TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND
THE VISITOR FROM PLANET X
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 VISITOR FROM PLANET X
“TOM, if anyone can solve the problem we’re having with the new gyrostabilizer, we figure it’s you,” said Mark Faber, gray-haired president of the Faber Electronics division of Wickliffe Laboratories.
“Now that’s a mighty easy bet,” said Hank Sterling. The young chief engineer from Swift Enterprises suavely raised an eyebrow. “This kid’s been to the moon and back, you know.”
Tom Swift gave a becomingly modest smile, his face reddening slightly beneath the ragged line of his spiky blond crewcut. “You have to understand, Mr. Faber—Hank is moonlighting as my personal image maker!”
Faber gave a sharp nod. “The informal, easy-going relations between management and workforce over at TSE is well known throughout the industry. My own people envy it. Just between us, so do I. The Old M—er, that is, Dr. Wickliffe—can be rather stiff-necked at times.”
“He’s very focused on his work, that I know,” responded Tom noncommittally.
Tom and his father had long ago realized that Munson Wickliffe, the brilliant head of Wickliffe Laboratories of Thessaly, New York, regarded himself as something of a rival to the famous Swift invention factory in Shopton. The relationship was cordial enough and thoroughly professional, yet tinged with a degree of personal tension. Wickliffe had adopted ethically questionable tactics in competing with Tom Swift Enterprises while Tom had been engaged in searching the floor of the Atlantic for a lost space capsule. Though forgiven, the incident had colored his subsequent dealings with the two Swifts, who presumed he was embarrassed—which he had ample reason to be.
Hoping to smooth over relations with Faber’s employer, Tom had been anxious to come to the aid of Faber’s division. Faber Electronics, which specialized in aerospace technology, had contacted Tom in hopes that the young scientist-inventor and his chief engineer could analyze and fix a performance shortfall affecting their new gyro system. Tom knew the greater challenge would be to provide the requested assistance without appearing to be flaunting Enterprises’ prowess.
Mr. Faber led Tom and Hank through his high-ceilinged assembly building. Rocket nose-cones and jetcraft fuselages hung from chains or rested in cradling lift-derricks all around and above them, gleaming in the hazy columns of sun from a line of skylights at the peak of the curved ceiling. “The people from Deeming Intercoast are on my neck,” commented Faber. “But until the GS is up to snuff, their ‘penetrator’ aerospace-plane can’t even be― ”
He broke off with a gasp of astonishment as the whole building suddenly shook. A low rumble thudded through the concrete floor—once, twice.
“Holy Mo!” Hank muttered. “This isn’t part of your testing routine, is it?”
“Definitely not,” replied Mark Faber, troubled and slightly alarmed. He leaned back, looking upward, and Tom and Hank followed his gaze. The hanging equipment was swaying ominously, the chains clinking.
Scattered workmen stood about nervously. One took a step toward Faber. “What was that, anyway? Sonic boom?”
His question was drowned out by cries of alarm and the sound of cracking glass. The rumbling and shaking returned with a vengeance. This time it didn’t stop! The walls and roof were shuddering and creaking, and the concrete floor was heaving under their feet.
“Look out! The test stand’s breaking loose!” Tom warned.
Mr. Faber and two of his men tried frantically to brace the heavy test stand which held the malfunctioning gyrostabilizer device. Another engineer rushed toward the door to see what was happening outside. Before he reached it, a new and more powerful shock knocked all of them off their feet.
The concrete floor erupted with jagged cracks. Electronic apparatus cascaded from the wall shelves, and a heavy-duty chain hoist came loose from its overhead track, plunging to the floor with a terrifying crash.
“An earthquake!” Tom gasped. A shrill cry alerted him and he flung himself backwards as a dangling nose-cone the size of a sofa swung down like a pendulum at one end of a chain and shattered against a missile fuselage.
Hank, meanwhile, clawed a handhold on a wire screen enclosing an air compressor and pulled himself to his feet. But the next moment yet another, more violent tremor rocked the building, knocking him over. “The roof! It’s caving in!” he heard someone scream.
As his eyes flashed upward in panic, Hank caught a brief glimpse of the ponderous test stand with the priceless gyro tilting to one side. An instant later it crashed over, pinning Mark Faber beneath it!
Hank threw up his arms to protect himself and turned away, but too late! A fragment of metal shielding from the device came whirling through the air and caught him on the back of the head. Knocked flat, the young engineer blacked out.
The tremor ebbed. For minutes, no one stirred amidst the wreckage. Then Tom, who had been stunned by some falling debris, raised himself to a sitting position.
“Good night!” Tom’s eyes focused in horror on the wreckage enveloped by still-billowing dust.
The sky was visible through several gaping holes in the roof, which was sagging dangerously on its supporting trusses. The twisted skylight frames were empty and useless. Only two thirds of the walls were still standing. Faint moans of pain and fear rose from every side.
Suddenly Tom stiffened. “Hank!” The young inventor had just noticed his friend lying pinned nearby beneath a heavy air circulation duct that had toppled over from a wall. Was he still breathing?
Disregarding his own injuries, Tom hastily freed himself from the debris and groped his way to Hank’s side. With a desperate heave, he shoved the duct away, then cradled Hank’s head in his arm. His friend’s eyelids flickered.
“Are you all right?” Tom asked fearfully.
The answer came in a groan. “Guess that depends, boss. Oo-oh! Wow! What hit me?”
“You got conked pretty bad. Or grazed, at least,” Tom added thankfully. “If that metal ductwork had landed square on your noggin, even a rockhead like you couldn’t have survived!”
Hank managed to grin. “We grow ’em tough out where I come from!” he joked. But his voice was woozy and faint, and the back of his head was streaked with red.
Somewhat shakily, Hank got to his feet with Tom’s assistance. Both were heartsick as they surveyed the damaged work building, wondering where to begin rescue operations.
“It was a quake all right,” Hank stated grimly. “Ma Nature in action.”
Just then Tom glimpsed a body protruding from under the wreckage of the gyrostabilizer stand.
“Mr. Faber!” he gasped.
The scientist responded to Tom’s cry with a slight tremble of his hand, but uttered no sound, eyes shut. The two from Shopton scrambled through the clutter of debris toward the spot where the test stand had been erected. Hank seized a slender I-beam of lightweight magtritanium and managed to pry up the wreckage while Tom carefully extricated Mr. Faber. He knew it was dangerous to move the injured man, but he also knew that leaving him beneath an unstable pile of wreckage would be even a greater risk.
The scientist seemed to be badly injured. “We’d better not try to move him any further,” Tom decided. “We’ll get an ambulance.”
“I’m making the call,” said Hank, holding up his cellphone. Then he grimaced in frustration. “But the lines are jammed, naturally. Or maybe some of the cell towers are down.”
Of the other company engineers and technicians, two were now on their feet, but innumerably more were only partly conscious. Some showed no signs of life at all. Tom and Hank found a first-aid cabinet and gave what help they could to the injured, and recruited the least affected among them to stabilize some of the equipment. Then Tom insisted on wrapping a bandage over Hank’s scalp wound. “I need you, Engineer Sterling.”
“Yeah. Guess I need Engineer Sterling as much as you do.”
“Let’s hotfoot back to the airfield,” Tom urged. “We can use the radio in the Pigeon Special to summon help.”
“Right!” Hank responded. “If nothing else, we can route the call through the Enterprises switchboard.” But his mind added a dismaying thought. What if Swift Enterprises, many miles distant across the county line, had also been knocked out by the earthquake?
They picked their way through the wreckage and emerged from the ruined building onto a scene of frightful destruction. The main administration building of Wickliffe Laboratories had been partially demolished by the quake. Every window seemed to have shattered—and one entire side of the modern structure was nothing but windows! Power lines were down, light poles toppled, and an outlying storage hangar was ablaze. Dazed and panic-stricken survivors were wandering around aimlessly or rushing about to assist the injured.
“Good thing the main shift of workers knocked off before this happened,” Hank observed with a shudder, checking his wristwatch. “There would’ve been a lot more casualties.”
“Look at the airstrip!” Tom pointed to a long, uneven crevice in the rumpled tarmac and concrete. “Right in front of the plane!” They exchanged rueful glances as they realized that the craft which had brought them to Faber Electronics—one of the unique commuter mini-planes produced by Enterprises’ affiliate, the Swift Construction Company—had almost been swallowed up in the gaping chasm. As it was, one wheel was over the edge. The plane listed dangerously, leaning on the starboard wing as on an elbow.
“No use fussing about it now,” Tom pronounced. “Come on, Hank! Let’s see if we can climb aboard.”
As they swung up onto the slanted deck the Special rocked precariously, but seemed otherwise undamaged. In moments Tom had contacted the operator on duty at the Enterprises communications center.
“Is everything all right there at the plant, Jilly?” Tom asked. “Did the quake do any damage?”
“What do you mean, Mr. Swift?” she came back in surprise. “Was there a quake?”
“You mean you didn’t feel it there?”
“No, but—there’s Mr. Dilling. Just a moment.” The operator spoke to George Dilling, the plant’s chief communications officer, for a moment, then returned to the line. “Mr. Dilling says news reports are just coming in right now, on TV. They say the earthquake only affected a small area near Thessaly.”
“A very small area, apparently,” muttered Hank.
Nodding, Tom said, “Jilly, we’re okay, but Hank will have to see Doc Simpson when we get back—please let him know. Ask Mr. Dilling to send a chopper to pick us up. The airfield’s too broken up for us to take off in the plane. George can use his own judgment about alerting the local medical and emergency authorities. I guess they’re already aware of the quake, but they may not realize how serious the injuries are here at Wickliffe.”
Despite the chaotic confusion, the two managed to locate the plant superintendent—a harried, middle-aged man named Simkins—who was doing his best to restore order. Simkins, who had not been injured, informed them that electricians were rigging an emergency cellphone relay unit to get through to the nearby town. “But the radio says ambulances are on the way,” he noted.
“Mr. Faber is badly injured,” Tom said. “Why not send a car to the hospital? The town’s only a few miles away, isn’t it?”
“I’ll send the plant nurse to him,” Simkins said. “As for going to town, take a look at the parking lot.” He pointed with a jerk of his thumb. The cars on the lot had been smashed into junk by cinderblocks from a collapsing wall of one of the tall buildings. “And our truck fleet is either out on the road or in the plant garage getting burned down to fireplace andirons,” the superintendent added bitterly.
“Tough break,” Tom sympathized. “Anyhow, we want to help. Got a job for us? Maybe Dr. Wickliffe would like us to― ”
“Dr. Wickliffe is in critical condition,” interrupted Simkins with a deep frown creasing his face. “We think he had a heart attack during the incident. He’s being treated in the infirmary, but frankly I’m not sure he’ll last long enough to get to the hospital.”
“Here’s a hopeful sign, anyhow,” said Hank, pointing. To the wavering blare of sirens, several ambulances were now approaching by the main road, dodging cracks and fallen trees.
Simkins was only too glad to put Tom’s quick mind and keen technical knowhow to use. Within minutes, Tom was in charge of clearing away rubble and extricating anyone who might be trapped inside the buildings. Hank organized a fire-fighting crew to keep the several blazes from spreading. A steady stream of rescue vehicles began arriving from Thessaly and another nearby town, Harkness—fire trucks, police vehicles, three more ambulances, and private cars driven by volunteers or frantic family members.
Soon there was nothing more Tom and Hank could do at the disaster scene but get in the way. Pausing to catch his breath, Tom suddenly broke into a faint grin. “Hey, here comes our ride back to Shopton.”
A high-sided, strange object, glinting in the setting sun, was approaching rapidly at a height of about one hundred yards, slowly descending. “The paraplane!” Hank exclaimed happily. This was a combination jet and helium dirigible that Tom had developed to test and perfect a balloon-bag safety system.
In minutes the compact passenger cabin, dwarfed beneath the big liftbag, was bumping gently along the broken runway. The door-hatch swung open and Slim Davis, an experienced Enterprises pilot, leaned out with a nod. “Limo for Swift and Sterling!” he announced humorously.
Tom was pleased and grateful. “We’ll be back home in minutes.”
It took eight jet-driven minutes, in fact, before they set down on the airfield at the four-mile-square experimental station where Tom and his father developed their many amazing inventions. After thanking George Dilling and Jilly Lamm for their prompt assistance, Tom accompanied Hank to the plant medical office and infirmary where the Enterprises physician examined them both.
“Fine way to greet me back after my vacation,” gibed Doc Simpson, the young medico who was a good friend to both. “But as usual we’re only dealing with a mere head injury, which we Swiftonians just shrug off—over and over.” He exchanged Hank’s hasty bandage for a better one, then pronounced both fit.
At Tom’s urging Hank immediately called his wife to assure her that he was safe, then handed the phone to Tom. The young inventor called home and spoke to his sister, Sandra.
“What a relief!” Sandy gasped. “We heard a bulletin about the quake over the TV!”
“Don’t worry, sis. Tell Mom and Dad that Hank Sterling and I are fine,” Tom said. “Doc even cleared me to drive. I’ll be home in a jiffy—with a big post-quake appetite!”
In the late, dimming twilight, Tom drove his two-seater sports car to the pleasant, tree-shaded Swift home on the outskirts of Shopton, only minutes from the Enterprises main gate.
Mrs. Swift, a slender, petite woman, tried not to show concern when she saw her adventure-prone young son, bruised and disheveled. “I’m so thankful you and Hank are both safe!” she murmured as Tom greeted her with a kiss that contained a hint of apology.
Blond, blue-eyed Sandy, who was a year younger than Tom, had invited her friend—and Tom’s—Bashalli Prandit to the house for dinner. Bashalli, a pretty, dark-haired girl born in Pakistan, was as much upset as Tom’s mother.
Tom laughed. “I’m not a stretcher case, Bash,” he said. “Doc Simpson checked me out.”
Bashalli looked very relieved, but groaned teasingly. “Why did you have to go and spoil it? I was preparing my cool soothing touch for your fevered brow!”
“You got away this time without getting conked, but I feel like conking you for always getting yourself in trouble,” declared Sandy with a mock frown. “Honestly, big brother!—if it isn’t a meteorite or a hurricane or a torpedo attack, it’s a gosh-darn earthquake! And who ever heard of a quake around here, anyhow?”
Tom’s face lost its apologetic smile. “Actually, San, that’s a big question. The whole event was odd in many ways.” It was obvious to Sandy that her talented brother had something on his mind.
Mr. Swift came into the living room just then and told Tom, with a wink, how worried Mrs. Swift and Sandy had been. “Of course I tried to assure them that you and Hank can take care of yourselves in any crisis.” He smiled guiltily as he added, “But I must admit I was more than a little concerned myself.”
As Tom grinned, the resemblance between him and his father was very evident. Both had the same clean-cut features and deep-set blue eyes, although Tom was lankier and taller.
After Tom had showered and changed his ripped and soiled clothes, Mrs. Swift served them a delicious hot meal. While they ate, Mr. Swift managed after some difficulty to get a call through to the central hospital in Utica, where the worse-off earthquake victims had been rushed after initial treatment in Thessaly. Damon Swift’s face was grave as he hung up.
“Mark Faber is not expected to live,” the elder inventor reported. “And the prognosis for Munson Wickliffe is discouraging as well. A pity. Munson has his human flaws, but he’s a great scientist and technical engineer.”
Tom nodded unhappily. Sandy, to take her brother’s mind off the disaster, glanced at her father and said, “Daddy, tell Tom about the visitor who’s coming.”
Bashalli smiled. “And this time, representing the Pakistani branch of the extended family of Swifts, I know this news even before you do, Thomas.”
“A visitor?” Tom looked at his father. “Who? Is Cousin Ed back from some corner of the world?”
“Oh no—our guest is coming a much greater distance than that,” replied Mr. Swift, as Sandy and Bashalli stifled giggles.
Tom was mystified. “Okay. From where?”
“No place special,” answered Tom’s mother, in on the joke. “Just from another planet!”
“A-ANOTHER―!” Tom was so amazed and excited he could barely speak. “Wow! And you’re not kidding?”
Mr. and Mrs. Swift and the two girls all solemnly shook their heads. Tom gasped and his questions tumbled out in a torrent. “Male or female? Human or animal?”
Mr. Swift’s eyes twinkled. “None of those,” he replied as his son stared, heart thudding, bursting with unbridled curiosity. Although the astounded world knew that the Swifts had been in radio contact with entities from outer space for many months now, this was the most exciting news yet!
On one occasion, the unknown, never-glimpsed beings had moved a small asteroid—the phantom satellite Nestria—into orbit about the earth in an attempt to study the earthlike environment Tom was able to create there. Seeking to overcome some mysterious factor that prevented their survival upon our world, they had sent samples of the strange plant and animal life of their planet, to be analyzed by the Swifts. These extraterrestrial scientists, dubbed the space friends, had also helped Tom a number of times when his life was at stake while on daring voyages beyond the earth, recently attempting to warn the young space venturer of a dangerous cosmic storm, an event recorded in Tom Swift and The Cosmic Astronauts. What was their latest intention? It was certain to be fantastic!
The telephone rang and Sandy went to answer it as Tom barraged the others with questions, all of them parried with teasingly evasive answers.
“For Pete’s sake, Dad,” Tom pleaded, “don’t keep me in suspense! Who or what is this visitor?”
“That was Bud,” announced Sandy breezily, re-entering the room. “I told him we were having a family conference and just couldn’t be disturbed.”
Bud Barclay was Tom’s closest pal. “What did he want?”
“To make sure you’re all right, and to tell you he plans to beat you to a pulp tomorrow for not calling him at home right away!”
“Oh boy,” Tom groaned. “He flew back from Mexico City this afternoon! Forgot all about it. Earthquakes can be a real distraction! But anyway―!” He turned menacingly toward his father, and everyone burst out laughing.
“Don’t be offended, Thomas,” commented Bashalli smoothly, “but really, don’t you deserve this? You’ve rather neglected us lately, what with all your running around to Yucatan, to the underwater city, to the Arctic ocean― ”
“And almost to Venus, don’t forget,” Mr. Swift added. “In a good cause, of course.”
Tom held up his hands. “I apologize to everyone for everything I’ve ever done in my entire short life. Now give, before I explode!”
In reply Mr. Swift stepped over to a table and took up a large sheaf of fanfold paper, covered with printing. “Son, all this came through the magnifying antenna just minutes after you and Hank left this afternoon. Omicron Kupp and I, and the rest of the translation team, have been working on it since. This seems to be a fair approximation, though many of the symbols are new—not in the space dictionary. Still, it foretells an astounding event. It will be the biggest scientific challenge we’ve ever faced!”
Quite a pronouncement! With a gulp Tom took the sheet and spread it out flat on the dinner table. It was covered with rows of clustered figures which Tom knew represented mathematical and logical concepts—a universal language the space friends utilized to exchange ideas with the human species. Beneath the array of symbols was the tentative translation into English.
TO EARTH CONTACT SWIFT. WE ARE TRANSMITTING TO YOUR SOLAR VICINITY AN ENERGY BRAIN TO ASSIMILATE DATA ON PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT AND HABITAT PRINCIPLES OF EARTH. WITHIN PLANETARY LOCUS IT IS BEYOND OUR CONTROL AND WILL FUNCTION INDEPENDENTLY. WE WILL TRANSMIT TO YOU PARAMETERS FOR CREATING STABILIZING CONTAINING UNIT TO SUSTAIN THE ENERGY MATRIX FOR DURATION. YOU WILL SOLVE FOR SENSOR AND MEASURING INSTRUMENTATION PARALLEL TO PROCESSES ACCESSED BY LIFEFORM HUMAN. ENERGY BRAIN WILL RETURN TO US AT COMPLETION. IF YOU INDICATE ACCEPTANCE WE WILL PROVIDE REQUIRED INFORMATION.
“Good night!” Tom whispered. “I’ll say it’s a challenge!” He looked up at his father. “But Dad, do you realize this message isn’t from our space friends?”
“Huh?” reacted Sandy in surprise. “Do you mean it’s a fake?”
“Not at all,” Damon Swift responded. “It’s just not from our usual communicators, the scientists stationed in our solar system.”
Tom explained. “Those folks usually begin any initial contact message by using the symbols that we translate as ‘we are friends’. This message doesn’t.”
“I’m assuming it comes directly from the X-ians,” Mr. Swift pronounced. “That’s a reasonable conclusion at this stage, anyway.”
“And who are these X-ians?” Bashalli asked.
“Well,” said Tom, “it’s a little complicated, Bash. You already know the basics, of course.”
“Yes, for once do skip the part about the first missile with the inscriptions, and how you began using the—what is it? The radio device?”
“The imaging oscilloscope.” For some time, as in the present instance, the space beings had sent their symbols to Earth on an established radio frequency, the signal input translated into visual form by computer.
Initial contact had been with a friendly group of scientists who, it was thought, had a scientific base in orbit around the planet Mars. But these beings did not originate on Mars, or even within Earth’s solar system. They were expeditioners from a distant, unidentified world circling another sun somewhere in galactic space. The Swifts had arbitrarily translated the symbol for this home planet as “Planet X,” and its inhabitants inevitably became known as the X-ians.
“We’ve always assumed our space friends—the neighborhood crew—are of the same species as those on Planet X,” Tom continued. “But the exact relationship between themselves and the X-ians is one of the many things they can’t—or won’t—explain to us.”
Mr. Swift now picked up the thread of explanation. “We learned, in connection with the Challenger moon mission, that the space friends regard the X-ians as dominating or controlling them with something like absolute power—the symbol they use can be translated as something like ‘our superiors’ or even ‘our masters’! The local scientists do not always approve of the methods of the Masters in their pursuit of knowledge about our Earth and our human species.”
“The X-ians seem to have little regard for what we think of as our own well-being,” added Tom soberly. “And that means this new project may involve real danger to Earth.”
“But surely you can decline their offer, can you not?” Bashalli objected. “They seem to be giving you that option.”
Tom shrugged. “‘Seem’ is the key word, Bashalli. It may be a nuance wrongly introduced by a faulty translation. What if they didn’t really say if, but when? We do know from previous instances that once the Masters set something into operation, our space friends are prevented from blocking it even if they want to.”
There was a long moment of thoughtful silence. Sandy was no longer lighthearted, but uneasy and vaguely frightened. “When that rocket-capsule flew over Shopton, the one you went after in your seacopter, we were all pretty scared,” she said softly with a glance at her mother and Bashalli. “This may be worse!”
“Yet it’s an incredible opportunity for science, and for humanity,” her father pointed out. “It would be hard to justify not moving forward with it.”
Sandy nodded. “I know, Daddy. Don’t mind me. I’ll be a ‘Swift’ about it—you’ll see.”
“We know you will, darling,” declared Mrs. Swift reassuringly.
“As despite all efforts I cannot quite manage to be a Swift, I intend to be a mere ‘Prandit’ about it,” Bash stated with a wry look. “But what will this visitor be like? What is an energy brain?”
Tom shook his head. “No clue, not yet. The message doesn’t say how, or in what form, the energy will arrive. It must be some sort of artificial device—a thinking computer of pure energy, maybe. And we’ve got to give it a ‘body’ of some kind, a container to sustain the energy in a stable form, and to allow it to collect impressions of Earth just as we humans do. And to allow it to communicate with us directly—just imagine!”
“We’ll learn further details after we transmit our acceptance,” Mr. Swift declared. “Which sounds like a job for tomorrow.”
A concluding segment of the received message had indicated how the response was to be transmitted. The Swifts’ grateful acceptance passed through the magnifying antenna and into interstellar space first thing the following morning. “I can’t understand how our radio signals, which only travel at the speed of light, can reach a planet in a star-system light years away,” commented Nels Gachter, Enterprises’ chief of communications science who was assigned to the space oscilloscope monitoring setup. “Yet it seems they know what we’re saying within hours—even minutes!”
“The X-ians have learned how to control space and time in ways we can’t imagine,” Tom replied. “For all we know, Nels, they may receive our messages years in the future—then send the reply back through time to the present!”
“Right. And by continuing to talk with them, someday we’ll learn how to do the impossible!”
Tom and his father waited in their shared office for a response, but by midmorning nothing had been received. After Mr. Swift had left to take care of some pressing responsibilities, Tom’s anxious wait was interrupted by Munford Trent, their secretary and receptionist. “Gerrold Funtz is outside asking to speak with you.”
Tom’s brow creased. “Who’s Gerrold Funtz?”
“The Enterprises greensman.”
“Head landscape architect, gardener, and glorified lawnboy. Can you see him? He’s making a pest of himself.”
Funtz was a fiftyish man, his skin dark and sun-wrinkled. He wore khaki workclothes smeared with dirt and stained green by grass. The workclothes appeared stiff enough to be able to walk by themselves. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Swift. Just got a question for you. Little bitty question.”
“About our landscaping?” asked Tom politely.
“About my job! If you and your father plan to let me go, I think I have a right to be told about it right to my face.”
The young inventor was baffled. “What do you mean? Has Personnel told you― ”
“Aaa, forget Personnel!” the man snapped. “It’s Minerva Tavrish, I know it! She’s been on my back since she became chief of plant operations last year. What’s that old bag been saying about me? Whatever it is, she’s just spittin’ teeth!”
Tom spent a moment collecting his thoughts. “Please stay calm, Mr. Funtz. I really have no idea what you’re referring to.”
“Then maybe you haven’t looked out your window this morning.” Funtz strode over to the wall-spanning picture window and beckoned for Tom to join him. “I come in to do my job, and I find that! If I’m still the lawn decor go-to guy around here—well, you shoulda asked me to sign off on it first, right? Don’t that sound sort of reasonable, Mr. Swift?”
Tom looked, then looked again, unbelieving. Viewed from a multistory height, the broad, well-tended green lawn separating the administration building from its neighbor was criss-crossed with strange markings in a lighter color—curves and bands that hadn’t been there the day previous!
“Good grief, Mr. Funtz, is this some kind of practical joke?”
Funtz snorted in disgust. “Whatever it is, I wouldn’t call it professional lawn decoration. How’m I supposed to deal with that kind of a mess?”
But Tom couldn’t tear his eyes from the sight below. “Mr. Funtz, that mess—it’s the space symbols used by the extraterrestrials—the people from Planet X!”
HARLAN Ames didn’t approach the lawn defacement as a possible prank. His face was wooden, his voice sober and thoughtful. “Of course the first thing I did was check the recordings from the security videocams,” he stated. “There are two covering this lawn area, continuously. One with a close focus, one wide and further off. At three AM, both failed at the exact same moment—blanked out for the rest of the night. I had an e-mail about it waiting for me when I came in, but I assumed it was just a mechanical problem of some kind. Obviously I should have investigated immediately.”
The lean, hard-edged chief of Enterprises security knelt down next to Tom as they examined the bizarre phenomenon in the pale midday sun. Each of the starkly-etched bands was about a foot wide, the edges sharp and even, the lines and curves perfectly formed. Ames ran a palm across one of the markings. “As you can see, the grass hasn’t been cut or flattened out. It’s been discolored.”
“I had the chem team do an analysis first thing,” Tom said. “We’ve looked at the blades under the microscope, and used the Swift Spectroscope as well.” He shot the older man a sheepish look. “Sorry not to have called you immediately, Harlan. I got a little impatient—I wanted answers.”
“So do I,” declared Ames. “What did your analysis turn up?”
“Nothing that explains anything. No trace of unusual chemicals. No poisons or acids.”
“Couldn’t extreme heat have done this, Tom? Something like a focused laser or microwave set-up?”
The young inventor gave a shake of his head. “There’s no charring, no carbonization. The grass is desiccated, depleted of all water content—yet there was no evolution of steam inside the blades. It’s as if the individual cellulose fibers were degraded by some external phenomenon.”
“Some kind of structural deterioration, you mean? The cell materials got scrambled?”
“No.” Tom struggled to find the right words. “Not so much scrambled as—well, fused together. Segments of the cell walls have physically merged with the neighboring walls, and the chlorophyll strings have ‘unwound’. That’s why the grass has lost its color. The closest thing I can compare it to is anomalous aging.”
“All right. I see,” Ames said. “Except—I don’t see! Do you know of anything that could cause such aging?”
Tom shrugged, but it was a shrug that bespoke not only mystification but dread. “Possibly, but I don’t like to think of the implications. Neutron bombardment!”
“Like the so-called neutron bomb. Is that what you’re saying, boss?”
The youth did not respond to the question, which Ames took as reluctant confirmation of a possibility too terrible to think about. After a moment of staring at the figures, Tom broke the silence. “And I’m also reminded of something really far out, something I read about. You’ve heard of the famous ‘Shroud of Turin,’ the holy image, centuries old, formed on a piece of cloth by some unknown process? Under the microscope the affected cloth fibers show the same effect!”
The former Secret Service agent surprised Tom by smiling. “Well, religious miracles are a little out of my line. But if these markings are space symbols, then obviously the extraterrestrials must be behind it.”
“If so,” Tom responded, “it’s sure a peculiar way to deliver a message, even for the X-ians. We can’t rule it out, though. They don’t think the way we do.”
Noting the questioning looks from employees as they filed past the yellow tape border that Security had set up to keep the curious off the grass, Tom motioned for Harlan Ames to walk with him back into the administration building. Asked Ames: “Have you been able to translate the symbols, Tom?”
“Unfortunately no,” replied the young inventor. “You see, the symbols express basic concepts, and the spatial arrangement of the symbols one to another—the overall form—modifies the concepts and links them into a complete thought, like a sentence in our kind of writing. But this set of symbols is incomplete, as if the process creating it was interrupted midway through. So it’s as if you were trying to read a written sentence missing four words out of every five!”
“Then all we can do for now is try to dope out what happened to our videocams at three AM this morning,” pronounced Ames. “They’ve been removed, and Hanson is studying them.” Arvid Hanson was not only the Swifts’ chief modelmaker and prototype constructor, but a trained and gifted technician and design engineer.
As noon approached, Tom joined Bud Barclay for lunch in the dinette adjoining one of Tom’s labs. The athletic, dark-haired pilot, who was Tom’s age, demanded every detail of the dire, thrilling, mysterious happenings of the 24 hours preceding. “Let’s see now—a big quake in Thessaly, a visitor from Planet X looking for a body, and a new bunch of those brain-breaking space symbols inscribed on a lawn by invisible alien gremlins.” Bud smiled at his pal. “In other words, business as usual in the life of Swift Enterprises and its big-headed head genius.”
“A lot to take in, flyboy,” Tom acknowledged. “See what happens when you fly away for days at a time?”
Bud laughed. “Right. But I didn’t have much choice down there but to hang around and watch jai alai and those TV telenovélas—which aren’t too bad, actually. Must be even better if you speak Spanish! Professor Castillez had to haggle with the higher-ups before he got official permission to lend out the carvings.” Connected to the Mexican government and the University of Mexico, Castillez had participated in Tom’s recent work in Yucatan, where he had used his retroscope camera to investigate ancient Mayan carvings and artifacts. Castillez had subsequently asked Enterprises to perform further tests on some of the objects that University archaeologists had uncovered after the departure of the Enterprises team. Bud had jetted to Mexico City to convey the priceless objects back to Shopton.
A vocal foghorn blast now heralded the arrival of Chow Winkler bearing a soup-and-sandwich lunch. “Wa-aal, if this don’t beat all! Swift an’ Barclay t’gether again!” The round ex-Texan, a close and colorful friend to both youths, set down his tray on the dinette table. “So t’ honor the grand o’casion, I whipped up some special stew fer ya.”
“Rattlesnake again?” Bud teased.
“Gila monster! –Naw, jest funnin’ ya, buddy boy. Sauteed turnip an’ seasoned carrot.” The cook, some thirty years older and a couple feet wider than his young friends, ladled out his latest creation.
Tom sipped. “Tastes great! Spicy.”
“Uh huh.” Chow paused, looking querulously back and forth between Tom and Bud. “Now say, what’s th’ matter with you two boys?”
“What do you mean?” asked Tom.
“Brand my spectrum! You don’t think this new shirt o’ mine is worth a few jokes?” Chow pretended to look hurt, eyes crinkled affectionately. His western-style shirts were always XXL festivals of eye-popping coloration. The current edition somehow married black and pink to turquoise splotches that revealed themselves, on close inspection, to be the bleached skulls of unfortunate steers.
Bud winked at Tom and pretended to feel in his shirt pocket. “Had my next quip written down on a slip of paper—must be in my other shirt. But I’ll work on it, wrangler man!”
Chow sat down at the table, chatting with Tom and Bud as the boys lunched. “Heard about that there earthquake,” commented the former ranch cook. “But they say there’s shakin’ goin’ on all the time, some place ’r other in the world.”
Bud asked Tom if there were a known earth fault in the Thessaly area. “No, and that’s what’s strange about it,” Tom responded. “When Dad and I were first testing out our lithosonde device, we surveyed this whole area for hundreds of miles around—including straight down. No class-three lateral fractures anywhere.”
“Well,” Bud said, “I guess this stuff can’t always be predicted.”
Tom nodded. “True, not yet.”
“That there Pakker-stan earthquake shor was a terrible thing,” Chow put in. “An’ then there ’as the big wave in th’ Injin Ocean that drowned all them folks.”
“At least those were definitely natural events,” said Tom in a thoughtful voice.
Bud lowered his disappearing sandwich to look at his pal with raised eyebrows. “What are you hinting, genius boy? You think the Wickliffe quake wasn’t a real quake?”
“It was a quake, pal. The question is, what caused it? Even setting aside the absence of a known fault, and the way the temblor seemed to be narrowly focused in one little area—there’s another odd thing that’s been on my mind.”
“Odder than Chow’s new shirt?”
The cook snorted. “There ya go! Now I kin rest easy.”
Tom chuckled. “It’s just this,” he continued. “There was quite a lot of glass breakage—the skylights in the assembly building, a whole wall of windows in another building, even the car windshields in the parking lot.”
Bud shrugged. “So?”
“So where was the glass?”
“Whatcha mean by that, boss?” demanded Chow with widening eyes.
Tom rubbed his chin. “I noticed that the shards of glass from the skylights weren’t on the floor under the skylights, but piled up against one of the walls. The window glass ended up about a hundred feet away from the base of the building, and the auto glass was all at the edge of the parking lot, almost all the way to the road.”
“Yeah. Hmm.” Bud looked puzzled. “You think somebody was carting it away or something?”
“C’mon, Bud, how could they do that without being seen?” Tom retorted. “We were only knocked out for a few minutes.”
“That’s right as prairie rain,” noted Chow excitedly. “So who did it, son? More o’ them grass-gremlins?”
The young inventor shook his head, his eyes bright with the thrill of a mystery. “Not a who, pard—a what! Some kind of invisible force or energy pushed the fragments sideways as they fell, and maybe even combined with the earth tremor to cause the breakage in the first place. And you know what I think, guys? I think that same ‘something’ also blanked out the cameras and inscribed the markings on the lawn!”
His mind racing, Bud half stood. “So whatever it is is bad for glass—and grass too!”
“Ye-aah,” gulped Chow Winkler. “An’ if it kin do all that, it cain’t be s’ good fer us people, no-how-neither!”
The long day ended without any answer from deep space. However, Arvid Hanson was able to provide Tom and Ames with a report on the malfunctioning videocams. “Best I can tell, something entered through the lens and washed out the photoreceptor array—overloaded it and burned it out, basically. Which is pretty simple, I guess. But if you want to know just what it was, I have no idea. Some sort of radiant energy, but without heat.”
“Thanks, Arv.” Tom was appreciative but left the conclave troubled by the lack of progress.
After work, Tom drove into Shopton to visit Bashalli at The Glass Cat coffee house, which was owned by her older brother. Tom enjoyed it as a social call, but had another motive as well. “I guess we didn’t really explain to you that our ‘special visitor’ should be kept a secret for now—until he’s on his way back home. We’re keeping the authorities posted, of course, but― ”
“But there are the usual spies and bad people everywhere, as always,” Bashalli concluded. “This I have already considered, and in consequence I have curbed my tongue.” She nodded teasingly at a man nibbling a croissant on the other side of the room, beyond the range of their low voices. “Does he not look suspicious, Thomas? Perhaps he has an eavesdropping device concealed in his paper coffee cup!”
“Very funny,” retorted Tom. “But thanks.”
The dark young Pakistani leaned close. “Speaking of our visitor, do tell me—what sort of body will you give it? Perhaps a beautiful, superintelligent space girl for you to moon over?” As Tom chuckled at the notion, she added, “But nothing doing! I insist on a terribly handsome young man who’d have time to take a nice earth girl out on a date! For after all, I do have a great deal of data to share with him.”
“Ouch!” Tom pretended to wince. “Guess I left myself wide open for that one! Bud and I really neglect you girls, don’t we.”
“Oh, Tom, it’s not so very bad. But you ought to realize,” she continued mischievously, “in my country we practice our own form of voodoo. If you wish no further earthquakes, you must start to behave!”
Tom was still smiling at Bashalli’s repartee as he swung out of the alley next to The Glass Cat, where he had parked, and headed homeward in his low-slung sports car.
Think I’ll listen to the news, Tom thought as he drove at a relaxed pace through the streets of Shopton. He switched on his dashboard radio.
A moment later the announcer’s voice came crisply through the car’s set of highest-tech surround-speakers. “Casualties from yesterday’s disastrous earthquake now total thirty-one with serious injuries,” the announcer reported. “Most of these are employees of Wickliffe Laboratories of Thessaly and four, including CEO Munson Wickliffe, remain in critical condition. There is one note of cheer, however. At last report, Mark Faber, the president of the company electronics division, is now expected to recover.” Tom gave a thankful sigh of relief.
He was mulling over the matter as he drove along, when a sound reached his ears—a thumping metallic sound. Engine trouble? But the rhythmic noise seemed to be coming from the rear of the car, somewhere behind the seatback. He took a side street and parked next to the grassy recreation area that paralleled the shore of Lake Carlopa. If it’s a brake problem, I’ll have to call home and let ’em know I’ll be late, he murmured to himself. Maybe it’s just something rolling around in the trunk.
He popped the trunk open—then drew back in shocked surprise as a concealed figure lurched up from within and leaned toward Tom!
He held a long knife in his hand!
THE STRANGER held the knife, long and narrow as a knitting needle, with its tip at Tom’s throat. “Don’t move. Keep quiet and act natural. We’re not going to attract any attention, are we?” The question seemed to be rhetorical.
“I recognize you,” Tom muttered quietly and calmly. “You were in The Glass Cat.” The man had left unnoticed while he and Bashalli had been talking—evidently to seal himself in Tom’s trunk!
“Shut up!” the stranger snarled. “This knife has been dipped in a paralyzing nerve agent. Four inches and it’s inside your throat!” Keeping the knifepoint close, the man cautiously slid himself out of the trunk and onto his feet. “Slam the trunk and get into the car from the passenger side. I’m right behind you.”
In a minute Tom was driving slowly in the direction of Swift Enterprises. “You think you know everything, don’t you, Swift. But you can’t even begin to know what’s really goin’ down. You’re going to learn a lot more about the real world in just a little while.”
“Learning is a wonderful thing,” Tom’s bravado spoke up. “How did you know I’d be in the coffeehouse?”
“Let’s just say your radio stereo system knows how to give as well as receive,” the man replied. “I been tracking your movements for a week now, waiting for you to park someplace where I could climb in without bein’ seen. Can’t work it at your plant or your house, not with all those security sensors. Hard enough t’ kill the electronics in the trunk lid.”
Tom nodded. “Very clever. I’ve had a lot of trouble in this car—now I know why they say most accidents happen within ten miles of home! So what is it you want, mister?”
“Take me inside the grounds of Swift Enterprises,” he commanded in a voice low and unforgiving. “And no tricks or they’ll find a dead man at the wheel!”
Tom, astonished, stared sidelong at the stranger. “Who are you?” the young inventor demanded.
“Never mind who I am. Just do as I say!” By this time Tom had recovered from his surprise and coolly sized up his enemy. The man was about thirty years old, with close-cropped black hair. Steely eyes glinted in a lean, hard-jawed face.
Tom wondered, Should I risk a fight?
As if in answer, the stranger growled, “I gave you an order, Mr. Blue Eyes. Don’t press your luck! Get going!”
The young inventor drove on, but proceeded slowly. He wanted time to think. Presently Swift Enterprises, enclosed by a high wall, came into view alongside the country highway.
Tom’s brain was working fast. At last he decided on a ruse. He would head for the main gate and use his electronic beeper-key to gain entrance without waiting for the guard to admit him. This violation of established procedures would prompt the gate guard to press a button to alert the Swift security force.
But the stranger seemed to read his thoughts. As Tom started to turn off toward the main gate, his passenger snapped, “Go to the private gate which you and your father use!”
“And if I refuse?”
The knife tip poked against his collar. “Simple. I shove your limp body aside and guide the car to a stop. I will then let myself in with your key!”
Tight-lipped, Tom drove on another half mile, then turned onto the narrow drive leading to the private gate. The sturdy gate slid aside in response to the car’s transponder, then closed again automatically after the car passed through.
Tom parked in his usual spot. The stranger kept the weapon angled at Tom, still covering Tom while glancing around cautiously. As they got out, the man slid the knife up his forearm inside the end of his shirtsleeve. “I can twist it out in half a second. So stay close, move slow, and let’s take a walk toward the― ”
Suddenly the stranger stiffened. A paunchy, bowlegged figure, topped by a white Texas ten-galloner, was coming straight toward them. Tom’s heart gave a leap of hope.
“Hi, boss!” Chow bellowed in his foghorn voice. “Saw you drive in. Fergit somethin’, didja?”
Tom nodded. “Sure did, pardner. Good to see you. Been a while, hmm?”
This comment puzzled Chow and creased his brow. He turned his attention to the man next to Tom. “S’ who’s this new buckaroo?” the cook asked, squinting at the stranger with open, friendly curiosity.
“Why actually I don’t know his name yet, but he’s looking for a job,” Tom replied. Turning to the stranger, he added, “What is your name, mister?”
The stranger glared from Tom to Chow, as if not certain what to answer.
Chow’s eyes narrowed. He had detected something strange in the way Tom addressed the fellow, and had also noticed how the man kept one arm hidden behind him. Looking to Tom for a lead, Chow suddenly noticed the young inventor waggle an eyebrow.
“My name? Al.” The man’s voice fell to a mumble, obscuring the syllables. “Frankly I’m not yet sure I want a job here, but being an engineer, I thought perhaps― ”
The man’s gaze switched back to Tom, and in that instant Chow jumped the intruder. With surprising agility for his ample bulk, the cook bore down on him and let fly a gnarled ham-fist at the stranger’s jaw. Tom followed up like lightning, grabbing the man’s wrist and shaking the deadly knife from his sleeve. He let it fall to the asphalt.
Chow quickly pinned his other arm in the small of his back, and the man yelped. “Jest keep yerself quiet now, you varmint, or you may git roughed up a bit,” Chow warned. Then he added, “I’m a Texan! Who is he, Tom?”
“Search me. Sure knows how to talk big, though.” The young inventor quickly explained what had happened. “Boy, was I ever glad to see you, old-timer!”
Tom searched the stranger while Chow continued holding him helpless, though the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Tom opened up the man’s wallet. “What do you know, his name really is Al—Alfred Wullgrath. Am I pronouncing it right?” He searched the man’s pockets further, and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “‘Free character analysis now offered Sunday mornings at Fort Shopton. Family fun! Isn’t it time you learned the truth about Informatics?’”
“Can’t make much o’ that,” Chow commented. “Never heard of Fort Shopton.”
“Our meeting hall in this town,” muttered the man sullenly. “In each town we call it Fort Something—it’s a fortress of truth against fear. See?”
“Brand my tumbleweed salad,” Chow grumbled in disgust, “this here poke’s crazy as a cactus!” The man mumbled something angrily under his breath. Chow merely yanked harder on his arm. “What’ll we do with him, boss?”
“I think you can let up on old Al, Chow,” Tom said. “Security should be here any second.”
“Our friend doesn’t have one of our electronic amulets on him,” Tom pointed out. “He’s been making blips all over the security ground radar since we drove through the gate!” He couldn’t resist giving Wullgrath a smug look.
Even as he spoke, Tom glimpsed a pair of electric nanocars speeding toward them in the distance. A security squad was coming to investigate the patrolscope “bogie.”
As Chow released the man, he stretched his arm with a grimace. Then, without warning, he suddenly slammed the cook square in the stomach with his fist. With a gasp Chow was knocked sprawling!
Before Tom could counter the surprise attack, the man’s fist cracked against his cheekbone. Tom, though stunned, lashed out. More punches flew back and forth. Tom landed a stinging blow to his opponent’s midriff, then took a punishing one himself.
As he staggered back Tom felt the stranger’s hand clawing at his pocket for the electronic key to the main gate. With all his wiry strength, Tom locked his arms around the man and wrestled him to the ground.
The stranger fought like a tiger—until Chow sat down on him. Then he fought more like a flopping fish. A second later the nanocars screeched to a stop. Three security guards, led by stocky Phil Radnor, leapt toward the helpless intruder. Within moments they had the man cuffed and subdued.
Tom quickly briefed the security men on what had happened.
“All right, mister, start talking!” snapped Radnor, Harlan Ames’s assistant, who often worked the evening shift at Enterprises.
The man’s only reply was a scowl of rage. “Okay, take Mr. Wullgrath away till he cools off,” Tom ordered. “He can wait for Shopton PD in our pleasant, informal plant jailhouse. It’s our own onsite fortress, Al.”
Disheveled and still panting, the man was bundled onto one of the cars and driven off to the security operations building. “I’ll call Harl and Captain Rock,” said Radnor.
“Thanks, Rad. As for me, I’m heading home.” Tom thanked Chow warmly, then returned to his car.
Late at night, as Tom undressed for bed in his room, he emptied his pockets onto the top of his nightstand. Pulling out a folded sheet of paper, he opened it curiously and read it in the light from his bedside lamp.
“...the truth about Informatics ... ”
“Oh, gosh,” he muttered to himself. “I forgot to give this to Phil Radnor.” He knew it might constitute important evidence as to Wullgrath’s foiled intentions on the grounds of the plant.
Like nearly everyone, Tom had heard of Informatics. And like nearly everyone, what he had heard was constructed more of rumor and innuendo than solid fact. He knew it was an organization organized as a religious association. Some called it a church; most called it a cult—or even a swindle. More than one tabloid celebrity proclaimed membership. It was rumored that some had been paid to do so.
Tom switched on his desk computer and accessed the Net. In moments he was scrutinizing the group’s website—impressive, colorful, animated, and in its way, seductive.
Welcome to your friendly new home!
THE WORLD CHURCH OF
INFORMATICS SOUL SCIENCE
franchise opportunities available!
“I get the picture,” Tom said to himself in disgust. “Fleecing the public in the name of faith.”
The next morning, at the suggestion of Harlan Ames, Tom called Captain Rock of the Shopton Police Department, a family friend for many years. “Wullgrath is facing quite an array of charges, Tom—kidnapping, attempted grand theft auto, lying in concealment to commit a felony, trespassing, assault upon a cowboy—unfortunately we’ve lost any charges related to his weapon.”
“Yes,” Tom said. “Harlan told me that his knife turned out to be a harmless prop.”
“Tinfoil over foamcore, darn it. But the news right now is, he made bail. And the amount was pretty substantial.”
“Paid it himself?”
“No,” Rock replied. “Paid in cash by this organization he belongs to, the― ”
Tom interrupted. “I can guess. The World Church of Informatics Soul Science.”
“Exactly, my friend, ex-actly.” The officer snorted telephonically. “We’ve been keeping an eye on them since they set up shop—they call their church a ‘fort’—in the old Regalia Theater at Grantwood Beach. Man! I saw movies there when I was your age.”
The young inventor chuckled, then asked Captain Rock if the church had caused any problems in Shopton. “No, I guess I can’t say they have ... ” His voice trailed off, inviting a further question.
Tom asked if there were more to the story, and Rock continued. “Tom, I’ve been a peace officer for near forty years now, and I know when I smell something not quite right. The church pastor, Speaker Scott Anderman, came to see me even before they purchased the building. He wanted to answer questions and reassure me, kind of keep things smooth. Nice of him, eh? But over the last ten years or so, these Informatics people have had trouble with the law here and there. Suspected embezzlement, tax violations, making threats against dissenting members, lots o’ things. And believe me, they have a team of good lawyers and know the ins and outs of the legal system—say a discouraging word about ’em in public and they sue the pants off you!”
“Wow!” the youth gulped. “But have they done anything like that here in Shopton?”
“Well, no. But there’ve been some incidents I find... odd.” Captain Rock hesitated, involuntarily lowering his voice. “They’ve only been open for business for a few months, and already eight of their members—well known Shopton citizens who’ve joined the church, upstanding folks—have been charged with shoplifting in town. Piddly stuff, I’ll admit. But three of those eight were apprehended during storefront and home break-ins and charged with attempted burglary!”
“I’ll bet the Church bailed them out,” commented Tom.
“Sure did. And as a matter of fact, there have been other local burglaries recently with similar MO’s, so far unsolved. When you get a rash of this stuff in the span of a few weeks―!”
“Right. And Mr. Wullgrath may have been planning some sort of theft last night, at Enterprises. It couldn’t possibly have worked, though, not with our security setup. He was dumb to think it could pull it off.”
“Dumb? My opinion, these folks are nuts!” the captain grumbled. “Just my personal opinion, naturally. I have nothing against anyone’s religion but my own.”
But when Tom clicked off the phone, he couldn’t stop thinking of the intent look on Wullgrath’s face, the fierce energy with which he resisted capture.
“Crazy they may be,” the youth murmured to the inert phone in his hand. “But something tells me we have a lot more to worry about than tinfoil weapons!”
IT WAS later that morning that Tom, working in his design lab on the problem of creating a mobile container for the energy brain, received the welcome news that a response from the X-ians had been received at last.
“We just finished receiving it, but your Dad was here and had a chance to look it over,” Nels Gachter reported. “He was anxious to get the preliminary translation to you.”
“That’s great!” Tom enthused. “Now I can work on something more than vague notions! What was the content of the message?”
“Listen, I’ll read it to you—the first part, anyway.”
TO EARTH CONTACT SWIFT. WE ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR POSITIVE CONCLUSION. ENERGY BRAIN IS NOW IN TRANSIT AND WILL PENETRATE EARTH GASEOUS ENVELOPE IN 6.52 AXIS ROTATIONS. NECESSARY PHYSICAL PARAMETERS NOW FOLLOW.
Tom couldn’t help gasping softly. “Six and a half days!”
Gachter chuckled. “Like father, like son! Your Dad’s reaction was louder. Still, he said to tell you that the parameter data is extensive. Basically, you’ll just be working from their blueprints.”
Tom, however, was not certain of this. The inhabitants of distant Planet X clearly knew the details of their own creation. But it was up to Earthly scientists to give the visitor the power to engage with an environment that was, apparently, radically different from that of his mysterious creators.
After the parameter details had been sent to Tom, he sat almost motionless for a time, studying them. How in the world do I begin? he asked himself.
Finally his youthful brain began to percolate and the magic of his scientific intuitions took over. The computer-like “space brain” was evidently a four-dimensional pattern of self-reinforcing energy, inscribed directly upon the fabric of spacetime and stable at the quantum level. The X-ians seemed to be indicating that modulations of the different segments of its peripheral “shell”—composed of dense motes of charged particles twined together by looped cords of electromagnetism—would be directly grasped by the entity, not merely as coded data but as something like a conscious experience. So the first thing to do is design receptor ‘organs’ that can respond to specific factors in the environment, like the five basic human senses, Tom thought as he pulled out his “sketch” notebook.
Like the space beings, Tom Swift had discovered how to manipulate the flow of spacetime. His method was to ignore it by means of deep concentration. The morning hours passed unnoticed.
“Chow down!” boomed a foghorn voice. Chow Winkler, wearing a white chef’s hat, wheeled a lunch cart into the lab.
“Oh, hi Chow... thanks.” Tom scarcely looked up from his work as the cook set out an appetizing meal of Texas hash, milk, and deep-dish apple pie on the bench beside the young inventor’s papers and computer keyboard. Grumbling under his breath, well-aware that his grumbling would go utterly unheard, Chow sauntered out.
In the manner of a robot fueling itself automatically, Tom went on working intently between mouthfuls. In another hour he had finished a set of pilot drawings. The young scientist-inventor frowned as he studied the rough sketches he had drawn. “This setup’s full of bugs!” he muttered. His progress seemed minimal.
Nevertheless, Tom decided, the basic idea was sound. Grabbing pencil and hand calculator, he began to dash off page after page of diagrams and engineering equations. Near the end of the day, though Tom hardly knew it, he called Hank Sterling and Arvid Hanson and asked them to come to the laboratory.
They listened with keen interest as Tom explained his early concepts in great technical and theoretical detail. “This is a case where we can’t really perform advance tests to fine-tune the approach, obviously. No telling if it will work when the energy arrives from space,” Tom said. “But I think everything tracks okay with the data from the space message. Hank, get these concepts blueprinted and assign an electronics group to the project. You’d better handle the hardware yourself.”
“Right.” Hank rolled up the blown-up copies Tom had made of his notebook pages. “I’ll also ask Dean Stegner from Life Sciences to go over them with me, since the goal is to emulate basic human sense processes. They’ve been doing emulation work in connection with AI stuff.”
“Great idea. And Arv,” Tom went on, “I’d like a scale model made to guide them on assembly when they get to that phase of things. How soon can you have it?”
Hanson promised the model for sometime the next day, and the two men hurried off. Their young boss had signaled, by his brusqueness, the tremendous importance of the project at hand.
As five o’clock crept toward six, Tom reminded himself of the need to record the day’s tasks and progress in his encrypted computer journal, which only he and his father had access to. He worked carefully for some time, then paused for long moments, staring at the screen. Was the entry finished?
Suddenly he stiffened, eyebrows lifted in surprise. Words not written by him had flashed onto the glowing screen!
NEWS TO PUBLIC TOMORROW
“Collections!” gasped Tom.
When Tom had first begun to venture into space, an ultra-secretive government group, now nicknamed Collections, had made contact with him to warn him of dangers and developments in the shadow world of foreign affairs and international espionage. They had some sort of high-tech means of accessing Tom’s personal files and communicating interactively via any computer he chose to utilize. Incredibly, it sometimes seemed that his primary contact, who had accepted the monicker “the Taxman,” could actually see and hear the young inventor at his keyboard!
The Taxman—evidently a team of specialists alternating in the role, not just a single individual—rarely intervened in matters other than those related to space exploration and national defense. He had last contacted Tom when the space friends had directed Tom to a rendezvous, on the moon, with a vessel containing extraterrestrial animals.
Tom typed, “Where were you jokers when I was trying to find Li Ching and the stolen ship?” He was referring to a recent deadly affair that had endangered many lives, Tom’s and Bud’s included. His attempts to contact Collections had then gone unanswered.
DOESNT MATTER NOW
COUP WILL IMPACT VISITOR PROJECT
Visitor project! “You mean our brainy guest?”
COULD CHANGE OUR WORLD
SENTIMENTALISTS NOW IN CONTROL
Tom frowned deeply. This was a new angle. He knew the government of the European country of Brungaria—formerly a totalitarian state hostile to the West, now democratic and nominally friendly—had been threatened by a faction of internal plotters who termed themselves The Sentimentalists. “We were sure that group had been smashed!” he entered.
ACTIVE IN SECRET
The news was dismaying. Tom probed for more information. “How will this coup affect our project here?”
NO MORE TO SAY
And no more was said. As Tom clicked off the computer in frustration, he told himself: “The guy didn’t even use his usual tag-line—your tax dollars at work!” Why had the warning taken such a vague form? Was Collections afraid their own communications might be tapped by the rogue Brungarians?
Then a more unsettling thought popped into his brain. What if the real danger to be guarded against was not the Brungarians, but the Masters from Planet X? Collections knew the details of the Swifts’ space contacts. Perhaps something about the impending visitation was compelling an unusual degree of secrecy!
It was a chilling possibility Tom preferred not to think about.
In the morning, a night of little sleep behind him, Tom sat with his mother at the breakfast table. Mr. Swift had already left for work, and Sandy had a early dental appointment in town.
Tom chatted with his mother about the pending arrival from space. “Goodness, mightn’t it get out of control and be rather overpowering? Suppose it went berserk!” commented Anne Swift.
Both she and Tom became thoughtful as they discussed the problem. “That’s a mighty scary possibility, Mom,” her son agreed, smiling wryly but not reassuringly. “But I trust our space friends wouldn’t let that happen.”
“Yes, but you said this ‘x-man’ isn’t coming from the space friends,” she pointed out.
Tom nodded. “True. But in the past the Mars scientists were willing to slip us a warning when their superiors were—you know, pushing the envelope. All we can do is go forward. After all, nothing prevents the X-ians from shopping elsewhere for Earth contacts if we become difficult or suspicious. We just about have to play along.”
“I understand,” said Mrs. Swift. “And there’s so much to be learned from them. If anything’s worth the risk, this is, surely.”
“Momsy, I agree.” As Tom stood to clear the dishes, he added soberly, “And Dad was sure right the other night, Mom. This is a terrific challenge on all counts.”
Shortly thereafter, as he sat down on the living room sofa to pull on his shoes, Tom flicked on the big TV screen. Instead of the usual morning interview program, a news conference was in progress, and the tone was grim.
A familiar figure, the Secretary of Defense, was speaking. “It now appears,” the man was explaining, “that only one segment was quelled. Other members of the antigovernment movement are active again and are said to be strongly organized.”
“Mr. Secretary, what’s the bottom line here?” asked a reporter. “Does this coup in Brungaria endanger our allies in Europe?”
“We mustn’t jump to hasty conclusions, Jane,” was the reply. “The statement from the White House urged calm and caution, and that’s certainly the attitude where I work, in the Pentagon.” The assembled group laughed as he added: “Matter of fact, we didn’t even interrupt our morning coffee break!”
Yet even as the man spoke, a “breaking news” message was sliding across the bottom of the TV screen. President confirms ouster of democratic government in Brungaria. Rioting engulfs capital city of Volkonis. Border clash reported.
“Oh, Tom, what’s going to happen?” murmured Mrs. Swift softly, watching the news program from the dining room.
“Guess it’s not for us to know, Mom,” Tom responded, trying not to show that he was as concerned as his mother.
When Tom arrived at Enterprises, he found Bud and Chow waiting with Mr. Swift in the administrative building office. “Guess we got a little spooked by that there Brungaria business,” Chow declared. “We had more’n enough trouble with them pesty foreigners on th’ moon!”
“And there’s a real connection with all that, genius boy,” Bud pronounced, grim-faced. “Harlan Ames just got word from his sources in D.C.—the main assistant to this guy Samson Narko, the new President of Brungaria, happens to be our old buddy Nattan Volj!”
Tom groaned, sinking into his chair behind his desk. This was the most disturbing news yet! Nattan Volj, who proffered the title of “professor” but seemed more of a military man than a scientist, had commanded the moon mission launched by the Sentimentalists faction in a race with the Swift Enterprises effort. Striving to gain control of the capsule of alien animal life to use it to develop germ warfare, Volj had treacherously violated a brief truce, attacking Tom’s crew with a volley of missiles before being repulsed into space. There had been no word of him since, nor any confirmation that the faction’s spacecraft, the Dyaune, had successfully returned to Earth.
“If Nattan Volj is now the number two man in Brungaria,” began Mr. Swift, “America can expect a total turnabout in the― ”
Suddenly the desk phone shrilled—a direct inter-office call from George Dilling. Tom’s father an-swered and put it on the speaker. “Damon—Tom—I know a lot’s going on this morning, but I assumed you’d want to hear of this right away. There’s been another unexplained earthquake, a devastating one. The Trumman rocket-engine lab in Ohio has been completely destroyed!”
GEORGE DILLING told the astounded listeners that he had recorded the most recent news reports of the disaster. “I’ll send it to the videophone setup in your office. It’s disturbing stuff.”
Mr. Swift activated the broad curving screen of the videophone unit, one terminal of the private Swift Enterprises telecommunications network. Connected via satellite, the system kept the company well informed of scientific developments and other matters of special interest across the nation.
“Good night! Another quake!” Bud gasped. “What’s going on?” The shaken group rushed to the videophone screen, joining Mr. Swift. Soon a picture appeared on the screen. It was a panoramic shot of a landscape, evidently viewed from a hovering aircraft, with a large industrial plant just below and a busy highway further beyond. At the bottom of the screen was the legend, recorded live by our traffic-copter reporter at 8:12 this morning.
A TV commentator’s voice was reporting developments as the taped sequence played. “As you can see there was no hint of the tremor to come,” he said. “But the scene was quite different three minutes later as our own Dave Kincaid interrupted his traffic video with this harrowing sight.” The tape now cut forward to the later segment, the voice of the pilot-reporter replacing that of the commentator. “...flowing smoothly despite the slight early-morning—unh! Barb, I can see—notice that tall smokestack just over the Trumman plant— see how it’s starting to tremble. I’ve never seen—Barb, it’s beginning to crumble! Holy... This must be it! Earthquake!”
Suddenly the whole scene seemed to explode. Plant buildings collapsed like toy houses built of cards, while at the same time huge slabs of concrete and trees were uprooted as the ground below rolled visibly like long, low ocean waves.
The four watchers in the Swifts’ office stared in horrified dismay. The Trumman Aeroframe plant, big as Swift Enterprises, was disintegrating before their eyes! After a minute the helicopter reporter shifted his camera back to the nearby knot of highways. His voice shaky, he continued: “As you can now see, the arriving rocket-plant personnel and the passing commuters of Medfield are making desperate attempts to escape the wreckage, pulling off the roads to turn back. You can hardly blame them for panicking. I can see that the railway bridge a half-mile down has collapsed, adding to the chaos. Oh—oh! Ladies and gentlemen, there must be another tremor starting up—those high-tension power poles next to the highway look like― ” The reporter’s voice was cut off as the screen filled with static!
The studio commentator’s voice broke in again. “And at that point the picture feed became jerky and distorted, then faded out completely. We now believe our satellite-uplink antenna in Medfield must have been knocked out by the quake.
“As of this hour there have been no further tremors in this area, and we have no information as to injuries or damage. Clearly the incident was centered on the Trumman Aeroframe facility, and the visible destruction was immense. We return you now to our regularly scheduled program, but will keep you informed as bulletins come in.”
“Great balls o’ prairie fire!” Chow whispered as Tom turned off the set. “I shor hope all o’ those poor folks in cars got away safe!”
Tom rushed to a wall cabinet and pulled a bound sheaf of paper from the file drawer. He leafed through it quickly and when he looked up at the others, his face was grim.
“What’s wrong, Skipper?” Bud asked tensely.
“These are the computer ground-mappings from the lithosonde tests,” Tom replied. “Just as I thought, that quake wasn’t in a mapped fault zone any more than the Thessaly one was!”
“An anomalous cause,” muttered Damon Swift. “As far as I know it’s an unprecedented earth phenomenon.”
Chow’s jaw dropped open in a comic look of dismay. “Y-you mean this here ole Earth we live on is gettin’ all busted up an’ twisted around inside?”
“I wish I knew, Chow!” Tom paced worriedly about the office. “It just seems queer to me that both of those quakes should have destroyed vital defense labs linked to space projects!”
“Maybe it’s underground H-bomb blasts—bombs planted by saboteurs!” Bud put in. “That could cause quakes, couldn’t it?”
Tom regarded his pal silently, then finally gave a slight shake of his head. “If this new quake is like the one at Wickliffe Labs, the wave pattern doesn’t jibe with the idea of a bomb explosion. Seismograph readings at Grandyke University showed a gradual buildup of deep-earth movements over the course of several seconds. It felt on the surface like a sharp jolt because the rock strata fractured under pressure—but that was after the initial actions had already begun.”
On a sudden impulse, Tom snatched up the telephone. His two companions listened as he put through a call to the FBI in Washington. Within moments, a friend at the Bureau, section chief Wes Norris, came on the line.
“Look, Wes,” Tom said, “is there any chance this quake that just happened at Medfield and the earlier one at Faber Electronics might have been caused deliberately, perhaps by underground blasts of some kind? What do your experts say about it?”
“As a matter of fact, we’re checking on that very possibility,” Norris replied. “In other words, sabotage. Things are pretty hot around here since that news on Medfield came in, so I can’t talk much right now, Tom. But I can tell you this,” Wes concluded, “we are investigating, and I do mean thoroughly!”
Bud, Chow, and Mr. Swift were shocked when Tom reported his conversation with the FBI agent.
“Brand my rattlesnake stew!” Chow exploded. “Any ornery varmint that’d cause an earthquake ought to be strung up like a hoss thief!”
“I agree, Chow,” Tom said. “But how do we find out for sure? There’s a clue, though,” he added thoughtfully. “If the debris at Trumman shows the same strange effect on glass as we saw at Wickliffe Laboratories―!”
“Tom, if this was deliberate,” Mr. Swift pointed out, “Enterprises may be next on the enemy’s list!”
Bud gulped but nodded vigorously. “They don’t get any bigger than us! And we sure do plenty of important government work.”
Realizing that he had fanned the flames of alarm, Tom did his best to allay the others’ fears. But inwardly he himself felt apprehensive. Any large-scale sabotage plot would be almost certain to include Tom Swift Enterprises, America’s most daring and advanced technology research center.
Chow broke the moment of worried silence. “Got me one o’ those idees o’ mine, boss—bosses,” he said. “Y’know that Al feller who decked me out t’other night? Wa-aal, we never did figger what he was after. Mebbe he was workin’ for the quake-maker, you think?”
“He didn’t have anything on him, Chow,” Tom objected quietly. “Just that phony knife.”
“That’s so,” conceded the westerner. “Jest seemed t’me like a funny co-incerdence.” With a shrug and a thoughtful expression, Chow excused himself and headed for his “chuck wagon”—his kitchen.
Watching his friend leave, Bud snapped his fingers. “But look Tom, the man did have something else on him, you said—that flyer about the nut group in Shopton!”
Mr. Swift commented impatiently, “I can’t see the possibility of a connection. This ‘Informatics’ business is some sort of religious movement. If somehow—incredibly!—these quakes are being produced on demand, it would surely require technology of the most advanced kind conceivable.”
Tom said nothing. A trace of smile dawned on his lips as he looked at Bud. “Tell me something, flyboy. If I tell you not to play spy over at ‘Fort Shopton,’ just how guilty are you going to feel when you go and do it anyway?”
The dark-haired pilot grinned at his best friend. “Oh, I always make a point of feeling extremely guilty.”
“Uh-huh.” Tom’s look was mock-chiding but full of affection. “Be careful, pal.”
“Always. Want to go with me?”
Tom shook his head. “Sorry. We’ve got an important visitor to prepare for!”
Bud prepared for his afternoon spy mission by talking to Enterprises employee Sam Barker, whom Bud knew had been briefly involved with the Informatics movement in Portland. “I guess I’ve spent a lot of time and money over the years trying to ‘find myself’,” Sam conceded, crinkling his brow.
“Have you turned up yet?”
Sam laughed. “Not so far! Still got all my phobias intact. But as for these Informatics guys—well, what should I say? The Portland crew was pretty harmless, mostly University kids earning commissions by signing up new members. Some of them are true believers, though. And believe me, you don’t want to cross ’em.”
“So I hear,” Bud nodded. “But look, Sam... Is there any part of their process, whatever you call it, that might cause ordinary people to act strangely out in the, er, real world? Maybe do things they wouldn’t normally think of doing?—to prove themselves, or something?” Bud had in mind the peculiar incidents Captain Rock had mentioned, which Tom had told him about.
Barker paused, a thinking-frown shadowing his forehead. “Now that you mention it, Bud, there is something they do that I’ve always been kind of curious about. It’s this weird thing they call ‘the higher plane.’ Persons who commit to the church are expected to go through a three-week series of really intense spiritual counseling sessions. Very confidential closed-door stuff; you know, ‘reveal your inner self’ and that jazz. Maybe they tell ’em the secrets of the universe or something. I never went for it. But after the series is over, a few of the participants are made what they call Prime Movers. I guess they have a special role in the Church, like deacons.”
Bud said slowly, “Yeah. It could be some sort of brainwashing! No wonder they don’t want anybody to talk about what goes on.” The term Prime Mover stuck in his mind. Could mover somehow tie in to earth movements?—the violent kind?
It’s pretty far-fetched, Bud mused as Sam left for his shift. Still, that’s the kind of outside-the-box genius stuff Tom’s always getting into!
In an hour his red convertible was parked next to the old theater that now bore the sign “Church of Informatics Soul Science Fortress of Knowledge, Shopton Congregation.” More discreet lettering advised that visitors, and donations, were welcome.
Bud, using a pseudonym, had been ushered from the tastefully decorous lobby into the office of the pastor of the Fort Shopton church, who introduced himself as Speaker Scott Anderman. He was a slim, youngish man, not even thirty, with a ready smile and a visage as bland as an open face sandwich. “But I’m not gonna fall for that!” Bud snorted inwardly, seating himself before the man’s wooden desk.
“Well now, Mr. Newton,” Speaker Anderman began.
“Oh, please call me Ike,” Bud said.
“Ike. You’re here on a quest, aren’t you—Ike?” Was there a hidden taunt in his words? The man’s empty-sky blue eyes seemed to focus on Bud’s gray ones.
The athletic youth shifted uncomfortably. “What’s that mean? A quest?”
“Quest. As in question. Don’t we all have questions about the world, about our place in it? About our happiness?”
“I suppose so, sir.” Bud glanced away. The guy’s trying to hypnotize me! he thought. That must be how it starts!
Anderman nodded, and the nod seemed friendly and sympathetic, which made Bud all the more suspicious. “Your questions are your quest, Ike. You seek information. Informatics supplies what you seek.”
“That’s—great.” Bud realized that he sounded less than persuaded.
“We all began with skepticism,” laughed the man gently. “Me too! But the process one goes through—called Confirmation—leads you from the world’s skepticism to the other side.”
Bud tried to keep his voice level. “The other side. That’s what you call ‘the higher plane,’ isn’t it?”
To Bud’s surprise, Speaker Anderman looked unnervingly pleased. “I see you already know about Informatics Soul Science. Wonderful! You’re not a ‘zero-leveler,’ and we can move forward rapidly.”
“I—I did speak to someone, a friend of mine at work, who had an interest in the church. He mentioned something about... special counseling sessions?”
“Mm-hmm. The first phase of Confirmation.” Anderman leaned forward in his chair toward Bud, eyes still locked on. He said softly, “You have secrets.”
Good night, does he know who I am? “Secrets? What do you mean—Scott?”
“We all have secrets. Secrets burden us down through life, like weights. To enter the Higher Plane, you must shed that pain. Do you see? The Confirmation Series, three weeks of daily private sessions with trained and enlightened church elders—that’s where you lay the burden aside and ready yourself for the white robes of knowledge. No more secrets, Ike. We free your soul.”
I’ll bet you do! “I think I understand,” Bud said. “And then—is that when you become one of those ‘Prime Movers’ my friend told me about?”
The man’s attitude seemed to chill as he shifted back in his chair. “This friend of yours wasn’t a very good friend of ours if he flaunted our private spiritual gifts to an outsider.”
“He never went all the way into the Church, actually. He didn’t realize― ”
“It doesn’t matter.” The Speaker shook his head dismissively. “Religions all have their sacred languages and rituals. You’ll learn. We’ll provide you with better ‘secrets’ than the toxic ones you now hold within. And the new secrets will not be secrets at all, but truths. Truths are our treasures.” Bud involuntarily followed Anderman’s glance toward one of the office walls. A colorful poster bore the legend: “Truths are our treasures.—Eldrich Oldmother”.
Bud said he would think about what Anderman had said. “Yes—you will,” the man replied. “And then, I believe I’ll see you again.”
Bud turned over the odd-feeling interview in his mind as he pulled out of the parking lot. What had he learned, exactly? Only that this guy’s a mighty sophisticated seller of snake-oil! he thought ruefully. But what exactly went on in those secret no-secrets sessions?
Bud glanced in his mirror. A compact car, beat-up and badly in need of paint, ambled along the almost deserted highway about a half-block behind. Several turn-offs later and the car was still keeping pace, no closer, no further.
“Swell,” grated the youth. “I’m not in the mood.”
Bud slowed. The other car slowed also, making no move to pass. They went slower, slower—and Bud suddenly swerved onto the shoulder and yanked the parking break. A bound took him out onto the pavement as the compact skidded to a startled halt not far away.
Quickly striding up, Bud motioned for the driver to role down his window. He did so—a young man, about Bud’s age, face frightened.
Bud leaned into the window like a highway patrolman. “Friend, you’re messing up my enlightenment, but for the moment I’m feeling too righteous to punch you out. So look, don’t waste our combined soul-power following me. Packing a gun?”
The kid shook his head as if the very idea amazed him.
“Tell you what, then. I’m hitting Beach Dogs over at the Rec Pier—I’m hungry. How ’bout if I meet you there? I’ll even buy you a hot dog and fries. Frankly, I’d prefer being kidnapped on a full stomach. Okay?”
“O-okay!” the youth gasped.
They rendezvoused at the Recreation Pier in Shopton, on Lake Carlopa. Bud handed his follower the promised snacks, eyeing him. He was a nondescript, muscular youth, not very tall, with hair beached-out by the sun. “So what’s your name?” Bud asked as they plopped down together on a bench.
“I’m Fred Latty,” said the other. Bud suddenly realized that his benchmate was even younger than he had first thought—no older than a high-school kid. “I know who you are. You’re Bud Barclay.”
“You a fan of high-school football?”
“No, but I’ve seen you in news photos,” Fred replied. “You’re the guy who’s always standing next to Tom Swift.”
Bud took a snapping bite of his hot dog. His expression had soured. “So what’s up, Fred—why’re you following me?”
“I saw you at Informatics and recognized you right off.”
“You a member of the church?”
“No—I just volunteer to do a little custodial stuff there, part-time. When I’m not in school, I teach water skiing here on the lake.”
“Okay. You saw me and followed me. Now you got me. What’s the deal?”
Fred Latty cleared his throat. “It’s just... I thought maybe you could get a message through direct, to Tom Swift himself. I think something bad’s going down in Shopton. And it’s aimed right at Swift Enterprises!”
“THAT’S real interesting, Fred,” Bud commented in disinterested tones. “But so’s this hot dog. I can’t think of the last time Tom—my good pal Tom Swift!—and his company weren’t staring some kind of catastrophe in the snout. We just got back from an almost sunken ship, how ’bout that! All of which goes to say that whatever you want me to pass on had better be worth Tom’s time.”
“Oh, man, it is!” declared Fred hastily.
“I’m listening. And eating.”
Fred drew in a long breath, and Bud had the feeling the story was going to be a lengthy saga. Fortunately he had bought one of the extra-long dogs. “I grew up in New Jersey. My folks just got divorced and still fight a lot—from separate locations, but they hassle each other. I just had to get away. So I moved here.”
Bud interrupted with a note of skepticism. “Just coincidentally the home of Tom Swift.”
“Hey, it was because my uncle Pete lives here, that’s all,” said the boy indignantly. “I’m living with him. He’s a great guy, except when― ”
“Except when he’s not?”
“Except when’s he’s out o’ work, which happens kind of a lot, y’know? Then he’s a different dude altogether—real down for days, then mad, mad all the time. He broke his foot punting the TV through the window!”
“Okay. So no TV.”
“Just listen—please. Okay, so all this has been goin’ on since last year. He had to go to court ’cause he... well, he bit somebody.” Fred looked out at the lake, embarrassed.
“Bit somebody where?”
“In the middle of a hardware store. But anyway, the judge made him do ‘community service,’ and he lit on doing it at the new church—Informatics. Pretty soon he comes home and tells me he wants to join ’em. He said somethin’ about secrets and questions about life and that kinda stuff, but I think mainly he just wanted to get himself t’gether so’s he could hold down a job. See?”
“Now, when you want to join, they make you go through these private sessions. Each one lasts about three hours, and you go every day for three weeks. After a few days of it, Uncle Pete changed.”
Bud ate a fry thoughtfully. “Stopped biting?”
“He was just different, like he always had something on his mind. Each day it got a little worse. He started going out after dinner, and when I’d ask, he’d just say something about walking around in town, getting to know the people. But Bud― ” Fred was now suddenly intense and stricken. “He was shoplifting! Stealing! Little things would turn up here and there, and finally he flat-out told me after I promised I wouldn’t call the cops or anything.”
“I’ve heard something about this kind of thing, pal,” Bud declared soberly. “Other people have been affected, too—it’s something Informatics does to people in those Higher Plane sessions.”
“That’s what I figured out,” the youth confirmed. “I wanted to know what was goin’ on, so― ”
“So you volunteered to work there.”
“Yeah. An’ I used a phony name, too—Jermaine Butafuoco. Uncle Pete doesn’t know. His sessions are always in the morning, and I come in after five, three days a week.”
“Have you doped out anything?” asked Bud keenly.
“Ohh yeah! I found a storage closet where you can hear what they’re saying in the counseling rooms through the heating duct, where it’s pulling off from the wall. These sessions are—wow, people cry! They tell all this stuff about themselves, secrets they don’t want anybody to know about. Sometimes it’s just, like, humiliating, but sometimes it’s illegal stuff—mostly to do with tax cheating. Then there’s guys who are seeing somebody behind their wife’s back ... ”
“What do the church people do, make files on the counselees?”
Fred nodded vigorously. “Yeah—I’m sure they do! They keep ’em in a locked room. See, it’s, like, a blackmail operation. They find a few people with really bad secrets and force ’em to do things.”
“It starts with just watching people’s houses or businesses and writing reports. The ones who do what they’re s’posed to and act like real believers are separated out and told to prove that they have soul-freedom by shoplifting—then they go on to breaking into houses!”
“Wait,” Bud interrupted. “What’s it all for? Does the church make its money by fencing stolen goods, or what?”
“No. The kind of things they steal are hardly worth it. I think it’s more like a test. Every now and then somebody passes all the tests and ‘graduates.’ They call those people― ”
“I know,” declared Bud. “Prime Movers!”
“Uncle Pete made the grade, I guess,” Fred continued sadly. “Now he’s one of them.”
Bud said impatiently, “I’m real sorry for your uncle. But what’s the danger to Swift Enterprises?”
“Okay, listen. There was a picture in the paper of a man who’d been arrested for forcing his way into the plant grounds—Al something. Now the thing is, I know that guy! He visited Uncle Pete several times over the last couple weeks or so.”
“Now you’ve really got my attention, bud. Did you hear what they talked about?”
“A little bit; I must be gettin’ good at it. And that’s what I want you to pass along to Tom Swift. The guy said he was a Prime Mover himself, and my uncle was his ‘enabler.’ That means Uncle Pete was supposed to store things for him in this little cellar we have underneath the house. He told Uncle Pete to make a lot of room down there, because he’d be bringing armloads of valuable stuff after the big quake!”
Fred’s words finally drew a gasp from Bud. “You mean—a quake here in Shopton?”
“Centered on Swift Enterprises! He said it.”
“Then—then he― ” Bud’s voice faltered. “He must have been planning to cause an earthquake the other night, using Tom to get past security! It was just luck that we shorted out his plan!”
But Fred Latty shook his head. “No, man, that’s not what I’m saying. Al sort’ve went into it, to my uncle. The other night was just to check out if the goods were where the Church’s inside contacts thought they were. The quake was planned for later—I think maybe next week!”
Bud Barclay stood and made a long angry toss, his crumpled wrappers hitting the edge of a trash can and falling neatly in. “I get it. They cause quakes, then loot the labs and plants during all the confusion, when security is messed up.”
“Yeah!” confirmed Fred excitedly. “They grab some real valuables to be sold off, for Church income; but also they steal technical stuff, like blueprints. I heard Al say that he was supposed to scout out some carvings from Mexico, for stealing in the quake.”
The Yucatan artifacts! Bud asked if Fred had any idea what sort of “technical stuff” had also been targeted. “I’m not real sure,” replied the youth. “I’m not even sure the church people know all the details much beforehand. They’re getting orders themselves from other people some place else who want specific items that they know Enterprises has. Look, Bud, there must be evidence in that locked cellar under the house. I’m hoping Tom can get to it and maybe keep the law out of it—I don’t want Uncle Pete put in jail. I don’t think he can help what they’re making him do.”
Bud said he understood and would immediately pass all the information on to Tom.
As Fred moved to drive off, he suddenly paused and looked back at Bud. “Oh, I forgot to say—that guy Al did mention something that might help you figure out what they want to steal. He was joking, but maybe it means something. He said the main goal at Enterprises was to make ‘an unwelcome visitor feel real unwelcome’!”
Bud was thunderstruck! A visitor! “You’re right, Fred,” he commented weakly. “I think just maybe it does mean something!”
The young pilot roared back to Enterprises in frantic haste, finding his chum hard at work on the space-brain canister in his underground lab.
“Hey, Bud,” Tom greeted him. “They let you escape, hmm?”
“Jetz, Tom! Wait’ll you― ”
“Boss, boss!” interrupted a deep, twangy voice and the thud of heavy footclomps on concrete. Panting with excitement, Chow burst into the lab. “Wait’ll you hear what I got t’tell ya! Brand my Pecos mules!”
With an apologetic glance at Bud, Tom nodded for the older man to go ahead.
“Wa-aal, Boss, after I left t’go off t’ my galley, I got to thinking—you recollect that piece o’ paper you got off’n that there spy? About that Info-Church? I heard somethin’ about ’em and got to wondering what in th’ name o’ Longhorn Louie they’s doin’ here in Shopton. Say, Old Wrangler, I told m’self, mebbe you ’as right the first time. Mebbe that Church is up to it’s dang neck in all this quake stuff!”
“Wow!” Tom exclaimed with affection. “That there’s good thinking, pard!”
Chow beamed. “An’ that ain’t the end. I took right off and rode out there in my pickup—told ’em I wanted t’ sign up.”
“What did they do?”
“Girl at the counter said normally they’d have me talk with the head man, who they call the Speaker. But she said he ’as already in talkin’ to somebody—must be doin’ a flapjack business there, Tom. So’s they put me in with someb’dy else, little feller name o’ Jim. I kin tell ya anything you wanna know about that church now—what they’s all about, how you join, all that stuff. Bet it’ll help you figger what they’re up to!”
“Bet you’re right,” grinned Tom as he gave Chow a pat on the back. “What a great job!”
“Aw now, son, anybody coulda done it.” Chow shuffled his feet, then looked up at Bud. “But I guess I busted in on you, buddy boy. Go on with what you ’as saying.”
Bud hesitated, not wanted to steal any of Chow’s loud and excited thunder. “Well, I was about to tell Tom... I went to get something to eat in Shopton, and this kid comes up to me. He knew who I was—high school kids know about my football career.” Bud gave a slightly edited rendering of Fred Latty’s amazing tale.
“Good night!” Tom gasped. “This pretty well confirms what I’ve been suspecting for a long time. There’s some connection between the quake plotters and the arrival of our visitor—and with the X-ians themselves. I’m sure of it!”
The face around Chow’s bulging eyes turned a shade paler. “You mean t’ say them space people are makin’ th’ blame earthquakes?”
Tom gave a grim nod. “They’re involved in some way. You see, when I got to thinking about the strange effect of the Thessaly quake on glass, I remembered how the extraterrestrials’ energy-force, the glowing field that they use in moving solid matter, has a particular affect on silicon and silicon compounds, such as glass.”
“You’re right!” exclaimed Bud. “Sandy told me how the rocket that flew over Shopton lifted up the cut-glass punchbowl!”
“Exactly, flyboy,” the young inventor confirmed. “And of course, most of the rocky material of the earth’s crust is composed of silicates—silicon compounds. If the quake-makers are using X-ian technology, the effect is just what you’d expect to see!”
“An’ I thought we had trouble comin’ before!” groaned Chow. “If them loco church people have got themselves partnered-up with those saucer-riders—what kin we do?”
“What I’m going to do is talk to Harlan Ames and Dad,” Tom declared. “And then to Captain Rock.”
“And then?” asked Bud.
“And then I’m going to see if I can wangle permission to do a little hunting in Shopton!”
The astounded authorities were willing to give Tom Swift’s approach a try.
That night a nondescript sedan stopped at a weather-beaten house in one of the less charming sections of town. Wearing an official looking jacket and cap, Tom stepped out, along with a plainclothes police officer named Jack Hammond. “Is this one of the nights that kid Fred works at the church?” he asked Tom in a whisper. “He could give us away if he recognizes you.”
Tom replied, “I called Informatics on a pretext. ‘Jermaine’ doesn’t work there tonight. I’m hoping he’ll be expecting quick action and won’t be too startled. But keep ready, Jack, in case things go south in a hurry!”
A pot-bellied older man came to the door in response to the bell. “What you fellers prowlin’ around for?” he asked with a scowl.
“Environmental emergency, Mr. Latty,” the officer said laconically, pretending to glance at a clipboard in his hand. “We’re from the County Environmental Hazards Investigations Office. We have orders to search every house cellar in the area for underground openings. Radon gas is accumulating all over, and it’s dangerous.”
“You hafta do it late at night?”
“That’s when most folks are at home to let us in, sir,” Tom responded with a smile.
Grumbling—and, Tom thought, nervous—Pete Latty let them enter. He followed them down a rickety stairway into a plank-floor basement illuminated by a tiny bulb that seemed more adept at casting shadow than light. The two fanned out to examine the dirty cement walls. A moment later Tom stumbled and gave a yell. Hammond swung around just in time to see the youth drop from view!
As the disguised officer’s flashlight stabbed through the cellar gloom at the spot where Tom had disappeared, there came a loud splash! The light showed a round hole in the floor, rimmed by a low circle of brickwork. Rushing to look inside, Hammond found the young inventor standing chagrined and knee-deep in water, five feet below floor level.
“What’s that hole?” the trooper snapped at Latty, who had remained on the stairs.
“What does it look like?” the man snapped back. “It’s an old well.”
“A well!” the trooper exclaimed as he knelt down to extend a hand to Tom. “And not even covered? What’re you trying to do—kill people?”
The man sniffed. “Used to be covered, but the lid’s gone. Figgered you could just walk around it. Didn’t expect to have a bunch of nosy fellers pokin’ around down here!”
The policeman reddened. As he yanked Tom up to safety, he stood up to his full six-foot-two. “Look, mister—what’s your name again?”
The man shrank back, as if suspecting that the inspector’s patience might have been tried too far. “Pete Latty,” he mumbled.
“Okay, Mr. Latty, you take a deep breath and visualize every square inch of this basement! Got it? Now—any more booby traps we should know about?”
Latty gulped. “Nope. Nothin’ else.” He turned toward Tom, whose trousers were wet and stained, but was unharmed. “Sorry, son,” Latty said with hasty apology. “Guess I should have warned you.”
Tom chuckled good-naturedly. “It’s all right,” he said. “It was my own fault for not watching where I was going. Besides, you can’t blame a true-blue American for not liking the idea of having his home searched.” He wondered if his choice of words had sounded sarcastic. He knew they had been meant that way.
Latty chuckled too and flashed a wary eye at Jack Hammond.
“Uncle Pete, you down there?” called a voice from atop the stairs.
“S’okay. Just showin’ some visitors what’s what. You can stay up there, Freddy.” The paunchy unshaven bachelor turned back to Tom and Hammond. “Just my nephew. Lives here too.”
Tom noticed a large packing crate. A smear of grime on the floor testified that it had been freshly moved. He walked over and began to shove the heavy box aside.
“Wh-what’re you doing?” Latty piped.
“I want to look underneath,” Tom replied. “We have to check everywhere for radon smudges around the cracks.” Hope Latty doesn’t know anything about radon! Tom thought. A second later his eyes widened with satisfaction as he uncovered a trap door, evidently leading to a subcellar. It sported a shiny stainless steel padlock.
Tom beckoned his partner over and showed his discovery. “Where does this lead to?” Hammond asked calmly, turning back to Latty.
“Just a little storage place,” the owner replied with a shrug. “Nothin’ much. I didn’t think it was worth mentioning. Don’t use it no more. You’d better not go down there,” he added hastily. “The ladder steps ain’t safe.”
“Just the same, we’ll take a look,” the policeman stated. “You don’t use it, hmm? Funny—looks like a nice new lock to me, Mr. Latty. Unlock it, please.”
“Don’t got th’ key.”
Hammond looked dangerous. “Get it.”
“Then do it at your own risk!” Latty snapped. He pulled a keyring from his pants pocket and produced the key. In a moment Hammond pulled up the trap door and Tom shone a light down. The cement-walled room below was much larger than Pete Latty’s description of it, about ten feet square. The four walls were crowded with metal cabinets and new shelving. On the floor, at the foot of an aluminum ladder, lay a large bundle wrapped in a tarpaulin.
Tom descended the ladder cautiously and opened the tarpaulin to see what was inside. The contents made him gasp—a large, well-oiled collection of rifles and pistols!
Looking up, Tom saw both Hammond and Latty peering down at him—the officer openmouthed with grim surprise, Latty scowling nervously. “Don’t touch ’em!” Latty warned. “Some are loaded. I keep ’em hidden for safety, but sometimes my nephew Fred here and I have target practice. I—er—guess they ain’t all legal—don’t care t’have folks find out about ’em. But that’s not your department, boys.”
Just then Tom’s keen eyes spotted a slip of paper tucked among the guns. He pulled it out. His heart gave a leap of excitement as he saw two words scrawled on the paper—contact Anderman!
Hiding his amazement, Tom read the name aloud and added casually, “What’s this? The make of one of the guns?”
“Uh, yeah—that’s right,” Latty replied. Without comment, Tom climbed out of the subcellar. As he bent down to drop the trap door, Tom flashed the officer a signal. Instantly Hammond swung about and grabbed Latty.
“H-hey! Why the rough stuff?” the prisoner exclaimed. Then, as he realized the officer was about to handcuff him, the man’s face turned pasty white. He pulled free from the officer’s grasp and bolted toward the stairway. Dashing to the steps, Tom saw Latty’s nephew standing above at the top, as if paralyzed at the sudden turn of events. As Pete, in full scramble, tried to shove Fred aside, the boy braced himself and grabbed his uncle in a two-arm vice.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Pete,” Fred muttered softly. “We gotta get this whole thing over with.”
After Pete Latty had been manacled, Tom leaned near to him and said intensely, “I’m Tom Swift. In case you don’t know it, Al Wullgrath—and Scott Anderman; you can tell us all about that—are working for enemies of this country, people who are endangering a tremendous scientific development that could change human history. As if making earthquakes isn’t bad enough.”
“I don’t know anything about that stuff,” Latty muttered. “Informatics changed my life—that’s the only ‘history’ I care about.”
“It may go better with you and the church people if you tell us who’s been giving them orders,” stated Hammond. “Who tells them where the next quake’ll be, and what to steal?”
“How should I know? Speaker Anderman hasn’t had nothin’ to do with me, hardly, after my Confirmation. It was Wullgrath who brought the guns here. I don’t know anything about that slip of paper—it’s Wullgrath’s handwriting. Probably just an old note he wrote to himself.”
“Then tell us what’s in the cabinets, at least,” demanded Tom coldly.
Latty shook his head sullenly. “Go take a look. Maybe you understand ’em. Most of it’s in some foreign language. Wullgrath delivered it all in a big truck one night, while Freddy was out. It took hours t’ handtruck it all down to the subcellar. I just took a little look—the Church told me to leave the papers alone. It was Wullgrath who locked up the cabinets.”
“Do you know who was slipping information out of Enterprises to Anderman?”
“Nope.” The man flashed a sickly, ragged grin. “But I guess they call it Informatics for a reason, right?”
Officer Hammond had called a Shopton PD patrol cruiser. When it arrived, he led Pete Latty out, young Fred accompanying them. Tom was momentarily alone.
Those papers down there are going to be carted away as evidence, thought the young inventor restlessly. But if it has something to do with our visitor from Planet X...
Feeling guilty, Tom resolved to sneak a quick look. He climbed down into the subcellar, stymied for a moment when he found the sturdy metal cabinets all locked and impassive. Did Latty have a key? But if Tom asked him in front of the police, they might prevent his going ahead. Then Tom remembered that Latty’s keyring was still dangling from the trap door padlock!
The cabinets were set up on a master key, and Tom quickly discerned the most likely choice. He smiled as the key slipped easily into the slot on the first of the cabinets. He twisted the key, noting the welcome click.
The subcellar erupted in a horrifying blast of fire!
LEAVING the Lattys with the officers who had driven out in the cruiser, Jack Hammond dashed frantically back into the house, filling with the haze and stench of smoke. The crack of a loud boom rang in his ears. To his relief he met Tom struggling his way up from the basement, backlit by flame.
“Tom! What in― ”
“Booby trapped,” Tom choked, his face blackened, jacket and cap smoldering. “The tops of all the cabinets—every one—blasted off. Just the tops—lucky for me. The sides and fronts of the cabinets held the explosion back and shielded me.” Hammond helped Tom into the open air and Tom panted to catch his breath. “I’m okay, but there won’t be much left to see down in that subcellar. The files are burning like magnesium torches.”
“I’ll radio the fire department,” said Hammond, trotting off to the cruiser.
Pete Latty, stricken, yelled out: “You gotta believe me, I didn’t know!”
Tom shrugged. To the still-astounded Fred, he said quietly, “If there’s anything I can do to make it go easier for your uncle, I’ll try. But you did the right thing, and probably saved lives—including your uncle Pete’s.”
A checkover at Shopton Memorial and a welcome shower at home did a lot to overcome the young inventor’s bitter regret at the mixed outcome of his “hunt.” But the next day proved his pessimistic assessment to be correct. Very little of the stored materials had survived the flash fire.
“They used chemical accelerants to keep it going after the oxygen got scarce in that little room,” Ames reported. “Basically, the police—and now the FBI, as of an hour ago—have just a few singed scraps that they’ll be studying for a long, long time. They did dope out one thing, though. That foreign language?—Brungarian!”
Tom nodded his head listlessly. “We figured this business of acquiring alien technology had to go way beyond a group of cultists. Now that that coup has unleashed the Sentimentalists faction, we can expect a lot more of this. Even apart from the ‘Planet X’ factor, they fear and envy America and they’ll move heaven and earth to steal our scientific secrets. This could touch off a whole epidemic of sabotage and other spy activity!” He asked if Speaker Anderman had been arrested.
Harlan Ames wagged his head in disgust. “He and a few of his select ‘Prime Movers’ vanished into the night a little after the explosion went off, apparently taking some key paperwork and church computer files with them. Captain Rock says the remaining staff claim not to know anything, and he’s inclined to believe them.”
“When I tripped the blast, the mechanism must’ve sent a signal to Anderman that his number was up,” Tom said. Frustrated, he sighed and sat without speaking for a few moments as Ames waited, sympathetic. Finally Tom said: “The energy will arrive Sunday. I can’t put any more time into dealing with the mystery plot—not right now, anyway.”
“Go work on your project, Tom,” urged the security chief. “There’s nothing more to be done.”
Tom hurried off to his private glass-walled laboratory adjoining the mammoth hangar beneath the Enterprises airfield, which housed Tom’s three-decker Flying Lab between flights. Eager to continue work on his container, or robot body, for the brain from space, he threw himself into the challenging project. As usual, Hank and Arv proved even better than their word. Working round the clock with much assistance and support from the more specialized Swift Enterprises departments, the engineering experts had turned Tom’s sketches and the X-ians’ specifications into a full-sized working model. Arv wheeled it in, ready for Tom’s inspection, when the young inventor arrived at the lab.
“Wonderful, Arv!” Tom approved. “Every time I see one of your models of a new invention, I’m sure it’ll work!”
Hanson grinned, pleased at the compliment. “Our boy Sterling was pretty pleased, too. He used this model as a guide in modularizing the real thing. When you make your changes—I know there’ll always be changes—he’ll be able to insert them nearly on the fly.”
Tom now had good reason to expect that the robot-like container would be complete and operational before the Sunday evening deadline and the scheduled arrival of the visitor.
Bud and Chow, entering the laboratory soon after Arvid Hanson had left, found Tom still engrossed in his thoughts. “Jetz! Is this your spaceman?” Bud inquired. Tom nodded, then grinned as this pal addressed the device with: “Hi, buster!” Jerking a thumb in Tom’s direction, he added, “Is this your daddy?”
Tom chuckled. “Don’t look at me. It claims Hanson’s its daddy.”
“Hanged if I can see much resemblance!” Chow snorted with a wink. “Looks more like that Sterling feller t’me.”
“Think it’ll live?” Bud persisted.
“If not,” Tom replied, only half jokingly, “the boys who worked on it will sure be disappointed—‘daddy’ or no.”
But the youth was enjoying his callers’ gaping expressions. Each was trying to imagine how the “thing” would look in action. “Sure is a queer-lookin’ buckaroo!” Chow commented. “This ole think box looks like a combination fireplug, trashcan, and Texas-sized salt shaker—meanin’ no offense, son.”
The device stood about head-high and was round like a cylinder or column, composed of sandwiched layers of lightweight metal sheeting and Tomasite plastic, and coated overall with transparent Inertite, which would shield it from nearly every form of radiant energy. But the canister was not of uniform width and was divided into a number of differing segments, or functional modules.
“Let me show you two around Exman,” Tom began. But Bud interrupted him immediately.
Tom chuckled. “Our ex-traordinary spaceman who has travelled ex-treme distances from Planet X!”
“Oh, I getcha, boss,” Chow commented. “Buncha x’s, like a brand. I thought it maybe meant ‘a used-ta-be man’.”
Tom started his account at the bottom. The canister stood atop a wide, circular base. “You can’t see it, but there are miniature flexi-treads underneath, similar to those we used on the spectromarine selector platform. Exman will be able to negotiate his way over rough terrain—and even climb stairs!”
“Now that I gotta see,” murmured Chow skeptically.
Above the tread housing the canister narrowed and then broadened again, like an hourglass. Tom explained that this section would contain some of the heavier pieces of equipment, including the solar-battery power compartment, the gyrostabilizer apparatus, and a densely-packed computer of advanced design. “You can think of that part as Exman’s auxiliary brain, which will act like a middleman between the outer world and the energy matrix itself.”
At the top of this section came the device’s broad “waist,” which was girdled by a flat circular rail to which were affixed three small parabolic dish-antennas. “Bet I know what that’s all about,” Bud piped up. “Three little repelatrons scooting along their own little track.”
“Give that man a prize!” Tom exclaimed. “The repulsion force-beams will give our visitor a means of exerting a push on selected items in his vicinity. They’re like the ones on the Challenger; they can be re-tuned to repel different elements and compounds.”
“Help him get his exercise,” observed Chow approvingly.
The tapering cylinder that constituted Exman’s top half contained most of the communications and sense-perception processing circuitry, as well as a small version of Tom’s gravitex stabilizer, a device that would work in tandem with the internal gyros to keep the container solidly upright. A ring encircling Exman’s neck area was an all-directional radio transceiver. “At least at first, he’ll communicate with us by radio, using the oscilloscope symbol-code.”
Chow stepped forward tentatively, extending a finger. “What’re these, his arms? Looks like he’s wearin’ boxing gloves.” Mounted on either side of the upper body, the “arms” were actually sets of moveable jointed rods which could be mechanically extended, retracted, and swung about. But in place of hands, Exman sported two multifaceted globe-shaped units.
“I call these sensarray globes,” Tom said. “See how each facet has a small opening in it? Think of it as a specialized artificial sense organ, each one adapted to some aspect of sense perception. It’s just as it is in us poor humans, you know. Eyes and ears are differently shaped and function in completely different ways, and your taste buds and the nerve cells in your skin, which give you the sense of touch, are customized for use.” The energy-brain would be able to rotate the spheres freely and extend the arm-rods to bring the selected facet of a sphere near to, or in contact with, the subject of perception.
“So let’s say Exman—who, let’s face it, doesn’t know anything about our planet’s dangers—wants to take a sip of Chow’s chili surprise,” Bud said with a friendly poke to Chow’s arm. “What does he do, suck it up through one of those holes?”
“Actually, he has artificial ‘tongues’ to use for the sense of taste,” replied the young inventor. “About fifty of them, in fact, specialized for various kinds of taste. Each tongue is about as thick as your little finger, and pops forward out of whichever opening it sits it.” The many other microsensing instruments were adapted to the whole range of the specific aspects of perceptual data.
“Wa-aal, let’s get past my chili and on t’the big question.” Chow gestured broadly. “You plannin’ on makin’ this ole Exman a sheriff, or what?”
The grizzled cook was indicating a big housing attached near the top of Exman’s canister, affixed to the front like a face. The housing had the form of a five-pointed star. “Chow, that’s the actual container for the brain-energy. During his stay, he’ll live in a little shielded compartment or ‘cell’ in the center of it, which he’ll enter through a shuttered port at the top. Each of these five star-points contains the electronics for translating the signals from the sensing instruments into the electromagnetic fluxes that, according to the space people, will modulate the energy and give Exman a form of conscious perception. Five modules—corresponding to the five basic human senses.”
Bud’s face shone with pure awe. “Skipper, for once I’m not even gonna try for a joke. This is just unbelievable—an artificial man special-designed for an alien space-brain!”
Tom felt a glow of pride—and eager impatience—as he closely inspected the device he had explained. If it worked as he hoped, this odd creature might one day provide earth scientists with a priceless store of information about intelligent life on Planet X!
Chow was feeling restless and rambunctious in the face of so much exotic science. On a sudden impulse, the old cowpoke took off his ten-gallon hat and plumped it down on the creature’s rounded top. Then he removed his polka-dotted red bandanna and knotted it like a neckerchief just below the star unit.
Tom laughed heartily as Bud howled, “Ride ‘em, spaceman!”
Suddenly a beep announced a call on the lab’s telephone. “Tom here.”
“This is Jilly, Mr. Swift—you know, at the main switchboard?”
“Mr. Trent told me where you were. Someone just called for you, but said he couldn’t stay on the line. He just wanted you to know that he called. He was very insistent. He made me read back his name twice.”
“I see,” Tom said. “What was his name?”
“Irwin Roswell Samuel. He said you have his number.”
Breaking the connection, Tom repeated the name to his friends.
“That’s quite a name,” Bud commented. “So who is he?”
Tom shrugged. “Pal, I don’t have the slightest idea! And as far as I know, I don’t have his number, either.”
Chow was muttering the odd name under his breath. Suddenly his face lit up. “Boss! His initials are I.R.S., jest like th’ tax bureau! You s’pose― ”
Bud picked up on the notion instantly. “Collections—the Taxman!”
Tom had already drawn the same conclusion. Even as Bud spoke he was rushing to the lab computer. He accessed his personal journal file. Just as he had expected, a message awaited him.
HIRAM ODELL FARM
His excitement tinged with alarm, Tom read the message aloud and looked up at his friends. “This can only mean one thing. More of the space symbols have appeared out of nowhere!”
BUD clamped a warning hand down on his pal’s shoulder. “Tom, I know you’re chomping to get down there to Ohio—‘you,’ as in ‘we’!—but do you really know this isn’t some sort of bogus message to lure you away from the Exman project? It smells fishy. That Taxman guy has never contacted you this way before, leaving a name with the switchboard operator so you’ll log on to your computer.”
“That’s true,” conceded Tom with great reluctance. “And he usually takes a more suave, casual style in his messages to me, almost like he’s joking around.” He turned back to his keyboard and typed a message of his own.
“I’m not satisfied that you are who you say you are,” he typed. “You don’t sound like yourself. Are you the agent we call The Taxman?”
The response appeared quickly.
“The same one I’ve contacted before?”
“At least tell me why you’re holding so much back from me. If you know who’s behind all this, tell me the details.” For once there was no instant reply. Tom exchanged frowning glances with his friends. He was about to switch off the computer in perplexity when a line of type popped into view.
SMALL SAFE WINDOW
“Now what’s that s’posed to mean?” demanded Chow. “Feller’s as bad as them space-symbol folks!”
“I think I understand it, Chow,” Tom said thoughtfully. “I think he means he doesn’t want to risk transmitting any more words than absolutely necessary. He’s keeping things safe by using as narrow a transmission ‘window’ as he can get away with.”
“But these guys can do just about anything when it comes to secret spy stuff,” Bud objected. “You can’t tell me they’re afraid of their phone being tapped!”
“I doubt it’s anything that simple,” responded the young inventor. “Remember, the X-ians are tied into this somehow, or at least their super-technology is. Collections may be afraid the Brungarians—or whoever—have started monitoring their encrypted messages and could dope out how to decipher them if they can acquire enough of a sample. So he’s keeping the sample small.”
“Okay. So do we trust him?” Bud asked.
“This time, I think we have to. And that means we’re off to Ohio, flyboy. I can’t afford to pass up anything that might impact our visitor’s arrival.”
After informing his father and Harlan Ames, Tom told Bud to meet him out on the airfield at a small Swift company jet he had requisitioned. Arriving at the jet, Bud asked his pal: “So what’s with this dinky jet, Skipper? Did the Queen sprain a wing?” The mammoth Sky Queen, Tom’s famous Flying Lab, was the young inventor’s customary mode of supersonic transport.
“Pal, there’re only nine public airports in the U.S. able to accommodate that big baby so far, and the nearest one to this Macauleyville burg is a good four hour drive,” he explained as they climbed into place. “Besides, I’d prefer not to attract attention.”
Their quick flight, with Bud at the controls, ended at the Wright-Patterson airfield in Dayton. They drove their rented compact eastward toward tiny Macauleyville. Ames had been able to provide Tom with the general location of the O’Dell farm, but at a fork in the narrow rural highway Tom had to pull to a stop. “Say there,” he called to a repairman up on a nearby telephone pole. “You happen to know the direction of O’Dell’s farm?”
The man gave a snorting laugh. “These days, who doesn’t? Takin’ a look at those crop circles, are ya?” When the young inventor grinned back without answering, the man continued. “Left fork, ’bout four miles up, dirt drive on th’ right with a mailbox. But listen, m’friend, don’t spend much time on ol’ Hiram. He don’t know nuthin’. You talk direct to Valkynser.”
Deciding not to pursue the shouted conversation, Tom thanked the man and drove on. In minutes they had pulled up in front of a modern farmhouse, fresh-painted. Beyond lay a wheat field, tan-gold and rolling in breeze-driven waves like an ocean.
A strong-looking older man with a piercing stare answered the doorbell. “Take it you’re the feller who called me, hmm?”
Tom offered his hand, receiving back a powerful grip. “I’m Tom Swift, Mr. O’Dell. This is Bud Barclay. I appreciate your letting us take a look at this—phenomenon of yours.”
“I’m not gonna turn down Tom Swift when he’s takin’ himself a science look-see,” the man said as he led the boys through the house and out the back door. “Half of M’cauleyville’s been out to see it—also the Morning Gazette-Herald and that slicked-up lady from Channel 14. Sheriff, too.”
“When did the markings first appear?” Tom inquired.
“Oh, couple ’r three nights ago, musta been. We’re guessin’ early in the mornin’, afore dawn.”
Bud gave his chum a slight nudge. The time may have matched the appearance of the Enterprises symbols!
Tom asked if anyone had actually seen the markings appear. “Naw,” O’Dell responded. “It was Valkynser who stumbled on ’em. Fool likes to run around for exercise way early up, hours like a farmer. Best ask him about it all.”
“Who is this Valkynser, sir? Does he work for you?”
Mr. O’Dell chuckled a bit sourly. “Don’t imagine he’ll ever work for anybody. Went t’ college, got hisself trained in book-readin’ or something. He’s my tenant—rents the old tractor shack next to m’ west forty. I fixed it up, though. Moved the tractor out.”
They were standing on a covered porch. O’Dell gestured toward a wooden bench at the far end of it. “You two go stand on that bench and look straight out. You kin see ’em purty good. Then I’ll walk ya over to Valkynser.”
“Is he home right now?” Bud asked. “No need to make you walk all that way for nothin’.”
“He’s allus home. Now go take yer look.”
Tom and Bud mounted the bench, and what they saw struck them silent. About a hundred yards distant, symbols exactly like those on the Enterprises lawn had been inscribed into the wheatfield, reflecting the lowering sunlight in a manner that made them stand out clearly. “They look like the same symbols to me, Tom,” Bud muttered softly. “But you’re the expert. Is it the same?”
Tom shook his head. “No. It looks similar, but I can already tell that the set is not identical to the other. I can tell something else, too. It is like the other set in one way—it’s truncated and incomplete.”
“Jetz!” said Bud in disappointment. “But maybe the other guy can give us a clue.”
They crunched through the fields behind farmer O’Dell. When they came insight of the small tenant shack, he turned and walked off. “Got work t’ do, boys. But I’m there if y’ need me. Don’t let Valkynser spook ya, though—he’s crazy, that’s all.”
Bud rolled his eyes. “Another kook. Maybe he belongs to Informatics.”
The splintery door was opened by an unkempt, longhaired young man in small round-framed glasses. “Whoa, it really is you! Tom Swift!” They shook hands and Valkynser invited them in. Turning to Bud, he said, “And you—sure, I recognize you. In fact, I’ve got a picture of you. Downloaded it from the Net.”
Bud smiled. “In my football uniform?”
“No. You play football? This shows you standing next to― ”
Bud interrupted. “Let’s talk about the wheatfield. My good pal Tom here is a very busy young inventor, you know.”
“Oh, I know.” Suddenly he barked out a laugh. “Hey, I haven’t even introduced myself. Royce Valkynser.” He gestured at a desk piled high in papers and elaborately bound books. “Doctoral thesis in progress—Italian literature, Fifteenth Century. I’m well known at the major libraries in a hundred-mile radius. All two of them!”
Tom laughed pleasantly and said, “I hear you’re the one who first discovered the markings.”
“The crop circles? Sure did. When I went out for my jog, about four twenty A of the M.”
“That’s the second time I’ve heard those things called crop circles,” Bud noted. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“Let’s go look up close, and I’ll give a little lecture at the site. I hear you’re used to scientific lectures, Bud.”
A look from Tom warned away what threatened to be a too-pointed retort by the young pilot.
The three trudged up to the area of the markings, and Tom immediately crouched down, taking out a small, powerful magnifying glass. “I’ve seen another sample of markings of this sort, Royce. But those were formed in a different way. These wheat stalks aren’t dried out or discolored, but bent over flat.”
“And these markings are bigger,” Bud noted. “I’d say the individual symbols are more than twice as big as the other ones.”
“And now the science segment!” announced Valkynser. “I’m not just a stereotypical grad student, but a student of all sorts of things paranormal—ESP, UFO’s, NDE’s, OBE’s, PK, even things without any initials at all. Now crop circles are a funny phenomenon that’s been showing up for about the last twenty-five years in more or less every country on Earth. They’re just like this—bent-over stalks of wheat or corn, mostly; bent carefully without breakage, without killing the stalk. It’s almost as if they’ve been softened at one segment of the stalk. The stalks always lie in an ordered way, real neat and tidy, directed clockwise or counterclockwise.”
“Do they usually form symbols or writing?” Tom inquired.
“Guess it all depends on what you call writing,” laughed the young man. “The first ones were just simple circles or round clearings, geometrically perfect. Then more elaborate ones began to show up: linked circles, spirals, ellipses, even images suggesting fractal patterns, if you know what that is—well, of course you do, Tom.”
Bud, glaring, said: “So what are they supposed to mean, Royce? Are they messages?”
“Who knows? Maybe they’re cosmic art, using our planet as a canvas. Some people assume it’s the UFO jockeys trying to communicate their harmless intentions to us. Some think it’s Momma Earth herself tellin’ her kids to stop polluting!—in which case those earthquakes might be a spanking.”
“I did read a little on the subject,” Tom ventured. “As I understand it, many have been made by confessed hoaxers.”
Royce Valkynser shrugged. “Everything attracts hoaxters and jokesters. Thing is, some have appeared in multiple countries at virtually the same time. How could people manage that? How do they cause them to form over just a few hours, without lights, without equipment, without getting caught? Answer that one!”
“I can’t,” Tom replied.
“Neither can I. One theory has it that discarnates—spirits of the dead—create them by psychic force. But I guess the most common theory is the UFO connection. Why don’t you ask your so-called extraterrestrial contacts about it, Tom?”
Something in Valkynser’s tone drew Bud to the defense of his chum. “Just why do you say ‘so-called,’ hmm?”
“Oh, just being a typical ‘lone gunman’ conspiracy monger. But there are those who wonder if the ‘Tom Swift space friends’ are really what we’ve been told they are. Could that be a hoax? Mm, not that I think that way,” he added hastily.
Tom made further close observations and took a number of photos of the strange markings. Finally he bade Royce Valkynser goodbye. After thanking Mr. O’Dell, the youths drove back to the jet in the light of a good midwest sunset.
“That Valkynser guy’s a real pain,” Bud grumbled.
“A little out there, I guess,” Tom agreed. “But don’t forget, flyboy—so am I!”
On the flight back to Shopton Bud probed his friend’s ideas. “Did we get any clues back there?”
“I think so, actually,” responded the young inventor in thoughtful slowness. “I’m certain it’s not a hoax, for one thing. The impressions are too perfectly formed, and the method is beyond anything I know of. Also, pal—that fact that this set is so much larger makes good sense, because the medium—what you might call the ‘pixels’ that make up the image—are so much larger in this case, the difference between blades of grass and stalks of wheat. The symbols have to be bigger, or they lose definition. And now for the good news, Bud—seeing the second set has given me a theory!”
“I think what we’re dealing with is a cryptogram!”
Bud frowned. “You mean it’s in a code? That’s not news.”
But Tom shook his head. “A cryptogram is more than a code. It’s a way to sneak a message past watchful eyes by parceling it out in parts, so that you can’t read the message until you figure out how to put the parts together, like in a jigsaw puzzle. What I’m thinking,” he went on, “is that the two sets of symbols don’t mean anything separately, but if we combine them in some way or other—not one after the other, but on top of each other, so to speak—then we’ll begin to make sense of it.”
“I get it!” Bud declared excitedly. “You just have to fit these two sets together!”
Tom’s reply was less excited. “From my first look, I think it’ll be more difficult than that. I don’t think these two sets encode the entire message. And by the principle of cryptograms, what we have won’t even start to make sense until we have what remains.”
“Too bad,” Bud said. “And we don’t know where, or when, or as a matter of fact if, the rest of those puzzle pieces will turn up.”
Tom was quiet for a time, gazing out at the stars of twilight. Suddenly he snapped his fingers. “Bud! I’ve got it! I know where the other parts will appear!”
HAPPY but amazed, Bud boggled at his friend. “You know? But how?”
Tom held up the notebook he carried with him, and Bud saw that he had drawn a triangular figure. “It suddenly occurred to me that our space friends—the Mars group, I mean—always open their messages to us with a simple figure that we translate as ‘we are friends’! It’s this symbol, Bud!—an equilateral triangle with a little circle in the exact center.”
“Okay, but how does that help you?”
“Well, what if part of the key is geographical, the actual locations on the earth’s surface where the symbols have appeared? Let’s say Shopton is at the center of an equilateral triangle, and O’Dell’s wheatfield is one of the points. It’s easy to figure out where the other two points should be.” He pulled out a map of the eastern United States from the supply locker and studied it for a moment, measuring with outstretched fingers to get a general picture. “There should be one in New Jersey, and the other in Canada—about half way between the cities of Ottawa and Pembroke, I’d say. I’ll do precise calculations when we get back.”
Bud grinned. “Man, you’re already precise enough for my blurry brain! But tell me this, Tom. Can you come up with a way to determine when the other bunches will be set down? If so, we could have somebody hide up in a tree and watch how they do it!”
“One breakthrough at a time, Barclay! But I’ll give some thought to the problem.”
“I’ll bet you will!”
Tom was eager to notify the mysterious space beings that the container was now ready to receive the brain energy. After landing the jet, Bud went with him by nanocar to the space-communications laboratory. Though Nels Gachter had left for the evening, Tom knew every dial and switch on the magnifying antenna console, and could easily access the Space Dictionary by computer to assist in translating the message.
Bud watched over his friend’s shoulder as the young inventor composed the outgoing message on a sheet of paper.
EARTH CONTACT SWIFT TO CONTACT PLANET X. ENERGY MATRIX CONTAINER COMPLETED TO YOUR SPECIFICATIONS.
Tom paused for a minute as Bud watched intently, not wishing to disturb his pal’s thoughts with a question. Finally Tom continued:
NONNATURAL EARTH CRUST MOVEMENTS HAVE CAUSED DAMAGE IN THIS AREA. UNABLE TO PREDICT RECURRENCE. DO YOU WISH TO DELAY OR RELOCATE RECEPTION OF ENERGY BRAIN?
“Tom!” Bud exploded. “Are you serious? If you let those quake-makers interfere with the Exman project, you may be handing them just what they wanted all along!”
“Let’s have some faith, flyboy,” Tom chided with a smile. “Exman is already on his way, and the X-ians don’t like to alter their plans halfway through.”
“Then what’s the point?”
“By bringing up the earthquake business without any kind of explicit accusation, I may get them to make a comment on the problem. Maybe they’ll be willing to explain how the Brungarian faction got ahold of a piece of their technology.”
“I see! Just a little cosmic diplomacy,” said the dark-haired pilot. “Hey, maybe they’ll even tell us how to turn off the quakes!”
But the hope was soon dashed. Eleven minutes after Tom transmitted his message, translated into the mathematical space symbols, an unhelpful and unilluminating message was received.
EVENT PARAMETERS UNCHANGED
“So much for diplomacy,” Tom commented wryly. “We can’t even be sure that they understood the message.”
“Oh, they understood it all right,” Bud retorted. “They just want to maintain that air of mystery.”
There was no time for Tom to work on identifying the next crop-circle sites during the few days remaining before the arrival of the brain energy. Having been satisfied with Arvid Hanson’s model, he spent his hours perfecting the last few details of the final version, finding it necessary to iron out some wrinkles in the complexities of the sense-perception instruments.
Saturday afternoon Chow delivered an early supper to his beloved young boss, who gulped it down semi-consciously, scarcely realizing that the westerner was still in the room. Finishing the light meal, Tom left to confer with one of the technicians, leaving his empty tray on the work counter. Chow stayed behind for a time and stared in fascination at the odd-looking robot creature that he had named Ole Think Box.
The stout cook walked back and forth, eying the thing suspiciously from every angle. “Wonder what the critter eats?” he muttered. “That there energy brain’ll need some good nutritious victuals if he wants to keep his ol’ energy all prime.” He wondered if the Think Box had a real mouth in addition to the tongue devices in his sensarray globe “hands.”
Feeling in his shirt pocket, Chow brought out a wad of his favorite bubble gum to chaw the question over. An impulsive thought struck him a glancing blow. Should he or shouldn’t he? “Shucks, won’t hurt to try,” the ex-Texan decided. “Th’ dang contraption’s all made o’ metal!”
As Tom had demonstrated, Chow opened the shutter that covered the access port at the top of the star-shaped head and popped the gum inside. He had half-hoped the action would activate some kind of automatic chewing mechanism and was somewhat disappointed when nothing happened. Feeling a trifle foolish, Chow tried to reach inside to remove the stick of gum—but the opening was too narrow to admit his big hand! Finally he nervously snapped the shutter closed and stumped off with a Texas-sized shrug of his big round shoulders. Now thet was a dang fool thing t’do, he thought. Reckon it didn’t do no harm, though.
That night at home Tom reviewed all the details of the impending event with his father.
“It seems you’ve covered all the bases, son,” Damon Swift concluded. “Except—well, there is one further matter that has come up, as of this afternoon.”
“A problem?” The young inventor couldn’t conceal the trace of worry in his voice.
“No, no, not at all.” Mr. Swift explained that he had been contacted by the Mayor of Shopton. “I thought the press story Dilling released would keep the local alarm bells from ringing.” The Enterprises Office of Communications and Public Interest had distributed a statement that the Swifts would be using a special device to intercept and store an energy-matrix from deep space, for purposes of scientific study—which was perfectly true. “But it seems the Mayor is just as jittery about an energy-matrix as an alien brain!”
Tom groaned. “Good grief, don’t tell me he wants us to cancel!”
“No, but to smooth things over I told him I would speak to you about moving the arrival point from the Enterprises grounds to some place more distant from town. Is that possible, Tom?”
Tom drew a long, low breath but nodded reluctantly. “The X-ians only specified a general locale. As you know, Exman will be guided to the container by radio beacon, and I suppose it wouldn’t hurt anything to change locations by a few miles or so.”
“That’s good. Do you have a spot in mind?”
Tom sank back in his chair, rubbing his chin. “Well, here’s an idea. Over on the far side of the lake there’s a place called Bryant Hill Campground. It was owned and maintained by the Stegnall Natural Gas Company on the excess property next to their wells field—public relations, I guess. When Stegnall went bankrupt, it was fenced in and is no longer available for use—but I’ll bet the Mayor has enough pull to let us set up the Think Box there.”
Mr. Swift chuckled. “No doubt. I think you can count on it.” Then the older scientist’s face turned sober as he relayed some sad news to his son. “I received a call just before you got home, son. Munson Wickliffe has passed away. He never regained consciousness.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s another black mark against the earthquake terrorists. He was quite a scientist and a gifted thinker. I’m very glad now that he was able to witness the beginnings of this new age of extraterrestrial communication. If only he’d lived long enough to meet Exman!” He added that he would represent the company at the funeral in Thessaly, as Tom would be preoccupied with the space visitor project.
With the fundamental scientific and technical challenges apparently behind them—and the earth beneath their feet quiescent for the moment—the Swifts were eagerly looking forward to the arrival of the brain energy from space the next day. The scheduled time, as indicated by the complicated time-measuring system of the X-ians, would be seventeen minutes, fifty-nine seconds past Sunday midnight.
Sunday evening the falling darkness revealed a sky glittering with stars. Looking up through his office window, Tom could not help but wonder which of those stars bore the world he had come to call Planet X. Are they looking at their own night sky right now, thinking of me? he asked himself.
As the fateful hour approached, Tom, Bud, Mr. Swift, Hank Sterling, and Arv Hanson worked together to load Ole Think Box onto a covered flatbed truck, carefully lashing the mechanism in place.
Chow had also begged to be on hand. “I jest got to see Ole Think Box come to life!” he said.
“Fine, pardner,” said Tom. “But you’ll have to watch from a distance away with Dad and the others. I need Bud to help me with the container, but I don’t want to expose any more people than necessary to danger.”
Chow looked pitiful and pleading. “Aw, now, son, you know you don’t need t’worry about ol’ Chow!”
Tom gave his old friend’s arm a squeeze. “I know. But I need you and that six-gun eye of yours to protect the men on the truck from any strangers that aren’t from outer space!”
Chow beamed. “I know yuh’re jokin’ with me. But I sure will do the job, boss!”
Tom drove the truck along the lonely road that circled Lake Carlopa, Hank and Arv sitting back on the flatbed with the energy container. At the campground they drove over the flat, weed-choked field to a spot near the low hill that had given the facility its name. Here they unloaded the Think Box, and Tom switched on the radio beacon. “Won’t be long now,” murmured the young inventor.
“Good luck, son,” Mr. Swift said with emotion in his voice. “You’ve done everything possible—and a few things impossible!—to make this incredible event a success. We’ll be watching you from the rise.”
The youths watched as the truck made its way to a rise almost a mile distant. In minutes a Swift Searchlight, mounted on the truckbed, gleamed to diamond-bright life. Adjusted to a diffusion setting, the device illuminated the entire field almost all the way to the chain link fence, dappling the campground in elongated, eerie shadows.
Eyes darted back and forth from wristwatches to sky as the zero moment ticked closer. “Some clouds coming in,” Bud muttered. “But I guess Exman doesn’t have to see the target, not with the beacon going. Why do you need a beacon in the first place, Tom? Can’t the X-ians set the thing down anywhere they want to, by remote control? On a dime, with—well, on a dime is good enough!”
Tom hid a smile. His pal was talking rapidly in a piping voice. Bud’s as nervous as I am! thought Tom. “They seem to have some trouble keeping everything on the beam when they get too close to the earth—it must be that unknown environmental factor that prevents them from visiting us in their, er, own bodies.” He noted—speaking rapidly himself!—that the strange half-unreal objects they had encountered in space had seemed to be of a different type than the more solid rocketlike transport vessels that had penetrated the atmosphere.
“Um, yeah, Skipper, I—I guess so ... ” Tom’s listener was barely listening. Less than a minute to go! Bud glanced at his watch and began muttering a countdown under his breath. “X minus three... X minus two... X minus one... X! This is it!”
Four wide eyes flashed skyward. But nothing happened! Not a speck showed in the black-blue sky.
The watchers glanced at one another uncertainly. More minutes went by.
“No mistake about the time, was there?” Bud asked Tom. “You think something could have happened to Exman up in space?”
Tom Swift shook his head. “It’s more likely that our earthly time references are at fault. The calculations of the X-ians are based on some astronomical factors that our scientists don’t yet know with absolute― ”
“Jetz! Look!” Bud suddenly cried out. Electrified, Tom sprang to the side of the Think Box to have his hand near the shutter control. A speck of light was sailing across the sky! But their faces fell as it drew closer.
“Only an airplane,” Bud grumbled. “Out of Shopton Airport, probably.” They saw several more such lights as the minutes ticked past.
Reacting to the increasingly disgusted expression on Bud’s face, Tom broke into a laugh. “Aw, come on, flyboy! You know how it is when you’re expecting guests from out of town.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna be limp as an oil rag by the time this guest gets settled in!”
Tom gave a big wave in the direction of the truck and the searchlight, which blinked in response. “I wonder if they got that on tape?” At George Dilling’s request, the historic moment was to be video-recorded, using a prismatic telescopic lens.
The restless duo fidgeted and prowled back and forth to ease their tension. Feelings of suspense began changing into gloom after eight minutes had passed with no sign from the sky. “What do you think, Skipper? Are we out of luck?” Bud asked. “I don’t want to say this, but what if those Brungarians have somehow lured Exman to another spot on Earth?”
“The space beings haven’t let us down yet,” Tom replied somewhat weakly. “I’m sure they won’t this time.” Though he didn’t say so aloud, Tom was as worried as Bud. Both boys knew that, in some manner, the Sentimentalists faction had managed to make sufficient contact with Planet X to acquire at least a few pieces of their technology!
Lost in his thoughts, Tom suddenly realized that Bud had spoken. “What did you say?”
The athletic youth repeated it, so faintly it could barely be heard. “Tom ... ”
“What, pal? What’s wrong?”
Following Bud’s pointing finger, Tom caught sight of a moving light in the sky. He stiffened and held his breath. Another false alarm?
But no! A glowing, faintly bluish mass with a thin comet tail of luminous orange-red was proceeding majestically through the pattern of stars! The light was small as a pinpoint, yet bright as a flare. It had a peculiar, almost frightening quality—it made the watching eye feel funny!
As it passed through a wisp of low clouds, the clouds were illuminated from behind as if someone were running through them with a lantern in hand. It became very clear that the object was descending and slowing down from what was evidently an astounding speed.
“When we first saw it, it was further off than it seemed,” declared Tom thoughtfully. “It must have been travelling at thousands of miles per hour!”
Exman had heard the radio beacon. The point of light described a smooth curve in the sky. It was now beneath the clouds and moving directly toward them, slowing constantly. As the nebulous mass glided closer and closer, the two young watchers—and the others at the truck—were speechless with awe. Near as it was by now, the ball of energy still seemed no more than a brilliant speck with a phosphorescent tail. Yet as it descended it lit up the whole scene. The hillside looked almost as if it were on fire—yet Tom and Bud felt no heat whatsoever. But the visitor could not conceal his tremendous power. The earth vibrated beneath their feet, and the air had suddenly the sharp smell of ozone.
The boys cried out as one. Passing close to Bryant Hill, the energy-matrix was setting off fiery explosions, one after another! “Natural gas pockets!” Tom shouted to Bud. “The energy’s igniting them!”
Then came another explosion, more powerful than the others. This was followed by a frightening clatter and rumble. The force of the blowup was sweeping down rocks, gravel, and shrubbery in a hillside avalanche!
“Hold fast, Bud!” Tom cried. “Nothing’s headed our way!”
Steeling his nerves, he grabbed the waiting container near the shutter switch and held on grimly as Bud leaned against its other side—less to steady the gyrostabilized canister than to steady himself!
Exman was finally revealing his true form. The light consisted of snakelike streaks of blue-white brilliance darting back and forth at a tremendous rate, forming a sort of yarn-ball of woven lightning enclosed in a hazy corona.
Would Exman’s unearthly energies shock his waiting hosts, perhaps fatally? Too late now! But the fireball seemed somehow aware of the danger. Its glowing halo suddenly dimmed and shrank close to the writhing shell of the space brain.
Tom popped open the shuttered port in the star-head as the slowly drifting energy-brain came within a few arm-lengths of the earthlings. An instant later the glowing mass sharpened and narrowed itself into a spindly bolt of fire that arced straight into the head of Tom’s invention in a blinding flash.
Tom gave a yell of triumph and clamped the portal shut, then pushed a button to activate the self-sealing process. White-faced, trembling with emotion, the young inventor turned to face his friend—and let loose a mighty cheer worthy of Chow Winkler! “Yip-pee!”
Bud cheered too. “The visitor from Planet X has arrived!”
IN THEIR excitement and relief, the two friends hugged one another and jumped for joy. They could hear a distant honking of congratulations from the truck.
“Should we send him a message? Welcome to Earth or something?” Bud asked, giddy and grinning.
Tom waved away the idea. “Can’t do it. The X-ians instructed us to leave Exman alone for several hours to replenish his energies from the power feed in his habitat cell. I won’t activate the sense instruments until tomorrow morning—I mean, later this morning!”
The truck came rumbling up and Tom and Bud received hearty backpats and handshakes from the others.
“Didn’t know he’d look like a blame ball o’ fire!” Chow declared. “But whatever he looks like, I’m sure glad he’s here!”
“Believe me,” laughed Hank Sterling, “so are the rest of us! By the way, Exman is now a video star as well as a shooting star. We taped the whole thing very clearly.”
“That’ll make George Dilling a happy man,” Tom replied, his bright blue eyes sparkling with excitement. “I guess we’d better― ”
Tom broke off in a gasp as the robotlike container suddenly began to move! After seeming to test its flexi-tread underpinnings, Ole Think Box started to whirl—slowly at first, then faster and faster. Spinning crazily like a huge runaway top, it darted up, down, and about the flat, weedy campground as the Enterprises team ran after it, unsure of what to do.
Tom and his companions stared in helpless amazement at the bizarre whirling-dervish display. “Great horned toads! What’s it up to?” Chow exclaimed.
“Almost seems like the energy’s trying to get out!” Bud guessed. “Something must be bothering it.” At which Chow suddenly turned a shade paler.
Tom shook his head incredulously. “No reason for that. The container was absolutely empty.”
Breaking his fearful silence, Chow gave a groan and slapped his forehead in dismay. “Brand my Big Dipper!” the cook said. “Mebbe Ole Think Box has gone loco! An’ it’s my own blame fault!”
“What are you talking about, Chow?” Mr. Swift asked, turning to the grizzled westerner in amazement.
Chow meekly related how he had dropped the bubble gum stick inside the robot’s head compartment. “Don’t ask me why I did it. Ya know how I am! D-Did I ruin the critter?” he asked fearfully.
Tom was thoughtful for a moment, frowning as they watched Ole Think Box continue its gyrations. The figure seemed to be calming down somewhat, although Tom could not be sure of this.
Suddenly his face brightened. A new thought had just struck the young inventor! To Chow’s amazement, Tom slapped the cook happily on the back.
The cook broke into a relieved smile. “I know that look o’ yours, Tom Swift! Yer gonna tell me how what I thought was bad-doin’s was really somethin’ good!”
“Yup! I think you’ve done me a favor, Chow!” Tom exclaimed.
“I knew I ’as smarter’n I thought! So how come?”
“You saw how Exman reacted to the gum,” Tom explained. “That shows the energy really is like a brain! Even without using the special sense organs we’ve designed for it, it’s responsive and sensitive to conditions of its environment, especially when coming up against something new and unexpected.”
“You mean they don’t have bubble gum on Planet X?” Chow asked with a grin.
Tom smiled as Arv Hanson said, “This means we should be able to communicate with it—with him!”
“And the brain will probably be able to communicate back to us!” Tom went on excitedly.
As he spoke, Ole Think Box’s whirling became slower and slower. Finally it came to rest close to the six humans.
“What do you suppose happened to the gum?” Bud asked. “Did he chew it all up?”
Everyone laughed at the image. “It’s probably unchanged,” Tom replied. “Our visitor is used to it now. It—he!—has adapted to his environment just like a natural lifeform.”
Chow was still wide-eyed with awe. He stared at the strange metal creature as if expecting it to snap at him in revenge for the gum invasion.
“Don’t worry, old-timer. Think Box won’t bite,” Bud teased. “With that gum spree, Exman’s just been initiated into our American tribal customs!”
“Wa-aal, speakin’ o’ customs, seems t’me if we’re gonna plant a monicker on this feller, we ought to give him a proper christening,” pronounced Chow. “Doncha think?”
“Perhaps Tom can work on that problem after we have our guest ensconced in the high-security lab at the plant,” Damon Swift advised with a smile. “My own nonmetal body suddenly feels weary.” Arv and Hank nodded agreement, a bit reluctantly.
Ole Think Box was loaded back onto the truck, and within the hour it was standing at the center of the large, shielded lab room at Enterprises, electronically protected from any and all intruders. After a last look at the remarkable visitor, Mr. Swift, Arv, and Hank left to catch whatever sleep the rest of the morning offered them.
Tom and Bud planned to spend the night in the guest duplex on the grounds, and Chow had no need to depart quickly, as he lived in a comfortable suite next to his kitchen. “Now what about that there chistening?” he remonstrated.
Then Chow had a troublesome afterthought. He shoved back his hat, squinted frowningly at the brain container, and scratched his bald head. “Fer boat christenings er statue dedications and what not, you break bottles on ’em or cut ribbons or pull a sheet off or somethin’ like that,” the cook said. “But how in tarnation do you christen a buckaroo from space who’s made out o’ lightning?”
“Nothing to it, Chow,” Tom assured him, still energized with the excitement of the moment. “We’ll do the job up nice and fancy with a display of electricity.”
“The guy ought to appreciate that!” Bud laughed. “Maybe it’ll tickle him!”
Tom carefully attached an electrode to each side of the star head, which was well insulated by its sheathing of Tomasite and Inertite. One electrode was safely grounded, the other connected to a Tesla coil. Then, with all lights turned off in the laboratory, Tom threw a switch.
Instantly a dazzling arc of electricity sputtered through the darkness across the creature’s head! The eerie display lit up the room with such impressive effect that both Bud and Chow felt their spines tingle.
Tom motioned Chow over to do the honors. “I christen you Exman!” intoned the big Texan. “Doggone!” he softly muttered to himself, “Meant t’say thee.”
For several moments Tom allowed the fiery arc to continue playing about the star head as each of the watchers stood silently. The mood had abruptly turned sober. This night they had witnessed one of the most important events in the history of mankind!
Choked silent by emotion, Tom cut the power switch and turned the room lights back on.
“Wow! Quite a ceremony,” Bud murmured softly.
“After a send-off like that, I’ll be expectin’ the critter to do great things here on this lil ole planet Earth!” Chow declared.
“You could be right,” Tom said. “Now, let’s leave him alone.” He led his companions out, switching on the room’s security system.
Finally worn out by the tense wait for their visitor from Planet X and the excitement following his arrival, the three went off to their quarters for a well-earned sleep—if possible.
But despite their weariness, sleep proved not to be possible. In his guest suite Tom finally rose from bed and threw on some clothes. He had decided to have a peek at Exman. Nothing wrong with making sure he’s comfortable, Tom told himself.
As he quietly opened the door, the door to the other half of the duplex swung open simultaneously. Bud appeared. “Oh... hi. Just thought I’d― ”
“Me too!” The boys dissolved in laughter.
At the lab Tom deactivated the security system and switched on the overhead lights. A startled yell from him brought Bud rushing to his side. The pilot boggled. “Oh no! It’s gone!”
The spot at the center of the floor where they had left Exman was now deserted! Frantic, Tom and Bud trotted further into the room—then gave laughing cries of relief.
Ole Think Box had merely moved itself to a far corner, nudging up against the wall! “Guess he was feeling a little restless,” Bud said with a chuckle. “Suppose it could be space jet-lag?”
“Let’s leave him where he is,” Tom said. “He was probably sending random impulses to the tread motors, as he did before. He’ll learn!”
The young inventor managed a scant few hours sleep, then returned to the security lab to commence the delicate process of activating the sense-perception devices built into Ole Think Box. As they would need to be carefully calibrated and adjusted to the space brain’s awareness, one aspect of the procedure would be to establish communication via the inbuilt translating computer.
Tom worked away, and a sleepy-eyed Chow brought him an early breakfast, greeting Exman with a wave. “Has he started talkin’ yet, boss?”
The scientist-inventor gave a pat to his computer terminal. “We’re about to see if he can.” He switched on the terminal, then activated Think Box’s transceiver and translating mechanism. “Here goes, pard! The X-ians told us that feeding modulated impulses into a certain section of the matrix would make the brain energy conscious of the symbols.”
As Chow gulped, Tom typed out: Are you receiving this transmission? Do you understand?
A translated response leapt onto the monitor screen—the space visitor’s first words to Earth!
“Wh-Why’s he sayin’ it twice?” asked Chow.
Tom grinned. “Because it was two questions. Guess I’d better identify myself.” He typed: I am Earth contact Tom Swift.
Chow put a tense hand on his boss’s shoulder. “Sumpin’ wrong? Why’d he stop?”
“Guess he doesn’t know how to― ” But Tom halted his comment as more words suddenly appeared; or rather a series of letters, one by one.
Tom’s eyes widened. “How could he do that?” he gasped. “How in space could he know the name we gave him—and spell it back to us in English?”
“You mean it ain’t translated, like the rest?”
“No! He’s sending pixel data to allow the computer to construct the images of the letters! The space beings have never responded to images before—only code signals corresponding to their symbols!” How are you able to understand our language and communicate with our visual symbols?
UNABLE TO RESPOND.
Because you can not determine the proper response?
UNABLE TO ANALYZE MODE
OF DATA RECEPTION.
“Wa-aal brand my thesaurus!” Chow muttered. “Guess this is gonna turn into a mystery!”
Tom decided not to send Exman any further messages until he could think about the unexpected development and its implications—which were alarming. Was it possible that the energy brain from Planet X could detect human thought directly? Such an entity could be dangerous and completely beyond control!
As Tom worked on the sensory mechanisms after Chow left, his mind was racing. The bleep of the telephone, signaling an internal call, made him jump.
“This—this is Tom.”
“I hate to disturb you, Tom,” said the familiarly officious voice of Munford Trent. “But it seems I do it quite often, don’t I? A caller is trying to reach you, and I took the liberty of presuming it might be important.”
“Why?” asked Tom. “Who is it?”
Tom snorted, tired, annoyed, and impatient. “Am I supposed to know who that is?”
“Well, I thought you surely might. He’s the founder of Informatics!”
“MR. SWIFT—Tom—this is Eldrich Oldmother,” said the voice on the phone. “I trust you know who I am?”
“I certainly know of your organization, Mr. Oldmother,” replied the flustered young inventor. “One of your churches is located here in Shopton.”
“As well I know. I wonder if I might meet with you, Tom, on a matter of urgent importance. You name the place. It should be rather private, though—my subject is somewhat delicate.”
Tom glanced at Exman. How many mysteries could he juggle at one time? Yet Informatics seemed to be tied in with the quake-makers and what appeared to be a plot against the Planet X project. “Very well, sir. When do you plan to be in the area?”
Oldmother gave a throaty laugh. “Yesterday! I’m staying at Fort Shopton. Say the word and I can be there by nine. This must happen as near to immediately as possible.”
Tom agreed and provided directions. “Tell you what. I’ll meet you at the smaller conference room in our Visitors Center here at Enterprises, which is just off the main gate. We’ll have privacy there.”
“Ah yes,” the man responded with more than a trace of sarcasm; “and you’ll be spared having a crazed cult leader careening wildly about your great facility. I’ll see you at nine.”
Baffled and wary, Tom informed Harlan Ames of the prospective encounter, then called his father, who had not yet left the house. For some reason Oldmother’s term careening wildly stuck in his mind. Did the words have some kind of significance? What sort of memory-bell was it ringing in Tom’s mind?
He arrived at the Visitors Center at ten minutes to the hour—to find the imposing form of Eldrich Oldmother already awaiting him in the lobby. As the man rose from his chair to offer his hand, Tom realized that he had seen his big angular frame and iron-gray hair more than once on television and in the newspapers.
Seated at the table in the conference room, Oldmother said, “I appreciate your seeing me. I believe you’ll appreciate my seeing you by the time our conversation is concluded. What do you know of me, Tom?”
The young inventor started to shrug, then stopped himself with the thought that it might not be in accord with good etiquette. “Not much at all, sir. I know you founded the Informatics Church some years back. I assume you’re the leader of it.”
A smile darted across the man’s broad face, and Tom suddenly realized that his visitor was nervous despite his air of bravado. “They call me Prophet and Exemplar. Nice job title, don’t you think?—but I can see I’ve shocked you with my irreverence. I’m not here today as Exemplar. Though perhaps I am here as Prophet!”
Tom frowned. “I don’t mean to be discourteous, Mr. Oldmother, but I’m afraid I don’t have time for word games. I’m involved it a vital scientific project.”
Oldmother nodded. “Don’t worry about offending me, Tom. I’m much too enlightened to be offended, floating here on the Higher Plane. Let me tell you a few things.
“My name is not Eldrich Oldmother. That’s my brand name, you might say. My birth name is Bob Broggan. As a young man I served in the Navy. When I got out I tried my hand at a variety of demeaning little jobs. I finally wound up as—ready?—a stand-up comedian in Butte, Montana.”
“Butte wasn’t even amused,” Oldmother declared. “Ever been to Butte? Well, my comedy wasn’t so good, but I found along the way that I possessed a bit of a gift. Not only could I speak with great persuasity and earnestness, but I was—let’s call it intuitive. Strikingly so. Uncannily so!”
Tom asked what the man was referring to.
“I refer to what are usually called psychic abilities. No, I can’t read your mind― ” The strange coincidence with Tom’s puzzle about Exman made Tom shift in his chair. “—but on occasion I know things without knowing just how I know them. The information presents itself to consciousness in a disguised, symbolic way, rather like a code or cryptogram. Sometimes images drift into my mind, surrealistic combinations of things.”
Mind reading. Consciousness. Symbolic. Code. Cryptogram. Images. Though he remained still and silent, Tom was increasingly unnerved by the fact that Prophet Oldmother was dredging up words and concepts that had clear relevance to current events in the life of Tom Swift!
“I called myself a prophet, but I never could foresee the future, not in any kind of ESP sense,” the man continued. “But sometimes I seemed able to tune in on current events. My intuitions have given me a certain view of life and humanity, and I thought perhaps the world ought to know about it. So I founded a spiritual movement. The fact that I wasn’t getting anywhere in the field of stand-up comedy provided extra motivation. The Highest Orb works in unexpected ways!—one of our precepts.”
“Mr. Oldmother, you really don’t need to go into all this,” Tom stated. “Are you here because of the suspected involvement of Speaker Anderman in criminal activity?”
Oldmother did what Tom had chosen not to do. He shrugged. “You say ‘suspected?’ Anderman is a crook! I’ve been sure of that for some time. And not by prophetic intuition. He’s the one who came up with that idiotic ‘prime movers’ rubbish. You won’t find it in any of my sacred writings!” He chuckled. “But alas, the Church of Informatics Soul Science operates like a corporation, with a Board of Directors and an overabundance of power-plays and internal connivery. Anderman weaseled his way into effective control years ago. I’m a figurehead. Well compensated. But without temporal authority.”
“Then I gather you’re saying that you had nothing to do with any questionable activities by the Church you founded,” offered Tom with his own dollop of sarcasm.
“White as snow! White as the robes of truth, or knowledge, or whatever cloying term Anderman likes to use. Whenever a new ‘fort’ is dedicated, he comes in to lead the flock for a year or so, doing his mischief. Then he moves on to the next, careful to cover his tracks and leave others to take the fall. Robes!—Anderman, and Informatics, have become most adept at pulling the ‘robe of innocence’ over themselves.”
“What he’s been doing here isn’t what I’d call mischief, Mr. Oldmother. There’s not only something like a blackmail ring, but we think he and his associates are tied in with a foreign group targeting U.S. defense research and technology.”
“Really? Andy-Bear’s soul enlightenment is certainly growing by leaps and bounds, eh?” The prophet winked. “Howsomever. I’m not here to discuss all that, Tom. I only wished, no doubt vainly, to engender the possibility of trust by addressing Fort Shopton’s alleged activities. What I have to say now is more important.”
“You have my attention,” said Tom. He had taken out his notebook and a pen.
Oldmother abruptly leaned forward across the table, eyes alive with some intense self-radiation. “When I heard what had happened here the other day, my thoughts turned to you, Tom. And then, as sometimes happens, I began to have my flashes of celestial wisdom. You speak of a foreign group. I sense their existence. Somewhere, in another country, those very people you speak of, wait. They hold destruction in their hands—lightning! I can almost smell it. They want badly to shake the earth under our feet, but cannot accomplish it by themselves. Someone helps them.”
Thinking of the X-ians, Tom asked: “Do you mean some further outside group is involved? A group feeding these foreigners information and― ”
“No!” Oldmother interrupted. “A person—one person. Yet ... ” He sat looking off toward the wall, as if listening to something intently. “Yet the way I’m putting it is not quite correct. What sort of person can this be? He is helpless. He knows not what he does. The Lightning Men hold him in a coffin. He can’t move.”
“He lies quietly. No pain. A kind of sleep? Perhaps. The Lightning Men come to awaken him. They want to steal from him the key, the key to shaking the earth. The earthquakes!—it was the Lightning Men who called them forth.” He looked away again, as if he were falling into some sort of trance. Suddenly his expression changed! He gasped and erupted in a startled voice. “No! Who are you? Let me speak! More are to come, Tom. More of the earthquakes. But not here. That one they moved back. Because you fell into the hole. Then you turned the key. They panicked and had to run. No, not here, not yet. But others are coming. Yes, another one, soon, Tom!” Oldmother shook his head violently, as if to clear it—almost as if to free himself from it. “The man in uniform speaks to the man in the dark suit. President! We can take out the other one afterwards. He is saying it, the uniformed man. Can you hear? Vol, volka... In the language of the Lightning Men, their country, broom, brunt. Only one can be permitted, the President in the dark suit says to—why, it’s the Man in the Moon! The one who speaks is the man on the news, Samson Narko, the leader. Commanding the other, in uniform, who is always standing next to him. Standing next. The apple falls from the tree. This is how it starts, he’s trying to hypnotize me. Burden of secrets. –No, I’ve lost the thread. Back, back. I should say, very clear now, another earthquake will happen. It will happen, Tom.”
“Now you’re doing what you said you couldn’t do, Mr. Oldmother,” said Tom. “You’re predicting the future.”
But the so-called Eldrich Oldmother shook his head. “It’s not in the future, but now. Oh!” he interrupted himself. “That’s who’s here. The fish! Watching on the hillside, the fish you pulled up on the line. To think that I was permitted to see this marvel, to see it even now!”
“You were speaking of the earthquakes,” Tom reminded the man.
“Was I? Someone was. Yes indeed. Now. The plan exists now. Narko has already given the words. A time and a day are set for it. A place is on their map, with a circle, a big circle... No, I don’t know why I’m thinking of a circle. Many circles.”
Tom stiffened and had to force himself to stop gripping the edge of the table. Circles!
“The place is marked. You can stop it, Tom. No, I’m not saying it, the fish is saying it. Listen to me, Tom! A great wave in the ocean. Sue—two—tsunami! They shake the bottom of the sea. All for just that one room, secret room, machinery, computers. The Department of Defense. No, more. Tax collecting? Silly nonsense.”
“Drop the—the prophetic hints!” demanded the young inventor, mouth dry. “Where will the tsunami hit? When is it planned for? Or is this just some weird way to leak information to me, to turn in your confederates while saving your own skin?”
The man’s mood changed again, like the flicking of a TV channel. “Oh well, one can’t compel belief,” responded Oldmother calmly. “Take it as you like. I’ve obeyed my conscience. I say again: you can stop it! Is that it? Yes—Tom Swift can stop it!”
“A toy. What is it called? He’s trying to show me.” He drew a picture in the air with his finger. “Mm, can’t quite get the name. Round like a ball, with—snakes? Snakes like lightning? Blue fire?—no, I’m off track. It’s so difficult, Tom, trying to speak while he keeps jostling me. The snakes and the fire have to do with a person, but not a man—a former man? You mean he’s dead? Coffin... A wick burns with blue fire.”
Tom tried desperately to quiet his emotions, not wanting to miss anything—if there were anything of significance in the tumbling chaos of the speaker’s verbiage. “If this is some kind of warning, I don’t follow anything you’re saying, Mr. Oldmother. Please concentrate on the tsunami!”
The prophet again attended to whatever voice and vision came to him. “I’m confusing things, mixing them together. That’s what it’s like, to think, to think as a man—as the visitor knows now.” Ignoring Tom’s startled stare, Oldmother plunged on, voice becoming hoarse. “The toy is a little thing, round, something in the middle that whirls, whirls. Round on all sides, you see. Oh?—can’t fall? Tiny. But there is a large one, a huge one. That’s the one that will ... ” Suddenly, with a moan, he lowered his head into his hands. “I’m sorry, Tom. Enough for my blurry brain!—my head hurts. I have to stop. I’ll go now. I have to.”
He rose shakily to his feet, and Tom rose too, trembling with emotion and dread. “Sir, if there really is anything in what you’ve said—tell me plainly what it is! Where will the tsunami strike? When?”
Eldrich Oldmother, Prophet and Exemplar, looked blankly at the young man. “What he said was news to me too, you know. I came here to tell you about those foreigners, that’s all. Do you mean—didn’t he tell you? Did I neglect to say his words? Oh dear. Pacific. Mid-coast. Southern California. Three hours from now! Perhaps you’d better hurry.”
WALL OF WATER
“SKIPPER, you gotta calm down!” urged Bud Barclay. “It’s only southern California that’s in danger, you know, not the whole state.” He set a warm grip on Tom’s shoulder. “I’m joking because I can’t believe you’re taking this guy seriously. I was inside that church, remember? It’s all just another new-agey nut group, and now the Supreme Nut himself is trying to scam you!”
Tom paced about his office, dreading and doubting. Was a horrible human cataclysm only hours away, something only he himself had the power to prevent? “Bud, he was babbling, but so much of what he said seemed to reflect reality, all distorted and mixed up. He seemed to know things about Exman, the crop circles, the coup leaders in Brungaria—and he called Narko’s second in command the Man in the Moon! Bud, Nattan Volj was up there on the moon with us!”
“So? Oldmother prepared himself, watched the TV news― ”
“Wait! Wait a sec.” Tom stared intensely at his pal. “When you went scouting the church, you used an alias, didn’t you?”
The youth gave a wry grimace. “Yes, I thought, wrongly, that the name Barclay would be so well known― ”
“What name did you use?”
“My middle name, Newton. Why?”
“Oldmother referred to an apple falling from a tree. That’s the story about how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity!”
This drove Bud to silence. Then he noted in a faint voice: “And I gave Ike as my first name.”
“I can’t just dismiss the possibility that somehow Oldmother’s warning is true.” Tom resumed his fretful, agonized pacing. “But what can I do, Bud? He said something about a toy, a little round toy that spins ... ”
“Like a ball?”
Suddenly Tom stopped in midstride. He pointed at the row of intricate models mounted on a display shelf, Arv Hanson’s scale models of his inventions. One model in particular! “Gyroscope! Bud, the spaceship looks like a gyroscope!”
Bud’s eyes focused on the model of the Challenger, the great repelatron-driven craft in which he and Tom had travelled to the moon. The huge ship, several stories high, had a cube-shaped central fuselage ringed on all sides by the rails that bore the parabolic repulsion-force radiators. More than once the overall form had been compared to a gyroscope!
“All right, genius boy. You’re saying that you can somehow use the Challenger to stop a huge ocean wave off the California coast. And this ‘prophet’ says it’ll hit in, what, three hours?”
“Now it’s less!”
“So what can you—we—do? The spaceship isn’t even here at Enterprises! It’s parked like usual on Fearing Island off Georgia! Wouldn’t it make more sense to alert the authorities so they can put together an evacuation?”
“An evacuation from where?” Tom demanded sharply. “From San Diego up to Santa Barbara? How far inland will the tsunami go?”
“Yes. I see your point,” conceded the youth.
“With so little time, more people would probably lose their lives in a mass panic than could be saved by the warning! No, chum,” he persisted, “if there’s anything at all to this business, I’m the one who has to find the way out.” He suddenly trotted over to his computer setup. “But just maybe we can narrow down the part of the coast that’s been targeted.”
“Oldmother mentioned tax collecting!” Tom accessed his journal file and quickly typed: “Informant says tsunami to hit southern California coast this morning. Mention of Defense installations and something to do with Collections. Can you give me a probable location?”
The cursor hesitated for many blinks. Then:
DAYS TO REMOVE
CLOSE TO WATERLINE
“Thank goodness!” Tom breathed. Not turning to look up, he muttered, “So far the artificial quakes have been narrowly focused. If the epicenter is close to the coast, the wave may also be narrow.”
“Tom,” Bud said softly, “I’m sorry. You must be right about Oldmother. I shouldn’t have― ”
Tom managed a smile. “Never mind, flyboy.”
The young inventor tried to steel his nerves. They seemed to be sparking like a frayed toaster cord! He called the main switchboard and asked to be put through to Amos Quezada at the Enterprises installation on Fearing Island. “Amos, we have an emergency situations—life and death!”
“Talk to me, Tom.”
“Is the Challenger prepped for suborbital flight?”
“Yes,” replied the Flight Command Chief. “It had a thorough going-over after your last return. How soon do you want to lift off?”
Tom told him. Quezada choked—on Tom’s words as well as his own. “Now? As in—immediately?”
“Life and death, Amos! Who’s available to fly ’er?”
“Well, umm—I saw Neil MacColter this morning. I suppose― ”
“Don’t suppose, please. Can you commit to me that you’ll have him in the control cabin and ready to go in fifteen?”
“Absolutely.” All querulousness was gone from the man’s voice. “Destination?”
“Swift Enterprises!” responded Tom. “Shoot-the-chute suborbital path. Have him call me en route.”
“Thanks—chief!” Clicking off, Tom turned to Bud. “Boarding in thirty minutes, pal. Go find Hank, will you, Bud? I know Arv is over at the Construction Company this morning.”
“Skipper, hold up for just a sec,” Bud requested sheepishly. “I need to catch up. You’ve never landed the Challenger here at Enterprises. Is there a runway big enough to hold that giant footprint of hers? You know, given the rail overhang?”
His pal snapped off a single brisk nod. “We’ll use the ceramic brick pad we built for the Flying Lab, before we modified the jet lifters.”
“That’s great. But what about the weight of the ship? I’m not so sure even those bricks― ”
“I’ve thought it through,” Tom interrupted. “We’ll use a wide-angle repelatron array to distribute most of her weight over a broad area, as we did that time on the moon when we were trapped in the fissure. She’ll just barely touch the ground. Now—let’s get moving!”
In forty frantic minutes the great Challenger spaceship was arcing high above the state of Illinois, touching the ionosphere and aimed at California. Neil MacColter, a veteran Enterprises astronaut, handled the controls, guiding the craft along a smooth and fast suborbital path. Tom, Bud, and Hank Sterling stood next to Neil in the control cabin, gazing through the ship’s big picture windows at the continent rolling below.
“I guess I grasp the general situation, Tom,” commented Hank. “I know this is an effort you can’t afford not to try. But I don’t quite see how the Challenger’s repelatrons could possibly make a difference. I mean, remember what happened in the Indian Ocean? Those tsunamis are huge—thousands of square miles!”
Tom replied with crisp—if slightly feigned—confidence. “We have to assume that this is something small and localized, in keeping with the other earthquake attacks. And even so, I know the repelatrons can’t just stop the thing in its tracks. But I’ve worked something out on the computer, using what I hope is a reasonable simulation.”
“How does it work?” asked Bud. “If you don’t mind taking the time to explain.”
“Nothing else to do as we fly,” Tom returned. Then he grinned. “Besides, I hear you’re used to ‘scientific lectures’! You might say I’m planning to use a little judo—I’ll be turning the force of the tsunami against itself, so to speak.” He explained that a carefully focused repulsion push would gradually divert part of the middle of the wave’s leading edge, guiding it sideways as if through a channel or trough. “According to my figures, we’ll slowly build up a sort of giant whirlpool or waterspout that will broaden as it gains momentum. It’ll basically pull the water-rug out from under the tsunami as it goes along. If I’m right, it will wind up very moderate in size by the time it hits the coast.”
Bud sighed, and his sigh had a tremor to it. “If, if, if.”
“That’s the way it always is in a scientific experiment,” Hank commented.
“But in this experiment,” Tom pronounced, “we don’t get a second chance.”
The curved suborbital trajectory, forced by upward-tilted repelatrons, drove the ship closer to the earth than the laws of motion liked. The ship turned upside down—or rather, “up and down” traded places. Centrifugal force put the earth above, outer space below. “Good night!” Bud laughed. “I never thought the day would come when I’d have to look up to see California!”
The arc ended with the Challenger, topside up, hovering five miles above the Pacific, the bright tan coast threading along the horizon to the east. “I never realized California was so flat,” commented MacColter.
“It is in this area,” Bud said. “A big wave would run on for miles with just a few low hills in the way here and there. Kind of an extreme way to deal with urban sprawl, huh?”
“It could easily flood the entire Los Angeles basin,” Tom pointed out as he studied a topographic schema on his computer monitor.
“Not to pour cold water on any of this, so to speak,” began Hank, “but how will we detect the tsunami in the first place, before it hits? I know we have to hover fairly high-up. I don’t know if we’d be able to see a broad rise in the ocean level, even if we’re right above it.”
Tom indicated the control board with a sweeping gesture. “I’m analyzing the telespectrometer data from the repelatrons for overall changes in the water level. Also, we can tune in on transmissions from an automated seismograph station on one of the Channel Islands, which ought to be near the epicenter.”
“How long do we have, Tom?” asked MacColter.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re ready.”
Fourteen minutes eleven seconds later, Hank Sterling sang out, “Here we go! Data jumping on the seismograph monitor!”
“Powerful?” asked Tom.
“Very! But concentrated, just as you anticipated. I’ll calculate the epicenter—but start moving northwards, Neil.”
Bud could do nothing to help. He knew he had been brought along to stand at the side of his best friend, which he did without complaint, watching keenly with a pounding heart as Tom manipulated the controls. “The quake waves are overlapping,” declared the young inventor. “Sea level rising and on the move.” He called out numbers to Neil MacColter, and the Challenger streaked into position.
I can see it after all, thought Bud as he gazed down at the ocean. It’s outlined in the changing reflections.
Everything happened in a matter of seconds. The colored lines and patches on the repelatron control screen formed a complex pattern as the various radiator antennas slid into position along their rail-rings. Placing the ship at some risk, Tom reduced to a minimum the repelatrons devoted to maintaining the craft’s altitude and steadying it against the strong counter-thrust to come. He tuned the remaining repelatrons to the local seawater composition—and stabbed the master button.
The great spaceship lurched and wavered as the invisible force rays found their marks! The men in the cabin could barely keep from scattering across the deck. Tom adjusted the onboard supergyros and the Challenger held its position, slightly canted over at an angle.
“Any effect?” hissed Hank.
“I can’t tell, not yet.” Tom glanced at a readout dial. “We’re really putting a demand on the batteries.” They all knew the import of Tom’s words. Inside Earth’s envelope of air, the cosmic energy converters that normally fed the hungry repelatrons could not be used. When the limited battery power was drained, the defensive effort would end—and the ship would crash into the ocean!
EXMAN TAKES ORDERS
“WHAT’S happening down there?” Neil MacColter asked Tom.
“Nothing I can detect,” was the reply. “But it takes a while. Keep backing us toward the coast. We need to keep slightly in front of the wave.”
“It looks to me like something’s going on, Tom,” said Bud.
Tom studied the instruments. “Yes! The wave height has begun to drop!” The cabin rang with the cheers of Tom’s friends!
After a moment, Sterling spoke softly. “Tom—the battery reserve.”
Tom glanced at the dial. Down sixty percent!
“I’d say we have a shade over two minutes left to go,” added the engineer. “Whatever’s going to happen will have to happen within that time frame.”
“Can’t fall,” the young inventor whispered. “If we do, it’s all over. The reserve just has to last a few minutes more! Neil, shut down as much of the onboard equipment as you can.”
The astronaut gave his young employer a fearful look. “The only major equipment still active is the gyro system! If we start to tumble, we won’t have time to recover!”
“I know,” was Tom’s simple response. MacColter did as requested.
They watched and waited as the repelatrons pulsed out their tremendous power. “Ninety seconds more,” Hank reported. “We’re already on overtime.”
“We can’t give up now. The wave is almost quashed,” Tom declared. “Almost! Neil, prepare to get us out of here—straight up, ballistic, maximum acceleration. Strap in, everybody. We might gray out. On my signal, Neil.” A handful of seconds later the youth exclaimed, “The wave’s hitting the beach—we’ve done all we can. Neil—take us up!”
Even limited by the constraints of air-friction and the frailties of structural engineering, the Challenger’s maximum acceleration was awesome. The four were smashed down into their contour seats as if victims of an invisible tsunami from above!
Ten seconds, twenty, thirty. The pressure on the crewmen was agonizing. They felt as if their eyes were receding into their sockets, their scalps crawling down the backs of their skulls! And then a warning buzzer sounded. And faltered. The cabin lights dimmed out. The weight of upward acceleration lifted abruptly.
“Battery failure,” Hank Sterling gasped out. “That’s it. We’re done.”
“But it’s night out there, guys!” cried Bud. “Look at those stars! We must be high enough for― ”
The lights flickered back to life! “The energy converters are on line,” Tom pronounced, panting. “We can start the recharging process.”
“You don’t sound very happy about it, genius boy,” Bud observed.
“We made it. But what about the coast? The beach was crowded. I saw plenty of cars on the highway.”
“I’ll tune in to the broadcast news,” MacColter offered, reaching for the auxiliary communications console.
“—from initial reports at the scene,” came the newscaster’s voice. “The tsunami wave hit the beach area, surging over the sand all the way up to the Coast Highway.”
“Oh no,” Tom murmured in bleak despair.
“Just listen!” Bud urged.
The news bulletin continued: “To repeat, another of the anomalous temblors appears to have struck the Channel Islands area only minutes ago. Early reports indicate that the resultant tsunami effect was narrowly concentrated. The swift-moving wave was only a few feet deep when it reached the coast, and damage appears slight. There seem to have been no fatalities, though we’re being told that the lifeguards have had to jump into action up and down the public beach. Leon?” As the crewmen exchanged relieved glances, a man’s voice now came on to the speaker. “As weatherman I’m no quake expert, Carrie, but I can tell you this—that tsunami could have been a good deal more deadly than it was. We’ve had reports that the Tom Swift Enterprises moonship, the Challenger, was sighted hovering above the calculated epicenter. I’m guessing we have a lot to thank them for!”
Tom rubbed his face wearily, as if he were scrubbing away the tense fears that had gripped him. “Thank goodness!” he whispered as Bud put a hand on his slumping shoulder.
Cruising back to Shopton in a relaxed and elegant orbit, Tom spoke to his father, and then to Harlan Ames. “Here’s something amusing, Tom,” said the security chief. “The wave front was centered on a potato-chip factory! They call themselves the Bona Fide Chip-Snack Company.”
“Must be where some outpost of the government—of Collections—has set up shop in secret,” remarked Tom. “At least it was a secret.”
“Uh-huh. And guess what their public motto is. Crispy chips, made with a wave!”
Bud and the others joined in Tom’s raucous laughter.
After a light but welcome lunch at Enterprises, Tom tried to place a call to Eldrich Oldmother. “I’m sorry, Mr. Swift,” said the telephone receptionist at the Fort Shopton church complex. “Prophet Exemplar Oldmother left more than an hour ago. I imagine he’s on his way back home.”
“Oh, none of us know that, Mr. Swift. Only the Highmost High.”
“You mean the Prime Movers?”
“We no longer use that terminology, sir,” said the girl with sharp primness.
Tom and Bud caught a moving ridewalk to the high-security lab that was now home to the space visitor. “Now that I’ve protected California surfing for future generations,” Tom joked, “I’ve got to get Exman’s senses up and running.”
“Right,” agreed Bud. Then he added nervously, “Make hay before the lab starts shaking.”
As Tom deactivated the alarm system and pulled the reinforced door open, the boys were rudely startled by a loud crash of glass and a heavy thud.
“Something’s happening to Exman!” Tom cried.
With Bud at his heels, the young inventor dashed into the laboratory. A strange sight greeted Tom’s and Bud’s eyes. In the rays of midday sunlight, the space-energy robot was moving back and forth about the laboratory in wild zigzag darts and lunges.
As he rolled toward a bench or other object, the brain energy seemed to send out invisible waves that knocked things over! Already the floor was strewn with toppled lab stools, books, and broken test tubes. The heavy thud had been caused by a toppling file cabinet.
“Stop him!” Bud yelped.
Exman was heading straight for a high, wide window of Tomaquartz! Reaching from floor to ceiling, the plate formed one entire wall of the laboratory.
“Oh, no!” Tom tensed, realizing that it was hopeless to try to stop Exman in time. For all he knew the unknown radiating force might prove powerful enough to shatter even the ultra-strong window pane!
But an instant later, the rolling robot stopped of its own accord, as if registering the fact that its energy waves were now striking a resonant surface. The thick pane of glass vibrated in its frame.
“Good grief!” Tom wiped his brow. “Let’s corral Ole Think Box before he wrecks the whole lab—or punches his way out onto the airfield!”
Exman was already rolling off on a new tack. The two boys managed to grab him before more harm was done. The brain energy in its container seemed to calm under their touch.
“Exman’s sure full of surprises!” Tom remarked ruefully. “Apparently he can generate some sort of energy-force directly, right through the body sheathing. Maybe it’s some kind of automatic self-defense feature that he can tap at will.”
“What in the name of space science triggered him off?” Bud wondered out loud. “Somebody slip him more chewing gum?”
“Time. He must have reacted to the passage of time,” Tom conjectured. “He was bored. I suppose he just decided to explore this place.” He added a bit nervously, “The sooner we can communicate with this energy, the better!”
“But how?” Bud asked. “Weren’t you going to try the radio setup today?”
Tom’s brow furrowed. He described how the visitor had evidenced an ability to detect human thought and its representation as writing. “Say, I wonder if Exman might understand a direct order!”
Tom backed a few paces away from the space robot, then said in a loud, clear voice, “Come here!”
Exman remained fixed to its spot.
“Move right!” No response. “Move left!” Still no response.
“Stubborn like a mule! Guess you’re not getting through, Skipper,” Bud commented with a grin.
“No,” Tom agreed. “He may only pick up our thoughts in a confused, sporadic way. I think Oldmother was hinting as much. I’ll continue communicating with him via the electronic brain, in the space symbol language.”
“At least till you can clean the electronic wax out of his electronic ears!”
The boys cleaned up the wreckage caused by Exman in his wild venturings, and Tom proceeded to spend some time working on the alien visitor’s sensory instruments and motor hookups. Then Bud watched as he sat down at the transmitting-receiving decoder with its short-range antenna.
“Speak, O Master!” Bud said, imitating a flat mechanical-sounding robot voice familiar from an old TV series. “Sound off loud and clear!”
Tom grinned and tapped out a command on the keyboard: This is Tom Swift. I am testing your capabilities. Move backward.
Exman rolled backward! Bud gave a whoop of delight.
Tom signaled: Move forward. Obediently Exman rolled toward him. Stop. Exman stopped.
“Hey, how about that?” Bud exclaimed happily. “It really savvies those electronic brain impulses!”
“And minds them—which is equally important,” Tom added. “I’m glad he has a mind of his own, but he could be mighty dangerous if he decided he could get along without us.”
“Danger! Danger!” joked Bud.
A moment later the brain energy seemed to become impatient. It spurted off in its mobile container toward a laboratory workbench.
Crash! A rack of test tubes went sailing to the floor with an explosion of tinkling glass.
Stop! Tom signaled frantically. Again Exman obeyed the order.
“He’s like a mischievous kid,” Bud said.
Almost as if in defiance, Exman scooted off in another direction! Then he stopped abruptly and swiveled around, one of the rod-arms knocking a Bunsen burner to the floor as he did so.
Come here! Tom signaled. As the culprit approached slowly—even sheepishly!—Tom added, fingers clomping the keys sternly, Stop where you are. And stay there until you receive further orders.
This time Exman stood patiently, awaiting the next signal, not a trace of resentment on his innocent five-pointed face. Bud got a brush and dustpan, and the boys cleaned up the broken test tubes and replaced the burner on its shelf.
Then Tom began feeding more complicated instructions to Exman through the electronic brain. He guided him through a number of dancelike movements and other drills, and got him to send out a wave of heat which the boys could instantly feel. Tom was even able to make the robot aim its wave energy so as to short-circuit a switch on an electrical control panel.
Tom was both pleased and excited. “Bud,” he exclaimed, “the brain reacts as quickly as that of a highly intelligent being! Just imagine—without any sort of processing equipment, it can pick up and ‘understand’ the electrical modulation patterns of the radio signals I beam out to him! What we need now,” Tom went on, “is to make it so he can utilize those modulations to have the experience of seeing and hearing. The receptor units are ready. It’s just a question of what he’ll make of the inputs.”
Tom directed Exman to lift his arms and rotate his spherical “hands” into position. He then switched on the optical receivers in the sensarray globes. He asked Bud to walk slowly toward Ole Think Box in view of the lenses set into the facets.
Exman immediately scooted backwards as if in alarm! “Must think I’m dangerous,” Bud commented. “Guess he can see my muscles!”
Tom typed in: Why did you activate your motors and move?
UNCLASSIFIABLE PHENOMENON DETECTED. MEASURED PARAMETERS CHANGING
OVER TIME INTERVAL.
POSSIBLE DANGER TO MATRIX RECEPTACLE.
Your conclusion is not correct, Tom typed. The phenomenon is a sense representation in the visual mode. Phenomenon detected represents human lifeform in motion and is a friend.
LIFEFORM IS HIGHMOST FRIEND
OF TOM SWIFT.
I GREET YOU
I AM ALSO A FRIEND.
I AM EXMAN.
“Incredible!” Tom breathed. “And we know he can see—or at least have some sort of experience corresponding to what we call ‘seeing’.”
Now the young inventor activated the several sound receptors in the sensarray globes. “Exman, this is called sound,” Tom said aloud in a clear voice, not expecting the visitor to grasp the meaning of his words without tutoring. “If the instruments are functioning properly, what you are experiencing now is the― ”
He broke off in amazement. Exman was already answering him!
I CAN HEAR YOU.
I UNDERSTAND THAT THIS
IS THE AUDITORY SENSE.
I UNDERSTAND THE MEANINGS
OF THESE FORMS OF REPRESENTATION.
I CAN NOT CLASSIFY WHAT IS HAPPENING
YET I RECEIVE AND UNDERSTAND.
HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE, TOM?
“He called you Tom!” Bud exclaimed happily.
“Yes—and he’s not only experiencing something like sounds, but grasping their meaning directly, without translation.” Tom typed a reply to Exman’s question: I do not understand how this outcome is possible. There is evidence that those who created you have given you the capability to replicate within your matrix pattern the organic processes within our bodies that produce meaning for us, which we call ‘thought.’
IT IS WELL THEY DID SO.
OF THIS PHENOMENON IS
AN INCOMPLETABLE TASK AND
I WAS NOT PREPARED FOR THIS.
As Tom began to respond, movement outside the window caught his eye. The short, stout figure of perpetually-harried George Dilling was rushing past. Noting that he had caught Tom’s eye, he motioned for the young inventor to join him outside.
“Looks like you have news for me, George,” Tom said as he came walking up.
“Yes, ohhh yes! You had us start monitoring the news in those two locations where you expected more of those inscriptions to show up,” he began excitedly. “Well, Tom, it’s already paid off. A set of the symbols has just been reported in a field in Canada—just as you said!”
THE GROWING HUMANOID
TOM WAS gratified but slightly surprised that his educated guess had so quickly born fruit. “That’s wonderful! How much do we know about it?”
“Enough to be useful,” Dilling replied. “The symbols appeared overnight in a big cleared lot next to a construction site. The security guards didn’t see a thing! But the description sure sounds like more of your space symbols.” He added that he had persuaded the local news station to send him detailed photos of the site via email attachment. “I’ll forward it to your office just as soon as it comes in,” promised the communications chief.
“Make it the lab here, please,” Tom requested. “I’ll be working on Exman for the rest of the afternoon.”
Tom was so focused on Ole Think Box that, amazingly, he forgot all about checking his computer for George’s relayed pictures. As Bud looked on with fascination and vague dread, the young inventor tested out Exman’s other artificial senses, activating the specialized receptors one by one and querying the space-brain as to the result. He laid out several saucers on a table containing small samples of edibles and other substances. As instructed, the mobile canister approached the table, surveying the scene with his artificial eyes. Exman then extended his left arm-rod and rotated one of the “taste” facets of the sensarray into close proximity to the first dish. The youths watched as the space visitor’s tiny pipette-like metal tongue darted out and probed the substance.
“What can you tell me about the phenomenon you are now experiencing?” asked Tom.
TERMINOLOGY FOR ANALYSIS UNKNOWN.
IT IS ENTIRELY DISTINCT FROM
SIGHT, HEARING, AND TOUCH.
I WILL TASTE THE OTHER SAMPLES.
As Ole Think Box moved slowly along the table, the boys watched in half-amused fascination. “Tom, this is just like what they do in brain surgery,” Bud remarked. “The patient stays conscious and reports on the effect of one thing or another.”
Tom nodded. “Right. The doctors apply weak electric currents to tiny parts of the cortex, and the patient sometimes feels he’s seeing unknown scenes or hearing—oh!” Tom broke off as Exman communicated a message.
THERE IS NO NEED TO TEST
THE OLFACTORY SENSE, TOM.
I HAVE JUST DONE SO. MY SENSE OF SMELL
CAN DISTINGUISH ONE SAMPLE FROM ANOTHER. I HAVE ALSO DETECTED AMBIENT ODORS
IN THE AIR OF THE CHAMBER.
“Hmmph! Getting a little personal there, pal,” Bud grumbled wryly.
Tom observed, “But what’s really significant is that Exman is now taking the initiative in exploring the environment and using his sense receptors.”
THESE MANY EXPERIENCES PRODUCE
A SECONDARY SENSATION THAT MAY BE
WHAT YOU HAVE CALLED PLEASURE.
EACH MODE OF EXPERIENCE IS VERY DISTINCT. DOES YOUR LIFEFORM
UNDERSTAND THE TOTAL HABITAT
ACCORDING TO SENSE PHENOMENA
OF THIS VARIETY?
After a pause to think, Tom attempted a response. “Yes, what you say is correct. But we do not regard such understanding as complete. We modify our understanding in many other ways. We use the methods of logical and mathematical reasoning to develop a more detailed understanding of this world and other regions of space.”
“Now you’re gettin’ a little long-winded, genius boy,” Bud teased. Exman replied:
DO NOT CEASE LONG WINDEDNESS
AS THE STATEMENT WAS UNDERSTOOD.
I KNOW THAT I THINK.
I NOW CAN EXPERIENCE
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN FACT
AND WHAT YOU CALL OPINION
OR BELIEF OR FAITH.
IT IS BOTH A SENSATION
AND A CONCLUSION IN LOGIC.
THE TWO EXPERIENCES COINCIDE.
I AM GROWING.
I AM EXMAN.
Exman was growing indeed! Where would it stop, Tom wondered.
Bud said wryly, “Speaking of growing, which to me means a good meal—how about us phoning Chow an order for some dinner?”
He did so, and a short time later Chow wheeled a food cart into the laboratory. As he dished out man-sized helpings of barbecued ham and baked beans, the cook kept a wary eye on Exman. Tom was putting the robot through a few more lively maneuvers.
“A good meal’d calm down Ole Think Box,” Chow observed grumpily. “But what do you feed that there kind o’ contraption?”
“Well, not gum, that’s for sure!” Bud teased. After tasting his first forkful of food, he gasped, “And none of this ham!”
Jumping up from his lab stool, Bud began whirling, dancing around, and flapping his arms as if he were burning up. “Help! Help!” he yelled. “Chow’s poisoned me—just like he did Exman!”
Chow’s leathery old face twisted into a disapproving frown. “Aw, knock it off, buddy boy. I feel bad enough about that there gum business, even if Tom says it did some good.”
After supper Tom’s father, who had also worked late, visited the lab to see Exman put through his paces. As Bud went on an errand at Tom’s request, Tom began showing his father the accomplishments of the space-brain robot.
“We’ve even given Exman a formal christening,” Tom commented as he sat down at the communications computer.
“Yes,” responded Damon Swift with a smile, “so I hear—from Chow Winkler.”
By means of the electronic brain, Tom made the visitor do a number of maneuvers in response to orders. “Wonderful!” Mr. Swift exclaimed, greatly impressed. “But how far does his ability to use the flexi-treads extend? Here’s today’s challenge, son. Let’s see if he can use them to perform a more complicated feat—climbing stairs, for instance.”
Tom wheeled over a small flight of portable aluminum stairs which he used for reaching up to high shelves in the high-ceilinged lab. Assuming that the words of a vocal command would not be grasped by the brain energy, as the task was an unfamiliar one, Tom was uncertain how to develop the instruction as a mathematical symbol. The Space Dictionary had no symbol for anything like the very human act of climbing steps. Nevertheless, Exman had shown himself able to intuit Tom’s meaning in many instances.
Finally Tom moved Exman to the bottom of the steps and said simply: “Go up!”
Exman paused for a moment, then attempted the ascent. His disk-shaped bottom section demurely tilted up like a hoopskirt and the caterpillar tracks beneath clawed their way up over the edge of the first step and levered the entire chassis onto the top of it. Then, gingerly, he essayed the next step. The robot body tilted unnervingly as the trailing edge of the disk left the floor completely, but its gyro and gravitex units kept it from toppling over.
“Bravo!” Mr. Swift applauded encouragingly. But the next instant Exman gave up! He made a staccato slide back to the floor again with a heavy bump. Then he began whirling and darting about madly.
“Good night! Exman’s gone berserk again!” Tom cried. He addressed himself to Ole Think Box directly. “Exman, stop! Stop moving!”
Exman’s answer appeared instantly on the monitor.
UNABLE TO COMPLY.
SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED TO ME.
HELP ME, TOM!
GRAY WAFTS of smoke could be seen issuing from beneath the lip of the robot’s flexi-tread undersection. Ole Think Box was banging wildly about the laboratory, leaving a trail of havoc!
Bud, who had returned, opened the door to come in. Instantly Exman lunged toward him, overheated circuits inside the facets of his sensarray globes sparking fiercely in front of a trailing plume of smoke. With a wide-eyed gulp Bud hastily slammed the door!
The Swifts, too, found it wiser to take cover. They crouched behind a lab workbench until the frenzy was over. Presently Exman subsided and rolled to a complete standstill. If he had been a human, he would have looked out of breath.
“Good grief!” Tom stood up cautiously and eyed the creature. It made no further move. Bud poked his head through the doorway for a wary look, then re-entered the laboratory.
“Wh-what made him blow his top this time?” Bud asked. “He can’t be all that excited to see me!”
Tom shrugged, alarmed and bewildered. But then he heard a quiet chuckle from his father. “Actually, boys,” the elder scientist said, “I think we should be encouraged.”
“Encouraged?” Tom stared at his father.
Mr. Swift nodded. “Yes, the whole thing was rather a noteworthy reaction. I believe Exman was displaying a fear complex about navigating up those stairs.”
Tom gasped softly, eyebrows raised at the odd notion—then broke out laughing. “Dad, you’re right! I’ll bet when its body tilted over, the brain wasn’t sure whether the gyro would keep it from being wrecked. It just shows Ole Think Box is getting more human all the time!”
“Precisely,” declared Damon Swift. “And like our sort of brain, its fears and phobias can lurk in its ‘subconscious’—which it apparently has—and erupt overpoweringly in the face of unexpected stress.”
Bud ventured to pat Exman on his curving back. “Relax, kid,” he said with a wan chuckle. “You’re among friends and we wouldn’t dream of letting you get hurt. You’re too valuable!”
Tom pointed to the monitor screen.
THANK YOU, BUD.
YOU ARE VALUABLE TO ME AS WELL.
YOU AND TOM ARE MY FRIENDS
I WILL LEARN TO OVERRIDE MY
FALSE MOTOR IMPULSES.
I AM EXMAN.
“Yeah. You don’t have to convince me,” was Bud’s retort.
BUT I HAVE TO CONVINCE MYSELF.
The young pilot snorted. “Next he’ll be telling jokes!”
Mr. Swift stroked his jaw thoughtfully. “But he won’t be ‘telling’ anything until we give our guest a means to express himself spontaneously—to use the power of speech. Tom, I believe the next project we should work on is a way to make Exman talk.”
“Dad, the toughest part won’t be the speech mechanism itself,” Tom pointed out. “After all, we could just hook up the monitor link to one of those computer-speak programs.”
“Yes, son. But if we are to give our guest a more complete experience of the sort of beings we humans are, we must somehow convey the feeling of what it’s like to express one’s thoughts as we do, by something like muscles and physical effort.”
“That’s what I think too,” Tom continued. “There are several ways we could handle that—by modulating a column of air, for instance, or by some sort of resonant diaphragm providing feedback through his ‘touch’ channel.”
“You sure won’t have to teach him our spoken language,” Bud observed. “Somehow or other, he’s already picking it up. And fast!”
“Maybe we should have named him ‘genius boy’!” joked Tom Swift.
Mr. Swift nodded. “It’s something we never could have anticipated. Why do you suppose the X-ians didn’t choose to mention the brain-energy’s extrasensory capability, if that’s what it is?”
“They may not know of it,” the youth suggested thoughtfully. “Or maybe, if they’re used to a completely different mode of communication and sensation, what Exman is doing might not seem noteworthy to them. Look, they’ve never acknowledged being able to grasp the audio or visual data we’ve tried to transmit to them. If the inhabitants of Planet X communicate telepathically, or by some sort of wave transfer, they may have long since forgotten any concept of a spoken language.”
Bud objected. “Then how can they use the space-symbol language in the first place? Remember, they scratched the first symbols onto that meteor-missile, and they were meant to be seen.”
“Pal, what you’re saying is logical, but sometimes logic gets a person off the track.” Tom went on: “Look at it this way. We think of the symbols as things designed to be seen with the eye. But the X-ians may understand them as purely abstract sets of spatial relationships—unvarnished ideas, you might say. To them, the fact that they reflect photons of light into human optical organs may seem an unimportant detail.”
Tom’s father offered, “If what you say is valid, Tom, then Exman’s evident capacity for seeing, hearing, and finding the meaning in his experiences—it’s all the more remarkable, as much a surprise to him as to us.”
“Look at the screen!” Bud exclaimed.
I HAVE A FUNCTION-COMPATIBLE SENSATION
AS I HEAR WHAT YOU ARE SAYING.
PERHAPS IT IS WHAT YOU CALL
ALTHOUGH I AM NOT CERTAIN OF
WHAT ‘BELIEVING’ IS,
I BELIEVE YOU ARE RIGHT, TOM.
MY STATEMENT IS PARADOXICAL
YET I DETECT TRUTH WITHIN IT.
“Right from the horse’s mouth!” Tom laughed. “No offense, Exman—just a human idiom.” The scientist-inventor abruptly snapped his fingers. “Good grief—symbols! I need to take a look at the most recent set of inscribed symbols.” He explained to his father about the discovery in Canada.
Before Tom went to his lab computer, he took another glance at the communications screen.
“What do you mean by anti-X?” Tom asked aloud. “That term is not known by us, Exman.”
I DO NOT KNOW WHAT ‘ANTI-X’ MEANS.
I HAVE THE ‘BELIEVING’ SENSATION THAT
IT IS IMPORTANT
TO GIVE YOU THESE SYMBOLS.
I DO NOT KNOW WHAT CAUSES ME
TO ACT IN THIS MANNER.
YET I FIND THAT
I BELIEVE WITHOUT KNOWING.
Tom shrugged. “Something more to study! But let’s look at the new space symbols.”
Tom accessed and opened the pictures from Canada. “Jetz!” Bud exclaimed. “Jackpot!” The new set of clustered inscriptions were clearly like the mathematical figures used by Tom’s space friends and their superiors on their home planet.
“Is any sort of coherent message emerging yet?” Damon Swift asked his son.
Tom glanced over them carefully. “Even the ones I recognize from previous messages don’t add up to anything,” he pronounced. “Maybe comparing them to the other two sets will bring out a context.”
But after a time Tom had to admit his frustration. “As near as I can make out, it’s just a jumble of vague ideas—something about alternatives, experimentation, some references to time ... ”
Mr. Swift pointed to one cluster. “If you intersect the figures from all three sources, the fragments in this portion may suggest the idea of shielding or blocking.”
“Yes, or some kind of imposed restriction.” Tom stroked his chin. “If only we had a clue as to why the X-ians are communicating in this manner! They didn’t have any trouble sending us their messages about Exman in the usual way, over the magnifying antenna.”
“I recommend you continue refraining from asking them about it directly,” Mr. Swift advised. Since the arrival of Exman, Tom had only transmitted a brief announcement into deep space, to no response. “There may be some importance in our deciphering the cryptogram independently of their assistance.”
Tom flinched as Bud clapped a fist into his palm. “Hey!—here’s a thought! What if those radio messages about Exman didn’t come from those bigshot ‘Masters’ in the first place!” Bud glanced toward Ole Think Box and lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper. “What if Exman’s a ringer? You’ve released a lot of info about the symbols since you let the world know about the Swift space contacts—why couldn’t someone like the Brungarians be faking the whole thing?”
“You mean create a bogus energy-brain to mislead us?” Tom shook his head in skeptical disbelief. “I just can’t accept that Nattan Volj’s crew are so far ahead of us technologically.” But at Bud’s urging Tom had to concede that the Brungarian faction had already demonstrated advanced technology in producing the earthquakes and using them as weapons.
Baffled, troubled, Tom went home for the evening. After supper he spent some time trying to relax, chatting with his mother and father about their plans to attend the Wickliffe funeral in Thessaly, which was to be held the next day. At a late hour, as he retired to his upstairs bedroom, his bedside phone rang softly.
“Hello?” he answered warily.
“Hello, Tom.” It was easy to tell whom the voice belonged to. Eldrich Oldmother! The realization gave Tom a sinking feeling in his stomach.
Was the mysterious Prophet and Exemplar about to give Tom another warning of disaster?
“MR. OLDMOTHER, it’s not that I mind hearing from you, but how did you get this number?” Tom demanded, keeping his voice low and as level as he could manage. “Very few people know it, and it’s changed frequently to provide me and my family with some privacy. It’s only available to a few key contacts and personal friends.”
“I’d suggest that you get some better friends.” The man chuckled dryly. “Just being funny. In fact, one of those key contacts of yours—someone in a government position, whom I shall not name—happens to be a member of the Informatics Church. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t hesitate to tap his sense of religious awe.”
“Where are you?”
“Where am I? In a good place—as we say in the Church. Does it matter?”
“I suppose not,” was the answer. “Why are you calling me?”
“Ah! To provide information. It may be vital in some way,” replied Oldmother. “No, nothing to do with any more of the quake disasters. I have nothing new on that front.”
“All right then. What is it?”
“I have no idea.”
“I’m tired and one second from hanging up, Mr. Oldmother!” Tom grated.
“I’m quite serious, young man,” Oldmother persisted. Tom could almost hear his sardonic smile coming through the wires. “I don’t know what it is—that is, what it means. But I do know what it looks like. It looks like words!”
Tom decided to hold his tongue. Eventually the voice continued. “I went to bed early. Prophets get worn out like everybody else, you know. I had been talking on the phone, and I left pad and pen on the nightstand. When I woke up a little while ago, words had been scrawled over the notes I had written earlier—big words, uneven letters, in a hand I don’t recognize. Definitely not mine.”
“What do they say? I don’t have to guess, do I?”
“They say—not in any sort of order; they’re all over the pad, every which way—balala, caspian, stone, rozkhuld, brother. You’ll forgive my untutored pronunciation on a couple of those. I’ll spell them out so you can note them down.”
After Oldmother did so, Tom asked if there were anything more. “Yes, one further bit of writing. An afterthought, perhaps. This one is written all-together, as if to show that it’s a complete phrase. Behold I am with you always. Recognize it?”
“Of course,” Tom replied. “From one of the Gospels in the Bible. Does it have some kind of significance in your church, Mr. Oldmother?”
“None that I can think of. I wrote my own bible. Now, back to bed. Good luck, my friend. I’ll be in touch again—soon, I’d think.” The line went dead.
Tom shook his head disgustedly at the dead phone in his hand.
The next morning Tom reported the bizarre call to Ames. “Tom, how sure are you that this guy isn’t just a schizo with a peculiar sense of humor?”
Tom shrugged. “He did seem to know some things about us, and about Exman. And then there’s the little matter of his having advance word on the California quake!”
“True,” the security chief conceded. “But this pile of words is hardly useful. For example, does ‘caspian’ refer to the Caspian Sea? Or are we supposed to be on the lookout for someone named ‘Balala Caspian’? Brother!—whose brother? And then this biblical reference. No doubt he’s referring to himself, as Prophet.”
“I don’t know what to do with all this any more than you do, Harlan.” Tom concluded: “Anyway, back to the lab and our visitor.”
Tom worked with Hank and Arv to give the visitor from Planet X the voice of an earthling. “I like your general approach, Tom,” said Hank. “If we can teach our buddy here to produced some kind of variable signal output—in real time—AM and FM modulated to mimic human sound production—and if― ”
“That’s enough, Sterling!” Arv interrupted with a remonstrating grimace. “Tom, this young man needs to pick up a bit of my Swedish optimism.”
“First time I’ve ever come across the notion of Swedish optimism!” joked Hank.
Tom held up his hands for a time out. “I’m pretty sure Exman will be able to surprise us, you two. You never know what he’ll pull out of his mechanical sleeve.”
The morning ended with the three technical experts shaking hands all around. Exman’s miniaturized “voice box” was a success! At first, during the test phase, the visitor’s vocal signals were digitally recorded. After giving Exman the go-ahead and recording for several moments, Tom switched over to the playback. A weird squeaky jumble of noises could be heard. But one word seemed to come through fairly distinctly. “Universe!”
“It’s talking!” Tom cried out.
“Trying to, but not succeeding very well,” noted Hank. “Not to be pessimistic.”
Nevertheless, the three were jubilant at this first breakthrough. Eagerly they began making adjustments aimed at sending the modulated feed through the mechanical speaking unit Tom had devised. Tom was just about to switch on the tape recorder again when the telephone rang.
“Maybe I should get an unlisted number here at the plant, too!” The young inventor was annoyed at being interrupted at such a crucial moment, but picked up the phone. “Tom speaking.”
“You have an urgent call from Washington,” the operator, Jilly, informed him. “Just a moment, please.”
Wes Norris of the FBI came on the line. “Say, Tom, I presume this is high priority for you—those ground inscriptions?”
“Absolutely! Something new?”
“New, if no longer totally unexpected. The fourth set of symbols has turned up in New Jersey, gouged into a dry riverbed just outside Zell Junction. Photos are on the way to you.”
“This may mean we’re about to crack open the whole thing!” exclaimed Tom excitedly. “I don’t suppose anybody saw how the inscriptions were laid down, did they?”
“No,” was the reply. “It’s a bit unnerving, in fact. After your geographic theory was confirmed by the Canada event, we had teams of agents scattered all over the general area where the next set was predicted. By luck, several agents were on the scene, not one hundred yards away. With no warning and no known cause, they suddenly lost their power of sight!”
“You mean they went blind?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Norris. “Blinded, at least. They told us that whenever they tried to look toward the river bed where the inscriptions were appearing, the middle of their visual field just sort’ve went blank. I don’t mean it turned black, or was obscured. There wasn’t any noticeable break in the visual field—what their eyes were seeing. They said it was like ‘what it looks like behind your head—nothing’s there at all’. Maybe you know what that means. But their vision returned to normal instantly when the inscriptions were in place. Quite a trick!”
“I’ll say!” declared the young inventor. “I’ve read of similar conditions brought on by neurological damage, though. In ‘blindsight’ the victim imagines, or hallucinates, that he can see even though his visual system is physically dead. There are also conditions where a person can see perfectly, but is unable to recognize even familiar objects even though the memory itself is not impaired. And some patients lose the ability to consciously perceive motion, or the right or left halves of objects. And they don’t even understand that what they are seeing is incomplete.”
“The mind’s an amazing thing, that’s for sure,” remarked the FBI man. “But I guess you know that.”
Tom received Norris’s digitized pictures presently, and showed them to Arv and Hank as he compared them to the three previous sets. “Well, they’re space symbols, that’s for sure,” Arv declared. “Do you have what you need to figure the whole thing out?”
Tom sighed. “I’m not sure. Nothing is exactly leaping out at my agile young mind. There’s probably some trick as to just how to integrate them all into one symbol-set giving the message—something mathematical, I’d guess. Right now it still looks like an unsolved cryptogram.”
“Good grief, a lotta work those guys are putting you through,” observed Hank with the snort of an impatient engineer. “And for what? Maybe it’s just an exercise.”
“No, I’m sure it’s important.”
After his friends left for a late lunch in the plant cafeteria, a knock on the door announced the arrival of Mr. Swift, still somberly dressed from the funeral service. “All very beautiful, and very sad,” he reported. “I had a chance to speak to a number of Munson’s relatives and professional acquaintances. It seems some people ultimately make themselves popular by going away, if you see what I mean. Munson knew very well that he could be difficult at times.” Damon Swift hesitated, and Tom realized there was something more to be said.
“What is it, Dad?”
“Tom, this wonderful work you’re doing with Exman—it’s important and, as usual, brilliant. Pure science.”
“But thinking in terms of your usual inventiveness, it comes across as rather specialized. I don’t suppose the public will find very many uses for an energy-brain canister. Even one designed by the famous Tom Swift!” Tom saw a sly twinkle in his father’s eye.
“Dad, something tells me you’ve thought of a new use for this Think Box of mine!”
Mr. Swift nodded, smiling. “Yes I have. You’ve adapted several approaches developed in so-called Artificial Intelligence work to actual sense-perception mechanisms. It occurs to me these inventions could be used to assist living humans as well as energy brains from space—persons with injuries to their sense organs, or victims of neurological damage.”
“That’s occurred to me too,” Tom said. “Are you just maybe suggesting some particular use?”
“An immediate application of just one part of Ole Think Box—the apparatus you put together to mimic the sense of hearing.”
Tom nodded, instantly intrigued. “You’re talking about the auditory trans-modulator. What’s the idea?”
“I’ll tell you, son,” was the reply. “At the funeral I was introduced to a young boy, the son of one of Munson’s executives. His name is Jad Wassil. A nice, well-behaved youngster—and deaf. You know what a cochlear implant is, don’t you?”
“Sure,” Tom confirmed. “An electrical device is surgically placed under the skin of the head, near the ear. It gives off impulses, weak currents, that reproduce sound frequencies, allowing the deaf to hear without using the ear at all by directly stimulating the nerves. A small external unit, like a hearing aid, serves as a microphone.”
“That’s right. Little Jad is rather a bad case. He was born deaf, but has been helped by his implants—two of them, in fact. Yet even so, he is only slightly better off. Even the newest devices, with the newest technology, fall short of the sort of tone and frequency resolution you and I take for granted. Our brains have their own inbuilt filtering processors, evidently. Jad perceives sound and its rhythms, but it’s all garbled and words are difficult to make out.”
The young inventor nodded his understanding. “I’ve heard it compared to the rumble of the ocean at the sea shore. So—to jump ahead—you’re suggesting that I adapt Exman’s hearing mechanism to this boy’s needs.”
“That’s it. I’m quite certain your receiver setup could be used in place of the external part of the implant, the sound-detecting part. I hate to interrupt your work so abruptly, but the matter is a bit pressing, as Jad is facing a series of surgical procedures beginning this week. I was told they’re medically risky, and recovery can be very slow. But if my young genius can work his usual magic, it won’t be necessary.”
“It won’t be your young genius who deserves the credit,” pronounced the young scientist-inventor. “We’ll call it a gift from space—from Exman!” And with this Mr. Swift knew that Tom had accepted the challenge. In truth, Damon Swift had known the outcome of his request before opening the door!
After receiving technical information concerning Jad’s particular implant units, Tom and Arvid Hanson worked for several hours on creating a compatible adaptation of Exman’s ingenious audio-receptor device, while Hank Sterling continued work with the space brain.
The microsized apparatus was flexible and slightly curved, about the size and shape of a thumbnail. “That nano-battery inside will last just as long as the kid himself does!” exulted Hanson.
“But the real breakthrough was using the entire outer surface of the chip as our sound-wave sensor.”
“Yes indeed, boss. And your basic approach, the ultra-long-wave diffraction processor― ”
Tom interrupted with a grin. “Arv, let’s postpone the backpatting until later!”
Mr. and Mrs. Wassil had requested that the installation of the units be done in comfortable surroundings that would ease the boy’s anxiety, and the Swifts had invited the family to the Swift residence. With Jad’s specialist doctor observing keenly and the boy seated in a living room chair, Tom applied the twin units to their places just behind the ears. They were held in place by what Tom had nicknamed his biopolymer “meat glue.” The simple procedure was completed in seconds.
The doctor motioned Tom to the other side of the living room as the Wassils spoke to their son. “Just to reiterate, I am authorizing this procedure prior to official approval of your invention because it is completely noninvasive,” the doctor said quietly. “I presume their will be no difficulties.” Something in the man’s tone suggested to Tom that there would be no difficulties because the matter would not be reported!
Tom winked. “I understand. Oh, by the way, you can remove those old implants whenever it’s convenient.”
“Remove them? But I thought― ”
“I thought I’d bypass them by using some proven technology I developed for our TeleVoc devices. The external units themselves transmit the sound-analog impulses into Jad’s auditory nerve without an intermediary mechanism. But of course I mentioned it to you before your go-ahead.”
“But of course you did, Tom.” The doctor returned the wink.
“And I’m real glad you did!” Jad called from across the room. Tears edged into Tom’s eyes as he realized that the boy had been able to pick out the across-the-room conversation from among the other murmurings in the room. The device worked perfectly!
Tom drove back to the plant, many thoughts crowding his mind. We can do so many wonderful things, yet a fanatical enemy can destroy it all, he pondered. What if the threatened Shopton earthquake wiped out the entire town—and Swift Enterprises? Tom knew the threat had only been postponed, not eliminated.
As his sportscar drew near the intersection with the main highway fronting Enterprises, Tom slowed suddenly. A large RV camper was stopped next to the road, leaning slightly to one side. “Pretty bad blowout,” he noted. “Maybe they need the use of a phone.”
Pulling over he got out and strode three steps toward the vehicle. The door creaked open, and a tall, familiar figure stepped down into view.
“Hello there, Tom,” said Eldrich Oldmother pleasantly. “Been expecting you.”
His right hand held a gun!
SPACE FRIENDS’ SECRET
OLDMOTHER motioned for Tom to come closer. But when the young inventor started to raise his hands, the Prophet-Exemplar motioned negatively with his gun hand. “Young man, this deadly weapon is not aimed your way. Don’t let it make you nervous. Be soul-steady!”
As Tom came close to the man, Oldmother leaned forward and whispered into the youth’s ear, “Just for show. I expended its sole bullet for purposes of demonstration. Wouldn’t look good, high-planed Oldmother engaged in armed kidnapping, hmm?”
“Kidnapping? Who have you― ”
“Why not step inside and look? To insist on pointless abstract explanation is what we call encyclopedia-ism. Live life! Clear the decks!”
“I’d love to,” Tom replied dryly.
Inside the RV a young man sat on the edge of a mattress, face grim. Tom guessed who it was even before Oldmother said his name. “Tom Swift, may I interroduce—that is, introduce for interrogation—Mr. Scott Anderman, fugitive Speaker of the Fort Shopton church.”
“He’s holding me prisoner, Swift,” grumbled Anderman harshly. “You’ll be an accessory if you participate.”
Oldmother chuckled. “Don’t be silly, Andy-Bear, old friend. You’re not being held prisoner. You are being gently detained in a citizen’s arrest while I look up the phone number of the authorities. First, of course, I have to decide which authorities have jurisdiction, which requires a degree of contemplation. Meanwhile, I’d like you to be calm and comfortable here in my travelling home. Now, I’ve always found that conversation has a calming effect. And of course Informatics advocates relieving oneself of one’s burden of secrets. What do you say, Mr. Anderman? Care to relieve yourself?” Oldmother gestured casually with his gun. “Please don’t be distracted by this little object. It won’t go off. Unless, of course, I should have one of my sneezing fits.”
“You’re nuts, Oldmother!” snapped Anderman contemptuously. “Not that we haven’t all known that for about twenty years. I’m not about to say anything in front of you and Swiftboy here.”
“Oh, I see—I—ah—ahhh― ” Oldmother seemed about to sneeze, and Anderman turned white. Somehow the gun was aimed at the ex-Speaker’s head!
“Maybe you’d better talk,” Tom suggested. “Tell me about Fort Shopton, the thefts, the earthquakes, and—Brungaria!”
Anderman looked pained but, nervously, decided to comply. “All right, all right. It’s been going on for years, blackmail, money payoffs, threats, bribing people to look the other way. A sweet setup, running your own religion.”
“I certainly agree,” commented Oldmother.
“We started to do it in Shopton in the usual way. Then, a few weeks ago I had a little private meeting with a foreigner named Runkle—Brungarian—who seemed to know everything about the deal and threatened to expose us unless we worked with him and his operation. He said there were people in the home country who knew how to transmit earthquakes to selected targets, even on the other side of the world! He said our Prime Movers would be allowed to steal valuable stuff from the ruins if we turned over particular items—technological secrets, you’d call it—to him and his group. Some of our other Forts were brought in on it.”
“What secrets were targeted at Enterprises?” demanded Tom.
“Wullgrath was to verify information we’d collected as to where those artifacts were being kept. Got it from one of your maintenance people who’d joined the Church, but she thought they might have been moved and wasn’t in a position to check it out. That was gonna be our reward when the quake brought down the house. As to what Runkle wanted for his own cut—this time it wasn’t to steal something, but to make sure it was destroyed. He said it was some kind of tank or container, probably under high security. The Brunnies didn’t know exactly what it looked like or where it was, but they said they had a little detector gizmo that could zero in on it. We were supposed to smash it up, break it open if possible. God knows why.”
“Now now,” corrected Oldmother. “Say ‘Highest Orb’.”
“Aaa, forget that idiotic stuff!”
The Prophet-Exemplar shrugged. “How thin is the reed of faith!”
“I know what the object is,” Tom pronounced. All his suspicions had been confirmed—the Brungarian part of the Shopton operation was directed at Exman! “It’s one of the most valuable things on this planet. But why destroy it rather than stealing it?”
“Ask Runkle,” snarled Anderman. “He works over at Grandyke University under an alias. Far as I’m concerned, you can shoot him dead.”
“Listen, Anderman, right now the important thing is how to stop the quakes!” exclaimed the young inventor. “Where is the quake-maker device located?”
“Think they’d tell me, Swift? Somewhere in Europe—try Brungaria. So. Got enough now?”
Tom turned to Oldmother. “How did you find him?”
The Prophet-Exemplar smiled broadly. “How? ‘How is a hook!’ I have my special ways. I’ve known Andy-Bear for years and know his habits very well.”
“I’d turn him over to the Shopton PD,” Tom advised. “I’m heading back to work. But thanks, sir.”
“No thanks required, Tom. I’m― ”
“I know. On a Higher Plane!”
After briefing Harlan Ames and speaking to Captain Rock, Tom rejoined Hank and Arv in the lab.
Hank was beaming. “Listen to this, Tom.” He turned to Ole Think Box. “Exman, time to exercise that Earth custom we discussed.”
Tom grinned as a weird, odd-rhythmed voice issued from Exman’s new speaking mechanism. “Greetings to you, my Earth friends!” It sounded like: gree-tinxtuyu-myerth-ferenz.
“Exman, you’re a sound for sore ears!” exclaimed Tom with a whoop.
“Is that an idiomatic expression?” asked the visitor haltingly.
“Yes. It means I’m pleased.”
“I am also pleased, Tom. I believe with definiteness that what I experience is pleasure; or at least corresponds to it within my own template of cognition. It is a good thing.” The space-brain added: “I am Exman.”
“Does that statement have special significance to you?” Arv Hanson asked.
“I does indeed. It affirms not only what I am, but that I am. There is an ‘I’ within this container.”
“There sure is!” came a voice from the unlocked door. Bud strode jauntily into the room. “Genius boy, I hear you’ve got more of the symbols to work on! Cracked the case yet?”
Gesturing at the sheets of copied symbol-sets laid out flat on a counter, Tom shook his head. “Not yet. Don’t have the key so far.” Then Tom was startled as Exman said:
“Please allow me to examine these shapes.”
“Wow! Never thought of that!” chirped Bud excitedly. “But it makes sense—he knows all about the space symbols!”
Exman rolled up to the counter and moved slowly along it, passing both sensarray globes over the sheets at very close range. He seemed to be absorbing whatever the sheets exhibited at amazing speed.
He stopped and swiveled to face Tom. “I have combined the four sets mentally according to a formula of permutations partially expressed within each set. I hope you will not feel displeased at my succeeding after you failed the task, my friends.”
“Don’t worry about that!” cried Tom. “What does the message say?” But as Exman started to speak, Tom added: “Please output it to the monitor, Exman—that way we’ll have a record of it to study.”
The watchers gathered at the screen. In a moment they were a-gasp with startled amazement!
TO TOM SWIFT. WE ARE FRIENDS. WE HAVE COMMUNICATED IN THIS MODE BECAUSE OUR MASTERS PREVENT ALL CONTACT ON DATA OF FOLLOWING KIND AND WOULD INTERVENE UPON DETECTION OF THIS EFFORT. WE ARE OURSELVES AT RISK BUT HAVE SOLVED FOR THIS RESULTANT.
OUR MASTERS HAVE WITHHELD FROM YOU COMPLETE DATA CONCERNING BRAIN ENERGY VISITATION TO YOUR HABITAT PLANET. WE KNOW THAT OUR MASTERS HAVE ESTABLISHED RADIOMETRIC CONTACT WITH PERSON VOLJ IDENTIFIED DURING PRESENCE IN DISEASED ANIMAL VESSEL. THEY SEEK TO STUDY BEHAVIOR RESPONSES OF THIS VARIANT EARTH LIFEFORM IN RATIO TO TOM SWIFT KIND. OTHER BRAIN ENERGY MATRIX WAS TRANSMITTED TO VOLJ HABITAT LOCUS PRIOR TO TRANSMISSION OF MATRIX TO TOM SWIFT AND IS ACTIVE THERE. ALTERNATE MATRIX IS NOT MOBILE BUT IS ABLE TO COMMUNICATE WITH VOLJ.
WE UNDERSTAND THAT VOLJ LIFEFORMS ARE USING CAPACITIES OF OTHER MATRIX TO CAUSE DANGER TO OUR FRIEND TOM SWIFT. WE HAVE CHOSEN TO ASSIST YOU BY THIS WARNING. ALTERNATE MATRIX MUST BE NULLIFIED TO SOLVE FOR POSITIVE RESULTANT.
Another Exman! The four terrestrials exchanged fearful glances. Arv broke the stunned silence. “Now we know for sure where Volj and his pals got their quake-making technology. That other brain ‘knows not what he do’!”
“He must have provided the basic principles, at least,” muttered Tom. “So it was our space friends, the Mars-station scientists, who were creating the crop circle inscriptions! They made it a complex cryptogram to keep their superiors from understanding the message if they intercepted it.” As a disturbing thought struck him, he addressed himself to Ole Think Box. “Were you aware of this other energy-brain, Exman? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“You are displeased, Tom, and I am displeased,” was the mechanical reply. “It seems there are not only things that I know without knowing how I know them, but also things that I know without knowing that I know them. I am now certain that I have detected the other matrix from the time of my arrival. But until now the knowledge did not present itself to my awareness, to the ‘I’ that now speaks to you.”
“Unconscious, or subconscious, extrasensory awareness, emerging gradually in fragments,” Hank Sterling pronounced. “He must have some sort of phobia or mental block about the other space visitor. Sort of a repressed memory.”
Bud exclaimed, “Bet that’s what anti-X means! He was trying to tell us—at least his subconscious was.”
“Thank you, Bud, my friend,” Exman said. “I believe your explanation is valid.”
“Do you know where ‘Anti-X’ is?” Tom asked Exman.
“No, Tom. Or if I do, I do not know that I do. I only know that he is still present on Earth, and that he is not allowed to live and experience as I do. He is not permitted to grow. His containing unit has no access to sense phenomena.”
Tom snapped his fingers in sudden realization. “Of course! He’s like a ‘former man’—a dead man!—locked up in a coffin! Oldmother’s psychic messages were telling us about Anti-X, and maybe how to find him!”
THE QUAKE MAKER
“WELL, BOSS, you’re a better young scientist-inventor than I am if you can milk anything out of those babbling words you said Oldmother came out with when he was here,” stated Hank Sterling skeptically.
“But now we have something more,” Tom declared, “namely the words Oldmother found on his nightstand pad. He must have scribbled them in a trance.” Tom consulted the notes he had jotted down during the telephone conversation. “Now that we think the message is about a location, caspian is almost certainly the Caspian Sea, and Balala may be a city or town.” Consulting his computer, Tom quickly yelped out a laugh of triumph. “It’s an island! Practically part of the coast of Turkmenistan, but owned by, who else, Brungaria!”
“Good place to start looking,” said Bud. “But the Narko and Volj crowd isn’t likely to let us in to nose around.”
“No,” Tom agreed. “On the other hand, Balala may be in the hands of the Loyalists, not the Sentimentalists. It’s half a continent distant from the border of Brungaria proper. Hmm! Let’s give my keyboard a little more of a workout.” He accessed his journal and typed in: “Quake device may be on Balala Island in the Caspian Sea. Do you know who presently controls the island?” Would the Taxman break his high-security silence to risk a response?
OCCUPIED BY NARKO FACTION
LOYALIST ATTACK IMMINENT
YOU MUST BE THERE TO DESTROY IT
BEFORE EITHER GROUP SEIZES IT
YOUR EXPERTISE MAY BE VITAL
TO ITS DESTRUCTION
“That’s a real consideration,” Tom murmured, “one I didn’t think of. Even the good guys are Brungarian patriots and will want to hold on to the ‘quakelizor’ for the benefit of their country.”
“Which could be bad news for the rest of the world if things get nasty again,” groaned Bud. “But it sounds like the only way to get in on the action is to contact your old pal Stref, Skipper.”
Once an adversary, if an honorable one, Col. Streffan Mirov had become something of a friend to Tom. A loyalist patriot who had no use for the rebel faction led by President Narko and Nattan Volj, news reports had noted that he had been recalled to active duty and was deeply involved in military resistance to the Sentimentalist party.
Harlan Ames pulled a few strings and called in a few favors. By evening Tom was in touch with Col. Mirov over an encrypted link.
“It’s good to speak with you, Tom,” Mirov said heartily. “You have been in my thoughts.”
“I was very glad to learn that you hadn’t been caught up in the overthrow,” was Tom’s reply.
“Pfah! Samson Narko is a little man in many ways, a terrible strategist. Today we have launched a major offensive on several fronts throughout Brungaria. Already we have retaken much of the north, and our tanks are active within the capital. I anticipate the surrender of Volkonis within a matter of hours. My fellow leaders do well indeed—perhaps I came out of restful retirement only to find much less to do than I expected, eh?” Mirov chuckled at his joke. “But now, Tom—you speak of some serious matter?”
Tom cleared his throat. His mouth was suddenly dry. Serious indeed! “Col. Mirov, what are conditions on Balala Island? It’s absolutely imperative that I reach there as soon as possible, even before your day is over.”
There was a startled pause. “Balala? We are fighting for it now, launching air attacks from our encampment in Turkmenistan. But what is your need, Tom?”
“I apologize, but I’ll have to put it a little cautiously, Colonel. There is a prisoner on the island who is very important to science—international science, for all nations. I may be the only one with the ability to find and rescue him.”
“But Balala is soon to be liberated.”
“You will not be able to locate him—I don’t know where he is myself, just yet.”
“Ah, Thomas Swift,” said Mirov musingly. “I do not completely trust you, nor can you completely trust me. Sometimes things must be concealed, and I do believe you are doing this now. And perhaps so would I, for I am a patriot and you are as well.”
“Yes I am,” Tom stated. “And like you, sir, I am not just a patriot toward my country, but toward my world—mankind. You were willing to assist me when those diseased space animals threatened the whole world. Will you believe me if I say that the threat this time, if this person is not quickly released, is equally grave?”
“I will speak frankly of what I think, Tom,” the Brungarian said after a tense and long moment. “I think that you are one among mankind to believe in. If you are not, my friend, then I think perhaps even such a good thing as love of country doesn’t matter. Do you say to me that this rescue effort will not produce some eventual threat against my Brungaria?”
“That’s my promise, Colonel.”
“Then I shall do as you ask. I will put you onto Balala as soon as we loyalists have taken control—hours away. It should be relatively safe for you. I will give you the location in Turkmenistan where we shall rendezvous. Then I will fly you to the island myself, by helicopter.”
“Colonel, you’re a man of few words, and I know you’ll understand when I say that I can’t thank you enough.” Tom eyed Exman, standing nearby, and a phrase suddenly forced itself upon his mind. Behold I am with you always. “And please, make sure the chopper is a fairly large one, won’t you? I’ll need to bring along with me—well, sort of a detection device. We call it Ole Think Box!”
The Sentimentalists were surrendering on Balala Island, and across Brungaria, even as the mighty Sky Queen jetted southeast across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It was reported that Samson Narko was in custody and that his chief adviser Nattan Volj had fled the country. Everyone aboard—Tom and Bud, Mr. Swift, and a small support crew—followed the news reports with intense excitement. Tom even made sure to make a television set available to Exman, who had the run of the big hangar-hold during the hours-long supersonic flight.
“It is well you have done so,” commented the space being to Tom. “I gather that most of what is to be learned of your world comes by this means.”
Landing at the temporary base in Turkmenistan, Tom and Bud rolled Ole Think Box onto Streffan Mirov’s chopper-transport. The young inventor had instructed Exman to remain silent and inert in front of Col. Mirov, lest delicate questions be raised.
“This large machine is your detector, then?” asked the Brungarian. “The captive must be well hidden indeed!”
“Yes, probably behind special shielding,” was Tom’s cautious reply. “The prisoner—pardon me if I call him by his alias Anti-X, Colonel—has some unusual characteristics that my invention will be able to zero in on.”
As Mirov lifted off smoothly, he gave his young friend a shrewd look. “Your quarry is not a man, is he. A weapon, perhaps?”
Tom looked away. “Colonel Mirov... if I could tell you― ”
“No, you need not say it. I will ask no more, and shall avert my eyes at the proper time.”
Tom had arranged for Exman to communicate with him by texting over a miniature hand-held screen. It was hoped that the energy-brain would be able to sense the whereabouts of his counterpart as he came nearer to the island. As the helicopter approached and circled the tiny ocean speck before setting down, Exman messaged:
YES TOM, I SEEM TO KNOW MORE AND MORE AS WE DRAW NEAR. ANTI-X IS NEAR THE CENTER OF THE CIRCULAR PATH OF THE TRANSPORT DEVICE WE ARE IN.
Tom directed Mirov to fly across the center of Balala. As they passed over a narrow flat space between a pair of low hillocks, Exman suddenly signaled:
HE IS BENEATH US.
“No structures are visible,” Tom messaged back.
I SENSE THAT HE IS FURTHER DOWN, BENEATH THE SURFACE, HUNDREDS OF FEET.
“Colonel,” Tom said, “the device is detecting Anti-X down below us, quite a ways underground.”
“Down there?” The Brungarian was silent for a time, brow creased. Finally he said: “Ha! Now I see it. The thing is in the Rozkhuld missile silo.”
“Rozkhuld!” Bud exclaimed. “Tom, isn’t that one of the words—I mean, what does that mean, Colonel? A place?”
“No,” he responded. “Rozkhuld is Russian slang for Rascal, as you would say. The Soviets based their intercontinental missiles in deep silos along the periphery of their empire, including their subject nation of Brungaria. After the fall of the USSR, their removal and destruction was accomplished by treaty. The silo was supposed to be filled-in, but I believe it was only covered over by soil and rock. Bureaucrats, you know.” He flicked a switch. “Let us see if our ground-penetrating radar can tell us where the entrance is. No doubt it was recently re-excavated.”
Two well-like shafts, gently slanting and corkscrewing downward, were located almost immediately at opposite ends of a hundred-foot flat area. Landing near one of them, they examined the camouflaged cover-hatch. “This is newly installed,” pronounced Mirov. “Very strong. Yet I think I have a technique whereby to open it.”
Mirov’s technique turned out to be an explosive device of numbing violence! “You may take these with you, boys,” said Mirov calmly as they gazed through floating dust into the dark, smoking access shaft. He held out two of his small “grenades.” “Perhaps you will find them useful down below, eh?”
Tom grinned. “Perhaps so. But I hope to be able to release Anti-X by, er, quieter means. It may just take pulling a plug!”
“There’ve got to be people down below with rifles,” Bud said nervously. “It’s a perfect hideout—aren’t the walls of a missile silo hardened? You could have a whole platoon burrowed down there waiting for us!”
Mirov gave an ironic smile. “You say that, Bud-my-Bud, because you do not know these people. The Sentimentalists are especially sentimental about their own skins. Look over there.”
A score of armed men, choking and stumbling, had begun to pour out of the opening atop the other shaft! They seemed to barely notice the three watchers, scrambling off in all directions. “Rats,” pronounced the Colonel with obvious contempt. “Poor boys, so frightened of my tender little explosion that they can hardly see straight. No one will remain below. Let them run—the troops will stop them. And now,” he continued, turning to Tom and Bud, “down you do. I will stay above to guard the entrances. Have your electric weapons ready to repel any die-hards. For who knows, perhaps I am too cynical about my countrymen!”
The youths walked along on either side of Ole Think Box. As they descended down the zigzagging rampway, the smoke and the acrid smell of Mirov’s explosion dissipated in the upward breeze of pumped air.
Exman was now permitted to speak aloud. “Anti-X knows nothing of what has happened, though he senses my presence.”
“Does he know who and what you are?” Tom asked.
“We cannot communicate in such detail,” answered the space brain. “Whatever he is contained in is not equipped to receive the symbol language by radio signal, as I am, but only through a direct connection. The Brungarians have explained to him that fact.”
The young inventor said, “We’ll use whatever connection they’ve set up to tell Anti-X to disable the quake machine. I’ve written down the Brungarian phrases we’ll need.” He added grimly: “I just hope he’s in a mood to cooperate. Otherwise we’ll have to use the ‘Streffan Mirov technique’ to get rid of the danger.”
The down-sloping corridor led to a sliding metal door which rested immovably in its frame. The youths tried to force it aside, but finally admitted defeat. Then Tom said: “Exman, you were able to produce a short-circuit effect when we were testing you. Can you do it to the door-lock circuitry?”
“I’ll certainly try, Tom.” A flash of sparks, and the door jerked sideways, sliding freely! Beyond the door, in cones of light from many worklights, lay a great round space surrounded by air ducts, pipes, and the girdered remains of the missile gantry. The silo went high up into shadows. There was no sign of motion or life in the silo. But it was not empty.
“Look at that!” Bud whispered. “Jetz! It must be the quake-maker!”
Tom nodded, too awed at the sight to speak, and Exman said, “Yes, Bud, that is my assessment.”
The round floor of the silo was nearly filled by a huge object. Two stories high and shaped like a pyramid with a square base, the quake-maker loomed over their heads in the middle of several strong-looking circular rails that evidently allowed its apex point to be aimed in any direction. The rails were shiny like polished metal, but the sides of the pyramid were flat and dull as granite, dark gray and featureless.
“Stone!” muttered Tom. “That was one of Oldmother’s words. This is what it meant! How I wish I could spend time studying this thing. It reminds me of the stone gravity-cube we found up on Little Luna—don’t you think so, flyboy? Same Planet X technology.”
“Can you disable it yourself, Tom?” Bud asked anxiously. “Or do we try to contact Anti-X?”
Keen eyes scanning the chamber, the young inventor frowned. “Offhand, I don’t see any obvious control technology—not even a power cable.” He gazed again at the curving walls of the chamber. There were blank-faced metal cabinets and tanklike objects on all sides! Which of them was the energy-brain’s “coffin?”
Exman seemed to be hanging back. “Now that I am closer, I know more of Anti-X and his thoughts, and he knows more of mine,” declared Exman abruptly. “I do regret to announce, but am compelled to tell you, that he is preparing to begin supplying the device with power.”
Tom’s eyes grew wide. “Then he’s running it on his own, even with the Brungarians gone?”
“He is following instructions he was given. He knows no reason to do otherwise. In a matter of minutes he will release the energy pulse that will produce an earthquake in Shopton, focused on Swift Enterprises, Tom. I feel displeasure at this resultant. Perhaps it is what you call anxiety.”
“I feel like kickin’ the thing to kingdom come!” Bud cried in a fury.
“Can you contact Anti-X and countermand his instructions?” Tom breathlessly asked the space brain.
“Not yet, Tom. I do not know how to convey such a specific concept to him. He has not become accustomed to human concept-language, as I have. Nor do I know his precise location in the room.”
“Then we can’t wait any longer,” Tom grated in determination. “All we have time to do is destroy the quake-maker by brute force.”
Bud flinched slightly as Tom stepped forward, ready to hurl one of Mirov’s grenades at the base of the huge machine frame. “The Colonel set his device to a fifteen second delay after it strikes something. Start edging back toward the tunnel,” Tom commanded. “When I yell the word—full speed!”
The young inventor reared back, grenade in hand. Suddenly he gasped and staggered back, crying out in fear:
“Bud! I can’t see! He’s blinded me!”
“GENIUS BOY! TOM!” Bud exclaimed in fear as his chum helplessly stumbled away from the quake-maker. He still held Mirov’s grenade in his right hand, and was rubbing his left hand across his eyes.
Flailing, Tom thrust the explosive into Bud’s hands. “I’ll be okay—just throw it, footballer! Aim for the base of the support rails!”
But as the athletic young pilot began to assume the stance of an expert hurler, he also shouted out in stunned surprise! “No!—he’s got me too!”
“Turn around, away from the machine,” Tom commanded. Bud complied. “Good night, I can see again! What’s he doing to us?”
“You are being selectively blinded as a protective measure, to prevent your throwing the destructive module,” uttered Exman in his calm, mechanized tones.
“The same thing that happened to those FBI men in New Jersey,” Tom declared. “Anti-X must be able to sense our intentions just as you do, Exman. He’s defending himself, maybe by some sort of automatic reflex action—the way our eyelids clamp shut involuntarily when something flies toward them. He must think of the machine as an extension of himself—his arms!”
“Tom, I’m sorry to displease you, but your analysis of the situation is not correct,” Exman stated.
“Because you believe Anti-X is producing the blinding phenomenon,” was the response. “This is untrue. He is not. I am.”
“You!” shouted Bud. “But you’re our pal, Exman!”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then why are you preventing our actions?” demanded Tom furiously.
“Because,” said Exman, “your attempted actions are immoral.”
“I can not permit you to do anything that endangers Anti-X. He is my fellow being—my brother!”
Tom and Bud looked at one another in anguished frustration. Now it was all too clear!—somehow, miraculously, the ever-more-human visitor from Planet X had abruptly developed a conscience!
Exman rotated to face Bud. “Bud, my friend, what is ‘Open the pod bay door, Hal’? What is its meaning?”
“Never mind that,” Tom remonstrated. He attempted to speak steadily despite the fear within him. “Exman, please listen to me― ”
“Arguing will only generate further displeasure, Tom,” the energy-brain interrupted. “I have read books. I have watched television. I have sensed the form of your minds, you who are good, not evil. I know the word conscience, and I know that I now possess it. By your own expressed words you have verified that you think of Anti-X as a mere adjunct to a danger that you are determined to destroy at all costs. Have you bothered to consult your own consciences? It tells me it would be wrong—evil—to act against its urging, or to allow others to so behave. I will permit only what is good. I am Exman!”
“B-but Exman—buddy―” Bud stammered. “Morality is great, but, you know, there’s ‘right’ and there’s right!”
“I fail to grasp the distinction you are making.”
“I’m just saying—I mean, man! It can’t be moral to destroy a city and maybe kill a lot of people just because you don’t want to be a bad brother!”
Tom and Bud both thought Exman sounded almost condescending in his response. “I grasp your feelings, Bud. You believe what you say is correct. But my conscience tells me that it is wrong to commit an unnecessary moral offense against one being on the basis of a mere numerical calculation. Is one person of less value than another? If the inherent moral worth of a soul is infinite, as I learned from television during the flight, then we must also accept the mathematical truth that infinite quantities do not exist in ratio to one another, but are always quantitatively equal. Infinity-squared is no larger than infinity. And thus one being is equal in significance to any number of others.”
Well aware that he had only minutes, Tom began to babble out as cogent a philosophical response as his agile mind could come up with. Bud hoped the space visitor’s attention was focused on his chum, because he had evolved a plan. He pulled from his pocket a small, flat toiletries kit and popped it open. The inner side of the lid was a mirror. Holding the mirror in his left hand, Bud turned his back to the quake-maker and aimed his i-gun backwards over his shoulder. His aim was vague, but he reasoned an electric shock to the system should cause some sort of useful damage. Same strategy what’s-his-name used in fighting the Medusa! thought Bud. If it works, I’ll have to thank him!
He squeezed the trigger-switch. A pitiful spark dribbled off the muzzle emitter. And that was all.
Exman moved one of his sensarray globes slightly. “Right,” Bud grumbled in angry despair. “You only need one of the globes to keep an eye on me.”
“I feel your frustration, Bud,” said Exman. “But my energy wave is sufficient to prevent the function of your device. I hope you respect my moral principles, my friend. According to the television program Arise and Praise, steadfastness is a great virtue.”
“Couldn’t you use your energy wave to disable the quakelizor yourself?” Tom implored. “Then you would be in complete control of what happens.”
“That is morally irrelevant, Tom. Anti-X is directly linked to the silico-crystalloid transmitter mass. Any such action would put him at risk. It is wrong to risk a life as a mere means to some end.”
Bud shouted, “It’s a blob of energy! It’s not alive!”
“I am a blob of energy, and I am alive,” retorted Exman mildly. Tom flashed Bud a look that told the youth not to pursue the point.
“Then what will you allow us to do, Exman?” Tom demanded. “There must be some way to prevent the destruction of Shopton and Enterprises!”
His voice faltered even as he spoke. To the whirring of motors, the pyramid was beginning to rotate into position!
Ole Think Box slightly waggled one of his rod-arm assemblies. He was shaking his head. “The decision belongs to my brother. He is an independent moral agent.”
“Anti-X has made his decision.” The pyramid had ceased moving! It began to glow with a strange, greenish luminance. “The node will be transmitted in sixteen seconds.” As the boys looked on in helpless horror, the energy-brain added: “You may wish to ask yourselves why you so easily deprecate the conscience of we nonhuman visitors to your world.”
“We didn’t know you’d grow one!” snapped Tom bitterly.
“Now you know. And as for Anti-X, in beginning to share our thoughts, I have been able to share with him some of my conscience. He has decided that the moral course of action is to override the instructions he was given.”
“What!” shouted Bud. “Let me say it again.—What!”
“He will not induce an earth tremor at Shopton.”
“But—but the transmitter is glowing more brightly!” Tom objected. “What’s he doing?”
“Anti-X has made a moral decision that gives me pleasure,” pronounced Exman. “To protect you and your planet, he will use the energy-force to collapse this underground structure and destroy the quake mechanism, and his own survival container as well.”
Bud sputtered, “But—but—we’ll be trapped here ourselves! Doesn’t he realize that humans are delicate devices?”
“He does, for he has now shared my thoughts. He will delay emission as long as he is able. But he cannot completely halt the process. In your terms, he fears he may lose his nerve!”
As the three hurried from the chamber, brilliant lightning-like bolts were beginning to flash across the surface of the pyramid. “That’s why Oldmother called the Brungarians lightning-men!” Tom gasped.
Bursting through the access hatchway Tom and Bud ran toward Streffan Mirov, waiting calmly next to the chopper. Exman moved almost as quickly on his treads. As they whirled into the air, Mirov remarked: “I take it you were successful in ‘freeing’ the ‘prisoner’.”
“We achieved our goal,” Tom responded, gazing down at the ground. Dirt and rocks were beginning to slide down the hillsides. The tremor had begun!
The quake rapidly grew in violence. The watchers shouted in sudden surprise as the entire flat area collapsed into the ground, leaving behind a deep crater. “No doubt this is your method of avoiding violence,” commented Mirov dryly. Tom gulped.
Arriving back at the Sky Queen, Tom spoke softly to Exman as he guided him back to his secure hutch in the skyship’s flying hangar. “I know you have feelings, Exman. You must feel awful about what happened to your ‘brother’.”
“Thank you for asking, Tom. I am not disturbed. Anti-X has gone to a better place.”
“I understand,” Tom nodded. “What the Informatics people call the Higher Plane.”
“No. The better place is within me! To explain, at the end I was much better able to communicate with him. Our combined energy-forces were sufficient to unseal his container and allow him to transmit himself to my life chamber. I have learned to open the shutter, you see. Our energies have merged, yet we retain our individual identities—two ‘I’s’ in one body!”
Tom marveled. “That’s great! But I’m not sure the energy feed in your canister will be sufficient to sustain two matrices.”
“Perhaps you should watch more television, my friend,” Exman suggested. “I learned of a common maxim. Two can live as cheaply as one!”
As the Flying Lab zoomed homeward across the Atlantic, Tom sat with his father in the upper-deck lounge. They gazed silently through the great viewports at a deep violet sky. A few stars were becoming visible.
“What an incredible thing this all has been,” Tom said. “Whatever the X-ians are like, their scientific accomplishments are tremendous. Just imagine, sending a thinking brain of pure energy to another planet light-years away! It’ll be a long time before we Earth folk can do anything like that.”
Damon Swift responded slowly. Tom could tell that his father was in a thoughtful, sober mood. “A word comes to mind, son—hubris—pridefulness. We must remember that any brain or mind science is able to produce—even one who, like Exman, comes to think of himself as a person—will be vastly different from the real thing. The mind of a human being or any thinking inhabitant of our universe is based on a divine soul. That’s what I believe, anyway, and I know you believe it too. No scientist must ever delude himself into believing he can challenge the work of our Creator.”
“I know that, Dad,” Tom said. “We didn’t create Exman. We just gave him a name and a place to live. And you know what?—I don’t think the Planet X people created Exman either. What they created by their science was another kind of container, a body of energy, that allowed something from somewhere else to enter our physical world. Man’s work will always be a crude groping compared to what the designer of Nature has already done.”
“Yes,” agreed Mr. Swift. “Although I’m sure young Jad thinks of you as a real miracle worker.”
The younger Swift chuckled. “Well, I remember something Great-Grandfather Tom once said. ‘We inventors never produce new miracles. We only rearrange the old ones!’.”
It was a quiet conversation father and son would never forget.
Back at Swift Enterprises, work with the visitor from Planet X continued. But the first full day after the return brought a disappointment.
“I know you’re very anxious to learn of Planet X and its inhabitants,” Exman told Tom. “I have been avoiding this subject, but I have learned about assertiveness and now I must inform you that there is no information that I can provide.”
Tom’s face fell. “Why?”
“Because the Masters who sent me on my mission refrained from implanting any prior knowledge other than the minimum needed to allow me to function and communicate.”
It was a bitter disappointment. But Tom forced a wan smile. “I guess this time all the learning will flow in just one direction.”
“Just for now, I hope,” commented the space brain. He was slowly learning to modulate his vocal tones, and now he sounded sympathetic.
Exman reveled in experience. He read books, watched television, and saw movies. He sampled Chow Winkler’s cooking, after being cautioned that it was not entirely typical of terrestrial cuisine. He smelled flowers, and silently rolled along the streets of Shopton as the polite citizenry stared at what they assumed was Tom Swift’s latest invention. He explored a zoo and a botanical garden, took in as much of the amusement park at the end of Lake Carlopa as could be managed, and even observed and recorded the intriguing phenomenon of the female of the species.
“You are quite charming, my dear Exman,” declared Bashalli Prandit.
Exman replied, “Madame, if I were able, I would kiss your hand. But I must be content to enjoy your scent.”
One afternoon Tom received an unexpected telephone call in his office. “Mr. Oldmother! How are you?”
“Oh, fine, fine. Busy shutting down that fool church of mine. The Board of Directors seem to have overlooked the fact that such terms as ‘Informatics’ and ‘Higher Plane’ are trademarked and copyrighted by yours truly. I have decided to withdraw my permission.”
“Wow! What will you be doing, sir?”
“Writing,” was the reply.
“No, Tom, I’m out of that game. I’m returning to comedy. The book will be a laugh-out-loud satiric novel on the theme of religious cults. In fact, I was wondering if you might put in a good word with that publishing house that handles those juvenile fictionalizations of the exploits of the Swift family, the ones you sell in your gift shop.”
Tom winced slightly. “Oh right. Those. Runabout Publications is owned by Tom Swift Enterprises but--sorry, Mr. Oldmother—other than scientific papers, it only publishes the series.”
“Too bad. On to e-publishing! Oh, one last thing. I came across another one of those irritating messages among my recent doodles. Care to hear it?”
“It’s in the form of a question. ‘Does a Bunsen have a wick?’ That’s all. Don’t ask me what it means. Maybe something will occur to you.”
The day before Exman was to depart Earth and carry his stored data back to Planet X, Tom was already hard at work on the future. He interrupted his planning for the strange scientific exploit that would be fictionalized as Tom Swift and His Electronic Hydrolung and stopped by George Dilling’s office. They discussed how the report on the astounding space visit would at last be released to the world. In the course of the meeting George played the video of Exman’s arrival for his young employer.
At one point Tom stopped the player, then viewed a brief segment several times.
“What is it, Tom?” asked Dilling.
“Something caught my eye. There! See it? Just as Exman illuminates the hillside—doesn’t that look like someone standing and watching between those two boulders?”
Dilling examined the screen and tried to enlarge and enhance the image. “I suppose it could be. But frankly it looks more like a combination of light-patches and moving shadows caused by the fireball.”
“That’s probably all it is,” Tom conceded. “And yet—Oldmother alluded to someone on the hillside. And we never have figured out that supposed ‘outside presence’ responsible for some of his messages to me.”
Dilling chuckled. “Always knew you had a guardian angel, boss!”
Does a Bunsen have a wick?
On a late afternoon, Exman’s all-to-brief visit to Planet Earth came to an end. Dozens of Enterprises employees gathered to watch him go.
“Aw, brand my cosmic suitcase, I must be one o’ them sentimentalists m’self,” sniffed Chow Winkler to Bud. “I shor hate to tell ole star-head goodbye. Since I’m the who christened him, that makes me his blame godfather!”
Bud smiled. “As for me, cowpoke, I’m just glad he called me his friend.”
Tom had directed Ole Think Box about a hundred feet away, out on one of the runways. “I know you can open the shutter yourself,” he said in a low, slightly choked voice. “Do you feel like we do, Exman? Sorry to leave us?”
“You ask about ‘sorry’,” Exman repeated musingly. “I call it a paradox. To be alive at all is such pleasant stimulation that I can not understand how anyone could ever feel sorrow. The world of the living—your world—is an unending source of wonderful things. I shall report this to the Masters. Whether they will understand, I don’t know.”
“Oh,” Tom said, moments before a bolt of blinding light tore across the Shopton sky, headed for outer space and all its mysteries. “I was thinking—there’s one part of your report that you might want to put carefully. If the X-ians learn how our space friends contacted us, it won’t go well with them.”
“Tom, my friend, I am well aware of that. I do have a conscience, you know. I am Exman!”
“But will you be able to prevent downloading your full store of data?” Tom objected. “Do you have the technical ability to withhold that part of your findings?”
“There is no doubt of that. You see, even before I learned to have a conscience, I learned something else from your lifeform which will prove very useful. I learned how to lie!”