TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND
THE COSMIC ASTRONAUTS
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
THE COSMIC ASTRONAUTS
“ONE HUNDRED miles to the west is Lake Disappointment,” noted Tom Swift. “Let’s hope it isn’t a bad omen!”
Texas-sized Chow Winkler scratched a broad swath of forehead spread beneath his ten-gallon hat. “Lake Disappointment, huh. Bet they have a hard time gettin’ th’ tourists.”
“Ah now, mates, I require optimism in this little room. Let’s send happy healing waves to our multi-hundred-million dollars worth of machinery. It’s very sensitive, you know!” The speaker, Dr. Clarke MacIllheny, was making every attempt to keep his voice firm and confident, but the tension was unmistakable. His life and career had led him to this moment. Everything was on the line, awaiting the touch of a button.
Tom and his friends and colleagues had come to the Gibson Desert of central Australia to oversee the debut of the world’s mightiest particle accelerator. Built with technical assistance from Swift Enterprises in Shopton, New York, the new Hyper-Celerator, an in-spiraling tube of metal and plastic, was eight miles across at the outside, its curled tunnel fully sixty-three miles in length. The project of an Aussie scientific consortium called Advanced Research Technics, the gargantuan instrument was to probe further into the heart of matter than ever before.
Tom’s close pal Bud Barclay squinted out the reinforced window of the main control room, which topped a two-story tower. “I see a lot of desert out there, guys—dirt and sun. That curvy gray thing looks more like a great big coiled snake than a mega-microscope.”
“Yet that is precisely what it is, young Budworth,” retorted MacIllheny with a nervous smile. “A sort of powerful microscope, with which we shall soon see wondrous things far too small for the unaided eye to reveal.”
“An’ don’t knock dirt an’ sun, buddy boy,” Chow added. “That there’s most o’ Texas, an’ it works jest fine.”
“Final sequence done and green,” called out a nearby technician from his monitoring board. “All stations report ready.”
“Then I do believe it’s time to loose our protons on their racecourse,” murmured Dr. MacIllheny. A stubby finger depressed a small, innocuous button.
“And they’re off!” pronounced Tom gleefully. His youthful face bespoke the sheer thrill of scientific adventure.
Seconds ticked past, and the only words spoken in the room were numbers. Bud bent down and spoke softly into Tom’s ear. “I guess there won’t be much to see, hmm, genius boy?”
“Afraid not,” was the reply. “All the action is inside that acceleration corridor. But the idea is exciting, even if the view isn’t—the stream of protons is already more than halfway to the speed of light.”
“Which is mighty fast, I hear,” Chow put in.
“You could say that, if you call 186,000 miles per second fast.”
The grizzled chef, some thirty years Tom and Bud’s senior, couldn’t help an audible and visible gulp. “I’d say so!”
MacIllheny conferred with the technical staff in the room, then walked back to Tom and his friends. “All is most satisfactory,” declared the physicist, chief of the project. “We’re near the point where we’ll bring your matter-lenses into play. How do they look to you, Tom?”
“They look great, Doctor Mac,” the young inventor responded. “All the readings are holding steady and nominal.”
“I think that means ‘good’,” cracked Bud to Chow.
The final stage of the Hyper-Celerator’s process made use of a technology Tom had invented for his revolutionary matter maker, the space solartron. In the terminus section of the corridor that was to function as a target for the hurtling subatomic particles, field-flux coherers would force the protons—repelling one another with tremendous power—into a close single-file path that ended between the facing points of a pair of conical devices fabricated of a mix of exotic materials. It was expected that as the protons were crammed at lightspeed into this inconceivably small gap, narrower than the breadth of the nucleus of a single atom, particles never before detected would be trapped and recorded.
“It’s time,” the physicist said to Tom as calmly as possible.
Tom instantly threw a switch, sending a control signal to the matter-lens array while simultaneously closing off the shunt that allowed the proton stream to bypass the target module.
A welcome electronic tone sang out from the main control board like a cry of triumph. “Yes, yes! There we are!” cried Dr. MacIllheny gleefully. “Very solid registrations from the gap.”
“Does that mean you’re getting those new particles you’re looking for?” asked Bud.
Tom answered for the physicist. “Not just yet, Bud. We have to narrow the gap—sharpen the focus, in other words.” Eyes trained on dancing oscilloscope patterns, his slender, expert fingers began to manipulate the dials that told the managing computer what to do next.
“Wait!” shouted a technician in sudden alarm. “The field is destabilizing!”
“Cut the lens power!” commanded MacIllheny. But even as Tom jabbed the emergency cutoff button, a flare of light filled the room, followed in a moment by a sickening reverberation.
“Oh no!” gasped Tom. “The target chamber’s blown up!” Even over a distance of several miles the distraught observers could see a plume of back smoke jetting up into the dry desert air.
“Powering down,” reported a team member dully.
Clarke MacIllheny stood in numbed silence, gazing out the observation window. Tom put a sympathetic hand on his arm. “The damage may be confined to the target chamber, Doctor,” he noted. “The accelerator is probably still in good shape. The damage can be repaired and the experiment can resume.”
“We don’t know the cause of the failure,” said the physicist despondently. “Did you see anything on your monitors?”
Tom shook his head. “No, sir. But the computer records will give us the clues we need. This is some kind of freakish circuit failure, a low-probability event we couldn’t have planned for.”
The physicist was grimly unwilling to be consoled. “We considered the possibility of a field-stress rupture, a ‘kink in the fabric.’ We went over it extensively—didn’t we?”
“We sure did,” Tom agreed. “No one can predict everything.”
“Guess that’s why they call it science,” Chow added helpfully.
“That’s right, pardner,” said Bud. He refrained from his customary joking manner.
Fire had broken out in the target chamber, and it took nearly an hour to fully extinguish the blaze. Finally Tom announced that he had reacquired contact with the surviving instruments and sensors in the module.
“Then at least we can download some data to tell us what failed,” noted MacIllheny. “I’ll re-cork the champagne.”
But when Tom looked up from the readout panel, his blue eyes were gleaming with the thrill of the unexpected. “Not yet, Doctor Mac!” he exclaimed. “If these numbers mean what I think they do, something tremendous has happened!”
MACILLHENY stared at Tom Swift as if he half suspected that his young American colleague was merely trying to lift his shattered spirits. “What are you saying?”
“Look at this!” Tom said excitedly. “This is the consolidated readout from the final three nanos before the field collapsed.”
“Nanoseconds,” Bud whispered to Chow.
“Brand my stopwatch, I know!” retorted the ex-Texan. “I been hangin’ around Tom fer a long time now.”
Dr. MacIllheny studied the stilled pattern on the oscilloscope screen. He seemed to look it over once, twice, three times, and then he traced its lines with a finger. “Hardly dare believe it, mate,” he murmured. “Wish it were true.”
“I don’t suppose I’d understand what those lines mean, would I?” inquired Bud politely. “Something good?”
Tom cast a glance toward the young dark-haired pilot, his best friend. “There are some strong indications that we did trap a zoo of particles after all, a split-instant before the explosion,” he explained.
“More than that, the particle!” declared MacIllheny, eyes glued to the screen. “My Moby Dick!”
Chow’s brow creased. “What’d you say? Yer what?”
“That’s what I call it, Chow. My special quest, the very thing I’ve been hunting for a quarter of a century.” The physicist’s face was loosing its skepticism and gaining pure joy. “I just may have caught a glimpse of LARS—the Lepto-Aleph Rho Subtrino!”
“An’ that’s whut you been after all this time?”
“It’s a revolutionary discovery,” pronounced Tom. “If it pans out, it’ll sure give Doctor Mac a place in the history books.”
“I hate to admit it,” Bud said, “but even after Tom explained it all to me, the simplified way he always does—I don’t think I really understand it. It’s a subatomic particle, right?”
“A phantom particle, a ghost, a dream!” responded MacIllheny with a laugh. “It always fit into the big picture mathematically, like a single missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. My word, it explains the ‘neutrino gap’ perfectly! But my esteemed colleagues the world over spoke as one, a great chorus of discouragement—‘impossible!’ Its physical characteristics, you see, are paradoxical.” He paused. “I’m afraid I’m too excited to try to explain it in layman’s terms. Tom, perhaps you― ”
“Of course,” said Tom. “It’s what I do! Guys, elementary subatomic particles are either bosons or fermions—think of it as their family names. Bosons are, for example, the photons that make up light. They have no rest mass at all, which is just fine because they never are at rest; they always scoot along at the maximum possible speed, velocity C, the speed of light.”
“Stands t’ reason,” Chow noted.
“Bosons don’t interact with one another. But what we think of as solid matter is made from fermions,” Tom continued. “Those are the particles you’ve heard of, electrons, neutrons, and protons. Think of them as bits of matter with mass and solidity, meaning that they can’t just pass through one another, but interact.”
Bud nodded enthusiastically. “Like billiard balls, right?”
“A common but worthy analogy,” chuckled Dr. MacIllheny.
“Okay then,” said Chow. “So which o’ those two is that there sub-marino you ’as talkin’ about?”
“Eh now, that’s the whole point, my cowboyish friend,” was MacIllheny’s reply. “The subtrino is an ambivalent particle that can’t manage to make up its mind. Like its unimaginative cousin the neutrino, the subtrino ordinarily blows through solid matter at light speed, like wind through a chicken-wire fence. It has, in a word, a boson identity. But astoundingly, it also has a secret identity as a fermion, a mass-particle. Do I see on your faces a look of incredulity?”
“Betcha you would if’n I knew what it meant,” Chow agreed.
“I guess he’s saying that the little guy can flip over from one to the other. Is that it?” asked Bud.
“That’s it, flyboy,” Tom confirmed. “The theory says that under certain very rare and very weird circumstances, the subtrino converts its energy of motion into the locked-up form of energy we call mass. Its speed drops from velocity C to—what was it, Doctor Mac?”
“Quite easy to remember. You merely apply the reciprocal of Pi to exponent four…”
“Uh-oh,” muttered Chow beneath his breath.
“Which gives you a final velocity of, oh, a shade less than twenty miles per second, let’s say.” The physicist’s eyes twinkled. “Turns the little boy into a slowpoke!”
“And the wonderful thing is, it looks like we forced a few of these characters to put in an appearance,” Tom grinned.
Having determined that reactivation of the Hyper-Celerator would be months away, Tom, Bud, and Chow began the flight back to Shopton aboard the Swift Enterprises commuter jet that had brought them to Australia.
“We didn’t do much sightseeing,” Bud complained to the others as he piloted the supersonic craft out over the Pacific. “As in none. I hear they’ve got some great surfing down in Sydney.” The youth’s muscular, athletic form advertised his recreational interests.
“Me, I allus wanted t’see one o’ them herds o’ kangaroos,” Chow declared. “Mebbe next time, huh, boss?”
“Mebbe so, pard.” Tom smiled affectionately at his two close comrades. “But I need to get back to Enterprises to resume work on my own project, the challenge Dad gave me.”
“You’ve mentioned that, but haven’t said what it is,” Bud remarked. “What’s your Dad challenging you to do?” Bud knew that the young inventor and his father Damon, grandson of the famous inventor after whom Tom had been named, often engaged in a bit of friendly family rivalry.
“Well, chum, as I’ve hinted to you, it has to do with space travel.”
Tom and Bud, and even Chow, had already won their space-wings as veteran astronauts. They had helped construct the Swift Enterprises outpost in space, orbiting 22,300 miles above the earth. They had undertaken the pioneering journey to Earth’s new moon, the tiny asteroid Nestria—as well as to the old moon aboard Tom’s huge spaceship, the Challenger. They had even dared a long, desperate flight to the environs of the planet Venus, made possible by Tom’s solartron invention. But it had now been awhile since that perilous voyage. Tom’s most recent exploit had taken him into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, where his spectromarine selector had proven itself vital to uncovering the secrets of Aurum City, the sunken city of gold.
“Space travel!” Bud repeated. “Two of my favorite words! So when do we leave—and where to?”
“No destination yet,” said Tom. “And no way to get there, either—yet!”
Bud switched the jet to automatic pilot and swiveled his seat to face Tom and Chow. “Enough with the hints, pal. What are we talking about?”
Tom gestured broadly. “The high cost of space travel.”
“Wa-aal, I heard o’ the high cost o’ livin’,” Chow stated, puzzled. “But high cost o’ space travel sounds more like one of buddy boy’s jokes. Is the price goin’ up?”
“The price is already sky high!” Tom gibed, continuing the joke. “Seriously, that’s the challenge Dad wants me to take a look at—the basic expense of getting off the earth and entering orbit. At Enterprises we really don’t worry about that aspect too much, because we only do special projects with experimental vehicles, and we have a lot of commercial income to spend from sales of the solar batteries, the Tomasite patent, the Pigeon Specials—all that.”
“And, as we know from last time, government funding.” Bud added wryly: “With all strings attached.”
Chow scratched his head. “I know them big rockets they useta use cost a pretty penny, but what about that underwater shebang you set up next to the island?”
When Tom had been faced with the daunting challenge of building and supplying the Enterprises space station, he had developed a new and more efficient method of launching spacecraft which made use of underwater buoyancy as a substitute for the rocket’s fuel-gulping first stage. This aqualaunch system was based off Loonaui Island in the mid-Pacific. Replied Tom: “It’s true that the Loonaui system has a quicker turnaround time and saves money, pard. But it’s still a mighty big, complex sort of operation.”
“Well then, what about your repelatron?” Bud suggested. “Just hook up one or two of those babies to an airtight container, and there ya go!” The repelatron was the matter-repelling machine that had carried Tom’s Challenger to the moon.
“Sure, the repelatron works fine. But the sort of super-repelatron we use for space travel requires great big parabolic dishes like the ones on the spaceship, plus an elaborate powerplant. The field-beam has to be strong enough to work at a distance of hundreds, or hundreds of thousands, of miles. There’s no way you could adapt it to a small commuter craft.”
Bud was amazed! “Commuter craft? In space?”
“Why not, flyboy?” laughed Tom. “Think of it as the cosmic version of the Pigeon Specials!”
“Okay, now, let me figger this. Hold off jest a second,” Chow demanded skeptically. “You want folks t’be able to commute in space, jest like people when they go t’ work an’ back. Brand my briefcase, Tom, where the holy hey do you think they’ll be workin’ at, the moon?”
Tom confirmed the cook’s guess with a nod. “Absolutely! If we’re ever going to make a go of a real moon colony, the settlers will need an easy, ready, low-cost way to travel back and forth to the earth. The same goes for mining Lunite up on Nestria, or doing manufacturing in a flock of orbiting space stations as we’ve planned. Mankind will stub its toes right at the edge of outer space unless we find a way to get the cost down to something like the price of an airline ticket.”
“Guess I kin understand that,” Chow conceded at last.
Bud asked Tom if he’d come up with an approach, or a new invention. “Let’s say I might have,” he answered. “In fact, that’s one reason the Hyper-Celerator project had to come first. I’m hoping that― ”
The communications panel buzzed. “Incoming call,” Bud said. “Hold that thought.” Lifting the microphone, he responded. “This is TSE HighJumper. Barclay here.”
“Bud, this is Ted Spring at Space Central.” Ted Spring, a longtime friend of the Swift family, had recently taken the position of Chief Astronautics Engineer at the aqualaunch facility on Loonaui Island, which supplied the space outpost.
“Hey there, Ted! What’s cookin’ in paradise?”
“Trouble! Is T-man there with you?”
Tom took the mike from Bud. “I’m here, Ted.”
“Hold on to your crewcut, Tom. Something’s happened to the Sea Charger!”
Chow grunted in dismay and Tom and Bud exchanged glances of alarm. The Sea Charger was an advanced seagoing vessel the size of an aircraft carrier, built to an Enterprises design by a shipbuilding firm in Southern California, partially funded by NASA. She had been launched on her maiden voyage only days before.
Tom demanded the details. “Don’t have a whole lot of ’em yet,” Ted replied. “I just got off the horn with the Navy—your pal Admiral Hopkins. About two hours ago the Charger submerged as scheduled.”
“Yes. It was the first extended ocean test of her submersible capabilities.”
“She never surfaced!”
“What!” Tom choked. “They’d only planned a forty minute test run, then back up!”
“I know that, T-man.” Ted voice was troubled at the worrisome news. “She went down and dropped out of sight. The follower jets didn’t see a hair of her, and the sonarscope on the observation cruiser lost track of her all of a sudden at two-twenty fathoms down. And when I say lost track, I mean it literally—she went out like a candle!”
Bud leaned into the microphone. “Ted, what about wreckage? Anything floating around?”
“So far nothing’s been sighted.”
Tom’s heart thudded. Several Swift Enterprises employees—personal friends—had enlisted for the historic voyage. Now it was horrifyingly possible that they were lost at sea to the last man!
WHEN Tom shut off the radio unit he sat for a moment staring out at the quilt of clouds below, broken here and there to reveal the turquoise South Pacific.
“We’ll make our refueling stop on Loonaui in two hours,” he said at last. “There’s a seacopter berthed at Space Central—they use it to do inspections of the underwater launch rig.”
“You plan to join in the search, Tom?” Bud asked.
“What search?” Tom retorted, his voice tinged with frustration. “As far as I know, that seacop is the only maneuverable deepwater craft this side of Hawaii. We’ve got to do what we can.”
“That’s plain speakin’, son!” agreed Chow. “We’ll find ’em. I got me a knack fer findin’ lost stuff.”
The HighJumper landed at the airport at Jeanmaire, capital city—or town—of the Loonaui Islands Republic. Until recently small and rather primitive, the airfield facility had evolved in one great leap into a modern international jetport to accommodate the demands of the Space Central complex at the north end of the island, jumping-off point for excursions to the space outpost. Now the airport was almost as big as Jeanmaire itself.
A taxi-chopper brought Tom, Bud, and Chow to the complex in a matter of minutes. After conferring with Ted Spring and other personnel, Tom asked that the resident seacopter, the Emeraldina, be readied for duty. He then contacted Swift Enterprises over the facility’s videophone, a satellite-based private television network.
“It’s a terrible, distressing event,” said Damon Swift, Tom’s distinguished father. “NASA and the Navy have commenced a search, but their really fast deep-submersibles won’t reach the area for another day or so. They’ve been using surface jetboats with sonar drag-buoys.” The video screen captured every flicker of pain and anxiety in Mr. Swift’s eyes.
“Where exactly was their last known position?” Tom asked.
“About eight hundred miles west of the tip of Baja California.” His father read off the precise coordinates from a note in front of him.
“It’s open sea,” Tom commented. “Nothing else around for a couple thousand miles.”
“Perfect for performance tests—and for getting lost in.”
“We’ll come up with something in the seacopter, Dad,” promised Tom.
The flat, saucer-shaped Emeraldina put out to sea, floating yards above the waves on a cushion of air driven downward by its vertical-axis rotor blades. Reaching the area, Tom set the craft down on the surface, where it rocked gently.
“There’s one of the search boats, Skipper,” Bud reported, pointing toward the horizon.
“We’ll let them know we’re getting into the act,” Tom stated. “Then we’ll dive.”
Presently, the pitch of the big blades reversed, the seacopter dove deep into the Pacific, scanning in all directions with its sensitive detection instruments. “Nothing on standard sonar,” Tom muttered. “Sono-resonance locator, zero.”
“But listen, boss, ain’t that there ship coated with Tomasite plastic?” Chow pointed out. “You couldn’t see it on th’ sonar TV anyways, couldja?”
Tom nodded. “True. But I’ve set the sonarscope to look for any sign of agitation from a subsea wake, or the heat signature from a thermal gradient. The Sea Charger couldn’t have vanished absolutely without a trace.”
But after hours of pursuing an ever-widening search pattern, it seemed the young inventor would have to eat his words. The dark waters held no clue.
“This is crazy,” grumbled Bud. “Even if she blew up, we’d pick up something somewhere.”
“Boss, you said some o’ the Enterprises people are on board,” Chow said to Tom. “Who are they, d’you know?”
Tom looked at his friend with grim concern. “Bob Jeffers for one. Also Nina Kimberley.”
“Aw jetz!” Bud gasped in dismay. “And Nina just got back from the Aurum City expedition!”
Before Tom could make further comment, Chow suddenly exclaimed, “Say! Look at that on the screen! Don’t it mean somethin’?”
The sonarscope screen showed a strange, irregular form, like a silhouette of light outlining a black cloudlike central shape.
“Put it on imaging mode,” Bud urged. “Doesn’t look like anything, the way it is.”
Tom shrugged, puzzled. “Hate to tell you this, pal, but it is on imaging mode!”
Chow squinted at the shape. “Wa-aal what is it, some kind o’ jellyfish? It’s wigglin’ and wogglin’ all over th’ place!”
Tom checked the control dials and the positional readout. “Whatever it is, it’s about at the limit of sonarscope range.”
“How big is it?” Bud asked. “As big as the Sea Charger?”
“No, not at all—much smaller. But way too big to be any kind of fish.”
“Could it be a school of fish?”
“If so, I’ve never seen them bounce sonar in this way,” was the reply. Suddenly Tom yelped out: “Whoa!”
The weird ghostlike object had abruptly shot across the monitor screen and vanished from sight!
“Skipper!” Bud breathed. “If it was really that far away…”
“I know,” said Tom slowly. “It must have been moving faster than a space rocket! Even our jetmarines can’t approach that speed.” Tom made adjustments to the control panel, but ended up shaking his head. “No trace of anything now. It must have been some sort of malfunction in the sonar transceiver—a ghost blip.”
“But boss, ya don’t think—I mean, it couldn’t be—the, the― ” stammered Chow, eyes wider than usual.
“The ghost o’ that ship we’re tryin’ to find?”
Bud snorted. “At least that’d be something, cowpoke. Right now we’ve got nuthin’!”
Discouraged, Tom piloted the Emeraldina back to Loonaui, and the refueled HighJumper resumed its northeasterly flight. It was late night, local time, when the jet finally touched down on the Enterprises airfield in Shopton. Their big yawns led them irresistibly to bed, Tom at the nearby Swift residence, Bud in his apartment in Shopton, and Chow in his comfortable quarters on the plant grounds near his kitchen.
Several days went by but there was no report on the whereabouts of the Sea Charger. Unable to make progress on the mystery, Tom busied himself in his laboratory meanwhile, trying to solve the problem of developing a new and cheaper method of space travel.
“Say, wasn’t that Dr. Kupp I just saw leaving?” Bud asked warily one afternoon as he strolled into the laboratory, which adjoined the high-arched underground hangar where Tom’s mammoth Flying Lab was based. When Tom nodded, Bud continued: “He’s—not coming right back, is he?”
Tom grinned. “Bud Barclay, the big brave athlete! You’re not intimidated by that little man, are you?”
“I know he’s your ace mathematician and nuclear chemist or whatever,” Bud replied as he eased down on a stool, still poised to make a run for it. “But let’s face it, he can be a little… opaque. As in: you can’t make out what he’s saying. Or if he’s saying anything!”
“True, pal!” Tom laughed. “He was supposed to join us on the trip to Australia, you know.”
“So what happened? He couldn’t find his way to the airport?”
“He couldn’t find his way to his car. In the Enterprises parking lot!”
After a hearty shared hoot, Bud continued. “Any big brain waves yet on your project, boy genius? Your Dad’s challenge?” He noticed that Tom was intently poring over a clutter of scribbled diagrams and equations.
Tom looked up with a wry grin. “Give us time, flyboy! But if I were a detective, I’d say I’ve got a few ‘leads’.”
“Okay. And just like a detective in a story, you’re keeping everybody guessing to the end.” Bud scratched his bead thoughtfully. “Let’s get down to brass tacks. Where do you start in tackling the problem?”
“Good question. That’s just what I’ve been asking myself,” Tom replied with a half-rueful smile. “The real hope,” he continued, “lies in finding a different type of space propulsion. As you know, the advanced spaceships devised so far—I mean the self-contained kind which don’t need rocket fuel—rely on drive systems that are big, bulky, and power-hungry.”
“Even the Brungarian moon ship used the sun to feed its ion drive,” Bud agreed.
“Yes, and our ship, the Challenger, uses power from those big cosmic energy converters to run its repelatron drive setup. Other ships that space scientists have dreamed up would need very, very large power-gathering equipment to collect the sun’s energy.”
“I’ve seen drawings of that sort of thing—whopping big space sails the size of those atom-snatchers you made to collect solar-wind particles for your matter maker.”
Tom nodded, chuckling at the wry look on Bud’s face as he himself recalled the unwieldy span of the objects. “But anyhow, whatever a ship uses for power, it’s the propulsion systems that make it a mighty expensive proposition.”
“I’ll bet you have a better idea already. Out with it!” Bud urged. “Didn’t you say something about Dr. MacIllheny’s experiments?”
“Whoa! Don’t put me on the spot!” Tom cringed jokingly, then turned serious. “Well, as a matter of fact, I do have a few ideas. One factor I’ve been thinking about is the cosmic rays encountered in space.”
“Dangerous stuff!” Bud pointed out. “One wrong move and whole future generations of the Barclay or Swift family lines could disappear! But your Tomasite-Inertite shielding protects space travellers.”
“I’m thinking of a whole ’nuther side to it, Bud. Look inside the test chamber.” The young inventor led his chum over to the double-thick view window that formed the side of a reinforced test cubicle. Inside Bud saw a sturdy framework supporting a vertical pivot. A metal arm, like the spoke of a horizontally mounted wheel, was linked to the pivot.
“I get it—you’ve reinvented the wheel!” Bud gibed.
“The wheel was a pretty useful invention, bolt-head!” Tom gripped a lever sticking out from the lab wall just beneath the window. “Watch what happens when I release the brake.”
As Bud watched, the pivoted arm began to turn very slowly, gradually accelerating to a lazy pace. “It’s about as fast as those ceiling fans that move the air around,” the dark-haired youth remarked.
“I know,” Tom replied. “But slow and weak as it is, it’s a start. It’s being pushed along by cosmic subtrinos, Bud, the particles MacIllheny discovered. Once he’d pinpointed the basic parameters from the Hyper-Celerator run, he was able to plug the numbers into equations he had already developed, which he sent me right away. Dr. Kupp’s been helping me put it all together. It requires being able to think in six dimensions!”
“Uh-huh. If anyone can do it, he can.” Bud watched the little device wheeling around for a moment. “Does it do anything else, pal?”
“I’ve been experimenting with different configurations for the reactor plates. I’ll try another while you’re here. Maybe you’ll bring me luck.” Tom entered the chamber and spent some time unscrewing and re-setting a small unit, about the size and shape of a game domino, that was firmly attached to the end of the rotor arm. It appeared to be made up of a number of tiny square “cells” arrayed in parallel. Sealing the door behind him, he rejoined Bud at the window and again released the brake mechanism. “While I’m getting readings, I’ll explain the general idea to you.”
“Should it be doing that?”
The young inventor glanced through the view pane and his jaw dropped open in astonishment. The device was whirling about its axis at tremendous speed—and accelerating frighteningly. The end of the arm was already whipping through the air with such unbelievable speed that it was starting to glow red from friction!
Tom reached for the brake lever. Before he could touch it, a sharp, shattering retort rang through Tom’s laboratory as a pair of tiny holes appeared in the test chamber’s observation pane and in the lab window looking out on the great underground hangar.
“Get down!” Bud shouted. “Somebody’s shooting at us!”
ACTING on instinct, Bud yanked Tom down to the lab floor with powerful muscles. One side of their faces pressed flat against the tiles, they heard a number of further bangs from inside the hangar, followed by sudden quiet.
“Head down, Skipper—don’t look over the window sill,” Bud whispered tensely. “I’ll worm over to the door and peek around the side.”
“Bud― ” Heedless of his pal’s warning, Tom rose to his feet. “The danger’s over.”
“Are you nuts? The shooter must still be out there!”
Tom smiled down at Bud. “There is no shooter, pal. But thanks for protecting me.”
Bud rolled half over and posed his head on his elbowed arm. “Fine. So where did those holes come from?” He looked up skeptically—though he already assumed he was in the wrong.
Tom gestured at the test chamber window. “Look at the edges around the hole, and where the fragments fell. Something went from inside the chamber to outside! And the hole in the other window started in the lab and went through into the hangar.”
Somewhat redfaced, Bud scrambled to his feet. “I see. You forgot to tell me your invention is designed to shoot its operator!”
“My invention broke,” Tom retorted. “Or rather the testing apparatus did. The friction heat must’ve expanded the clamp, and the reactor chip went flying off faster than a speeding bullet. It’s massive enough to keep going for a few rebounds even after it shot through the windows.”
“I take it you didn’t expect the thing to start turning so fast.”
The young inventor gave a that’s-for-sure snort. “I was hoping for a slight increase. Somehow the reconfiguration keyed in to an effect that nobody anticipated.”
Bud grinned. “Well, as a great inventor with deep-set blue eyes once said—no one can predict everything!”
That evening, supper on the stove, a doorbell-chime announced an expected guest at the Swifts’ attractive home. Tom’s vivacious younger sister Sandra admitted Harlan Ames, who had been head of the Enterprises plant security office for several years running. The lean, middle-aged man was a widower with a daughter Tom’s age. Whenever Dodie was away from Shopton attending college, the Swifts made certain to make Ames a frequent dinner guest.
“Let me take your hat, Uncle Har,” Sandy offered.
“Thanks, kid. When I drag myself home to my own place, Dodie usually greets me with, So where ya been, Dad?”
“You can’t blame her for worrying,” said Mr. Swift, looking in from the dining room. “Your job’s enough to turn anybody’s hair gray—even a teenager’s!”
Mrs. Swift, slender and as pretty as her blond daughter, had prepared one of her usual delicious meals. As usual, the current Swift mystery quickly became the main subject of dinner-table discussion.
“I can’t stand to think of what might have happened to Bob and Nina,” Sandy remarked thoughtfully. “It must have been awful to have to break it to their families.”
“I’m afraid it’s my job to face unpleasant facts,” said Ames. “The Sea Charger may have been sunk.”
“Sunk!” repeated Mrs. Swift, shocked by the idea. “But I suppose that would explain why all efforts to trace the ship have failed.”
“I don’t agree with Harlan, Mom,” Tom put in. “There’s just no way to sink something the size of an aircraft carrier in open water, in the middle of the Pacific, and not leave some sort of debris behind.”
“Tom, if I were as optimistic as you always manage to be,” Ames began, “—I’d be out of a job!” The remark brought a chuckle from Tom’s father.
“Why would anyone want to sink the Sea Charger anyway?” Sandy mused. “Isn’t it just some kind of research ship?”
“I don’t think ‘just’ is quite the word, sis,” Tom replied. “The design we came up with for her is pretty sophisticated. She’s flat on top for aircraft landing, and her stern is a self-contained section that can be detached to use as a launch platform for missiles or small manned rockets. There’s all manner of scientific equipment and instrumentation below deck; and of course she’s atom-powered.”
Mr. Swift took up the thread of conversation. “As far as I’m concerned, her most interesting feature is that she can be submerged like a submarine, huge as she is. Airtight panels slide shut over the deck, rather like the cover on one of those old roll-top desks.”
“And it doesn’t leak—even a little?” asked Sandy mischievously.
“Not even,” said Tom. “A bank of water repelatrons reduces the outside pressure almost to zero, and allow us to alter the ship’s buoyancy, as we do in those undersea ‘bubblevators’ at the hydrodome.” The Swift Enterprises hydrodome, on the floor of the Atlantic, sustained the company’s helium extraction operation.
“So the question before the house remains—who gets the advantage in sinking, or stealing, the Sea Charger?” Harlan Ames declared.
“Someone who’s either threatened by a competing technology—or who wants to capture it for his own uses!” declared Tom abruptly. His eyes suddenly blazed as an idea struck him. “And whichever it was, I think I know who is behind all this!”
All eyes turned toward the young inventor.
“Tom, you mean you know who stole the Sea Charger?” Sandy demanded. “I haven’t even made a list of suspects!”
“I believe so,” her brother replied, “a wealthy, unscrupulous Asian named Li Ching.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Mrs. Swift in surprise. “The man who murdered all those gang members!”
The government-backed Swift expedition to the undersea archaeological site named Aurum City had been bedeviled by a mysterious, never-seen adversary known to international authorities as Comrade-General Li Ching. His agents had ruthlessly cut down a competing gang of criminals employed by a nation that had spurned Li’s organization.
“Actually, he’s a man without a country. Li was exiled by his own government when he tried to sell high-tech military secrets to other countries—some of which are active foes of the United States. He managed to escape the chopping block and flee, no one knows where.”
“And in the meantime,” added Harlan Ames, “he’s made himself a menace to the world. He’s on my short list, though I didn’t want to mention him. Although his name is unknown to the general public, intelligence reports indicate that Li Ching is carrying on what he calls ‘reprisal actions’ against top scientists of other countries.”
“In other words,” said Tom, “he plans to eliminate his scientific rivals after stealing their technologies. The Sea Charger would be a tempting target.”
Sandy gasped as Tom described a few of Li Ching’s reputed exploits. “What a gruesome character to come up against! He sounds like a—a sort of international octopus!”
“He gets around,” Tom agreed grimly.
Mr. Swift frowned. “Unfortunately, that would certainly explain the Sea Charger’s being not just stolen, but sunk,” he murmured thoughtfully. “An act of pure destruction! It fits in with reports of Li Ching’s tactics, Tom.”
“Of course Admiral Hopkins and the other officials already know our thinking on this,” noted Ames. The security chief promised to check at once with the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington for any clues to Li Ching’s latest activities.
The meal proceeded for a time in worried silence. Then Tom’s mother said quietly, “Goodness, I hope you men aren’t becoming involved in another dangerous adventure. It’s a vain hope, but hope is hope.” Outwardly brave and calm at all times, Anne Swift often felt pangs of fear for the safety of “her two inventors,” and sympathized with the families of Harlan Ames and other Enterprises employees.
“I’ll match your vain hope to some useless advice. Don’t worry, Mom.” Tom stood and gave her a quick hug. “I doubt if Li Ching would dare show his face in the United States.”
“He’d better not!” Sandy declared. Her blue eyes sparkled with mischief as she added, “But if that creepy old pirate ever does, I’ll grab his skull and crossbones and hit him over the head with it!”
Tom chuckled. “Okay, San. If I see a chance, I’ll let you know.”
Tom and Sandy tried to keep the conversation cheerful, but the rest of the evening was clouded by thoughts of the sinister Li Ching. All present knew that again and again, Tom’s scientific work had brought him into danger from enemies bent on stealing his inventions or plotting against his country.
The next day brought Tom face to face with his other mystery, the peculiar behavior of his subtrino reactor device. With Bud away on a delivery flight to Canada, there was nothing to lighten his mood or divert his obsessive concentration upon the problem. He sensed that the matter would prove crucial to the notion of a new mode of space propulsion. But where was the key?
Almost without thinking, he ended his day by walking the short distance home from the plant along the secluded road he and his father often used. He barely noticed the setting sun, or the pair of bright headlights approaching behind him. Suddenly an automobile horn blasted shrilly in his ear! Tom had been so deep in thought he almost jumped off the road.
A white compact whizzed past, then braked to a halt.
“Bash!” Tom yelled, laughing. “What’s the pitch—scaring a guy this way?”
The driver—a pretty girl with long dark hair flying in the breeze—flashed a coy smile at her victim and backed up. She was Bashalli Prandit, a Pakistani who lived with her brother’s family in Shopton and had become Sandy’s best friend. Tom considered her the most attractive date in Shopton. And certainly the most attentive.
“Daydreaming again, eh?” Bashalli teased. “You really had better watch that, professor! I could have been one of those wicked felons who find it fascinating to hit you over the head and kidnap you.”
“I didn’t expect such distracting scenery.” Tom grinned as he climbed in next to her. She blushed a little and stepped on the accelerator. As they started off, a bulky slat-sided truck roared by, bearing the label SHOPTON QUICKRENTAL. Bashi followed, both vehicles going at a brisk speed.
Tom’s instincts blared a warning. Why was the truck using the little road? The only stop ahead, before the road rejoined the highway, was Tom’s home. “Bashalli,” Tom said gently, not wanting to scare her, “let’s slow a little and give the guy some space.”
Without warning, the truck suddenly stopped short with a screech of powerful brakes. Bash gasped and swung the wheel hard, but it was impossible to avoid a crash. With a crunching impact the frail compact car rammed into the rear of the truck!
IN SPITE of her tight grip on the steering wheel, Bashalli was hurled violently against her shoulder safety restraint. Her forehead scraped the metal bracelets on her wrist and came up bloody. Tom was half-turned in his seat, and as the car skidded in a half-circle his head was flung back against the windshield of the passenger door. Both were knocked for a loop and almost lost consciousness.
A minute went by before Tom fully regained his senses. He could feel a warm trickle of blood on the back of his neck. Tom brushed it away, still somewhat dazed. Then he heard a moan beside him.
Alarm over her safety helped shock Tom back to full consciousness. Bash was slumped against him, held up by her shoulder strap. Her eyes were closed and there was a shallow gash on her right temple that was bleeding. Tom shook her gently and chafed her wrists.
“Bash!” he repeated urgently. “Wake up!” As she opened her eyes, he asked, “Are you all right?”
“I—I hope so.” She tried to smile. “I’m sorry, Thomas.”
“It wasn’t your fault. That boneheaded truck driver slammed on his brakes without warning and we crashed into him!” For the first time, Tom realized that the truck was nowhere in sight. He scowled fiercely. “The guy cleared out without even offering to help us!”
“Oh please, Tom, let us be very honest with one another,” protested the girl, voice slurry and weak. “Surely this was yet another deliberate attack on the genius inventor of Shopton. I am privileged to suffer collateral damage.”
Tom did not try to reply. “No bones broken?” he inquired in sympathetic concern.
“G-guess not.” Bashalli winced and touched her shoulder gingerly. “Surely I’m black and blue, though! The strap kept me safe, but my poor shoulder has no gratitude.”
“It’s the cut on your head I’m concerned about,” murmured the young inventor. “Let’s get it cleaned and bandaged.”
“Such gallantry,” Bash commented. Before Tom could reply, her expression changed abruptly. She had just noticed the red smear on the back of her friend’s collar. “Thomas! You’re hurt too!” she gasped, instantly forgetting her own bruises.
“Banged the back of my thick skull. It’s nothing.”
But Bashalli insisted upon stanching the flow of blood with her handkerchief. As the young Pakistani concentrated on Tom’s injury, a red convertible drew up, stopped with a squeal of brakes, then pulled over to the side of the road just ahead of them.
“Hey! What gives?” It was Bud Barclay, on his way from the plant to dinner with Tom at the Swifts’ house. “Good night! Anyone hurt?”
He leapt out and came running toward them, giving a whistle of dismay when he saw that the front of Bash’s car had been smashed in.
“Barclay to the rescue!” Tom quipped. “You sure turned up at the right time. I’m afraid the Bash-mobile isn’t up to running.”
Tom and Bash told him what had happened. Bud quickly checked Bashalli’s car and confirmed that it was no longer in driving condition. He then pushed it clear of the narrow roadway.
“Stay put, Skipper!” Bud ordered when Tom tried to get out and help. Afterward Bud insisted upon driving the two victims to the office of Dr. Emerson in town, the Swifts’ family physician, who had late hours two nights of the week. Bud cellphoned ahead, and also called Tom’s family, assuring them that the injuries to Tom and Bashalli seemed minor.
Dr. Emerson examined and bandaged them. “You’re both all right, so far as I can tell,” he announced. “No sign of any concussion. Bashalli, you received only a surface scratch which will heal up quickly. As for Tom here—I delivered him as a bouncing baby and he’s been bouncing ever since! You should rest quietly—at least through tomorrow night. That means in bed, young man!” the medic warned with a humorous shake of his finger at Tom.
“Oh, how nice for you, Tom!” teased Bashalli. “He just loves idle bed rest, Doctor.”
The young inventor groaned, thinking of the loss of time from work. But he promised to comply.
Bud took Bash home and called a towing service to get her car. Then he drove Tom to his house.
Tom’s parents and Sandy paled at sight of Tom’s bandaged head. After hearing what had happened, they immediately and unanimously ordered him to bed. Bud walked upstairs with his woozy pal, calling down behind him: “Oh, and don’t worry about me, Sandy, I’m just fine!”
“Just stuff him into that bed, Buddo!” Sandy ordered.
“Good grief, you’d think I was facing major surgery!” Tom muttered as he changed into pajamas.
“Quiet, please! No griping allowed,” Bud retorted with a chuckle, “or I’ll call in a surgeon to remove that bump of stubbornness.” But as his chum climbed into bed, Bud became serious. “Tom, did you notice the license number of the truck?”
“Does anyone ever? But we did see the sign on the side. It belongs to Shopton QuickRental Company.” Tom shot a questioning look at Bud. “Why?”
“Skipper, has it occurred to you that the crash might not have been an accident?”
Tom nodded thoughtfully. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Bash, but she brought it up first.”
“Well, I intend to check up and find out,” Bud declared. “That driver might have planned to run you down, if Bash hadn’t happened to pick you up!”
Tom agreed this was possible. “It’s a tired old gimmick, but still pretty deadly. See what you can dig up, Bud.”
The following morning, on his way to Enterprises, Bud stopped at the office of the Shopton QuickRental Company. He explained about the crash and asked for the names and addresses of all persons who had rented trucks from the company the day before.
Hoping that abject cooperation might avert a lawsuit, the manager was only too happy to oblige. Four persons had rented trucks, none of which had yet been returned. Two of the people were familiar to the manager and had left town the morning before on long-distance hauling jobs.
The third proved to be a construction man who claimed to have been at the site of a project during the time of Bash’s accident. After inspecting the rear end of his truck, Bud was satisfied that this was not the one which had been involved in the crash.
“That leaves one name,” Bud said to himself. But when he checked out the renter, Gus Emden, he was told at the address given that no one there had ever heard of such a person. Grimly satisfied, Bud drove to the plant and reported this to Harlan Ames.
“Looks as though Emden’s our boy,” Ames agreed. “Good work! I’ll alert the police and see if they can find him and the truck. But he probably used a phony name if he intended to cause an accident.”
The second day after the accident, Dr. Emerson made an early visit at the Swift home and pronounced Tom fit to return to work. “I’m sure you could have gotten a better deal from your plant medic, Simpson. But I hear he’s on vacation.”
The patient chuckled. “He deserves it. We put him through a lot!”
At Enterprises Tom sat down with his chief engineer, Hank Sterling, to see if he could manage some progress on the “challenge.”
“I’ve looked over everything you gave me, boss—the subtrinos, your experiments, the whole shot.” Hank’s brow creased. “I’m afraid this sort of hard-science theoretical stuff is a little out of my league as an engineer. Break it down for me a little, would you?”
Tom grinned. “I’m not so sure I get the in’s and out’s of it myself.”
“I understand the basics—the fact that the particle can change from one form to another.”
“It ‘flips’ when it passes close to a certain kind of configuration of nuclei,” explained the young inventor. He made a sketch on a notebook page as he talked. “The cosmic reactor, as I’ve named it, is built up of small segments—cells. What I was testing the other day was one of ’em, though in miniature.”
“I thought as much.”
“Now each cell has two plates, A and B. The A-plate is coated with nano-sized granules of ultradense neutron matter, which the Citadel provides us with for experimentation.”
Hank looked surprised. “Neutron matter? I know enough of physics to know that that stuff is super heavy!”
“That’s true enough,” replied the youth. “If we used more than a molecule-thick film, any propulsion system using it would be too heavy to get off the ground!” Resuming his account, Tom said, “When the subtrinos shoot through plate-A, the presence of the compacted neutrons causes them to transform into their alternative fermion state. When they hit plate-B, which is coated with Inertite, they bounce off and transfer their momentum to the reactor frame, giving it a push.”
Hank nodded but retained a frown. “A push, but a very weak one, as I understand it.”
“That’s the mystery here, Hank. What was there about that last arrangement of the two plates that caused such an over-the-top effect? If we can figure that out, we’ll have enough thrust to drive a spacecraft along.” He handed Hank the monitoring data on the series of experiments, and the young engineer promised to focus on the question.
Driving home after work, Tom ran a few errands in town, then meandered along past the lakefront park in his sports car. The end of the day had left Tom feeling anything but hopeful. Every attack on the subtrino problem seemed to lead up a blind alley. Yet he couldn’t help feeling that its solution would lead to a space-travel breakthrough.
As Tom slowly drove past the widest section of the grassy park, he saw several young boys trying to fly a kite. But the boys were having trouble keeping it aloft. Recognizing one of them, Tom pulled his car over on impulse and got out.
“Hey, there’s Tom Swift! He’ll help us!” cried Jason Barstow, the son of an Enterprises employee. The group of boys excitedly hailed the celebrated young inventor.
Tom chuckled and strolled out across the field to meet them. “What’s the matter, Jazzy? Won’t she go up?”
“Sure won’t!” Jason complained. “And we spent all afternoon building this kite. Look—it’s made outta Tomasite plastic! You’re an expert, Tom. What’s wrong?”
“From the way it’s sagging up there, I’d say you’ve got overkill on your stabilizer, gang—the tail’s too long and heavy.” Tom reeled in the kite and tore off part of the rag tail. In a few minutes he had the red kite soaring high in the blue, then turned it back to Jason.
“Oh, boy! How about that?” cheered Kenny Smith gleefully. “Just like magic!”
Tom grinned. “No magic about it,” he explained. “Your kite was just tail-heavy. What makes a kite stay up, anyhow—ever stop to think?”
“The wind,” Jazzy volunteered. “There’s plenty of wind from the lake.”
Tom’s question brought puzzled looks. The boys could only shrug blankly.
“Well, for instance, what will happen if you let go of the string?” Tom persisted.
“The kite’ll fly away,” said Kenny.
“And probably keep going forever!” Jazzy Barstow added. “At least till the wind dies down.”
“Drop the string and see what happens,” Tom suggested.
The boy hesitated, then let go. At once the kite started falling toward the ground. Jazzy quickly grabbed the string again and reeled in. As soon as the cord was taut, the kite seemed to regain its lift from the wind.
“I get it now, Mr. Swift!” piped up Joe Spinzo, a bright-eyed eight-year-old. “We need the string pulling on the kite, too, to make it fly.”
“Smart thinking, Joe!” Tom approved. “You see, there are three things that happen when a kite goes up in the air. Watch.”
Tom picked up a stick and scraped a diagram on a bare spot of ground. “First,” he pointed out, “there’s the force of gravity which tries to pull the kite down. Second, the wind blows along the field and pushes the kite away from you. Third, you pull on the string into the wind, which makes the kite move upward in a curved arc. The string enables the kite to make use of the wind force so as to overcome the force of gravity.”
“Gee, that’s simple the way you explain it, Tom!” said Jazzy.
Tom grinned. “Because the string holds back the kite against the wind, the wind bounces off it like a rubber ball. It sort’ve runs into itself as it bounces back, which makes a layer of extra pressure on the down-angled surface. If the kite were just carried along by the wind, you’d lose that pressure right away.
“Actually, it’s just like the pressure differential that gives lift to an airplane wing. When you pull on the kite string you supply the extra force needed to keep the kite up—in the same way an aircraft engine supplies the force to keep the plane up. No engine, no flight—no string, no flight.”
The boys seemed to enjoy having the problem laid out by none other than Tom Swift. After chatting with them a few minutes longer, Tom asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“Space pilots!” the trio chorused.
“Glad to hear that, guys,” Tom said. “It’s one of the best jobs in the world.”
He waved good-bye and resumed his lazy homeward drive. He found himself wondering if the boys’ dreams would ever come true. “Not if we can’t beat the cost factor in space travel!” Tom reflected ruefully. “Kite flying is sure cheaper.”
Kites! The word exploded in Tom’s mind. He almost hit the brakes as an exciting idea struck him full force. Instead of regarding cosmic rays as a dangerous drawback to space flight, why not make use of cosmic subtrinos just as a kite makes use of the wind?
It suddenly struck the young inventor that the pressure-effect of the rebounding subtrinos interacting with one another during his experiment might have caused the enormous increase in the resultant force. Could it be? I’ll build a brand-new experimental craft on this principle, Tom thought elatedly, and even call it a Space Kite! The heightened force of the “captured” subtrinos would move the spaceship, just as the wind moved the boys’ kite aloft! Tom reasoned that he had accidentally produced the effect when he had rearranged the plates in his experiment.
At home Tom was quick to discuss the revolutionary approach with his father. Setting aside their joking “rivalry,” the young inventor explained his space-kite idea.
“A spaceship propelled by cosmic radiation?” Mr. Swift was at once startled and intrigued. “And yet, why not? Tom, I believe you have a really promising idea there.”
Then the scientist frowned. “The only trouble is you’d need still another source of energy—something to provide a force for the cosmic radiation to react against. Otherwise, as the craft accelerates freely, the particle impacts will convey less and less momentum, and the layer of pressure will dissipate.”
“In other words,” his son agreed thoughtfully, “something to take the place of the kite string on an ordinary air kite.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way, son.” Damon Swift gave the young inventor an encouraging pat on the back. “We both know that any major scientific breakthrough takes time. Just stick with it.”
“I will, Dad. I know it’ll take time.” But as Mr. Swift walked away, Tom’s mind added a silent subclause.
Would his enemies—including the ruthless Li Ching—allow him the time he needed? The project was at their mercy. And mercy was not their calling card!
IT WAS afternoon several days later when Tom was able to take the basic ideas for his Space Kite, hand-drawn sketches supplementing the precise specifications shown on Tom’s design flatscreen, to Arvid Hanson. Hanson was the expert who turned out scale models and midget test prototypes of the Swifts’ inventions as the first step past the idea stage. He was not only a gifted modelmaker, but an experienced electronics engineer and technician
Tom greeted the good-natured hulking six-footer and his assistant technician Linda Ming, then spread out his papers on a countertop.
“What’s the assignment this time, Tom?” Linda asked. “And when do you want it?”
“By yesterday.” Tom grinned. “But don’t break your necks, you two. We’ll work on this together. Take a look.”
Tom showed them the rough drawings of the Space Kite, after which he downloaded and printed the computer files.
“Aha, your compact car for space commuters!” joked Linda. “It’s about time we shared our smog and congestion with the moon and the stars.”
Hanson was fired with enthusiasm. “Boy, this makes space travel look like fun!” he exclaimed.
The design of the Space Kite was beautifully simple. The pilot and copilot, with their control and communications equipment, would be enclosed in the forward-facing part by a transparent oval-shaped dome of durable Tomaquartz, coated with Inertite and tinted to protect the occupants from the glare of the sun. Behind their seats, the dome was partitioned off by the flat “screen layers” of Tom’s cosmic reactor—the device for converting cosmic subtrino radiation into motive power. The five-sided screen was made up of many rows of the small component cells, which were square in shape and open at the rear to the spatial void.
Linda Ming’s humorous remark had a basis in fact, for the craft was no bigger than a compact car standing up on end. Tom pointed out that the Space Kite would rest upright on three slender, graceful landing supports while on the ground awaiting launch. “The full-sized model will be powered by a single Type IV Swift solar battery—light as a pop-up toaster! But it’ll supply sufficient current to run the basic components and the equipment in the pilot cabin. Everything else will be completely passive and unpowered, like a sailboat or a kite.
“But don’t worry, this one doesn’t have to be a working model,” Tom assured them with a smile. “It’s mainly a guide for Hank Sterling and Art Wiltessa to use for reference as they turn out the life-sized test version.” He added that the final version would have some differences anyway. “I still have to come up with my electronic ‘kite string’ to stabilize the craft and allow the cosmic reactor to work at full efficiency. And it’ll have to function without a big power drain,” he noted musingly.
“If you’re ready, boss, we three can get to work on it at once,” Arv urged.
“The Big Swede’s like a kid at Christmas with a new model set to glue together,” remarked Linda teasingly.
“Dragon Lady’s absolutely right,” declared Hanson. “You won’t need to pay my salary on this one, Tom—she’s a beaut!”
He began machining the metal parts from lightweight magnesium alloy. Tom, meanwhile, shaped the glittering dome of the astronaut compartment out of transparent Tomasite plastic on a molding press, while Linda began crafting the cabin’s interior setup. Within hours, the finished model of the Space Kite was hanging from the ceiling of the modelmaking workshop on fine plastic threads.
“I’ve got to agree with Arv,” stated Linda. “Prettiest thing I’ve worked on in months.” The three stood quietly for a moment, pausing to admire the result of their craftsmanship.
At that moment the outer door of the lab-workshop swung open in response to the signal of an electronic key, coming from outside in the hallway. A food cart was rolled in, followed by a stomach, followed by Chow Winkler. “Here ya go, folky-dokes, afternoon energy food!” The plump westerner served meals and extra snacks to the Swift executive staff whenever they were busy in their customized work areas and labs.
“Oh, hey there, Tom! Didn’t know you’d be here. But I allus bring around more’n enough,” he boomed cheerfully with his Texas-gravel voice. This afternoon, to go with his scruffy cowboy boots and white ten-gallon hat, the former range cook wore a green-and-red shirt with a heat-lightning theme.
Apparently Chow was in a jaunty mood. His tall hat was pulled so low over his eyes that it prevented him from seeing the suspended space-kite model. “Hey, watch it, Chow!” Tom yelled.
An instant later there was a loud whump! as Chow collided head-on with the Space Kite! The glittering model crashed to the floor as Chow stumbled back in alarm. He ended up sitting on the floor next to the downed model. “Brrr-rand my coyote cutlets, what sneakin’ varmint hit me?”
Tom and Arv helped Chow to his feet as Linda giggled helplessly. Then Tom grinned. “Young feller, you just sabotaged my latest invention!”
Chow stared around dazedly. “I’m sure sorry, Tom. Looks like I knocked it all galley-west. Didn’t do my brand-new somber-ayro any good, neither.”
Luckily the kite model was undamaged and Tom hung it up again. Chow straightened out his askew hat, then brushed it off. “What’s this new contraption o’ yours, Tom?”
“A Space Kite for astronauts. It uses cosmic radiation for propulsion.”
“Y’don’t say.” Chow’s leathery face assumed a skeptical expression. “It’s no blame wonder they call ’em nuts, goin’ up inta space jest to fly a kite.”
“Not nuts—astronauts.” Tom tried hard to suppress a smile because he did not want to embarrass the kindhearted old Westerner. “Voyagers to the stars! They’ll travel inside it.”
“Humph.” Chow stared hard at the kite model for a few moments, then gave up trying to understand it. “Waa-al, it made me see stars, all right. But I dunno if I’d care to go ridin’ up yonder in sech a flimsy rig. I guess these here cosmic aster-nauts are the ones you were talkin’ about th’ other day, the folks that’ll flit back and forth while they work up there.”
Tom’s eyes turned dreamy as he nodded. “That’s right. If my cosmic-ray propulsion device pans out in actual use, those ‘cosmic astronauts’ may eventually change the way the whole world works!”
“That’s nice. Long as the world still needs a cook er two t’ keep ’em all fed an’ happy!”
After snacking Arv went off to acquaint Sterling and Wiltessa with the details of the new spacecraft model. Afterwards Tom hopped onto the moving-ramp system that criss-crossed Swift Enterprises and headed for the office in the administration building that he shared with his father.
Mr. Swift looked up from his desk with pleasure as Tom strode in. “You look pretty upbeat this afternoon, Tom. Has the inventing bug bit you?”
“Just a little nip,” Tom replied with a chuckle, “but I believe I’m closing in on the answer to the final part of the Space Kite.”
Mr. Swift grinned proudly at his celebrated son. “Let’s hear it.”
“Briefly, my Space Kite will use a gravity concentrator,” Tom went on. “Sort of a repelatron in reverse, at least as far as what it does. My gravity concentrator will make use of the attracting force between objects, rather than producing a repelling force.”
“Mm-hmm.” Damon Swift couldn’t help looking a tad skeptical. “Control of the gravitational force has been a dream for centuries, son. Few scientists think it’s possible.”
“That’s out-of-date thinking, Dad—very ‘old millennium’! We already know for a fact that gravity can be controlled. The space friends do it!”
The thoughtful nod of Tom’s father conceded the point. With its every whirl about the earth, the phantom satellite Nestria confirmed that the never-seen extraterrestrials with whom Tom communicated had mastered the basic forces of nature. The had not only moved the tiny moonlet into orbit, but had established a livable gravitational field there. “But son, we’ve never been able to understand how that ‘gravity cube’ device of theirs functions. We’ve never even been able to move it!”
“I know,” Tom agreed. “But I was able to make a more thorough study of its effects, at least, on my last trip up there. We know it generates some sort of gyrating electromagnetic flux—a real whirlpool of force—that uses the Lunite veins in the ground as some kind of antenna.”
“And you believe you now understand how to use the principle to create gravity directly?”
“Not create it, Dad. The gravity cube on Nestria doesn’t actually create gravity, after all, but distorts and concentrates the existing gravitational field like a lens. I hope to invent a similar sort of device for increasing the gravitational pull exerted by the earth or any other heavenly body on my Space Kite. By aiming the device in the right direction—say at the earth or moon or sun or any suitable planet—the pilot will be able to produce a strong pull to act as a ‘kite string’ for his craft.”
“Hmm. Most ingenious.” Mr. Swift frowned, adding dryly: “And good luck, Tom—of the ‘you’ll need it’ variety, I’m afraid. Even with a few hints from alien technology, it certainly won’t be easy to devise such a gravity concentrator. Also, to be effective, the device would have to step up the gravitational attraction to a strength thousands or millions of times as great as normal.”
“Yes,” Tom admitted, “and on minimal battery power. I haven’t got it licked yet. But as I said, I think I’m making some real progress with my gravitational-extensorizer—my gravitex.”
“I wish you luck,” Mr. Swift said. “Any kind of luck that works.”
Tom pursued the frustrating quest throughout the day and into the evening, taking home with him his notes and some of the circuitry and equipment he had been experimenting with. The problem brought out the inventorly stubbornness in him. Like a bulldog with a bone he couldn’t bear to set it aside.
Bud was visiting, as he usually was—often for dinner. While the young pilot joined Sandy in the living room playing with her cockatiel Featherbee, Tom headed out to his home workshop and lab, a room addition which adjoined the garage. His hands were full of electronics apparatus.
As he assembled the materials on his workbench, the young inventor smiled. “Guess I’ll have to play this by ear,” he thought half-aloud. “I’m trying to do something I can’t even fully explain to myself!”
Torn reflected that gravity can be considered as a form of radiation even though its nature is not yet clearly understood by scientists. Its spreading forces were linked somehow to distortions or “bends” in the invisible fabric of space itself.
“But we’ve been dealing with that sort of thing for a long time now, ever since we discovered the spectronic wave-field and harnessed it to the repelatron,” he said to himself. “There’s got to be a way to concentrate the strength of the G-force radiation by electromagnetic action. If the space friends can do it, I can too—darn it!”
Tom relaxed and tried to allow himself to be guided by his scientific intuitions, as if by a half-forgotten dream. First, he shaped the basic chassis of the gravitex on a metal-spinning lathe. As it would be producing a directional effect, he gave it the form of a gimbal-mounted cone. Next, he molded a number of lightweight plastic balls and removed the air inside them with a vacuum pump. He then wound the balls, just as if he were winding up balls of knitting wool, with many turns of fine, insulated wire “doped” with fibers of certain “rare-earth” elements, which Tom knew to have unique magnetic and semi-conductor properties
Guess I’ll call these gravitol spheres, Tom decided, jotting down this name on his working sketch.
Working rapidly, he enclosed each gravitol sphere in a shell of Lunite metal from Nestria. The several small spheres, interconnected, were mounted inside the hollow direction cone, and the entire assemblage was connected by cable to the electronic modulator component through a power control unit. He affixed the gravitex-wannabe, flared end pointing downward, to a bracket above the workbench and reached for the power knob. When power was turned on, the flowing electricity would create a rapidly rotating magnetic flux inside the gravitol spheres.
To measure the result, Tom had attached the hinged bracket arm to a spring balance. So far, so good, Tom thought warily. Now to see if my idea works at all!
He switched on power and adjusted the voltage reading of the control unit. Instantly the needle of the balance dial swung downward.
Tom gave a cry of delight. “It’s working!” The gravitex was concentrating and magnifying the gravitational force acting upon its own suspended mechanism!
“I want Dad to see this!” Tom muttered triumphantly. He turned the knob on the control unit further, stepping up the voltage. The balance needle responded by swinging still further around the dial.
At the same time, Tom became aware of a strange sensation in his head. He felt giddy and disoriented. Hunh! What’s the matter with me? he wondered in distracted bewilderment.
The young inventor had a weird feeling of going up and up in space. He grabbed the workbench for support. His eyes would not focus right, and the workshop around him seemed to be listing over on its side.
A second later Tom blacked out completely!
“HEY, TOM! Where are you?”
Bud Barclay had just poked his head into the workshop. Getting no answer to his shout, he strode forward to see what was making a hum. Bud gasped when he saw Tom sprawled unconscious on the floor beside his workbench.
“Good night! What happened to him?” Fearing that his chum might have been electrocuted, Bud ran toward the young inventor, flicking off the power switch as he passed it. He slightly raised Tom’s head and felt his pulse, then placed an ear to his chest. “Breathing, thank goodness!”
Bud sprinted back into the house. Knowing that Tom’s parents had gone out for the evening, he grabbed a first-aid kit and yelled for Sandy to join him.
But by the time the two frantic young people had returned to the workshop, Tom was sitting up woozily, rubbing his head. To Bud’s and Sandy’s immense relief, there was no sign of injury, not even a bruise from falling to the floor. “I’m okay,” Tom said faintly. “Guess I scared you. Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, Tomonomo, just stop doing it!” reprimanded Sandy. “Someday― ”
Her brother gave a twitch of a wry smile. “San, let’s not talk about ‘someday,’ huh?”
“Hey! You really had us frantic, pal!” Bud said. “What were you doing? And what’s that rig on your workbench, anyway?”
Tom stared blankly for a moment, then grinned as memory returned. “Oh, you mean my new gravitex stabilizer.” Briefly, he explained its function, and Bud and Sandy silently decided it would be best to let him talk.
When he was through Sandy smiled and nodded at Bud. “I don’t know if any of that made sense, but at least he can talk.”
Tom assumed a pitiful look. “I guess my invention knocked me out.”
“Oh boy,” moaned Bud. “They not only shoot at you, they knock you out!”
“The gravity concentrator apparently acted as a convex magnifying lens does when you focus a beam of sunlight with it.”
“I don’t understand,” Sandy put in.
“Well, have you ever noticed how the lens creates a ring of shadow around the focused spot of light?” When she and Bud both nodded, Tom went on, “The gravity concentrator did the same thing—that is, it created a ‘gravity shadow’ around the test stand. I was working within that shadow, which meant that my gravity, or earth weight, was lessened, as it would if I had been floating in outer space. My inner ear couldn’t handle it—made me so giddy that I blacked out.”
Bud scratched his head, then chuckled. “It’s still a puzzle to me, but I guess it’s a good thing I turned off that switch. Otherwise, I’d have gone slightly feather-headed myself!”
“You sure would have,” Tom agreed. “Thanks to both of you for rescuing me!” With a happy grin the young inventor bounded to his feet. “One good thing—at least my gravitex works! All I have to do now is fix the test setup, so I won’t conk out again next time I try it.”
“Either that or I’d better get you some iron pills to weigh you down, big brother,” Sandy quipped. She added: “But Tom, if all this means what I think it does, it’s just fantastic!”
The next morning Tom put together a more sophisticated model of his gravitex with the assistance of Hank Sterling. At noon Chow brought the two young men a lunch of hot chicken sandwiches and cherry pie. The veteran ranch cook was curious about the invention.
“Brand my cactus salad, what’s that contraption?” he asked, scrutinizing the metal cone. “Looks like a fancy brooder for raisin’ biddies!”
Tom could not suppress a smile, and Hank didn’t bother to try. “Actually it’s a—well, a sort of weight-reducing machine, as it turned out.”
“Hot ziggety!” the hefty chef exclaimed. “How about me usin’ it first, boss?”
Tom told him the truth before the joke went any further. The cook went off with his lunch cart, mystified but impressed.
As the two finished their dessert, Hank commented, “It wasn’t hard to fix the machine to keep the operator out of the gravity shadow, Tom. But it does bring up a question. Why couldn’t you make use of that G-force inverter effect to propel your spacecraft? In other words, a real antigravity drive!”
Tom shook his head. “I’m afraid we’re still a long way from what most people think of when they talk about antigravity—making things fall upward and so forth. It’s one thing to slightly shift or distort the energy-stresses of spacetime in a small region, but to literally turn the dimensional fabric inside-out would take even more power than my space solartron. And you know how power mad that baby is!”
Later in the day, while Tom was working alone, Bud paid him a visit. When his friend demonstrated the improved gravitex, Bud was astounded to see how much its weight was increased on the suspended balance beam.
“This is the ‘string’ for my Space Kite,” Tom explained. “I’ll be able to step up the gravitational attraction many thousands of times.”
“You mean the poor astronauts will end up weighing a few tons or so?”
“Don’t worry, pal. The amplified G-force is focused on the innards of the machine itself.”
“I still haven’t seen this Space Kite of yours,” Bud reminded the young inventor. “Or are you waiting until we scoot off into space on a test flight?”
“Hey, that’s right,” Tom said. “I’ll take you over and show you the model. But if― ”
Tom’s phone bleeped. It was Harlan Ames calling from his office. “Glad I found you, Tom.”
“Any clues yet on the Sea Charger?” Tom asked the security chief with a meaningful glance Bud’s way.
Tom could sense Ames shaking his head. “Not yet—or rather, not definitely. But it’s pretty certain that the crash that happened to you and Bashalli was no accident.” Ames said that the rented truck had been found by the State Police abandoned on the highway. “As I told you before, the guy who called himself ‘Gus Emden’ has vanished into the woodwork. The police think he wore a disguise, including a wig, when he rented the truck. No usable fingerprints on the papers, either. And of course the truck itself was wiped clean, bashed bumper and all.”
Tom’s jaw clenched at the news. It was clearer than ever that some deadly enemy was at work against the Swifts. “I guess I’m not surprised, Harlan. Any evidence that he might be working for Li Ching?”
“Some circumstantial evidence, if you’d care to hear from my gut. I think this Emden character is the same man who shot that mob-type—the one who knocked you out in the woods next to the Mansburg road.”
Earlier in the year, while Tom and Swift Enterprises were embroiled in preparations for the undersea trip to Aurum City, a troop of hired mob figures had stalked the young inventor. He had been lured off the road, then knocked cold. It was then that Tom had had his first taste of Li Ching’s ruthless methods. Tom’s assailant, viewed by Li’s group as the employee of a competing interest, had been shot dead by an unknown person while Tom had lain unconscious. “What you say is sure logical,” said the young inventor slowly. “The guy must be Li’s local agent in Shopton.”
“Just a sec, Tom—got a buzz on my other line.” A long pause followed, then Ames came back on. “Get this, Skipper. Our videophone station on the West Coast just received a shortwave call from a freighter, the Magcandong, bound for San Francisco out of the Philippines. The ship’s operator was answering our broadcasts asking for information about the Sea Charger.”
“They saw something?”
“Heard something. Says he picked up a strange signal yesterday—a Chinese voice speaking in Cantonese dialect, which the radioman understands. He thinks his receiving the signal was some sort of atmospheric freak, which happens now and then, and the voice kept fading in and out. But it mentioned some latitude and longitude numbers fairly clearly, then finished with: ‘You must meet us at midnight to put our fast captive in the hidden—’ But that was all.”
As Bud watched keenly, Tom’s eyes flashed with excitement. “Harlan, that word ‘fast’ may be their code word for ‘Swift.’ And ‘fast captive’ could have referred to the captured Sea Charger!”
“Yes.” Ames spoke with grave firmness. “And also, Tom, it could mean you personally are in danger!”
TOM’S deep-set eyes stared ahead. His jaw set resolutely as he said, “I’m prepared for danger, whatever it is. Harlan, that message in Cantonese is our best lead yet.”
“Obviously, it could tie in with Li Ching,” Ames agreed. “The man is Chinese, and has probably surrounded himself with a gang that speaks to him in his own language.”
Tom nodded to himself. After finishing his conversation with Ames, he dialed George Dilling, the plant’s communications chief, and asked him to try to put him directly in touch with the radioman on the Magcandong.
“All set. Go ahead,” Dilling reported a few minutes later.
Tom identified himself to the radio operator and asked for any further information on the source of the strange signal.
“I cannot say precisely, sir,” the Filipino operator replied, selecting his words carefully. “However, we did pick up the same wavelength twice again, last night and this morning, although not as clearly. I could only make out a phrase here and there.”
“Could you get the gist of what was being said?”
“Perhaps so. If you wish my opinion, I think one party was asking about—please pardon me—about ‘keeping the prisoners alive.’ One was saying yes, the other, no. There was a phrase, ‘must remain beneath for now,’ and one later with a word I do not recognize, ‘the fool in Shah Tun,’ if you see.”
Tom gasped. Shah Tun—Shopton!
“Oh yes, and one more thing, a single word in Cantonese, fanshen. I am not certain of the meaning.” The operator added, “Sir, it is my belief, taking into consideration the elapsed time between these separate transmissions and the change in reception strength as I reoriented the antenna, that the ship must be proceeding on a course almost due north from the coordinates mentioned. But of course that is only a guess.”
“It’s good enough! Many thanks for your help,” Tom said. “Please keep us informed if you pick up anything more, won’t you?”
“Of course, we shall be most pleased to co-operate, sir,” the Filipino radioman replied as he signed off.
Tom turned to his lab computer and fed in the positional coordinates received by the Magcandong operator in the first partial message. The point was in the northern Bering Sea between Saint Lawrence Island off Alaska and the Siberian coastal town of Provideniya. The Russian name of the town made the youth smile ruefully. “We’ve gone from ‘disappointment’ to ‘providence’!” he told Bud. Tom extended a great-circle course heading northward from the fix.
“What do you make of it, Skipper?” Bud asked.
Tom frowned uncertainly. “If that information from the radioman is right, it sure looks like the suspects are heading up the Bering Strait toward the Chukchi Sea. That’s right at the edge of the Arctic icecap.”
Tom zoomed in on the detail in the video map, which was constructed from satellite photography. The young inventor studied the chart closely for a few moments. Suddenly his eyes narrowed as he noticed a cluster of specks on the map which he had previously overlooked.
“See something?” Bud asked.
After bringing up the navigation charts for that area, Tom exclaimed, “Flyboy, I have a hunch! Before they reach the margin of the ice, they’ll be passing near a small formation of rocks hardly big enough to be called an island.” Tom pointed out the formation on the map. “According to the navigation charts, it’s usually shrouded in ice-fog—and would make an ideal hide-out for pirates.”
“Tom, I like the way you think!” exclaimed Bud as he clapped his pal on the back. “When do we leave?”
“Right away.” But then Tom hesitated and added, “If we see any craft or structures with Chinese-type lettering on them, it’d be useful to have a translator along.” He picked up the telephone and called Linda Ming in Arv’s workshop. After explaining the mission he had in mind, Tom asked her if she would care to accompany him and Bud on a scouting flight that would probably last twelve hours or so, all tolled.
“Chief, you know I’d do anything I can for Bob and Nina and the others. I’ve picked up a little about calligraphy and so on; but the fact is, I was born in good old Kansas and can barely speak the language of my honorable ancestors, much less read it,” she explained apologetically. “But listen, what about my big brother Felix? He’s into all that old-country stuff! I’m sure he’d be glad to do it.”
Consulting his employee directory, Tom called Felix Ming, a Chinese-American engineer employed in the Enterprises aircraft development division. “Felix, how’d you like to take a quick jaunt overnight up toward Alaska?” Tom asked, explaining that his sister had recommended him. “I’m going on a secret mission. If it pays off, I may need a Chinese interpreter.”
“Sounds most exciting,” Felix replied with a chuckle. “I shall consider myself lucky to be included!”
“Good!” Over the phone, Tom briefed the young-looking, slender Chinese American on the sobering purpose of the flight.
Shortly before four o’clock that afternoon, the three friends rendezvoused in the cavernous hangar beneath the Enterprises airfield and climbed aboard the mighty Sky Queen. The huge overhead doors were mechanically flung aside and in minutes the three-decker Flying Lab was airborne and heading north of west over the American continent.
A sparkly polar darkness had fallen long before they reached the tiny rock formation near the Bering Strait. “Boy, those hunks of rock don’t amount to much. No wonder the formation is just a speck on the map,” Bud muttered. “This is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“Now they tell me!” Felix Ming groaned, but his eyes twinkled merrily in his round face. Felix was liked by everyone at the plant for his never-failing good nature.
“Don’t worry.” Tom winked at Felix. “Bud’s my navigator on this flight, so it’s his problem. If he lands us in the drink, we’ll sue him!”
“A consoling thought,” Felix retorted with a chuckle.
As they neared the location of the small rocky islets, Tom turned off the skyship’s lights, not wishing to be seen. They had nosed into an overcast, with the sea visible only as a dim heaving shadow far below them.
Tom directed Bud to take the controls and hover above the overcast on the ship’s jet lifters. “Come on, Felix, let’s take a closer look in the cycloplane.” The SwiftStorm, Tom’s ultrasonic cycloplane, was a highly maneuverable jetcraft of revolutionary design. Like the Sky Queen, it could hover like a hummingbird and was capable of vertical as well as horizontal flight.
The elevator deck-platform lowered the cycloplane from the Queen’s aerial hangar, and Tom used the wingless craft’s superfast rotating cylinders to lift off smoothly and then drop toward the ocean. “I fear we’ll see very little of interest in this darkness,” murmured Felix.
“I can’t turn on the searchlights, unfortunately. The ice particles in the air would just reflect the glare back in our faces,” Tom explained tensely. “But it may be better just above the waves, where it’s warmer.”
As Tom swooped lower, more could be seen. Nevertheless, the tiny islets were like scattered lumps of coal and showed no sign of habitation or activity.
Suddenly a distant light flickered into view further to the north, then another next to it. The searchers both cried out in surprise as a whole constellation of pinpoint lights suddenly appeared. The lights were clustered together, but revealed no clear outline. “It appears we’ve found something,” Felix said in an uncertain voice. “But what is it?—a single ship or a bunch of small boats? Tom, could it be the Sea Charger herself?”
“I can’t tell how big it is yet.” Tom checked his radarscope. To his surprise, he could pick up nothing on the screen. “Looks as though we’ll have to go find out in person,” he said in a puzzled voice.
Tom actuated the tail jets and sent the SwiftStorm zooming like a javelin above the waves. Luckily the winds had abated and the waves were not high. They covered the miles to the horizon in seconds—and the lights ahead suddenly vanished!
“Hey! Wh-what gives?” Felix cried out in alarm.
Tom instantly slowed the cycloplane. It was an unpleasant sensation, moving through the inky darkness with no longer even a pinpoint of light as a guide. Overhead, too, all was dark except for a faint, eerie moonglow glimmering through the clouds in one part of the sky.
“There’s got to be something out there, Felix,” declared Tom in bewildered frustration. Again he probed the darkness with the plane’s radar. At first the sweep once again detected nothing. But presently the scope revealed a huge object dead ahead.
“Good night!” Tom exclaimed. “Where’d that come from?”
Throwing caution to the winds, Tom switched on the cycloplane’s powerful fuselage searchlights. A massive glittering iceberg lay jutting up from the water directly in their course! A disastrous collision seemed only moments away!
Tom gunned the lift-cylinder engines and hauled back on the stick. The cycloplane soared aloft, barely clearing the huge berg.
“I guess you might call that a close squeak!” Tom mopped the cold beads of perspiration that had burst out on his forehead.
Even Felix’s mellow voice sounded strained as he murmured, “For a moment I feared we were about to meet our honorable ancestors sooner than I had expected!”
“What I don’t understand is why the radarscope didn’t pick the doggone thing up sooner,” Tom complained. “But I suppose we should just be thankful we did spot it in time.”
“I am most definitely thankful!”
They flew back and forth over the area a while longer, continuing to check their navigational position. But they caught no further glimpse of the mysterious lights, and the radar revealed no objects other than the iceberg and the rocky islets miles behind them. “One thing more,” Tom said.
Hovering a few yards above the water, Tom lowered a small sonarscope transceiver into the frigid sea. As the device pulsed out its subocean signal, Tom studied the bounceback on the monitor. He rotated the transceiver antenna, slowly panning the depths all the way to the horizon.
Tom and Felix stiffened with excitement. A moving spot of light had appeared on the scope! “Can’t see it from this distance, but we’re pointing right toward the iceberg,” noted the young inventor.
“But that blip, surely, is not merely the submerged part of the berg,” Felix objected. “It is much too small, and moving.”
“If my guess pans out—yep! There it goes!” Tom pointed at the screen. The strange blip had slid sideways across the screen at amazing speed—and disappeared completely!
“You have seen this before? But what can it be?”
Tom shook his head. “Chow calls it a ghost. Maybe he’s right!”
Radioing Bud, Tom ascended to the Flying Lab and made a deft landing on the hangar’s platform. Returning to the control compartment, Tom briefly explained what he and Felix had observed. “Now,” he concluded, “let’s take the Queen for a look at that iceberg from up high. The Swift Searchlight will cut right through the ice fog with hardly any reflection.”
They were not surprised to find that, once again, the mountain of ice failed to register on the radarscope. Hovering in position at two thousand feet, Tom aimed and activated the giant searchlight.
Gazing down through the cockpit viewpane, Tom’s eyes grew wide. “This can’t be!” he cried.
The sea was bare. The huge iceberg had vanished completely—as completely as the lost Sea Charger!
SHORTLY after Tom and his crew had left on their mission to the north, stocky Phil Radnor, Harlan Ames’s assistant, came rushing into the plant security office, a scrap of paper in his hand. He slapped the torn-off sheet down on his boss’s desk.
“What is it?” Ames demanded.
“The plant switchboard receptionist took an outside call, a guy who wouldn’t identify himself. He insisted that she take down this message word for word and get it to Security immediately.”
“Right. We get a lot of these, Rad—from the international crank-and-prank community.” But Ames picked up the note and read it over carefully.
YOU SEEK THE DRIVER OF A TRUCK WITH A DENTED REAR BUMPER. THIS NIGHT HE SHALL BE WAITING AT THE DISUSED BUILDING AT 449 WILVERTON ROAD TO MEET WITH A MAN NAMED CLEGGMAN. HE HAS NEITHER SEEN NOR SPOKEN TO THIS MAN. CLEGGMAN IS INDISPOSED AND WILL NOT ARRIVE.
STAND AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STEPS TO THE MAIN DOOR. FACE THE STREET AND PUT YOUR RIGHT HAND IN YOUR RIGHT PANTS POCKET. YOU ARE EXPECTED AT NINE THIRTEEN.
COME ALONE. PARK AT LEAST TWO BLOCKS DISTANT. NO OTHER VEHICLES CAN BE VISIBLE. DO NOT BRING A WEAPON AS HE CAN DETECT IT WITH HIS INSTRUMENTS AND WILL NOT COME OUT.
I PROVIDE THIS AS AN ADMIRER OF TOM SWIFT AND HIS WORK.
Ames whistled softly. “The truck details weren’t released to the press. Whether the whole thing is genuine or not, the phone caller definitely has some sort of contact with the plotters.”
“My thoughts too, Harl. But what do we do with this? Alert Shopton PD to stake the place out?”
Ames lapsed into frowning silence for a moment, reading over the note again. “‘Indisposed’!—permanently, I’ll bet. No, Rad, let’s not get Captain Rock and his crew involved at this point. Whoever wrote this wanted Enterprises security to handle it.”
Phil Radnor snorted. “Yeah, I’m sure of that. Maybe to take a hostage—or eliminate a threat!”
Ames gave one of his rare grins. “That’s real team loyalty, thinking we’d make more valuable hostages than real policemen or FBI guys! No, I’m going to say our informant has a reason to want whatever info we get to go directly to Tom and Enterprises. At least he thinks he does. So let’s go with it.”
“Okay. Your call, chief.” Radnor asked if he should contact Tom aboard the Sky Queen.
“No need. He’s got enough on his plate right now. I’ll give Damon a jingle, though.”
“And ‘then’ is—then!”
The building at 449 Wilverton Road, on the outskirts of Shopton not far from the old Swift Construction Company, was one block long, shabby and dark, its windows plywooded and its plywood graffitied. The wording on the side, Morgan Metalworks and Fabricators, had faded to near nonexistence under the rain and sun of decades.
At nine thirteen Harlan Ames stood alone at the bottom of eight concrete steps leading up to the padlocked main entrance. Right hand in right pocket, he faced the road and the flat, empty weed field beyond. No cars passed, as the road ultimately dead-ended and there was no active business along it during the evening.
Behind came a raspy sound of metal, a padlock falling loose and a chain swinging limp. Cautious footsteps approached—just three steps. Standing at the edge of the porch, Ames thought, not moving.
“Don’t turn around,” came a man’s voice.
“I don’t need to.”
“That’s what they call me. Today.”
The man chuckled. “Yeah, I know what you mean. So whattaya got for me?”
“That depends on who you are,” replied Ames. “You know who I am. I think maybe you’d better prove who you are.”
“I think that’s good thinking… I guess,” said the man uncertainly. “Okay, turn around. Take a look.”
Ames looked, and the man took a few steps down out of the shadows. The Shopton moonlight revealed a big, muscular fellow with a balding, buzzed head. “Okay?”
Ames waggled his head negatively. “No. You’re not the guy.”
“Huh?” The man looked dismayed. “Sure I am! I’m Hobell! Ya know?—Jack Hobell.”
“No you’re not,” the security chief insisted calmly. He wondered if he should be faking a foreign inflection. “I’ve seen a photo of Hobell.”
“Aw, no, listen,” protested Hobell. “That was just one of those professional headshots. For modeling, understand? In department store ads. It’s a few years out of date, and you know how those guys always make you look better than you are.”
“Whatever, Jack. But you don’t get jack from me until you give the password. The boss requires it.” Ames smirked. “But maybe you wouldn’t know that.”
Hobell rubbed his forehead in frustration. “That jerk Fell! Fell never told me about any password. Musta forgot, what with all those beers we downed.” He looked up at Ames. “How ’bout I show two driver licenses and a major credit card?”
“How ’bout I walk away and leave you to explain it to The Man.” Ames turned as if leaving.
“No, no, wait!” cried Hobell, rushing down the steps. “I know lots o’ things only a made guy would know. Listen—the Sea Charger, the snakeman, the deal with the rental truck. How about when I shot that Mayday Mob dude in the woods? Right in the back, and took out the bullets just like they trained me. Don’t all that prove something, Cleggman?”
The false Cleggman seemed to pause, as if thinking the matter over. “Guess I’ll give you a break, Hobell. Okay.” Ames reached deeply into his jacket pocket and drew out a thick packet.
Hobell looked surprised. “Huh? What’s that? It’s supposed to― ”
“You don’t even know what I’m delivering? And I’m supposed to trust you?” Ames thrust it back into the pocket.
“No, it’s okay. I—I guess I—man, just give it so’s I can get out o’ here! Okay?” Hobell was pleading.
“I dunno. Let me see the sig mark on your gun.”
Hobell looked blank for a moment, then drew out a compact, deadly revolver and handed it to Ames. Ames scrutinized it closely. “Yeah, it’s there.” With a wrist-flick he tossed it away into the weeds.
“Hey!” Hobell protested. “Why’d you toss it?”
“Gesture of good faith. Or were you really going to let a guy stand facing you with your own gun in his hand? Wise up! You’re going to have some problems with Him, Hobell.”
The murderer looked pitiful and resigned. “Yeah. Guess I will. Okay, well—give it to me, then.”
Harlan Ames took out the big packet again and handed it to Hobell. But as the envelope was passed, there was a loud clink! from beneath it and the man looked startled. “Hey, what is this, Cleggman!”
Hobell was handcuffed to Ames’s wrist!
“Care to walk with me?” asked the former Secret Service agent politely.
“Take ’em off!”
“Man, I’ll rip out your throat with my bare hands!”
“Hand, singular. The uncuffed one, I’d imagine. Anyway, I don’t happen to have the key on me. Before I could send away for it, I stopped eating the cereal.”
His cuff-mate was now huffing like a bull. “I can slam your freakin’ head into that wall!”
Ames looked skeptical. “Think so? Might be more difficult than you think, buddy. And then what? Planning to drag my body along with you on that little motorbike I noticed back there? Still warm from use.”
“You think you figgered it all out, huh!” grated Jack Hobell. “I got five guys waitin’ inside. I just gotta yell, and out they come—they’ll snip off this chain and take care o’ you permanent!”
“Five on one bike? Where’d you find ’em, the circus?” The security chief had already determined that the layers of dust and dried mud in the area of the building had not been recently disturbed, except by the single motorbike. “But why quibble? Let me save you the trouble.” Ames filled his lungs and yelled out: “Okay, come on!”
In seconds three men armed with Swift impulse pistols—Phil Radnor and two employees of the plant security force—had come running up and surrounded Ames and Hobell, guns drawn. Hobell was pale and perplexed. “Where’d these guys come from?”
“The roof, of course.”
“Naw—I woulda heard ’em.”
“Look at their shoes, my friend,” Ames replied. “Why do you think they call them sneakers?”
The next day, the Sky Queen having flown back to Enterprises and Tom having slept a troubled sleep, the young inventor sat with a gleeful expression as Ames regaled him with the tale. “We delivered him to Shopton PD, where he sits safely even now.”
“Good gosh!” Tom laughed. “That’s one dumb criminal! Has he said anything yet?”
Harlan nodded. “We’ve nabbed a real singer for once, Tom. He’s babbling like a brook—wants protection from Li Ching, whom he knows as the snakeman.” He consulted the notes on his desk. “His contact in Shopton, whom he took his orders from, is a man named Antoine Fell. Fell’s been staying week by week in the old Trellis Arms Hotel, for months now. It was Fell who ordered the hit on that mobster who slugged you, Gilly Murchison. They meet at night, and Fell would give Hobell his instructions.”
“From Li Ching?”
“Has Fell been picked up?”
“It shouldn’t be long—the police have staked out the hotel room since before midnight. The desk clerk said he’d gone out.”
Tom’s expression became sober. “What has this Hobell said about the Charger?”
“He says the snakeman had planted one of his guys on board, who took over control at gunpoint after they submerged. I gather the comrade-general wants to harvest the technology the Sea Charger is carrying. The plan was to steer her north, which goes along with the message the radioman picked up.”
“Which tells us nothing about her present location,” said Tom grimly. “And it seems they’re considering killing the crew!”
“We don’t have much time to find her,” Ames agreed. “I hate to say this, Tom, but I know you’ve thought of it already. Once Li and his gang have stripped the ship of whatever they’re after, it’s very likely that they’ll sink her—along with everyone on board!”
ONE HOUR brought further surprises. After receiving a call from Captain Rock that the stake-out police had apprehended Antoine Fell, Tom and Harlan rushed to police headquarters in Shopton to see the suspected agent brought in and booked. But as the vociferously protesting man was led past Jack Hobell’s cell to gauge his reaction, the confessed murderer barely glanced up and showed no interest.
“Not going to greet your crony, Hobell?” asked Rock sarcastically. “We brought Fell by just to see you!”
“Aaa, what’re you trying to pull now?” grumbled Hobell. “That ain’t Fell.”
Rock chuckled derisively. “Still trying to con us? We’ve got the guy’s prints, driver’s license, even his signature. And the desk clerk confirmed who he is.”
“I’m telling you,” cried Antoine Fell, “I’ve never seen this man in my life! I don’t know a thing about any murder contract!”
“He’s right,” said Hobell. “Ya caught a false fish, Rock.”
Tom drew Captain Rock aside. “Captain, what if he’s telling the truth—both of them?”
“Tom, we know this man is Fell.”
“Yes. But how do we know Hobell’s contact, who called himself Antoine Fell, wasn’t just using his name?”
“And his hotel room?”
Tom acknowledged the difficulty. “But consider this possibility. The impersonator might have picked Fell as his identity because the real man had very regular hours—a job that always kept him away in the evenings, for example. He could have had a key made and used Fell’s room to meet Hobell in.”
“I suppose that could be, Tom,” admitted the police officer. “The Trellis Arms isn’t exactly a modern hotel with electronic door cards. It’d be fairly easy to pull the gimmick.”
Having taken Fell to an interview room, Tom, Ames, and Rock asked Jack Hobell if he’d care to provide further information. He proved willing. “Why not? Hate to see an innocent man go to jail. Look, I met Fell, or whoever he was, about eight times since the first of the year. He always set it up, and it was always in the evening, seven-thirty or so. He’d get a report from me and tell me what I was s’posed to do, and I’d make some notes. He never gave me a thing—I even had to go buy my own revolver! It was done kind of casual-like, you know? Relaxed. We’d hang around for an hour drinkin’ beer and talking it all over, then he’d look at his watch and shoo me out.”
“Describe the man,” urged Ames.
“Oh, kinda short, dirty blond hair, pug nose. He’d never make it in commercial modelin’, I can tell you! Didn’t look a thing like that other guy.”
It was soon verified that Antoine Fell was a newly hired reporter for a newspaper published in nearby Waterfield. “I kept telling you, I work the night desk almost every night,” the man exclaimed. “Call my editor! I don’t think I’ve missed a shift in months.” He added that he had been living at the hotel pending the completion of a house he was having built in the countryside.
Ultimately Captain Rock ordered the man released. “We don’t have anything on him,” he stated in disgust. “I don’t want to think about the headline in the Waterfield Herald tomorrow morning.”
“Lousy luck,” said Ames. “But there was good reason to think he was the man we wanted. I understand there were no other fingerprints in the hotel room, just his and Hobell’s.”
“Yeah, that’s right. The other guy must’ve been careful—and taken his empties out with him.”
His empties… Tom repeated in his mind. “Captain, if he spent his time drinking with Hobell… well, you can think of a spot where a man might leave overlooked prints time and again. Can’t you?”
Rock stared at the young inventor. “Oh boy. And I’ll just bet Milly-Ann didn’t think to dust on the underside. It’s not much like television around here, you know?” He ordered the matter checked out.
That afternoon, at Enterprises, Ames was able to report to Tom that his suggestion had born fruit. “Some excellent sets of prints. The man is left-handed, by the way.”
“Have they run the prints?”
“Sure have, boss. They belong to a Canadian named Hilliard Lathron, formerly of the Vancouver police. He was fired for excessive force, drunkenness, and falsifying arrest reports. That was twelve years back, and he dropped out of sight.”
“At least it’s one step forward,” Tom pronounced. “Maybe something’ll pop while I’m at the outpost.”
The young scientist-inventor had decided to take a trip up to the Swift space station to test out a small version of his cosmic reactor under space conditions. When Bud dropped by the lab, Tom told him: “I’ll be able to test the subtrino reaction in the presence of other forms of cosmic radiation. Want to come along, space-flyboy?”
Bud clicked his heels and snapped a handsome military salute. “How soon do we take off, commander?”
“First thing in the morning,” Tom replied with a grin. “So hit the sack early.”
The news of Tom’s upcoming trip spread quickly through the Enterprises grapevine. When Chow wheeled in some supper for Tom and Bud at the end of the workday, he had the rumor in mind. “Heads up, you hombres! Here comes the chuck wagon!” boomed a gravelly Western voice at five minutes to six. A white chef’s hat perched on his balding head, Chow rumbled on in to Tom’s lab like rolling thunder, trundling his cart.
Tom looked up from his design screen in surprise. “Good night! Is it six already?”
“Five minutes to, boss. Brand my pemmican pie, you ought to stop workin’ your brain so hard! All them squiggles an’ numbers you been figgerin’ out is enough to turn a bull into a milk cow!”
As Bud laughed at Chow’s colorful expression, Tom grinned and set aside his computer mouse. The Texan uncovered the supper dishes. Said Tom, “Mm! Hot roast beef sandwiches with your Rio Grande sauce, and lemon meringue pie! This is more than I bargained for, Chow.”
“Eat up, buckaroo. You need nourishment when you use the old head so much!” He gave his beloved boss a look of suspicion. “What’s this here rocket ride I hear a bunch o’ yappin’ about?”
“We can’t give you all the details, old timer,” responded Bud with a glint in his gray eyes. “It’s a secret space project of Tom’s to figure out how to shield astronauts from cosmic cerebro-rays.”
“Space radiation that conks out human brain waves,” Bud replied with a straight face. “It could even turn us all loco.”
“Hmm!” The grizzled Texan winked at Tom. “Conkin’ out brain waves, eh, Bud? Wa-aal, I reckon that means you’re in no danger, buckaroo!”
Bud laughed at Chow’s comeback. “Guess yuh got me, pardner,” the copilot drawled with a chuckle.
“Doncha never fergit, buddy boy, yer dealin’ with a trained gunslinger!” Chow eased his rotund bulk onto a lab stool across the workbench from Tom. “Rafe Franzenberg says you’re takin’ off for the outpost. That so?”
Tom nodded. “I’ll be gone for a few days. Have to work on something for my Space Kite.”
“Then take me along, boss,” Chow pleaded. “From what I hear, you may be headin’ into trouble—like as usual! B’sides, I never did finish practicing my no-gravity lariat tosses.”
Tom shot an affectionate glance at the westerner. Chow had developed a strong and loyal attachment to the young inventor ever since the Swifts had first met him on a scientific trip to the Southwest. “Okay, Chow,” Tom said with a smile. “You’re welcome to come along. But you’ll have to shake a Texas leg. I’m leaving for Fearing Island sunrise tomorrow.”
“Ya-hoooee!” Chow, who had never lost his zest for adventure, gave a bronc-buster whoop and sent his chef’s hat sailing toward a wall hook. “Far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to haul my freight soon as I shuck this hat an’ apron.”
“Your freight?” asked Bud.
The westerner patted his ample midsection. “That’s what I call it. Bein’ polite to myself!”
At dawn the next day Tom flew to Fearing Island in the Sky Queen with a small crew that included Bud, Chow, Arv Hanson, Hank Sterling, and—as repayment for the favor he’d done—Felix Ming. “I have always envied you your tales of space marvels,” exclaimed the young engineer, eyes shining.
“Tom used to put all astro-wannabes through a torturous training program,” Bud noted. “You’re lucky we have the Challenger now, Felix. It’s a feather bed to ride in.”
“So I have heard.”
Fearing Island was located a few miles off the coast of Georgia. The Swifts’ rocket base, once a bleak stretch of sand dunes and scrubgrass used by the U.S. Navy, was now a scene of neatly laid out barracks, workshops, and gantries. Space vehicles and future satellites bristled from the launching pads, and piers for submersibles zigzagged along the island waterline.
Tom radioed for clearance and landed on the island’s airfield. The crew sped by electric nanocar to the Challenger’s launching area where mechanics were checking the space-worthiness of the enormous craft, high as a multistory building and surrounded with circular rails in the manner of a gyroscope.
“She’ll be cleared for liftoff within an hour, Tom,” a technician reported.
“Great! That’ll give me plenty of time to batten down the equipment we brought from Shopton.” Tom supervised as the small test cosmic reactor was swung aboard by crane and lashed down securely in the broad storage hangar.
Fifty minutes later, blaring sirens announced the liftoff of the Challenger. Its repelatron radiator dishes aimed earthward, the spaceship rose majestically on beams of repulsion force in a gradual acceleration that caused no discomfort to those aboard.
The sky blackened and the stars came out. “What do you think of it, Felix?” asked Hank, who had gotten to know his fellow engineer.
“Most impressive! We float like a lotus on a stream.”
“Say, Felix,” Bud remarked, “you were born in Kansas like your sister, weren’t you?”
“Indeed so,” he replied.
“But you two don’t talk much alike. I mean, your style—it’s sort of, well…”
Felix laughed. “Very Chinese, eh? ‘Honorable ancestors’ and so forth?”
“Nothing wrong with it, of course, I just― ”
Ming drew Bud aside and spoke confidingly. “I’ll tell you my secret, Bud. I have been told by some who should know that that sort of quaint manner is irresistible to women.”
“Yeah? Do you date a lot?”
“No. They were lying!”
“Then why do you keep doing it?”
Bud thumped him on the back as they shared a good laugh.
The Challenger eased into a long arc that would carry it to the distant orbit of the space outpost, about one-tenth of the way to the moon. The travellers enjoyed the sights, gazing through the twin viewpanes of the big control deck.
“Lookit all them stars!” mused Chow dreamily. “Same ones y’ kin see from Texas. Makes a feller feel a mite homesick.”
“Hey!” Bud sang out abruptly. “Something just appeared on the scope!”
Tom trotted up to his pal’s side. “You mean it just came within range?”
“No, I mean it just appeared! Nothing there, then there it was, closing on us fast!”
“A missile?” asked Hank in alarm.
“I don’t think so,” Tom replied thoughtfully. “It’s pretty large, and showing a lot of maneuverability.”
“Gosh’n gravy!” Chow exclaimed. “Mebbe it’s them space folk, the ones with th’ flyin’ saucers!”
“This isn’t a saucer,” Tom said. “Look, you can see it now. It’s an Earth rocket craft of some kind.”
A strange vehicle was rapidly approaching the Challenger. Bullet-shaped and sleek-nosed, the craft was outfitted with backswept aerodynamic fins and a vertical “rudder” of the kind used in hypersonic flight through the upper atmosphere.
“Designed for a powered reentry,” Arv commented tensely. “But whose ship is it?”
“Look at those markings on the side,” Tom responded in a low voice.
“Chinese characters!” gasped Felix.
“Can you read them?”
“They are in the pin-yin short form of ideogram, the modern style. I am not familiar with the word, though—Fanshen!”
Before Tom could react to the word, Bud called out, “What’s that? What’s he doing?”
A long tube, like a pipe, had swung down from the craft’s hull. With a flash of light a long vaporous form shot from the end of the tube, dead-on toward the Challenger!
THE WEIRD plume of material, glittering in the harsh space sunlight and slightly luminous against the ebony background, spread rapidly in all directions.
“Nothing on radar,” Tom murmured tensely. “The telespectrometers read blank.”
In moments the hazy cloud had rushed against the hull of the Challenger. It bounced off like a fine spray, swooshing up, down, and around until the spaceship was completely surrounded.
“I can hardly see it now,” stated Felix as the cloud spread and thinned.
“But I’m sure it’s still there,” Tom said.
“Wa-aal brand me fer a liar, boss, ain’t we got repelly-trons all over this space scow?” demanded Chow. “Let’s jest slough it off!”
Hank answered for his young employer and friend. “Chow, we can’t tune the repelatrons to it if we can’t tell what it’s made of.”
“It’s like it isn’t there,” said Bud. Then he added in a tentative voice: “But Skipper… something about it seemed kind of familiar.”
“Yes, I thought so as well,” Felix declared. “I can’t put a finger on it, though.”
“I know what it looks like,” pronounced Tom decisively. “It looks a lot like that icy mist we ran into near the disappearing iceberg. But I don’t plan to stick around to study and speculate, not with that vulture hanging out there.” The phantom rocket was standing-to a couple hundred feet off the Challenger’s “front porch” launching deck.
Tom fed a burst of power into the repelatrons that were still facing the earth. There was no response!
“Ain’t we gonna hightail it out, like you said?” asked Chow nervously.
Tom only frowned, eyes fixed to the control readouts. Bud followed his chum’s gaze and said in puzzled tones, “No problem with power—the ’trons are getting a full load. Where’s the hangup, Tom?”
“Near as I can tell,” replied the young inventor as he studied the board, “the repulsion effect can’t penetrate that floating stuff, almost like it’s shorting out. The spacewave field itself may be getting through, but it’s not coherent—it’s out of focus and not maintaining element configuration.”
Hank nodded in grim understanding. “So it’s not reacting against Earth.”
“Are you saying, then, that we are adrift?” asked Felix Ming.
“I’m afraid so, for the moment.” Trying to remain calm, Tom turned his attention to the communications panel. But repeated attempts to contact either Fearing or the space outpost raised only silence. “Nothing’s getting through. And you know what? Thanks to the particle cloud, I’ll bet the Challenger has disappeared from radar, too.”
“Good grief!” Bud gulped in dismay. “They’ll think we blew up or something!”
“Now look, ever’body, jest settle yer blood on down and let Tom think,” commanded Chow with authority. “Don’t jostle him. He’ll get us out of this.”
Felix gestured toward the viewpanes. “Look, the Fanshen is moving.” The mystery ship was rotating, turning its nose away from the Challenger and revealing its stern propulsion assembly.
Tom’s scientific curiosity couldn’t help but break through. “Funny looking thrust tubes, don’t you think, Hank? Doesn’t look like conventional deflection cowlings.”
“But not like ion drive or anything similar, either,” commented Arv Hanson. “In any event, they’re leaving the scene of the crime.” Powerful rocket blasts, bright as magnesium flares, erupted from the thrust tubes, and the phantom began to accelerate away. In scant minutes it was lost in the glare of the earth.
“I thought they’d try to board us,” said Bud, relieved. “Guess I was wrong.”
“I suspect we witnessed a combination space-test of their weapon, if that’s what we should call it,” Tom commented, “and—a warning!”
Chow Winkler’s gravelly tones broke the silence that ensued. “Okay there, Tom, that’s enough thinking! What do we do?”
Tom grinned. “Bud, you up for a hike?”
“Sure thing!” exclaimed the dark-haired flyer. “Not that I know what you’re talking about. Planning to jog back down to Fearing and get help?”
“No, I don’t think even your legs would last for a stroll of 20,000 miles, pal.” Tom explained to Bud and the others that he was proposing to fly on ahead to the outpost in space. “All this time the Challenger has been coasting along toward the rendezvous point, but we won’t be able to make the final course correction and’ll just continue on into space. Bud and I should be able to cross the last few hundred miles in space suits and micro-rockets. Besides, I’m sure we’ll show up on the station’s radar—they’ll come meet us in one of the shuttle capsules.”
“But don’t you have your own shuttle vehicles aboard this ship?” asked Felix.
“Yes, the Repelatron Donkeys we use on the moon. But their built-in repelatrons are far too weak to establish a wave-field beam over the thousands of miles to Earth’s surface.”
“Wa-aal, I’m a purty good hiker, from all them years out on the prairie,” Chow declared. “Whyn’t we all go together?”
Tom smiled at his friend, careful not to hurt his feelings. “Pard, I need you and the others to stay here and defend the ship. Those rustlers could come back any time, you know!”
“Guess that’s so.”
Little time passed before two tiny figures, clad in flexible pressure-suits and sporting bubble-shaped transparent helmets, jetted from the ship’s broad launch platform, thrusting through the void under the power of the pinhole rocket jets built into their suits. After a couple minutes, Bud glanced back. Distance had already diminished the huge Challenger to the size of a toy!
“We’re going pretty fast,” he remarked. “Are you sure we’ll have enough air and fuel for the trip, genius boy?”
Tom gave a hesitant nod inside his helmet. “Let’s say I’m ninety percent sure, and willing to risk the other ten. But I’ll be awfully glad if somebody picks us up on the way.”
As they travelled, they attempted to contact the space outpost on their suit radios, but there was no response. At first they assumed it was simply a matter of distance, but as they neared the two-hour mark, the youths faced growing worry.
“Why don’t they answer?” Bud fretted. “Come to think of it, why don’t we see them?”
“It could be I miscalculated our probable acceleration and we’re just too far away,” Tom mused. “But― ”
“Swell. A ‘but’!”
“It’s possible that when we passed through that cloud on our way out, enough of it clung to our suits to affect the navigation sensors in some way. It seems we’ve kept to a straight course. But― ”
“And another one!” Bud complained. “So we’re not sure we’re headed on the right course?”
Tom glanced at a small dial on his sleeve, the readout from his suit’s inertial guidance computer. “As nearly as I can figure,” he replied, “our present course and velocity should carry us up to the space station’s orbit. Let me see if I can verify it by another method.”
Tom took his portable stellar sextant out of its case at his waist. This was a miniaturized device with some of the features of the advanced Spacelane Brains used as position finders in Swift space vehicles. As he tuned in for a set of star bearings, Bud allowed his suit to rotate, scanning the inconceivably vast skies all the way around. There was not a trace of anything human in the emptiness.
When Tom spoke, his voice was grave. “We’re off course, all right—about thirty degrees.”
“Okay, that’s not so much. Maybe we can risk turning the rockets up higher to make up for lost time.”
But when Tom replied, Bud knew instantly that the matter would not be so easily resolved. “Bud, I was able to get the angle of deviation and our radial distance from Earth, but not our orientation value. Basically, I don’t know whether we need to go thirty degrees to the right hand or to the left.”
The boys’ eyes met in a worried gaze through their transparent bubble helmets. Tom’s pronouncement chilled Bud. Though the word had been avoided, it came irresistibly—they were lost! He tried desperately to keep his tone light and casual. “So we make a choice and trust to Lady Luck. She’s been good to us so far.” Suddenly Bud chuckled. “Guess there’s only one solution, pal. How do we flip a coin in space?”
Tom grinned too. “I’m afraid I didn’t bring any ‘mad’ money for a ride back home, flyboy. But I guess we might use a tool from our suit kits.” Tom unzipped a pouch on the right leg of his space suit and pulled out a small zero-G wrench of lightweight magtritanium. “Up is your head, down is your feet. ‘Heads’ we take the portside trail. Here—catch!”
Tom tossed the wrench toward his friend, giving it a slight spin. Bud reached out to grab it. But with velocity in space easy to misjudge, the hammer went whirling past his outstretched gauntlet!
Tom gave a hoot as his pal started away in pursuit of the flying tool. “Busher! You’ll never make the big leagues that way!”
Bud’s chortle came back over the radio. “This is what you call really going way out in left field to snag a fly!” The copilot finally overtook the hammer and managed to grab it by its middle. “Heads up. Portside it is, pal!” he reported as he zoomed back toward Tom.
They pushed on, cherishing every breath. The compressed air supply was becoming depleted and nearing the danger point. Would they be able to reach their hoped-for destination? Both youths were conscious of an eerie feeling as they trekked on and on through the limitless void of space, seeming to themselves to hang immobile in the vault of stars.
Suddenly Bud burst out, “Skipper, stars don’t twinkle up above the atmosphere, right?”
“So what’s up with that?” He pointed. A tiny point of silver light was wavering unsteadily far ahead.
Tom yelped with excited relief. “I’ll tell you what that is—a rotating space station!”
High spirits surged through them as the outpost in space presently loomed into view dead ahead. This was mankind’s first space station on the road to the planets. The majestic silver sky wheel had been designed and engineered by Tom. Fourteen gigantic spokes jutted from its central hub. One of the spokes, serving as an astronomical observatory, bore a spidery latticework telescope. Another—Tom’s solar-battery “factory”—carried huge mirrors for reflecting sunlight onto the battery-charging production lines. The communication department’s spoke bristled with antennas and radar scanners, while in other spokes were the crew’s quarters, Tom’s private laboratory, and station workshops.
A quavering, whining sound suddenly reached their headsets. They managed to make out the words behind it. “Outpost Sky Haven to approaching spacemen. You are nearing United States territory without authorization. Report, please!”
Tom and Bud answered the challenge together, their happy voices overlapping. The outpost replied: “This is Ken Horton, you two. We can barely make out your voices.”
“Meet you at the front door, Ken!” Tom replied.
Finally they were admitted through the space wheel’s airlock in the hub section. “Are you two all right?” Kenneth Horton, the station commander, greeted the boys anxiously as they removed their space helmets. A handsome, slender man of about thirty with dark, close-cropped hair, he was an ex-Army major. He had been one of Tom’s first space trainees and had helped build the outpost.
“We are now,” Tom replied with a grin. “But flying up here alone was a little nerve-wracking.”
Ken shook hands with both boys warmly. “Sure gave us a start when our radarman first spotted you. Of course we’ve been expecting you for hours now, but—didn’t you forget something? Like maybe your spaceship?”
“Details, details!” Bud reproved. “We misplaced it along the way, with our luggage.”
“You didn’t pick up our calls?” asked Tom curiously. “We’ve been signaling all along the route.”
Horton shook his head. “Radar and radio’s in bad shape right now because of the weather—major sunspot activity.”
Tom clapped himself on the forehead. “Good night, I forgot all about that! This is the solar maximum! Must’ve affected the positioning calculators, too.” Ken noted that the space conditions had also prevented any communications with the earth, and that they had assumed that the ship had merely been delayed.
Tom explained the problem at the Challenger. “No way we can blame that on the weather!” declared Horton. “I’ll send a shuttle to pick up your crew.”
But a rescue mission proved unnecessary. The shuttle capsule was met halfway by the Challenger, again fully operational. At the outpost Hank Sterling explained that the cloud of particles had ultimately dissipated on its own, freeing them.
“It may not have been supposed to break up, though,” Tom observed. “The solar bursts may have helped erode it away.”
The visitors from the Challenger ate and eventually slept. The following space-day, Tom supervised the installation of his midget cosmic reactor, affixing it to the hull at the end of his lab spoke. The test device was a square chassis four feet to a side and about ten inches thick.
“Your gizmo looks like a big waffle iron to me, Tom,” joked the technician who had assisted in the work. One side of the reactor was completely covered with rows of the small cells, squarish depressions open to space on the outward side.
Before beginning his test series, Tom relaxed for a time from his zero-gravity labors in the lounge of the space station, joining Bud and a half-dozen other members of the outpost team. Chow, meanwhile, had taken over the galley and served Tom’s group steaming cups of hot cocoa.
“Boy, this stuff sure restores the circulation, Chow!” Tom said with a grateful grin.
He was just drinking the last mouthful when an alarm bell shrilled in the compartment. An instant later Tom and the others felt a slight jerk and the cocoa in their cups took on a slant—then sloshed out over the rim.
“What’s going on?” cried one of the communications relay crew, Beryl Onslow. She began to slide and stumble helplessly across the deck, falling against a bulkhead, then sinking down to the room’s circular, carpeted floor.
Tom felt a sense of oppressive weight dragging him down. Suddenly he realized what was happening!
“Hang on, everybody!” Tom cried. “The outpost’s spinning out of control!”
THE MAMMOTH wheel was spinning faster by the moment, centrifugal force pressing the occupants away from the hub and against the floors of the spoke-modules. Bud and two crewmen, caught by surprise, were thrown from their seats as the chairlegs crumpled beneath them. The cocoa mugs had been wrenched from the men’s hands, splashing hot liquid in all directions. Chow hit the deck with a resounding thump and lay, loudly, spread-eagled on his back. Tom grabbed onto a bulkhead fitting just in time to keep himself from collapsing. As he tried to hold himself erect, he could feel the blood draining from his head and unconsciousness approaching.
“T-Tom!” Bud choked out. “Tell me what to do!” He hoped his athlete’s muscles would be equal to the fight against the terrific pressure of rotation.
Tom did not respond. He managed to drag himself across the carpet to a sliding panel in the curving bulkhead wall. A desperate struggle won him entrance to the narrow ring-shaped corridor threading the spoke modules together on the underside of the outpost, just below the rim. He slumped and squirmed over the raised threshold, then crawled along the corridor to the entrance to the laboratory spoke.
Good gosh, we’re still accelerating! he thought with an inward groan. We’ll fly apart! The station was already twirling at a dizzy rate. Tom could see the stars streaking past the portholes like hurricane-driven rain.
The young inventor pulled himself into the “ground floor”—the outmost—of the spoke’s compartments. He knew that here the effects of the centrifugal force would be the strongest. As the rotation increased he could feel the air being crushed from his lungs by the weight of his own body!
He tried to lift an arm to the main experiment control panel, but his arm seemed cast in lead. He couldn’t force it high enough! Then after several attempts he noticed a thick power cable dangling nearby from a ceiling-mounted socket. Grabbing it, he rolled sideways with all his might, yanking it taut. As the cable straightened, it knocked against the side of a lever on the control board, nudging it slightly. Grunting from the strain, Tom yanked the cable violently—and the lever flopped over to its furthest setting.
The acceleration stopped instantly. The station was still whirling madly on momentum, and the pressing force was unabated, but the young inventor knew that without a constant feed of thrust, automatic systems would come into play to counteract the spin. Finally the station slowed and the paralyzing weight lifted away. Then Ken Horton’s voice came over the intercom loud-speakers:
“Hear this, station crew! The spin is almost over and jet equalizers are being fired from the wheel spokes to return us to operational stability. It’s almost over! Just hold fast for another few moments. Lie flat if you can.”
At last Tom was able to pull himself to his feet. He woozily activated the intercom and in moments was receiving a cursory report from Ken Horton.
“No serious injuries, Tom, and the structural damage looks minor. We built this thing strong, thank God!” Horton commed. “You say you know the cause of the malfunction?”
“Yes—me!” Tom panted. “Or rather my invention, the cosmic reactor. Somehow the micromotors that angle the reaction plates received a trickle of current, just enough to bring the plates into functional orientation. It was the push of the cosmic reactor that was driving the spin.” He explained that throwing the lever fed the motors enough steady current to shift the plates out of line again.
An hour later, after verifying the condition of the outpost and its occupants, Tom examined the cosmic reactor’s motor circuitry with Hank Sterling’s assistance. “I see it now, Tom,” Hank pronounced. “The flow of charged particles past the outpost from the solar burst produced a current in the motor leads, by induction.”
“We’ll wrap some Tomasite around the leads,” decided Tom. “That ought to deal with it.”
In the hours that followed Tom spent a good amount of time apologizing to the various crew members, some of whom had sustained bruises or other minor injuries. “The induction effect is something I should have anticipated,” he told Bud.
“Don’t beat yourself up, pal,” Bud replied consolingly. “Or you’ll end up with more bruises than Harry Goldstein!” Goldstein, one of the resident astronomers, had somersaulted right out of his bunk.
But as Tom sifted through the data that had been automatically recorded during the reactor’s unwanted and unexpected “test,” he continued to feel that he owed something to Ken Horton and the outpost team. What did they think of him after his carelessness had risked their lives?
“I don’t want to be the ‘big boss’ from twenty thousand miles away who only puts in an appearance to foul things up!” he muttered to himself listlessly. The accident had injured his pride.
Two hours later he saw a chance to redeem himself by lending a hand. One of the manned supply capsules which arrived every day from Loonaui was making its approach. Sitting with Chow and Arv Hanson in the main control room in the outpost’s hub section, he watched the compact, cylindrical vehicle draw nearer. It appeared to be floating motionless in the inky void, but was actually racing along with the outpost at 6,800 miles per hour.
“Aren’t they going to dock at the hub airlock?” asked Arv.
“Guess not. Looks like they’re making for the freight airlock on module 8,” Tom observed. “We’ll see how good they are at nosing into the coupling.”
“I shore do remember how blame tough it is t’ move stuff around up here,” commented Chow. “Even if it don’t weight nothin’, it’ll wander ever’ which way but straight.”
“Come on in, Loonaui Twelve,” authorized the radio operator, sitting nearby.
It was easy for Tom to imagine the actions of the pilot. The astronaut switched from computer guidance to manual steering so as to precisely nose the rocket into mooring position as the sky wheel slowly revolved. As soon as the capsule’s airlock was lined up with the spoke’s entry port, he flicked on the magnetic grapples that would hold it in place to assure a tight seal.
“Outpost, I’m not getting the green light,” signaled the capsule pilot.
“That means the coupling failed to completely engage,” Tom explained to his companions.
The capsule pulled off and tried again, but repeated attempts were unsuccessful.
“Hold position, Loonaui Twelve,” the station operator advised. “I’ll get up an extravehicular tech to check out the coupling.”
Tom stood up suddenly. “Hold it, John,” he said to the radioman. “I know the mechanism inside out. I’ll EVA out there and get ’er going.”
The young inventor donned his space suit and went out through the closest airlock hatch. Chow, Arv, and the watching crew aboard the Loonaui saw him jet across to the spoke and examine the mooring apparatus. Then Tom went back into the station through the entry port. Tedious minutes went by.
“What in tarnation’s wrong?” Chow wondered uneasily. “Are they sendin’ down to earth for a new part?”
“Don’t worry,” replied Arv. “That’s baby stuff for Tom. I think he’s just feeling restless.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when Tom emerged again from the space wheel, accompanied by Ken Horton. Both carried tool kits and replacement components. They tinkered with the coupling mechanism.
At last Tom signaled the capsule pilot, Ben Archibald, to proceed with the mooring. As Tom waved the ship forward, Ben fed a slight spurt of power to the steering motors.
“Oh!” Tom cried out in alarm.
The supply ship had closed in so suddenly that his metal-gauntleted right hand was caught in the automatic coupling!
“GREAT snakes! Tom’s caught!” Chow’s leathery face had gone deathly pale. “Do somethin’, Hanson! Quick!” he pleaded.
The big modelmaker was horrified, and so was Ben Archibald aboard the capsule. He tried frantically to back off the rocket craft, but the coupling device was evidently jammed.
“I can’t move ’er!” Ben gasped into the radio. He had already switched off the coupling’s electromagnetic power supply. In desperation, he gunned the steering motors again, trying to break loose by sheer force.
“Hold it, Archibald!” Ken Horton’s voice came coolly over the radio. “You’ll drag the whole station out of position. I’ll have to free Tom manually.”
Archibald cut the thrust motors, then watched in gnawing fear with the other astronauts as Horton went to work with his tools. If Tom’s gauntlet were torn open enough to let air leak from the suit, the air-filled parts of his body might literally explode in the vacuum!
The next few moments seemed endless. Suddenly the watchers saw Tom pull his arm free. His right gauntlet had been severed by the coupling and hung loosely at an angle, and he was clutching the sleeve of his space suit with his left hand!
Ben blanched in horror and backed the ship off instantly. To everyone’s amazed relief, the watchers saw Tom—conscious and apparently uninjured—dash into the space station’s entry port, guided along by Ken Horton.
Chow was whimpering, “Oh, I hope and pray Tom’s all right.”
The ship pilot moored the Loonaui again in frantic haste. This time the magnetic grapples locked perfectly. Then all aboard rushed out through the airlock and into the space wheel.
Chow, puffing mightily, was already at Tom’s side, as were Bud, Arv, and many members of the outpost team. Tom was crouched on the deck, Ken Horton bending over him. A moment later they were all gulping with relief as Tom greeted them with a grin. His right hand was sticking from the cuff of his spacesuit sleeve, sound and unharmed—and best of all, in place.
“Don’t worry. Even my fingers still work,” Tom told them after they had removed their space helmets. He proved it by wiggling his fingers.
Ben Archibald sunk down onto the deck to recover from the shock. “Mr. Swift—Tom—can you ever forgive me for pulling such a dumb stunt?” he pleaded in a dry-throated voice. “I shouldn’t have nudged the ship forward like I did. I—I got impatient, I guess.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Tom reassured the shaken astronaut. “I gave you the go-ahead signal and I saw the ship coming. But my metal gauntlet got trapped by the magnetic pull of the coupling as soon as it started functioning properly. I couldn’t yank it loose in time.”
As the astronaut nodded, Bud Barclay mopped the beads of perspiration from his forehead. “Accidents happen,” he said to Ben, but giving his pal a meaningful side-glance with eyebrows raised. “Part of being human. It’s in the job description.”
Chow and the other crew members were still pale. “I don’t see how you escaped losing a hand, Tom,” one crewman said.
“As soon as I realized my gauntlet was stuck to the coupling, I pulled my hand up the sleeve,” Tom explained. “Just in the nick of time, too. Luckily I was able to seal my sleeve almost airtight by clutching it with both hands, inside with my right and outside with my left—otherwise I’d really have been in a mess!”
“Brand my asteroid soup, I don’t never want to see sech a close call again!” Chow muttered weakly. He added in wry resignation: “Not that I don’t expect to—prob’ly afore dinner!”
Tom labored over his cosmic reactor for the next two days, solving some technical problems that had shown up in the unscheduled test and additional trials. He had it removed from the hull and worked over it in the lab spoke. When he was satisfied, he and Bud put on space suits and set up the device on the outside of the outpost’s hub—a safer position for it. Even a low input of cosmic subtrino radiation proved enough to give a small but measurable push to the whole space station.
Both boys were flushed with excitement when they returned inside the station and described the results to Ken Horton.
“It works—definitely,” Tom reported.
“You’re telling me!” Ken chuckled. “I thought for a while you were going to knock us right out of orbit.”
As station routine returned to normal after Tom’s crossed-fingers crucial test, Chow headed to the galley. Knowing that this would be the last dinner aboard the outpost before the visitors returned to Earth, he had big plans. The larder was well stocked, and he’d had previous experience turning frozen and dehydrated edibles into incredible simulations. By mess time that evening the Texan had prepared a magnificent feast of roast turkey, dressing, and chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream.
“Man, what a dinner!” said Ken Horton appreciatively when the meal was over. “You should visit us up here more often, Chow!”
The rest of the crew agreed heartily. “Maybe we could talk him into staying,” one technician suggested.
Chow’s leathery face broke into a happy grin. “Nothin’ a cook likes better than to feed folks with a good appetite,” he said. “I sure appreciate your kind invitation, but I better stick to my reg’lar job—slingin’ hash on Tom’s expeditions. But I’ll treat you to a bit o’ after-supper music, Western style!”
As the diners settled back in their chairs, Bud mentioned to Tom that he had spent the morning in the astronomical observatory, which occupied one whole spoke of the space wheel.
“They’re making a study of Venus,” Bud reported. “In fact, they let me listen in on some of the signals they were picking up on the radio telescope—but I suppose a space genius like you knows all about such things.”
Tom grinned. “All planets emit such radio signals. It gives us a way to check on their heat, since the frequency of the signal depends on the planet’s surface temperature.”
“How do you like that!” Bud made a wry face. “And here I was hoping to surprise you with my keen technical know-how.”
“I’ve been impressed by what I have learned,” remarked Felix Ming. “The astronomer, Professor Goldstone, told me that the surface temperature of Venus is a sizzling 900 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to reduce solid lead to a puddle.”
“And to think we’ve been there, or thereabouts,” noted Hank Sterling. “If only we’d had time to make detailed observations of the surface.”
The outpost’s astronomers, Felix went on, had told him that the extreme temperatures could mean the planet has a hot core. But the most likely explanation is that the temperature is caused by sunshine, since the thick veil of carbon dioxide around Venus would cause a “greenhouse” heat-trapping effect. “They said Venus is a pretty energetic place, too. The entire surface is young, geologically speaking. The planet must have been subject to great upheavals in the last hundred million years or so.”
“They figure that means no life could exist on Venus at such a temperature,” Bud ended. “They’ve scanned most of it with radar. It’s just a mass of barren rocks and desert.”
Tom frowned and set down his water glass. “Bud, that’s one point on which I disagree—I mean, about there being no life on Venus.”
“How come?” Bud asked eagerly. “Have you got any space clues which prove there is?”
The young inventor shook his head. “No, my point is that we simply don’t know. I admit that no form of life on our planet could exist under such conditions. But remember, earth life grew up from the very first to fit in specifically with conditions here on earth. But that doesn’t prove a thing about life on other planets.
“For all we know, entirely different forms of life—forms which we can’t even imagine— may have developed to exist under conditions on Venus. Nature is too vast and wonderful for puny creatures like us to say flatly that it can’t do certain things.”
“I see what you mean, Tom.”
Tom warmed to the subject, which was clearly a matter to which he had devoted much thought. “Another thing,” he went on, “how do we define ‘life’? As a form of energy? Well, quantum theory tells us there’s energy, motion, and change in all things, even inanimate objects such as a stone. So by that definition, there must be ‘life’ on Venus.”
“Okay, I’m convinced,” Bud said. “I must admit,” he added with a grin, “you and your inventions have already made chumps out of too many experts who claimed ‘It can’t be done!’”
Tom burst out laughing, breaking the sober mood. “That’s my pal talking! Let’s just hope this space-kite project doesn’t make a chump out of yours truly!”
After disappearing from the mess compartment for a few minutes, Chow reappeared minus his apron, and wearing one of his favorite loud-colored cowboy shirts. His guitar cord was slung around his neck.
“Uh-oh! Everybody run!” gibed Bud. But he turned his chair to listen.
“Already promised Buddy boy some gee-tar music tonight, so I sure can’t disappoint him,” Chow announced with a wink at his audience. Then, after a few twangs, Chow broke into song in a voice slightly less foghorn than usual.
When I left good old Texas
To go roam wide and high,
Shore as hey never figgered
To wind up in the sky!
Oh, my chuck wagon rattled
an’ them longhorns could squeal,
But they never went loco
like this big ol’ space wheel!
Ride, ride, ridin’ up high!
Them stars shore look pretty,
Other side o’ the sky!
After ridin’ a rocket
Bustin’ broncs’ll be fun!
Them thar meet’yors is worse
Than a spittin’ six-gun!
An’ someday when I’m through
Herdin’ cows all along
On the great Milky Way,
With m’ hat an’ m’ song,
Get me down from this night
That’s as sunny as day—
I’ll head home to Texas!
An’ that’s where I’ll stay!
The cowpoke’s audience was howling with appreciative laughter long before he finished. At the final twang! of Chow’s guitar, they rocked the mess compartment with loud applause.
A LONG-TONGUED THREAT
TOM and his fellow astronauts embarked aboard the Challenger the following morning and returned to Fearing Island. After transporting his prototype reactor back to Enterprises in the Sky Queen, he turned it over to Arv Hanson and Hank Sterling. The alterations he had worked out in space would be incorporated in the final version. Both the kite fuselage and the gravitex, Tom learned, had been completed by Art Wiltessa’s crew.
“Boy, that’s swell news, Art!” Tom said. “Get the modified reactor unit and the gravitex installed on the fuselage as soon as you can, will you? I’m eager to give the kite a tryout.”
“I’m pretty eager myself.” Wiltessa grinned. “Call it pride, but if this baby doesn’t fly, I’ll be the second most disappointed guy around here!”
Two days after Tom returned to Shopton, Felix Ming came hurrying in to his office. “Heard you were at work up here, Tom, so I thought I’d better see you right away. I have something to report! Very strange.”
Tom’s eyes lighted up with interest. “Strange?”
Felix nodded. “Right. I thought I would speak to you immediately, before Mr. Ames returns to his office this afternoon.” Tom motioned for Felix to sit down. “You see,” he began, “though I am a full-blooded Chinese, I must confess that I have developed a perverse taste for American Chinese cooking, which is much different from what one finds in China. For a long time I’ve been going to that Chinese restaurant on Commerce Avenue.”
“The Jade Bowl? Sandy and I have eaten there.”
“They have your photo on the wall! Last night I went there for my supper, and was handed a menu as usual. When I opened it—well, here.” Felix handed Tom a small card. “It was clipped inside. Do you recognize the symbols on it?”
Tom nodded, eyes narrowed. “Yup. It’s the calling card Li Ching likes to leave behind. One symbol is the stylized version of his name, altered to look like a snake. The other means Death.”
“That translation was provided by my sister, Tom, and she hasn’t studied the language as I have.” Felix leaned close and spoke softly. “The ideogram does indeed mean death, but there is more to it, something more specific.”
“A particular kind of death, you mean?”
The Chinese-American shook his head. “Not a particular kind—a particular reason. It signifies what might be translated as ‘long-tongued death’.”
“Sorry, Felix, I don’t get it,” Tom said.
“It is hard to find exactly the right words. Here, we say that someone is nosy—poking their nose where it doesn’t belong. In traditional Chinese society, such a person might be called long-tongued,” Felix explained. “The long-tongued death refers to putting to death a gossip or backstabber, someone who interferes in the affairs of another. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Tom rubbed his chin. “Does it mean someone has marked you for death?”
Felix shook his head. “That would not be the customary significance. It is basically a warning—butt out!”
“Right—and we Americans would usually add ‘or else’!” Tom’s face expressed his concern. “What’ve I got you and Linda into, Felix?”
He waved it aside. “Please, we chose to help you. But perhaps someone feels we are betraying our own. And I may know who it is, Tom!”
“Someone working for Li?” Tom asked eagerly.
“No doubt it is so. I did not notice the waiter who handed me my menu, but afterwards I spoke to the owner, Mr. Tsing, who is a friend. He said he had hired a new waiter named Harry Bu, who had asked to take my table section when I was seated. We looked for him immediately, but he was not to be found.”
The scientist-inventor asked if Felix or his sister were acquainted with anyone of that name. Felix smiled knowingly. “Ah, but that is not his name! When Mr. Tsing described him, he mentioned that half his right eyebrow seemed missing, and then I knew who he must be—a half-Chinese fellow I knew in college named Olin Whaley.”
“This is great news. Go on,” Tom urged. He felt that Whaley’s Oriental background might be a clue linking him to Li Ching.
“Whaley was a teaching assistant in the department where I studied as a graduate student,” Felix continued. “One day the police came to arrest him on a smuggling charge, but Whaley had disappeared just in time.”
He said Whaley was an American who would now be about forty-five years old, of medium height, and had a dark complexion. He spoke not only Cantonese but several other Chinese dialects. “I last knew him in Wichita, and have not spoken to him in eight years. I’m telling you all this not just as a matter of safety, but because it might help you find the Sea Charger,” Felix concluded.
Tom thanked Felix warmly and asked him to go directly to Ames’s office next door and provide whatever details might help the security chief. “He’ll tell you how to keep you and your sister safe, Felix. And if I know Harlan, he’ll start right in tracking the guy down—or maybe tailing him right to Li Ching!”
Felix met with Ames shortly after lunch. After Ming had left, Harlan Ames began making phone calls. By the end of the workday he told Tom he had no further report on the search for Whaley.
“The local address he gave on his job application was a phony. But I did get a message from Interpol at five,” Ames went on. “The International Police Organization, headquartered in Paris, sent a secured e-message saying that Comrade-General Li Ching had been glimpsed briefly in Marseilles three days ago. He had disappeared again, probably by sea or air, before his trail could be picked up. And I’m sorry,” Ames added, “that there’s no new word on the Sea Charger. The several search teams have found nothing in the area where you saw that weird iceberg.”
“Thanks anyway, Harlan,” Tom said. “Keep me posted—Dad too, of course.”
The scientific work continued at Enterprises. By Friday midafternoon, the Space Kite assembly had been completed. Tom and Bud hurried over to the Barn—the main assembly building—to inspect it. Everything seemed in order.
“Let’s fly her to Fearing tonight, Art,” Tom ordered. “Bud and I will go along. We’ll give her a good shakedown tomorrow morning.”
Bud Barclay laughed. “The Space Kite’s really moving up in the world, genius boy—once an ‘it,’ now a ‘she’!”
At dawn the next day he and Bud flew back to the island base, Chow and Tom’s father accompanying them. After touching down, it took less than an hour to set up the strange-looking toylike craft on a small launchpad area.
“I’m agog to see something so tiny about to head for space!” chuckled chief launch controller Amos Quezada. “It—she!—could ride like a papoose on you Challenger’s front porch!”
“Keeping her small is the whole point, Amos,” replied Damon Swift. “Tom’s Space Kite is virtually unpowered—one solar battery for the necessities. Yet the subtrino wind against the cosmic reactor should be more than sufficient to carry her through the atmosphere and into orbit.”
“We’re not stopping there, Dad,” Tom remarked. “I’ve decided to give the Kite a real wringing out.”
“Watch out, moon!” Bud exclaimed happily. “We’re comin’ your way!”
The two youths changed into special gold-foil spacesuits topped with visored white helmets. The suits were not pressurized and the helmets were not enclosed, as the astronauts would remain sealed within the craft’s shirtsleeve environment.
A small crowd of base employees had formed around the vehicle. Tom and Bud shook many a hand as they edged up to the astral “compact car.”
“Wow!” Bud laughed in high spirits as he eyed the fragile-looking craft. “My first ride on a kite!”
Tom’s face, however, was serious. The Space Kite suddenly looked very small and very vulnerable. By testing a radically new propulsion technology far above Earth, he and his best friend were tossing a dare to the fates. They were about to embark on one of the most dangerous experiments he had ever tried!
THE COSMIC STORM
ALTHOUGH this form of space launch produced no heat or backwash of gases, Amos Quezada ordered all the spectators to file into the launchpad blockhouse, serving as mission control for the flight. The boys gave warm hugs to Chow and Mr. Swift, then activated the motor-muscles that lifted the pilot’s viewdome, swinging it up and away like a garage door. Tom and Bud climbed into their seats, strapped themselves in, and closed and sealed the dome.
Tom’s fingers flew to the control board. He made a final check of the diagnostic readouts, then contacted the blockhouse.
“Go status on our end, Space Kite,” reported Quezada. “Good telemetry, clear skies. No need for a countdown, eh? Have fun, you spacebirds!”
Tom said nothing but looked at Bud excitedly, and Bud grinned back. This was what the two comrades lived for!
Tom switched on the gravitex stabilizer at low power, and the Kite jerked backwards slightly on its triple support struts as the gravity “hot spot” took its grip on the mechanism. “Just to give us a little stability,” Tom explained.
“Now you switch on the power to the cosmic reactor?” Bud asked.
Tom shook his head. “It doesn’t require power, remember? All I have to do is use the micromotors to reorient the reaction plates in the cells—like so!”
Tom grabbed a pair of handgrips on the “dashboard” in front of him, squeezing and slightly twisting them. They could hear the faint hum of motors—and the Space Kite leapt forward!
Bud winced involuntarily, half expecting the usual slap of acceleration pressure. But the force of liftoff was mild indeed. “Hey!” he exclaimed in self-amused surprise. “Is the thing working? We’re hardly moving!”
His pal laughed. “Guess I didn’t explain it very well this time, flyboy. The Space Kite doesn’t get thrown into orbit like a rocket. The pressure from the retardation of the subtrinos builds somewhat gradually in the reactor. Be patient, pal.”
“Look who’s talking!”
The subtrino force was sufficient to lift the craft off its landing struts and propel it forward across the concrete at a moderate bike speed. They slowly accelerated and mounted higher, five feet, twenty, fifty. By the time the Space Kite crossed the island’s coast and headed eastward over the Atlantic, they had attained an altitude of two-hundred feet and were accelerating smoothly past eighty miles per hour. “It’s a start,” Bud remarked. “We’re already doing better than the California freeways. And no smog!”
The radiocom bleeped. “Copacetic up there, Tom?” inquired Amos Quezada.
“Absolutely,” the young inventor replied. “Tell Dad and Chow they can sit down now and leave off biting their nails.”
Travelling at a shallow angle, the traverse of the lower atmosphere covered several hundred miles, taking forty minutes despite their constant acceleration. “Tom, we’re sure to get the medal for slowest space ascent on record!” Bud snorted. “So we’re being held up by a subatomic wind right now? That’s all?”
“That’s all,” Tom confirmed. “Look at it this way. Subtrinos are shooting at us—and right through us—from all directions in space, including straight up from the ground below. By angling the reactor plates, we choose which particles to ‘solidify’. In this case, that’s the particles zooming along in the direction we want to travel in. We get a slight forward push as they bounce off the plates, and much more of a push as they interfere with one another and build up a layer of pressure.”
“But the reactor cells won’t bust from the pressure like a balloon.”
“As with an ordinary kite, the excess just leaks off, in this case through the open backside of the cell.”
“Okay,” said Bud. “How’s the gravitex working?”
“Plenty good so far. It’s not too important at lower velocities, actually, but it’ll be crucial when we really let ’er rip up in space.”
At long last the Space Kite was soaring through a black sky at rocket speed, Earth a sparkling blue sphere below. Tom advised Fearing of their status, then grasped the handgrips again.
The force that had been gently pressing the two astronauts back into their seat cushions abruptly ceased. “What gives?” Bud demanded.
“I wanted to start up from zero, that’s all,” explained Tom. “Okay pal, grab your stomach!”
The young inventor compressed and twisted the handgrips. Instantly the boys felt a renewal of the G-pressure as the cosmic radiation provided a fresh thrust to the Space Kite, this time far more forceful than before. Almost at the same moment came the countertug of the gravitex, anchoring them safely to earth with a powerfully magnified gravitational attraction. Yet despite the effect of the gravitational kite string, the spacecraft was speeding faster and faster, at a breathtaking rate.
“She works, Tom! She works!” Bud crowed. Tom grinned, his eyes dampening with joy and pride but never leaving the control dials. For the next few minutes his hands were busy flipping switch levers and tuning adjustment knobs to bring the cosmic reactor and the gravitex action into proper balance.
Its tangential course leaving the earth behind, the Kite was ascending smoothly now, with a modest enough acceleration to allow Tom and Bud free use of their limbs. A myriad of stars studded the blackness of the void around them.
“How goes it, Skipper?” radioed Quezada.
“Perfect so far,” Tom reported happily. “We’re only doing about a third of a G right now. That’s just the beginning!”
“Chow here thinks you should start on back before you get into trouble.”
“Tell him we’ve got to lasso the moon first!”
A series of technical checks with the mission monitoring crew followed. Tom confirmed that the excessive solar activity of the previous week had fallen back to normal, where it was expected to stay for some time. Dial readings were being automatically telemetered in the blockhouse, but Tom added to these his own remarks about the Space Kite’s performance. Before signing off, he spoke to his father about some of the scientific details.
At last the astronauts settled back to enjoy their kite ride through space. “Tom, this is really terrific!” Bud exclaimed. “You know, someday people may go space-kite-riding for fun, just as they go skiing or skin diving now in their leisure time.”
“Could be. But it’s more like off-roading,” Tom agreed with a chuckle. “Way off!”
With a warning to his copilot, Tom now reconfigured the cosmic reactor to produce a stronger push. A two-G force shoved the astronauts back in their seats. Both boys watched in fascination as the cosmic altimeter needle climbed steadily. From 5,000 miles above the earth, they zoomed upward to 10,000 miles… 25,000… 50,000.
“Good night!” Bud gasped in awe. “We’re not only past the outpost’s orbit, we’re almost to Little Luna’s!” This was the young spaceman’s nickname for the moonlet Nestria.
“We can’t see the space outpost from this angle,” Tom commented. “It’s below the horizon.”
“But look out there—there’s Nestria.” Bud pointed toward a gleaming bead of light off in the cosmic distance.
They continued to accelerate. As Tom swiveled the gravitex cone on its gimbal base, the Space Kite described a series of sweeping arcs in different directions. Even after Tom eased off on the acceleration and threw the reactor plates out of orientation, each thousand miles seemed to click off almost as rapidly as two or three on an automobile mileage gauge. The two young cosmic astronauts were hurtling through space at incredible speed—yet all the while they were seated in comfort, watching the tremendous spectacle of the starry heavens unreel before their eyes.
“Skipper! Look!” Bud suddenly jerked forward against his safety harness and pointed excitedly to the radarscope. A tiny blip had formed on the screen.
Tom was instantly alert. He tuned the radar controls to bring the spot of light into sharper focus. It held to the bearing on the radar screen, indicating that the unknown object was heading straight toward them on a collision course!
“Good night! It’ll crash into us!” Bud exclaimed in alarm.
For answer, Tom readjusted the cosmic reactor and the gravitex, causing the Space Kite to veer sharply off course. His eyes watched the scope. Almost instantly the blip veered in response, regaining its collision bearing!
“Seems to be following us,” Tom muttered tensely. “Maybe we’re attracting it!”
“There it is! I can see it now!” Bud cried.
An eerie object, enclosed in a halo of hazy phosphorescence, was coming straight toward them, growing larger by the moment. As it drew nearer, its overall shape could be discerned. It was basically circular, a thick disk with a rounded, bulging midsection. Yet it showed no detail, no sort of machined hull or fuselage. It didn’t seem completely solid, almost as if it were made, not of metal, but of light!
Suddenly there was a blinding glare. The boys recoiled, shielding their eyes.
“It’s gone—disintegrated!” Bud gasped. “Or exploded!” He wiped the perspiration from his forehead, his face white. For the first time, both boys realized their hearts were hammering. The whole thing had happened almost too fast for them to be aware of the full extent of their fright. “Skipper, Li Ching must be attacking with missiles!”
But his chum slowly shook his head. “No, Bud. I saw something like that before, with Ken Horton on our trip to the outpost when it was under construction.”
Bud understood immediately. “Right!—from your space friends! But why didn’t they try to contact us, as they usually do?
“Because they can’t,” declared Tom ruefully. “We don’t have the special oscilloscope receiving equipment aboard the Kite. But Bud—if they’re trying to get our attention, it may be because we’re heading into some kind of danger!”
“Danger, huh.” The dark-haired flyer gulped. “Why am I not surprised? Is there any way to figure out― ”
The question was left hanging as a terrific jolt slapped them back against the contour-cushions of their seats. “We’re accelerating again!” Tom cried.
“But you didn’t even touch the controls!” protested Bud in alarm.
“I know. It must be a malfunction.” Puzzled, he began to work the handgrips and control levers, and the acceleration moderated. As part of the space test he had decided, on impulse, to venture approximately halfway to the moon’s orbit. But as the altimeter needle passed the hundred-thousand-mile mark, the Space Kite suddenly speeded up terrifically with another slamming jolt of G-pressure. This time the acceleration continued to mount!
“H-Hey! What’s going on?” Bud exclaimed when he found his voice. The unexpected thrust had pinned him to his seat and momentarily shocked the breath from his lungs.
“No idea, but I’d better do something—pronto!” the young inventor replied. “We just passed three G’s!”
Even as he spoke, another tremendous burst of speed buffetted the Space Kite like an explosion. Tom strained every muscle against the crushing G pressure in a frantic effort to manipulate the controls.
“It’s a cosmic storm!” Tom gasped. “A high-intensity burst of subtrinos!” His words were followed by a cry of dismay as he turned up the gravitex and conned the instrument dials. “The gravitex won’t hold us, Bud! Our acceleration’s still positive!”
Their “kite string” had broken loose from earth’s pull! Like a proton in the Hyper-Celerator, the tiny craft was drifting out of control into the outer reaches of space!
BUD could only watch Tom’s frantic efforts in frozen dismay. Not fully grasping the technical side of the gravitex or cosmic reactor, he was unable to help cope with the terrifying emergency.
Meanwhile, Tom’s sinewy hands were straining at the controls, desperately fighting the oppressive load of four G’s. At length he flipped one of the main control switches. Almost instantly the G-pressure disappeared as the hurtling Space Kite ceased to accelerate further.
“Whew!” Bud breathed weakly. “What did you do, Tom?”
“Shut down the gravitex.”
“You what?” gasped the athletic youth. “You mean we’re just running wild up here?”
Tom looked at his chum steadily. “We’re adrift, coasting uncontrolled. It was the only thing to do. Much more acceleration and we’d start crumpling up. When I ‘cut the string’ completely, the trapped particle pressure dissipated almost immediately. But with conditions so unstable, I don’t dare restart the gravitex for even a split second—the sudden pressure-spike could send us tumbling.”
“I get it, Tom,” Bud said weakly. “You didn’t have a choice.”
But even though it was no longer speeding up, the craft was still streaking away from earth at awesome velocity. Its raw momentum was carrying it on an elongated, cometlike trajectory that would lead them hundreds of thousands of miles into the cosmos, perhaps beyond all hope of rescue.
“I’m hoping I can tilt us into stable orbit, Bud,” Tom murmured, trying to adjust the cosmic reactor to make use of its feeble impact thrust, which did not require the retardation of the gravitex. “That won’t get us back to Earth, though. Raise Fearing on the radiocom and tell them to send the Challenger up here fast!”
Glad to be doing something helpful, Bud desperately tried to make contact with the rocket base while Tom watched the instrument dials like a hawk. “Skipper, I’m not getting through—not at all!”
Frustrated, Tom leaned back in his flight chair. “Some effect of that cosmic storm must have produced an overload in our circuitry. It looks like all our transmission antennas have gone dead.”
“Okay, but look, pal,” Bud responded in frantic hope. “It’s just our antennas that are out. Earth stations can still pick us up on their radar… can’t they?”
The crewcut scientist-inventor shrugged weakly. “I don’t think so. Even considering just the parts of the hull not coated with Tomasite, we’re way too far out for ground-based radar to find us. And I’m afraid that goes for the space station and Nestria as well. We’re more than halfway to the moon, and coasting at several miles per second!”
“But if they just extend a line from the first part of our course― ”
“We’ve deviated too far—because of my astro-batics, because of trying to evade that blip, because of the effects of the storm. I owe you the truth, Bud. Even the Challenger isn’t likely to run across us in space for weeks. Space is just too big, and we’re just too small.”
“Hmm! I guess there’s a downside to cosmic compacts.” As usual, Bud was trying to lighten the mood to help his genius friend think his way through to a solution. Both boys’ faces, however, were taut with strain.
“What’re our chances, Skipper?” Bud whispered after a long, silent interval. His gray eyes met those of the young inventor in another and unspoken question. Could they survive until rescue arrived?
“I don’t know the answer,” replied Tom.
Now there was total silence inside the tiny cockpit as Tom bent all efforts toward maneuvering the Space Kite into a better orbit, one that might eventually bring them arcing back to the vicinity of their native world.
The spacecraft, which had been moving almost straight outward from the earth, gradually began arching into an orbital path. Under Tom’s deft nursing of the controls, the minimally functioning cosmic reactor swerved the Kite just enough to partially counteract its tremendous velocity. Now and then he switched the gravitex back on, but the immediate runaway result showed that the subtrino storm was still raging about them.
“I think we’ve made it, Bud,” Tom murmured. “At least we’re locked in a long orbit. That’s something.”
The copilot kept a tense silence as Tom’s eyes remained glued to the readout dials. Presently the young inventor began to check out the craft’s other systems, including its vital environmental support apparatus.
“What’s our orbital period?” Bud asked. “Will we be turning back toward home very soon?”
“No—not soon. The precise orbit parameters hardly matter right now.”
“From now on, it’s a race against time, pal,” Tom explained bluntly. “I had things figured pretty tightly for this test cruise. Our air-conditioning and temp control systems will keep this coop livable for as long as the solar battery lasts. Our water supply is limited, but fairly adequate. The major problem is― ”
Bud finished the sentence. “Air.”
“We had enough in the tanks for ten hours in space,” said the young inventor grimly. “We could probably find ways to extend that, maybe even double it. But we just can’t last more than a day, not any way I can figure this.”
“Maybe we could try hibernating like bears,” Bud quipped. “That would slow down our breathing, hmm?”
Tom forced a wry chuckle, then became grave. “Bud, I’m sorry I got you into this fix. I never should have tried such a long shakedown flight in this kite until I was sure all the bugs were out. I might’ve guessed that some kind of subtrino phenomenon would follow the solar activity, even as a delayed effect. The cosmic reactor just wasn’t able to cope with an unexpected storm.”
Bud punched his pal playfully on the arm. “Think I would’ve stayed behind? At least we’ve cracked the long-distance record for kites!”
The two astronauts settled down to their long wait. To help pass the time they kept up a lively exchange of banter, and even took turns trying to compose comic songs. But the hours dragged by slowly—ever more slowly because they felt helpless and hopeless.
Bud finally managed to doze off in the engulfing silence. Tom regarded his chum listlessly. We get to do our own deathwatch, he thought in wry sadness.
Tom’s drifting thoughts now brought up memories. He thought of Sandy, his parents, Bashalli. Then, presently, his friends aboard the hijacked Sea Charger floated up before his mind’s eye. He reviewed, musingly, their undersea search in the Loonaui seacopter, the Emeraldina. Then, the sonar had failed in its duty, just as Earth’s radar was failing them now. Just as… just as…
Tom’s excited exclamation jarred Bud awake. “Wha-what― ”
“Flyboy, listen! When we were looking for the Charger under water, I tried to defeat the Tomasite anti-sonar feature by looking for other effects, like temperature differences and agitation in the water. If we could cause some sort of secondary effect up here, something really big and spread-out― ”
“I get it!” Bud cried. “Like shooting off a flare! Ground radar might pick it up!”
“Exactly!” Then Tom paused, his brow creasing. “Except… it would require that they readjust and recalibrate their radar system. I’m afraid they wouldn’t think to try it.”
Bud squeezed his pal’s forearm. “Unless somebody down there has come up with the same idea. Someone who, somehow, just this once, happens to think like Tom Swift!”
Meanwhile, far away, Fearing Island was on full alert. Although the Space Kite’s disappearance from radar had been expected, its radio silence evidenced a problem, and the craft had not returned to near-Earth space as scheduled.
Hour after hour, Amos Quezada’s team sent its plaintive signals into space. “Fearing Control to Swift SK-1, please respond!”
Tom’s father did not wait in idle hope. He was already directing preparations to take the Challenger into space to mount a search. But Damon Swift knew as well as anyone the grave odds against success.
“Aw, what coulda happened?” Chow moaned. “They gotta answer, they just gotta!”
Mr. Swift lay a hand on the big cook’s shoulder. “We’ll find the answers, Chow. The disappearance, the silence—it’s very much like the disappearance of the Sea Charger. Perhaps Li Ching is behind it all! Tom and Bud may be perfectly safe, but captives in the scoundrel’s rocket.”
“Ya think so? Well, mebbe…” And then, suddenly, a strange expression passed across Chow’s face. “Say! Say there! Somethin’s comin’ in!”
“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Swift in surprise.
“I mean, comin’ in t’ this ol’ sun-beat brain of mine! I jest remembered somethin’ Tom said, back when we ’as searchin’ around in that sub-copter the other day. Had t’do with how to get a sonar picture of somethin’ ya can’t see ordinary-like—jest like the blame Kite is right now!”
In a handful of minutes, hope renewed, the Challenger was racing into space on its repelatron force-beams. “I’ve done my best to adjust the space radar, Mr. Swift,” reported Bryan Gettlars, a Fearing technician recruited for the rescue crew. “Mighty weird deal, if you ask me. Could work, though, I suppose.”
“It will work!” declared Damon Swift, at the main controls. “Right, Chow?”
“Texas truth, Mr. Swift!”
The radar cast a wide electronic net through the general region of Earth-moon space in which Tom’s craft had been operating. Minutes passed, then an hour, then two. Suddenly an alarm sounded. “We’ve got something!” Mr. Swift cried.
“What you expected?” asked Neil MacColter, a veteran astronaut, with keen excitement.
“I think so!” came the reply. “A definite bounceback signature for oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor—a spreading cloud running along at close to three miles per second. I’m sure we’ll find the spacecraft at the fore-end of that cloud!”
They were all frantic with anticipation. A question hung in the air. If Tom and Bud were alive and well in the Space Kite—why weren’t they answering the radio calls?
Far ahead, aboard the wayward kite, conditions were slowly becoming unbearable. “Good grief, this rig’s beginning to feel like a Turkish bath!” Bud gasped, wiping the sweat from his brow. “if anyone’s going to find us, they’d better hurry it up, pal!”
“I know,” replied Tom weakly. “Whatever knocked out the radiocom must’ve affected the temperature system too.”
“Can’t we turn the ship around, away from the sun?”
“It’s not the sun, flyboy,” Tom explained. “It’s our own body heat, mostly. We’re basically stuck inside a great big thermos bottle.”
“Oh man!” The boys’ muscles were numb from long confinement in the tiny cabin, and the slightest movement in the humid heat left them bathed in perspiration. Weak and exhausted, they could scarcely do more than move their heads listlessly.
“Whew! This is worse than wriggling down a chimney,” Bud gasped. “What a time to leave the ice-chest behind, genius boy. I could sure use a cold cola.”
But Tom had stiffened in his seat, gazing out into space. “I—I see something. It’s moving!”
“It sure is!”
The huge spaceship, with its boxlike cabin suspended in a spherical framework of rails, was hurtling along at blinding speed toward the source of the radar reflection. Mr. Swift gunned the repelatron units in a desperate all-out burst of power, levering against the moon as well as the earth.
“There’s the Kite!” a crewman yelled.
Tom’s craft had at last been visible on the Challenger’s radarscope, and now it was visible to the naked eye as well. Soon it loomed into view dead ahead. As the rescuing ship drew nearer, the boys’ gold-suited figures could be seen slumped limply behind the moisture-fogged viewdome. The oppressive heat had weakened them almost to immobility.
Everyone prayed silently that Tom and Bud were still alive. Guiding the ship smoothly into orbit alongside the Kite, Mr. Swift sent two crewmen in space suits jetting across to the stricken craft to attach towlines. The Kite was quickly hauled into the hangar compartment.
“I think I saw them moving,” signaled one of the space-walkers. “But the dome’s pretty fogged up.”
Damon Swift turned the controls over to MacColter and dashed below, Chow not a footstep behind. They reached the hangar deck just as a breathable atmosphere had been reestablished.
Suddenly the viewdome creaked open, hissing as its airtight seal was broken. “Tom! Bud!” cried Mr. Swift joyously. Then it was all hugs and a few tears.
The two were taken to the ship infirmary as the Challenger put about to return home. After a quick examination the crew medic pronounced them to be in reasonably good shape.
“We reached you two jest in time, I guess,” Chow Winkler said, heaving a massive sigh of relief.
“Pardner, Dad told me what you did,” said Tom softly. “Somehow you knew I’d vent air and water into space to create a signpost. If it weren’t for you― ”
“Aw now, son, don’t you make me turn red!” Chow protested with tears in his eyes. “Let’s jest get down t’ the ground. Don’t care if it isn’t Texas as long as it’s down!”
“Water! Give me water!” Bud choked. “No lemon.”
Tom and Bud took long draughts of water and leaned back on their infirmary cots with grateful sighs. By the time the Challenger landed back at Fearing Island, both boys felt rested and completely recovered from their ordeal. Tom phoned his mother at once to assure her with his own voice that all was well and he would be home soon.
As they flew back to Shopton in the Sky Queen, the Space Kite secured in the hangar hold, Tom radioed Harlan Ames.
The security chief expressed his relief at the rescue. “No news yet on the Sea Charger, I’m afraid,” he continued. “But I have something else to tell you, Tom. There’s been a shooting!”
A TURNCOAT TALKS
TOM was aghast at Ames’s news. “What are the details? Who was involved?”
“I’ll give you the quick and dirty version—full details after you and your Dad get in.
“When Felix Ming got home after work today, a message had been left on his voicemail. He recognized the voice; it was Olin Whaley. Whaley was agitated, kind of loopy—I’ve listened to the message. The guy was scared. He kept apologizing, saying how sorry he was to have cooperated…”
“Cooperated? With whom?” Tom demanded.
“Whaley called him the snakeman—Hobell used the same word. Obviously it’s Li Ching.”
Thinking it over, Tom agreed. “I remember that he stylized his name-symbol to resemble a snake, for some reason. Guess it’s his trademark. Was there more to Whaley’s message?”
“The message said he knew where ‘that big ship’ is being hidden, what the plans are. Said there isn’t much time; he doesn’t want the deaths of a hundred men and women on his conscience. At the end Whaley said he was sure he was being watched, but was going to try to bring some documents to the police. He wanted Ming to know what he was trying to do—in case he didn’t make it.” Ames paused for a moment. “That was all to the message. Felix Ming called me immediately, but there wasn’t much to be done, as Whaley didn’t indicate where he was. I told Ming that he himself could be in danger, and then― ”
A frightful thought suddenly struck the young inventor. “Harlan! Was it Felix who was shot?”
“No—it was Whaley. According to a couple witnesses, he was climbing into his parked car in Shopton when another car roared by and shot three times. When Whaley collapsed to the sidewalk, the other car braked and a man ran over to Whaley and snatched up an envelope or folder that had been in his hand. Then they sped away. The parked car was registered to a ‘Sam Wah,’ but we think that’s just another alias used by Whaley.”
Tom asked if Olin Whaley had been killed by the attack. “No, fortunately. The FBI had him ambulanced from Shopton Memorial to the big hospital in Mansburg, where they could keep a better watch on him, mostly for his own protection. He’s recovering now from emergency surgery, but the doctors expect him to be able to answer some questions in the morning. By the end of tomorrow morning we may know a lot more.” Ames concluded by saying, “So I recommend a full night’s sleep for you, boss.”
“I need it,” Tom conceded. “But this time I’m not going to Dr. Emerson. He’ll keep Bud and me in bed for a week!”
The next morning Harlan Ames swung by and picked Tom up in his car. At Tom’s suggestion, he picked up Felix Ming as well. They drove to nearby Mansburg, to its big medical facility.
Said Ames wryly, “I had to call in a lot of favors to get permission for us to interview Whaley.”
Tom nodded. “Imagine so. The Sea Charger theft brings NASA and the defense authorities into the picture.”
“One thing helps, though,” Ames added. “So far Whaley’s only given vague answers to questions by the FBI men assigned to him. From the message he left, I think he might talk more freely to you or Felix.”
“Let us hope so,” said Felix.
Wary FBI agents admitted the three to Whaley’s room in the intensive care section. The man seemed alert, though swathed in bandages and hardly able to move.
“Hello, Olin,” said Felix. “Do you recognize me?”
The invalid studied Felix. “You haven’t changed all that much.”
Felix introduced Tom and Ames to Whaley. “Will you talk to us?” Felix asked.
“Yes, I—I just want out of all this.”
The man seemed nervous and agitated, and Tom thought it wise to try to put him at ease. “How did you get involved, anyway?”
Whaley gazed at the young inventor as if unsure what to say. “I guess I’m sort of a weak person. Never been too keen on resisting temptation. As Felix knows, I let myself get tempted into a smuggling operation back in Wichita. Got away with it for a while—in the end I was lucky just to get away.”
Felix asked where he had gone. “Skipped the country and made for Taiwan, where my Mom’s relatives still live. They have an honor thing about family loyalty and were willing to help me. I called myself Sam Wah and got into some more… bad things.
“A couple years back I was approached by some guys who said they were working for the snakeman.”
Ames interrupted. “And who exactly is this ‘snakeman’?”
Whaley managed a wry chuckle. “You expect him to let people spread his name around? Peons like me were never told—we just knew he was the man on top, and a tough character. You don’t cross him. I hear he’s Chinese.”
“What kind of work did you do for him?” asked Tom. “I know you have an engineering background.”
“Yeah. I’m pretty good, too. They had me working on cockpit design for some kind of aircraft. They called it the Fanshen. All I really know about it is that it can do hypersonic and lands in the ocean.”
“It is a spacecraft,” Felix noted. “A sophisticated rocket ship.”
Whaled nodded. “Yeah, t’ tell the truth, I thought that might be it.”
“And then they moved you back to the U.S.?” Tom prompted.
“After the cockpit was finished. I was supposed to—ordered to—hang around in Shopton to see if I could pick up technical info from some of the Swift Enterprises employees. My contact, a guy named Hilliard Lathron, called me the other week, said I should try to get a job at the Chinese restaurant.”
“That makes sense,” pronounced Tom. “Lots of Enterprises people eat there.”
“I got the job. Then a few days back Lathron comes by the restaurant and says I should be on the lookout for a man who’d just made a reservation for that night, Mr. Ming. I didn’t make the connection, Felix.”
“It is a common name,” said the Chinese-American. “But what was the purpose in giving me that little card?”
“Just to spook you, soften you up so you’d cooperate later—see? That’s what Lathron said, anyway, when he gave me the card. He figured you’d be able to dope out what it meant.”
“And then you changed your mind,” Tom said.
“Like I told you, I’m weak. When I realized this was Felix, the nice kid from back at the college—I dunno, the whole thing started t’ bug me. I guess it kinda brought it home for me, all those people on that ship, nice people with families…” Whaley’s voice trailed off.
“Okay, Whaley,” Ames snapped impatiently. “Now tell us how to save those ‘nice people’!”
“Right. Lemme think. I don’t know too much.” The man was quiet for a moment, staring blankly at the wall. “I met this girl in Taiwan, name of Nang-Tsi Pi.” Whaley smiled. “I called her Nancy-Pie. She worked for the snakeman too—in Accounting—and we got… you know.”
Ames snorted. “Go on.”
“She sneaked me a bunch o’ papers, sketches of machinery, technical specs, stuff she said I could use as ‘insurance’ in case snakeman’s people decided to go after me, like they end up doing to a lot of their people when they can’t use ’em any more. That’s what I was bringing to the police, when― ”
Tom put a firm hand on Whaley’s wrist and looked him in the eye. “Whatever you do know, tell us.”
“Okay, okay,” he gulped. “Snakeman’s got a way to put a coating on things that refracts any form of radiant energy. Refracts, get it?—like in a prism.”
“Any form of energy,” Tom repeated. “But how is that possible? Sonar waves are totally different from radar waves, and the repelatron linear field has nothing in common with either one. The principle is completely different.”
“You wanna hear this or not?” demanded Whaley. “My voice is goin’. I don’t know how the gimmick works, or where he got it. Probably stole it, like everything else he has. I just know he gets up close to whatever he wants to coat—in his sub, in the case of the ship—and shoots this stuff out in a big cloud. It’s supposed to sorta flow around whatever’s nearby and then settle on it, sticking like paint.”
Except in the middle of a solar flare-up, Tom commented silently. He said: “Of course his own vehicles are already coated with it.”
“Sure. He intercepted the ship when it went below, had the hull coated before they knew what hit ’em. He’s got this cobwebby stuff, like mosquito netting, that he pulled over the whole topside. It’s got that same coating on the threads, and makes the whole thing look like ice—an iceberg. That’s what I hear tell, anyway. After that he headed way up north.”
“And you think he’s decided to scuttle her?” demanded Ames fiercely.
“That’s what Lathron said, one time last week when he was pretty well sauced—man’s got a problem. The snakeman’s ripping out all the special machinery, the techno stuff he thinks he can use or sell. Then—down she goes! Don’t know when. Soon, I think.” Olin Whaley paused, sighing at the effort of speaking. But then he added: “Listen, kid, if you try to take the ship, don’t count on that Tomasite stuff of yours to protect you. Snakeman’s supposed to have electronic detectors that can punch right through it. They’ll see you coming, far as the horizon.”
His heart pounding, Tom asked Whaley if he knew where the Sea Charger was now positioned. In response the man gestured feebly for a sheet of paper and a pencil from his bedside table. He scrawled a few words and handed the sheet to Tom. “I don’t know if I spelled ’em exactly right.”
Tom read the words aloud. “Cape Ghuskavko, Ostrov Zhokhova island.”
“It’s between those two places, in the Siberian Sea. Icebergs all around. Lathron says the ship’s on the surface. I know it’s a lot of ocean, but this is the best I can do.”
Tom exchanged tense glances with Harlan Ames. “It narrows the search area, anyway. But it sounds like we may only have days left. If that! We’ve got to find her!”
TOM SWIFT made his plans, working like a rapid-fire machine, barely pausing to eat or to sleep. He drove Swift Enterprises as hard as he drove himself. Everyone knew the stakes.
Two days after the interview with Olin Whaley, the giant Sky Queen touched down on a broad beach within walking distance of Space Central on Loonaui. In the shipboard workshop, Bud said to Tom:
“I’m not going to be stupid and say, Do you really think it’ll work, Tom? But I am going to say, What are the odds?”
Tom looked at his friend affectionately—but without a smile. “And I’m going to say: the odds are pretty good. Because if I don’t believe that, Bud, then I have to believe 141 people are going to die.”
Bud put a warm hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Then you know something? The odds are in our favor.”
Chow stood nearby next to Felix Ming, who had asked to accompany the flight. The big cowpoke picked up a small object from Tom’s metal workbench and examined it skeptically. “So this here’s the little thing that’s gonna send that snakeman right down the drain.”
The object was rounded in profile, flat-sided, about the size of the ex-Texan’s thumb. A finlike triangle swept back from one end of it.
“A miracle of micro-electronics!” exulted Felix. “The spirits of my ancestors applaud you, Tom.”
“Applaud Arv Hanson’s team, and the guys at Swift Construction who cranked out eighty-four of those little ‘miracles’,” Tom responded. “Mini aqua-drones running on solar batteries.”
“Robot fish,” declared Bud. “There’s no way Li Ching will think anything about seeing a school of fish on his super-sensors.”
Felix scratched his head. “But if I might ask, I’m not clear on one point, Tom. You now know, within several thousand square miles, where the Sea Charger is anchored. But it cannot be seen with the eye, because it maintains its illusory iceberg among a great many others. Nor does it appear on radar or sonar. Nor, apparently, does it produce a detectable wake or heat signature—certainly not when it is stopped in the water. How do you find it, then?”
“It’ll feel good to talk about it, Felix,” Tom said quietly. “Look.” The young inventor picked up a polished piece of aluminum from a shelf and held it near one of the bright halogen work-lamps. “See the reflection it makes on the wall? Watch it.”
Tom moved the piece of metal slightly, and the spot of light streaked across the wall. “Doesn’t that remind you of something, Chow?”
“Brand my silver sparklers!” exclaimed the cook. “It moves jest like that there ghost we saw on the sonar screen!”
“Or the one Felix and I detected aboard the cycloplane.” Tom set down the aluminum and slouched onto a stool. “Apparently this anti-energy sheathing Li Ching uses works perfectly on radar and repelatron wave-forms, but not quite so well when it comes to sonar. The refraction effect produces a pinpoint sonar phantom some distance out from the surface. When the surface shifts even a little, the ‘ghost’ just slides off the screen.”
“So how do you trap that ghost?” Bud asked.
“Both times before, we were using just a single receiver at a single position—one point of view. But all these drones contain sonar transceiving devices. We’ll spread them out miles apart across the area. When a phantom ping scoots by, the transceivers should pick it up sequentially, one after another. We’ll be able to put together information from dozens of viewpoints, and use computer analysis to home in on the source.”
“Uh-huh.” Chow looked unconvinced. “But boss― ”
“Sorry, pard, but I want to get going. I’ll try to explain it as we go along—maybe it’ll relax me.” Tom led his friends to the dock where the Emeraldina awaited, her hold well stocked with Tom’s electronic fish. Ted Spring and many of the staff of Space Central were on hand to wish Tom luck. The young scientist-inventor choked up as he shook their hands and modestly endured their cheers. They were a loyal team, as were all Swift Enterprises employees. He thought of them as friends.
For all its risks, I owe them this mission, Tom thought. But he also thought of the mortal danger he was placing his best friend in.
As the seacopter could move faster beneath the waves than above them, Tom submerged and headed north at top speed. After a voyage of hours they had passed through the Bering Strait. The Emeraldina curved westward toward the frigid Siberian Sea.
Finally Tom called a halt. “This is far enough,” he said. “I don’t want the instruments aboard the Charger to detect us.”
“Time to turn the fish loose!” declared Bud excitedly.
The watertight hold was flooded and the outer door opened. At a coded sonar bleep from Tom’s control board, the eighty-four drones began to stream out into the sea at a rapid pace, which soon accelerated further. Their “tails” whirled like highspeed propeller-screws, the rotation countered by delicate but powerful gyros the size of shirt buttons. In minutes the robot armada was miles away from the seacopter; in an hour, hundreds of miles out, dispersed over a wide triangle of ocean.
Felix helped Tom watch the monitor, which showed the computer-processed output from the myriad of sonar transceivers. “Icebergs and whales!” groaned Felix in disgust.
“We haven’t yet covered even a fourth of the area,” Tom pointed out. “Keep watching for that special refraction signature I showed you. It should stand out from the junk pretty clearly.”
One tense hour later—success! “It’s the signal!” Bud cheered. “We found her!”
“How’s she lookin’?” Chow asked. “Kin you tell, boss?”
“Our little ghost-guppies can’t tell us much—just the location,” Tom replied, poring over a navigational chart. “But the Charger is definitely riding up on the surface. She’s not submerged.”
Felix Ming commented quietly, “May she remain there.”
“Ready for the low-down sneaky part?” Bud asked his pal with a big grin.
With a brief burst of the long-wave transmitter, Tom now remotely activated a stored program recorded within each drone’s marble-sized “brain.” In his mind he could envision the drones homing in on the coordinates he had transmitted to them, drawing closer and closer to the stolen ship.
A light flashed once on the board, then again, then began to flicker vigorously. “They’re making contact with the hull,” Tom explained. “Their suction ‘mouths’ will hold them in place.”
“I heard o’ sucker-fish,” Chow remarked with big eyes. “But why have ’em hang on like that, boss?”
The young inventor turned around in his seat. “Each drone contains a phono-wave analyzer, which I originally developed for those personal communicators we used to use. Think of it as a super-sensitive microphone. It can pick up and record extremely faint sound vibrations transmitted through the hull from inside. Without engineering-in special high-tech soundproofing, it’s hard to totally damp them out.”
“Even through Li’s sheathing?” Bud inquired.
“I believe so, as long as direct contact is maintained. I’m guessing—hoping—the coating material only refracts radiative forms of energy, not vibrations conducted through solid metal.”
“So yuh’re eavesdroppin’, is that it?” was Chow’s question. “What fer?”
Tom held up a computer flash-memory chip. “I have digitized voiceprints of several of our crew aboard the ship, including Bob Jeffers and Nina Kimberley. And the French authorities had a snippet of Li’s voice from a planted bug. So when the fish transmit to us what they’ve recorded, the computer should be able to disentangle and enhance the vocal tones of those persons, at least—maybe more. We need to know how snakeman intends to sink the ship, Chow, and when. We can’t just send in a battle fleet to handle it, not with 141 hostages, and potential victims, aboard.”
Felix now asked if Tom were concerned that Li Ching might detect the sonar-phonic transmissions from the aqua-drones. “Sure, Felix. But the drone signals are holographically divided up between the various units, and the direction of transmission is outward, away from the ship. Chances are good we can avoid detection.”
Felix smiled. “I’m convinced! My venerable ancestors― ”
“Felix,” Bud interrupted, “there are no girls here.”
“As I said, I’m desperate!”
The Emeraldina began to receive coded signals from Tom’s fish fleet almost immediately, and the onboard computer went to work. Relieved that his approach seemed to be working, Tom listened intently to the computer output by means of a headset. “I can hear Bob!” he reported happily. “He must be all right—he’s talking about pancakes.”
“Hmmph!” snorted Chow.
“I’m listening to one of the scientists now…” Tom was silent for a minute. “It sounds like they’re all locked in, probably in the crew cabins. Wait!” Another tense pause. “I’m picking up Li Ching’s voice tones! But he’s talking in Chinese.”
Tom quickly handed the headset to Felix. “All right then. He is speaking to someone he calls Captain Yao. Li speaks as if Yao is his personal lieutenant, his second in command. Something about preparations. Yao replies― ” The engineer looked up at the listeners in sudden alarm! “He says, The bomb has been positioned in… I believe he means the main driveshaft cowling. Yao says, Comrade-General, do you still wish to detonate by signal, not by timer? Li answers, Do not question me as to my reasons! I myself will send the signal from the escape plane when we are airborne! Now… I think I heard a door slam.”
“We have little time,” said Tom grimly. He moved to the controls. “I’m recalling my returnees.”
Bud looked puzzled. “Returnees?”
“Some of the drones are equipped to scrape off samples of the anti-energy coating material. I need to analyze its composition if we’re going to use it to make ourselves undetectable.”
“Right!” The dark-haired youth grinned. “Even Comrade-Generals have an Achilles Heel!”
After the designated sampler drones had returned to the seacopter, Tom surfaced and radioed the Sky Queen, which was already en route to the rendezvous point Tom had selected, an American naval base on a flat island off the coast of Alaska. Hank Sterling was piloting the ship, accompanied by Arv Hanson and a crew of technicians from the Swift Enterprises chemical and materials-fabrication departments.
As the Emeraldina streaked along beneath the sea, the young inventor studied the samples in a Swift Spectroscope, then with an instrument he called an MHD resolver, a kind of microscope. “This is amazing!” he muttered aloud. “The sheathing consists of tiny polymer globules doped with piezoelectric crystal filaments—that much I can figure out. But the way they’re linked up…”
Bud chuckled. “Mr. Science at work!”
“The material seems to function at a very fundamental physical level,” Tom said in awed amazement. “It’s as if it produces nucleon-scale fluctuations in the spacetime field. But even if Li stole it from somewhere, how could anyone on Earth come up with something so advanced?”
“On Earth? Genius boy, you’re making an assumption!” Bud pointed out. “Space travel works in both directions, you know.” Tom nodded.
Tom transmitted his data to the Sky Queen before arriving in the seacopter, and the technicians went to work formulating a coating to be applied to the Space Kite, awaiting its paint-job in the hangar-hold like an old beat-up auto. The plan to rescue the Sea Charger crew, and perhaps the ship itself, required the use of Tom’s remarkable spacecraft.
The Alaska rendezvous took place as scheduled. Tom was overjoyed to hear that the sheathing of the Kite had been completed without a hitch. “And we’ve tested it out, Skipper,” announced Sterling. “As far as radar and sonar go, it’s just not there!”
“Fantastic work, everyone.” But Tom Swift’s voice was hushed with tension. Even the hazards of the Kite’s space test paled before what he and Bud were about to attempt!
BOARDED FROM ABOVE
THE great Sky Queen ascended to 20,000 feet. The Space Kite glided smoothly from the Flying Lab’s vehicular platform, lowered like an elevator from the bottom of the hull, and gained altitude as quickly as possible. Soon enough the tiny craft had crossed the edge of the atmosphere and entered the void of space.
“How’s she holding up?” Bud asked Tom. “I’m not nervous, but—how’s she holding up?”
Tom checked the instruments. “On course. Velocity nominal. No sign of instability.”
“No subtrino squalls?”
Tom shook his head. “Nope. Dr. MacIllheny’s cosmic weather report was right on the mark. The storm has abated for now, just like the solar flare-up did.”
Instead of space suits, Tom and his pal wore gray, fleece-lined outfits with jackets and hoods to keep out the icy Arctic cold blowing across the deck of the Sea Charger—for Tom’s plan was to secretly make a landing directly on the ship’s deck runway. “Things look about as good as we could expect,” he told Bud. “Night, overcast, and some mist in the air. From my eavesdropping it sounds like Li Ching has only about a dozen of his underlings aboard the ship right now. I don’t imagine he’d see a need to keep any of them stationed up on deck, given the limited visibility and cold.”
“He doesn’t know we can sneak right through his radar,” Bud declared. “And the Space Kite is so itty-bitty, we won’t even be seen if the fog clears out—if luck stays with us.”
“That’s the idea. This jalopy is smaller than the cycloplane, smaller than microjets like the Kangaroo Kub or the paraplane, even smaller than a Pigeon Special.”
“Yeah—smaller than all of ’em put together!” Bud joked. “You could make it an advertising pitch: Space Kites, a great way to get the drop on the bad guys!”
The Kite did not enter into Earth orbit, but followed a hairpin suborbital trajectory to maximize speed, looping back down into the air as they neared the position of the Sea Charger. They dropped fast, paying for it with a queasy feeling in their stomachs.
Tom’s voice fell into an involuntary whisper. “There she is!” A huge shadowy form had appeared far below!
“You’re sure, pal?” Bud asked. “Looks like they’re still doing the iceberg routine.”
“Remember, it’s just layers of open netting sprayed with the anti-energy paint,” Tom reminded his chum. “That’s what Whaley says, anyway. But it makes sense. The water would flood right through it when they want to submerge, and up in the light the refraction effect looks like the gleam of ice. It’s no wonder the search planes and satellites couldn’t find her.”
They slowed and dropped down to the ocean surface, hovering just above the waves less than a mile from their objective. Then they inched forward as quickly as they dared. No lights shone on the ship through the semi-transparent netting. There was no hint that anyone had detected them.
Tom adjusted the cosmic reactor and re-angled the gravitex, and the craft arced up smoothly. Sharp blade-edged vanes had been attached to the forward side of the Kite to allow it to slice through the netting, and it presented no difficulties—the fibers turned out to be as thin as sewing threads, though densely packed together like gauze. They rose over the Charger’s gunwales, just clearing them, landing almost noiselessly at the edge of the deck runway. “Hold on to your i-gun,” Tom whispered. He and Bud were equipped with Swift Enterprises’ electric impulse pistols, which could stun or, in dire situations, kill. Tom hoped the situation wouldn’t become dire.
Opening the viewdome, the youths stole out onto the open deck. In the freezing air, all was silent and dark—but not quite all: one window in the control tower showed a dim light. They don’t want to be seen any more than we do, Tom told himself. He glanced behind him and was satisfied that the parked Space Kite was lost in the darkness, at least from the point of view of the Charger’s tower.
The young inventor strode over to the edge of the deck and paused for a moment, taking in his hands the protective netting that was draped everywhere and examining it curiously. Eyebrows raised, he gave his companion a nod. Then he and Bud scrambled silently forward, toward a dark, streamlined bulk sitting on the deck. “Must be their escape jet,” Bud whispered. Tom nodded his agreement.
Minutes later they paused at an access hatch, one which Tom knew opened into a freight hold with a door to the crew-quarters corridor. He knelt down and used his i-gun on low power to short-circuit the hatch door’s electronic lock. Then he heaved it open.
Tom and Bud climbed down into the blackness of the hold. “I’ll lead,” Tom whispered. “Keep a finger on the back of my jacket. The corridor door is just ahead.”
He reached the door, clicked the latch, and stepped forward into the darkened corridor that linked a row of crew cabins, Bud following. The long hallway was lit by a single low-wattage emergency bulb at the far end. “Which cabin first?” asked the flyer softly. “Or do we hit ’em in the control room?”
“We’ll stick to plan,” Tom replied. “Free a half-dozen or so of the crew to back us up—then onward.”
Disabling the lock, he swung open the door to the nearest cabin and briefly flicked on the light. It was empty. “Next one,” Tom whispered.
He opened the next door. The room light was already on, four silent, despondent men sitting upright on their bunks. One of them rose and gasped in disbelief. “It’s Tom Swift!”
Tom held a finger to his lips and motioned for the men to follow him out.
Tom, Bud, and the four scuffed off to the left down the corridor, toward the emergency light. Tom gave instructions in a whisper as they went along. “There’s a hydraulics shaft running right up next to the command deck bulkhead,” he said briskly. “Follow behind me single file. We’ll drop whoever’s up there, then take over the main override system. They’ve planted a bomb on the hull, men, and plan― ”
“Gentlemen,” said a voice behind them, clear but not loud.
Tom and Bud’s i-guns dropped to the floor.
Then Tom and Bud dropped to the floor.
A SIGNAL VICTORY
THERE were five men, Tom saw as he rose from his stunned state to full consciousness. They were all Asians. Two of them carried Swift i-guns which they kept trained upon the fallen party, Tom, Bud, and the rescued crew members. Two others had stepped forward to collect Tom’s and Bud’s dropped guns. Tom recognized the fifth man.
“I’ve seen your photograph, Comrade-General,” said the young inventor coolly as he struggled unsteadily to his feet.
Li Ching stretched out a hand and took an i-gun from his underling—Bud’s gun. He looked at it critically for a moment. “I appreciate the opportunity to examine an original,” he said, voice smooth, accent clipped. “The documents we stole, whereby we constructed these replicas of ours, described an earlier model. We should no more be relying on these imperfect versions than riding the roads in your great-grandfather’s electric runabout.”
Li Ching, the snakeman, was surprisingly tall and powerfully built, dressed in a jet-black military style uniform with brass buttons. Tom thought he had once seen something like it in a book—the uniform of a general in the army of China, in the early years of the twentieth century. Li’s head seemed oddly narrow, shave-skulled but for a high-mounted ponytail that draped down his back. His lips were pale and thin, somewhat pursed. The effect was bizarre, but not as disturbing as the man’s cold, metallic eyes—snake eyes.
Yet if one could get past those eyes, the man seemed almost jovial. Or at least mockingly gleeful. “Each compartment door is electronically monitored. You disabled the lock mechanism, yes; but not before it could cry for help. How did you get aboard this vessel, might I ask?”
Tom said nothing.
“Oh come now, satisfy my curiosity. By sea? By air? I wish to be further impressed. You see, I greatly admire you, Tom Swift.”
“The Sky Queen’s on its way right now,” Bud snarled. “Fifty armed men are aboard. They tracked us here.”
“Really, Bud? Then perhaps my associates and I should be going.”
Tom broke his silence. “Killing us and sinking this ship won’t do you any good.”
The Chinese smiled. “But it won’t do me any harm, and like you, I choose to go beyond the logical point of view now and then. One cannot divorce genius from intuition. You know that, of course. It is how you invent.”
“It depends on the accuracy of the facts in hand,” Tom said. “You don’t seem to realize that you have a traitor in your midst. Someone tipped us off about your agent in Shopton.”
Li Ching muttered something to the man standing next to him, who wore a military jacket of lesser rank. The man smiled, though Li Ching only looked hard and unruffled. “You refer to Mr. Hobell. Tom, I myself called that message in to your switchboard.”
“Why? What’s the game?” Tom demanded.
“Perhaps curiosity. As a scientist, you surely realize its importance.” He paused and stared at the Shopton youth. “I am quite sincere when I speak of my admiration, Tom. You and I run in parallel lines, in a way. It pleases me to think that by exposing your weaknesses, your methods, the capabilities of your organization and its employees, I can learn to make myself less vulnerable to error. For error must be eliminated.”
“Error can never be eliminated,” Tom stated.
Li shrugged slightly. “One comes as close as one can. I didn’t mind sacrificing, earlier than scheduled, a few employees in my experiments with you. Hobell was an incipient alcoholic, poor Lathron, now deceased, a practicing drunk. I cannot tolerate such vices among those in my employ. It increases their tendency to error. A man named Cleggman—I believe you’ve encountered the name—fell victim to the vice of gambling. I will not put up with such things.”
One of the men standing behind Tom spoke up. “General, I am a colonel in the United States Air Force. There are other military men here. We were observing the Sea Charger’s maiden voyage. Keep us as hostages. We’re valuable commodities in the long run. Tom Swift and the others—let them go. Put them off in the liferafts.”
“There are some good points in your suggestion, Colonel Praggler, to be sure,” replied Li. “And to send this young genius to his death, what a waste. Some future discovery, some future invention—might it not benefit me as much as anyone? And so it was worth my time to consider sparing him. If I ended by rejecting the option, it was because I have great hopes of another and superior source of inventive knowledge. Tom, perhaps it will comfort you to know that our world has a great future ahead of it.”
“I presume you are the future, Comrade-General,” said Tom mockingly.
“What a wonderful motto! I shall remember it always.” Li spoke in Chinese to the military man, whom Tom guessed to be the man named Yao, apparently Li’s second in command.
“Sir, I—I have a family,” quavered one of the young crewmen.
Li looked up. “Good for you. I myself have several. Now then, Captain Yao and I have a plane to catch on the upper deck. These other men here with me...” He took a step closer to Tom. “As they speak no English, I will tell you an amusing secret, Tom. They are in the doghouse with me, as you say. They believe they will be joining me and the others in the jet, but I am playing a trick on them. I have told them to see you all back to your quarters and secure them, then come up on deck. Won’t they be surprised to find that I have barred the deck hatchway behind me! And the door by which you two boys entered has been sealed from the other side by a technician of mine, even as we stand amusing one another.”
“Why kill them, Li?” Tom demanded in contempt.
“Efficiency. I don’t need them. Nor do I require the ship’s captive crew any further. From high above I will send the signal. One touch of a little button, and an explosive device at the weak spot of this mighty hull will end the brief career of the Sea Charger. For I no longer need the ship, either.”
Nodding a curt farewell in Tom’s direction, Li Ching turned smartly and led Captain Yao up the corridor to the hatchway ladder, along with Yao’s assistant. In a moment Tom and the others heard the hatch clang shut. Then came the unmistakable sound of its being bolted from above.
Li’s remaining two minions looked at each other with wide eyes. Calling out in dismay, they raced to the ladder and pounded on the hatch, throwing down their impulse pistols.
“Tom,” murmured the Swift Enterprises employee who had recognized him, “for all the awfulness of this—it’s an honor to be here with you.”
“Thanks,” nodded Tom. “Guys, help me free the others from their compartments.”
“Why? What do we have, three minutes before he sets off the bomb?” The speaker was the young man with the family. “I know the design of the ship. I know the weak point he must be talking about. There’s no possible way to get to the bomb in time to cut the wires or defuse it. When it blows, the cowling will rip loose all along its length. We’ll be scraping the bottom in ten minutes.”
“Man, you’re really bringing me down,” reproved Bud with the twitch of a smile. “Look at me. I’ve been up to my neck more times that I can count, and do I look dead? Huh?”
The two Chinese came back to the others, waving their arms in a panic. Tom motioned for them to calm themselves, asking Bud to go retrieve the discarded i-guns.
“It’s been three minutes,” said Col. Praggler. “More than three minutes. Where’s the bang? We should at least feel the jolt.”
Tom nodded. “Good point, Colonel. Tell you what. Let’s go open a few doors, and I’ll do some explaining.”
“Tom’s great at explanations,” Bud noted.
It turned out that about half the Charger’s crew were confined in the set of cabins off this corridor, the rest in a separate area. They crowded into the corridor, astonished and confused. Bob Jeffers and Nina Kimberley were among them.
“Is it all over, boss?” Jeffers asked. “Or are you and Bud prisoners too?”
The young inventor smiled. “I suppose we’re all prisoners as long as we’re here below deck, but only for as long as it takes the Sky Queen to arrive at these coordinates. They’re scheduled to take off from Alaska right about now. We’ve got a couple hours or so to wait.”
“Swift, you may be getting a big kick out of all this, but I think we’re owed that explanation!” snapped Praggler. “I take it you disarmed the bomb somehow before you arrived.”
Tom shook his head. “No, Colonel. The bomb is still armed and dangerous.”
“You removed it from the ship?”
“No. There was no time.”
“Then I presume you had people up on the deck to take out Li before he pressed his button, is that it?”
“No way to sneak them into the area without alerting him—not a big group, anyway.”
“Then what, Tom?” asked Nina.
Tom glanced in Bud’s direction. “You tell ’em, flyboy.”
Bud chuckled in glee. “Achilles heel! Tom ripped off a big long strip of that netting that covers the whole top of the ship. We worked the piece around the antenna pod casing underneath the fuselage of Li’s escape jet, knotted it firmly to the pull-rings on the access panels to keep it in place. Took about thirty seconds!”
Praggler gazed at Bud skeptically. “What good did that do?”
“What good? It blocked the signal to the bomb!” Bud laughed. “Didn’t anyone tell you guys about Li Ching’s wonderful anti-energy coating? It blocks anything, outside going in, inside going out!”
“We knew the netting would be sufficient,” added Tom. “After all, it totally blocked radar from seeing the ship.”
“I... see,” said Colonel Praggler. “When we’re all together, all in one place—please let me lead a cheer or two!”
“It’s a deal,” Tom said, offering his hand.
The arrival of the Sky Queen brought the end of the group’s below-deck confinement, as well as those held captive in the other parts of the ship. All were healthy and accounted for—except for the single turncoat who had taken over the bridge during the test run.
“Did he leave with Li Ching?” Tom inquired of a crew member, an observer from NASA.
“Well, Mr. Swift, I guess you could say he left. But not with anybody. Li Ching was looking for an illustration of his, mm, forceful character. He told us afterwards that he hated traitors—called it a moral vice!”
Despite the general looting, the Sea Charger was in good enough condition to limp to the nearest port, most of her crew loyally remaining aboard.
Some days later, the Swift home played host to a large dinner party. The dining room table was cramped elbow to elbow, as Bud, Bashalli, Chow, and Harlan Ames had been invited over to join the family.
“Still no sign of Li and his invisible jet. Or sub. Or rocket,” Harlan Ames remarked over salad. “But Hobell and Olin Whaley have provided quite a bouquet of clues, and the FBI has been able to round up a real platoon of Li’s agents here in this country.”
“I’m relieved to hear that,” Mrs. Swift said happily. “We’ll celebrate with broiled lobster.”
“Somehow that seems appropriate,” Bud gibed.
In spite of the delicious meal and the gay conversation at the table, Tom felt slightly glum, and showed it on his face. He turned even glummer when Bud asked Mr. Swift if Tom had satisfied their friendly “challenge.”
“Not quite, pal,” Tom remarked before his father could answer. “Sure, the Space Kite’s system will make space travel a lot less expensive and more convenient—in principle.”
“Was that not the point, Thomas?” asked Bashalli.
“Let’s just say it won’t be down at air-ticket prices any time soon.” The young inventor gulped. “We ran some numbers on the cost of producing the neutron matter we use in the cosmic reactor.”
“And Enterprises won’t go bankrupt—as long as we don’t manufacture more than three!”
“Oh, stop brooding about your old cosmic-ray kite,” Sandy scolded her brother teasingly. “Just be happy you and Buddo got back to earth safe and sound!”
Chow had something to add. “Brand my space steers, that’s right, son! Your kite contraption took you halfway t’ the blame moon and saved a whole ship—what more do ya want her to do, cook for you?”
Everyone laughed. “Guess you’re right, all of you,” Tom said wryly. “It’s just that I had high hopes for that kite.”
“Son, as far as I’m concerned, you more than beat my little ‘challenge’,” Mr. Swift declared. “We’re in this for science, not commerce.”
Mrs. Swift added comfortingly, “At least your invention worked for a hundred thousand miles out in space. Surely that’s a marvelous scientific achievement.”
Tom smiled gratefully. “When you put it like that, Mom, it doesn’t sound so bad. You always have the right slant on my work!”
“I’ve been thinking about something,” Bud said presently, “something Li said about having another superior source for future inventions. Tom, you said the anti-energy stuff was beyond Earth’s technology... Do you think—?”
“I’d rather not think about that possibility!” Tom protested. But some such possibilities could not be so easily dismissed, as the young inventor would discover soon, when he encountered The Visitor from Planet X!
“What you need, Tomonomo, is a good rest,” Sandy advised. She added mischievously, “And maybe a few dates, too—both of you! That means you, Budworth Barclay! Something to clear the cobwebs from your brains!”
Mr. Swift grinned. “Sandy may be right, son.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” Tom promised.
“Now Sandra,” said Bashalli sweetly, “we must understand the way it is with men. They do not care to be pushed. It makes them surly and irritable.”
“I’ll say!” grumped Bud humorously as he reached for the bowl of mashed potatoes. “If I weren’t such a gentleman, San, I woulda told you to go fly a― ”
“Er—Bud―” Tom warned with a wink.
“Sorry, genius boy.”
But the smiling young astronaut silently mouthed the last word: