor and into the cavernous chamber, blocks wide and several stories high. As expected, they found the young astronaut at work in Tom’s zero-G chamber, which simulated a zero-gravity environment for training purposes.
As Ted finished his session and exited the transparent cube, he gave the boys a jaunty wave. “Hey, Tom, Bud!” he greeted them. “What’s up? Do I get my first space cruise soon?”
“I’d say you’re about ready for it.” Tom smiled warmly. “But first we’d like you to go out to the Citadel with us to work on a new project. If I get the bugs ironed out, we’ll be continuing operations in space—on the moon, eventually. Interested?”
There was a warm feeling of closeness between Tom and the young engineer-pilot. Ted’s father had been not only an old friend of the Swift family, but Ted had grown up in Shopton and he and Tom had shared many a boyish adventure, Ted acting as something of a sober-sided older brother at times.
“Gowanda! You can bet I’m interested in anything that’ll get me up and off the earth!” exclaimed Ted. “So what’s the deal, exactly?”
“I’m trying to develop a machine which will convert free hydrogen atoms into other kinds of matter,” Tom explained. “Other elements and isotopes, for use on space trips. My test rig here looks promising, but I’ll need a tremendous amount of energy to perfect the real model, and it looks like I’m about to burn out the Enterprises power grid like an old lightbulb. That’s why it’s necessary to continue my experiments at the Citadel.” He added that because Ted had a solid engineering background in addition to his astronaut training, he would be the ideal candidate to act as Tom’s assistant as the project moved on into its off-Earth phase. “But you’ll need to get to know the ins and outs of the solartron first—not just the test model, but the full space version I’ll be constructing.”
Quickly Tom explained the principle of his new invention as Bud looked on with an interested smile. Walking over to his lab annex adjoining the hangar, Tom showed Ted the blueprints for the first working model. The young man was greatly impressed. He threw an arm around Tom’s shoulder. “T-man, I’d say this is the most advanced experiment ever undertaken by anyone since the development of atomic energy. If your project is successful, it’ll be a milestone in science! Einstein, watch out!”
Tom flushed with pride as Bud added, “No ‘if’s.’ Whatever dictionary genius boy uses, they left the word failure clean out of it.”
They decided to leave for New Mexico the following morning, giving an Enterprises work crew sufficient time to load the solartron apparatus into the Sky Queen’s ample hold. “But let’s talk more about it this evening, Ted,” said Tom. “Will you join us at dinner? Don’t need to ask you, Bud.”
“Guess I’m almost always there anyway,” Bud laughed. “But I never eat more than my share—half of everything, plus a little extra for good manners.”
“I’ll be there with pleasure, Sir Boss!” Ted agreed, nodding eagerly. Mrs. Swift’s hospitality and delicious cooking had been a regular part of Ted’s growing-up, and Bud’s joviality and Tom’s blond, vivacious younger sister, Sandra, provided an extra reason for looking forward to the evening.
As expected, the dinner of flame-broiled Mongolian chicken and oven-hot mince pie was delicious. As Bud and Sandy, next to each other at the table, joked and chatted, Mrs. Swift turned to Ted. A petite, attractive woman, Tom’s mother avoided the public attention focused on her famous husband and son and devoted her time to homemaking and entertaining the many visitors to the Swift home, as well as keeping abreast of the latest developments in her field of interest, molecular biochemistry.
“How’s your mother, Ted?” Anne Swift asked solicitously. “You know she’s always welcome here.”
“Fine, thank you,” Ted replied. Suddenly a worried look shadowed his face. “That reminds me. I had an odd experience the other day.”
‘‘What was it?’’ Tom’s father asked.
Ted said he was embarrassed to mention it but thought the Swifts should know about it. “A man named Hampshire phoned me at home—my day off. He said he was a ‘public-interest’ lawyer, whatever that means, and claimed he could get a lot more money for Mother and me in connection with my father’s accident.
“You understand,” Ted went on, “that we are well satisfied with everything as it is. You folks have treated my mother very generously, and we don’t have any issues with the final settlement. But I felt I’d better tell you what Mr. Hampshire said.”
“You’re absolutely right, Ted. I’m glad you mentioned it,” Mr. Swift replied. “What else did this fellow Hampshire say?”
Ted frowned. “That’s the funny part of it. He said he wanted no fee for handling the case, just some information in return having to do with the case itself. He sounded kind of off, you know? Seemed to be trying to hint at things that he wouldn’t come right out and say. Of course we’re not interested, so I put him off. But since then I’ve been worried that he might be up to something underhanded.”
“It sounds pretty suspicious!” Bud said.
“Oh, Bud, he’s a lawyer—they’re paid to sound like that,” retorted Sandy. “They learn it in law school.”
“I think we should check on him,” Tom said firmly.
Mr. Swift gave a grave nod with a glance at his wife. “Why not call Harlan and see if he can trace this Mr. Hampshire?”
“Right, Dad. He doesn’t mind being called at home.”
Tom made the call after dinner. Harlan Ames, the chief of Enterprises’ security department, promised to follow up on the matter at once. “I’ll have an answer for you by the time you get back from the Citadel. But I wouldn’t let this worry you. Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits are part of the cost of doing business. Our legal department can handle anything that comes up—if it isn’t just bogus from the word go.”
Tom relayed the information to the others, and the whole matter ended up in what Bud called a group shrug.
The next morning, the sleek, wingless Sky Queen was raised to ground level on its elevator platform and readied for take-off, a small crew aboard that included, besides Bud and Ted, Chow Winkler, who had many old friends in New Mexico. In the hangar-hold on the lowest of the skyship’s three decks, Tom checked off the various pieces of equipment that had been loaded aboard and secured. Included among these were all the parts for this first working model of his matter maker.
Bud, standing nearby, whistled. “Wowie! Those electric transformers are real giants!” The copilot pointed to several huge transformers, black “pots” encased in multilayered insulating material.
Tom smiled. “Yep. They’ll be essential for my experiments at the Citadel. No plain, ordinary electricity for me and Matty, flyboy!”
At last, with cargo and crewmen aboard, Tom took his place at the controls. Bud occupied the copilot’s seat, while Ted Spring also joined them in the flight compartment. At a signal from the tower, Tom opened the jet lifter throttle and the ship roared vertically into the morning air. Soon they were streaking westward above the clouds.
Bud grinned with sheer enjoyment. “Space flight or air flight—it’s sure a thrill.”
“Man, you know it!” Ted agreed.
In a supersonic handful of hours, they were passing over the rugged badlands and desert country which had been chosen as the site for the great atomic research center. Canyons and mesas slashed in rainbow colors by the forces of erosion marked the approach to the Citadel. Then the terrain flattened out into barren scrubland which stretched away for miles toward the horizon.
“What a layout!” Ted gasped, as Tom lost altitude on the final approach to the Citadel. “It’s as big as Enterprises!”
A vast surface had been smoothed for the atomic plant. A cluster of ultramodern laboratory buildings and dormitories were arranged in pinwheel formation around a massive central structure of white concrete block. The whole installation was ringed with barbed wire and laser sensors, and accessed by a single desert road. Except for a few Indian pueblos in the distance, no other human habitations were visible.
“That white dome in the center is the reactor,” Tom explained. “This afternoon, Ted, I’ll arrange to have someone show you around.”
The Flying Lab sank down for a perfect landing at the Swift Enterprises Nuclear Research Facility. A federally secured site, the Citadel was protected by elaborate security measures, including the system of constantly circling drone microjets designed by Tom. The many miles of open desert in all directions provided additional safety from prying—or spying—eyes.
As the crew debarked from the Sky Queen, Bud asked, “What now, Skipper?”
“Lunch,” Tom decided. “Then to work.”
“Gonna skip out on lunch this time,” said Chow, squinting and grinning into the sun like it was home sweet home. “Think I’ll check out a car and go pay a visit to a friend er two over in town.” The small town of Tenderly, miles distant, was the nearest settlement.
By the time the boys had finished eating, the heavy transformers and other equipment had been unloaded from the ship and trucked to Tom’s one-story laboratory setup. A crew of company linemen were stringing arm-thick power lines, resembling flexible metal hoses, from the powerhouse as the young inventor and his friends pulled up in their midget nanocar.
“Where do you want the pots hung, Mr. Swift?” the foreman called down, jerking his thumb toward the transformers.
“Mount them on the roof,” Tom called back. “I’ll take over from there.’
“You’ll have a regular substation here, T-man,” Ted commented. “What’s the setup?”
“Those high-tension powertubes will bring in 10,000 volts from the powerhouse,” Tom explained, “and the transformers will step that down to 480. You see, my work will require low voltage, but very high amperage.” Tom explained that the powertubes were not ordinary cables, but microwave conduits of unique design. “We’re sending the energy from place to place by shielded electromagnetic pulse.”
“Don’t try sticking your hand in the pipe,” Bud warned in a mock whisper. “But if you do, be sure to count your fingers afterwards!”
While the linemen were busy erecting the transformers, Tom went into the laboratory and began setting up his matter-making machine, the same preliminary model he had been experimenting with at Enterprises. Bud and Ted watched, fascinated, as the young inventor worked dexterously, several Citadel technicians at his side. “Let me see,” Tom muttered. “Magnelectric focus—okay. Castings—check.” He turned and glanced at his blueprints. “Vacuum system—then the flux modulators ...”
The watchers gaped in awe as the machine gradually took shape. “How does he do it?” Ted muttered to Bud, who could only shrug happily, proud of his chum.
“All I know is, Tom’s going to burn out my brain long before he burns out the Citadel’s power plant!”
“Take a rest, flyboy—you’ve been overdoing it,” Tom said with joking, but real, sympathy. “Why not take Ted on that sight-seeing tour of the Citadel while I finish setting this up? I have to make a few preliminary tests.”
“Sure. Explaining an atomic reactor should be simple after this.” Bud grinned. “Come on, Ted, let’s leave our genius to his jigsaw puzzle.”
The space cadet laughed. “Okay. See you later, Tom.”
Within an hour after his two companions had left, Tom had his new invention completely assembled. Then he drove over to the metalworking shop and forged a set of thick copper bars to carry the current from the transformers on the roof down to his solartron. These, however, proved to be so heavy and unwieldy that he discarded them and constructed new ones of aluminum.
“Holy Pete, that’s nice work, Skipper,” said Chuck Thornton, one of the technicians helping Tom, as he examined the results admiringly.
Tom nodded. “These aluminum ones are a lot lighter than copper and will handle the current just as well. You fellows can go now—I shouldn’t be needing any more help.”
After the others left, Tom installed the bars and soon was ready to make the first test run of his matter maker at something close to full power. “Here goes,” he told himself tensely.
Opening the main power junction, Tom adjusted several control knobs, keen eyes glued to the wavering light patterns on an oscilloscope screen. Then he watched the monitor dials with bated breath as the solid concrete building throbbed with the eerie resonant hum of the tremendous current flowing through the transformers.
Minutes passed unnoticed. So intent was Tom on his experiment that he failed to notice that the aluminum bars above him were becoming red-hot. As the bars began to succumb to the intense heat developed by the current load, there was a sudden shower of sizzling metal!
“Good night! The circuit’s overloaded!” Tom cried out as he fell back, shielding his eyes. Fortunately he was wearing a lab coat of protective Tomasite-asbestalon fabric. But he was cornered by the white-hot shower of metal droplets. To turn off the main switch, he would have to stretch his bare hand straight through the barrage of sparks and molten metal!
He tried wrapping his right hand in the tail of his lab coat, but the bulk made it impossible for him to feel or grasp the control switch. Scratch the easy way out! he murmured to himself bitterly.
Glancing up, he saw that the sparking portion of the bars was slowly spreading along the length of the aluminum. In moments it would be directly over his head!
TOM faced the fact that there was no solution but to reach directly through the curtain of searing sparks, unprotected. Gritting his teeth, muscles tensed to the limit in fearful anticipation, he thrust his arm forward, crying out involuntarily. “I—I can’t reach it!” Tom gasped as he groped vainly for the switch. The white-hot spume of metal was already blackening the fabric of his sleeves, and the exposed portions of his skin stung with agonizing pain!
“Help!” Tom yelled in frantic desperation. He felt unconsciousness drawing near. If he collapsed under the rain of sparks, it would be the end of him!
“Tom!” a horrified voice cried out from the lab doorway. Tom recognized it as Chuck Thornton’s, even though he was too blinded by the sparks to see him. “How can I get you out?” Chuck called frantically.
Tom’s heart gave a leap. “There’s a big slab of carbon to the right of the door,” he shouted, trying not to yield to panic. “Maybe you can use it as a shield!”
The slab was two yards long and nearly four feet wide. Grabbing it up on his palms and balancing it over his head, Chuck hunched down and dashed toward the young inventor. The intense heat was like a miniature inferno, with molten aluminum sparks shooting like blazing comets in every direction. Chuck managed to insert the carbon slab between Tom and the conductors. In a moment the young inventor had squirmed out of his deadly predicament.
Waving Chuck back to a position of safety, Tom approached the test setup from the opposite side and managed to switch off the power.
He leaned against a bench. “Th-thanks for saving me,” he gasped, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. The lab seemed to spin around him in a haze of pain.
“Tom, I’m taking you to the hospital right away!” Chuck announced.
He said nothing about his young employer’s scorched hair and blistered skin. But he was worried that Tom would be badly scarred and hospitalized for weeks or months.
“Don’t look so grim! I’ve been burned worse than this playing with other inventions,” Tom said, his voice fading in and out. Chuck forced a smile as he helped Tom outside and into a nanocar. He realized that Tom needed to keep his thoughts away from his injuries—and was possibly on the verge of lapsing into delirium. “Then it’s high time you stopped trying to blow yourself up,” Chuck retorted. “Don’t you guys get enough excitement rocketing through space?”
Realizing that Tom must be in severe pain in spite of his joking manner, Chuck drove to the Citadel’s infirmary at top speed. Here a doctor and her two nurses took Tom immediately into the examination room and began to salve and wrap his burns.
Bud Barclay came rushing into the infirmary, pale with fright. “Just got the word about Tom’s accident,” Bud panted. “What happened, doctor? How is he?”
Tom lay on a gurney, conscious but trembling and barely able to speak. He croaked a greeting at his best pal that was meant to be reassuring. In that, though, it was unsuccessful.
“We’re working on him,” the doctor said. “Please wait outside with Chuck Thornton.”
Bud and Chuck nervously awaited the doctor’s report. “I’m afraid it could be bad,” Chuck said numbly. “Thank God I came back to the lab to look for my keys.” He gave Bud a brief report of the accident.
Both young men were intensely relieved when the doctor appeared half an hour later and smiled. “You can relax, you boys,” she said. “I’m glad to say Tom’s burns aren’t as serious as first appeared.”
“He won’t be scarred?” Bud asked anxiously.
The doctor shook her head. “No, the burns are mostly surface—painful enough—but they should heal quickly. It’ll really put those new timed-release skin-treating bandages to good use; bet Tom’s mighty glad he invented them! He will have to stay here overnight, but I believe we can take the dressings off tomorrow.”
“Thank goodness!” Bud sighed. “May we see him?”
“This evening. Tom’s system has suffered a shock, so rest is the best treatment now.”
Bud and Chuck promised to return later. Bud proceeded to call Ted Spring in his quarters to tell him of their mutual friend’s condition. He then called Shopton and gave Tom’s family what reassurance he could. He hoped they wouldn’t notice that his voice was shaking.
Tom almost got himself killed! Bud found himself thinking over and over. And I wasn’t there to save him.
The young pilot paced about his quarters. It was mid-afternoon, the New Mexico sun was high and blazing, and it would be hours before he could visit Tom in the hospital. He knew he needed something to divert his mind.
Calling Ted Spring again, the two young men decided to drive over to the nearby pueblo community—a brief sightseeing trip. Though security personnel controlled entrance to the overall area and signs warned visitors to respect the ancient site and its artifacts, this was still a living settlement occupied by members of the local tribe, and was on land they owned.
Bud and Ted climbed the wooden branch-ladders that linked the cliffside ledges and were guided by young Indian lads through some of the dug-out habitations.
The tour ended and they were left alone in the hot, bright sun. “Say,” said Bud with a chuckle, “I thought this place was supposed to be authentic. Look at that—a satellite dish!” He nodded in the direction of a small parabolic dish slightly hidden behind a boulder jutting from the face of the ancient, eroded cliff.
Ted stared at the out-of-place object with a frown. “Shouldn’t it be pointed up at the sky?” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Bud, that antenna’s pointing toward the Citadel!”
In a flash Bud’s expression turned serious. “I think I’d like to see just what it’s connected to.”
No visible line or cable appeared to lead from the antenna. Bud and Ted concluded that any connection must pass through the sandstone and rock of the mesa itself. “Must lead into one of these cave-houses,” murmured Bud. “But which one?”
Then Ted nudged him and gave a subtle jerk of his chin. Bud looked up just in time to see a pair of eyes disappear into the shadows of a cave one tier above them as the beaded curtain covering the opening swayed from the movement behind it. Trying to appear casual the two climbed up to the ledge and slowly ambled toward the cave mouth.
Ted gave a veiled glance downward out of the corner of an eye. “One of the guards sees us,” he whispered. “I think he’s motioning to us not to go any further.”
“Well, what we don’t see or hear won’t stop us, hmm?” responded Bud with determination. “I’m going into that cave. If the guard wants to cut loose with a flaming arrow, let ’im!”
Attempting a diversion, Ted pretended to essay a shortcut down to the tier below them, scrambling and half-sliding down the cliffside instead of using the ladder. “Hey!” exclaimed an Indian woman, annoyed at the dust and fall of pebbles as she danced and swayed to the silent rhythms of her traditional CD headset. “You’re s’posed to stay where it’s marked!”
“Oh, right—sorry,” Ted apologized. “The sign said Slide Area, so I thought― ”
“Yeah, white-eyes, like I so totally believe that,” she grumped.
Meanwhile Bud had ducked through the curtain and into the dimness of the excavated pueblo dwelling. Other than a colorfully patterned woven mat on the floor and a bare hook on a wall evidently intended to hold a lantern, there were no furnishings, nor any trace of the watching occupant he had glimpsed. Alert to any sound, the dark-haired pilot quickly examined the walls. Got to be a hidden door here somewhere, he thought. The guy didn’t just evaporate!
“Mmm!” said a loud, sharp voice. “Looking for the Men’s Room?” Bud whirled. A silhouette stood in the oval of light of the cave-house door, just outside the curtain. What he held loosely in his hand looked very much like a gun!
Bud froze in place. “Sorry, pal,” he said at last. “This one off-limits?”
The man parted the hanging bead-strings, and Bud could make him out more clearly. He was a copper-hued tribesman, thirtyish, in jeans and a t-shirt that outlined broad, blocky shoulders and powerful muscles. A color-accent of platinum blond in his black hair, and a pair of fashionable tiny-lensed glasses perched atop his jutting nose, made him a strange hybrid of old and new. He waved the gun casually, loosely in Bud’s direction. “C’mon out.”
Bud exited the cave dwelling. Now he could see that the man was wearing an official site name badge that disclosed the name JEREMIAH.
Bud started to make excuses. “First time here. Is there a sign? Guess I didn’t― ”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the man pleasantly enough. “I think you did see the sign and decided to go inside anyway while your buddy out there made a little fuss. But so what? Eagle Branch Pueblo is an educational site. Maybe you’re an enthusiastic student of our old tribal culture. So what did you find in there?”
“Not much,” Bud replied. “It’s empty.”
“Which doesn’t mean n’body owns it.”
The man smiled. The smile was not warm. “I’ll show you the way to the ladder. Easy to get hurt if you’re not careful. And you don’t seem the careful type.”
Bud climbed down to rejoin Ted, and the two made their way back to the Citadel car they had taken. The uniformed guards gave them glowering looks, and a glance back showed Bud that “Jeremiah” was regarding him coolly from one of the ledges.
“What do you think’s going on, Bud?” asked Ted.
“Oh, the usual bad-guy spy-stuff, I’d guess,” replied the other with pithy sarcasm. “But I didn’t get clonked on the head this time, so I guess it’s a lovely day in the neighborhood.”
“Not for Tom,” Ted pointed out grimly.
The evening arrived as slow as a desert tortoise, but at last, after dinner, Bud and Ted, joined by a fretting and fussing Chow Winkler, were allowed to visit Tom in his room in the small facility hospital.
As the three entered the room, Tom grinned at them through his bandages. He was propped up comfortably in bed.
“What are you trying to do, Tom—masquerade as an Egyptian mummy?” Bud asked, grinning.
“The name is Tut, please,” Tom replied. “Down on your knees and knock your head three times against the floor before you address me.”
“Son, I’d shor knock my head twenty times if it’d keep you out o’ mischief!” exclaimed Chow. “Keepin’ you safe and in one piece is like tryin’ to tie down and brand a lightnin’ bolt!”
“Sounds pretty lively for a mummy,” Ted remarked to his companions.
Bud nodded, pretending to scrutinize the patient with a frowning air. “He’ll live, I guess. Once they start cracking lame jokes, it’s usually a hopeful sign... oof!”
The last remark came in a stifled grunt as Bud ducked back to avoid a well-aimed pillow!
“Just wanted to show you my reflexes are still working,” Tom chuckled. But his chuckle was weary and weak. “Now sit down, clown, and entertain me with your witty conversation.”
The four friends were soon talking and laughing about other things and for the moment Tom’s harrowing ordeal in the lab was completely forgotten. Bud narrated the story of the visit to the pueblo site. Tom suddenly looked so concerned that Bud regretted having brought it up.
“We need to have someone ask a few questions about this,” Tom declared, “and right away! We’re well protected against electronic probing—but there’s sure no good reason for somebody to go pointing an antenna our way.”
Ted inquired whether any of the work being done at the Citadel was classified, or of a confidential nature. “Strictly speaking, no,” was the reply, “at least not at the moment. But if someone’s listening in on our conversations or trying to find out the details of the solartron—which is possible—then who knows what they might resort to next.”
Chow snorted. “Brand my spyglass, boss, one o’ these days you oughta invent somethin’ nobody wants, jest to keep the spies out of it!” They all laughed—Tom with an occasional wince.
“Good thing no reporter is taking this down for ForeSite,” Bud remarked with a grin. “He’d think we came out here for a lowbrow gag session instead of a scientific project.”
“ForeSite?” Ted inquired. “What’s that?”
“A new magazine our company’s putting out,” Tom explained. “An ‘e-magazine’—a website, in other words. It’ll be mainly a technical journal, with papers contributed by our research staff and engineers, but there’ll be other features too.”
“With a real eye-catching homepage logo,” Bud boasted. “Bashalli designed it.” Bashalli Prandit was a talented sketch artist and art student enrolled at a school near Shopton, and a close friend. “Only trouble is”—he pretended to shake his head in disgust—“I’m afraid the rest of the site may spoil all the good-looking artwork.”
“How come?” asked Ted with a puzzled look.
“Oh, the technical stuff isn’t so bad, but there’s one article that’ll really make the readers turn blue. It’s chockful of Greek-letter formulas and Einstein equations by some decrepit fogy named, lemme see, Tom Swift.”
The next moment Bud ducked as Tom let fly another pillow. “Just for that I’ll make you read it!” Tom vowed.
“Then best do it right quick, afore you run out o’ pillows!” Chow recommended with a throaty western chortle.
At this point a nurse looked into the room and regarded them sternly. “Visiting time is over, you three. You’re wearing out my patient.”
“Only fair,” Bud retorted. “This jumping genius here wore out my patience years ago!”
As Chow served breakfast to Ted and Bud the next morning in the small private dining room, they were surprised and delighted as Tom came strolling in as if nothing had happened. There were still some small bandages on his forearms, face, and the back of his right hand, but he was obviously stronger and in good spirits. “Don’t worry, folks—my deep-set blue eyes made it through just fine! Seriously, they say I won’t have any scars.”
“But what caused the problem, anyway, T-man?” asked Ted.
“Power overload, and in a big way,” the young inventor explained. “One of the transformers was out of sync, but Chuck has already repaired and tested it.”
“Sounds like you’re back in business, Skipper!” Bud offered jovially.
“Sure am,” Tom confirmed. “I’m ready to pick up where I left off, with my full-power test. Come on, if you guys want to watch oxygen and history being made!”
TOM led Bud, Ted, and Chow to his laboratory, which had been cleaned up and restored to sterile normalcy by Chuck Thornton and the other technicians. The aluminum connector bars had been replaced and carefully tested, and the first-try matter maker was ready and waiting for its creator.
Chow addressed the machine suspiciously. “You in a good mood t’day, Matty-Matt?”
“Matty looks all shined up and ready for business,” Bud remarked.
“Tom, since you want me to get the hang of this invention of yours, what exactly is the basic approach?” asked Ted Spring. “Just how do you go about making matter?”
“That’s what I cain’t figger myself,” Chow declared with a scratch to his bald head. “Sounds like you’re gonna make stuff to eat out o’ ee-lec-tricity. But boss, how’m I s’posed to fry up a bunch o’ volts and the like in my fryin’ pan? Tell me that and we’ll both know!”
Tom spoke as he began switching on the various components of the solartron assembly. “Well, you remember what we discovered deep down in the ground in Antarctica, don’t you, Chow?”
The Texan nodded tentatively. He had been a part of Tom’s historic drilling operation at the South Pole, where Tom had drilled for molten iron with his atomic earth blaster. “You mean that element stuff?”
Tom looked up and nodded. “Right. We found evidence of higher-element fusion going on in the earth’s mantle, which was completely unexpected.”
“I’ll say!” muttered Ted. “I could hardly believe it when I read the news reports—and I’m an engineer, not a physicist.”
“The physicists were baffled too, believe me,” Tom said. “It was inexplicable, like something from a whole new kind of physics. Naturally it became a subject of intense investigation and debate around the world.
“The question had a practical side, too,” the young inventor continued. “It was quickly pointed out that whatever strange things were going on under the South Pole might be an important clue to cold fusion, a potential source of almost unlimited clean electrical power. We found some more clues to what was going on under Mount Goaba in Africa. There’s a relationship between the fusion phenomenon, antiproton gas, and the ‘non-matter matter’ we call Inertite.”
Ted looked thoughtful but seemed to grasp the idea. “So your solartron is sort of the next step?”
“It will be if it works,” Tom responded wryly. “That conical assemblage of disks above the main chassis acts like a series of lenses, focusing a space-wave matrix field to—well, calling it a pinpoint would be at least a trillion trillion times too large! According to our mathematical models, the effect of the field is to lower the energy gradient of the strong nuclear force, which surrounds the nucleus of the hydrogen atom like a shell, and ‘stretch’ it outward. This allows the incoming protons to overcome the repulsion of the nucleus; it amounts to low-energy proton tunneling, a phenomenon which ordinarily― ”
Tom paused, noting that Chow’s bulging eyes were beginning to assume a somewhat glazed appearance. He didn’t want to embarrass the cowpoke, but fortunately Ted rode to his rescue. “Proton tunneling—must be like electron tunneling. Particles jumping ‘over’ an energy barrier that they wouldn’t be able to penetrate head-on, right, Tom?”
“That’s the idea,” Tom confirmed. “They jump the barrier, and we trap ’em! In theory we’ll be able to take atoms of hydrogen, atomic number 1 with one proton apiece, and overlay them—I won’t say ‘fuse’—to form higher, heavier elements. The goal today is to produce atoms of oxygen, which has atomic number 8. If the solartron can do that, it should also be able to generate the lighter elements in-between like helium, nitrogen, and carbon.”
“Wa-aal now! That there weren’t s’hard,” said Chow with pride. “You jest take the raw material an’ pile it up and make stuff out of it, right, boss?”
The young inventor laughed affectionately. “Right, pard. Nothing to it!”
“What’s fantastic,” remarked Ted with awe, “is that you’ve found a way to do this at such low energy levels. In the big accelerators, you have to get the particles racing around at close to light-speed, with a huge energy cost.”
Tom shrugged. “But don’t forget—nature got there first!”
While Tom had been explaining his invention and activating it, Chuck Thornton and the other two technicians that had assisted with the solartron had quietly filed into the lab. “We saw you and figured you were about to put Matty to the test,” Chuck explained.
“Nice job you fellows did,” Tom congratulated them after again thanking Chuck for the preceding day’s rescue.
The young inventor reached for the master power switch. “Maybe we’d better stand well back—just in case,” Bud said half-jokingly.
“Suit yourself.” Tom smiled. “Here goes!” He flipped the switch, feeding power to the machine, and adjusted the control knobs.
There was a steady hum of current as the solartron throbbed with a flood of energy from the Citadel’s reactor. To everyone’s relief, the aluminum bars stood firm. Tom settled down to tending the dials in silent absorption. Nothing seemed to happen but the occasional flick of a meter-needle. An hour ebbed by, and the technical team excused themselves. Bud, Ted, and Chow watched in fascination as another hour passed. Finally, apologetically, they left to attend to other tasks.
To everyone’s amazement, Tom continued to run the machine throughout the night and into the next day, sleeping on a cot in the lab as the deep hum of the transformers lulled him into a restful slumber. He broke off his vigil only long enough to eat a few bites of the hot, tempting food which Chow brought him at intervals.
It was late afternoon of the next day when Tom finally called a halt, after operating the machine to the limit of its calculated capacity. Thirty hours had elapsed since the start of the test!
Bud, Chow, and Ted rejoined Tom and gathered around to watch in fascination as, breathless with anticipation, he drew off a tiny quantity of gas from the collector tank inside the machine. He analyzed it in a Swift Spectroscope, then, frowning deeply, precisely measured its mass with a laser momentometer.
Bud saw the young inventor’s face turn bleak. “Failure?” he gently asked his pal, nudging his shoulder.
Tom shook his head slowly. “Not exactly, fellows. But…” His voice trailed off in discouragement.
“What’s wrong, boss?” Chow anxiously asked Tom.
The young inventor smiled wanly. “A million watts of electrical energy! And all my invention produced was this measly amount of gas!”
Bud rushed in. “But the spectroscope― ”
“Shows that it’s pure oxygen, yes. Which weighs up to exactly one one-thousandth of a gram!”
Chow pushed back his ten-gallon hat and knuckled his balding head. “Reckon that ain’t very much, heh?”
“About enough to keep a flea alive for half a second.” Tom did some rapid figuring. “Chow, with the power I used to make this much oxygen, you could run your toaster an hour a day for 120 years!”
“Wa-aal, brand my coyote cutlets!” Chow gulped. “I—uh—how― ” he floundered, trying to think of some way to comfort his young boss, but words failed him. He glanced helplessly at Bud and Ted.
Bud broke the glum silence by clapping Tom on the back. “So what? Fleas need oxygen too, don’t they? Cheer up, pal. At least your machine works!”
Tom chuckled good-naturedly, a chuckle that was half a sigh. “Guess you’re right at that, Bud. But this is only a start.” He paced back and forth with his hands in the pockets of his slacks, then turned to face Ted. “As an engineer you see what we’re up against. The feed tank contained only a wisp of hydrogen gas at the start—so little it counts as a vacuum, like you’d find in space. All this time and power, and the matter maker couldn’t manage to make out of it more than—that.”
Ted asked if the solartron had only been able to transmute a small portion of the hydrogen atoms available. Tom nodded ruefully. “Exactly. I knew this was a possibility. I was banking on some assumptions that were always a little shaky, and as it turns out the power allotment just wasn’t realistic. It looks as if even the Citadel isn’t the place to finish this experiment.”
“Meaning what?” Ted asked.
“Meaning we’ll head up to our space station and use solar radiation as our source of power.”
Tom Swift’s outpost in space was a huge, wheel-shaped satellite, orbiting 22,300 miles above the earth. Tom had designed it as a factory for charging his famous solar batteries, as well as a scientific observation post and communications relay station.
Tom’s quiet announcement was greeted with a jolt of jubilation. “Yip-pee!” Bud and Ted yelled together, and took turns swinging their friend around the floor a couple of times.
“Hey!” laughed Chow excitedly. “Let me in on this here square dance too!”
“Put ’er there, T-man!” said Ted and pumped Tom’s hand up and down.
“Hold it, guys!” Tom spluttered with laughter, his face bright again. “This is serious business!”
“Who said it wasn’t?” retorted Bud cheerfully.
“I’d say anything that finally gets me up into space is way serious,” Ted declared with a grin.
Tom returned the grin. “Look! Some day I hope to colonize the moon. A base there would yield all sorts of valuable data—not just about the moon itself, but the earth and the rest of the solar system. What’s more, we might be able to mine valuable raw materials up there, such as that unknown hydrogen compound we detected in the spectrometer data from our moon flight.”
“I know all ’bout this, boys,” Chow interjected proudly. “Right from the horse’s mouth! Y’see, in order to set up shop on the moon, ya need a Texas-size load o’ air and water. An’ mebbe food, too, ceptin’ I don’t recommend it. Only surefire way from here t’ there is Tom Swift’s solar-i-tronic matter cooker-upper!”
“Got it, Chow-boy! But Tom, wouldn’t it be possible to grow plants on the moon to feed your lunar colony?” Ted asked. “Under a dome or something?”
“And maybe a few cows for Chow to punch,” Bud added with a wink.
Tom shook his head. “No, because on the moon you’d get two weeks of daylight, followed by two weeks of darkness. Plants couldn’t survive under those conditions—not without a huge energy cost. And plants need water, and something to breath, just like people do.”
“Okay, I’m convinced!” Bud exclaimed happily. “How soon do we head off to the outpost?”
Tom smiled. “I want to discuss the whole project with Dad first. We’ll start back to Shopton early tomorrow morning.”
“Hold on now, boss,” Chow spoke up cautiously. “You ain’t said nothin’ yet about me goin’ along on this trail drive up yonder. I mean, y’know, if’n you plan t’ jest run off your own victuals like on a blame printin’ press― ”
Bud pretended to look worried. “Old-timer, we weren’t going to tell you the bad news just yet. But the fact is, crewmen with oversized bay windows won’t qualify for any more space flights. The strain is too great.”
“The strain is too great?” Chow snorted indignantly. “Why, brand my space boots, didn’t I stand the strain all right when we built the space wheel and explored Little Luna and even flew clear on up to the moon? Didn’t crack up on any o’ them space trips, did I?”
“Oh, I’m not worried about you,” said Bud. “I mean the strain of the extra poundage might be too great on the spaceship.”
A deep red flush spread over Chow’s tanned features. “I can’t help what my own cookin’ does to me,” he said. “Now can I, Tom?”
“Don’t let Bud kid you, Chow,” Tom said. “I wouldn’t take off without my old pal any more than I’d take off without a space helmet. Why, a good space cook like you is the most important man in the crew!”
Chow grinned in relief and threw out his chest until he seemed in danger of popping a button. “That’s shor the truth! An’ where-so-ever your food comes from, make it er grow it, somebody’s got t’ put it all t’gether and slap in on a plate for ya.”
That evening, work done for the day and supper behind them, Tom and Bud joined Ted in his room for some television and relaxed conversation. They had barely settled in when Ted’s personal cellphone announced a call. Glancing at the readout panel, he commented with surprise that the call was from his mother back in Shopton. But his pleasure dimmed when he heard how worried she sounded.
“Ted, that Mr. Hampshire called again,” Mrs. Spring reported. “Goodness, I just don’t know what to make of it, but I thought you’d better know.”
“You’re right, Momma. What did he say?”
“Well, he asked for you. I knew that you were suspicious of him, so I said I’d be glad to pass along any message and tried to keep him talking. I had Ray pick up the other phone and listen in, to help me remember.” Ray was Ted’s ten-year-old brother.
“What happened?” Ted asked, gripping the phone excitedly as Tom and Bud looked on in concern and alarm. “Did he say anything about the deal of his?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Spring replied. “He said we should trust him, this is all in our best interest. He said, ‘You’re his mother—I bet you can talk Ted into doing the right thing, can’t you?’ Then he said we’d be hearing from him soon!”
Ted did his best to reassure his mother about the mysterious Mr. Hampshire. Nevertheless, the young astronaut-engineer’s brow was creased in a worried frown as he replaced the telephone and related the event to Tom and Bud.
He had barely finished the story when the telephone rang again. Ted glanced down, then back up at his friends worriedly. “Unidentified caller. What if it’s― ”
Tom held out his hand for the phone. “May I?” Ted handed him the cellphone, and Tom answered with an anonymous, “Hello?”
A man’s voice cut in, speaking in a high-pitched nasal whine. “Mr. Spring?”
“No, I’m sorry, he’s― ”
“Why, if it isn’t the talented Mr. Swift. A voice the whole world knows by now, eh? This is Mr. Hampshire,” the man replied. “No doubt you know all about who I am and what my business is with Ted Spring. No doubt he’s standing right next to you, in fact. Pass the phone over to him, won’t you?”
Tom did so. “Just a minute, Mr. Hampshire,” Ted said with suspicion. “How did you find out how to reach me? I never gave you this number.”
“That’s of no importance. I’m calling to renew my offer of help in the case of your father’s death. It so happens that I have some new evidence on that crash.”
“Such as?” Ted asked.
“Evidence which has never been brought out before—and evidence, I might add, which would be very embarrassing to the Swifts.”
“If you expect me to be interested in your offer, Hampshire, don’t play me. What’s this about?”
The voice gave a low chuckle. “I don’t care to get into it right now, Ted—not with Tom Swift standing there. We have a little privileged attorney-client consulting to do, you and I. Believe me, the cash we’re talking about would make a big difference in your life. Your family’s, too!”
Ted digested this surprising statement. “And what’s your interest in all this?” he inquired.
“Would you believe public-spiritedness?” Hampshire laughed, then went on smoothly. “Didn’t think so. But I’ll tell you frankly, we’re going to expose Shopton’s First Family to a little daylight, you and I.”
“I’m not interested,” declared Ted firmly, his anger growing.
“You will be,” Hampshire responded. “Just read the papers tomorrow. You’ll be plenty interested—and so will Tom Swift!”
THE CELLPHONE clicked off, and Ted Spring stared at it resting inertly in his hand. “He said― ”
“We could hear,” said Bud, face red with anger.
“I don’t suppose you have any idea what he could be alluding to, do you, Ted?” Tom asked.
“Not a whiff of one,” was the answer. “Seems we’re going to find out tomorrow morning, though.”
And so they did. At breakfast Bud came rushing in with a copy of the morning edition of the Shopton Evening Bulletin, delivered each day to the Citadel by special arrangement. With a growl he held up the front page for Tom, Ted, and Chow to read.
T.S.E. TO FACE LAWSUIT
Death of Test Pilot May Lead
To Criminal Charges,
Ted Spring was the first to skim through the lead story, written by publisher and editor Dan Perkins, as the others waited in tense silence. “It says something about ‘unnamed private investigators’ turning up evidence of criminal negligence in Dad’s death, stuff that Tom Swift Enterprises ‘hushed up on direct orders from CEO Damon Swift’.” He read further, his voice crackling with fury and disgust. “Some bull about defective servos! ‘Has a key Enterprises product evaded Federal safety regulations?’ On and on.”
“That there’s a big stinkin’ load of fine Texas manure!” Chow Winkler exclaimed. “As if Tom’s folks would ever skimp on anything fer their crew!”
“Perkins must really be worried about his circulation!” grumbled Bud bitterly.
“Dan is always worried about his circulation,” Tom responded with at least an attempt at calm. “He’s got a chip on his shoulder where Enterprises is concerned, because we avoid giving our hometown paper any big advantage in breaking the news we always make. Dad doesn’t think it’s right, and neither do I.”
“There could be somebody else behind it, too,” Bud pointed out. “From what you told me, that Brightpath Power guy wouldn’t mind seeing Enterprises taken down a few pegs—even put out of business.”
“Could be,” Tom concurred grimly. “They say Mr. Ajax is the ruthless, calculating type.”
“Tom, I want to say once again, Mom and Ray and I have no problems at all with how the company treated us after the accident,” said Ted, looking at Tom very soberly. “We know you investigated everything carefully. I mean—T-man—everybody knows how loyal Enterprises is to its employees.”
“Durn right!” Chow declared. “Even paid fer my new tooth!” He opened his big broad mouth and pointed.
“Let’s see what Dad has to say,” Tom urged. “I’m sure he’ll call here any minute.”
Tom was right, and after a hurried and angry conversation the telephone discussion expanded to include Jake Aturian, head of Swift Construction Company, Harlan Ames, and Enterprises’ chief legal counsel, Willis Rodellin.
“There’s no reason in the world to think our investigation of Dakin Spring’s death was compromised in any way,” stated Jake Aturian plainly. “Four federal agencies signed off on it, too.”
“Is Dan Perkins saying anything?” Tom asked.
“No, of course not!” snorted Mr. Swift. “Press immunity—confidentiality.”
Rodellin interrupted with, “Well, I intend to have a talk with our Mr. Perkins. He needs to be reminded that his immunity has limits when it comes to reckless defamation. This is an outrage, Damon.”
“It feels that way,” agreed Tom’s father. “Still, if there’s anything behind it that we should be aware of― ”
“I looked into the background of that attorney, Hampshire,” Ames said. “Fernell J. Hampshire, admitted member in good standing to the Bar of the State of New York. Admitted by what they call ‘reciprocal courtesy’ in other states. He’s had an office in Manhattan for eight years now.”
Tom asked what sort of cases he specialized in. “Mostly defending big landlords against criminal negligence charges, but also a fair amount of litigation stuff,” Ames replied. “Willis here could explain it better than I could. But there’s something a little interesting if you’re seeking a justification for paranoia. Before moving to our fair state, Hampshire had a big practice in Minneapolis, which just happens to be the home town of Lewton Ajax!”
With promises on several hands for further investigation, the conference call ended inconclusively. “Hampshire’s a phony all right,” Tom declared to his friends, “real attorney or no.” He chewed thoughtfully on an apple from his breakfast plate. “But I still don’t see what his game is. The Bulletin says nothing’s actually been filed in court yet—it’s all just threats and hot air.”
“I’m stickin’ with my dee-scription!” snorted Chow.
Bud shrugged and hitched his chair closer to his pal’s side. “Look, Tom. What worries me is that stuff about the elevator servos. The investigation showed that none of the servo units had been tampered with—right?”
Tom nodded. “Sure. And I also remember the findings of the official report at the end. Ted’s father got into a slipstream so strong that the servo unit on one of the elevators couldn’t stand the skin resonance—the vibration. When it failed the jet went into an uncontrolled dive at better than Mach 2. The report concluded that the plane failed under stress, not that any part had been faulty or tampered with.”
“Just the same,” Bud grumbled, ‘‘that guy Hampshire’s out to make trouble, and if he tries hard enough, he’ll succeed in throwing suspicion on Enterprises.”
“I’d say he’s already thrown, Buddo!” retorted Ted Spring.
Tom continued eating his apple for a few moments. “Bud, let’s suppose some enemy did tamper with one of the servo units and caused the crash on purpose.”
“Murder! Okay, let’s suppose,” his chum agreed with a sympathetic glance in Ted’s direction.
“If Hampshire does know something, it could be that the same person who slipped him the information may have been responsible for the tampering. In fact, that same enemy may even have planned the whole thing from the start for some reason—to hurt Enterprises, maybe to pry out information on our latest plans and inventions somehow.”
“You mean,” said Bud, “that Hampshire may be the front man for someone a lot more dangerous? Like that Ajax guy?”
“Right!” Tom tossed his apple core away and stared, frowning, out the window at the desert landscape. “Or maybe Hampshire is just using Ajax, leading him along—or vice versa. It’s something to think about, guys. We’d better be on our guard.”
“Guess we’ll just have to see what happens,” Ted said. “But if Hampshire bothers me or my mother again, he can expect a pretty hostile reception!”
Later that morning, after the solartron equipment and the big transformer units had been loaded back aboard the Sky Queen, the Flying Lab jet-lifted off for home. At a signal from the Citadel’s air-traffic tower, Bud, manning the controls, opened up the forward throttle and sent the big skyship streaking north-eastward through some wisps of high cloud.
“Ted, I’m going to be working up some ideas in one of the lab cubicles, but there’s something you could do for me that would be really helpful—get you better acquainted with Matty, too!” said the young inventor with a smile.
“Anything, T-man,” was the response.
Tom asked Ted to go down to the hangar-hold and examine some of the power junctions on the solartron, one by one. “They’re made of a special new alloy, and I want to make sure running the thing for hours doesn’t cause corrosion at the contacts due to an electrolysis effect. I’ll look like little smears of slate-blue tarnish along the edges. Just eyeball it—okay?” Ted gave his friend a humorous salute and left for the stairs to the lower deck, lowest of the three.
Tom worked in his lab cubicle for a time. Then, somewhere over Illinois, he returned to the command compartment to chat with Bud and Chow.
The ship intercom crackled to life. “If you’re there, Tom, I’m about through down here. Shall I head back up when I’m done, or is there something further to check?”
“You can go ahead and― ” Tom began, when he was interrupted by a sharp jolt and the Queen seemed to swerve suddenly. Tom, Bud, and Chow were rocked sideways as the deck tilted. The next instant the intercom speaker erupted with a piercing scream!
THE THREE in the control compartment glanced at one another in horror and Tom bolted to his feet. “That’s Ted!”
“But what in tarnation’s wrong with this here plane?” gasped Chow as the Sky Queen took another shuddering swerve.
“I—I don’t know,” Bud choked out, fighting the controls. “The—the gyros are― ” Again the mighty skyship seemed to lunge and twist in the air!
“Take it, Bud!” Tom cried. “I’ve got to see what’s happened below!”
Trying to ignore the shifting, jolting deck, Tom staggered his way down the metal stairs and burst into the hangar-hold. Groans and cries of pain greeted him. He saw at once that one of the giant transformers had broken loose from its cradle, pinning Ted Spring against a bulkhead. Face contorted in pain, he was thrashing about wildly, trying desperately to free himself.
“G-give me a hand, T-man!” the young engineer cried, gasping for breath and clenching his teeth to stifle the pain, with beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. Tom added his strength to Ted’s, and the two men strained with all their might to budge the transformer.
“No use,” Tom gasped. Flicking on the intercom, he called Bud and tersely explained the situation. “Bank the ship to starboard—but gently!”
“Roger!” Bud’s steely voice replied. Tom knew the silent comment his pal had left unsaid: if I can!
The Flying Lab was still barely under the control of its young pilot. But a moment later Tom braced himself as the jet tilted in a wide sweeping turn. Slowly the transformer slid across the deck, back toward its cradle.
Tom didn’t bother to lash the transformer down. He caught his injured friend in his arms and dragged him toward the hatchway. “Wish I could be delicate, Ted,” Tom murmured apologetically.
Chow met Tom at the foot of the stairway. “He’s got ’im, buddy boy!” the grizzled cook yelled up to Bud, who immediately righted the ship and resumed trying to stabilize her. Then Chow helped carry Ted up to the top deck, setting him down gently on a sofa in the spacious lounge section as another crewman sprinted for first-aid materials.
Still moaning softly, Ted was only semi-conscious. But as pungent spirits of ammonia were held to the space-trainee’s nostrils, he seemed to revive slightly.
“How is he, Skipper?” asked the flight engineer, whose name was Avery.
“No ribs broken, thank goodness,” Tom announced after a first-aid examination, “but these bruises are bad enough.” He got a paper cup of water and some tablets from the first-aid locker. “Here, take one of these, Ted. It’ll help to relieve the pain. It’s pretty powerful.”
“Thanks, Tom,” Ted replied, gulping it down. Wiping his lips he said weakly: “But I’m feeling better already. That whiff of ammonia cleared my head.” Abruptly he interrupted himself with:
Tom nodded with a half-smile. “Like I said, powerful! You looked like you could use it.”
“Ab-so-looote-ly.” The young man paused, gathering his thoughts. “The ship took a dive or something all of a sudden, and the transformer busted out of its straps. No bones stickin’ out through my skin, T-man, but it sure hurt like a house afire—pinched my whole right side against a girder!”
“What I wanna know now is—what made this here Sky Queen start buckin’ like that?” Chow demanded.
Tom told the ex-Texan, “I intend to find out.” He turned again to Ted. “But that’s for later. First priority is to get you looked at, big guy. Since the ship still feels a little wavery, I’m going to have Bud hold down her speed. I’ll fly you ahead to Shopton in the cycloplane.”
The Sky Queen was designed to carry smaller auxiliary aircraft in her flying hangar. Her original complement, a convertible jet-helicopter called the Skeeter and an advanced midget jet, the Kangaroo Kub, had now been replaced by a recent invention of Tom’s, his ultrasonic cycloplane. This revolutionary wingless craft could hover on rotating cylinders or streak along under jet power at multi-mach speed. He had named her the SwiftStorm.
After advising Bud and the rest of the small crew of his plans, Tom helped Ted—now much stronger and woozily free of pain—back down to the hangar-hold and into the cycloplane. As the Flying Lab slowed to a hover, the hangar deck was lowered like an elevator into the open air, and in moments the SwiftStorm was jetting through the high clouds at several times the speed of sound.
At the end of a tense and mostly silent flight to Shopton, Tom made a smooth vertical descent to the Swift Enterprises airfield, where an ambulance and medical personnel were waiting to convey Ted to the plant infirmary. There the talented staff medic, Doc Simpson, gave the young man a thorough examination.
“Well,” he finally pronounced, “I’d say you’re about as lucky as a fellow tagged by a transformer pot could be, Ted. No sign of anything broken or ruptured. Those bruises will ache for a while, though.”
“I’m proud of my heritage,” said the African-American with a wry grin, “but I’d prefer bein’ plain black, not black and blue!”
In another hour the Sky Queen had landed and been hangared in its huge underground vault. Hurrying aboard, Tom asked Bud about the remainder of her flight. “Not too bad,” replied the dark-haired pilot. “But I was fighting the supergyros all the way. Can’t imagine what made them act up like that.”
Calling in his chief engineer Hank Sterling, Tom, Bud, and Hank made a cursory check of the Flying Lab’s systems, paying particular attention to her supergyros. “Sure beats me, Skipper,” said Hank, running a hand through his hair in puzzled frustration. “I don’t see the slightest trace of a mechanical or electrical failure.”
“Which means it’s probably not electrical, but electronic,” suggested the young inventor. “Possibly something wrong in the flight control computer.”
Bud was skeptical. “It’s supposed to warn us if it’s getting out of kilter.”
“But something could have caused multiple failures in the ‘brain’ at the same time,” Sterling reminded his friends. “You two go home—it’ll be time for supper pretty soon anyway. Let me see what I come up with.”
Bidding farewell to Bud and Hank, Tom hurried to the big double office he shared with his father. Besides the broad modern desks for father and son, the room contained comfortable leather chairs, push-button drawing boards, and along one wall near the door a stack of adjustable shelves. They were crowded with photos and detailed, bright-colored scale models of more than a century of invention by the famed Swift family. The newest addition was the gyroscope-like Challenger spaceship in which Tom had recently journeyed to the moon.
After reporting the events of the flight from New Mexico, Tom discussed with his father the new plans for experimenting with his matter-making machine at the outpost in space.
“I agree, son,” the elder scientist nodded. “Up there you’ll have access to the entire output of the solar battery factory. By my calculations that should be significantly greater than even the power our reactor generates.”
“By my calculations too, Dad,” Tom nodded. He added wryly: “But we can’t ask moon colonists to run an extension cord out to the space outpost if they want to use the solartron!”
Damon Swift chuckled and said, “Cosmic energy converters of the sort you use on the Challenger would at least make a dent in the problem. But I certainly agree that if the solartron is to be practical, you’ll have to come up with a compact source of electricity that’s nonetheless a good deal more powerful.”
“Right—smaller and bigger!”
“In other words, a typical Tom Swift invention,” Mr. Swift declared with a smile of pride.
The senior scientist broke off as the telephone rang. He lifted the receiver, spoke for a few minutes, then hung up with eyebrows raised.
“That dinner party you didn’t get before leaving for the moon is about to take place, it seems,” he told Tom. “That was your sister. She has invited Bashalli and wants you to bring Bud—and Ted too, if he’s feeling up to it.”
“That’s a pretty big if. But this time Bud and I will be there—even if we have to hold off the rest of the world with a repelatron!” Tom promised, grinning.
Bashalli was Tom’s usual date on those rare occasions when dating made it onto his calendared agenda. A pretty brunette, born in Pakistan, she had become a close friend of Tom’s blond younger sister Sandy, though Bashalli was somewhat older and definitely more worldly-wise and practical-minded.
Tom called Ted Spring at home. To his surprise, the astronaut-in-training accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. “Just what I need!” he said. “I’m well on my way to being my charming self again, T-man.”
“I guess you and I are both pretty durable products,” Tom laughed. “Even if we don’t have scars, we can show off our bandages!”
That evening, the dining room table in the Swift home looked especially attractive, decked out with flowers, silver, fine china, and candles. Also attractively decked out were Sandy and Bashalli, radiant and lovely in chic new outfits. “Hey you two, give me my breath back!” joked Ted, looking at Sandy appreciatively.
“Good night—dresses!” Bud gasped in teasing humor. “What are you, girls?”
“No,” replied Bashalli with a pertly superior expression, “we are what is called young ladies, Budworth. Single, attractive young ladies who require your full attention.”
As Tom held his mother’s chair, he asked, “Did I forget somebody’s birthday?”
Sandy laughed. “Constantly! But this is a special occasion.”
“A buttering-up occasion,” Bash added.
“We’re in for something, Tom,” Bud remarked with a wry, cautious expression. “Okay. So what are we celebrating?”
“Well,” said Sandy, “Bashi and I decided to claim a little of the excitement you owe us. You boys have all the fun on these space flights.”
“While we two jewels suffer from interrupted dates,” Bashalli noted; “and to be pathetic, even that is an improvement on our usual impoverished social lives. We are bored and neglected.”
Sandy rushed in. “So the point is, why not take us along on your next space trip? You could teach me to pilot the Challenger, Tom!”
“And I could be her exotically accented back-seat driver!” added Bashalli, her dark eyes sparkling.
Ted nudged Tom. “Y’know, kid, it’s not such a bad idea. Outer space could use a few woman drivers.”
As Tom hesitated, somewhat nonplused, his father spoke up. “They’ve been working on me, son, and have brought up some very plausible points. For example, you could observe the feminine reaction to space travel.” He chuckled. “I’ve heard they’re better in their behavior than men.”
“Oh, Dad, you’re wonderful!” Sandy cried, popping up from her chair to give her father a hug. “Then it’s all settled.”
“But listen, San,” Bud objected, “it’s not as simple as you’re thinking. You’ll have to put in some time in the zero-G chamber, for instance—both of you will.”
“Actually, they already have,” declared Tom’s mother with a sweet smile. “They had several sessions while you boys were in New Mexico—with some expert tutelage.” She nodded at her husband, and Damon Swift looked a bit sheepish.
“As I said, they’ve been working on me,” he explained.
Tom shrugged and acknowledged his total defeat with a grin. “Okay, okay. Young ladies, please accept our invitation to join us on our trip to the outpost to test my solartron!”
As Sandy squealed with delight, Bashalli said archly, “We shall try to fit you into our calendars.” But then she squealed as well!
Dinner proceeded to the accompaniment of frequent laughter and banter among the Swifts and their guests. As they were eating dessert, the phone rang and Sandy went to answer it.
“For you, Ted,” she informed him.
Ted excused himself to take the call. When he returned to the table a few moments later, his face was grim. Though he tried to cover it, the others noticed his concern with alarm.
“I do hope it wasn’t bad news, Ted,” Mrs. Swift said quietly.
Ted shrugged uneasily as he resumed his place. “I’m not sure how to take it,” he replied. “I’ve just been threatened!”
TED’S announcement brought gasps of dismay from his listeners.
“Who was it?” Tom questioned. “That Mr. Hampshire again?”
Ted shook his head. “This time the caller gave no name, but I’m sure the voice wasn’t Hampshire’s.”
“What did he say?” Mr. Swift asked.
“He asked me if I was going to cooperate with Hampshire,” Ted replied. “When I told him no, he said, cool as you please, ‘Then here’s some advice—don’t bother with any more space training. You’ll never need it!’.”
Bud broke the tense silence that followed. “Yep, that sorta suggests a threat, I’d say. Ted, man, it looks as if the only safe place for you will be the space outpost—or the moon!”
Mrs. Swift, with her usual motherly concern, had a more practical suggestion. “Ted, why not stay here for the time being? We have plenty of room, and you’ll be protected by our warning system.” This system maintained a magnetic field around the Swift house and grounds. Anyone entering the field, unless wearing a special deactivator mechanism, triggered off an alarm inside the house. The system was temporarily overridden when visitors were expected.
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Swift,” Ted replied, “but Momma and Ray may be in danger too. I wouldn’t want to leave them alone.’’
“Before we decide anything,” Tom put in, “let me call Harlan Ames.”
Tom reached Ames at his home in Shopton. When the security chief heard what had happened, he suggested that Ted stay in the guest bungalow at Enterprises, which was guarded by a tight security setup, and that his family be flown by helicopter to Ames’s vacation cottage on Blue-Jay Lake.
“There’s plenty of frozen and canned food there,” he explained, “and they’ll be perfectly safe. The only way in is by an unpaved private road through thick woods which is hard to find from the highway—and we can keep it gated off, besides.”
“Good deal, Harlan!” Tom concurred. “Thanks a million.”
Ted agreed at once to Ames’s suggestion and moved to call his mother at once.
“Better not,” Tom advised. “Hampshire and his gang may be tapping your home phone. Here’s an idea—call your neighbor and have her tell them to get packed and expect us. We’ll pick up your mother and Ray by car and drive them to the Enterprises airfield.”
It was decided as a safety measure to divide forces. Ted and Bud would go first in Bud’s convertible, while Tom and Mr. Swift followed in Tom’s two-seater sportscar. Ted’s car would remain parked at the house for the time being.
“Something tells me our party’s over,” moaned Sandy.
“But this time, Sandra dear, we at least came out on top,” Bashalli reassured her.
As the men rose to leave, Mrs. Swift spoke nervously to her husband. ‘‘I—I don’t want to seem unduly worried, my dear, but do you suppose someone might be watching the house right now? It’s happened before, you know. If so, he may trail you.”
Mr. Swift gave her a reassuring hug. “You may have a point there, Anne—we’ll check. Switch on all the yard lights, Tom.”
“Right, Dad. I’ll turn Caesar and Brutus loose, too. They’ll certainly let us know if anyone’s lurking around!” The two bloodhounds were kenneled outside. Besides being the Swift family pets, they were also expertly trained watchdogs and trackers.
Tom pressed a master switch, controlling a number of spotlights concealed in the shrubbery. Instantly the house and the several landscaped acres surrounding it were bathed in a brilliant radiance.
Then he and Bud hurried out to open the kennel. With eager yelps, the two bloodhounds came loping out. They ambled about, lifting their heads occasionally to sniff the night air, but gave no sign of detecting any unfamiliar scents.
“All clear,” Tom reported. “Let’s get going!” The trip to Ted Spring’s house was completed without incident. The others waited outside while Ted went in to tell his mother and brother about the ominous call he had taken and the temporary move to Ames’s cottage. Tom had parked his low-slung car at the curb a couple houses behind Bud’s red convertible. Minutes later, Ted emerged from the house alone, looking anxious and worried.
“What about your mother and Ray?” asked Mr. Swift. “Nothing wrong, is there?”
“They won’t come,” Ted reported. “Momma says she feels safer right here in her own home. She can be a little, mm, determined at times.”
“Her feelings are natural, I suppose,” said Mr. Swift, “but in this case I strongly believe it would be better for her to follow our plan.”
“I’ve tried to convince her, sir. Would you talk to her, please? I’m sure she’ll listen to you.”
Mr. Swift grinned sympathetically and opened the car door. “All right, son. I hope your confidence isn’t misplaced, but I’ll see what I can do.” One fact hung in the air but went unremarked—Damon Swift was taking on the family role that otherwise would have fallen to Ted’s father.
While Mr. Swift and Ted went back inside, Tom and Bud scouted around cautiously for signs of anyone spying on the house. All seemed quiet and normal, The only other cars parked on the residential street were empty.
Fifteen minutes later Mrs. Spring and Ray came out, accompanied by Ted and Mr. Swift, who were carrying the suitcases. The boys loaded these into the convertible’s trunk, then Tom assisted Mrs. Spring into the back seat. The compact, robust woman wore an anxious look.
“I do hope I’ve made the right decision,” she fretted. “Wouldn’t even think of it if Little Ray weren’t on school vacation now.”
“I’m sure you’re doing the right thing,” said Tom reassuringly. “Believe me, you and Ray will be perfectly safe at Blue-Jay Lake.”
“Sure we will, Miss Mom,” Little Ray spoke up stoutly. “A helicopter! Boy-wow, it’ll be fun goin’ up there!” He scrambled in beside her, and Ted took the front seat with Bud. As the red convertible pulled away from the curb, Tom followed behind with his father at a watchful distance. Cutting straight across town, they took the old, little-used Mansburg road leading to Swift Enterprises, which lay on the outskirts of Shopton.
“Lights behind us, Dad,” said Tom tersely, glancing at the rear-view mirror. It was the first car they had seen on the road with them. In dark silhouette it seemed to be a large, SUV-type vehicle.
As Mr. Swift turned to look, the car accelerated rapidly, recklessly, then swung to the left to pass. Hitting at least sixty miles an hour, the car roared alongside, then swung broadside into the path of Bud’s convertible!
Bud slammed on the brakes and tried to swerve off the road. Too late! With a sickening impact of crumpling metal, the red convertible plowed into the SUV, which had skidded to a stop dead ahead.
“Great Scott!” gasped Mr. Swift in horror as Tom cried out Bud’s name.
Only quick action on Tom’s part prevented a second collision. The instant he brought his car to a screeching halt, both be and his father leapt out to aid the others.
“Anyone hurt?” Tom cried, ripping open the door of the convertible.
There was silence for several seconds, then Bud replied woozily, “I’m okay, I guess.”
“Me, too,” Ted spoke up. “Banged my head pretty hard. Mother, Ray, are you—?”
Mrs. Spring and Ray reported being shaken up but otherwise uninjured. “I will not cry, I will not cry!” uttered Ted’s Mother.
“Me neither, Momma!” Little Ray declared.
“Thank goodness,” said Mr. Swift.
“But why did that lunatic driver pull in front of us?” Mrs. Spring asked. “And what happened to him?”
“He ran away,” Ted answered. ‘‘He jumped out the instant he stopped. I saw him dart off the road into the trees just before we crashed.”
“I saw him too. I’ll bet it was Hampshire,” Bud growled. “But I couldn’t see his face.”
“Me neither,” Ted added.
Tom got a powerful flashlight of his own invention from a rack in his car and played it back and forth in the direction Ted had indicated. The area bordering the road offered a stand of trees which thinned out into an open field and provided no obvious hiding place.
“That’s funny.” Ted frowned. “I’m sure he headed over this way somewhere.”
“It’s possible,” Tom pointed out, “that he started to the right just to mislead us, and then doubled back across the road behind us.” The left side was overgrown with trees and tangled underbrush.
“Wait here,” Tom told the others in a low voice. “There’s probably not much chance of finding him, but I’ll take a look.” Bud asked him to wait, but Tom waved him back. “Less risk being seen if just one of us goes, flyboy.”
Crossing the road, Tom moved cautiously among the trees, probing here and there with his special electronic flashlight, which produced an adjustable spot of illumination without a visible beam. From time to time he turned off the light and paused to listen for the sound of footsteps or other movements, creeping forward on silent feet through the looming shadows.
Suddenly Tom froze in the darkness as his ears caught a murmur of voices.
“We’ve got the guy scared now,” a man was saying. “He’ll be coughing up the docs soon enough.”
“And then,” another voice replied, “we’ll have the Swifts just where we want ’em!”
TOM repressed a surge of anger and focused his attention on locating the men, whose distant, muffled voices he did not recognize. Where were they?
Switching the light back on again, Tom swung his flashlight in all directions. The pinpoint spot revealed nothing except tree trunks and gloomy undergrowth, but after a moment a small LED light flashed on next to the switch. Tom held the flashlight steady. The muttering continued for a time—then ceased abruptly.
Suddenly Tom realized that he was making a target of himself. Oh—oh! Those guys may be armed! he reflected, snapping off the flashlight hastily. Though there was no beam, the light-emitter element would have been visible head-on!
Had they spotted him? Were they approaching even now, weapons drawn? The thought made the hairs bristle at the nape of Tom’s neck!
But how to find them in the darkness? Scarcely a ray of moonlight penetrated through the leafy branches overhead. Then a plan occurred to Tom—an old boys-book sort of trick which might fool his unseen enemies. He jammed his flashlight into the crotch of a tree and turned on its light again. Then, moving silently as an Indian scout, he began picking his way toward the spot where the voices had been located. The men remained silent. Tom’s keen senses, the fine-honed senses of an expert experimenter, enabled him to hazard a guess as to their possible location.
He was hoping they might launch an attack of some kind toward the flashlight and thus give themselves away. So far, they had shown no sign of rising to the bait. The silence continued, broken only by the chirp of crickets and other night noises.
Step by step, Tom silently inched his way forward. To his chagrin, his efforts proved fruitless. He came upon broken underbrush which showed where the men had been crouching.
Suddenly a car engine gunned to life. Galvanized into action, Tom rushed toward the road. He was just in time to see a small pickup without lights pull out from among the trees and roar off into the darkness, heading back in the direction of town. Thoroughly disgusted, he retraced his steps toward the scene of the crash.
“Tough luck,” Bud greeted him. “We heard the getaway car.”
Tom nodded gloomily. “Apparently our little pal had a friend waiting for him—with transportation. Must’ve been following a ways behind all of us.” He reported the conversation which he had overheard in the woods.
Bud was furious when he heard from Tom what the men had been saying. “And that’s all you could hear? Man, they might’ve laid out the whole plot for you.”
Tom looked at his pal—and grinned. “Maybe they did!”
“Huh? How so?”
The young inventor held up the flashlight in his hand. “You don’t think this is just some kind of common, ordinary flashlight, do you? It carries its own microelectronic directional sound amplifier—a super-ear! I can download the digital recording chip in my lab and listen to my heart’s content.”
Bud rolled his eyes jokingly. “Right. Another invention. Every day’s Christmas at Swift Enterprises.”
“I wasn’t a full-time genius, though,” Tom said regretfully. “I forgot that the sound unit can be switched on separately from the light. Guess I warned them off.”
“Someone’s sure out to make trouble for you Swifts,” Ted Spring said worriedly to Tom and his father.
Mr. Swift nodded, frowning. “And so far, no clues to his—or their—identity. Despite Hampshire’s attitude and the phone threat that mentioned him, we can’t be sure of his involvement in this attack.”
“You’re right, Dad,” admitted Tom. “We’ve caused problems before when we’ve jumped to conclusions.”
“Yeah,” said Bud. “Leave the conclusion-jumping to athletes like me!”
A police car appeared a distance down the road, and Mr. Swift told his son that he had called the police and a tow truck over Tom’s car phone. “After towing Bud’s poor convertible, they can tow this SUV to the station for examination. We’ll find out soon enough whom it belongs to.”
As everyone’s attention was diverted by the low siren of the approaching police car, Mrs. Spring, who had been trying to remain calm, now murmured with a tremble in her voice, “Oh, dear, I knew we should have stayed home.”
Ted approach his mother and threw and arm about her. “Now don’t worry,” Ted soothed Mrs. Spring. “This is all gonna work out. I’ve called a taxi to pick us up and take us the rest of the way, and the Swifts will follow behind. I’m sure the police will escort us, too.”
“All right, Teddy.” She sighed, stretching tall to give him a kiss on the cheek. “But do take care of yourself while we’re up north.”
“And I’ll take care of Momma!” Ray promised.
Tom, overhearing, said, “That’s the spirit!” Ted smiled as the youngster shook hands with everyone.
Finally safe behind the gates of Enterprises, the two passengers were helped aboard the helicopter—Ray filled with excitement at his first whirlybird flight. They were soon joined by Harlan Ames, who would direct them, and by Gil Muir, an experienced pilot. Moments later, the craft soared aloft and disappeared northward into the night sky.
Bud had accompanied the Springs in the taxi, rather than riding along with his towed car. “My mechanic knows what to do,” he told Ted. “Right now Enterprises is where the action is.”
“You can stay in the other part of the bungalow duplex, flyboy,” Tom offered. “Dad and I are heading home. Been quite a night!”
“Glad to have you stick around and keep me company, Bud,” Ted remarked. “You can be my lookout for prowling transformer pots!”
At the plant the next morning the first order of business was to call the Ames cabin at the lake. As soon as Tom had ascertained that all was well, he accompanied Bud and Ted to the Enterprises infirmary and went inside with them. He wanted to make certain that the car crash had left no hidden injuries.
“You guys must think I’m not busy enough around here,” said Doc Simpson with a wry smile. As he made his examinations, he listened to their account of the night’s adventure and their suspicion that Hampshire might be the instigator of the accident.
“In case there’s any danger that one of you might fall into the hands of this fellow Hampshire or whoever’s behind this rough stuff,” Doc said thoughtfully, “it might be wise to take precautions.”
“Do you have something special in mind?” Tom asked.
“Yes. As you know, there are certain drugs which can be given to make a person talk, even against his will,” Doc Simpson began. “We call them truth serums. They’ve been around for decades, but some of the new formulas are the sorts of things you don’t want to fool around with.”
Bud snorted skeptically. “I thought all that was just in old movies on cable TV!”
“It isn’t. Now, if Hampshire or someone else did capture one of you, he might administer such a drug to force you to reveal whatever it is he’s really after.”
“That’s so,” agreed Tom. “For all we know, foreign agents could be back of all this. If they learned the details of some of our projects, it could even endanger our national security.”
“All the more reason to take no chances,” Doc urged. “You’ve allowed me to play scientist here at Enterprises as well as physician, and I’ve been developing a serum to counteract such ‘truth’ drugs. If you like, I could give you all a shot of it right now. I’m violating a few rules, but I’ve tested the stuff thoroughly and it’s perfectly safe.”
“An antitruth serum?” Bud repeated. “Tom, I think that’s a good suggestion.”
Tom agreed, as did Ted, so all three bared their arms. A nurse swabbed their skin with alcohol, and Doe Simpson then administered the serum by hypodermic needle.
“Boy, we didn’t know what we were getting into,” Ted Spring grinned as he rolled down his shirt sleeve. “Next time, I’ll keep my bumps to myself!”
Simpson chuckled. “Blame your boss. I cooked up the serum from some of the rare herbs used by the villagers in Borukundi.” He referred to the adventure recorded in Tom Swift in The Caves of Nuclear Fire.
As Bud sat down for his shot, Tom left the infirmary and headed to the plant administration building, stopping in Harlan Ames’s office. Ames had helicoptered back to Shopton the previous night.
“I don’t like any of this,” said Ames. “For gosh sake, Tom, watch your step.”
“Have you heard anything about that car?” Tom asked the security chief.
“Yes, I talked with Shopton P.D. a while ago. The car was reported stolen off a dealership lot in Hartford two days ago. No usable prints inside. This was all carefully planned.”
“Has the legal office been in touch with Hampshire?”
“He’s not returned their calls yet, though his office says he’s been receiving the messages.”
Tom shook his head, frustrated. “Maybe we’ll know more after I’ve had a chance to study those digital recordings I made last night. How about that pueblo site and the antenna business?”
“The New Mexico authorities say they want to deal with it—it’s their jurisdiction,” Ames replied. “But if we don’t get results soon… well, I’ve been known to cut bureaucratic corners now and then!”
Tom laughed. “Now I feel hopeful!”
In their shared office next door to Harlan Ames, Tom and his father conferred on the technical papers to appear on the new Enterprises website for its debut.
“Looks like a swell first ‘issue’, Dad,” Tom remarked enthusiastically.
“Yes indeed, son,” said Mr. Swift. “I think we can all be proud of ForeSite. You know, Tom, this has been a dream of mine ever since John Sterling and I founded Swift Enterprises. I look forward to the day when scientists all over the world can exchange their findings freely for the good of mankind.”
Tom, too, cherished the same dream. “I’m sure that day will come, Dad,” he asserted.
Gathering up the papers, he turned them over to a young secretary to be taken to the plant’s data-entry office. Miss Warner was substituting for the vacationing regular secretary, Munford Trent.
Tom went down to his main personal lab—his “thinkin’ hole”—and phoned Arv Hanson, asking him to join him there. Arv, a six-foot-four Scandinavian, was the Swifts’ chief modelmaking engineer. However much he resembled a lumberjack at first impression, Arv was fine precision craftsman. He turned out the delicately tooled models and working prototypes of all the Swifts’ major inventions.
“What cooks, Skipper?” asked Arv as he walked in. “Something new on your matter maker?”
“Special job I’d like you to handle,” Tom replied. “Sit down, Arv.”
He briefed the engineer on the tests of the solartron, telling of the need for a tremendous supply of energy to operate it. “For the time being, I’ll be continuing my experiments at the space station,” Tom went on, “using the solar battery manufacturing setup. Since I’ll be up in space, I’ll be able to test Matty full-throttle. That’s where you come in.”
“What do you have in mind?” Arv asked.
“As you know, the machine uses free hydrogen atoms as the raw material out of which it makes oxygen and other substances. At the Citadel I used tanked hydrogen, but I’m anxious to try out my idea for an ‘atom gatherer’ to be used in space.” Tom went on to explain that even in the thick of the “solar wind” of hydrogen continuously streaming from the sun’s inferno, the atoms were so widely dispersed that it would take great lengths of time to collect a sufficient number to convert to a usable volume of air for breathing. “The solar wind barely makes a dent in the vacuum of space.”
“I see. So what’s your approach?”
Tom picked up a series of sketches to show the modelmaker. They showed a pair of rectangular gratings, or grilles, comprised of a multitude of narrow criss-crossing tubes. “They look like garden trellises,” Hanson commented. “How big do you want the first models to run?”
Tom grinned. “Oh, not too big—about four acres ought to be plenty for test purposes.”
“Four acres!” Arv gasped. “For the prototypes? How in cosmic space do you expect to load them aboard the ship?”
The young inventor laughed pleasantly at his friend’s reaction. “I have a trick up my sleeve. The tubes that each of the atom-collector lattices is made of will be molded from a new kind of super-malleable metal foil I’ve developed—I’ll give you the formula. It’s really pretty amazing. It’s tough and durable even when milled down to a thickness less than a tenth that of a human hair! You can fold it into a tight bundle and then, by running a weak electrical current through it, the material will completely unfold itself and return to its original shape. Reverse the current and it folds up again. By my calculations each four-acre bundle of transifoil will fold down into a cube just a yard or so across, and so light in weight― ”
The two looked up with a start to see a cascade of bottles and equipment tumbling from a big metal shelving unit next to the lab door. At almost the same instant the door, which had been standing half-open, slammed shut.
“Someone was hiding behind those shelves!” Tom cried out in alarm and anger. “And listening to every word we said!”
JUMPING up from their chairs, Tom and Hanson rushed out into the corridor of the laboratory building, leaping across the slow-moving conveyor pathway, the ridewalk, that ran down its middle. But there was no sign of the mysterious eavesdropper in either direction. Checking the other laboratory rooms that fronted the long corridor, they found that no one had seen anything unusual.
“But he could have slipped into a lab not in use and forced open one of the windows,” noted Tom. “We have openable windows in some of the labs that have to be isolated from the air conditioning system.”
“He must have sneaked into your lab to get the lowdown on the plans for your new invention!” Arv said uneasily.
Tom nodded, his face grim. “Maybe. And he also must be an employee of Swift Enterprises.” It was an unpleasant thought that some trusted worker might be a spy. Yet no outsider could have slipped in past the ingenious radar system that monitored all visitors entering the grounds of the experimental station. And in truth, the company had dealt with disloyal employees on more than one occasion.
“I’ll call Security and ask Ames to make a check,” said Tom, returning to the lab.
But the resulting security check turned up nothing worthwhile. “As far as I can tell, nobody was out of place anywhere on the grounds,” Ames told Tom an hour later. “But tell me this, boss. Is there something about your solartron, or this new atom-collector component, that would make spying or stealing worth the risk of getting caught?”
The young inventor shrugged. “The machine itself has a great potential for use in space colonization,” he replied. “But I don’t see much use for it in daily applications here on Earth. It’s not like you can manufacture gold or diamonds with it. Just oxygen and nitrogen is hard enough!”
Yet by the noon hour the purpose of the lab break-in had become all too apparent. “The digital chip has been stolen!” Tom exclaimed over the phone to Ames. “I had left it here in the lab last night, for downloading and analysis today. It’s gone! It looks like somebody riffled through the cabinets until he found it.”
“You almost caught him in the act,” noted Harlan Ames. “When he heard you approaching in the hall, he ducked out of sight, then made his way behind the shelving and out the door.”
“That’s the way it must have been,” agreed Tom mournfully. “I was a chump not to lock that chip away securely.”
“How do you suppose they knew you’d made the recording?”
“Not a clue, Harlan,” said Tom. “You and I talked about it earlier—do you think your office might be bugged?”
“Not this office!” snorted the former Secret Service agent. “My office, and yours next door, are electronically secured from any invasive electronic equipment of that kind.” The matter remained a frustrating mystery.
The remainder of the busy week passed quickly for Tom as he worked with Arv to create the prototype atom-collector screens. There were no further incidents—and no explanations, either. Even the cause of the problems on the Sky Queen was unaccounted for, although Hank Sterling pronounced himself satisfied that it had originated in the control computer and had been corrected by completely reprogramming it.
At the back of Tom’s thoughts was a further mystery. Bud seemed to want to discuss something with Tom that was evidently weighing upon his mind. The first few times he had joking tried to pull his friend aside, Tom had politely put him off, pleading the special demands of his current work. After a few such attempts, Bud appeared to abandon the effort. When Tom was finally able to give him some time, Bud shrugged off Tom’s queries and engaged in his usual banter.
Reaching home late one night after an especially long day of arduous work, the young inventor forced himself to retire at once. He fell asleep almost as soon as his grateful head accepted the invitation of his pillow.
It seemed only minutes later when Tom was awakened by the muted but piercing chortle of his bedside telephone. He groped sleepily for the instrument and glanced at the luminous clock readout above the keypad.
Twenty past two! he groaned inwardly. “Hello?—Tom speaking.”
A man’s muffled voice spoke. “Don’t think you’ve outfoxed us, Swift. We know exactly where you’ve stashed the Spring family. Until we get what we want, the Springs aren’t safe—or you and your family either!”
“Who is this?” Tom snapped, now thoroughly awake. He was trying to figure out if the speaker was one of the men he had overheard in the woods.
The man gave a growling chuckle. “I’ve been listening to that neat little recording you made the other night, Tom. I’ll put your mind at ease—it wouldn’t have helped you. In fact, it would have scared you, hearing our plans.
“Now I’ll let you get back to bed. I’m sure that big brain needs to cool down and rest. Maybe you’ll think over what I’ve said. We don’t want any more accidents, do we?”
The receiver clicked off at the other end of the line, replaced by the dial tone. Realizing there was no way to trace the call, Tom hung up as well. He lay awake for nearly an hour, mulling over the threat. “Accidents”! There was no question now but that he, as much as Ted Spring’s family, had become involved in some mysterious plot that could quickly turn deadly!
But what exactly is the reason? he kept asking himself. What are they after? What do they want from Ted? He recalled that the voices in the woods had mentioned “docs”—documents. What sort of documents? Something concerning Dakin Spring’s jet crash?
The next morning, conferring with his father and the other key personnel trying to unravel the conundrum—Enterprises attorney Willis Rodellin, Ames, and Ames’s assistant Phil Radnor—it became clear that progress, if any, was coming with aching slowness.
“I still haven’t been able to confront Hampshire,” said Rodellin angrily. “Now his office says he’s off on vacation and unreachable. By the time this is over with, I’ll see him disbarred!”
“Harlan and I are pursuing an idea as to your mystery lab intruder, Tom,” Radnor reported. “Better not get into it just yet, but we may have something to tell you soon.”
Two days later, after making final preparations for the trip to the orbiting outpost, Tom, Bud, Ted, and Mr. Swift flew to Fearing Island aboard the Sky Queen for the liftoff into space. The other skyship passengers included Sandy, Bashalli, Chow Winkler, and Doc Simpson. Tom’s father was making a second trip to the outpost to resume an experimental project he had been working on, while Simpson, on his first flight into the void after completing his training, intended to make some space medicine observations.
Fearing Island, the Swifts’ spacecraft research base and rocket-port, was a thumb-shaped stretch of sand dunes and scrubgrass. It lay not far off the Georgia coast and was guarded by drone planes and the Swifts’ patrolscope radar security system.
Landing at the island airfield, the travelers drove immediately to the special launching area for the Challenger as a large crew of workers began shuttling the solartron equipment from the Flying Lab’s hold to the spaceship. The great craft gleamed in the Atlantic sun with tones of silvery bronze and a bright trim of yellow and red.
Both girls were electrified by the exciting adventure awaiting them. “Just think,” murmured Bash, gazing in awe at the powerful yet strange-looking craft, “the Challenger has actually been to the moon!”
Bud added proudly, “She may not look very streamlined, but this baby can travel like a comet.”
A multistory boxlike crew cabin, poised between hydraulic struts above and below, was encircled by a framework of sturdy, gracefully arching rails. These served as tracks for the radiator antennas which beamed out the repelatron force rays that propelled the ship. This drive system could be used to push the ship in any direction by exerting a repulsion force against the earth, moon, or other heavenly object near at hand.
“All aboard!” Tom called, after a last-minute check with the mechanics and ground crew. “We can wait inside the ship for the loading to finish.”
Bud called attention to a pair of bulky-looking greenish cubes that were being unloaded from a truck bed. “Are those your folded-up atom-snatchers, genius boy?”
“Right,” he replied, grinning at Bud’s nickname from the collector lattices. “Made of transifoil. And you were part of that discovery, Bud! The material includes chains of piezoelectric crystals—which change size and shape when electricity passes through—from that rare-earths mine we found when we went after you and Slim Davis in New Guinea. Matter of fact, flyboy,” he added, “I almost called it Barclaytium!”
“But I knew it would offend your natural modesty.”
“Rrrrright,” Bud responded darkly.
Inasmuch as the several elevators that descended from the underside of the cabin fuselage were being used by the loading team, passengers and crew trooped up the extensible accommodation ladder to the landing platform which projected from the front of the cabin. The landing platform was used for small auxiliary craft which could be berthed inside the ship’s adjacent hangar compartment.
“Brand my achin’ elbows!” Chow huff-and-puffed. “Nobody said we ’as gonna climb our way up t’ space!”
Entering through an airlock, the space voyagers were whisked upward by elevator to the flight deck one level above the hangar. Here a pair of bucket seats for the pilot and copilot stood in front of twin view windows of lightweight, unbreakable Tomaquartz, coated, like the rest of the vessel, with transparent Inertite to ward off the dangerous radiations of space.
“Jeepers!” Sandy gasped. “Just looking at all those dials and control levers gives me a thrill! Tomonomo, do you really think I can learn to fly this ship?”
“Sure you can, sis.” Tom grinned. “You’ve been doing great in the simulator. Remember, the real work of flight control is done by electronic brains in the computer room.”
“I do not require the jeepers, as I am quite confident in myself,” Bash remarked. “But Thomas, I am glad we don’t have to be strapped down on acceleration cots, like the first astronauts with the crewcuts. That’s what scares me about these rocket ships—the awful shock at the blasting-off.”
“Scares me too,” put in Chow. “Had more’n enough of it flyin’ up to the space station when we ’as buildin’ her, and when we went up to that there phantom satellite.”
“On this ship you can relax in perfect ease,” Mr. Swift assured his daughter and her good friend. “I have taken the ride several times now. The repelatron force rays apply a smooth flow of power so we can accelerate gradually, instead of in a few terrific bursts.”
“And,” Bud added with a wink, “you don’t need to wear spacesuits, so you won’t muss your hairdos!”
“Budworth, your thinking is most retro,” commented Bashalli. But she smiled at him warmly.
A warning buzzer sounded, and they all took their assigned positions, most merely standing behind Tom and Bud, who operated the controls. There was no need to be strapped in.
A voice from the Island tower crackled over the speaker: “Fearing Flight Control to Challenger. You are cleared for liftoff. Have a good trip!”
“Thanks, Amos,” Tom replied. “Hold down the island!”
Tom switched on the repelatron circuits, and a pattern of glowing color flashed onto the element selector panel on the control board in front of him. “Sandy, now that you’re an expert, why don’t you narrate what I’m doing?”
“Watch those lights, lady and gentlemen—and Bud,” Tom’s sister told the watchers. “Those colored patches show where the target elements are, and their distribution. Each one of the repelatrons has to be fine-tuned to the chemical make-up of the object it has to repel—in this case, the different parts of the ground below and around us. The pilot and the computer work together to get the best mix.”
As she spoke, Tom’s hands flew busily over the controls. “What I’m doing now,” he added to Sandy’s explanation, “is sliding the different repelatrons along their rail-tracks to create the most efficient and balanced array for ground thrust. Get ready!”
Everyone could tell the moment Tom fed power to the repelatrons. Like a sculpted cloud of gleaming metal, the Challenger soared upward into the blue with a smooth, powerful motion!
“This is known as a bouncing-ball take-off,” Bud wisecracked to the girls as they gasped in pleasure and awe, gasps shared by Ted Spring and Doc Simpson.
“Seriously, that’s just about what happens,” Tom said. “The repelatron force rays push us away from the earth—or whatever object we aim at—just like a ball on the rebound.”
As the earth fell away below them, the passengers crowded close to the viewpanes. Now rising with a constant velocity, Fearing Island gradually dwindled to a mere speck on the blue-green waters of the ocean.
“Tom, its amazing to think how far science has progressed,” said Doc Simpson gravely. “Not so long ago, people laughed at the possibility of space flight, just as they once did at the germ theory of disease.”
“And who knows what marvels lie ahead!” added Mr. Swift.
“What lies ahead for me is my first taste of outer space,” chortled Ted with happy enthusiasm. “Look out there, folks—not even noon and it’s starting to get dark!”
The deep blue vault of sky turned indigo, then satiny-black—and then a pure black so intense it seemed almost like a solid thing, scattered with endless crystalline stars. The roundness of the earth began to show in the curvature of the horizon. Presently, off to the east, the travelers could make out something of the shorelines of distant Africa.
“An angel’s-eye view!” murmured Bash.
“You kin see jest about half the whole blame world from up here, ladies!” exclaimed Chow. “I don’t like t’ say it, an’ you kin fergit I ever did—but it makes even ole Texas look a mite small.”
With the world of man left well behind and below, Tom moved to set a parabolic course that would smoothly take them to the space station, floating 22,300 miles above South America at the equator. Punching a final button, he lounged back in his pilot’s scat. “Look! No hands!” Tom chuckled with a suave careless gesture.
The mood was instantly broken as a half-dozen alarm buzzers blared forth from the control panel!
“Skipper!” Bud shouted in warning. “Something’s gone wrong!”
The next moment the entire spacecraft gave a violent shudder. Then the deck began to tilt—slightly, then dangerously.
“Great suns!” cried Doc Simpson in horror. “The ship’s turning upside down!”
“WE’RE starting to tumble,” choked out Ted Spring. The deck had now assumed such an extreme slant that the standing passengers, still under the influence of gravity from the nearby earth, were forced to stumble back against the rear bulkhead and brace themselves against it.
“Son,” called out Mr. Swift as gently as possible, “is the problem in the repelatrons?”
The reply was terse. “No. Something else.”
“Let’s use the ’trons to push us back upright,” Bud urged.
Tom did some quick calculations. “Nothing at that angle available for us to repel.”
“Not in range,” replied the young space pilot tensely. “It’d take minutes for the field-beam to get there.”
“Boss, I—I don’t think we got too dang many minutes left!” gulped Chow. The bulkhead wall was now halfway to horizontal, and the craft’s somersault seemed to be accelerating!
“Everyone remain cool and calm!” Bashalli commanded forcefully. “Do not distract our pilot!”
Tom and Bud nursed the controls with cool efficiency, hands darting back and forth. Acting on a sudden hunch, Tom disengaged the main control computer and flew the ship by the seat of his pants for a minute. To his relief, the Challenger began to right itself.
“The gyros are back on line,” Bud announced gratefully. “Jetz!—what a scare that was.”
As the deck leveled and relieved breaths were exhaled, Ted approached Tom and Bud. “Guys—this is quite a bit like what went down on the Sky Queen the other week.”
“Very much ‘quite’,” Tom agreed.
“Sabotage?” asked Tom’s father.
“Of some kind or other,” responded the young inventor. “But not of a mechanical sort. It’s as if they’re introducing something into our computers that’s causing parts of the control programming to get loopy. Yet… we’ve protected the system against viruses and ‘worms’ and the like.”
“At least you can still fly this bucket the old fashioned way,” noted Doc. “By hand!”
Tom smiled and held both of his hands in the air to show that the Challenger was now remaining stable in its course without minute direction from its pilots.
“Why, it’s flying itself!” Sandy exclaimed. “Tom, this ship’s a dream!”
“Shucks, you ain’t seen a hair of it yet!” Chow bragged. “Jest wait’ll you see how I scoot around up here in my lil ole jet-perpelled space duds!”
“Why bother with a space suit?” Bud needled him. “We’ve been expecting you to take off for Mars in that shirt you’re wearing!”
Chow preened himself proudly as the others stifled their amusement. His latest cowboy shirt was patterned with a wild galaxy of stars and planets and—perhaps—exploding supernovae. “I designed this here number myself, buckaroo, an’ they made it up fer me in the tailor shop. You couldn’t buy another one like it fer love or money!”
“That I can believe,” Bud muttered joshingly.
They arced silently upward far beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the force of gravity slowly diminishing but not entirely absent. They were not yet in a free-fall trajectory but were still suspended atop the invisible columns of the repulsion rays. As the minutes passed Tom checked out Sandy and Ted on the Challenger’s controls, Bud assisting.
An attempted adjustment by Sandy caused a beeping sound that left her flustered for a moment. “Oh, my goodness! What did I do?”
Ted, smiling at her warmly, reached across and flipped a switch. The sound ceased. “No big thing, Swift-girl. You’re really picking up the technique fast—faster’n me, I think!”
Tom’s sister smiled demurely and reddened. “Thanks, Ted.”
“Skipper, if I needed anything to prove you’re a young genius, this’ll do fine,” Doc Simpson said, wide-eyed with amazement at the spreading panoply of stars.
“Take a bow, pal!” Bud grinned at Tom.
Bashalli rolled her pretty eyes. “Please, you must not encourage the growth of ego in this little room of ours. Here, there is not enough space!”
At length the Challenger had assumed a weightless orbit, and soon the Swift Enterprises outpost in space loomed into view. Those who had never before visited the space station gasped anew at the breath-taking spectacle. “Photos don’t do it justice!” exclaimed Ted.
The gigantic, silver-white satellite, turning slowly but otherwise seemingly hanging motionless in the cosmic void, actually was hurtling along in its orbit at 6,888 miles per hour. Antennas, polished reflectors, and a latticework optical telescope poked out from the fourteen-spoked wheel, and supply craft were parked nearby, floating stationary as the space-wheel turned. The tapering spokes, joined at a spherical hub, were set close together, and overall the space outpost somewhat resembled a thick, corrugated discus.
“Each spoke is a separate unit,” Tom explained to Bash in answer to a question. “Some are designed for crew’s quarters or laboratories, one is an astronomical observatory, and others are assembly lines for charging solar batteries. Those big reflectors you see are to focus the sunlight in on― ”
Bud suddenly broke in. “Problem, Tom! The repelatrons beamed at the earth won’t turn off—we’re not matching speeds with the outpost!”
Alarmed, Tom checked the controls and instruments hastily. He flicked several switches without result. “I can’t decrease the earth force.” He turned his attention to a separate set of control levers and knobs. “There—I’m shifting the radiators along their tracks to angle them away from the earth.”
“At least that works, son,” murmured Mr. Swift. “But—!”
By this time, the ship appeared to be rushing toward the space wheel at terrifying speed. In a matter of moments, they would crash!
“G-gallopin’ hoot owls!” Chow gulped, turning as pale as the stars on his shirt. “Can’t you back up this here flyin’ buckboard?”’
“Not exactly, but you’ve got the right idea, Chow,” Tom gritted as his strong fingers moved rapidly over the control panel. “I’ll aim the usable repelatrons at the outpost and slow us to a stop that way,” he said, trying to remain cool.
The passengers watched tensely as the ship gradually slowed into stable orbit close to the space station—its momentum neutralized by the forward repulsion rays.
“Quick thinking, Tom!” Mr. Swift congratulated his son.
“B-but how do we get over to the space station?” asked Bash nervously. “You will not launch us toward it like missiles, I should hope!”
Bud grinned. “This is where Chow does that Daring-Young-Man-on-the-Jet-Propelled-Trapeze act he was telling you about.”
“That may not be necessary,” Tom said, puzzled and thoughtful. “According to the instruments the repelatrons are responding to commands again, just as they should. I’ll maneuver the ship up to the docking corridor under the hub as we planned originally.”
In a minute the mammoth ship had mated with the tubular, pressurized corridor that extended from the very midpoint of the underside of the outpost’s hub section, Tom having given the Challenger a slight rotation to match that of the station. As a standard precautionary measure, everyone donned their assigned spacesuits, boots, and helmets. One by one, they went out through the ship’s airlock, feeling joyous and a bit giddy as they drifted along the corridor in the zero-gravity environment.
“I love this, Thomas!” cried Bashalli over her suit transiphone as she floated serenely. “It is enough to make me overlook the ghastly scarlet color of these taste-free outfits you scientific couturiers have cooked up for us.”
“Well,” noted Sandy, “at least we can see each others’ faces through our nice stylish fishbowl helmets.”
“Which is a feature I happen to appreciate, Sandy,” added Ted Spring.
Tom and Damon Swift brought up the rear. When father and son finally entered the space station and pulled off their helmets, they were greeted by Kenneth Horton, commander of the outpost, a strongly-constructed man of about thirty, with dark, close-cropped hair.
“Welcome, strangers!” he greeted them, shaking hands with the two Swifts. “Tom, I’m eager to hear about this matter-making machine of yours.”
A former Signal Corps officer, Horton had become one of the Swifts’ first space trainees and had helped to build the station.
“The machine’s still experimental, Ken,” Tom replied. “I’m hoping to perfect it up here—hopefully without throwing the station out of orbit!”
In the interim it seemed that Sandy and Bashalli had used the negligible gravity conditions of the hub as an excuse to drift close to Horton. “Oh, Ken, you’ve just got to get down to Earth more often!” Sandy cooed. “That wonderful tan of yours is going-going-gone!”
Horton laughed. “You’re so right. The Swifts insist I take a vacation earthside every few weeks. But to tell you the truth, it’s up here in space that feels like the real vacation—and I’m not much for commuting!”
“The low gravity seems not to have deteriorated your muscles, we have noticed with interest,” put in Bashalli. “Perhaps Doctor Simpson should examine you—as a space medical phenomenon, that is.”
As Ken seemed ill at ease in the face of the girls’ enthusiastic appraisals, Tom grinningly introduced him to Ted Spring and Doc Simpson. Then Tom sought out some of the outpost’s crew of technicians to discuss temporarily adapting the solar battery facility to his use.
Hours later, as Tom was making his way to his small private cubicle in the living quarters module, he paused at Ted’s open compartment door. The young cadet was slumped on his cot in a hopeless, dejected attitude, hands clasped. Tom felt a pang of concern.
Had Ted succumbed to the unpredictable “space sickness” which often struck new recruits on their first trip into the void?
KNOCKING politely and stepping over to the young cadet, Tom laid a hand gently on his shoulder. “Feel all right, Ted?” he asked.
Ted looked up, forcing a smile. For a long moment he hesitated, as if not sure what to say. “Sure, T-man. I-I’m okay. Glad to be here. Just a bit worried about the folk, that’s all. They’re mighty cut off from the world out in that cabin.”
“We’ll check right now,” Tom promised. “Come with me.”
Leading the way into the communications center in the hub, he asked the com operator to contact Enterprises by way of the Swifts’ private satellite relay network. Scant minutes later Harlan Ames’s voice came over the speaker with perfect, robust clarity: “What’s up, Tom?”
“Ted’s worried about his mother and Ray,” Tom explained. “Have you heard anything from them since we left Shopton?” he asked, as Ted bent forward to catch the answer.
“I talked to Mrs. Spring just a while ago, Ted,” Ames reported. “She and Ray are fine, but she said she’d just had another phone call from Hampshire.”
“From Hampshire?” Ted broke in anxiously. “But how did he find out she was there? How could he have gotten the number?”
“Frankly, I don’t know,” Ames admitted. “Maybe from that same spy who sneaked into Tom’s lab. Believe me, we’re just as concerned as you are. In fact― ”
Ted interrupted again, impatiently. “What did Hampshire say?”
“He made no threats, thank goodness,” Ames answered. “Just laughed about how we’d failed to outwit him. He said to Mrs. Spring, ‘Here I am trying to do you a favor, and you run away from me!’”
Tom and Ted were alarmed by these developments. “Do you think that they’re in any danger?” Tom asked Ames.
“Definitely not,” the security man replied. “I’m having two guards fly up there this evening. The men will be in constant touch with us here at the plant. As I told you, there’s only one narrow road leading to the property—and if any unidentified plane should appear, the guards will notify us at once.”
Ted brightened immediately when he heard these arrangements. After sending a message to be relayed to his mother and Ray, the two young men signed off. “We owe a lot to Mr. Ames,” said Ted.
“Feel better, pal?”
As the boys left the communications center, Ted asked, “What’s the first step on your experimental program, T-man?”
“To assemble my solartron and run off another test,” was the answer. “Tomorrow, after my sleep period, I’ll work on modifying the solar-power setup. All I can do is hope it’ll finally give me the amps Matty needs!”
The various parts and subassemblies of the solartron had already been unloaded from the Challenger. As the dawnless “morning” arrived hours later, Tom set them up in his private laboratory spoke with the help of Ted and Bud. With no gravity to contend with—just the slight force due to the outpost’s rotation—this was easily accomplished.
“How about your power hookup?” Bud asked.
“I’ll use a bank of solar batteries,” Tom said; “a whole hundred of ’em! They’ll stay right on the line so the sun’s rays will be constantly recharging them.” He added that he would have to move and reorient one of the big solar reflectors to make the system work with maximum effect.
Within an hour, the matter-making machine was ready to operate. Sandy and Bashalli and Mr. Swift came to watch as Tom closed the main switch. With a loud hum, the current throbbed into action. Tom grinned as he saw the needle dart upward on the main ammeter.
“Good?” asked Sandy.
“Very good!” Tom replied. “This setup already gives me much more current than I had at the Citadel. But I don’t dare run the solartron for too long before I’ve got that recharging reflector in place.”
Until the atom-gatherers could be used, the matter maker relied upon a tank to supply the hydrogen it required. Soon Tom was able to draw off a steady flow of gas from the machine. “Pure oxygen—and plenty of it!” Tom exulted, after testing the gas with a Swift Spectroscope.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Bash, looking at Tom proudly.
“Amazing!” was Mr. Swift’s verdict. “If the collector panels function as well as this power setup, you’ll have solved all the basic difficulties, son. I can only hope to be as successful in my own experiments.”
Powering down the solartron, Tom announced that as soon as he had adjusted the solar reflector mounted on the hull of the factory spoke, he would begin to deploy the huge atom-gatherer lattices stored aboard the Challenger.
“Okay now, big brother, here’s something I just thought of,” said Sandy. “If those collector panels will be floating off in space somewhere, how do you plan to pump the atoms from there to here?”
“Through long, flexible tubes of Tomasite plastic, with transifoil strips running along their lengths to cause them to uncoil,” explained the young inventor. “They’ll connect with the station hub through a special sealed coupling that can rotate smoothly along with the station.” He reminded Sandy that even using the atom-snatchers, the actual gas pressure would be very low.
Recruiting the help of Ted Spring and several of the outpost’s trained extravehicular technicians, Tom explained the job and ordered his work party into their spacesuits.
Chow Winkler, who was itching for an excuse to join them and get some exercise, slipped into the galley section and returned with a coil of rope he had brought with him to the station. “Boss, you reckon mebbe I could go outside an try throwin’ a few loops while you hombres are workin’? Allus wondered what it’d be like, doin’ rope stunts where nothin’ can fall down lessin’ it tries hard!”
Tom grinned at the roly-poly cook. “Sure, pardner. Hop into your space duds!”
One by one, the work party emerged through the station air lock. The brilliant sunshine which Tom planned to tap divided every object starkly into halves, pure glittering white and, on the other side, an inky black only partially relieved by the reflected shine from the great blue ball of Earth.
As Tom, Ted, and Bert Everett, one of the station techs, used the tiny micro-thrusters built into their suit material to jet across to the factory spoke, two other crewmen mounted compact jet scooters and headed toward the waiting Challenger to haul the bulky bales of foil out into space.
Chow, standing on the spoke-module next to the one bearing the solar reflector and clamped firmly in place by the force of his magnetic boots, acted especially frisky. “Brand my cosmic sagebrush, I sure wish I had a bronc to ride up here on this sky range!” he proclaimed over his suit radio. “Then I’d really show you buckaroos some fancy stunts!”
“Maybe I can oblige,” Tom signaled back. “I can tell you where to find a horse in space!”
“Uh-huh. You funnin’ me again?” Chow demanded suspiciously, twirling his lariat.
“No—on the level, Chow,” Tom replied.
“Okay then, whereabouts kin I find this space-hoss?”
“A mere nine hundred trillion miles away.” The crewcut young scientist-inventor chuckled. “He’s Pegasus, the Winged Horse constellation.”
“Know’d you ’as pullin’ my leg,” grumped Chow with a mock glare at his beloved boss through his transparent bubble helmet.
Under Tom’s supervision, the curving solar reflector, composed of a myriad of mirrorlike facets, was detached from its pivot and the small motor which constantly rotated it so that it faced the sun at all times as the outpost turned about its axis. After Tom had manually changed the angle of the pivot shaft, Ted and Bert, at opposite ends of the wide reflector, carefully pushed it back toward the module so that Tom could reinsert it properly.
“Keep it aimed away from old Sol until I have the insulators in place,” Tom warned his men.
As work progressed, Chow happily twirled his lariat and practiced tossing a loop around an unused antenna bracket on the station’s hull. At first he found it difficult to control his toss while encumbered by his bulky suit. The lack of gravity also made him misjudge his first throws badly. But Chow had a certain knack, and soon the old cowpoke was lassoing the target with expert skill.
“Nice going, old-timer!” Ted applauded—unheard space clapping. “How about giving me a try at it?”
“Why sure, tenderfoot,” said Chow. “If’n you jest keep right on practicin’ mebbe one o’ these days you’ll be almost half as good as an old-timer like me!”
Tom and the other crewmen roared with laughter at Chow’s comeback. But Ted had momentarily let go of his end of the reflector and it was slowly drifting out of reach. He stretched out a gauntleted hand, but in his relative unfamiliarity with the space environment he bumped it further away instead as the reflector began to turn sideways.
“No sweat—I’ll get it,” radioed Bert. He let loose his side of the apparatus and began to drift across its concave surface.
“Bert—no!” Tom warned in sudden alarm. “You’re going into the focal point!”
A startling scream came ripping through the void over the workers’ transiphones. To their horror, Tom and the others saw Bert’s space-suited figure writhing in sudden agony! His limbs thrashed wildly, but he seemed unable to move from the spot he had floated to. The technician’s scarlet pressure suit seemed to be outlined in a nimbus of dazzling white light.
Ted did not waste a second in puzzling out the situation. He triggered his suit microjets and darted to aid the helpless space-walker. But as he approached Bert, Ted felt a wave of searing heat pass through his transparent helmet and even the fabric of his suit.
In a flash Ted realized what was causing it! The reflector had been turned toward the sun. Like a burning glass, it was concentrating the sun’s rays directly on the spot where Bert Everett was trapped! Not only Bert, but anyone who tried to rescue him, would literally be broiled alive!
“Chow! Get Bert out of here with your lariat!” Tom screamed into his suit mike as Ted veered away from the danger zone, shooting Tom a helpless look.
Chow responded with the cool skill of a veteran of the western range. Adjusting the noose of the rope in his big hands, he coiled it in a twinkling and swung the loop above his head. A second later the lariat snaked out through the void and settled around Bert’s struggling shoulders. With a yank, Chow dragged the victim to safety!
Cheers rose from the watching crewmen, including the two working on the atom-gatherers. But they died away in shocked silence after a glimpse at Bert’s deathly pale features.
Both Bert and Ted were hustled into the station infirmary as Tom called for Doc Simpson over the public address speaker. In the infirmary compartment the regular outpost medic, joined by Doc, stripped off their spacesuits and began to treat the scorched victims. Fortunately, Ted was shaken but unscathed by his brief exposure. Bert Everett, however, had suffered a severe shock from the intense rise in temperature inside his suit. Only its Tomasite sheathing had kept him from instant death. He was put to bed immediately and an intravenous line was inserted to restore his fluids.
“What happened?” Ted asked, as he and the other crewmen stood by Bert’s side, still stunned by their comrade’s accident,
Tom picked up Bert’s discarded spacesuit and examined it. “The heat from the reflector fused the fuel pump mechanism so he couldn’t fire his thrusters,” Tom explained. “Without them, he had no way of moving out of the concentration point once he’d stopped!”
Bert grinned up at them wanly from his bed. “It was like one of those nightmares where you find yourself rooted to the spot!”
“How do you feel?” Tom asked sympathetically.
“A bit dehydrated, but otherwise okay. By the way, Chow”—Bert turned to the wide-waisted Westerner—“thanks for hauling me out. If you hadn’t lassooed me, I’d be lookin’ like a toasted marshmallow right now!”
Chow began to protest modestly, but Tom, putting his arm around Chow’s shoulders, declared: “You deserve a medal, pard!”
“Jest showin’ what a old-timer kin do!” responded the cook, flushed with pleasure.
Others in the great space station, having heard Tom’s panicky voice on the loudspeaker, now crowded into the infirmary—Mr. Swift, Sandy and Bash, Ken Horton, and finally Bud Barclay, knuckling sleep from his eyes.
After Bert had narrated what had happened, Bud said, “And there I was on my sleep period! Guess I really missed your moment in the, er, sun, Chow.”
“Bert’s going to be all right,” noted Ted Spring. “That’s the main thing.”
Sandy said, “I’m just glad you’re going to be all right, Ted.”
“I will be now,” he replied suavely.
During the course of the infirmary’s hubbing and bubbing Bud had slipped out unseen, a sly grin on his lips. In a sort time he returned. He was carrying a small loosely wrapped package. “For you, Chow,” he announced, handing it to the chef. “A small token of my esteem, ya big ol’ rope-wrangler.”
Grinning proudly, Chow unwrapped the package. The next moment his grin turned to open-mouthed amazement. Inside lay a small green Texas lizard! Its beady eyes stared up at the weathered cowpoke as its throat pouch slowly pulsed in and out.
“Great balls o’ fire!” For a moment Chow could scarcely believe his eyes. Then he turned to Tom. “Brand my prairie cactus, boss, did you make this here critter with that machine o’ yours?”
“NOT guilty, pardner!” Tom laughed. “This is definitely a Barclay special!”
Chow was baffled. “Well, brand my wild turkey soup, where did this come from?” he muttered, stroking the lizard with his finger. “Poor li’l varmint—I’ve never seen one so far from home before!”
“Confidentially, it just arrived by flying saucer,” Bud said with a straight face. “Tom’s space friends figured you deserved a reward for ‘extraordinary valor in outer space’!”
As Chow glowered at him suspiciously, Bud exploded with laughter. “Okay, okay. I just borrowed it—don’t know if it’s a him or a her—from the zoology lab! But it’s the sentiment that counts.”
Chow gave his young friend a good-natured nod. He was touched by the sight of the little reptile from his home range. “Jest for that, buddy boy, I’m a-keepin’ this critter fer my own mascot,” he declared in his usual foghorn tones. “I’ll call him Li’l Ole Alamo.”
Tom smiled, patting Chow on the back. “You’ve earned him. And now, how about you and Alamo working up some grub, pardner?”
The stout Texan beamed. “Comin’ right up, boss! What with ever’body else doin’ experee-mints around here, it’s about time I rolled out a few o’ my own.”
“Bud will be first in line, won’t you?” said Bashalli blithely as the young pilot gulped.
After a quick lunch of cosmic-spiced frankfurters and baked beans, Tom prepared to give his matter-making machine another, more demanding tryout. The solar reflector was turned to face the sun, providing the full battery-changing setup all the power required for extended use. In space a couple hundred yards from the outpost, the two bales of folded transifoil floated at the ends of their output-tube links.
“Don’t you have to unfold them, amigo?” Ken Horton asked Tom.
“Sure do,” the young inventor replied. He turned to a small crowd of watchers gathered at one of the spoke’s several small viewing portholes. “Ladies and gentlemen—the Remarkable Tom Swift Atom-Snatcher!”
Tom threw a couple switches. At first there was no obvious effect, and Tom received a few curious glances. Then Bashalli gasped. Bit by bit, fold by fold, the four-acre collector lattices were opening up! Several minutes later the pair of rectangular grilles stood flat and rigid, gleaming in the harsh sun-glare. They floated in parallel, separated by what appeared to be five hundred feet or so.
“Tom, how come there are two of ’em, anyway?” Ted Spring asked.
“Because they work together, like two sides of a trap. The flux—which extends some ways out into space, incidentally—causes the hydrogen atoms to slow down in the area between the screens and forces them toward the tubes in the lattices. The atoms enter the tubes through submicroscopic pores and are electrically accelerated through the conduits and, finally, right into the solartron’s tank.”
As the solar-energy apparatus began to produce a stable current, Tom fed power to his machine. The laboratory hummed with the tremendous flow of electricity.
“How’s she perking?” asked Bud after several minutes had gone by.
Tom’s face wore a pleased grin. “Hydrogen input—solid! And Matty’s definitely making something in there—and a lot of it, too!” He drew off a quantity of gas and tested it. “Oxygen, folks! Good thing I arranged to pipe it into the station reserve tanks or we’d be space-happy on the stuff!”
“Are you going to try to make solid matter this time?” asked Ted.
Tom nodded as he studied the complex wave pattern on the oscilloscope and adjusted several tuning knobs. “We’ll try carbon first,” be explained. “That’s a basic element in all organic compounds.”
The young inventor stood by tensely as the test solartron throbbed with a slightly different tone. He watched the control dials like a hawk, making frequent adjustments as the needles flickered back and forth.
Minutes crept by, half an hour, then an hour. Finally Tom checked the receiving tank. It contained a thinly sprinkled deposit of a black powdery substance!
“Magic!” Bud exclaimed. “Don’t keep us in suspense, Tom. Is it carbon?”
Tom rubbed some between his thumb and forefinger. “Looks like carbon, all right,” Tom replied, his heart pounding. “But I’ll check to make sure.” He tested the substance with the Swift Spectroscope, then nodded without speaking. The room rang with hearty cheers from Tom’s friends, led by his father, his sister, and his best chum.
“Guess it works, doesn’t it,” Tom said quietly. His father gave him a warm hug.
After combining oxygen with the space hydrogen to make water, Tom concluded his experiments by trying to make one more element needed for food compounds—nitrogen. The results showed clearly that the solartron could generate the gas in usable quantities. “I’m afraid you’d have to run Matty for a few hours to get a cup of sugar out of him, though,” Tom remarked. “The guy’s mighty stingy!”
Noted Doc Simpson thoughtfully, “But if a team were stranded in space, even small quantities of carbohydrates could make the difference. There are high-efficiency edibles the machine could make that could keep someone alive for weeks, given sufficient water to drink.”
“Congratulations, son!” said Mr. Swift after carefully studying the matter maker’s readout figures. “Now how about lending your old Dad a little of that luck of yours! Perhaps a few of you fellows would like to help on my cosmic dust project?”
Tom, Bud, and Ted were eager to do so, and Bashalli and Sandy pronounced themselves eager to observe. Acting on Mr. Swift’s instructions, the astronauts took to space and rigged a powerful set of electrodes on the upper hub of the space wheel, facing away from the earth. The elder scientist busied himself setting up a special wave-generating apparatus inside the station, feeding to an oddly-shaped antenna coil on the hull.
When the apparatus was complete, Mr. Swift closed a switch, beaming out what he described as an ultrahigh-frequency ionization ray “of a sort.” Tom and his comrades checked the electrodes every few minutes. At first there was nothing to see, but after a couple hours the microscopic dust particles that drifted in space had begun to encase the electrodes in a blue-black crust, thin but visible to the eye. By the time Chow broadcast the dinner gong, the particles had formed a stone, possessing a metallic luster and looking somewhat like a small meteorite.
“Real stardust! Not bad for a first try.” Mr. Swift smiled as he examined the results. “But I seem to be up against the same problem you are, Tom—my process works rather slowly.”
“The particles may accumulate faster as the attracting surface increases in size, Dad,” Tom pointed out. “Let’s continue the experiment tomorrow. I’m eager to see how this works out. You could have a real breakthrough before we leave for Earth tomorrow noon.”
“Actually, Tom, Simpson and I have decided to stay behind on the outpost for a time,” said Damon Swift. “I have some ideas I’d like to try out without feeling rushed, and Doc is right in the middle of a lengthy medicine-production process that shouldn’t be interrupted.”
Tom nodded. “I’m mainly heading down in order to apply what I’ve learned up here to the final version of the solartron—the big ‘space’ model Hank and Arv have been assembling. The Challenger will be back in less than a week.”
Later, after closing down the galley after supper, Chow was hailed by Bud as he crossed through the central hub on the way to the spoke containing his sleep cubicle.
“Say there, Chow,” Bud said in muted tones. “I wonder if—would you mind stopping by my compartment?”
“This one o’ your jokes?”
“No, no!” Bud replied hastily. “It’ll just take a minute. I—I guess I wanted your opinion.” Glancing about, Bud lowered his voice further. “Y’see, pard, it’s sort of… private.”
Brow furrowed deeply, the Texan nodded and followed Bud to his quarters. Ushering his friend inside, the young pilot closed the airtight door, which sealed itself automatically. “These cubicles are designed to be soundproof,” he murmured. “That’s fine with me.”
Bud drifted down onto his cot and gestured for Chow to sit next to him. The grizzled cook shook his head.
“Do my best thinkin’ standin’ up,” he said with a paternal smile. “What’s on yer mind, son?”
Bud paused, then sighed. “I probably should talk this over with Tom,” he said slowly, looking down at his shoes. “At first I tried to, but—well, you’ll understand. It’s something that happened… well…” Bud suddenly looked up at Chow with an intense expression on his face. “You know that night I spent at Enterprises with Ted Spring, in the guest house? After the road accident? I mentioned it to you…”
Chow gulped and plopped down next to Bud on the cot. “Changed m’mind,” he declared. “Mebbe it’d be better fer me to start off sittin’ down after all!”
“I JEST want ya to know, buddy boy, that ol’ Chow ain’t some kind o’ Texas hayseed, like they make me out to be,” Chow continued, speaking rapidly and a bit breathlessly. “I’m a purty broad-minded sort o’ fella, son—and if you wanna make a joke about my broad beltline, you jest go right ahead. Like my own Pa once told me, You be true t’ your teeth an’ they won’t be false t’ you! Ceptin’ you’re supposed to apply it to yourself as a whole, not jest your teeth, savvy?”
“I think so,” replied Bud hesitantly.
“So go right ahead, let ’er rip, shoot ’er on out, Bud. Chips fall where they may!”
“Right! Good.” The youth brushed his dangling lock of black hair back from his forehead. “Well, pard—that night Ted told me he’s in love with Sandy.”
Chow gaped. “Hunh? Ted Spring? Sandy? Y’ mean, your Sandy?”
“That’s the one,” Bud confirmed with a weak smile. “Except she’s not exactly mine, is she, Chow? You can’t own a person.”
“Ya can’t?—guess you’re right. But― ”
“Ted was real polite, real sympathetic,” Bud went on. “He said he didn’t want to mess up any friendships. But—he said—the feelings had been sort of building up for a long time, years even. It made him feel guilty, but he couldn’t help it. Feelings are feelings. He hasn’t said anything to Sandy or to Tom. He thought I should know about it, and he wanted to know where I was—you get the picture.”
“Great gravy!” muttered the cook. “I heard tell o’ space operas—guess that means a soap opera in space! You two plannin’ to step outside and fight a duel?”
Bud burst out laughing. “No, nothing like that! If Sandy thought Ted and I were fighting over her, she’d punch us both out!”
“True enough. Modern wimmin don’t take to it. If there’s any fightin’ they’ll plumb do it fer themselves, these here days.”
“So then, whatchew plan t’ do, buddy boy? Act like you’re seein’ someone else, mebbe? Make Sandy jealous?”
“Actually,” said Bud, “I figured I’d take it calmly and just go on being myself.”
“Naw, that’d never work,” Chow snorted. “That the best you kin come up with?”
The cowpoke rose to his feet. “Then t’make myself right plain, you got a problem. Sorry to say it.” He made for the door, then paused and looked back sympathetically. “But thanks fer askin’ my opinion. Makes me feel just a little smidge like a Dad. That wouldn’t happen otherwise, since I ain’t got m’self no kids of my own, far as I know. Guess I won’t never have any, neither—rate I’m goin’!”
He left Bud sitting with wrinkled brow and a half-smile.
The next morning Tom and his friends busied themselves with the disassembly of the solartron and the conveying of the parts back to the Challenger.
“And what about the rose trellises, Thomas?” Bashalli inquired, pointing through a porthole at the floating atom-snatcher panels.
Tom winked. “Keep your eye on em’!” Bashalli’s watchful eye became very wide as the young inventor flipped a pair of switches to the off position and the two atom-gatherers began instantly to fold up, precisely reversing the sequence of their unfolding. “See, Bash? Cut off the current, and the transifoil repeats itself backwards!” In minutes only two compact silver bales remained floating in space at the ends of their tube-lines.
Bashalli made a thoughtful sound and muttered, “Somehow I think there is a metaphor in this. But I shall leave it to the poets.”
The Challenger team bid farewell to Mr. Swift, Doc Simpson, and the outpost crew and boarded the majestic spaceship. The docking link was withdrawn, repelatrons activated, and soon they were hurtling along the long arc back to their native world. Tom and Bud were again piloting the ship manually and eyeballing the instrument outputs, lest the main computer have any more surprises up its microelectronic sleeve.
“So just where do things stand right now, genius boy?” Bud asked his pal, taking an unnoticed glance across the command cabin to Ted Spring, who was chatting with Sandy, who was chatting back.
Tom looked up from the controls. “If you mean in terms of the solartron project, what remains to be done is pretty difficult.”
“The power problem?”
“Yep. Still a roadblock. Now we know the matter maker works. But it won’t be practical unless I can find a lightweight, compact, mobile energy source that can pump out as many amps as the entire outpost battery factory!”
Bud whistled. “What about the cosmic energy converters here on the Challenger? They’re mighty hot stuff, Skipper—as I recall, they just about fried that blond crewcut of yours not so long ago.”
“Oh, I remember,” was Tom’s wry comment. “But even both the converters acting together can’t generate what we just had on the outpost.”
“Bet you already have an idea or two—right?”
Tom’s blue eyes took on a twinkle. “Well… I suppose so.”
“Out with it, chum!”
“Okay.” Tom swiveled his chair around. “I’ve been doing some calculations, and I think I can use Exploron as fuel for a super-dynamo no bigger than a loaf of bread—but packing the punch of several hundred solar batteries!”
Tom’s friend was astounded! “Exploron! You mean that antimatter gas from Mount Goaba? The stuff that disintegrates pretty much anything it touches? That Exploron?”
The young inventor laughed. “Hey, I see you remember it!”
Some time before, Tom and Bud had headed up an expedition to the jungles of central Africa to probe the mysteries of a strange taboo mountain, Mount Goaba, and the caves of nuclear fire that burned deep beneath it. Using an invention of Tom’s called the terrasphere, they had managed to recover samples of an anomalous physical substance in gaseous form which emitted antiprotons—subatomic particles capable of causing normal matter to disintegrate in a burst of incredible, deadly energy. Only the material Tom had named Inertite, also from the taboo mountain, was immune to the effect.
“You can see the point, can’t you, Bud?” Tom went on excitedly. “Imagine a small tank of compressed Exploron oozing just a trace amount into a reaction chamber containing some common, heavy-mass element—iron, for example—in vapor form. The matter-antimatter reaction is so energetic that we’d have more than enough power to run the solartron till the next millennium! Yet the mechanism itself could be extremely small.”
Bud plopped down in the other chair. “I understand what you’re saying. But good night, what about the danger of a super-nuclear blowup if just a grain of the stuff gets out into the open?”
“You’re absolutely right. The control and safety aspects are the toughest nuts to crack.” He grinned. “But since when has that stopped me?”
The Challenger cut through the atmosphere in a long, unhurried descent that barely raised its hull temperature. Finally Tom set her down on her four landing struts back home on Fearing Island.
As Sandy and Bashalli prepared to enter the ground access elevator, they ambushed Tom on either side with a simultaneous peck on both cheeks. “Oh, Tom, this was just wonderful—incredible!” Sandy declared.
“We thank you for letting us see real stardust close-up,” added Bash. “I made some lovely sketches, too.”
With a broad smile Tom asked if they were ready to take a longer trip—to the moon.
“First we have to go around and brag about this trip,” Sandy replied with a giggle. “Then we’ll see!”
The Flying Lab covered the course back to Shopton with its customary quickness, and by early evening Tom and Sandy were back home and regaling their mother with travel tales.
“By the way, dear,” Mrs. Swift said to Tom, “Harlan Ames called. He’d like you to call him at home this evening, at your convenience.”
Tom contacted the security chief after supper. “There have been some important developments here at my end, Tom. That theory Rad and I had worked up really paid off in spades!”
“You mean you’ve discovered who was spying on Arv Hanson and me that day?” asked Tom in surprise.
“Yes! We did a little of that digging and snooping we do so well—and our suspicions were pretty well confirmed when she stopped showing up for work!”
Ames chuckled. “Little Miss Warner, our temp!”
Tom was amazed—yet also chagrined. “Good gosh, Harlan, it makes so much sense it hurts! Sitting at that desk in front of our two offices, she was in a perfect spot to hear whatever she wanted to.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Ames. “And that includes our conversation about that recording chip. Evidently she overheard enough to dope out where it was, so she went to fetch it and got herself trapped in the lab when you and Hanson came in unexpectedly. It wouldn’t have been difficult for her to get ahold of one of the electric code-keys, and she has access to the office files in which the codes are listed. She already had a patrolscope amulet, of course.”
“And you’re saying she hasn’t been in to work?”
“Not for a couple days now. Rad and I thought we were being subtle, asking her some vague questions about her background—but she must have caught on.” He added that, although she had called in sick the previous day, today she had simply not shown up and was not answering her phone. “Captain Rock says he’ll send an officer around there tomorrow when she doesn’t show up again, ostensibly to check on her. Then he’ll bring her in for questioning.”
“This is great work!” Tom enthused. After a thoughtful pause, he added: “But if Dad were here, he’d remind us that we’re operating on assumptions, not proof. And even if Miss Warner turns out to be the thief, she may turn out to be the pawn or victim of somebody else.”
“Right,” agreed Ames. “Like Hampshire—or Lewton Ajax!”
Excited and energized, Tom went to Enterprises early the next morning to meet with Arv Hanson and Hank Sterling in the Barn. “Here she is, Skipper,” Hank exclaimed proudly. “The ready-for-space model of your matter maker!”
The new space solartron was a somewhat larger and more elaborate version of the test model Tom had been working with thus far. The round main casing was even more like a big bulging doughnut than before, with a curving indentation beneath as well as above its central point, the two hollows almost—not quite—connecting. The conical structure of disks above was now mirror-duplicated on the underside as well, and the entire machine was suspended above the concrete floor by a sturdy frame of metal struts.
“What a beauty!” the young inventor breathed in awe and pride.
“And she works too, far as we can tell,” grinned Arv. “But until you put together that new antiproton dynamo you mentioned, all we can do is cross our fingers.”
“It won’t be long,” Tom replied. “Before I get started on it, though, I have a few improvements to the atom-gatherers that should make them more efficient. That’s the goal for this morning.”
The atom-snatcher bales had been flown back to Shopton along with the other equipment. Tom now had one of the bales delivered to the Barn. With the help of Hank and Arv, he dragged the cube of material to the center of the floor and cleared a wide space all around it. Then, making a connection, he fed a current to the transifoil, and it began to unfold. “I’ll only unfold it a little ways,” explained Tom; “just the first few folds. I won’t need anything like the whole four acres for my experimentation.” The material was extremely tough, durable, and compressible; the tubes could be walked upon without harm, flattening down to the floor almost completely though the latticework was still piled in a number of layers.
“Hardly seems thicker than a few coats of paint when you step on it,” Hank joked.
The morning passed quickly, and as lunchtime approached, Tom told his friends to take a break. “I’ll keep working here for a time, though—tell Chow I’ll be by around one or so, would you?”
The youthful scientist-inventor fell into his usual deep concentration, working alone in the big arching chamber as the minutes ticked away.
A slight sound caught Tom’s ear. He stood up, glanced about absently, then turned.
A man stood behind him not twenty feet away, a strange, bulky weapon in his hand. He aimed it directly at Tom!
“This is it, Swift!” the man snarled, his face ghostly white. “For what you did, I’m going to kill you—now!”
TOM SWIFT had no time to reason with the man or think up any clever rejoinders. The man’s finger was already tightening on what was evidently a trigger!
Acting almost on sheer instinct Tom took an abrupt step sideways, kicking out with his left foot. The foot tangled with a loop of the electric power lead that was supplying current to the transifoil lattices. As the weapon made a popping sound and something unseen whistled past Tom’s ear, he jerked his foot upward violently.
He had barely an instant to note that the line had parted from its power connection—his adversary was already steadying himself to fire again!
Tom flinched in anticipation, and even as he did so the attacker cried out a yelp of surprise. The atom-snatcher panel upon which he was standing was starting to fold up, as if wrapping the man like a package! He tried to turn and escape but it was already too late. One square fold of latticework louvered onto another, forcing him to stagger backwards toward the center. He threw down the weapon—a pneumatic bolt-insertion “gun” used in assembly—and shrieked with fear, frantic to escape; but escape was impossible. In seconds he had become enmeshed in the folds of the bale, which had almost completely closed itself up around his struggling body like a ravenous Venus’s fly-trap!
Kicking the bolt-gun away across the concrete, Tom called security, heart pounding.
“Turn it off!” screeched Tom’s assailant. “It’s crushing me!”
“Calm down—and shut up!” Tom ordered. “It won’t hurt you. Unless, of course, you try to wriggle out, in which case it’ll skin you alive!” he added sardonically.
A security force of five came on the run, followed a moment later by short, stocky Phil Radnor. Tom caused the transifoil to stir just enough for the men to pull the attacker from its grip. He was trembling violently.
“You won’t get away with it!” he gibbered, glaring at Tom with wild eyes.
“Another nutcase!” murmured Radnor in disgust.
Tom held up a hand, indicating that the men should hold up for a moment. He gazed intently at their prisoner. “Get away with what?” he asked the man calmly, eyeing the name badge on his shirt. “What’s going on—Olvens, is it? What is it you think I’ve done?”
The man’s eyes darted about the chamber maniacally—and not entirely in sync with one another. Finally settling on Tom again, he spat out: “You know what you did. You had her killed! We were, she and I—now she’s― ” He broke down into a frenzy of helpless tears.
“The nurse in the infirmary will give you something to calm you, Olvens. She won’t hurt you,” said Tom gently. “Don’t be afraid.”
The men half-carried Olvens away, bagging and carrying off the bolt-shooter tool as well.
Shaken, mystified, Tom went to lunch, stopping by the security office afterwards. He found both Radnor and Ames sitting in grim silence as if awaiting him.
“His name’s Kirby Olvens,” said Ames. “Works over in the billing department. Shopton PD just took him away, but he may end up at the hospital for observation. They’re afraid he might be suicidal.”
“What do you suppose set him off?” Tom asked, bewildered and troubled. “Did he say anything that made sense?”
Ames and his assistant exchanged glances. “Enough to tie his attack in with something I just learned about within the last half hour,” Ames said in gruff tones. “Tom, I’m afraid Miss Warner is dead.”
The youth gasped in shocked dismay. “No!”
Phil nodded. “The police called us. When the officer went by her apartment, there was no answer to his knock. He called the station and got permission to force an entry. She was lying inside.”
“Do the police know what happened?”
“Suffocated—a pillow was held down over her face. The apartment was ransacked. They think it happened yesterday afternoon. She’d been packing, messily. Obviously she was preparing to skip town.”
Ames took over the story. “Near as we can figure, she and this fellow Olvens had become close romantically, starting the first day she came here. He went to her place late last night and found her, then took off on his own and made himself crazy. He told the police she had been almost hysterical the other day and had mentioned your name, Tom—she told him you and your Dad planned to make her ‘take the fall’ to cover up something you’d done. So he came after you.”
“Is he a suspect in the murder?” asked Tom.
“An obvious one,” Ames responded. “But Captain Rock says he’s skeptical—the evidence doesn’t really add up, and Olvens has a pretty good set of alibis for the time in question.”
Phil Radnor ran a hand through his hair. “Did we make this happen? By questioning her as we did, making her panic?”
“Drop it, Rad!” snapped Ames. “We did our job, and we did it professionally. Whoever she was working for must’ve decided not to risk her being apprehended and questioned.”
After further discussion, Tom radioed his father at the outpost and reported these events. The elder scientist was shocked and saddened by the occurrence, and very alarmed at its violence.
Forcing aside all distracting thoughts, Tom managed to complete his work on the atom-snatcher, and then proceeded on to fleshing out his ideas for the antiproton power device. By the time Bud came by to visit his chum, Tom had created a detailed preliminary sketch on the design flatscreen. It showed dual metal spheres connected by a thick cylinder bristling with thick high-load power lines.
After the youths discussed the dire events of the day, Tom gave a brief account of his invention to his friend, as he liked to do to clear his head. “You can almost see how it works just by looking at it. The two spheres are storage tanks—Exploron in one, the reactor gas in the other. The cylinder is mostly a filtration device, producing the finest, most attenuated spray imaginable, hardly more than a single molecule at a time. The challenge is aiming the two kinds of molecule at one another so they collide in the reaction chamber. It’s a little like fighting a duel by standing at opposite ends of the solar system—and trying to hit your opponent’s bullet in mid-flight somewhere around Saturn!”
“A duel, huh.” Bud gulped at Tom’s analogy.
“But I’ve made progress—the numbers all add up, flyboy! I’m sure it will work. I’m calling it an antiproton energine.”
Bud nodded. “Great name.”
Tom gave his pal a probing look. “Say, is something wrong?”
“Oh no, no.” Bud gave a weak grin.
“Well that’s good,” responded the young inventor; “because I’m in the mood to take a little trip across the U.S.—to New Mexico!”
“Gonna test your device at the Citadel?”
“I am. But that’s not the main reason.” He explained that while working intently on the energine, the possible solution to another problem has suddenly popped into his head. “That’s the way ideas happen sometimes, you know—when you’re focused on something else.”
“So what idea came a-poppin’, genius boy?”
“I think I know how our enemies have been fouling up our guidance computers, first on the Sky Queen, then the Challenger! I knew there was no way they could have physically got access to the systems. Then I remembered what you had seen at that pueblo.”
Excitement suddenly flashed across Bud’s face. “You mean that antenna?”
“Exactly, pal! I’ll bet these guys have devised a way to access some component of our computers remotely! They must be able to ‘beam in’ a signal that in effect re-programs—or at least scrambles—some key guidance subroutine. It drives the ships crazy!” In the case of the Challenger, Tom went on, the signal might have been transmitted from a small boat lying beyond the security perimeter of Fearing Island. “They might even have been in an aircraft and zapped the ship as she was on her way up through the atmosphere.”
Bud asked if Tom had shared his theory with Ames’s office. The youth shook his head. “Harlan has run into too many roadblocks trying to work through official channels. At the same time, I don’t want to put him in a delicate legal position, knowing in advance what we’re going to do.”
“And—what are we going to do?”
“You and I are going to visit that pueblo on our own. And this time we’re not taking no for an answer!”
THE BOYS crossed the continent the next day at supersonic speed, touching down at the Citadel before they had left Shopton, by the clock. It was a little after three in the afternoon. To avoid exposing the Sky Queen’s computers to any threat from the invasive antenna, they had taken a compact Swift Construction Company jet, which utilized a far simpler guidance and control system.
Tom worked until seven on his energine, a prototype of which had been quickly produced from his sketches and specs by Arvid Hanson and his assistant, Linda. Testing it out thoroughly in a heavily shielded vault, he pronounced himself completely satisfied at the end. “This absolutely solves the power problem in running the solartron on space flights,” he told Bud. “I’ll call Hank and have a finalized model installed in Matty, and we can test the whole setup in action during our next trip in the Challenger.”
“Right,” said Bud with a trace of nervous irony. “Assuming we make it through the night!”
Tom and Bud drove out to an isolated highway eatery, Darlita’s, for dinner. Then, the New Mexico skies alive with starlight, they headed on to the mesa of the pueblos.
“It closed to the public at six,” Bud pointed out. “I assume we’ll be using your native cat-burglar skills to get inside.”
Tom chuckled. “Just a few tricks I picked up from Jake the Cat! Actually, it won’t be easy—people are living there.”
“I’ll be keeping a lookout for Jeremiah Running Deer, or whatever his name is,” responded Bud. “I have the impression he has an itchy trigger finger. But if ol’ Jerry is involved in this plot, at least one other must also be—someone was inside that cave-house peeking out at me!”
As they neared the pueblo site, Tom drove the company car off the highway and into the desert, moving slowly so as not to raise a cloud of dust that might be noticed. He finally parked out of sight behind a low outcropping of rock. In moments the two were creeping stealthily toward the mesa—and now the bright starlight was their enemy!
Pausing as they came near, Tom took his electronic flashlight device and swept it back and forth, the light emitter switched off. When the LED blinked, he held it steady and plugged in a headphone mini-jack, allowing him to listen to its amplified sound output. He refocused it several times, then finally shut it off. “Just minor stuff, people chatting, pots clanking, TV. Not a sound out of that dwelling you pointed to. Sure it’s the right one, flyboy?”
“Definitely!” Bud whispered. “Of course, they may have moved the whole operation the next day, for all we know.”
“But it sounds as though there’s some kind of secret door, a hidden room of some kind. Even if they’ve pulled out, we might find some useful clues.”
They moved their way closer, coming across a chainlink fence that proved no barrier to two determined youths with plenty of muscle between them. Now they were on the grounds—private property, restricted!
“I can see the headlines in the Bulletin,” Tom murmured. “Famed Inventor Caught Trespassing!”
“That’d really turn Perkins on!” snorted Bud.
They stood in shadow at the base of the steep cliffs, gazing up at their destination. “Boots on!” Tom whispered. They replaced their shoes with the special climbing boots they had carried along, inventions Bud had nicknamed Tom Swift’s Wizard Walkers. Originally designed as part of the spacesuits used on the expedition to the rugged moonlet Nestria, the soles of the boots were densely covered by what looked like a dandelion fuzz, composed of thousands of microfilaments of Tomasite plastic. The flexible filaments worked their way into minute fissures or gaps in rock, allowing the wearer to handle steep ascents with a reduced danger of slipping. The Wizard Walkers also acted to muffle the sounds of the climb.
As Tom stepped to lead the way upward, his companion put a restraining hand on his shoulder and leaned close. “Remember, the dwellings right next to the one we want are in use—if anybody steps out on the ledge to smoke a peace pipe, we’re toast!”
They climbed easily to the tier where their destination loomed, a dark oval. Bud pointed silently—the dish antenna was still in place. Tom noticed that it was now aimed upward, like an ordinary satellite dish, not at the Citadel. Guess they’re covering their tracks, he thought. Too bad.
They pushed through the beaded curtain into darkness.
“A little further, please.” The voice was no less startling for being affable. Tom and Bud stiffened, and the voice—which Bud recognized as belonging to Jeremiah—went on smoothly: “No, don’t get shook. Not in your best interest to get holes shot through you. You’re both pretty easy to see, standing in front of the opening like that. Now step straight forward, two little steps.”
They did so, and could feel themselves being frisked. “No weapons,” muttered a husky second voice.
This voice Tom recognized. “Why Mr. Hampshire!” he said mockingly. “What a pleasant surprise this isn’t—in fact, it’s not even a surprise.”
“Sue me!” grated the attorney.
“Enough sarcasm,” Jeremiah said in tones that showed no hint of emotion. There was the sound of a click, and suddenly a wedge of bright light dispelled the darkness. A camouflaged door had been opened at the back of the rock-hewn room.
As their eyes grew accustomed to the sudden dazzle, Tom and Bud could make out the powerfully built man with the revolver, splash of platinum in his black hair and all, with the balding, snarl-faced Hampshire standing a little to the side.
“Before you start in with You’ll never get away with this, I want the both of you to walk slow and easy through this door,” said Jeremiah, moving his head slightly, but not his gun. “We’ll be right behind.”
They entered a small, square room, carved deeper into the underlying rock of the mesa, and Hampshire pulled the door shut after them. The room contained a variety of electronics consoles, a table, and several heavy wooden chairs. Jeremiah motioned for the boys to sit down, and Hampshire proceeded to tie them in place with a cord of strong cotton, plucking away Tom’s cellphone in the process.
“Hey—love the shoes,” taunted Jeremiah, holstering his revolver. Smiling, he gestured at one of the consoles. “Radar, keeping track of our vulnerable desert perimeter. Sound familiar, Tom? Bud? Not as sophisticated as what you good folks have over there in Nuke City. But it gave us time to get ready for you.”
Tom fixed him in a glare of determination. “Okay. Now what?”
With a conspiratorial wink, the Native American opened up a small refrigerator unit and withdrew a sealed vial. He then loaded two hypodermic syringes. “Either of you two allergic to any medications?” he asked in mock solicitousness.
“Knock it off, Prentiss!” Hampshire demanded. “Let’s get down to it.”
The man named Jeremiah Prentiss approached Tom, holding up the hypo for the young inventor to see. “Tonight’s designer drug has been shown, in actual laboratory tests, to work very effectively as a conversational lubricant. It’s better than three martinis—not that I would know; I don’t drink.”
Bud muttered, “Truth serum. Simpson got it right.”
“Simpson,” Hampshire repeated. “That would be the company doctor.”
“I’m a doctor too,” remarked Prentiss as he gave Tom an injection into bunched muscle. “At least I was, a couple years back. No money in it these days.”
“So now you’re, what—freelance enforcer for sleazy lawyers?” retorted the blond-haired youth.
The man barked out a laugh. “Say, Fernell here is my buddy. Don’t call him sleazy. He’s really an expert conniver, and he knows the law well—for a lawyer.” Moving over to Bud, Prentiss shot Hampshire a look of mock apology. “Oops. Broke my promise. No lawyer jokes.” He stuck the needle in Bud’s arm.
“Since you’ve got us at a disadvantage,” said Tom to Hampshire, “how about telling us what this plot of yours is all about?”
“How about I don’t!” growled the attorney.
“Right. There’s no particular advantage in confessing, near as I can tell,” Prentiss commented. “We’d rather hear from you two.”
“What about?” piped up Bud, his voice sounding strained and wheezy.
“Is it starting to take effect already? Well then. Ferney and I have a few questions about, let’s see, cutting-edge nuclear physics, I guess you’d say. Applied stuff.”
“In other words,” Tom said, “my space solartron.”
“That’d be a start,” grinned Prentiss, taking a seat and facing the two captives.
Tom managed a shrug. “It’s a big subject.”
“No doubt, but we have specific― ”
Tom interrupted him. “And besides, it’s not a secret. The whole theory is out in the journals.”
“Maybe so. What we― ”
“What are you, lazy? Impatient? Or do you just like doing this? Did you like suffocating Mary Warner?”
“Stop inter― ”
“Yeah, did you?” Bud called out with unexpected force. “Answer!” Suddenly the dark-haired pilot broke into a storm of tears! “Tom! Tom, I’ve got to tell you…”
“What’s wrong with them?” rasped Hampshire.
Prentiss regarded them suspiciously. “Some kind of drug reaction.―Okay, boys, just calm down.”
“Bud, I’m sorry I got you into this,” Tom blurted out in a quavering voice. “I’m always sorry. Gosh, I risk everybody’s life― ”
“Don’t blame yourself,” responded Bud tearfully. “You’re the best pal—the very best—what would I ever do if—but if Sandy got married to Ted― ”
Tom gasped. “Ted? They’re getting married? Of course I knew he had feelings for― ”
“You knew? All along? My pal! You self-absorbed, pretentious jerk, I feel like coming over there and― ”
“This is intolerable!” shouted Hampshire. “Give them another shot! Calm them down!”
Prentiss shook his head brusquely. “It doesn’t work like that. Listen, Swift― ”
“I’m trying to do what you want! I really am!” protested the young inventor. “Let’s see, the—the solartron—what exactly did you need? Formulas? Here, take this down: ‘Omega, to the fourth root, over initial amps, multiplied by the time function expressed in—’”
“I don’t need that junk!” yelled Hampshire, his face scarlet.
“I don’t like you!” Bud suddenly groaned out in Prentiss’s general direction. “It was humiliating, your holding a gun on me the other day. Did you consider my feelings at all, huh? You must’ve had a difficult childhood, Jeremiah. And what’s with the name? Prentiss—you ashamed of your heritage? Man, that really steams me!”
Prentiss’s dark eyes flashed wide as Bud suddenly jerked to his feet, bursting through the cord at one spot where it coiled about his muscular arms. The man had no chance to reach for his holstered gun—Bud threw himself headlong on top of him, butting Prentiss’s chin with his head as Hampshire gave a shriek of fear and alarm. Ripping one arm completely free of his bonds, Bud grabbed his chair in a smooth motion and whirled it at Prentiss furiously!
Wood met skull, and Prentiss collapsed to the floor.
Bud hesitated, staring at his fallen captor. “I’m so sorry,” he said with real feeling. Then he turned toward Hampshire ominously, who fell back against the wall.
“No! Stop!” the lawyer choked out. “I got a― ”
Fixing Hampshire in a ferocious stare, Bud shrugged off the last of the cord. “Ready for me, Mister Attorney? I’m gonna turn your briefs inside out!”
“Stop, Bud!” yelled Tom Swift. “You don’t have to do that. You can come up with a better joke—I know you can!”
Bud burst into tears again. But that didn’t stop him from scooping up Prentiss’s revolver and aiming it at the quivering Mr. Hampshire.
“Listen, flyboy, get the cord—tie ’em both up.” Tom urged. “You can be smart if you’d just try a little.”
It was done in minutes, and Tom stood free.
“I think… it’s wearing off,” said the young inventor.
“Yeah,” panted his friend. “Jetz!—what happened to us? What was I yelling about?”
Tom managed a chuckle. “I’d say Doc’s antitruth serum had an unanticipated effect. Instead of immunizing us from the truth drug, it made us blurt out, and act on, everything that came into our heads!” He added that it seemed to have given Bud a burst of adrenalin, with the maniacal strength that went along with it.
Bud rubbed his upper arm, marked with a red welt where he had broken through the cord. “Hurts like the dickens now, though.”
Tom leaned down to Prentiss, tightly bound but conscious again. “Anything broken?”
“Just my pride,” he answered.
“Feel like a little sharing, Mr. Prentiss?” Tom asked politely. “Or do I have to use some of that great truth drug on you? In my opinion, it’s not been proven safe for human use.”
“As your attorney, Prentiss, I advise you to remain silent,” muttered Hampshire.
“Yeah, Ferney? Seems to me it’s been your advice, mostly, that’s got us into this pickle.” Prentiss looked up at Tom. “Besides, Hampshire here’s the one with something to worry about. Right here in this room you’ll find plenty of evidence, a few smidges of professional misbehavior here and there along the way, leading up to—well, let’s just say my buddy knows his way around a pillow. Couldn’t allow his ex-assistant Mary to testify in court. Wouldn’t look good.”
“Where did all this equipment come from?”
“From the guy who hired Hampshire at the beginning,” was the reply. “I gather he’s a bigshot out in Shopton town.”
“His name is Ajax,” Bud declared.
“Say, that does ring a bell,” Prentiss continued dryly. “Near as I can put it all together—I’m just hired help, you know—this Ajax wants to ruin the image of your company for some reason, put it out of business if possible. So he hires Mr. Slippery-Slime here to plant phony evidence, incriminating stuff about a plane crash. Warner was supposed to ease the fakes into the files, while Hampshire sort’ve handled the legal niceties, like getting Ted Spring’s family to support the lawsuit, leaking things to the newspaper…”
“I get the idea,” Tom nodded grimly. “And then there was the road accident and the phone threats—I recognize your voice now, by the way. It was you and Hampshire in the woods that night.”
“All intended to grease the skids and make the Spring family more cooperative. You know, terror. Let me tell you, it really works!”
“But what about this place?” Tom demanded.
“It was supposed to be a listening post, one of several. Ajax pays for ’em,” said Prentiss. “But hey, you just can’t get good help these days. Hampshire had this big idea to lead Ajax along, then blackmail him by planting some evidence on his own. See, the idea was to make it look like it was Ajax who had actually caused Dakin Spring’s crash a few years back, using the radio-beam gizmo.”
Tom suddenly understood. “And to make the charge credible, Hampshire had to actually use the ‘gizmo’ to foul some of our flights, so he could claim the orders came from Ajax.”
“Right on the beam, buddy,” the man confirmed. “It was invented over in Asia by some group or other—who can keep track? Mongolians, I think. Guess they know a lot about computer chips over there. Fernell got wind of it and bought the plans. Like you said, it wasn’t really meant to knock anybody off, just make it look like Ajax was leaning that way and had already used it on Spring’s jet. Wasn’t true, though. Ferney’s the only killer around here.”
“Not one word of this will stand up in court,” barked Hampshire.
“Shut up!” responded Bud, knotting his fists. “Or you won’t be able to either!”
“Thank you for easing my pangs of curiosity, Mr. Prentiss,” said Tom mildly. “Oh, one thing—why did Hampshire want information about my solartron?”
Prentiss laughed. “Money, natch! From talking with Ajax, he got himself convinced that this solar whatsis could be the sort of breakthrough the tabletop-fusion people have been looking for. He planned to peddle it to various unscrupulous types in the power industry, world wide. Mary Warner was supposed to smoke out some of the figures, equations, whatever you call ’em, and insert them in that new website you guys have started by altering the pages she carried over to your data-entry people. Hampshire thought he could cover his backside that way, in case you decided to start searching the employees as they went home.”
“Then here’s a bit of amusing irony, guys,” Tom said with a broad smile. “The fact is, I’ve just perfected a new invention that makes tabletop fusion obsolete!”
Picking up Tom’s cellphone to call the local police, Bud asked Prentiss who had been watching him from behind the curtain the other day. “Who? Me! I just went out the back way and came back around. Never expected two of our main targets to come out to visit us.” He added wryly that when Hampshire had learned that Tom had received airway clearance for the flight back to the Citadel he had jetted to the area himself, hoping to use the pueblo equipment to eavesdrop on Tom’s experiments. “Sort’ve backfired, you might say.”
The State Police took Prentiss and Hampshire away, and Tom and Bud left the pueblo site, this time by the main gate.
On the flight back to Shopton the next day, they continued an animated recap of the events.
“So you think I’m a pretentious jerk, huh, Barclay?” Tom teased his friend.
“At that moment I was pretty mad,” Bud conceded, his face reddening in embarrassment. “So—you knew about Ted’s feelings for Sandy?”
“Bash told me.”
“She did? How did she know about it?”
“Sandy told her.”
“Okay, then how― ”
Tom laughed. “I don’t try to understand it, flyboy—science is enough for me. Since I couldn’t tell if there was really anything to it, I figured I wouldn’t pass it along. Don’t think you have anything to worry about, though.”
Bud grinned. “Oh, I wasn’t worried.”
Landing at Enterprises, Tom was pleased to find that Mrs. Spring and Little Ray were already en route home from Blue-Jay Lake by chopper. “She’s ever so grateful, T-man,” said Ted. “We all are. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know, Ted,” replied Tom, shaking his friend’s hand and thinking: I know more than you think I do!
He then spoke to Hank Sterling and learned that the finalized model of the antiproton energine had been installed in the full-size space solartron, and the complete assembly, included the atom-snatchers, was now in the Sky Queen’s hangar-hold.
The young inventor turned serious. “Then I’d say we’re ready for the final test, Hank—the big one. It’s time to head back to the moon!”
AS THE great silver Flying Lab approached Fearing Island, Bud at the controls, Tom sat in the lounge on the top deck discussing his project with some of those who would be accompanying him into space. Among them were Hank, Arv, Chow, and Spring.
“I’m chomping at the bit to get up to Luna, Tom,” said one veteran crewman, Bob Jeffers. “And I understand the general idea of making like a moon colony for a few days to test out the equipment. But haven’t you already found out that the matter maker works like you want it to?”
Tom nodded. “Every test shows it working just fine. The only aspect still in question is the efficiency of the atom-gathering units when we set them up on the surface of a celestial body. We know the moon’s gravity will affect the density and flow of the hydrogen atoms, but the exact numbers are uncertain. That’s what I want to find out. Besides, this will give us a chance to assess the new habitat domes, and so forth.” The habitat domes were new inventions of Tom’s designed to provide a livable environment for colonists on the hostile, airless lunar surface.
“Never do pass up a chance t’go runnin’ around with five pounds out of six of my weight off!” Chow declared. “An’ mebbe this time I’ll come up with some special moon dishes fer you boys—moon meatloaf, crater casseroles—!”
Tom chuckled and said, “Just remember, Chow—even with the new energine, my solartron can only handle just so much of a load!”
“You’ll have it making all our air, Tom?” asked Ted.
“And water, too. For three days, we’ll be a self-sustaining colony of space pioneers!”
Within an hour of landing on Fearing, the huge Challenger lifted off for space. “First stop the outpost?” Bud asked as they cleared the atmosphere, smooth-sailing.
“Right,” Tom confirmed. “Dad and Doc are ready to leave, and they’ve asked to travel along with us to the moon.”
“Ya hear that, Li’l Ole Alamo?” Chow murmured to the lizard on his shoulder. “We’re all goin’ up to that big round thing out there—an’ it’s jest as dry and raw as that desert we ’as born in, us two.”
As the Challenger entered the long loop that would take it to the space outpost, Tom radioed ahead to his father. “When should we expect you, son?” asked Damon Swift.
Tom checked the ship’s chronometer. “Oh, about eleven minutes or so. Are you and Doc all packed up and ready?”
“We are,” chuckled Tom’s father. “We said our goodbyes to Ken Horton, and I’ve b― ”
“Dad, your sentence got cut off,” Tom said into the microphone. After a silent interval, he said. “Still there, Dad?”
“Interference?” asked Hank Sterling.
“Guess so,” Tom replied. He tried again—and again. “Funny… no interference showing on the instruments.”
“They must be having trouble at their end,” Bud suggested.
“That must be it,” said Tom. But his brow creased. “Wait—incoming signal.” He picked up the mike again, relieved. “Hey, Dad? What― ”
“Challenger, this is Fearing control!” crackled the familiar voice of Amos Quezada.
“This is Tom, Fearing.”
“Are you receiving anything from the outpost? Any signal?”
A chill suddenly washed over the young inventor! “We were just talking to them, but the signal was cut off.”
“Well, all their transmissions to Fearing cut out at the same time—even the automatic guidance signal for the drones.” There was a pause. “Tom, they’re telling me that the TV-station people are calling in—their transmissions have blanked out too, all of a sudden! And now—okay, there’s Space Central on Loonaui. Same report!”
Tom continued to talk with Fearing Island, but his mind was racing and shadowed with dread. What could have happened to knock the entire orbiting installation off the air so abruptly? An attack? An explosion?
Bud put a warm hand on his pal’s shoulder. “It’s probably nothing, Tom, just some little glitch.”
Tom nodded. “Sure,” he said faintly.
“Brand my rocket rangers, kin you speed this wagon up, boss?” asked Chow nervously.
“We don’t want to overshoot,” was the reply.
“I—I don’t want to add to the worry, T-man,” Ted said with hesitation, peering out the viewport intently. “But shouldn’t we be able to see the station by now?”
“Aw, no!” Chow exclaimed. “Why, we must be millions, billions o’ miles off! Space is a right big place!”
“Ted’s right,” Tom declared in a very hushed voice. Then he flipped on some instruments. “And… on radar…” There was anguish on his young face as he looked up at Bud. “Nothing!”
By every sign the outpost in space had vanished completely!
Fighting to hold his surging emotions in check, Tom kept in close contact with the earth 22,300 miles away. He received reports from every quarter of the globe, including deep-space radar tracking. All confirmed the horrifying situation. The big manned space station, and all aboard, had been swallowed up by the celestial emptiness without a trace!
“It can’t be!” Tom cried. “Dad—Doc Simpson—Horton― ”
“Now listen, Tom,” said Arv Hanson. “There’s no sign of the outpost, but also no sign of floating debris or radiation. Whatever happened, it wasn’t some sort of catastrophic explosion or meteor strike. Put that out of your head! Have you considered that your space friends might be involved in this?”
Tom brightened instantly, grateful for the hopeful new thought. Since they originally had made contact with Swift Enterprises long before, the mysterious extraterrestrials had shown themselves masters over the forces of nature—yet subject to strange and unexplained limitations. It was they who had moved the asteroid Nestria into orbit about the earth, and who had directed an ark of diseased animals to the moon, seeking Tom’s assistance.
“Tom, that must be it!” exclaimed Bud excitedly. “Those guys can do just about anything they want to!”
“I’ll try to contact them,” Tom responded. “Take the controls, Bud—I’m heading down to communications.”
From the communications compartment Tom extended a powerful antenna from the hull and activated the transmitter-receiver apparatus. The equipment was connected to an oscilloscope-like imaging monitor, which would display the mathematical symbols utilized by the aliens for communication with terrestrials.
With the assistance of his computerized dictionary of space symbols, Tom transmitted an urgent message, Hank and Ted looking on.
TOM SWIFT TO SPACE FRIENDS. UNKNOWN PHENOMENON HAS AFFECTED OUR INHABITED SATELLITE INSTALLATION. ALL CONTACT LOST. CAN YOU ADVISE?
They waited tensely for a response. Sometimes the space friends were able to respond almost immediately, but on other occasions a reply could be delayed for hours.
The minutes dragged past, and Tom could not bear to leave his post. Suddenly a buzzer sounded—a signal was incoming on the frequency used by the space friends! A single complicated symbol appeared on the screen, the computer’s tentative translation beneath it.
“What does that mean?” Ted demanded.
“Just what it says, I’m afraid,” Tom muttered, bitterly disappointed. “They must not know what happened. Maybe they’re checking into it using their own technology.”
He sent another message into deep space.
CAN YOU PROVIDE CURRENT LOCATION OF SATELLITE?
The answer was the same:
“We can’t wait around,” Tom declared. “I won’t!”
“What’s your plan?” asked Hank Sterling.
Tom thought for long moments, then stood suddenly. “Come on. Let’s go back up.”
At the main control panels on the command deck, Tom worked fiercely. Looking through the big picture-window viewpanes, the crew could see the repelatron dishes sliding noiselessly along their curving tracks.
“Are we, um—going somewhere, genius boy?” asked Bud hesitantly.
Tom replied without taking his eyes off the board. “I’m going to use the long-range telespectrometers built into the repelatrons—all of them at once, with the data fed into the computer for composite analysis.”
Arv asked what he was searching for.
“My father,” he responded bluntly. Then he glanced up with a look of apology for his brusque answer. “Guys, atoms are always boiling off into space from anything exposed to the vacuum. They get knocked off by light, heat, cosmic rays, even impact from the solar wind. They’re spread thin and almost undetectable, but this approach may do the trick. I’m looking for any trace-atoms connected to the outpost’s hull materials—magtritanium, Tomasite, even paint!”
“Here’s a suggestion,” said Hank. “Look for Inertite. We sprayed a coating on just recently, and there must’ve been a lot of excess particles adhering only weakly to the hull.”
“That’s a great idea,” Tom declared.
With all the repelatron antennas now aimed toward the same region of space, their repulsion-beam mechanisms inactive, Tom swept the void for any trace of the lost space station. The first efforts yielded nothing, and Tom’s face fell. “Look higher,” Bud urged. “Maybe they went out into space, away from Earth.”
Tom nodded silently and complied, using the Challenger’s gyros to rotate the ship slightly. The telespectrometers probed deeply into space—and received an answer! “There!” Tom cried in excitement. “Tomasite atoms! Inertite!”
“One o’ them breadcrumb trails, jest like in th’ story!” gaped Chow.
“But where does the trail lead?” Bob Jeffers asked.
In moments the computer had an answer. “It leads out into space, at almost a right angle to the earth—and it’s a straight line,” Tom pronounced. “Which implies incredible force and speed! Whatever got hold of the outpost sure isn’t worried about little things like gravity and orbital mechanics.”
“Sure sounds like something the space guys could pull off, T-man,” muttered Ted.
Tom brought up more of the data onto the board for study. “We have a good, solid direction, men. Unfortunately, the atom trail peters out after a few hundred miles. The outpost must have accelerated abruptly, and the particles are just too spread out to be picked up.”
“Still an’ all, you got a good pointin’ arrow, don’t you, boss?” Chow said. “Is she pointin’ to some place in partic’lar?”
“She is, Chow. There’s only one known celestial object in that general direction right now,” was Tom’s sober reply. “The moon!”
IT TOOK only a few moments to shift the array of repelatron antennas to a focus that would drive the ship away from Earth and toward the planet’s great satellite. As Tom gunned the repelatrons to full power, the ship blazed through the void at cometlike speed. No one broke the tense silence. All eyes in the flight compartment were glued to the viewpanes, all thoughts grim and serious. What fantastic mystery lay ahead of them?
Soon enough the moon loomed with a white and ghostly radiance. Though in truth covered with dingy, dull rock, the unforgiving solar glare that fell full upon it made it seem to lunge at them out of the darkness. Its face was pockmarked with craters and ridged with jagged mountain ranges, while the lunar plains or “seas” showed as smooth dark patches.
In less than two hours the Challenger was hovering a hundred miles above the moon’s surface. Tom steered, indifferently, for the Crater of Copernicus. “Might as well get our bearings at a place we’ve already surveyed,” he explained.
“Anything on radar?” inquired Bob Jeffers.
“Not so far,” Tom replied. He beamed out several calls on the outpost’s frequency, to no avail. “It’s possible whoever, or whatever, captured them is operating from a base on the surface. Take over the controls, Bud!” he ordered.
Eagerly Tom activated the ship’s powerful video-telescope and scanned the terrain below. Light-colored streaks radiated outward from the rim of the crater. Inside the towering rock walls, the bowl-like surface was strewn with gritty dust and rubble. The crater was fifty or sixty miles in width and the telescope showed every detail of its interior with needle-sharp clarity. Yet Tom could discern no evidence of movement, nor unusual marks in the aeons’ accumulation of gritty debris.
“See anything?” Hanson asked.
Tom shook his head. “Not a trace of a recent landing so far as I can make out. Still—I’m wasting time. Even if the whole outpost were set down on the moon, we’re not likely to happen across it the first place we look! Take us out to three-hundred and cruise around in widening circles, Bud.”
Grim-faced with impatient disappointment, Tom turned the telescope over to Arv Hanson and went back to the main instrument panel. As the Challenger cruised along at a great altitude, yawning cracks and crevices, spiny mountain ridges, and rock in tumbled heaps slowly passed below them. Tom continued to probe the moon’s near-orbit space with radar and a host of other sophisticated instruments. It was not unlikely that the outpost had been lodged into orbit about Luna—if it still existed!
“Hold it, flyboy!” Tom cried abruptly. “Go back to that stretch of lava globules we just passed over.”
“That stuff that looks like sand? Roger.” Bud swiveled the repelatrons, most of which were now aimed at the lunar surface, then retraced his course slowly. “See something down there?”
“Not exactly,” Tom responded. “But I picked up a blip on the signal analyzer, just one, on and off again.— There! Saw it again.”
“Somebody down there tryin’ to get our attention, mebbe?” asked Chow excitedly.
Tom shrugged. “It’s not regular or continuous, pard. There’s no message. But if it’s a natural phenomenon, it’s one we’ve never encountered before. It just might be connected to the disappearance of the outpost.”
“Then I say we take a look!”
“And I say—sure as shootin’!”
The faint signal-blip was received twice more, and Tom was able to conclude that its source was somewhere below, a rough broad region circled by the wide and distant horizon. There was no further signal, however, and Tom had been unable to get a fix by triangulation.
“Where are we, Skipper?” inquired Bud.
“That flat area we just left was the Mare Vaporum. And this below us― ” Tom checked his lunar map. “The region is called Rima Ariadaeus.”
The crew stared down at the desolate landscape. It was dotted with fissures and jagged cracks, and the smoother areas showed a strange corrugation, or rippling.
“It really does look a little like sand,” Bud said. “Dunes and all.”
“It’s a lava splash—bubbling molten rock tumbling every which way through the vacuum and forming a pattern of long hillocks.”
“Shall we set down?”
Tom hesitated, then slowly shook his head. “No need for the ship to land. For all we know, there may be more traces to follow in space. Hank, take over the controls and bring us down to four miles, then continue the search further east. Bud, let’s you and I get out on the Donkeys and look over some of those badlands and crevices. I need to know what caused that blip. It could be an important clue of some kind.”
The Repelatron Donkeys were small disk-shaped platforms ringed by safety rails and held in flight by single repelatrons mounted underneath. Although interference effects prevented their use close to the surface, they were designed for higher-altitude surveys and could be operated easily by individual pilots.
Taking with them some hand-held detector instruments, Tom and Bud lifted off from the ship’s landing stage on their two Donkeys. They separated, flying in two directions as the Challenger left them both behind, quickly disappearing behind a curtain of mountains miles distant.
“Guess we’re really on our own!” Bud radioed over his suit transiphone.
“Remember, pal, don’t descend below― ”
“I know—two miles!” On the first moon expedition, Bud had flouted the rule and nearly lost his life. “I’ll check the southern quadrant, Tom.”
Tom watched Bud’s Donkey as it zoomed away at great speed, becoming a tiny metallic speck against the stars. He felt lonely, fearful, and bewildered. Switching off his radio, he said aloud to himself, “What if the space friends aren’t involved after all? What if some sort of cosmic magnetic vortex pulled the station out of orbit? What if…” His own voice failed to give him any comfort.
As agreed, Tom headed northward at an altitude of about twelve thousand feet. The cracked, uneven landscape skittered along beneath him.
Suddenly a brief spurt of sound rang once in his ear, gone in an instant. “Bud, I picked up the blip again!” he radioed excitedly.
“Do you see anything on the ground?”
Tom slowed his platform and looked about intently. “No. But there are some unusual surface features up ahead, crevices and deep pits of some kind. Come join me.”
In a minute the two young astronauts had rendezvoused and were approaching the area of tumbled, uneven ground. “What do you supposed caused all that, Skipper?” asked Bud.
“Some kind of fracturing,” was the reply. “If an incoming meteorite split in two along the way, the double impacts might produce a pattern of ground shock that― ”
“Good night, look!” Startled, Tom turned and saw his pal pointing down and off to the left toward a tangle of deep, shadowed fissures. “There it is!” Bud shouted. “Tom, that’s got to be a rocket half-buried in the sand!”
Tense with excitement, Tom swerved his Donkey while Bud held his own platform hovering. Coming alongside, the young inventor examined the object with electronic binoculars. Though two miles below and wedged down inside the fissure wall, it was caught in a bright beam of sunlight and obviously the handiwork of intelligence, a curving metallic structure—possibly a rocket fuselage!
“You’re right, Bud,” said the young scientist-inventor with a glint of hope in his voice. “And I just picked up another beep!”
“We’ve got to get down there, Tom,” Bud said tersely.
“The Challenger can land nearby and let us down on ropes,” Tom decided. The big ship’s array of multiple repelatrons rendered it immune to the interference effects of operating near the surface.
Tom started to retune his transiphone to the frequency of the spaceship. Before he could do so, a shout was jolted from him as the Repelatron Donkey abruptly began to drop groundward!
“What’s wrong?” Bud radioed. “Why’s the Donkey acting up? You’re nowhere near the surface!”
“I—I don’t know—I’m not getting any repulsion force out of the machine!”
“Here I come, pal!” called Tom’s friend, swooping toward the sinking platform on his Donkey, intent on a quick rescue. Then Bud gasped in startled alarm! “Aw, man!—my ’tron just died on me too!”
Despite the moon’s lazy gravitation, their powerless descent was gradually becoming a fall!
“What’ll we do?” signaled Bud. “Where’s Chow and his lariat when we need ’im?”
Tom frantically tried to contact the spaceship, but there was no reply.
“Listen, Bud! We have about two minutes until we hit—less, now. Close off the valves on your ox-he tank and air hose—both valves!—and unclamp the tank. Like I’m doing, see? You’ll still have enough air in your helmet for several minutes, easy.”
Bud complied without question. “Now what?” he asked, his tank in his arms.
“Point the tank valve downward, open it up just a hair—and jump!” Tom demonstrated, leaping nimbly over the side of his falling platform.
Bud followed suit. They both held their tanks tightly against their chests. The fine, invisible downward spray of escaping oxygen-helium, highly compressed in the special tanks, produced a palpable upward thrust. It was not enough to counteract the moon’s pull, but it appreciably slowed their descents.
The fissure over which they had been hovering was hardly longer than it was wide, more like a well than a crack. From a height of two miles it had seemed a narrow target, easy to evade. But as they drew closer it spread wide beneath them.
“Skipper, we’re going right in,” Bud transiphoned. “Should we angle to the side?”
“No—look at those boulders all around. Sharp as broken glass! Let’s try to come down near the object. We can climb out.”
Their view of the bright surface was cut off as they descended below the lip of the fissure. After a further descent of several score feet they hit the ground with such force that they both rebounded, more than once. But finally they settled to a stop.
“Whew!” Bud breathed. “Am I gonna ache tomorrow!”
“Hurry, pal—reconnect your tank!” Tom directed. They then checked their tank capacity gauges. “Three-point-one hours left,” Bud murmured. “Well, that’s plenty of time for the Challenger to pick us up.”
“Right,” said Tom with a somewhat strained heartiness. He again tried contacting the spaceship.
“No answer? Are the rock walls blocking the signal?” Bud asked nervously.
“Probably,” replied Tom. “I might have been a bit off-frequency when I tried up above. It was kind of a frantic moment!” He quickly changed the subject. “Anyway, let’s take a look at what we came to see, shall we?”
The curving, rocket-like object was protruding from a bank of avalanched globule-sand about a hundred feet distant. Scampering along in the weak lunar gravity, the youths hastened to examine the rocket more closely. It was definitely composed of machined metal, and a tubular rod, which Tom took to be an antenna, extended at an angle from its side. There was no hatch or other opening in the part sticking above the sand.
Bud touched it cautiously with his space gauntlet and looked at Tom. “Not very big. Do you suppose someone’s inside?”
“Let’s knock, flyboy. Maybe somebody will answer!” Eager to find out if the rocket held an occupant, Tom tapped out a message in International Code with a small metal tool. He pressed his helmet globe against the hull, but could detect no response, not a sound.
“Bud, help me turn it over!” the young inventor said urgently. “It shouldn’t take much to dislodge it.”
Excitedly the two boys pushed and tugged at the rocket. But it had plowed too deeply into the ground to be loosened easily.
“Now what?” Bud asked.
Lacking digging tools, he and Tom were at a disadvantage.
“Let’s kick at the dirt,” Tom suggested.
Together the boys clawed at the coarse lava sand with their boots. It was the labor of a minute to wriggle the capsule just enough for it to slide a ways, disclosing several more feet of its fuselage. Tom and Bud immediately exclaimed at what was revealed—a small decal of black, red, and gold!
“The Brungarian flag!” Bud gasped. “Are they behind this?”
Tom shook his head in grim disappointment. “Look at that hammer-and-sickle in the corner, pal. It’s the old Brungarian flag. This must be one of the automated test capsules they sent to the moon more than twenty years ago, back when they were trying to develop a manned lunar program. This hunk of space junk couldn’t have anything to do with the theft of the outpost.”
“But what about that signal?” Bud objected.
“Good point,” conceded his friend. “Let me try something.” Tom began to slowly run through a series of frequencies on his suit transmitter. Suddenly they both jerked back as their headsets resounded with a loud, brief tone.
“There’s the beep!” Bud said. “Should we leave a message?”
“Its transponder must be set to answer an incoming signal of the right frequency, automatically.”
“That’s what I call a real long-life battery, Skipper!” joked Bud.
Tom nodded. “Probably uses a radium slug.”
Now that the investigation was completed, the two commenced attempting to climb the hundred or so feet to the open surface. The matter proved difficult—and after a few attempts, worse than difficult! Even beginning with a low-G flying leap, they found it impossible to get a grip anywhere on the steep crevice walls, sliding back down each time in a shower of loose particles and rocks as the sides crumbled beneath their grip.
“This stuff’s as bad as sandstone with real sand!” complained Bud, panting with the effort. “Even the super-shoes aren’t helping.”
“But we have to get up to the surface, pal,” Tom declared soberly. “Because we can’t raise the ship, and it’ll take forever for them to see us down here by just cruising around.”
“I know,” Bud said, glancing at his tank meter with worry. “And as a matter of fact, we don’t have forever!”
“WHERE THE flyin’ grapeshot are they?” demanded Chow Winkler, beside himself with concern. Chow had been fussing and worrying ever since Tom and Bud had left the Challenger. “I think we oughta go after them young’uns!” he told Ted Spring.
“Relax, Chow. They’ll be all right,” Ted replied.
“I sure wouldn’t bet on that,” Chow said. “Suppose they run into them sidewindin’ space-nappers? We cain’t see ’em anywhere, and now Arv says he can’t pick ’em up on the radio neither.” It had been more than an hour and a half since the majestic craft had left the young astronauts on the other side of the jagged lunar horizon.
“So what? T-man and Bud can take care of themselves,” reasoned Ted in calming tones that belied his own concern. “Sterling said the rock strata around these parts could be blocking their transiphone signals.”
“Wa-aal, I’d feel a heap better if we could keep an eye on ’em, or at least hear ’em,” Chow insisted.
Finally Ted gave up and grinned at the big cowpoke. “Okay, okay, now you’ve got me worried. Let’s go talk to Hanson—he’s in charge.”
Discussing the situation on the control deck, Arv Hanson finally agreed. “We’re sure not detecting anything in space or on the ground—not so far. There’s got to be a better way to go about this. Sure, guys, let’s go round up Tom and Bud and take it from there.”
The Challenger hove about and began to retrace its route, covering the many hundreds of miles that lay between them and the Rima Ariadaeus region in minutes.
Bob Jeffers, in the communications compartment below, continued to try to establish contact with the two. There was no response, even after the ship had halted some seventy miles above the desolate surface.
“You sure this here’s the right place?” Chow demanded. “Ever’place on this ol’ moon looks purty much alike!”
“That’s the region they went to explore,” Hank Sterling replied.
“But they may have found a lead and gone further,” cautioned Ted.
The intercom buzzed. “Got something down here!” called out Bob Jeffers excitedly. “It’s not their transiphones, but― ”
“What is it, Bob?” asked Arv.
“It’s that signal Tom picked up,” Jeffers explained. “But now it’s more or less continuous. Listen!” He piped the received tone up to the command compartment so all could hear it—a regular but interrupted beeping, with longer and shorter pauses between the pulses.
Chow’s brow creased deeply as he concentrated on the sound. “Brand my transistorizers! What’s that, some kind o’ code?”
Hank Sterling laughed suddenly. “Sure is—one I know mighty well! It’s morse code!”
“Sure!” exclaimed Ted. “It’s an S.O.S. signal!”
“We’re getting enough of it for triangulation,” intercommed Jeffers. “Give me a sec and I’ll tell you where it’s coming from.”
Below, eastward, and some hundred feet beneath ground level, Tom Swift paused for a moment. He had been rhythmically pressing a control button that alternately activated and cut-off his suit transiphone, which was producing an unmodulated tone signal at a preset frequency.
“You really think they can hear it?” Bud asked skeptically. “I mean, we do—but we’re right next to the capsule and the Challenger could be halfway around the moon by now.”
Tom shrugged, a movement barely visible inside the pressurized material of his reflective scarlet space-garb. “We picked up the capsule’s beeping before, from a distance. It has a more sophisticated kind of antenna than our suits do. Just pray we don’t wear down its power source.” The young inventor resumed sending transiphone pulses to the Brungarian probe, which robotically responded each time in its own, more powerful voice.
Five minutes later a movement caught their eyes—a shadow swinging across the side of the chasm. Looking upward the boys broke into hoarse cheers as the gleaming form of the Challenger came sailing across the field of stars!
“I spy!” came the welcome voice of Arvid Hanson.
“Thank goodness!” Tom replied. “Can you see us?”
“Can now—at first we could only see your Donkeys crumpled up in the boulder field next to the fissure. What kind of mess did you two get yourselves into?”
Tom and Bud quickly explained. Bud added: “Now get us out of here!”
“Will do,” Hanson replied. “I’ll bring her down right over the opening and lower the rope ladder from the vehicular stage.”
The Challenger slowly grew against the ragged piece of sky as it descended toward them. “Hey, what’s up?” Arv radioed suddenly. “We’re losing ground thrust on half the repelatrons!”
“It’s that phenomenon I told you about, Arv,” Tom declared, “the one that shipwrecked us! There’s some kind of unusual mineral or compound in this vicinity that the telespectrometers can’t handle.”
“I’ll aim the beams on a wider spread —that should do it.”
But as the ship descended another thousand feet, the command deck speaker erupted with twin cries of alarm. “Stop! Go back!”
At almost the same moment Chow bellowed out, “Hanson! Don’t go no closer! It’s makin’ th’ ground cave in on ’em!”
Instantly the modelmaker’s trained hands flew at the controls. The ship rebounded toward space as if shot from a sling!
Far below Tom and Bud had scurried for cover next to the Brungarian capsule as pebbles, rocks, and lava-sand rained down on them from all directions. One whole section of the crevice wall had shifted, bulging outward as if on the verge of disintegrating. Tom warned: “Challenger, your repulsion force is too much for the surface around here—it’s fragile and full of hollow spaces! If you get too close or try to land, you’ll bring down the sides on top of us!”
“Understood!” radioed Arv. “We’ll head off a mile or more and hike over. But how’s your air holding up?”
“Less than an hour left,” replied Bud. “Make like jackrabbits and get over here fast!”
The spaceship set down without incident and three suited figures—one noticeably broader than his companions—hastened across the stark dead landscape to the edge of the crevice. Chow was first to arrive, rope in hand. But as he approached the edge and peered over, the ground began to collapse beneath him!
“Jump, Chow!” Bud yelled. The range cook was barely able to fling himself backward to safety!
The three rescuers now stood a few yards back from the edge and braced themselves, linking arms together as Ted Spring tossed the long rope into the crack. Finally Tom and Bud were hauled up and out.
“Hmm,” remarked Bud, “not bad. Eleven minutes to spare!”
“Let’s not waste them here!” urged the third of the rescuers, Bob Jeffers.
As soon as the five had trudged a safe distance from the crevice, the Challenger appeared overhead and landed nearby. They took the elevator up to the cabin-cube, and soon Tom and Bud were besieged by questions from the other members of the crew. They described the lost Brungarian capsule and how Tom had used it to produce a detectable signal. Tom concluded by expressing disappointment that the mystery beep had turned out to be unrelated to the missing outpost. “All we know is that, for a time, the station was moving very rapidly in the direction of the moon,” he said. “We don’t know what happened after that.”
“Then we’ll jest have t’ keep on lookin’, son,” Chow said, placing an arm across the back of his young friend. “You others kin go on back to Earth if’n you want, but as fer me, I reckon I’ll be a rovin’ space ranger till we track ’em down and bring ’em home safe.”
“Thanks, pardner,” Tom murmured. There were tears in his eyes.
Suddenly Arv Hanson’s voice blared out over the loudspeaker. “Tom, come down to communications on the double!”
Tom and the others exchanged glances of exhilaration. Had they received a message from the lost space station?
Not waiting for the inter-deck elevator, Tom scrambled down the rungs of a metal ladder to the level below, bursting into the compartment where the communications equipment was based. “What’s wrong?” he demanded of Arv. “Have you received something?”
“Still coming in,” was the reply. “Take a look!”
One by one, complex mathematical symbols were materializing on the imaging oscilloscope—a message from Tom’s space friends!
“At last!” he cried joyously. Perhaps the mystery was finally on the verge of solution!
Bud and the others had come crowding in behind him. “Is it an answer to your question, Tom?” asked Bob Jeffers. “Do they know where the outpost is?”
The young inventor frowned. “The translating computer is having a problem—many of these symbols are unfamiliar. They must be trying to express some difficult concepts.”
When the incoming message stopped, Tom printed out the complicated array of symbols and hurried to his lab to work on them, asking Hank Sterling to assist him. “Something tells me we’ve got to hurry,” muttered Tom grimly.
An hour passed, then a second, as a disturbing, almost unbelievable message took shape in bits and pieces. “Holy Mack!” gasped Sterling as he read the finished product over the shoulder of his young employer.
TO TOM SWIFT. WE ARE FRIENDS. OTHERS OF OUR PLANET OF ORIGIN HAVE MOVED SWIFT ORBIT HABITAT FROM PLANET-THIRD TO PLANET-SECOND. PURPOSE IS TO STUDY EARTH INTELLIGENCES IN CONDITIONS OF ISOLATION AND DEPRIVATION. WE OPPOSE THIS METHOD BUT CAN NOT REVERSE ACTION TAKEN. HABITAT POSITION PARAMETERS FOLLOW.
There was a string of numerical information, after which the main message resumed.
WE FRIENDS ARE PREVENTED FROM INTERFERING BUT HAVE EXCEEDED LIMITS TO TRANSMIT THIS DATA TO TOM SWIFT. HABITAT OCCUPANTS ARE SAFE BUT LIFE FUNCTIONS WILL CEASE IN 18.5 EARTH ROTATIONS. DESTROY TRANSPOSITION TOOL OF ALTERNATE SOLVERS TO REVERSE THEIR ACTION. NO FURTHER CONTACT IS POSSIBLE.
“Planet-Second,” Tom murmured. “The second planet from the sun. The space beings have moved the outpost to Venus!”
IN THE command deck of the mighty Challenger, Tom stood and grimly, but almost pleadingly, faced his loyal crew. “Let me give you the gist of the message in my own words,” he said. “The space friends have alluded before to some problem between them and the authorities that control their home planet, which we call Planet X. In our translation they call them alternate solvers; the symbols imply that they follow a different method in finding a solution to what you might call the basic equations of life and existence.”
“In other words, the meaning of life,” remarked Arv.
“Apparently so. It seems the folks back home have little regard for Earth humans—they only want to study us and our reactions, as we might do with some newly discovered animal species.”
“From that message, they don’t sound like ‘folks’ at all,” muttered Bob Jeffers angrily. “More like computers!”
Tom nodded. “You could be right, Bob—we really know nothing about them or how they think. But the ones we’ve come to call our friends, the scientists at the local base in this solar system who have contacted us directly, appear to have some understanding and sympathy for our poor little species. In any event, I think they took a great risk, leaking this information to us as they did.”
Bud Barclay suggested an explanation. “Maybe they understand gratitude. After all, you saved their whole planet from that disease, Tom. They owe us one!” Bud was referring to the encounter with a capsule of diseased animal life that had been the main goal of the Challenger’s recently-completed moon expedition.
“But cain’t th’ nice ones jest move the outpost back t’ Earth?” demanded Chow. “I mean, they went an’ sent us that there asteroid, Little Luna, didn’t they?”
“They sure did, Chow,” the young inventor replied soberly. “But they seem to be telling us that something prevents them from interfering with the projects undertaken by their ‘masters,’ if that’s what they are. Remember, they couldn’t affect the course of the animal saucer after it had been launched from Planet X.”
“Okay, T-man, we all get the picture,” declared Ted brusquely. “The outpost is in orbit around Venus, and we have to rescue the crew in 18 days. Can we do it?”
“Yes! Hank, Arv, and I have worked out a plan to rendezvous with the station.”
“Let’s see,” said Bud. “How far away from the earth is Venus?”
“It can be as close as twenty-six million miles, or as far as a hundred and nineteen million, depending on just where the two planets are in their orbits. Right now the straight-line distance is about ninety-eight million miles.”
“Jetz! S-Some trip we’re about to make!” Bud commented in awe.
“It’s all right, pal.” Tom face shone with grim determination as he slapped his friend on his muscular back. “With our matter maker aboard to give us the extra air and water we’ll require, we can chase the outpost clear across the solar system if we have to! But,” he added, “there are some complications.”
Hank responded to Bud’s inquiry. “To reach Venus in time, we’ll have to accelerate constantly—accelerate to the halfway point, that is, then decelerate again. We plan to accelerate faster than 1-G. It will be tolerable, but maybe a bit uncomfortable; you’ll feel like somebody tied a lead weight to your back!”
Everyone carefully avoided glancing at Chow, who blushed nevertheless.
“A complicating problem is, we can’t actually accelerate continuously,” Hank went on. “If we tried to, we’d basically be dragging Tom’s atom-snatchers along behind the ship like four-acres of dead weight, and they’d just fall to pieces. So if we’re to use the solartron, we’ll have to stop accelerating and coast, on momentum, every few hours. During those intervals we’ll deploy the lattices and use the solartron to replenish our air supply.”
“But it costs us time,” Tom said. “All in all, we calculate we’ll arrive in the vicinity of the outpost in fifteen days, twenty-one hours, six minutes from our departure time. Which doesn’t leave much of a margin for the rescue operation.”
“Wa-aal, let’s not jaw about it!” exclaimed Chow with a snort. “We know what we gotta do, you hombres, so let’s get goin’!”
Tom held up a hand. “Wait, pard. I have no right to draft the group of you for this mission. It’s not what you signed up for, and it involves real danger. We don’t know what we’ll be facing out there, and—I can’t promise you that we’ll make it back. Each one of you is a good friend and a loyal employee, and you will remain so even if you decide not to continue on. If anyone wants to be let off on Nestria, I’ll understand completely. You don’t have to give a reason.”
The crew looked at one another, and Hank Sterling finally spoke up. “Tom, I have a wife and two kids back home in Shopton. But I’ve faced death before for you and your father, and I never leave my house without realizing that I might not see my loved ones again. It’s a risk we’ve chosen to accept. It’s the way we want to live our lives, the way we ‘solve the equation.’ Count me in!”
“And besides,” Bud joked, “it’s just two weeks out and two weeks back—I’ve taken longer vacations plenty of times!”
Tom shook each man’s hand in solemn gratitude, and announced: “All right them—next stop Venus!”
A burst of repulsion energy heralded the commencement of the daring voyage. The Challenger bounded away from the moon and set its course for the inner solar system, aiming its concentrated beams of force at both moon and Earth. Hour by hour the two space beacons dwindled in size and brilliance. By the end of the third day of travel the moon had been reduced to a tiny, pale bead. Earth, still blue and radiant, seemed no bigger than a fingernail on an outstretched hand.
At first Venus, nearly as large as the earth in actual size, showed only as a star before them; albeit the brightest star in the heavens. But it grew. By the midpoint of the journey, as Tom shifted the repelatrons to slow them by pushing against the sun as well as Venus and distant Mercury, the planet had begun to take on hues of pale salmon-red and yellow, a sort of muggy saffron, overlying a lustrous pearl-gray.
“That’s the atmosphere we’re seeing, of course,” Tom commented. “The upper cloud deck.”
“What’s it made of, chief?” asked Bob Jeffers.
“Nothing you’d want to try breathing! Mostly carbon dioxide—plenty of sulphur, too. Ninety times denser than Earth’s, and hot enough to melt lead.”
Bud gulped. “Cancel my reservation!”
The shift from acceleration to deceleration meant that Venus now seemed to be below the spaceship, as if they were approaching it on a down-heading elevator. Seven hours after the reorientation came the periodic interval of coasting, during which the atom-gatherer panels were released into space and unfolded.
On this occasion there was a slight hitch. “Tom, one of the corners of lattice-B is snagged in its output-tube,” Hank reported. “It won’t unfold properly.”
“Looks like a three-man job,” replied Tom, nodding toward Bud and Ted Spring.
“Great,” chuckled Ted. “About time I took a spacewalk to stretch these long legs of mine!”
It took only a few moments to unsnag the lattice and shove it on into the void. As the three astronauts paused on the Challenger’s “front porch” for a moment before reentering the ship, Bud suddenly exclaimed, “Hey! Is this hail, or am I getting space-happy?”
Without warning a shower of pellets had begun raining down from the starry sky! They pattered gently against the youth’s transparent helmet-globes, bouncing away again into space.
Intrigued, Tom caught a few of the pellets and examined them. They were crystalline and varied in color from steel gray to purplish black. “Looks like iodine,” he muttered, confirming the verdict a few moments later with the small spectroscanner that was part of his spacesuit equipage.
“But where’s it coming from?” Bud asked.
“It’s been detected in intersolar particle clouds,” was the answer. “But never in this amount and concentration. We should document this phenomenon.”
“Skipper!” radioed Hank. “Get on in here! Instruments show a big swarm of those pellets heading this way—the iodine could foul up your suit seals!”
They dashed into the vehicular hangar for protection from the unexpected “rain.”
The next moment Tom gave a gasp of dismay. “Good grief!” he cried. “I just realized that these will ruin the couplings on the collector tubes!”
“You said it, T-man!” Ted exclaimed. “Take a look!”
Holes had already appeared in the metallic joints at several points, visible even from hundreds of feet away. The twin lattices were beginning to warp, to curl in on themselves!
“What’ll we do?” asked Bud tersely, turning to Tom for orders.
Tom contacted the command deck. “Hank, shift repelatrons four and nine into position and tune them for iodine!—blast a hole in that cloud!”
Sterling complied instantly. They could see the two radiator-antennas slide into position along their tracks as the invisible beams lanced into space. The cosmic hailstorm came to an abrupt end. The repelatrons had punched an open passage in the cloud for the Challenger.
“We’ll repair them at once,” Tom said, eyeing the damage. “It shouldn’t take long.”
“Genius boy, I think you just discovered a cure for acid rain!” pronounced Bud with a yelp of admiration.
The three waited anxiously on the hangar deck while replacement couplings were prepared in the craft’s machine shop by Arvid Hanson. Then they rushed outside and soared over to the floating panels, and began hastily repairing the damage. The job was completed in a few minutes, and Tom expressed satisfaction and relief. “Fortunately we’ve managed to get ahead of schedule,” he noted, “so this won’t set us back at all.” As they returned to the ship, Tom transiphoned Hank Sterling to activate the atom-snatchers and restart the solartron.
“She’s working,” he radioed back. “Looks like we’re getting a steady flow.”
“Man oh man,” Bud murmured happily. “That solartron’s a miracle and a half!”
“If it weren’t for the matter maker, this trip wouldn’t be possible,” Tom agreed; “and everyone on the outpost would be done for.”
After Tom and Bud had gone aboard, Ted remained outside for a few minutes, making a final check of one of the atom conduits at Sterling’s request. There had been some indication of leakage, but Ted found no sign of further damage. “Looks okay, Hank,” he radioed. “I’m coming in.”
There was no answer. The transiphone remained dead silent.
“Sterling, do you read me? Hey, Challenger—I think my suit radio’s gone out!” But when he carefully checked over his suit instrumentation, he found no sign of malfunction.
Ted was now floating a few yards above the landing-stage platform. With a short burst of his microjets, he rose higher and came even with the control deck. Approaching one of the big rectangular viewports, he shaded his eyes and peered within.
“Catfish!—no!” he cried in horrified alarm.
Tom, Bud, Sterling, and the rest of the space crew were sprawled out across the deck, unmoving and lifeless!
INSIDE the ship, automatic alarms blared, beeped, and buzzed unheard. Curled up on the deck—actually a few inches above it—Tom Swift stirred, trying to complete a thought. The effort was like trying to get an automobile engine to turn over on a cold morning. What was I thinking? he wondered. And what in the world is all that noise?
Finally, with a groan of annoyance, he forced his eyelids open. They seemed curiously reluctant.
The first thing Tom saw was a strange, shimmering blur. Suddenly it came into focus, resolving into—what? His brain churning sluggishly, he regarded the object. Say, it’s a space helmet, he decided at last. Hunh. Now what’s a helmet doing rolling around loose like that?
It floated next to his left hand. He stretched out a finger and gave it a tap. As it wavered, a slight breath of breeze swept across his face. Air was still issuing from the helmet’s tank inlet.
The wisp of air seemed to revive Tom slightly. He forced himself upright—and gasped with alarm. His fellow space travelers were collapsed all about him!
“Bud!” he choked out. “Arv! Chow!” None of his companions replied. Gazing closely at Bud’s face, he thought he saw a slight twitch behind the young flyer’s closed eyelids. “Hey, flyboy! Wake up!” Tom gave him a gentle shake—gentle, not from gentleness, but from Tom’s own weakness.
To his horrified amazement, the copilot’s head lolled back. His breathing, inaudible and barely visible, seemed heavy and labored.
“What’s wrong?” Tom gasped. He moved to assist his pal and discovered to his horror that his own legs were barely responsive!
A slight push rotated him upright, and he clawed at a nearby bulkhead to support himself. His head was spinning and he felt slightly nauseated. Something must be wrong with the oxygen supply!
“It’s—the solartron—malfunction! I’d better switch to the… regular …” Tom muttered. But his words trailed off. He seemed overcome by an urge to sleep. As he struggled to reach for the switch that controlled the compartment’s emergency oxygen tanks, he again collapsed into an unconscious heap, twisting slowly in midair!
Blank moments later, Tom was jolted awake by a loud voice crackling over the transiphone in the loose suit helmet. “C’mon you floundering space birds, wake up! I’m warning you, I’m gonna try artificial respiration next!” It was Ted Spring’s voice!
“Ted!” the young scientist-inventor croaked out. “The oxygen reserve… there!” He pointed weakly. Ted bounded over and threw the switch, and the compartment was quickly flooded with the oxygen-helium mixture used aboard the Challenger.
Ted, still wearing his sealed spacesuit, then made his way over to his friend to assist him. After checking the air on his suit sensor, he pulled off his helmet. “Carbon monoxide, Tom! The cabin was full of it!”
Tom shook his head groggily, gulping the air. “I figured. Something went wrong with the solartron.”
Now the others began to revive. First was Bud, the youngest and healthiest. “Where am I?” he asked, looking about. Gradually he remembered seeing his companions lose consciousness before his eyes. “I must have blacked out too!”
Chow was the last to revive, rubbing his head. “Ow! Feel like I been head-butted by a steer!”
Meanwhile Tom had flicked the air circulation system to maximum and activated its electronic “scrubbers.” Then he got a squeeze-bottle of water and ammonia smelling salts from the first-aid locker, and went to work bringing the others around.
“W-what happened?” Hank Sterling murmured groggily.
“Not sure yet,” Tom replied, “but I suspect something went wrong with the solartron’s oxygen supply. Here—drink some more of this water, Hank, while I check Matty’s instrument readouts.”
Tom hurried to check his matter-making machine, housed on the hangar deck and connected to the spaceship’s airduct network. When he returned to the flight compartment, Bud flashed him a questioning glance.
“Figured it out yet?”
Tom nodded grimly. “According to the spectroscopic record, the machine was producing a fractional percentage of carbon monoxide along with the oxygen, just as we suspected. And now I know why—traces of that space-iodine worked their way into the outlet tubes from the atom-gatherers. It threw off the solartron’s element-frequency modulators.” He added that he had flushed out the conduits and readjusted the solartron.
Bob Jeffers sighed with relief. “Thank goodness! We’re back on line.”
Tom looked troubled. “But we’re behind schedule now. We’ll have to sustain higher decelerations. We’ll feel it, guys!”
“Don’t matter, son,” Chow declared. “We’ve taken worse hits an’ kept on goin’ strong.”
After completing the scheduled run of the solartron, they resumed the deceleration routine. It was some comfort to realize that even during the midst of the crisis, the ship had continued “falling” toward Venus and the orbiting space outpost.
They used the deep-space radio at regular intervals. Though there was no response to their signals from the outpost, they were continuously in touch with the Earth.
Speaking with his mother on Day Eleven, Tom asked how Sandy was handling the difficult, emotional situation. “Very bravely, dear. I know she’s trying to keep me from worrying and fretting.”
Tom chuckled. “Funny thing, Mom—she said the same thing about you! I’m sure proud of the both of you.”
During the next exchange of messages, Tom spoke with Harlan Ames, inquiring as to the final results of the plot by Hampshire and Lewton Ajax. After a gap of about a minute—thirty seconds out, thirty seconds back—Tom received the reply. “As I told you, boss, Ajax’s out on bail now, denying everything through his lawyers—any one of whom costs about a hundred times more in billable hours than Hampshire ever dreamed of! We’ll see what happens. It’s sure given Perkins a lot to splash around in the Bulletin! But if you’re in the mood for surprises, he’s published an editorial that apologizes to you and your Dad for relying on ‘unreliable sources and unsubstantiated innuendo.’ Hoo boy!”
One day out from the rendezvous with Venus, the shrouded planet loomed ahead like a pale bronze disk glowing with hazy, sulfurous heat. The distant earth was now a diamond-bright star, tinged with a trace of blue.
“Any sign of the station?” Bud asked Tom.
“Not yet, flyboy. But if the numbers provided by the space friends are accurate, she’ll be comin’ round the mountain any time now. The orbital ellipse is very distended, like a comet’s—the outpost doesn’t spend too much time up close to the planet.”
Chow sidled up to the two. “Boss, whatter ya think th’ space folk meant, talkin’ about something happening to your Dad and the others? What could happen all of a sudden like that?”
Tom shrugged. “I wish I knew. I’m afraid the most obvious possibility—and the worst!—is that the stated time is when the alternate-solvers will physically arrive at the outpost and begin their experimental program.”
“Good gravy! In one o’ them flyin’ saucers they use?” Chow gulped. “If’n we don’t get there before ’em—!”
“This is a race we have to win, pard!” said Tom firmly. “The space beings just might let us all return to Earth once we’ve evacuated the station, because it would have interfered with the experimental setup they had in mind. But if they get there first, I doubt there’s anything we can do!”
Now the hours passed with almost unbearable tension aboard the Challenger as its velocity ebbed away. Unable to even think of sleep, Tom monitored the radarscope and electronic telescope continuously, straining to catch a glimpse of the stolen space base. But what if they’ve made it as invisible to sight as it is to radar? Tom worried.
But that worry, at least, proved groundless. Several hours into the sixteenth and final day of the journey, Tom suddenly scooped up the intercom microphone and announced. “Attention everyone! I’ve sighted the outpost on the telescope screen!”
Cheers and whoops filled the Challenger as the others rushed up to the control compartment to join Tom. “Way t’go, T-man!” chortled Ted.
“Does it look in good shape?” asked Arv Hanson.
“Nothing out of the ordinary at all,” replied Tom happily. “I just wish we could contact them.”
“I’m sure it won’t be long,” Bud said. “Let’s you and I head down to communications and send ’em a call.”
In the communications center below, Tom sent several messages, using various frequencies in case the space beings were somehow canceling the frequency normally used. “Nothin’,” he said bleakly to Bud.
Sudden both boys jumped back as the alarm buzzed on the space oscilloscope. “Good night, it’s a message from the space friends!” Tom gasped.
The message that appeared was a single symbol, one that Tom recognized even without the computerized translation.
“Not much interpretation needed on that one,” was Bud’s sour remark.
“I don’t think it’s from the space friends after all,” said Tom slowly. “Not the friends! My guess it’s a warning transmitted automatically by that device they mentioned.”
“You mean what they called a tool—that we’re supposed to destroy?”
Tom nodded. “Yep—if we can! It must be some sort of relay that they used to generate the forces that moved the outpost through space. I’m going to try to pick it up on some of our other energy-detection instruments.”
Back in the command deck Tom activated a number of different sophisticated devices and swept them back and forth through near-Venus space.
“Anything?” asked Ted.
“Well… something,” Tom confirmed, puzzled. “Though I’m not quite sure what. Its like some kind of field or barrier surrounding the outpost out to a distance of about 20,000 miles. I’m getting reflections from it.”
“Is the outpost right at the center?”
“No,” was the response. “The center of the field is roughly thirty-three miles from the station, moving along with it. That must be where the alien machine is. But I don’t see a trace of it on the telescope monitor.”
As the spaceship approached the invisible barrier, Tom slowed her to a stop. As an experiment, he and Hanson rigged up a small probe missile and sent it toward the barrier by a gentle repelatron push, beeping back a continuous signal.
“Contact with the barrier in three seconds,” Tom murmured, counting down.
The beeping stopped!
“Did they blow it up?” Chow asked nervously.
“No, I can still see it on the video-telescope,” Tom reassured him. “It appears to have gone right through without harm.”
“Then the force-bubble, or whatever it is, is mainly functioning to neutralize radar and radio-communication signals,” reasoned Sterling.
“It’s transparent to repelatron waves, thank goodness,” Tom remarked. “I don’t see any alternative but to shove our way on through.”
Using Mercury, far off in its orbit, as a repelatron focus, Tom guided the Challenger forward into the barrier. In a moment he announced that they had crossed the boundary safely.
“Great gopher holes, now I kin start breathin’ again!” was Chow Winkler’s half-strangled comment.
“Space outpost to Challenger!” crackled a voice over the loudspeaker.
Almost too overcome with joyous emotion, Tom held the microphone to his lips, trembling. “Dad!”
“Son! We couldn’t believe it when the telescope picked you up!”
“How—how are you? How is everyone? Dad, do you know what happened to you?” The words tumbled out uncontrollably.
“We know a few things, Tom, and what we don’t know for certain we’ve been able to figure out, to a degree.”
“We can talk more when we come aboard, Dad.”
The Challenger zoomed up to the space outpost, covering the thousands of miles in a small span of minutes. The great ship docked, and her overjoyed crew scrambled up the pressurized corridor, where Damon Swift, Doc Simpson, Ken Horton, and all the rest of the station team awaited them.
After a frantically emotional reunion, the stories began to pour out.
“There was no warning,” said Horton. “One moment we were orbiting Earth as usual, the next we found ourselves looking at Venus through the portholes.”
Mr. Swift noted, “We detected no unidentified spacecraft, no radiation, nothing requiring explanation. The transition across tens of millions of miles seemed absolutely instantaneous.”
“Of course I examined everyone for any physical effects of the, er, yank through space,” Doc continued. “Fortunately, everyone is perfectly fine from the medical point of view. Psychologically… you can imagine, Tom. We had enough food and water aboard to keep us going, and those algae tanks continued to produce sufficient oxygen.”
“Mr. Swift, why didn’t you try contacting us by radio?” inquired Bob Jeffers. “Couldn’t you have used one of the little return-capsules to get outside the barrier?”
Mr. Swift looked puzzled. “What barrier does he mean, Tom?”
Tom explained with a rueful grin, adding: “It must be hard to detect from the inside—and now that I think of it, you don’t have the instruments I used, anyway.”
“We just assumed our signals, and those from Earth, were being nullified in some way,” Horton said.
After further animated discussion, Doc Simpson asked Tom, “What now?”
“Back to Earth for all of us,” was the answer. “We have to clear out before the experimenters arrive.”
“Now wait, you folks,” cautioned Chow abruptly. “This here don’t make sense to ol’ Chow. Didn’t that space tellee-gram say you had t’ destroy that machine o’ theirs?”
“He’s right, genius boy,” Bud said. “What gives?”
Tom clenched his hands together. “We haven’t been able to detect the device, and other than transmitting that warning, it hasn’t interfered with us in any way. All I can think to do is attempt to leave the area and respond to whatever happens as it happens.”
“Let’s face it, gents,” commented Bert Everett, “even if we want to destroy the machine― ” He didn’t bother concluding the thought.
Twenty hours remained before the deadline announced by the space friends.
A massive evacuation effort now commenced. Hour after hour, supplies and useful equipment, including the algae “farms” that produced oxygen, were transferred over to the Challenger from the outpost. Last came the space station’s several dozen crew members.
“We’ll be at mighty close quarters,” noted Horton. “But I suppose we can put up with it for a couple weeks, hmm?”
“Hey, that’ll be nothing compared to what I have to look forward to,” gibed one of the television company technicians. “I have to account for a hundred thousand dollars worth of abandoned TV equipment!”
“I don’t s’pose there’s a way to take th’ whole space wheel along with us,” murmured Chow ruefully.
“Oh, how I wish!” said Tom. “We’ll build another one, pardner.”
Finally, with six hours to spare, the Challenger uncoupled itself from the docking corridor and gently cruised away from the outpost. Many eyes, some teary, watched it fade with distance.
As they neared the anti-communications barrier Tom brought the ship to a full halt, scrutinizing his instruments. “Everything’s the same as before,” he announced. “But we’ll approach at snail-speed.”
The intercom buzzed. “We’ve been getting that same ‘stop’ symbol, Tom,” reported the acting communications officer. “But now something else is coming through. The computer is working up the translation…” The crewman gasped in alarm! “Tom, I’d better send this up to you!”
The translated message appeared on a small screen in front of Tom.
TOTAL DESTRUCTION IMMINENT. RADIUS PARAMETERS FOLLOW.
His heart thudding, Tom read off the string of numerical data and made some quick calculations. “The stated time matches the deadline the space friends transmitted. And the radius of destruction completely fills the interior of the energy barrier! Let’s get out of here!” The young inventor dribbled a tiny amount of current into the repelatrons. Thrusting against Venus, the Challenger inched forward, cautiously.
Suddenly, without warning, came a tremendous jolt. The spacemen were almost knocked off their feet!
“B-brand my mule team, what’d we hit?” demanded Chow.
“The barrier!” was Tom’s grim reply. “It’s not letting us through!”
Mr. Swift asked his son if the sensor instruments revealed anything about the nature of the energies involved. “Nothing at all,” responded Tom. “It’s at the threshold of detection. If you’re asking if we can counteract it somehow—maybe. But it’d take time, Dad.”
“Which we lack,” stated Damon Swift. “Then it seems we must move along to your alternate plan.”
“Right,” agreed the young scientist-inventor. “Hank and I are pretty optimistic about what we came up with during the trip. But the fact that you approve means a lot to me.”
Tom intended to use the antiproton Exploron gas in the solartron’s energine as a bomb—a matter-antimatter nuclear bomb of almost unbelievable power, directed against what the space friends had termed their masters’ tool. Though the alien device could not be seen, the Earth scientists could only presume that it was located at the center of the spherical force field. That would be the bomb’s target.
After giving an account of the daring plan, Tom ordered the entire swollen crew of the Challenger into spacesuits, helmets sealed. “Our Inertite coating should keep the bomb’s radiation pulse from penetrating the hull,” Tom explained; “but we have no idea whether there might be some kind of secondary blast from the device itself, in a form of energy Inertite can’t handle. Your suits will provide an extra layer of protection.” As a further precaution, he directed everyone into the central compartments of the cabin-cube. Only he and Bud would remain on the command deck.
“Thanks for not leaving me out of the action, Tom,” Bud said, his gray eyes gleaming bright.
“Flyboy, for what you called me in that pueblo, you deserve a front seat to getting fried!” retorted his best friend with a wink. “And you know I don’t go anywhere without you.”
The atom-snatcher panels had been deployed and were now running busily. With the loss of the energine, the solartron would be useless during the homeward dash. Trying to build up an extra reserve of air and water, Tom now ran his invention at top speed. Even so, it’s anybody’s guess whether we can even make it halfway! Tom thought. But there seemed to be no alternative. It was a chance at survival, a hope born of desperation.
Finally, with a deep sigh, Tom pulled the lever ejecting the couplings that connected the atom-conduit pipes to the body of the ship. Silhouetted for a moment against the glowing disk of Venus, the atom-snatchers drifted off into the void. Powerless, useless, they served no further function.
“Like cutting off an arm, isn’t it, pal?” Bud squeezed his friend’s shoulder.
“It’s fireworks time,” Tom said quietly.
The drone capsule containing the modified energine unit was released into space, a pair of repelatrons sending it streaking toward the center of the force-sphere at ever-increasing speed. Tom and Bud rushed to the communications center, an inner compartment, where a simple control board had been set up, along with a monitor receiving a feed from the telescope.
The countdown ticked away. The drone capsule shrank with distance until it could no longer be discerned. “It’s reached position,” stated Tom. “Now!”
No human eye saw the explosion directly; no human eye could have withstood the intensity of its pure white light. Tom and Bud saw the telescope monitor screen bleach out, then fill with ragged static. A slight tremor passed through the Challenger.
Tom checked the instrument panel. “No radiation inside the ship. Temperature normal.” He flipped a switch and his brow furrowed deeply. “No radiation outside the ship either!”
“But we saw the bomb go off, genius boy!” Bud exclaimed. “I mean—didn’t we?”
“We sure saw something,” Tom replied slowly. “Let’s go topside. With luck, the barrier will be down.”
Taking the ladder, Tom preceded Bud into the control compartment. As Bud came scrambling up, he found Tom standing like a statue in the middle of the floor, rooted in place, staring out the big viewports.
“Tom! What― ”
Bud turned, looked, and froze. His mouth gaped open.
Venus was gone.
But the Challenger was not alone in space. Before their eyes loomed a great sphere of crystalline blue flecked with swirls of white.
Tom took two shaky steps and examined the main instrument panel. Then he looked back and his eyes met Bud’s.
“It can’t be,” gasped Bud. “It just can’t be!”
“It is,” said Tom numbly. “Earth. We’re home!”
The instruments were unanimous. The ship was in orbit, 22,300 miles above Ecuador.
Tom pointed off to the side, casually. He was now well beyond surprise.
Bud followed his friend’s gesture. “The outpost?”
“Exactly where she should be. And the two atom-gatherers, too. They sent back everything.”
At Tom’s intercommed behest the other space travelers now came flooding out of their compartments, gazing out various portholes at a sight too astounding to be believed.
“You’ll have to help me understand this, Tom, Damon,” murmured Doc Simpson, standing next to his friends on the control deck.
Tom’s awe was beginning to yield place to jubilation. He flashed a bright, broad grin. “I think—just a guess!—that the device from Planet X didn’t just move the outpost through space to Venus, but somehow transported an entire chunk of space itself across a hundred million miles.”
“Yes,” said Damon Swift. “It’s a reasonable hypothesis. The machine held the ‘space-bubble’ in place. By destroying the machine, the fabric of spacetime snapped back like a stretched piece of rubber—and here we are.”
“All that way, an’ in one piece!” Chow pronounced in his usual foghorn blare. In softer tones he muttered to the tiny form perched on his shoulder: “If’n we are in one piece, huh-hey, Li’l Ole Alamo?”
After receiving the deeply felt thanks and congratulations of the crewmen and shaking hands with everyone, Tom and Mr. Swift hastened to the radio compartment, accompanied by Chow, Bud, and Ted Spring. Here they sent word to the astounded space base on Fearing Island that the Challenger was heading back with Mr. Swift safely aboard. The elder scientist said: “We’ll be on our way as soon as we’re finished repopulating the outpost—oh, and retrieving the collector lattices used by Tom’s space solartron. We mustn’t give short shrift to the invention that made our rescue possible in the first place!” As Tom glowed with pride, Mr. Swift concluded by sending his love to Sandy and Tom’s mother in Shopton.
Ted gave his pal a tap on the shoulder. “T-man, I wouldn’t have passed up this adventure for anything. But look,” he went on, “do you suppose maybe you could give it a rest for a little while, the inventing thing? Just sorta take it easy and enjoy life?”
As Tom laughed, Bud threw an arm about his comrade and shook his head. “That’ll be the day! Genius boy already showed me a sketch of his next brainstorm. But the Electronic Retroscope is just a fancy camera, Ted—can’t get in much trouble taking pictures!” Bud Barclay’s prophecy was wide of the mark, dangerously so.
A buzzing tone interrupted the banter. Tom’s eyes darted toward the communications equipment. “Good gosh, something coming in on the space oscilloscope!”
“Is it from the space friends?” Bud asked nervously.
“I can’t tell,” Tom replied. “The antenna can’t get a fix on the source.”
Symbols filled the screen, the two-word translation beneath.
Chow read the message with wide eyes. “You mean—are those cayuses tryin’ to tell us that this whole blame thing, rescue an’ all, was part o’ their ding-danged experimentin’?” When Tom shrugged, the westerner continued. “Wa-aal, I jest wonder, boss—did we pass the test, ya think?”
Tom Swift looked past Chow, past the slowly rotating outpost in space, past the great blue Earth, into the veil of endless stars. “Don’t know, pard. But I think it won’t be long at all before we find out—one way or the other!”